From Straight D’s to CC to Ph.D.:
A Xicano Testimonio of Higher Education (In Two Parts)
Cue in Crass’ most devastating and fiery album to this day, Yes Sir, I Will (1983). Cue the last song and the outgoing lyrics sung by Eve Libertine: You must learn to live with your own conscience / Your own morality / Your own decision / Your own self! / You alone can do it: / There is no authority but yourself.
I lived and breathe Anarchist Punk. It was radical white Europeans influencing my youth politics when my actual realities were of the Mexican diaspora in the United States. I thank Anarcho-Punk for making me realize the agency and autonomy I had as a person in the world. But I owe it to struggles at home for having me realize I was part of a community that I grew up in.
The transfer experience for me was a powerful way to situate and understand my role as a student. It was also an experience of politicization and a reorientation of my worldly politics. I don’t owe it to UCLA. I owe it to the radical student spaces I had the honor of being part of.
UCLA: a research-one university, popularly known to be the number one public institution in the United States, thus is recognized internationally.
UCLA: a traditionally white space, dominated by white men and capitalism (settler colonialism).
UCLA: erected on Tongva-Gabrielino territories as a land-grant institution, dispossessing Indigenous lands.
UCLA: built by Brown, Mexican exploited bodies/labor with material resources from Los Angeles barrios.
UCLA: a site of settler knowledge, of westernized epistemology, and of extractivist technologies.
UCLA: a racist, sexist, cisheteropatriarchal, capitalist, white, disgusting, exploitive, oppressive, elitist, and settler educational institution in southern California.
UCLA: an imaginary community of neoliberalizing (transforming modern capitalist) forces, and thus is a spectacular place to be.
What I learned in my rigorous History of Chicano People course at UCLA was a powerful moment in my emergent radical politics: the Chicano Moratorium (Anti-War/Vietnam), student struggle through MEChA (Student Dissent), the LA Blowouts (Education for Liberation), and the desire for Chicano Power (Self-Determination). I want to thank those veterans in the movement. I want to thank them for their sacrifices at a time where being a Chicano and a Mexican or simply Brown was a threat, still is a threat, and death was waiting in the white mob. But I want to recognize the errors and failures: our imperative is to learn and listen, so when we build we also leave those footprints behind for the next generations, toxinach.
My life for the last five years has followed the educational path, where my seat here at the university was fought for. I follow in the footprints of those who came before me.
How I became a Chicano: the radical and transgressive philosophy of Chicanismo that centered community-oriented struggle and the commitment to one’s community.
I knew that I was of Mexican origin all my life, but to be Chicano transcended imposed, national identity for something I believed in. I believed in its power for self-naming, self-defining, and self-determination. I didn’t want the hyphen associated to American (I refused settler national identity). I refused and rejected that political and cultural affiliation, tied to empire and neoliberalism. But I knew that I was in the thick of it, that I was in some way still a participant as a political citizen of this settler colonial nation, someone with privilege and access to certain spaces. How would I re-channel this as a student?
I sidelined the Anarchist, Marxist, and Communist philosophies I was juggling with in my youth and was motivated to study seriously Chicanismo. I knew that European ideological formations were useful for analysis, but my praxis had to be with the people: learning how I could co-build and connect, rather than think that I could be the vanguard to “empower.”
Community college had me shift my paradigm of the world and my place in it, while the university had me flesh out, theorize, and organize toward new understandings. Though, my first year at UCLA as a transfer was brutal and exposed me to the ugliness of the university.
Immediately at UCLA, I was introduced to the transfer support network in a summer program sponsored by the Academic Advancement Program. This summer bridge program was to dip students’ feet into the university culture and build community before starting the incoming Fall quarter.
It was in that program where I was introduced to new friends, networks, and possibilities. This was also my first exposure to MEChA, El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan at UCLA. It was there that my own transfer identity shaped my educational and political trajectory.
And it was never easy.
Most transfers you talk to will give you a different experience. We all have differing experiences at the next level after community college. Shit, we have different experiences at the community college. I for one could not connect to middle-class Brown people.
My experience is shaped by political student organizing, by my path in research and scholarship training, and from connecting to the radical Los Angeles community.
But it all started that summer of 2016, from scratch.
Cue in Chicano Batman’s self-titled album. Play “La Samoana.” Listen to those slow and steady beats, the heart of the bass, and the throwback to my first days at UCLA. Next on the rotation is Las Cafeteras, a son jarocho group, and listen to “La Bamba Rebelde.”
Music saved me. Music is how I met my partner Maritza. I don’t tell anyone this part of my story, but we met at this transfer summer program. I met them in the hall of our dorm when they invited me to go see Chicano Batman live at Echo Park Rising. Of course, I said yes.
One of our unofficial dates was as what most people might expect of us: we went to go see a Black Panther documentary that was being hosted by the Academic Advancement Program and some Elders from the Black Panther Party. It was here we shared our politics, connected over our visions of the world, and we became friends (culminating into a relationship over our first year together).
Those six intensive weeks in the transfer summer program broke me down mentally and spiritually. The rigor of the classes was nothing like I’ve experienced. I honestly didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
UCLA: “You are amazing.”
Reality: “This will break you. This will kill your spirit. This will spit you out. Even if you survive, you will feel different, do things different, and will not be the same.”
Truth was sugar coated.
What they won’t tell you about UCLA is the drama. Not from the institution all the time but from among your peers. Not that I need to re-share irrelevant chisme, but it exists and can damage your spirit. I walked onto the UCLA campus my first Fall quarter with a broken spirit from severed friendships.
Being a transfer was tested my first year. From my newly organizing capacity with MEChA de UCLA, taking a full course load of introductory classes, and carving a path for myself in research, I didn’t know what burn out looked like till I was finished my first year.
I cannot detail my full experience without this testimonio becoming a memoir, but much happened while I was a transfer: pain, love, hate, doubt, pressure, joy, isolation. My best moments were at the Ska shows, eating ramen with the homies, visiting bookstores in different cities with my partner, and being part of Indigenous ceremonial spaces.
Danza Mexica was introduced to me by two friends. I didn’t know how to pray and I rejected Catholicism early in my life. And now I would be lying if I said I didn’t believe in our Creator and the spirit of all life-giving forces. Danza showed me the way back home in that way, to give me the tools of how to pray again, and how to set my intentions.
I still remember the one day I could not feel. It was finals week of Spring quarter and I had two final essays to write. Stress consumed me. I got the call that day, that my abuelo, my grandfather Emiliano had passed away. I still feel the apple in my throat when I think of that day. My eyes still water, my chest tightens. I didn't see my grandfather in the hospital, him on his deathbed, and he being cognizant that he was close to his last breath.
I remember our last conversation. I was in a video call with him and I saw the happiness in his face, but also the fear of a man close to death. My tía tells me that he’s scared that he will die piece by piece, leg and arm till he is no more.
That day I got the call, my grandfather died. Diabetes complications. I regret not seeing him, and I cannot detail the pain it causes me, the grief that I still feel.
My first Danza Mexica ceremony in that summer after my abuelos death gave me the opportunity to pray. I danced and prayed for him, and the fire, ancestors listened.
Cue in Aztlan Underground’s Decolonize album. Play “Sacred Circle.” Listen. Feel. Open.
Study Abroad programs are hard for transfers. It’s all dependent on situation. When I was accepted to a research program I had to commit to an intensive summer research institute at UCLA. That became a barrier to me doing Study Abroad. But I didn’t let it stop me.
Maritza and I were able to go to Chiapas, Mexico to study Indigenous literary social movements through the University of California, Davis’ department of Native American Studies.
Four weeks in San Cristobal de las Casas and we were able to learn directly from Tsotsil, Tseltal, and Zoque poets and artists. We got to visit and pray at Maya sacred sites, visit the Zapatista caracol of Oventic and place a tobacco prayer there, and we became inspired by the work being done in Chiapas.
How I became a Xicano: listening to my spirit and acknowledging my lost ombligo to the Earth, committed to Indigenous struggle.
As a Punk, lots of what I was doing was a contradiction. If you knew Punks you’d know that we are a loose community of people doing different things; from practical work, no work, pursuing education, or in local business. The university, unfortunately, distanced me from this community. I was laying roots elsewhere, a new environment and place.
While transfers build their community and network at the university and bridge those ties to their respective community institution, I took a different route. After leaving MEChA de UCLA I co-founded a political and inter-tribal organization. Transfers started this organization.
We called ourselves the Eagle and the Condor Liberation Front and within that same moment our first event was a public Indigenous speaker engagement with Dr. Roberto D. Hernández from San Diego State University. What comes next was my current and still ongoing experience.
While a student organizer I connected to a lot of people, community, and friends. I was supported through and through, and when I pursued graduate studies, I had an entire community behind me.
I applied to eight Ph.D. programs and one Master’s program. I would be lying if I said this was for everyone, but it is not. Applying to these programs made me realize the corporate realities of obtaining such a degree. But we don’t do it for those reasons. The competitiveness of it was also a dark reality: you are selling yourself, your image, and what you bring to the table. And sorry to tell you this, but these places look for marketable products that can sell after they’ve manufactured it perfectly after seven years. Applying to graduate school made me realize that this is a game, and we either play it or we subvert it.
I was denied to seven Ph.D. program. I was accepted to the Master’s program in Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona and was accepted to the Ph.D. program in Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I chose the Ph.D.
Reflecting back to my UCLA transfer experience, weeks away from graduating, has put a lot in perspective for me.
Weeks ago, since the publishing of this part of my transfer testimonio, I visited my community college of Los Angeles Southwest College to give some talks about my transfer experience. I talked to students in the way I would talk to anyone: real and honest. I discussed the transfer experience and what I would have changed and did differently, and I talked about what it means to continue education toward graduate studies. I would’ve been insincere if I didn’t point out the blatant racism, sexism, and dishonest power UCLA perpetuated on the daily, so I did.
With this last part, I was met with uncomfortable responses. “I feel discouraged now.”
At the time I didn’t know what to say. I was tired from talking for two hours. But what I could gather on the spot was, “the university will be what it is. I am not saying there isn’t resistance, but that it is a constant battle. And as a student organizer I am tired. I’m burnt out. That is what happens when you struggle for justice.”
One particular student was confused on why you would stop fighting racism and sexism, especially when they were a Black woman. I could not relate to that experience but I knew LASC was not UCLA. Racism and sexism are intensified at white spaces versus predominantly Black ones. I left that talk feeling like I failed, but reflecting with my partner Maritza I knew that it wasn’t easy to talk about the realities of higher education. People of Color weren’t considered when those settler colonial walls were built, when those exclusive halls were designed. Why was what I said uncomfortable? The world itself was anti-Black and heteropatriarchal, why would understanding a university in the same light be confusing? Or that change wasn’t immediate but a slow and ongoing process since 1492? And what if they will never change? These towering ivory cities will sustain the project of racial capitalism as long as it lives: perhaps then, change is in destroying the system, but that may be my Anarchist tendencies coming out.
I don’t know the answers, but I do know that I am privileged to be in these places.
I am privileged because I get to be at a university, and I earned my place. But I didn’t earn it alone. I had a community of Elders, both Black and Brown and in-between to struggle for my seat. My privilege is rooted in being able to carve out more spaces for us, and to slowly re-channel the tools of these places for the community, for the people.
For me, it means getting my Ph.D. and returning back to my community with what I know and to support what I can.
I want to end this testimonio with grounding words from Black African revolutionary Kwame Ture, a historic figure and organizer in Black and African liberation struggles, from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, to the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party:
“Any student sitting in any seat in any college in America know that they didn’t gain that seat through their own individual talents but only through the struggles of the masses of their people. Because that seat belongs to the people. The knowledge they acquire there must be used for the people, otherwise, they have already betrayed the people….”
For a long time I have questioned what it meant to be a student. For Kwame Ture it is acknowledging the seat I sit in and how I will utilize the knowledge of the university for the benefit of my people. This is not unlike other radical students who walked this path. Students are in our very nature revolutionary, but the university caught on. The liberalism and neoliberal culture of the university has co-opted that revolutionary fervor and spirit.
While you transfer into your university or post-secondary institution, never forget Kwame Ture’s words. This is a testimonio from that Xicano Punk who went from straight D’s to a CC, and now toward a Ph.D. I believe we are all capable, but it is also maintaining that revolutionary spirit that will keep you balanced.
¡Que vivan los estudiantes!
PART ONE LINK HERE: https://xicanatiahui.weebly.com/blog/from-straight-ds-to-cc-to-phd-a-xicano-testimonio-of-higher-education-part-one
Indígena Scribes is our writing side-project parallel to our overarching podcast of Xicana Tiahui. Here we post our writings of thoughts we have, essays we have written, poetry, social commentary, news reports, polemics, and our zine periodical available for purchase. We hold it valuable to our hearts the written word in the spirit of the huehuetlahtolli, and we aspire to be intellectually on point as well as accessible to our gente from the barrio to the academy.