Louis Gerard Mendoza

An expert in Chicano studies who just completed a tour of the United States on his bicycle while interviewing hundreds of people about immigration, citizenship and identity will address students, scholars and the community at a forum next week at the University of Utah.

While it promises to be a hot topic in the coming election year, honors students at the U. will be taking on questions regarding the increasingly complex subject of immigration and the American West.

"The American West represents a particularly potent region because of its mythological positioning in the history of our country and because of the issues unique to its people, climate and landscape," said Vicky Newman, assistant professor of communication at the U.

Louis Gerard Mendoza, chairman of the University of Minnesota's department of Chicano studies, has been invited to the U. to talk about his recent 8,500-mile bicycle trip, which took him to the four corners of the country, and the experiences of people he met along the way.

"My goal is to listen to the person on the street, to meet people in churches, cafes and bars, to find out what they understand are the issues around 'Latino-ization' of the U.S.," Mendoza said. Before he began his six-month journey in July, he said he didn't just want people to focus on his story but of the many small stories he encountered or became a part of, of the people "who are both part of the problem and part of the solution."

Mendoza, 47, is a Tejano transplant living in Minnesota since 2004, when he joined the school faculty there. He came to America with his family in 1981 and began participating and learning English in the school system. He noticed at an early age that minorities and "illegals" were treated differently and it was then he set out to understand why.

His bicycle journey is a product of his curiosity and a way to share the stories of many who have come to America. He finished the tour Dec. 18, also known as International Migrants Day, in Oakland.

"My goal is to offer much-needed insight from voices that aren't often heard in formal media venues," Mendoza said.

Using science, politics, poetry, history, economics and the fine arts as sources to understand definitions and representations of the West and immigration, participants will work together to design alternative practices for ongoing collaboration between students and the community. Newman said she has invited a diverse range of community members to participate, including English-as-a-second-language students, farmers and ranchers, business leaders and union representatives.

"These diverse groups will bring their issues and questions together to shape some of the initial discussion and research for the forum that follows," she said. "This kind of engaged learning provides students a way to use their intellect and talent to better understand their community and to become more active and informed citizens."

The forum, to be held Jan. 2-5, will take place at the Commander's House at the Historic Fort Douglas at the U. For more information or a schedule of events for the forum, contact Vicky Newman at the Honors Center at vicky.newman@utah.edu.

If you go

What: "New Meanings of the American West," a University of Utah forum

When: Wednesday through Saturday

Where: Commander's House, 110 S. Fort Douglas Blvd., Salt Lake City

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com