I was born into an interracial Mexican-American and Anglo-American working-class home in Southern California at a time when Mexican-Americans and Anglo-Americans were socially segregated. Sometimes I feel that it is a miracle that I am even here because my father lived on the “wrong side of the tracks,” and my mother came from an old wealthy family in Arkansas that, before the Civil War, used to have slaves!
In my family, the fact that my two sisters and I are biracial was painfully suppressed. So when I wasn’t allowed to wear braids because I might look too much like an Indian, or when I was singled out in class, or picked on by other children in my all-white school, I couldn’t understand what was happening. I grew up thinking there was something inherently wrong with me.
But in a confusing and often solitary childhood, science was always very stabilizing—a rock I could count on. I knew that no matter what, hydrogen would always have one proton and one electron. And although my parent’s silence around our biracial family was difficult, they were very open minded about how to raise a girl. During the 1950s, there were a lot of female stereotypes, and girls generally had to play inside and help with chores. Instead, my parents let me run wild in the hills around our home, where I would spend hours observing nature and wildlife.
I excelled in school and, after high school, assumed that I was college-bound. However, my high school counselor thought differently. Perhaps it was racial discrimination or because I was a girl, or a combination of both. But when I graduated from high school, after earning all As and Bs, the counselor told me, “You know, I think it would be good for you to go to beauty school at Pasadena City College.” When I told my father, he was so angry. He encouraged me to apply to University of California, Riverside, which is where I earned a B.A. in biology.
I went on to receive my master’s degree in biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1969 and that same year started teaching biology at San José City College. Because I had such a successful career teaching at the community college level, I had never thought about going on to earn a Ph.D. until I read a series of articles about Mexican farm workers in the newspaper. The rage I felt at the inhumane treatment of farm workers and the degradation of the land they were working on propelled me into the newly formed environmental studies doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1994. I was 49 years old.
I decided on environmental studies because it gave me the chance to combine my love of science with my desire to help farm workers and farm land. In order to fully comprehend a problem, environmental studies examines the whole picture, including the social, economic, political, biological, and ecological aspects of the environment. So, to understand why Mexican farm workers were being treated poorly in the United States, I had to understand the social, biological, and ecological aspects of the entire agricultural system that they were part of, both in the United States and Mexico.
My work in graduate school enabled me to channel my anger at the injustice that farm workers face into a productive way to work toward helping people and the environment. Studying the “whole picture” gave me the perspective I needed to understand the complicated intersections between countries, science, farming, racial discrimination, and human rights.
Using the tools of looking at the “whole picture” that I learned in graduate school would have drastically changed my childhood. But it was my adventures outside, my love of science, and the painful feelings of rejection and isolation in childhood that helped shape my desire to use science as a way to preserve the environment and work for social justice. My childhood experiences also taught me to never be afraid of speaking my mind or getting angry. For a woman of my generation, this is an unusual characteristic. My mother always used to say, “Think before you speak!” But that always felt unnatural. If I had kept all of my thoughts and emotions stuffed inside, I would probably be dead by now!
In my life, allowing myself to get angry and speaking my mind has empowered me to make progress in both my education and my career. Most importantly, however, it has given me a way to look at the “whole picture,” to see how all of our actions can make a difference in the world. I may have been 57 years old when I finished my Ph.D., but I learned that it is never too late to follow your passion or speak your mind.