Mathematical light shines blindly on us

By William Yslas Vélez
Professor Emeritus
University of Arizona

Bill and Bernice Velez enjoying retirement in Quebec.

“When I go to a Mexican restaurant I would gladly pay the musicians to stop playing.” John (not his real name) did not like the noise level. This statement came up casually as part of a conversation that I was having with a few friends at a mathematics conference in California. John had taught at a Hispanic Serving Institution for years and this was the music of his students. But all that he could say about it was that the music was too loud. I have heard this reaction to this wonderful mariachi music all of my life. In high school a teacher asked me to bring in “Spanish” music and I brought in a mariachi record (see below). The teacher was appalled and had me turn off the music, not even completing a song. She expected something softer, not the wild expression of emotion that is such a part of Mexican music.

Mariachi music is loud. When you have one or two trumpets in a room, full-throated singers accompanied by “gritos” (Yells of joy) from the audience, it is loud. But those “gritos” are an indication that the music and words are connecting with the audience. Going back to the conversation with John, I mentioned a traditional song, “La espiga” (grain, like grain of wheat) and loosely translated the words for him.

Qué poco le importa al sol                         What does the sun care
​que el indio no tenga techo.                      that the Indian has no roof.
Qué poco te importa a ti​​​                            How little you care
​Todo este mal que me has hecho.             all the harm you have done me.

El agua ignora la sed,             ​​​​                   The sea ignores our thirst
​el sol no sabe que alumbra,​​​​                      the sun shines blindly on us,
Y tu no tienes corazón​​​​​                              And you have no soul
​Porque has dejado penumbra​​​​                  Since you have left me in shadows.

John was surprised. He said, “Oh, there’s poetry in that music.” What must have been John’s concept of Mexican music? Was it just to convey noise, to somehow blot out our thoughts? The sentiments expressed in this music deal much with the heartache of love, unrequited, lost, then found, then lost again. And it is sung with such emotion. But also notice how much it alludes to nature.

There is a mathematical culture, and that extends to music. Mathematical culture was not created by Indigenous peoples of the Americas. It was imported. With that came the formalism of mathematics from Europe, and its music. In my career as a mathematician, at mathematical events that I have attended, music is a rarity. But if it does appear it has all of the hallmarks of classical music. Contrast this to a meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). In between sessions, music from Latin America, the Caribbean and Native American music loudly fill the halls. A SACNAS conference is a celebration!

How effective can our mentoring be of students when we are so ignorant of their background, of their culture? Our faculties continue to lack minority representation. If faculty think so little of their music and culture, what must faculty think of them? Now add to this that many of these students are first-generation college students and probably also in need of financial aid, further separating them from the life experiences of college faculty.

Our mathematics departments physically sit on lands that belonged to Native American nations. Walk around any mathematics department. Do you see any evidence of that history? Our departments are oftentimes surrounded by a local culture, yet when a local student walks into a mathematics department, it is like going to a foreign land.

The mathematical enterprise has not treated minorities well. Just look at the data on the production of minority Ph.D.s in mathematics and the paucity of minority faculty in our departments. Yet we all know that mathematical training is of absolute necessity for the future. I join with my community when I sing:

The mathematical sea ignores our thirst

Mathematics is brilliant, as are many mathematicians. How is this brilliance impacting the lives of students? It is unfortunate that choirs of humanity sing, in many different languages and dialects:

The mathematical sun blinds us

We live in a very complex and diverse society. We cannot hope to understand all of the different cultures that now grace our mathematics classrooms. But we should not hold any of them in disdain.
What can we do about these matters? I would like to make a few suggestions.

  1. Mathematicians at universities should redouble efforts to increase the number of mathematics majors, especially minority students. We cannot hope to increase the number of minority faculty without having minority undergraduates. The more prestigious the department, the greater its responsibility to increase the number of minorities pursuing mathematical careers.
  2. There is a culture of mathematics which has not been friendly to students. Not all students are capable (or interested in) a Ph.D. in mathematics, but a minor or major in mathematics opens up many opportunities.
  3. Native Americans are invisible in mathematics. This must change. Some Native American culture or symbolism should be present in our departments.
  4. Minority students often form student clubs on campus. Mathematics departments could contact them and establish a dialogue.
  5. Mentoring is a very complex activity. Faculty need guidance on mentoring techniques and how to have conversations with their mentees on course selection and career opportunities. Just as there are weekly colloquia that discuss the latest research, there should also be colloquia to address the serious work of educating and motivating our students to the further study of mathematics.
  6. Smile. It can be contagious.

The music of my youth: Miguel Aceves Mejia singing “La espiga.”

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6 Responses to Mathematical light shines blindly on us

  1. Carlos G. Velez-Ibanez says:

    Masterfully done, primo. cvi

  2. Abbe Herzig says:

    Thank you for writing this and for sharing it with us. Especially in mathematics, we tend to overlook the very human contexts in which we live. The poetry and the music are beautiful. Building the mathematics professional culture on the range of personal cultures of all who actually do mathematics would enrich the enterprise for all of us.

  3. G. Mangred says:

    I enthusiastically support outreach to increase diversity in the academy and to understand our students’ backgrounds. This requires empathy towards others. In that spirit, is it possible that John was simply objecting to the noise level and not the Mariachi music itself? I personally avoid places with loud music. It has nothing to do with the type of music being played.

    • Bill Velez says:

      Thank you so much for taking the time to write a comment and for your supportive view of diversity. I absolutely agree that Mexican music can be loud. Opera and Classical music can also be loud. People attend those venues and sit quietly and calmly during the productions. When we attend a mariachi festival we stand up and sway to the music or yell our “gritos” affirming the sentiments expressed in the music. These are two very different reactions to loud music. I cannot help but think that many mathematicians view the calm reception of classical music, with its suppression of outward emotions, is more appropriate than my own community’s outward expression of the joy that we have in listening to this music.
      I think this difference carries over to the mathematics classroom and mathematics conferences. The minority community in mathematics has been marginalized. We have not been given opportunities to take on leadership roles nor been given the opportunity to express our culture in the mathematical enterprise. Mathematics departments and conferences are somber environments. People pass each other in the halls as if we are strangers rather than a group of people invested in a common journey. Students are expected to sit quietly and calmly during lectures as we do at conferences. Missing is affirmation of the joy in understanding new ideas and forming new connections.
      Let us embrace this plurality of cultures that is now the U.S. and set as our goal equipping our citizenry with the quantitative skills needed to address the many problems that confront us. The mathematics community is the right one to take on this challenge.

      • Nalin Pithwa says:

        These discussions that you are doing are a reflection of your dedication to increase diversity in math. I am a math coach in India. We face some such or many such problems in math education in India. I hope Indian mathematicians also take your efforts as a shining example and start such initiatives in India. In a nutshell, I just wanted to appreciate your efforts… Regards Nalin Pithwa from India

        • Bill Velez says:

          Dear Nalin Pithwa: The fact that I chose to study mathematics, in spite of the discouragement that I received from mathematics faculty as an undergraduate, opened up tremendous opportunities to me. I was not a promising student as an undergraduate but for some reason I was excited about the study of mathematics. My own experiences as a mediocre student of mathematics have guided my interactions with students. If a student tells me that they want to study mathematics, who am I to discourage them.
          I enjoyed my career immensely. My joy in my career impels me to suggest it to others. I want students to study more mathematics by suggesting to them to “just take the next math course”. Shouldn’t this be our goal as instructors of mathematics? Just take the next math course. If more of us could communicate our enthusiasm for mathematics, we would change the world.

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