By William Yslas Vélez
University of Arizona
“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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Native Americans are invisible in mathematics. This must change. Some Native American culture or symbolism should be present in our departments.
- Minority students often form student clubs on campus. Mathematics departments could contact them and establish a dialogue.
- 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.
- Smile. It can be contagious.
The music of my youth: Miguel Aceves Mejia singing “La espiga.”