Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval


On his book Starving for Justice: Hunger Strikes, Spectacular Speech, and the Struggle for Dignity

Cover Interview of September 17, 2017

The wide angle

Since the late 1980s I have been involved in social movements. Activists that went “all the way,” putting their bodies on the line, risking arrest, going on hunger strike, and so on always fascinated me. I had great respect and admiration for people like Gandhi, Bobby Sands, César Chávez, Oscar Romero, and many others who were willing to die for their beliefs. I always wondered if I could go as far as they did.

I was hired at UC Santa Barbara in the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department in 1998, just four years after the hunger strike ended. One of the students’ demands was for the administration to hire more faculty in the department. After some back-and-forth negotiations, both sides agreed on that issue (with the students wanting many more professors than they actually got), and I started working in the department. In other words, without these students’ sacrifices I would have never gotten this job.

Upon arriving I often heard from students associated with El Congreso, the organization that initiated and led the hunger strike, that they hoped someone would write a book or possibly produce a documentary film about the nine-day protest. After finally finishing another book project, I started collecting primary sources and interviewing people for what became Starving for Justice.

Aside from the three “case studies” of hunger strikes (which have never been fully documented and analyzed before in one full volume), this book makes a critical theoretical intervention. I contend that hunger striking—like self-immolation to a degree—is designed to grab the public’s attention. It is designed to make people “wake up” and see suffering and misery.

In the early 20th Century, women in England, Ireland, and the United States mobilized for voting rights. When many activists were jailed, they resorted to going without food. Their “spectacular speech,” including states which force-fed them to keep them alive, sparked widespread moral outrage and concern. It is ironic that women pioneered this particular tactic and yet men (including those named above) are most often recognized and lionized for making the “ultimate sacrifice.”

These gendered dynamics help explain why I deliberately selected the Stanford hunger strike since that action involved Chicana students. I suggest that one reason why this protest has garnered such scant attention is that it involved women of color whose bodies are often called into question.

In sum, I argue that in the early 1990s, twenty-five years after the turbulent and widely-examined 1960s, Chicana/o, Latina/o students “screamed” and dreamed of a new world, a world, as the Zapatista movement in Mexico declared, “where many worlds fit.” While these students had specific campus-based demands, one should not overlook the fact that they had a broad vision of change. They simply wanted dignity for all, especially for Chicanas/os, Latinas/os who were being singled out yet again for national and state economic crises.

Make no mistake. These hunger strikes were “race-based,” but the students who went without eating and organized behind-the-scenes had bigger “freedom dreams,” as famed historian Robin D.G. Kelley might put it. These students “raged against the machine” and they won. More faculty were hired, Chicana/o Studies Departments were created/strengthened, Chicana/o, Latina/o student enrollment surged, but this does not mean the struggle is over. Far from it, as we see mass deportations and mass incarceration, along with new fights around “political correctness.” The struggle continues, as it always will.