Dr. Shirlene Soto, ¡Presente!
On El Dia de los Muertos, the Chicana/o Studies Department, CSUN commemorated the passing of one of our most beloved faculty members, Dr. Shirlene Soto. Shirlene , Professor Emeritis was killed in a head on collision on Highway 46 just north of Bakersfield on October 23, 2009. Her husband, Walter Earl Elliott, was also killed when a driver going in the opposite direction attempting to pass two trucks collided with their car. During the summer of 2009, Shirlene retired and moved up north with her husband to live closer to her parents and extended family. Shirlene’s passing deeply saddens us, but it is an opportunity to recognize her contributions to our field of study and to the quality of our lives.
Shirlene, one of the first and few Chicana historians, authored Emergence of the Modern Mexican Woman, her participation in revolution and struggle for equality (1990). Dr. Soto taught in our department for 29 years and was best known by students and faculty for her gentle strength, love of history, high expectations of students, and care for their well being. Our colleagues agree on the words that best describe her—gracious, gentle, cordial, considerate, rigorous about historical methods and accuracy, and tough as nails when it was necessary. In Chicana/o Studies she taught “History of the Chicana/Mexicana,” “Chicana/o Culture” and “Women in Latin America.” Her courses were always filled to capacity and she taught her courses with a passion for exploring how Chicanas/Mexicanas took an active role in movements for social change. One year, she initiated an Academic Decathlon, engaging hundreds of our students in an exciting exchange of knowledge that ended in a scholarship for the winner. For me, she was the kind of “Rock of Gibraltar mujer” who I could confide in and count on for compassion, calm well- reasoned advice, and concern for our Department and our colleagues. Dr. Karin Duran observed that, “Her quiet manner often gave way to passion when she described her teaching and her students and we were often graced with her wit and humor.”
As one of the first Chicana historians, Shirlene made important contributions to the field of Chicana/o Studies as well as to the field of History. She attended NACCS throughout the years and looked forward to seeing friends and colleagues. According to historian, Dr. Deena González, Chicana/o Studies, Loyola Marymount, “When Antonia Castañeda and I were in graduate history programs---she at Stanford, me at Berkeley---and we began attempting to track down other Chicana historians who worked in any field, we came up with just 3 "known" names: Professors Shirlene Soto, Louise Año Nuevo de Kerr, and Ana Macias (Midwest, who is Spanish). We knew of Gloria Miranda and a few others, but these true "first" formally-trained historians meant the world to us. We eventually met them, worked with them on committees or projects, and found each one encouraging. Today, Chicana historians number about 29 or 30. My condolences to Shirlene's family members; she was a hard working academic and a supportive mentor to so many of us.”
Rudy Acuna recalled that Shirlene came to us almost by accident. She was part of a CSU administrative fellows program and after serving as an Assistant to the Vice-President for Academic Affairs, she was retained by CSUN as an Assistant Vice-President. After several years of being away from the classroom, she returned to her true love, teaching, as a full professor in Chicana/o Studies. Her arrival accelerated the transformation of the department which numbered 27 tenure track faculty members, two-thirds of whom were women. Many of the faculty members remember her lectures on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Shirlene was the ideal colleague, one who gave that term a good name. The only thing that the faculty members as a whole regret is that we did not have more time to tell Shirlene how much we appreciated her. She seemed indestructible having courageously battled multiple sclerosis; she struggled to continue teaching her classes and prevailed. It does not seem just that this tragedy took her away from us.
-Dr. Mary Pardo, Professor, Chicana/o Studies CSUN
I had the distinct joy of meeting Shirlene during her last semester of teaching during the Fall 08’. Her office was next to mine and we shared a printer and her kind and outgoing personality made her generous with her friendship. I recall when she graciously insisted that I attend the President’s campus-wide welcome back to school luncheon and we got acquainted over chili dogs, chips, and sodas. She reminded me of how important a sense of tradition is for any institution of higher education and she told me how she always looked forward to the start of the new school year. Over the semester, Shirlene, Sifuentes, and I became good friends and I grew to admire my senior colleagues for the many years that they had devoted to Chicana/o Studies but also because they both understood what a privilege it is to be a professor. Shirlene had spent much time in my home town of Albuquerque and we had much to talk about and she also taught me a thing or two about California history and how important it was for CSUN Chicana/o students to know the history of California.
Shirlene’s family went back to the earliest Spanish Mexican settlers of California and she was very proud of this. When I first met her, my first impression was what is the nerdy “gabacha” doing in Chicana/o Studies? First impressions were completely off the mark, as I got to know Shirlene better, I was very impressed with how much of a Chicana activist and scholar she truly was every bit as committed to social justice and equality as anyone. She was a true scholar and maintained the highest standards of excellence and expected nothing less from the students. She carried herself with a sense of dignity, integrity, and a strong gentleness. She was a fond admirer of many of the faculty speaking highly of Jorge, Rudy, David, Mary, Rosa, and the rest and was very dedicated to our program. Her passing is truly tragic as she told me many times how she was looking forward to retirement. She and her husband had bought property in Moro Bay and had built their dream house and were ready to enjoy their golden years together. Shirlene has many admirers and will truly be missed. My sincerest condolences to her family members and close friends.
Dr. Peter J. Garcia, Professor, Chicana/o Studies CSUN