Born and raised in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, east of downtown, Chris Zepeda-Millán grew up knowing the importance of hard work. His grandmother, a former garment worker, and mother, a proud union member, raised Zepeda-Millán amid the idea that all workers should be treated fairly and with respect.

As an undergraduate student activist at Loyola Marymount University, Zepeda-Millán was involved in student, labor and anti-war activism, as well as in transnational indigenous rights activism with the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. These formative experiences led him to pursue graduate studies at Cornell University, where he became the first Chicano to receive a doctorate from the department of government.

With that background of organizing, activism and scholarship, Zepeda-Millán was a natural choice to become the new chair of the UCLA Labor Studies Interdepartmental Program, which offers the only labor studies major in the University of California system.

Among other publications, in 2017, Zepeda-Millán published his first book, “Latino Mass Mobilization: Immigration, Racialization, and Activism” (Cambridge University Press), which received multiple national honors, including the Ralph J. Bunche Award for best book on ethnic and cultural pluralism and the best book on Race and Immigration Award from the American Political Science Association.

Zepeda-Millán joined UCLA in 2018 as an associate professor of public policy and Chicana/o and Central American Studies, and holds joint appointments in political science and sociology. Prior to coming to UCLA, he served as a provost postdoctoral scholar in the department of political science at the University of Chicago and held faculty positions at UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University.

How did taking classes that reflected your community transform your academic journey?

I grew up in Boyle Heights, walking by all these murals and paintings not knowing what they were about. But I had always been interested in Mexican history. I loved listening to my grandparents’ stories.

Then when I got to college, I began taking Chicano studies classes and for the first time in my life I was able to read books and stories that literally took place in my neighborhood. For the first time I was seeing myself in what I was reading. I recognized the streets and cemeteries we read about, and I was able to relate.

I saw these courses as intellectual ammunition. I was learning how to defend my beliefs, to be able to call out things that I knew were wrong, I became super passionate about learning about these issues.

I know labor and worker issues have always played a central role in your life, can you talk a little bit about that?

My mom was a union member, and as tired as she always was, getting out of work at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., I knew early on that unions were important because if there was a union meeting after work, she would say: “I’m getting home late tonight because I have a union meeting.”

I also come from a big family of mixed immigration statuses, some of my family members were undocumented during different parts of their lives, some have been deported. Multiple people in my family have also died due to unsafe workplace conditions, so the intersections of labor and immigration have always been major interests of mine.

I also learned early on that there wasn’t a direct correlation between working hard and being rich, because a lot of people in my own family, worked really hard yet we were still part of the working poor.

How did 9/11 lead you to your interests in researching immigration?

I was an undergrad during 9/11 and after the attacks there was a wave of nativism that overtook the country, which shocked me. I was learning about freedom and democracy and civil rights in my political science courses but, right after 9/11, I came home to Boyle Heights and there were immigration raids happening all over my neighborhood. People were getting picked up in front of elementary schools and medical clinics. Yet, the kids of the same immigrants who were being attacked, the friends that I grew up with, were signing-up for the military to go fight for this country. This felt like a major contradiction to me.

Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t know any immigration experts at my undergraduate campus but I wanted to learn more about this issue. Because of this, I started volunteering with CHIRLA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which was on the cutting edge of organizing day laborers and domestic workers at the time. That’s where I started to learn more about immigration. Then I would see these experts on TV talking about things that, in my experience in working with CHIRLA and the independent reading I was doing, I knew were not right. For example, they’d often portray immigrants as being more prone to crime, yet according to official government statistics at the time (and this is still the case today), immigrants were less likely to commit crimes than U.S.-born citizens. Through my experiences speaking and working with staff and workers at CHIRLA, I learned that immigrants —especially the undocumented — live their lives trying to avoid doing anything that will draw the attention of authorities to them, especially law enforcement.

I noticed that the only reason many of these political pundits on TV were being asked their thoughts on the issue was because they had a Ph.D., and, as a result, they were shaping public opinion. That inspired me to get my doctorate. I wanted to become an immigration expert so that I could offer a different perspective, one from my community, and help produce some more critical research.

What has captivated you the most about UCLA’s labor studies program?

Our labor studies program is really a labor and community studies program. We teach our students about L.A. social movements in general because all these issues have to do with class. The people that are being displaced and evicted, they’re oftentimes workers. People getting deported are workers. So there’s no way to teach about labor studies and the labor movement without also dealing with all these other kinds of intersectional issues. And that’s really reflected in our curriculum, our students can take classes on topics ranging from settler colonialism to queer theory to Black worker centers. I think that makes us unique and I hope to continue that.

What are some of your other goals as you embark on your new role as labor studies chair?

I plan to teach a union organizing class where we’re going to learn about the different aspects of union organizing, and we’re going to bring in union leaders to discuss leadership, collective bargaining, tactics and strategies, and the role that research can play in labor organizing. Students will be able to learn the theory and histories from our readings, and then learn about the practice from actual labor organizers. 

I am excited about bringing my immigration policy class to labor studies because that’ll help students understand why immigrant workers are in such precarious positions. We have to learn the history of immigration and immigration policies to understand current labor policies, and these are the types of things we’ll cover in my class.

Finally, we’re looking to host a union and community organizing research institute every summer at UCLA. We’re going to bring in unions, community organizations and worker centers and offer them different types of research skills training, everything from strategic corporate research to researching elected officials’ voting records and sources of their campaign contributions. We want union members and staff to be able to learn about how social science research skills and the databases that we have access to as privileged academics can support their campaigns.

You have released books and publications on Latino politics, immigration policy and public opinion, what is coming up next for you on the research side?

As an immigration scholar, I come back to the fact that you can’t get to the root causes of immigration without understanding capitalism and understanding the issue of class, especially in the Latinx community — there’s just not a lot of research on Latinos and class.

This brought me back to my interest in labor studies and looking at the role that Latinos have had in transforming California’s labor movement. A lot of our city and state’s labor movement’s campaigns have been super intersectional — from passing laws to get free health care for undocumented youth to anti-gentrification activism — and often Latinx led. My particular interest now is in how, working with the labor movement, Latinos have become a major powerhouse in California electoral politics. 

What continues to inspire you to the work you do?

When you get the privilege of documenting the oral histories of migrant workers that I’ve met all across the world, and in the U.S., on the West Coast, on the East Coast, and in the South in particular, you hear about the types of risks that workers take every day. And ultimately, it comes down to the concept the Zapatistas used to reference a lot: dignity. Workers take risks to organize their workplaces to take back their dignity — the dignity they all have as human beings, the dignity that often gets taken away when they migrate and become low-wage workers here. I think their courage is so inspiring, it reminds me of the sacrifices my grandparents made.

Hearing all of their stories creates a sense of obligation to share them with future generations, to hopefully inspire folks to keep working for a more just migration system, country and world.