From Straight D’s to CC to Ph.D.:
A Xicano Testimonio of Higher Education (In Two Parts)
I want to preface that this testimonio is a long one, a story I don’t share to anyone but close friends.
I share it because many will be transferring to research-one institutions, liberal arts colleges, private universities, and state universities.
I also share this because many won’t be transferring, graduating, and will maybe never continue this path. And that’s okay too.
This is my testimonio of higher education starting from high school to community college to the university and getting accepted to a Ph.D. program.
Because of the length, it is separated into two parts: here I share the first part.
Today’s class was about Edgar Allan Poe.
Truth be told, I didn’t read, nor did I do the homework assigned the day before. Our teacher walks the classroom, his converse sneakers squeaking every step. His presentation of the famous poet was a failure foretold: the uninterested eyes in the class show him that he probably needs to speak louder.
His subsequent roaring creates a dissonance that reverberates through our teenage bodies. My classmates struggle to listen. I struggle to listen. The presentation ends and none of us are impressed.
“Well, let’s get to the big questions from the homework. What does the raven signify in Poe’s context? What themes can we dig out from this allegory?”
The class is silent. The uneasiness of my classmates and myself demonstrate to the teacher that we didn’t read. Not a single one of us. We were all in that 10th-grade English class that didn’t fit into the standards of AP or AVID. While other students our grade level were reading Orwell, Dickens, and Greek legends, we were here: reading some dead dude that was famous post-death.
“Wow. Really? None of you have any idea? Just wow!”
His reddened face seems to signal the anger this white man teacher has with working-class, mostly Mexican students. Was that the analysis he was looking for?
Downey Unified School District was an appraised district as opposed to the Los Angeles School District, one that I got transferred from after elementary. No, I didn’t live in Downey. Yes, my parents found a way for me to attend DUSD. As a kid born and raised in South Gate, I left my childhood friends behind for a “better” education. I started all over for the pretense that I would have a “better” life.
South Gate High: dirty, violent, gangs, teenage pregnancy, death.
Warren High: clean, safe, affluent, opportunity.
“You know what? Forget it. Just go.” We left class early that day. No homework. No pressure. It wasn’t Friday though, so the next day was in the cycle.
Today’s class we have a visitor. No one that special.
“Hello, class. My name is Ms. _________. I am here to discuss with you your opportunities after graduation. We know that it’s early, but it is never too early to prepare for the SAT and other prerequisites for college.”
Ms. _________’s presentation was about post-secondary education: community college, Cal States, and UCs. Not many were eager to actively listen or participate, myself included.
Warren High is one of the two high schools in DUSD. Both were distinguished schools and were well known to have a plethora of AP classes and extra support for students. The opportunities were rich and unlimited and were so amazing. Unless of course you were tracked into a non-AP, non-AVID classroom, the one where all the students are probably working-class, Mexican or Central American, and don’t actually live in Downey (and if they do, they for sure don’t live amongst the affluent students in nice houses, sometimes mansions, with no worries in the world). No, us students in these classes weren’t the school’s favorite. We weren’t cared for; only enough to see us graduate out because G-d forbid we taint their outstanding test scores.
Now, Ms. _________ has left the room. Our teacher, with an Italian last name I don’t remember, walks and roams the room again. You could see it in his face: he has something to say.
“I want you all to understand that if you are in this class you aren’t going to a four-year university.”
The room is dead silent.
“None of what she said applies to you if you are in this class; it's just facts.”
I was sixteen years old: a little Mexicano from Southeast Los Angeles, a Punk kid who stopped taking school seriously after 7th grade. Here I was, told that I wasn’t university material. Here we were, a class told that we had no chance to apply ourselves because we already fucked up by being in this class. We were the outcasts of this school. Going nowhere.
What they didn’t teach me were the basics: i.e. you are different in this world. Your difference is dependent on your proximity to power and structures/systems that benefit those in power. Yes, it isn’t fair. No, it isn’t an equal or even playing field. Shit, even calling it a playing field implies competition; us in this capitalist world. But guess what? You were born light skin, a shade that is acceptable, wanted, desired. So what if your P’urhépecha bisabuela called you güero: nurtured you, embraced you, loved you. Be happy you don’t look like your Indian abuelas. Be happy your genetic code spilled out the colonizer’s skin. After 300 years of the casta system, you are lucky to not be fully Indian. Enjoy your skin for what it is, but don’t think for a second that you are one of us. Your broken Spanish won’t save you, your perfect English won’t reconcile you. We know who you are, what you are: your skin won’t save you. You’re a Mexican.
I was first called a beaner when I was fourteen. My friends and I were silenced and told to speak like Americans. Dead silence.
“Chingate,” my friend says. We walked away while those white kids yelled inaudibly in the background.
I wasn’t caught between two worlds like Anzaldúa, but I sure started to see myself as not like other people (well certain people). I don’t know what else to call this but my youthful consciousness toward race (color), socio-economic backgrounds, and positionality. I knew I wasn’t Brown. But I also knew that I wasn’t white. My family is light-skin, Brown, dark, short, tall, and everywhere in the middle. We also weren’t rich, but I was lucky to not have my own parents’ struggles growing up. My dad was a high school drop out and my mom received her Associate's degree while I was a small kid. That was the reality I knew.
After high school, I didn’t know what to do or where I saw my life. I spent four years doing nothing but playing video games and listening to Punk music. I hung out with friends and I diligently did the bare minimum to graduate. That high school failed me, and many other Brown kids who didn’t make it. My report card at the end of July was a fun joke: straight Ds, aside from one F and a C. A plain 2.5 total GPA in my overall high school career. I was going places, I just didn’t know where yet.
My youth years in high school and before that are blurry. I only remember these moments (of many) that captured my relation to higher education: apparently non-existent. I do remember 12th grade and our English teacher who passed out Cerritos College brochures. At that time, our 12th-grade class was small. There were only three classes of English. One teacher taught the AVID and advanced English class, while our teacher was stuck with us.
I didn’t grab a Cerritos College brochure. I wasn’t from here (here being Downey). I wasn’t going to go to a college in Norwalk. What was even around me? My mom went to East Los Angeles College. Was that it? I had no literacy in post-secondary education. My options dwindled.
Before graduating high school I moved out of my mother’s house out of rebellion. I hated rules. I ended up living with my dad and my tía who took care of my grandfather at the time, still in South Gate and still unknowing of my future.
One softball game came around and I was introduced to Daniel. My dad had played softball for a long time in various places such as South Gate and Downey. This tradition went way back to my grandpa Emiliano, who started the softball team still called the Jets. Daniel was a family friend and he and my dad went way back too, little kids who grew up in the same city and had the same friends.
Apparently, Daniel had his Ph.D. He was Dr. Ortega. I ain’t never met no one with a Ph.D., most teachers in DUSD had an M.A. at most. I was impressed; at that time I was confused about how my dad knew someone like that (of course, I never had examples of Brown people getting their doctorate).
“Come to Southwest College. I can get you into a university.”
I didn’t know what that really meant at the time but I was beaten up enough to say I’d do it (I didn’t have any plans anyway). I met Daniel formally at Los Angeles Southwest College to enroll me in various programs such as Puente and EOP&S. The college itself was on the edge of Watts, South Central, and Gardena, right off the 105 freeway. LASC was a predominantly Black community college with the presence of Brown students.
“So what are your plans?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, are you trying to transfer? I can help you with that in Puente. It’s a program designed to get students to transfer.”
“What would I need to do?”
“You’d have to get straight A’s. Just lose yourself in the books and the library and focus on your studies. That’s the only way you’ll get out of here or you’ll be flipping burgers.”
Not that flipping burgers was a bad thing, but Daniel’s point was that I had a opportunity here. That I am capable of pursuing what I wanted if I sought higher education and the resources were here if I needed them. Although not all people have this access, I am fortunate that I did.
Thing is, I didn’t know what I wanted at the time. At first, I was naively interested in Psychology. Then that shifted toward Sociology. My first day at LASC I almost didn’t go. I was nervous and self-doubting who I was. I entered my English class reluctantly and I never stopped going after that first day. Community college wasn’t like my high school experience and I was around more Students of Color than I have ever been around since elementary.
I stuck with Sociology because I liked the engagement of social processes. Puente showed me the realities I lived in apart from my Punk critiques of capitalism and the US government. My immature Anarchist tendencies were tamed when I read about race, gender, power, and the socio-economics that interweaved between those institutions. Community college brought me down to Earth, grounded me and my purpose, and showed me that I was part of a certain community: the Mexicano, Centroamericano community of South Gate.
I took my first ever Mexican American History class in community college. Needless to say, I didn’t know my own history. I didn’t know my roots, who I was, and where I came from. We learned about the ancient Olmeca, the Tolteca, the Azteca triple alliance, the Maya and we ventured toward the Spanish invasion. I didn’t know my own Mexican heritage when I was growing up. I never bothered to ask these questions.
“You’re Mexican,” my dad always told me. But what did that really mean?
“Your Tita always told us that we were Aztecs!” my father proudly announces, the power of the Tonalamatl tattoo he has on his chest radiating and traveling across his Brown skin.
I learned while at UCLA that my father’s lineage is P’urhépecha from the way of El Capulín, Michoacán. What master narratives did my bisabuela inherit from the Mexican state? I learned from community college, in that only Mexican American History class offered, that Indians became Mexicans.
P’urhépecha? What did that really mean for our family to recover that part of us? That my abuela's siblings spoke P’urhé in the pueblo and no one but a few extended family remembers?
We learned about Mexican Independence too, and how the battle of Puebla defined a strong moment for Mexicans in our collective history against a colonial power. But wasn’t México, nuestro México querido, an oppressive nation-state?
My Chicano history teacher tells us something he finds funny: “Don’t you all find it hilarious that every true Mexican president who was outed fled out of Mexico? The only one to stay and fight for the people was Maximillian, an Austrian!” Let’s not forget Maximiliano’s policies that openly killed Native Mexicanos.
My mother tells me, “your grandmother wants to know what Aztec lineage she is a part of.”
I wrote my research paper in that history class about Emiliano Zapata, a Mexican revolutionary I always looked up to. Turns out, Zapata was Nahua, spoke Nahuatl, and was a true Indigenous freedom fighter who died for his people. Never will I call him a mestizo. He doesn’t deserve that insult.
I tell my mom, “I don’t know. I only know what Indigenous territories we come from, where we originate, but that’s not enough. I can’t claim Tepehuán for our family if we don’t know.”
Unfortunately, sometimes many of us will never know. I am okay with that. From what little I remember from that Mexican American History class is that mestizaje was a system of racial dominance. Although my Chicano teacher got it wrong to say we were all mestizo, he is not wrong that many of us are casta-descendants, but we are also Indigenous without a name, without a tribe, directly from the pueblos we come from. We can claim that, and hopefully, do the work of returning home.
I ask Daniel, my now Puente and EOP&S counselor, “do you think I can get into UC Berkeley?”
I was ambitious. Two years taking classes every quarter, with trial and error, I relearned skills I didn’t take seriously in high school. I felt competent, and my last Fall semester I applied to four UC’s with the hopes that I would get in somewhere.
Through Puente, I was able to see four UC campuses, including San Diego, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara. I never saw UCLA. My eyes were on Berkeley. As a Punk kid who got a 2.5 GPA and was failed in high school, I wanted to aim big and I wanted to achieve something I shot toward the stars for. I applied to four Sociology programs and was accepted to only three: Berkeley denying my admission.
This rejection wasn’t as hard on me as future rejections would be. I ended up choosing UCLA in a major for Sociology. I couldn’t believe it at the time. And now I could tell you that it wasn’t Bruin Pride all the way. The UC system was a beast that was unlike a community college.
Yet, I owe community college everything. My two years there was a time for study, reflection, and grounding myself in who I was. I developed my color and racial consciousness in community college. I learned about the Black experience, and I learned what it meant to be at an under resourced institution for post-secondary education. At my graduation, I was a proud Chicano-Mexicano with an Associate’s degree from LASC, the only time I would have school pride as a Jaguar.
And then I was off to the university for the summer, where my spirit was fragmented and I learned the hard burdens of academia.
PART TWO LINK HERE: https://xicanatiahui.weebly.com/blog/from-straight-ds-to-cc-to-phd-a-xicano-testimonio-of-higher-education-part-two
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