In Memoriam: Michael Olivas

In Memoriam: Michael Olivas

Michael A. Olivas, a member of The American Law Institute since 1987, died on April 21. As an ALI member, Olivas took part in the Members Consultative Group for the Principles of the Law, Student Sexual Misconduct: Procedural Frameworks for Colleges and Universities, and Restatement of the Law Third, Conflict of Laws, projects.

Prior to his retirement in 2019, Olivas was the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law and director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston Law Center, where he served on the faculty for 38 years. University of Houston-Downtown President Loren J. Blanchard remembers Olivas in this tribute.

Olivas was a national leader on immigration legal scholarship, writing extensively on Latino civil rights. In 2020, he authored Perchance to Dream: A Legal and Political History of the DREAM Act and DACA, the first book on the comprehensive history of the DREAM Act and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

In 2018, the Association of American Law Schools honored Olivas with the 2018 AALS Triennial Award for Lifetime Service to Legal Education and to the Legal Profession.

ALI member Laura E. Gómez, the Rachel F. Moran Endowed Chair in Law at UCLA School of Law, has authored a remembrance on Olivas, available below:

I was trying to recall the first time I met Michael. I wish I had his ability to remember details. I picture him doing that thing where he’d be talking with his hands but have his eyes squinted shut; I imagine he was trying to recall with photographic precision who was present at a meeting, who asked what question at a lecture, or the order of songs at a rock concert.

Unlike so many of my Latino/a/x colleagues in law teaching, I didn’t meet him when I was considering entering the profession or when I was on the job market. By a quirk of fate, I never went “officially” on the job market (aka the AALS’s meat market); instead, I tested the waters with letters to a dozen law schools the year I was clerking. By sheer accident (that’s another story), I landed the job at UCLA in 1993. Maybe the reason I had so many call-back interviews was because of Michael’s Dirty Dozen list. This was his annual list of the “top 12” law schools in cities with large Latino populations but zero Latino law professors. Granted, when I was hired UCLA’s faculty included Cruz Reynoso (1930-2021), former California Supreme Court Justice, but maybe they were a little ashamed to only have one or to have no female Hispanic professor in a city and state with so many Latinos. Certainly, I was helped because of affirmative action, since I was lucky enough to be hired prior to Prop. 209, the 1996 constitutional amendment that banned race and gender preferences in state higher education and employment.

I probably met Michael at my first AALS annual meeting in January 1994. Michael would organize our Latino law professor dinners—he would find a restaurant in the host city, let us know the time and place, and then lead us in sharing news of the past year: who had gotten tenure, become a dean, new hires, etc. If we, Latinx law professors, had been formally organized [we never have been], Michael would have been our president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer all rolled into one. He mentored scores of Latinos seeking to become law professors, he counseled us as we went through the tenure process, through dean searches, and at every career stage. There are nearly 300 Latinx law professors today, and my guess is that Michael personally mentored 250 of us at one or more of those various stages. This is Michael the academic godfather.

Fourteen years my senior, Michael was like a young uncle (or much older brother) to me. We both hailed from New Mexico and bonded over green chile and flour tortillas (the latter never quite measured up in our new hometowns of Los Angeles and Houston). Michael graduated from the all-boys St. Pius X High School in Albuquerque in the late 1960s. His classmates included Ramón Gutiérrez (whose 1991 book When Jesus Came the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 transformed how we conceive New Mexico history) and Rubén Rumbaut (the Cuban American sociologist of immigration). After high school, he spent two (I think) years in the seminary. He would have made a great priest—I imagine him as a Jesuit professor who would have been one of the good guys in every sense, a beloved teacher, and a scholar.

Michael the scholar was at his best in 2004 when he convened a group of us, both scholars (law professors and historians) and practitioners (lawyers and judges) at the University of Houston to mark the 50th anniversary of Hernandez v. Texas. Thanks to Michael’s conference and the book that resulted in 2006—Colored Men and Hombres Aquí: Hernandez v. Texas and the Emergence of Mexican American Lawyering—this important case has been resurrected as essential reading in constitutional law, critical race theory, and race and the law courses. And Michael worked with filmmaker Carlos Sandoval in the early stages of the 2009 film A Class Apart that tells the story of Hernandez and the first Mexican American legal team at the Supreme Court.

When my six-year-old son Alejandro and I moved to New Mexico in 2002, I got to see another side of Michael and his wife Dr. Augustina Reyes. Michael and Tina both came from large families and were a beloved tía and tío to many biological nieces and nephews as well as godparents to others. During my second year back in New Mexico we lived in Santa Fe (in an amazing house near the plaza that was owned by the School for Advanced Research, were I was a fellow), and my son and I frequently hung out with Michael and Tina, who owned a home in Santa Fe. I appreciated them for the love and acceptance they showed Alejandro, who was a bit of a tough cookie. But those two always got him talking and engaged, master aunt and uncle that they were. Tina had been a radical teacher in Houston’s Huelga Schools in the early 1970s. Chicana/o activists organized parents to keep their children out of school to protest a farcical desegregation plan; thousands of Mexican American kids boycotted the public schools for months, instead attending alternative schools where Chicano history was taught. As a professor of education at the University of Houston, Tina carried out research on schooling inequality and unfair disciplinary policies.

Sometimes we visited Michael and Tina at their welcoming home, which was filled with Santa Fe style but also art and trinkets from their worldly travels. Other times, we would meet at Tecolote, a family-run Mexican restaurant where Michael would regale his guests in the dining room as if it were his personal living room. It never failed that people he knew would stop by to say hello—New Mexico políticos, scholars from around the country who had second homes in Santa Fe (does every anthropologist have a home in Santa Fe?), folks he knew from church.

Over the years, I enjoyed many wide-ranging conversations with Michael. We loved arguing about New Mexico politics and history; we never papered over our disagreements (about Bill Richardson and Reies Lopez Tijerina, for example), but we knew those disagreements didn’t define our friendship. I loved hearing about the latest concert he and Tina had attended; like me, he had eclectic tastes in music, from Abba to Freddy Fender. (I recall his hearty laugh when I told him the story of my father being mistaken for Fender one September when Fender was in town to perform at the New Mexico state fair.) In one of our last phone conversations, last fall, I told Michael about seeing the Rolling Stones at SoFi Stadium—just about my only indulgence during the pandemic years. We compared notes about our knee replacement surgery—mine in June 2021, and his upcoming in 2022. He reflected on retirement life after 38 years at the University of Houston and how it was great to be back in New Mexico full-time. As always, he told me how in love he was with his Tina.

Our professional lives crossed at various points, such as when he was a finalist in UCLA’s failed immigration law search in the late 1990s. I was on the dean search committee at UNM when Michael was one of four finalists (all people of color). I know Michael wrote outside reviews of my work at various times, for which I am grateful. Such letters are part of the unsung work we do as faculty, but I know from having read many of his letters for others and from general conversation that he wrote an inordinate number of such letters, whether for tenure or lateral moves. Michael was truly an equal-opportunity mentor; he was the dean of Latino law professors but he cultivated, recruited, and mentored scores of African American and Asian American colleagues as well and played a prominent role in the AALS Minority Groups Section as well, of course, as AALS President.

I honestly don’t know how Michael did it all. He was an expert in at least three distinct fields in which he published articles, books, and casebooks: immigration law and policy, higher education law, and Latinos and the law. Even to say it that way flattens it a bit, because each of those areas is trans-substantive and inter-disciplinary by nature. But Michael was no dilettante; he read deeply in all these areas and many more. He was a voracious reader. I know I am among many who, up until his retirement about a year ago, received packages from Michael--law review articles, peer-reviewed journal articles, sometimes an entire journal issue courtesy of Michael. There would always be a note of substance about the piece and how it might fit in with my new project or ongoing interest. I imagine the postage the University of Houston spent because Michael’s intellectual curiosity crossed with his generosity.

My colleague Pedro Malavet sent a photo around the day Michael died. It was from one of our Latino law professor gatherings (the AALS annual meeting in New York City in 2016) and shows Michael standing against the wall and Sandy Guerra Thompson and me in the shot. All three of us are smiling broadly, no doubt listening to one of our colleague’s annual updates. I will remember Michael at these events, holding court for those whom he loved and who loved him in back. One big embrace from the community he did so much to create.

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