When I was in graduate school in mathematics at Stanford University, I was very politically active on campus. Not only was I an officer for the Black Graduate Students Association (BGSA), but I was an officer for the Chicano Latino Graduate Students Association (CGSA) as well. I am not Latino, but the passion and political savvy of the Chicano culture piqued my interest into becoming part of this organization.
Nearly twenty years later, I was able to bring “Chicanismo” to Purdue University by bringing William Yslas Velez to Indiana for a couple of days.
What is this term “Chicano”?
I must admit that I did not know what it means to be Chicano until I entered graduate school — which is embarrassing for someone who grew up in California to admit. I learned that the moniker “Chicano” is not synonymous with “Latino” or “Hispanic” or even “Mexican American.” After a great many conversations with friends (who were very patient!) and great many hours reading the works of the late Tony Burciaga, I learned that “Chicano” is a political derivative of the Spaniards’ mispronunciation the of the name of the native Aztec people: the moniker should not have been pronounced “meh-HEE-cano” but rather “meh-CHEE-cano.” So, by the very etymology of the word, to be “Chicano” is to be inherently proud of your past and to be politically aligned to focus on a better future.
There are not many people today who are enthusiastic to call themselves Chicano. Indeed, this is a term of disparagement in many circles, and a term of derision in others. Now imagine working in a field of science — which is widely believed to be free of any political discourse. You can probably imagine that it is very rare to find individuals who are comfortable with the intersectionality of being a Chicano/a and a mathematician. Regardless of what some would have you believe, one can be both a scientist and an advocate of one’s political ideals.
Intersectionality of Chicanismo and Mathematics
Perhaps the best showcase of this is the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Founded in 1973 by a dozen or so men and women, SACNAS seeks to increase the number of Chicano, Latino, and Native American students who obtain advanced degrees, careers, and leadership positions in the STEM fields. This international organization now has over 20000 members, 110 student chapters, and an annual conference which hosts over 4000 attendees.
I first attended the SACNAS National Conferences beginning in the early 1990’s. Since then, I’ve met Chicano mathematicians such as Alejandra Alvarado, Rodrigo Banuelos, Erika Camacho, Richard Tapia, and Bill Velez.
These individuals are unabashedly Chicano — without fear of disparagement or derision. Each of them has a connection to Purdue University in one way or another: Alejandra and Rodrigo have been my colleagues in the Mathematics Department, whereas Erika and Richard have come to give talks. But it was the most recent visit by Bill which made a huge impact on the way I view myself and the world around me.
Bill Velez, Chicano Mathematician
William Yslas Velez is a fascinating person. He is a fellow Number Theorist who earned all of his degrees — B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. — from the University of Arizona. From 1992-1993, Bill served as a program officer for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Mathematical Sciences (Algebra and Number Theory). In 1997, Bill received the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) from Bill Clinton. In 1998, Bill was promoted to University Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at the University of Arizona. In 2008, Bill was named Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
But from 1994-1996, before he won all of these well-deserved accolades, Bill Velez was president of SACNAS.
I invited Bill to visit Purdue for a couple of days (Tuesday April 11 and Wednesday April 12) in order to give a colloquium talk, meet with students, and provide advice for faculty on mentoring. I thought I knew him well, but I was wrong.
“I was the first Chicano to be hired in the mathematics department at the University of Arizona,” Bill likes to say. “And I was the last.”
I began to wonder: how many mathematics departments in the country have Chicano faculty? More importantly: did my mathematics department have Chicano faculty? Certainly, Alejandra Alvarado had been a postdoctoral fellow. And I was quite fortunate to call Rodrigo Banuelos my colleague. But why are there not more?
Day 1: Tuesday April 11
The two day adventure began with a sobering look at the circle of life.
My colleague Rodrigo Banuelos and I met Bill first thing in the morning to have breakfast together. Here I was, having breakfast with two of my heroes, a scene which could be described as “two Chicanos and a kid from South Los Angeles” — although a better description would be “two Paladins and a Padawan.” But even with the veneration I had for these two distinguished mathematicians, I did not realize that Rodrigo owed a lot to Bill. See, Bill was one of the founding members of SACNAS, an organization which encouraged Rodrigo as a young man to pursue his dreams. Rodrigo, a distinguished mathematician and the former department chair who fought to help me get tenure at Purdue, was himself in awe of Bill as well.
Later that day, Bill gave a colloquium talk for our mathematics department. Bill told the audience he was retiring at the end of the month, so this would be his last math talk. He began by discussing how he applied to Purdue’s graduate school, but did not get in.
“It only seems fitting that I will give my last talk at Purdue,” Bill began. “See, Purdue denied me admission to graduate school when I was first starting out.”
I thought to myself, Bill is a University Distinguished Professor who wasn’t good enough to get into graduate school? But Bill shocked us further with other thoughts to ponder.
“If you place your hand on the Vietnam Memorial, and draw a circle around it, you are guaranteed to enclose the name of someone Latino who died for this country.
Now imagine you place your hand on a sheet of paper with a list of names of mathematics majors in your department. How many of the enclosed names will belong to someone Latino?”
How many Latino undergraduate students do we have at Purdue? Quite literally, do we even have a handful? And why is this so? And am I doing anything to change this, or am I simply contributing to the problem?
Day 2: Wednesday April 12
The next day, Bill met with the Purdue SACNAS Chapter. Can you imagine the excitement of meeting a former president and founding member of an organization which now hosts 20,000 members?! The SACNAS/LSAMP Coordinator Ignacio Camarillo welcomed Bill to an enthusiastic group of 20 undergraduates.
“I’ve had a great life. I have several patents. A mathematician with several patents! Oh, and one of them is with James Bond. True story.”
Bill began his talk not with fancy titles, or even mathematics. He began with mariachi music. Indeed, his brother Gilbert Velez runs a world-reknown group out of Nogales High School called Mariachi Apache. Bill played a short movie which showcased the incredible talent of these high school students. (And they are really, really good.) There is nothing like feeling the pride that swells when hearing a braggadocious singer holding a note longer than humanly possible, only to hear the rallying cry of Chicanos everythere when someone in the audience does a grito just right.
“This music is part of my culture, it is part of me,” Bill said. “I am just so proud of who I am.”
As I walked Bill back to his hotel room at the end of the day and ultimately at the end of his visit, I realized just how much I learned in two days about being both a mathematician and a product of your culture. Bill had been unapologetic in who he was, Chicano and all.
“You know, I’m invited to lots of places to give talks,” Bill joked. “But I’m never invited back!”
I comforted Bill that I personally wanted him to return, not just as a distinguished professor who has been feted by heads of state, but as a friend who loves life to its fullest.