“Nosotros los Chicanos straddle the borderlands. On one side of us, we are constantly exposed to Spanish of the Mexicans, on the other side we hear the Anglos’ incessant clamoring so that we forget our language.”Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera
Prior to returning to school to pursue a Ph.D., I worked for the University of Michigan where I lead the development of a mental health website for all three branch campuses, expanded an undergraduate research program from 800 to 1,200 students, managed several multi-institutional, multi-million-dollar NSF grants, launched five new masters degrees aimed at getting more underrepresented minorities (URMs) into science and helped launch the first-in-the-nation competency-based master’s program for medical professionals. As a first-generation, Chicano from the barrios of San Antonio, Texas, I never would have dreamed of accomplishing so much. By persevering through many hardships and setbacks, I have been able to have a successful career as a higher education leader, practitioner, and now as an emerging scholar in graduate education.
San Antonio is 150 miles north of the Mexican border, yet I was raised to navigate Anzaldúa’s Borderland, the invisible “borders” that exist between Latinas/os and non-Latinas/os, men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, and various other groups. San Antonio was majority Mexican-American, so my neighborhood felt like an extension of Reynosa, the border-village where my grandparents grew up. This meant everyone in our neighborhood spoke Spanish, grew cilantro and jalapeños in backyard gardens, and “nuclear families” consisted of abuelitos (grandfathers), abuelitas (little grandmothers), tías (aunts), and tíos (uncles)!
Growing up as a working-class, gay, Mexican kid I wanted to go to college. However, I was told that was a “white kid’s dream.” Any life outside of the neighborhood was reserved for the rich white kids from the “Northside,” not for dirty Mexican kids from the “Westside” like me. At best, I believed I would grow up and become the manager of a grocery store; at worst, I would die young, killed like my father at the age of 25. That was until a teacher showed me I had the capacity to not only manage borders but also cross them.
Mrs. Darby was a white, middle-class teacher from Rhode Island, who came to San Antonio to teach Mexican kids Russian. I was one of four students, out of 3,000 at my school, who signed up for her class. With her support and encouragement, I won 1st place in a statewide Russian-speaking contest and spent the summer abroad in Russia. Mrs. Darby had literally helped me to cross multiple borders! But more than that, Mrs. Darby showed me how to advocate for myself in school and at home. She helped me to see my academic potential and convince my family to let me apply and eventually attend one of the most prestigious institutions in the nation.
At UM I dealt with a different type of borders – barriers. I faced many of the barriers first-generation, underrepresented college students in undergrad typically face: financial challenges, racial discrimination, lack of self-esteem, issues of college adjustment, and lack of familial support. After six years and only dropping out once, I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree with the help of my academic advisor, Dr. Dwight Fontenot. It is because of people like Mrs. Darby and Dr. Fontenot, that I have been successful, and I why I will always try to be an advocate and mentor for students.
As a practitioner, research informs how I advise and work as a student, so I came back to school to learn how to do that well. There are more students from underrepresented racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds going into college, but at the same time, we have seen a dramatic uptick in the number of these same students with student-loan debt, mental health issues, and unemployment after graduating, especially at the doctorate level. Therefore, as a scholar, my focus is on how to improve graduate education and specifically career and professional development resources to help get more URMs into the academy. Long-term, my dream job is to become a graduate dean at an emerging Hispanic-serving institution, where my work as a scholar and a practitioner can help students just like me. In addition, as an instructor, I run workshops and teach leadership courses that help students, especially URMs, identify and develop their personal leadership styles. My goal as an instructor is to help learners become self-aware of their own values, ethics, motivations, strengths, and limitations in relation to intercultural interactions and to understand how their own thinking, especially around power and privilege, impacts not only their personal decision-making but also the people and communities around them.
Anzaldúa uses the term borderlands to refer to la mezcla, the geographical area along the border that is neither fully Mexico nor the U.S. She also uses the term to describe people, those of us who have become a part of both worlds, and who’s both cultural expectations we abide by. As a practitioner turned scholar, I am now also part of a new mezcla, a group of scholar-practitioners creating change at institutions and breaking down barriers, in the hopes of creating massive change in the higher education system.