As a direct response to the racial violence and civil unrest that immediately followed the police killing of George Floyd, Graduate Studies at The University of New Mexico launched a pilot initiative to support graduate student research on critical race studies, broadly defined. The aim is to build a cohort of graduate scholars engaged in critical race work, to encourage intersectional collaboration of their research, and to provide professional and academic support toward the completion of their degrees.

Graduate Studies named five Critical Race Scholars, and, through the generosity of the Division of Equity and Inclusion headed by Assata Zerai, two more recipients were added to the cohort as honorable mentions.

“In all, we are supporting seven named critical race scholars, but given the number of applicants and their exceptional quality, we need to be supporting many more if we want to change our civic and cultural lives today for a better tomorrow,” said Jesse Alemán, associate dean of Graduate Studies.

The scholars will focus on completing their research, presenting or publishing it in an appropriate venue, and will convene occasionally for workshops, discussions, and guest presentations.

“Graduate Studies remains committed to equity and excellence in graduate education, and we’re optimistic that our first cohort of critical race scholars will lead the way,” said Dean Julie Coonrod.

Graduate Studies would like to acknowledge all who applied for the award and would like to thank the special selection committee that convened over the summer; Assata Zerai and the Division of Equity and Inclusion, and Margaret Gonzales, senior operations manager in Graduate Studies, for taking on the added work.

The first cohort of Critical Race Scholars for the 2020-2021 school year includes:

Damon Carbajal

Damon R. Carbajal (he/him/el) is a gay, queer Chicanx educator, scholar, and activist from Las Cruces, NM. He is in his second year of studies at UNM, where he is pursuing an MA in Chicana/o/x Studies and a certificate in “Race” and Social Justice. He holds a B.A. in Secondary Education with concentrations in Communicative and Performing Arts and a minor in Theater. Among the many groups to which he belongs, Carbajal is the co-chair and policy coordinator for GLSEN Albuquerque, which creates affirming learning environments for LGBTQ youth, sits on the New Mexico Educational Theatre Association Board, and works as the operations manager at Native American Professional Parent Resources.

His research focuses on creating and maintaining equity for LGBTQ+ Chicanx students, as well as students and educators. Carbajal’s MA thesis project focuses on examining mental health and school climate perceptions among LGBTQ+ Chicanx young adults. The study aims to collect testimonials of those living at this intersection to start conversations around mental health and how it affects New Mexico youth. He is an alumnus of the El Puente Research Fellowship and the Research Institute for Scholars of Equity (RISE).

“We are at a time in our history where critical race work is not only essential but pivotal to challenging and dismantling systems that have plagued society for hundreds of years,” Carbajal said. “The Critical Race Scholar initiative is a much-needed departure from the empty solidarity statements made by organizations that make claim s of solidarity but do little to nothing to aid in creating true change for marginalized communities.  

"For authentic change to occur, there must be action and this initiative allows for this action to be promoted through granting critical race scholars a space to collaborate, grow, and most importantly discuss ways in which we can enact our privilege in higher ed. to abolish and dismantle systems of oppression. As a gay, queer Chicanx scholar, educator, and activists, I am honored to be a member of the inaugural Critical Race Scholars cohort and I am confident that the cohort as a whole will aid in the much-needed change because of the immense dedication to racial justice and equity we all have.”


Zunneh-bah Martin is Diné, Modoc, Aztec, Mayan, Tarahumara, African American, Irish, and German and is enrolled in the Navajo Nation. As a Navajo woman, she is of the Sleeping Rock Clan, born for Mexican (Aztec, Mayan, Tarahumara) ancestry, her paternal grandfather is of the Edge Water Clan, and her late maternal grandfather is of the Modoc tribe. She was raised and lives on the Navajo Reservation in Tohłakai, NM.

She received her Bachelor of Arts Degree from the Colorado College, majoring in Southwest Studies and minoring in Indigenous Studies and Film/Media Studies. She is working on a Master of Arts degree in Native American Studies at UNM. She serves as a graduate assistant for the UNM Native American Studies Department.

Zunneh-bah advocates for nonviolent social change, Indigenous/civil rights, environmental rights, socio-natural healing/justice, animal rescue/protection, health/wellness, zero waste eco-friendly sustainable lifestyle, community gardening, Indigenous language/culture revitalization, and more. She’s worked with the Navajo Nation Department of Health, New Mexico Appleseed, Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health: Navajo Community Health Outreach, New Mexico Social Justice Equity Institute, Middlebury College Bread Loaf Teacher Network, the Navajo Nation Division of Community Development, We R Native, Generation Indigenous (Gen-I), and other organizations and founded an online initiative called U NSPIR “you inspire” (United Natives Striving for the Protection of Indigenous Rights) in 2015 to promote the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Currently, she focuses on graduate research in socio-natural/historical/intergenerational trauma and she continues to promote awareness about socio-natural health/healing.

“I think the Critical Race Scholars initiative is a great opportunity for building collaboration, network, and support system for the graduate students who were selected to be in this cohort that works in various fields of study," she said. "It is exciting and to be among other scholars who tie critical race scholarship/studies in their academic work. I am looking forward to working in this cohort for this academic year as well as to share my perspectives and work as an Indigenous woman.”


Dre Abeita is a real-life Pueblo superhero, revolutionary, educator, researcher, and activist. She follows the path of her ancestors as She Walks as Coyote. She is the daughter of sisters- Rosalee Lucero and Lynn Conner, the granddaughter of Miguelita Histia (who taught her the meaning of unconditional and infinite love), and the great-great-great-granddaughter of Pablo Abeita. She continues their legacy of service and commitment to education by supporting our #LoboFamily in her multiple roles as an instructor, graduate student, researcher, activist, and student leader. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the Language, Literacy, and Sociocultural Studies (LLSS) Department and the chair-elect of the American Educational Research Association Graduate Student Council.

She holds a B.A. in Native American Studies/History from Dartmouth College and an M.A. in LLSS, with a concentration in American Indian Education. Her critical autoethnographic research as a Native (Isleta), cis-gender female, bisexual, multiple-trauma survivor, medical marijuana cardholder, and PTSD-diagnosed activist/researcher and her areas of expertise as a critical race theory, whiteness, and intersectional scholar gives her a powerful voice.

Her wealth of experience with a lifetime of community organizing, UNM graduate student organizations, conference planning, and leadership/institutional service roles demonstrates her dedication to creating community through service. Her various teaching strategies include; centering the lived experiences of communities of color, the use of counterstorytelling, linking history to the present, Indigenous based epistemologies, practices of healing and wellness, and the use of YouTube, vlogging, documentaries, and other multimedia sources.

“I am a modern Pueblo warrior and Coyote Superhero and I have made it my business to advocate for student issues. I have learned how to weaponize student voices and demand accountability for the students paying for this education, potentially at the sacrifice of their families’ financial security," she said. "I bring change and that brings fear, but our current COVID reality has taught us the hard way, with the millions of US deaths that our current institutions and systems have failed our peoples. I fight to ensure that I won’t be the last Pueblo Unicorn, aka the last of my people to graduate with a Ph.D.”

More about Dre can be found on her website.


Lazarus Letcher is pursuing a Ph.D. in American Studies with a focus on Black and Indigenous liberation and transgender studies. They’ve written about topics like transgender and Two-Spirit migration, intersectional approaches to addiction and recovery, Black and Indigenous solidarity in liberation movements, and transgender connection/kinship through folklore. They give presentations like LGBTQ 101s with an emphasis on settler colonialism and white supremacy. Laz is also a musician performing as a solo artist and with anti-nuclear queer folk group Eileen and the In-Betweens.

“As a Black American, I was tired of half-hearted statements and hashtags without action. The creation of this program showed me that parts of this university were actually paying attention," they said. "As someone that has moved out of the coursework phase of my graduate studies and into the daunting drudge of comprehensive exams and my dissertation, I deeply appreciate being back in a learning community - especially one where I feel seen and understood. As a Black, trans, and queer academic I am also hyper-aware of what parts of myself I can bring to the table. I am grateful that I can show up as my full self with research and work that reflects my communities in this program and am excited to see where all of the brilliant fellows in this program end up.”

Dèsa Karye Daniel

Dèsa Karye Daniel is a licensed mental health counselor and a Counselor Education and Supervision doctoral candidate at UNM. Daniel’s research interest focuses on supervision relationships for racial/ethnic minorities, the lived experiences of racial/ethnic college students, and the lived experiences of Black/African American Women in academic spaces. She continues to work with diverse clients at a community mental health clinic and a college counseling center, where her work focuses on the Black student populations. Daniel continues to advocate for inclusive spaces for racial/ethnic minority students within academia and within organizations for increasing graduate student resources.

She received her dual master’s degrees in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Higher Education Administration from New Mexico State University. She is a UNM Center for Social Policy Fellow and currently serves as the past chair for the American Education Research Association 2021 Graduate Student Council. Daniel received the 2020 NBCC Minority Fellowship, which will assist in expanding her work addressing the mental health needs and health disparities of Black/African American populations by increasing her opportunities to be involved in national organizations, receive professional development training, and the development of scholarly publications.

“In most spaces, I am the only one. My presence as a Black licensed mental health counselor educator removes barriers while creating opportunities for others. My work as a critical scholar is not bound to hashtags or current pop culture moments but is ingrained in the long fight of equity for Black communities," she said. "To stand with and be a part of Critical Race Scholars is an acknowledgment and recognition of the importance of Black scholarship. I am honored to further Black scholarship and initiatives while creating space where Black students feel seen, heard, and appreciated. When I look back on this moment, I believe my Latinx, Asian, Native, and White colleagues will join me in the fight against AntiBlackness. I know I will no longer be the only one.”

Sofia Locklear

Sofia Locklear is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and a part of the vibrant urban Native community in Seattle, Wash. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at UNM.

Her dissertation explores the social construction of white identity among individuals in the Pacific Northwest who work with American Indian and Alaska Native issues and peoples through semi-structured, in-depth interviews. This project links white individual understandings of racial formation to the larger institutional systems that uphold and perpetuate oppressive ideologies for American Indian and Alaska Native people. 

Locklear also works for a tribal epidemiology center, assisting urban Indigenous communities across the country to showcase their knowledge and resilience. In her downtime, she provides care to her plants, tries to read for fun “but somehow, it always ends up being something sociological,” travels, and spends time with friends and relatives.

“I am excited to be a part of and learn from this cohort of scholars who are pushing academia and the respective fields to engage critically with topics like race, settler colonialism, and possible paths for liberation,” Locklear said.

Anthony Rosendo Zariñana

Anthony Rosendo Zariñana is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication and Journalism. His research focuses on Queer of Color Critique, Critical Communication Pedagogy, and Decolonial Epistemologies from a Queer Intercultural Communication vantage. His pedagogical passion labors to affirm historically marginalized student groups across race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability, while generating coalitional ethics across all students and identities to build a more equitable reality. His dissertation research uses this base in its more innovative dimension to identify different ways marginalized folk, within local New Mexican configurations of race and sexuality, relate to each other to imagine, resist, and live.

“As allies now more fully reconcile with and bear witness to the wounds/corporeal ruins made by a nation, Critical Race Scholarship, a legacy crafted by Radical Women of Color and Queer folk, is more vital than ever in imagining and realizing a society of equitable justice,” Zariñana said.