The transformative power of travel

On and off the page, UCLA doctoral student Thomas Ray Garcia seeks to span great distances

Image of UCLA doctoral student Thomas Ray Garcia

UCLA doctoral student Thomas Ray Garcia

By Jonathan Riggs

The lure of the open road, the adventure of travel have long inspired and defined American writers who took “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country” to heart. In addition to being one of these journeymen himself, Thomas Ray Garcia, a UCLA doctoral student in the English Department, studies them, too.

“My dissertation focuses on literary representations of travel through the works of five 20th-century American writers I consider a chronological arc: Jack London, Jack Black, Carlos Bulosan, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac,” he says. “All of them wrote some sort of fictionalized memoir, so I’m analyzing how the genre helped them craft their travels as journeys — not only throughout the country, but also to the professional class.”

According to Garcia, these individuals show how the idea of American authorship transformed during the early 20th century, from deskbound typists to vigorous vagabonds writing about and taking agency over their lived experiences. All five of these authors paint larger-than-life, uniquely American self-portraits, from Jack London’s tales of survival to Jack Kerouac’s free-flowing Beat Generation politics.

Writing with bravado and a scope as vast as the idealized, untamed American West, all of these authors — including Jack Black’s criminal memoirs to Carlos Bulosan’s perspective as a Filipino immigrant to John Steinbeck’s empathetic wisdom — unsurprisingly turned their attention to California.

“California was always this mecca for them; they wanted to reach what they called ‘the end of the road,’” Garcia says. “Going to the Santa Monica Pier and seeing the symbolic end of Route 66 spoke to me, too. Knowing I’m at UCLA focusing on writers who have a special relationship to this place enables me to see their work and mine through a unique lens.”

Garcia’s own travels have been just as life-changing as those of the authors he studies. Growing up 10 miles from Mexico in the border town of Pharr, Texas, Garcia was the first in his family to go to college. His experiences at Princeton — including gaining a new understanding of his Latino identity — helped inspire him to found the College Scholarship Leadership Access Program (CSLAP), a thriving Rio Grande Valley-based nonprofit that helps students reach and navigate higher education.

“I’m able to share my stories and my experiences with students, so they don’t have to struggle as much as I did,” Garcia says. “Several of the students I’m now helping apply to graduate school are the same ones I helped apply to undergrad. Helping my community like this lets me come full circle.”

A recipient of UCLA’s Carolyn See Graduate Fellowship in Southern California & Los Angeles Literature, Garcia is an accomplished creative writer, working on short stories and poetry about the U.S./Mexico border as well as co-authoring Speak with Style, a book series that helps children and young adults improve their public speaking. A project of particular importance to him is the historical memoir of Chicano activist Aurelio Montemayor he co-wrote, which has been peer-reviewed and approved by the faculty committee of Texas A&M University Press and is currently undergoing copyediting.

Now back in Texas, Garcia divides his time among academic work, creative writing and his nonprofit. He’s also a long-distance runner and likes to sneak in some nighttime miles whenever possible. His time spent under those endless Texas skies gives him the opportunity to think deeply about travel and distance — but also the importance of remembering where you’re from.

“People like me who were born and raised around this area recognize that it means something special to us. It informs who we are and all that we do,” he says. “This is a meaningful place for me to be and is definitely influencing how I’m approaching my dissertation – and everything that comes next.”

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