My birthplace is Edinburgh, Texas. My mother’s family goes back many generations in Texas, and my father is from Mexico. I have one brother and two sisters, who are all younger than I. I grew up Chicano and bilingual within a strong matriarchal system, where mothers ruled. I had 67 cousins all within a five block radius. Sixty-four of my cousins received college degrees, and eleven got Ph.D.s or master’s degrees. All of my cousins and aunts and uncles were bilingual. Self-esteem in my family was strong, and education was highly stressed, although this was, and still is, the poorest county per capita in the United States. My family is where the ground work for my future academic success was built. There was a high emphasis on honesty, fairness, cooperation, and compassion. Family members encouraged us to be “vivo”, which means to think on your feet and use common sense. We didn’t have television while I was growing up, and I think that had a positive effect on how I saw myself and the world around me. As I got older, I began to work picking cotton as a migrant farm worker. Being in contact with nature, I was always interested in how the components of an ecosystem work together. However, some of the obstacles I perceived came from the fact that non-minorities ran the schools, the places of work, the government, and every other institution. My mother, because she was bilingual and fluent in Spanish and English, attended all of the Parent-Teacher Association meetings, to make sure we were treated fairly. Many other parents, because of the language barrier, were not able to do the same for their kids. The students at my school were almost all Chicano, but hardly any of the kids in the accelerated learning classes were Chicanos. I knew that something was not right about this situation. Despite the barriers, I was always a very good student, and I especially liked chemistry, art, and English.
When I was in high school, my counselors told me to go to vocational school, even though I hated to fix cars. So when I went to college, I decided I was going to be an accountant. I soon realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was hired as a work-study student cleaning up a laboratory, and I began to get interested in science. Eventually, I began working in a laboratory where I could actually do research. I decided to major in zoology and minor in organic chemistry. My major professor gave me different tasks to do in the laboratory. Most non-minority professors didn’t know much about working with people of different cultures. However this professor knew when he had a good worker, and he kept them. I did very well in college, and I published three articles by the time I graduated. Later, as a graduate student, I published twenty papers.
Today, I have an endowed chair, it is called the James A. Perkins Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at Cornell University in New York state. My research is unique–I do research in both the field and the laboratory. I’m a biological chemist interested in the organic chemistry of natural drugs from plants, insects, and fungi. One of the most exciting things about my research is having developed a new discipline, which in itself is rare. My laboratory has been instrumental in creating Zoopharmacognosy, which is the study of how animals medicate themselves. When animals are sick, they know what plants to use to cure themselves. Most of my research takes place deep in the Amazon and African rain forests, studying primates, plants, and arthropods.
In science, as in any other career you may choose, you must have reading and writing skills, and be able to think critically. You have to be able to think clearly about the destruction of the environment, because it is important that the rainforest not be destroyed simply for a few greedy people. In my laboratory at Cornell University, I have many minority students, but I do not work only with minority students. In fact my laboratory is known as the “United Nations laboratory”. We have students from many races and cultures. I try to involve all of my students in the spirit of scientific discovery, which for me, is the most exciting part of being a Chicano professor.
Science is about thinking and solving problems. As a student, it is very important for you to do what comes naturally to you. You should be happy at what you’re doing. I would like to tell young students that reading is vital. Learning to use a computer can come later, but it is essential to read and be able to write and think about what you read. Listening to your elders is also important. Never let yourself be discouraged by negative and mean spirited people. Education will get you what you want in life, but you must work at it.