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Thoughts on Identity and Diversity for Hispanic Heritage Month (part 4)

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Chapter 4

This blog post is part of a series for Hispanic Heritage Month. To read the last entry in the series, click here.

As I continued my education, my views on my identity continued to evolve but the momentum picked up pace. Coming out of high school, all I knew was that I was a Mexican American, besides being an aspiring hippie, and aspiring mathematician who wanted desperately to go to college.

Since I didn’t know how college admissions worked, I thought I could graduate in May and enroll in a university in September. So even though I graduated high school with honors, I discovered the hard way that my postsecondary experience would be starting at a community college, like many of my former classmates.

After taking some courses at San Antonio Community College, I transferred to and received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Trinity University in San Antonio. During my undergrad days in the early 1970s, the San Antonio Latino activist scene was blossoming. The Raza Unida Party (Partido Nacional de La Raza Unida) gained some popularity.  I happened to meet some of its principals in the city, including poets, musicians, political scientists, activists, and so on. They were devoted to building political influence and civic engagement among Mexican Americans in San Antonio and other parts of Texas. I quickly embraced being a Chicano, a Mestizo – I was Raza! Interestingly, being a monolingual English speaker did not seem to matter to this crowd. What mattered was helping their community.

But as quickly as my exposure to that scene came, it ended when I decided to attend graduate school in a land far, far away: Michigan. Up to that point in my life, I had never traveled north of Dallas. The next leg of my identity journey commenced in 1976, at the Department of Statistics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

I was only able to attend because of a university minority fellowship, and later a Ford Foundation fellowship for minority students. The fellowship support at Michigan further instilled in me an obligation to “pay it forward.” That was a value I first acquired through a dozen years of parochial schooling and that I embrace to this day.
 


During these years, my wife and I joined with other Latino grad students at Michigan to form a support network for incoming Latino students. We also joined Latino student groups, including a Ballet Folklorico and the Association for Critical Social Studies.

Then, thanks to a Latino researcher named Carlos Arce, I secured a research assistantship at the famed Sampling Section of the Survey Research Center. My first sample at SRC was the National Chicano Survey in 1977, the first-ever national area probability survey of people of Mexican descent. Through this experience I met many Mexican American scholars, including some legends like Marta Tienda, Leo Estrada, and Gil Cardenas. My pride in my Hispanic heritage soared.

But I also encountered the dark side of being a Latino monolingual English speaker. On more than one occasion during my travels for the survey, I was clearly looked down on by other Latinos – some of whom were prominent ‐‐ because I was not bilingual. Hey, I was just a kid in my early 20s and I confess it hurt.  It hurt a lot.

But just like that child who went back to the prickly pear for another pad to study, I was so excited to be a part of this pioneering study that I stayed focused on my passion for statistics and helping people.  I moved on, learned, and had fun. I decided that I was the only person who knew my identity, and I chose to be all the above – Hispanic, Latino, Mexican American, Chicano, Mestizo, even Mexicano. And if anyone didn’t like it, it wasn’t my problem. It was theirs.

If you liked my journey to identity thus far, I think you’ll like the final chapter that brought me and my identity quest to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2022.  Quédate, ¡no te vayas!

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