A Life in Motion: A Tribute to the Legacy of Tomás Rivera

The festival kicks off on Oct. 27 with a performance of "Tomás and the Library Lady" at the Culver Center of the Arts

Tomás Rivera, the late UC Riverside chancellor who became the first Latino and the first minority chancellor in the UC system. To honor his legacy, UCR’s CHASS has partnered with Cinema Culturas 3rd Annual Film Festival to hold the Tomás Rivera 28th Annual Tribute, from October 27-30. The festival theme is “A Life in Motion: A Tribute to the Legacy of Tomás Rivera.” ucr file

Concha Rivera knew there was something unique about the then 18-year-old teen who asked her to dance to the tune of Mexican polkas.

That teenager was Tomás Rivera, the late UC Riverside chancellor who became the first Latino and the first minority chancellor in the UC system. Tomás Rivera led UCR from 1979, until his death in 1984.

To honor his legacy, UCR’s College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (CHASS), under the direction of Dean Milagros Peña, partnered with Cinema Culturas 3rd Annual Film Festival to hold the Tomás Rivera 28th Annual Tribute, from October 27-30. The festival theme is “A Life in Motion: A Tribute to the Legacy of Tomás Rivera.”

The celebration will open on Thursday, Oct. 27 with “Tomás and the Library Lady,” a stage production adapted by playwright José Cruz González for the UCR Latina/o Play Project and performed at the UCR ARTSblock. This children’s book was originally written by Pat Mora and illustrated by Raúl Colón.

Peña stepped in to lead the Tomás Rivera tribute to honor the man who broke barriers for Latino faculty and administrators who came after him. She said she is personally grateful for his life and his legacy.  “Tomás paved the way,” she said. She noted that 60 percent of UCR students are the first generation to attend college.

Dean Milagros Peña ucr file

Dean Milagros Peña
ucr file

Dignitaries from Mexico will be in attendance during the tribute and festival. This is significant because Tomás Rivera was critical in bringing UC Mexus (The University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States) from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to UCR in 1984. The late chancellor made a strong proposal to UCLA and the UC Office of the President to house UC Mexus here. He offered resources, space, financial support, and outlined qualifications for its director, said Exequiel Ezcurra, current UC Mexus director and professor of Plant Ecology.

The goal of the Cinema Culturas Film Festival is to promote higher education and to highlight the artistic richness found within the Latino community, said Mary Figueroa, a UCR alumna, Riverside Community College District trustee, and co-chair of the festival advisory board.

Tomás Rivera wanted children to reach for the stars and Cinema Culturas has devoted an entire day to featuring films created by local elementary school children, Figueroa said. Cinema Culturas Founder and Executive Director Cony Martínez worked to produce the films with the students. Martínez is also a visiting assistant professor at Moreno Valley College. The festival showcases award-winning films, Martínez said.

Cinema Culturas Founder and Executive Director Cony Martínez courtesy cony martínez

Cinema Culturas Founder and Executive Director Cony Martínez
courtesy cony martínez

Mary Figueroa courtesy mary figueroa

Mary Figueroa
courtesy mary figueroa

“Tomás was a writer, he told stories. And like him, we worked with children to spur their skills to tell their own stories, to empower them,” Figueroa said.

Back in Crystal City, Texas, where Concha and Tomás Rivera met at a neighborhood dance party, many of the families were farm workers who lived their lives in a circuit; they followed the crops around the United States, picking beets, tomatoes, onions, and other crops. This included Tomás’ family.

But he envisioned his future differently. He wanted to go to college. He shared that dream with Concha and that caught her interest, she said.

He was 18, and she was a teen herself. She worked at a cannery while Tomás was in college and waited until he finished his bachelor’s degree to get married.

While Tomás Rivera was away, he wrote to Concha every day. The letters were all in Spanish.

“He was a great writer of love letters,” Concha said with a smile, in between sips of coffee. “He was real romantic, poetic.”

His love for her and their family was one of his main motivators. While he worked on his Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma, he left the house at 5 a.m and most days returned by 10 p.m. But he managed to obtain his degree in three years. He was 39 years of age.

Within a 10-year span, Tomás Rivera managed to move up the ranks, from an associate professor to a chancellor. During his tenure at UCR, he made it a point to reach out to the community, to inspire as many people as he could to get an education. “It was as if he breathed, ate, slept with that [mission],” Concha remembered. “He wanted his people to have a better life, better work, in order to succeed and have a better life.”

Concha Rivera sandra baltazar martínez

Concha Rivera
sandra baltazar martínez

She said he and a colleague drove to the agricultural fields and read books and poetry to children and adults during their lunch breaks.

Concha saw his persistence. And after he died from a heart attack in 1984, she refused to let his work go unnoticed. In 1988 she started planning for a scholarship in his name. That later evolved into an endowed faculty chair and an annual conference.

Cinema Culturas 3rd Annual Film Festival and Tomás Rivera 28th Annual Tribute schedule of events

Oct. 27: “Tomás and the Library Lady,” 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m. at the Culver Center of the Arts, 3824 Main Street; Free

Oct. 28: Gala and film at the Fox Performing Arts Center, 3801 Mission Inn Avenue in Riverside; “The Thin Yellow Line”/ “La delgada línea amarilla”; 7 p.m.; Gala Night is $125 (VIP reception and film); film only is $25. “The Thin Yellow Line”/ “La delgada línea amarilla” was nominated for an Ariel for Best Picture.

Oct. 29: “The Man Who Saw Too Much” (“El hombre que vio demasiado”); 3:30 p.m.; Riverside City College, Digital Library Auditorium.

Oct. 29: “I Promise You Anarchy” (“Te prometo anarquía); 7 p.m.; Riverside City College, Digital Library Auditorium.

Oct. 30: Mini Cinema Culturas, Life in Motion, A Tribute to Tomás Rivera; 3 p.m.; Riverside City College, Digital Library Auditorium.

Oct. 30: “Tomás Rivera: A Tribute,” written and Performed by Carlos E. Cortés, UCR professor emeritus of History. In this performance to Rivera, Carlos Cortés relates Rivera’s dramatic and inspiring story, while interweaving selections from Rivera’s writings and speeches as well as recollections of those who knew and admired him. This event will take place at 4:15 p.m. at the Riverside City College, Digital Library Auditorium.

Oct. 30: “The Beginning Of Time” (“El comienzo del tiempo”); 5:30 p.m.; Riverside City College, Digital Library Auditorium.    

Visit Tomás Rivera Tribute for more details.                           

Visit cinemaculturas.com for more details.

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