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“What Santa Clara Means to Me”
Good afternoon. I, too, would like to welcome back and thank all of you who are continuing this year at Santa Clara for your valuable contributions to our community; and I would like to thank all of you who are new this year for bringing us new experiences, ideas and vitality that will enrich our community, your community.
Thank you, Father Locatelli, for giving me this opportunity to share what Santa Clara means to me. The meaning of Santa Clara grows richer and deeper for me as time goes by. My direct involvement with Santa Clara spans four decades, beginning with the fall of 1962, when I entered as a freshman.
Like many of you, I was the first in my family to attend college. And like some of you, I was raised in a family of Mexican farmworkers who crossed the U.S. Mexican border, hoping to leave our poverty behind and seeking a new and better life for their children and their children’s children.
My first nine years of schooling were sporadic as my family moved from place to place following seasonal crops. At the age of six my older brother and I worked along side our parents to make ends meet. After being deported back to Mexico and returning legally, we settled in Santa Maria, California, where I graduated from high school.
My dream of continuing my education beyond high school became a reality when Santa Clara took a chance on me by admitting me and offering me financial aid even though my SAT scores in English were below average. Initially I had some difficulty adjusting at Santa Clara. I felt guilty that my parents were still struggling economically while I enjoyed the comforts of campus life. Furthermore, I quickly discovered that my social and economic background was unlike the background of most of my classmates. I felt out of place.
But my uneasiness began to diminish as I learned and felt that Santa Clara was a special place where the values I was taught at home—hard work, respect, and faith—were valued and nourished. Faculty, especially Jesuits, took an interest in me and made me feel at home. Classes were challenging and stimulating. They raised more questions for me than they provided answers.
In philosophy and religion courses, I was asked to think about a series of issues: What is the meaning of truth? What happens after death? Why do we suffer? Why are there injustices in the world? Through the various disciplines: literature, history, science, philosophy, religion, art, etc.,
I learned about the history of our world and the beauty and complexity of life; I learned that everything is interconnected and interrelated, that the beauty of one thing is enhanced by the beauty of another. I learned that each of us belongs to a family of humankind in which each person matters.
Jesuits and faculty believed in me and gave me a stronger sense of my own self-worth and potential. I studied ethics and morality and learned that a moral life involves self-sacrifice, that self-fulfillment is only possible when we commit ourselves to making this a better world.
During my junior year, I joined Cesar Chavez on his march to Sacramento and witnessed in his actions what I was learning in classes. The education I received at Santa Clara served me well in graduate school. Columbia University was challenging to me intellectually and emotionally. Graduate students there were highly intelligent and competitive and, for the most part, privileged socially and economically.
The large size of the student body—nearly 20 thousand—and New York City made it difficult for me to adjust. I felt lonely and anxious. I took walks through different parts of the City and was moved and angered by the poverty and suffering I saw. It was during those sad and difficult times that I reflected on my childhood and began writing about my experiences growing up in a family of migrant farmworkers. I wanted to document the experience of many migrant families like my own who suffered injustices and whose lives and valuable work were for the most part invisible and unappreciated.
My Santa Clara education had given me the context for understanding these injustices and the educational tools to do something about them. Because of my interest in social justice I specialized in early 20th century Latin American literature, focusing on the literature and culture of the Mexican Revolution.
After teaching at Columbia for three years, I yearned to be at a university that not only emphasized research but also teaching. I sought to teach at an institution that was student-centered and value-oriented, an institution where research and creativity and teaching were equally valued.
My hopes and desires found a home at Santa Clara. I returned to Santa Clara in the fall of 1973 and have been here ever since, teaching and serving in various administrative capacities, including chair of my own department, Associate Academic Vice President and, most recently, director of Ethnic Studies.
Why do I stay at Santa Clara?
I have remained at Santa Clara for various reasons. It’s an ideal working environment. Overall, I find a deep appreciation and respect for each individual person who is part of this institution.
My parents used to tell me: “We’re sorry, mijo, we cannot give you the things you need because were’re poor, but what we can offer you is an appreciation for the value of hard work, faith and respect. If you have faith, work hard, and respect others and they respect you, you’ll go a long ways in life.”
What my parents meant by “respect” is clearly part of the Santa Clara culture. By this I mean that Santa Clara is a community in which the value of each individual is celebrated and affirmed, as Fr. Locatelli beautifully expressed in his Homily in today’s Mass. People here see themselves as part of a community, with a commitment to its well-being. Furthermore, Santa Clara has given me the opportunity to be involved in civic life.
I strongly believe I have a civic responsibility to act as a bridge between the university and our society. Through my research and creative work, I have given presentations at local and national public organizations. I have also been able to visit numerous schools and communities of migrant farm workers throughout the country, encouraging students to take advantage of their education and helping teachers and administrators to cope with challenges facing many children and young adults in our educational system.
Santa Clara has also supported my membership and participation on various boards and commissions such as WASC, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the California Council for the Humanities. My participation in civic life informs my work and makes my profession much more meaningful.
Most importantly, it is a joy to be involved in educating students in the many ways that we all do—helping them to learn how to discover where they are being invited to spend their lives, just as I was helped as an undergraduate to discover that I should spend my life serving our Creator as an educator and writer.
It is a privilege to be in a community of scholars and learners on a journey in search of truth. It is rewarding to be involved in assisting men and women to be knowledgeable of self, rooted in faith, educated in mind, compassionate in heart, responsive to social and civic obligations and to an ever-changing world and to be in solidarity with the poor and the powerless.
As you can see, I have spent more than two-thirds of my life involved in this university. Santa Clara has helped me grow intellectually, professionally as well spiritually. It has supported and reinforced for me the value of civic engagement, education, research and creativity, hard work, respect, and faith.
My wife and I have passed on these values to our three children (incidentally I am proud to say that all three of them graduated from Santa Clara, as did my wife. Two of them are college professors). So what does Santa Clara mean to me? Look around you, each one of you is in and forms an integral part of the Santa Clara community, a community that for some of you is new.
But no matter how recently or how long ago you have been at this community, each one of you—student, food service worker, faculty, custodian, grounds keeper, staff, public safety officer, administrator—each one of you contributes to its uniqueness. Each one of you brings valuable experiences, gifts and talents that enrich us all. You are Santa Clara; you are what Santa Clara means to me.