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How They Beat the Odds

How They Beat the Odds

Chicana scientists share stories of overcoming obstacles to achieve professional success

By Dina M. Horwedel

Their disciplines range from psychology to mathematics to biology, but their stories are nearly interchangeable. Chicano women have been making strides in academia in recent years, but much of that progress has come while battling racial, cultural and gender prejudice. A group
of Chicano women, all high-ranking academicians, participated in a book project to provide anecdotes about how they overcame those obstacles to succeed at some of the foremost academic and government institutions in the country. They also spoke of their experiences as part of the “Chicanas in Math, Science, and Education,” panel during the annual conference of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Obtaining an education in science and mathematics was no small feat for women of their era, doubly so for Chicanas. The number of women earning degrees in the sciences has increased every year since 1966. A National Science Foundation study shows that as recently as 1996, only 39 percent of all women enrolled in graduate and postdoctoral education were in the sciences. That year, 500 more Hispanic women enrolled in science programs than in 1995. Despite their gains, however, under-represented minorities still comprise only 11 percent of the enrollment. Of that percentage, 5 percent are Hispanic and 0.5 percent are American Indian. Enrollment of minority women in graduate and post-doctoral programs increased slightly between 1980 and 1996, with a 1 percent gain.

But what statistics do not tell are the struggles Chicanas had to overcome to reach their positions. A book titled Por Sciencia, edited by Dr. Norma E. Cantú, a professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio, details these pioneering women’s paths in their own words.

Dr. Elma González, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, spoke of her childhood in migrant camps in Texas. Her parents took jobs weeding cotton so their children could stay in school for as long as possible throughout the year. González had a high-school guidance counselor who encouraged her to go to college.

Dr. Maria Elena Zavala, a professor of biology at California State University, Northridge, recalled a conversation that she had with a teacher as a child. “You’re a Mexican, and you can read!” the teacher said. Zavala’s mother’s response to her daughter was: “Yes, you are a Mexican, and you are supposed to read.”

Dr. Cleopatria Martinez, who grew up speaking only Spanish, recalled how she and her siblings often made their own toys. She described how she studied the trajectory of their homemade tetherball in order to win. Martinez said she loved math because she did not have to “second-guess the teachers’ likes or dislikes. I could simply study the rules and predict the results.” She said she dreaded the new school year when teachers would mispronounce her name, followed by students’ laughter.

Invariably her teachers would shorten her name to Cleo. She said she insists on correct pronunciation of her students’ names and is astounded by the disrespect mispronunciation shows. Martinez now teaches at Phoenix College, where she chairs the department of mathematics.

Elvia Elisa Niebla, the national coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Global Change Research Program, spoke about an incident in her school where her teacher regularly held a spelling and subject bee. Students in Class A, who were White and wealthier, competed against students in Class B, comprised of students from mostly Mexican families. She recalled her classmates’ cheers when she defeated a Class A competitor. “My victory was theirs,” she said.

Dr. Diana Marinez, dean of the College of Science & Technology at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, said her parents stressed education and told her she could be whatever she wanted to be. “This was not typical of the messages that most Mexican American girls got in border towns in the 1940s,” she said. Marinez struggled to achieve gender equality at the University of Michigan when she filed a grievance to attend a “boys’ only” department fishing trip.

Dr. Aida Hurtado, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, notes that these stories emphasize the enormous role that parents have in a child’s success. She says Chicano families, especially a generation or two ago, often encourage daughters to follow traditional career paths. But these women’s parents gave them the freedom to pursue their passions.

“The unconditional love of our parents allows us to be warriors and go into spaces where we’re not wanted and told we should not be,” Hurtado says. “And they gave us an incredible work ethic and showed us that no matter what work we do, it’s honorable work. We can bypass prejudice if that work ethic shines through.”

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