As a Religion and Public Life Organizing Fellow at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS), I instruct my graduate students to formulate research questions based on “how” or “why” questions. If I was conducting a thesis on my academic trajectory, for example, I would craft something like this: “How does a first-gen Chicano, who spent his early years in a poor Mexican colonia and formative years in a violent American barrio, graduate from elite universities (UCLA, UC Berkeley) and become a teaching/mentoring fellow at Harvard?
While the simplistic answer to this question may focus on the American myth that if one works hard enough, one will succeed, we must debunk this false narrative, as it doesn’t apply to Raza. While my late Mexican immigrant mother, Carmen Mejía Huerta, worked very hard for over 50 years as a doméstica, cleaning the homes of white households and raising their children, her meager earnings never permitted her to purchase a home. Since the American Dream also doesn’t apply to Mexican immigrants, like my mother, she built her dream home in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, as I wrote in my essay, “Brick-by-Brick: An Ode to My Mexican Mother, Carmen Mejía Huerta.”
Speaking of my mother, like millions of other immigrant and working-class Latina mothers, she taught me a profound lesson, as she often reminded me as a teenager: “Quiero que estudies mucho en la escuela para que no tengas que sufrir como yo.” She even forced my late father, Salomón Chávez Huerta, to take my brother Salomón and I to Malibu, California, to work as jornaleros (or day laborers), as I wrote in an essay, “From Tween Day Laborer to Urban Planning Scholar.” While my brother Salomón (who became an internationally acclaimed artist) was 15 years old, I was only 13. After literally begging rich white men in their luxury cars on the corners of Malibu to toil for hours in their large backyards facing the ocean, I realized that I was too thin for ardorous manual labor, and education would be my escape from hard labor. It was also my ticket out of the notorious Ramona Gardens public housing project (or Big Hazard projects) in East Los Angeles, where state surveillance and police abuse were omnipresent.
While attending mostly inner-city schools and a white suburban school (where we were bused to junior high school as part of the federal government’s integration program), didn’t prepare us to read and write at grade level, fortunately, my brother excelled in art and I in mathematics. (Being skilled in the arts or a specific subject matter helps boost self-esteem for kids. This includes sports.) It’s not like I worked hard to excel in mathematics; it just came natural to me from an early age. It also helped that Mrs. Rose at Murchison Street Elementary introduced me to algebra in the 6th grade. (I fondly nicknamed her “Mrs. Ronald McDonald” because of her bright red hair.) It also helped that I had a great math teacher in high school named Mr. Wong, who assigned me to grade the students’ homework and exams. With support and encouragement from great public school teachers, I eventually won a regional calculus in high school at Occidental College organized by MESA (or Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement).
Yet, if not for my participation in Upward Bound (a federally funded program to help prepare historically marginalized, first-gen kids to pursue higher education), I wouldn’t be able to compete at the highest level in my mathematics. More specifically, if not for my childhood friend Hector from the projects, who peer pressured me to apply to Upward Bound at Occidental College (Oxy) – a six-week, residential program – I would be oblivious to the college application process. This is important to answer my above research question since Chicana/o youth desperately need programs like Upward Bound, especially if their parents, like mine, lacked formal education (or possessed limited education) either in this country or home country.
After completing my first summer at Upward Bound at Oxy, I transferred from Abraham Lincoln High School (which was overcrowded and offered few college-preparatory courses) to Woodrow Wilson High School (which offered better educational opportunities). For instance, at Wilson, I vividly recall how my then counselor, Mrs. Nicholson, placed me in advanced courses despite my reluctance. “If I take these advanced classes,” I said in a panic, “I will fail because I’m not prepared.” Eventually, I persevered, especially in mathematics and physics. I even took a calculus course at Cal State LA during my senior year, which helps explain my MESA calculus victory, even though I got robbed for my first place trophy, as I wrote in my essay, “A Chicano Mathematics Contender?”
During my senior years, I also recall meeting someone from UCLA’s Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP), who gave me an application to apply to this prestigious university. Like Mrs. Nicholson, he didn’t give me a choice. “UCLA is for smart kids,” I told him. Not paying attention to my insecurities, he helped me fill out the UC application and walked it in for me. I still remember that memorable day in the projects when I received a big envelope in the mail containing my acceptance letter from UCLA! Despite securing a summer internship at the Jet Proportion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, as a 17-year-old math major, I selected UCLA’s Freshman Summer Program (FSP). While only 20 miles away, driving from the Eastside to the Westside in my 1967 Ford Mustang seemed like international travel.
While my student activism at UCLA, where I joined MEChA, derailed my dream of being a mathematician, becoming political conscious changed my life for the better. Taking Chicana/o history courses from the late and great Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones opened my eyes to the historic (and current) oppression of people of Mexican origin in this country. Compelled to make a difference at the community level, I took a hiatus from UCLA to become a community activist. With fellow activists, I helped secure a historic, grassroots victory in organizing Latino gardeners against the City of Los Angeles’s draconian leaf blower ban. I also led a successful organizing campaign to defeat a power plant proposal in Southeast Los Angeles.
After many years of organizing, I realized, with advice from my wife Antonia, that I needed to return to UCLA, where I graduated with a B.A. in History. I then completed my M.A. in Urban Planning from UCLA. Thereafter, I secured my Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley – the world’s top ranked public university. I completed my doctoral studies with the support of the prestigious Ford Foundation Fellowship with only a 3% acceptance rate. The Ph.D. has allowed me to eventually secure tenure at Cal Poly Pomona, where I publish books, journal articles and social commentaries. It also allowed me to become a fellow at the Harvard Divinity School, as I referenced above.
While I’m proud of all my academic trajectory and accomplishments, I only hope that other Chicanas/os have the same opportunities and support that I’ve had over my life to be equally successful compared to me and beyond. I must admit, however, that even though I benefited from valuable programs (e.g., Upward Bound at Oxy), family support (e.g., mom, wife, siblings) and amazing educators (e.g., Ms. Rose, Mr. Wong, Dr. Gómez-Quiñones) throughout my academic trajectory, as a first-gen Chicano with degrees from the nation’s best universities, I’ve also experienced (to the present) microaggressions in the form of anti-Mexicanism. For instance, I’ve had several professors explicitly tell me that I wasn’t going to make it (e.g., “You don’t have what it takes to succeed at this level!”) I’ve also been scolded, belittled and yelled at by so-called colleagues (with less academic credentials!) and questioned by students because of my ethnic background. While I always defend myself against racist bullies and small-minded individuals, I’m well aware that anti-Mexicanism is alive and well in America, as Dr. Gómez-Quiñones posits in his brilliant essay, “La Realidad: The Realities of Anti-Mexicanism.”
To conclude, while it is important for Chicanas/os to become educated and get ahead in this racist country, it is more important to reimagine and struggle for a better world for La Raza: the salt of the earth.