To this day, living in Northern Arizona makes it difficult to ignore the manifestation of natural phenomena and not contemplate how such wonders come to be. I am one who has always been curious. However, my curiosity about nature did not blind me to the status of the Mexican American population at the time. Growing up in the Southwest in the mid-1900s I became aware that a colonial mentality existed, left over from the U. S.-Mexican war of the 1840s, a war that resulted in a loss of half of Mexico’s land to the U.S. Although my parents immigrated to the U.S. after that war, even the Mexicans that had resided in the Southwest and their descendants were treated as a conquered people, viewed as second-class citizens. Use of the Spanish language was an easy marker for discrimination. I experienced numerous instances of discrimination. My elementary school was segregated, reserved only for children of Mexicans like myself. Though we spoke Spanish at home, I easily mastered English. In elementary school I found myself attracted to mathematics, music and spelling. These subjects have a strong analytic content requiring less mastery of English and may have been the reason I gravitated toward them.
High school was difficult because I had to socialize into the main stream. This resulted in being subjected to overt discrimination. An extreme case was the principal, who told me that I had to settle for second place after I called to his attention discrimination tactics used by a teacher. On another occasion he told me, ”Mexicans don’t do science.” Eventually I was able to reconcile Anglo community values with those of my Mexican upbringing. Engaging in competitive sports presented a relief throughout high school. I was one of possibly two Mexican Americans that did well in science and mathematics, as well as in English in high school. I was editor of the newspaper during my senior year, won the school’s American Legion oratory contest two years in a row and took second prize in a national art poster contest. My high school transcripts show two tracks of study, one that prepared me for semi-skilled labor and the other for college. Mexican American students were not viewed as destined for a college education.
Upon high school graduation, I enrolled at Northern Arizona University in 1950. A scholarship paid tuition and staying at home minimized my expenses. Expenses were critical, much as it is today among too many Hispanics. I was the only Mexican American in mathematics and science college classes. Nevertheless, I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree in 1954 and then began my graduate studies with support of a teaching assistantship in graduate school.
As a graduate student at Oregon State University and a post doctorate at Cornell University, I merged my lifelong interests in chemistry and physics and continued to build a competency in mathematics, which underpins all of science. Calculus and differential equations are fundamental for the precise formulation of physics and chemistry. Mastering mathematics is a continuing process. Entrance and success in college begins with the study of algebra, geometry and trigonometry in high school and continues without end. The last formal courses in mathematics I had were in graduate school, vector spaces that help describe molecular structure and differential equations that describe the motion of waves. In physics, this mathematics explains motion and energy exchange; in chemistry, how chemical bonds are formed to accommodate structure, molecular stability and energy content.
I found research a pleasant challenge particularly since it required making original contributions. For my master’s degree, I found how the unrestricted motion of a particular molecule in the gas phase is modified when incorporated into a crystal. Such results are fundamental to new discoveries, such as predicting outcomes of chemical reactions and syntheses of chemicals. For the doctorate, my original contribution was to show that light passing through a carefully designed ultrasonic field in a gas can be used to measure exchange of energy when molecules collide.
After a successful period in the corporate world and a decade as a professor of physics, I became a program manager with the Atomic Energy Commission in 1974. This Commission was superceded by the Department of Energy. As a result of an agency-wide competition, I was awarded a 12 month resident Sloan Fellowship in 1977 that allowed me to earn a Masters in Management Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a program manager for atomic, molecular and optical physics, I supervised and managed the disbursement of as much as 10 million dollars a year to U.S. scientists. This duty involved receipt of proposals, managing their evaluation and funding the more meritorious ones. Monitoring these projects provided me a vicarious living since the scientists invariably reported their new findings to me before they were submitted for publication. I found this role an exciting one. After 25 years of program management, I became a science advisor.
Realizing that so few minorities were following scientific careers, I helped found SACNAS in 1973 and served as one of its presidents. I sincerely hope that those days of blatant discrimination are far behind us. Nevertheless, even when others think less of us, our own inner strengths along with our education and organizations like SACNAS aid us to conquer adversities.