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Rodrigo Banuelos

Rodrigo Bañuelos, PhD

I was born in a rural agricultural community called La Masita in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, to a Mexican American father, Sr. José Bañuelos, and a Mexican mother, Sra. Rosalva Bañuelos. As a child I had no formal education, working—like most kids in that region of Mexico at that time—primarily in farming. We had no running water, no electricity, and no telephone service.  In retrospect, life in La Masita was primitive and hard, but I did not know it at the time.  My childhood memories are those of a campesino community, whose members were always there to help each other.
At the age of 15—along with my mother, grandmother, five brothers, and one sister—I moved to Pasadena, California. My father, born in the city of Superior, Arizona, had lived in the US essentially all his life, commuting from Pasadena to La Masita once or twice a year.  He worked as a cook at various restaurants in the Los Angeles area. He was very proud of his Mexican American heritage and was an incredibly hardworking individual with an amazing sense of optimism who believed that through hard work, anything can be achieved. After we moved to the US, my mother worked for minimum wage at various factories and in the serving line at a popular cafeteria in Pasadena—the Pasadena Cafeteria.  While not having had any formal schooling, both my parents valued education greatly.  Indeed, my mother always blamed every “bad” thing that happened to our family on our lack of education.  We were poor, we were sick, people mistreated us or took advantage of us, etcetera—and all because of a lack of an education.  “Eso nos pasa por falta de educación,” she would often say. As a young person I did not always understand, nor fully appreciate, the depth of this statement.
I cannot say that I was the smartest or the hardest working member of my family. I believe such distinctions belonged to my oldest brother, Javier, who passed away at age 45 from mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos. However, because of opportunities that others did not have, I was the first in the family to attend and graduate from college.  In fact, I was even the first to attend and graduate from high school!  For this, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Juan Francisco Lara whom I met in 1973 while working at the Arroyo–California Car Wash in Pasadena, located at the corner of California Boulevard and Arroyo Parkway. Juan was then a PhD student at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a part-time job teaching Chicano Studies at Pasadena City College. He would regularly drive from West Los Angeles to Pasadena. The Pasadena Freeway (210 Freeway), coming from downtown LA, empties onto Arroyo, becoming the Arroyo Parkway. Juan then would drive on Arroyo, make a right turn onto California Boulevard, a left at Hill Avenue (with the prestigious California Institute of Technology at the corner of California and Hill) and just after a short five-minute drive on Hill (and just before Colorado Boulevard, home of the Tournament of Roses Parade), he would arrive at Pasadena City College.
From time to time, Juan would stop at the Arroyo–California Car Wash to clean his car. My job at the car wash was to clean and shine those great chrome bumpers (front and back), that cars used to have in the ’60s and ’70s, as the cars roll on the belt on their way out of the wash. While younger than many of the older Latino (Mexican) men who had worked at the car wash for many years, I was no different from the other young Latinos and few African Americans who worked there. But for some reason, Juan took the time to talk to me and to encourage me to enroll in his course on Chicano Studies at Pasadena City College, which I eventually did. In addition, I enrolled in an elementary (about 8th-grade level) mathematics course and in a beginning English course. After a full year and two summers at Pasadena City College, with the help of Juan Lara and this time also with the help of Ruben Ruvalcaba, who was the director of the Equal Opportunity Program (EOP) at University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), I transferred to Santa Cruz.  Earlier I had applied to, and was rejected from, several other campus of the University of California (UC) System, including UC Los Angeles (UCLA).
During my first year at UC Santa Cruz, I was extremely fortunate to meet two of the founding members of SACNAS, professors Eugene Cota-Robles and Frank Talamantes.  From these two individuals, I and many other of my fellow UC Santa Cruz students, received tremendous support and encouragement.  These two, like Lara and others, exemplify at its very best, Cesar Chavez’s statement that “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community.  Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.” I would certainly not be where I am today if I had not encountered these remarkable people on my very winding path to my present career.
During my time at UC Santa Cruz I was encouraged to study mathematics by several people, perhaps none more than professor Anthony Tromba.   Professors Tromba and Edward Landesman were the first non-Latino teachers/academics who believed that I had the potential to earn a college degree. I owe them a great debt of gratitude.
I received a Bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz in 1978 and a PhD from UCLA in 1984, both in mathematics.  I also received a Master’s degree in mathematics education from UC Davis in 1980.  After my PhD,  I was a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).  Sitting in my office in the Sloan Mathematics Building and walking around the Caltech campus—only a few blocks from the Arroyo-California Car Wash, the Pasadena City College, and my parents’ house—was surreal for me for many months after my arrival there in September 1984.  In 1986, I received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Fellowship to go to the University of Illinois at Urbana to continue my research on probability and its applications to analysis with professor Donald Burkholder—one of the towering figures on this subject and a tremendously kind and generous person whose mentorship has been invaluable to me for many years.   I moved to Purdue University in 1987 as an assistant professor, was promoted to tenured associate professor in 1989, and to full professor in 1992 (five years after my arrival and 8 years after my PhD).  At Purdue University I have played many leadership roles, including serving a four-year term as Head of the Department of Mathematics.  I have given hundreds of invited lectures at conferences and universities in many countries around the world.  My research has been continuously funded by the NSF and in 1989 I received the Presidential Young Investigator Award from the NSF. For years, I have been involved with many efforts, both local and national, to increase the number of minority students in sciences and engineering. In 2004, I was deeply honored to be the second recipient of the Blackwell-Tapia Prize in Mathematics.  This prize, which honors professors David Blackwell and Richard A. Tapia, is presented every two years to a mathematical scientist who has contributed significantly to his or her field of expertise and who has served as a role model for mathematical scientists and students from underrepresented minority groups or has contributed in other significant ways to addressing the problem of the underrepresentation of minorities in mathematics.  The Blackwell-Tapia Conference and Prize presentation took place at the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics at UCLA, the same institution where I received my PhD and where I was rejected as an undergraduate. It really is true: if at first you don’t succeed, try again, and again, and again, …
My wife Rosa and I live in West Lafayette, Indiana. We have two daughters. Nidia, a graduate of Stanford University, is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Carisa, a graduate of the Purdue University Krannert School of Management lives and works in Denver, Colorado, the beautiful mile high city. I am extremely fortunate to have a job which provides the opportunity to encourage others to pursue their dreams through education, where I interact with people from all over the world, which is fun and challenging, and that provides the financial support to live comfortably. But there is not a single day when I don’t contemplate, at least for a moment or two, the “what if…Lara hadn’t been there….” Where would I, my daughters and other members of my family whose lives have been so greatly impacted by the educational opportunities we have had, be today?