On a wet, chilly evening in early March (Women’s History month), a small and attentive group gathers in Todd Hall to hear Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama give an intriguing and powerful talk. Margarita is the third woman to speak in WSU’s Week of Women Speakers, presented by the Coalition for Women Students. After listening to her speak, it is evident that this woman is quite remarkable—and her passion to promote justice and equality is inspired by the time she spent as a student at WSU. Even back then, she knew her future career needed to incorporate her campus activities. “You can have jobs where you live out your passions,” she insists. Her words encourage students who have chosen a field of study based on their interests, rather than practicality.
Margarita was born in Yakima and grew up in a large family of farm workers. Though her parents placed an emphasis on education, being a farm worker kid also meant there was less of a chance that Margarita and her siblings would graduate from high school. She views the situation differently, however, and argues that farm worker children use their Mexican heritage to their advantage—it helps them to succeed.
To describe Margarita as being involved is an understatement—during her college years she was a Chicano student leader, participated in the national Chicano Movement, and was one of two MeChA founders and the only student in a committee proposing a Chicano Studies Program. She was also the former chair of the Racial Justice Training Committee, which promoted racial injustice awareness and provided racial justice training in dorms, fraternities, and sororities. Since the time when Margarita was a student at WSU, racial diversity has come a long way. When she came to Pullman, there were only six Mexican students. She saw this as a problem, and by working to fix it she was able to banish stereotypes and build trust among Chicano students. Margarita’s involvement in various activities on campus was not without criticism from the WSU administration; in fact she says that they couldn’t wait for her to graduate! Later, when Margarita began working at WSU, the ratio of colored faculty members increased from 12% to 25% and a corresponding increase in students of color soon followed.
Margarita has spent 37 years as a civil and human rights professional, has held a position with the Washington State Department of Transportation (as diversity programs administrator), and has worked as a staff member for governors, an attorney general, a college president and agency directors. Throughout all of her professional experience, Margarita has been tenacious in holding people accountable for their job responsibilities. Yet, despite all she’s been through, this ambitious woman describes life as a joyful struggle, something worth struggling for. She has also maintained a positive attitude, viewing every person she meets as a way to learn more.
Despite her recent retirement, it’s obvious that Margarita still has so much energy and passion for life. “I’m not done. There’s more to Margarita that is yet to happen,” she concludes. This is an easy statement to believe when it comes from such an accomplished woman.
“With Eyes Wide Open” (profile of Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama in Washington State Magazine, Summer 2003)