Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On graduation at my alma mater

Last Friday, (May 13) I attended the graduation exercises at my alma mater, Texas A&M University-Kingsville (formerly Texas A&I University). With but some exceptions - the traditional non-sensible graduation speeches - they were two beautiful ceremonies in an arena - The Steinke Physical Education Center - much too small to handle the large crowd present to see 550 students (most of whom were present) graduate.

It was a bittersweet moment for me. Now, instead of being a student marching to get my diploma, I was a "full" professor marching in with the faculty. I got to seat and watch everyone of those graduates get their degrees, shake hands the president of the university and exchange hugs from friends and loved ones. I couldn't help notice how things had changed.

More than 45 percent of the students receiving degrees were classified Hispanic. Of those, 207 received their bachelor's degrees, 35 earned master's and seven earned their doctorate. That was a far cry from the numbers in 1970 when only about seven percent of the graduates that year were Hispanics. Wow!

It was also a far cry from the number of Hispanic (the term didn't even exist at the time) graduates when my Tío Juan Rocha and my Tía Clelia graduated in 1959. Those were different times. The Chicano Movement had not even started and discrimination against Mexican American seeking an education was at a high point. That didn't stop Juan or Clelia from making it a point to strive for better things. A year earlier, my uncle Juan was burned in effigy because he had decided to run for A&I student body president. I remember being told at home "Quemaron a Juan" and thinking the worst. Later I found out what they burned was a figure made of bed linens and stuffed with old pillows that was hung out of a dormitory and set on fire. Nevertheless, the figure had his name - Juan Rocha - painted on its chest.

Tío Juan would go on to be a successful lawyer and became the main attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense andEducation Fund (MALDEF) when the organization sued the state for lack of higher education opportunities and professional programs in South Texas colleges and universities. MALDEF won, but like they say, the results are still in the mail. While we have progressed, as the numbers of the 2011 graduation class assert, there is still much progress to be made.

But, back to the talk on graduation. When Tío Juan and Tía Clelia graduated from then Texas A&I, the ceremony was held in Jones Auditorium, a World War II building that still stands and has about 1,000 seats.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s I would accompany my grandfather Pedro G. Chapa, Clelia's and my mom's father, to the A&I graduation ceremonies in Jones Auditorium. I really wasn't sure why he wanted me to come to the graduation ceremonies with him. The first time I came, I was 11. It was May 1959. I could see a sea of proud graduates lined up outside the auditorium waiting their turn to march in as family and friends showed up for the festivities. We would always get there early, so we could find good seats toward the middle of the auditorium. "We can see everything better and they can hear us better from there," he would tell me.

The first year, I just sat there watching the ceremony. He would clap politely and I would just take in the pomp and circumstance of the occasion and wiggle in my seat as most 11-year-olds are prone to do. But then, I heard a distinctly (well, sort of) Spanish surname being pronounced - Fast-su-o Bey - nay - be - days. Grandpa Chapa nudged me and started clapping louder. He made sure everyone could hear him. I clapped to and said "Yea!" as loud as I could. Around the auditorium, small choruses of boos could be heard. A man in front of us looked to his wife and said, "Another God Damm Mexican (graduating)!" as he frowned. His wife turned back to look at us. I couldn't tell if she was embarrassed for what her husband said or felt sorry for us. She looked confused. Oh, wait, she was looking a real Mexican Americans at the graduation ceremony. She must have wondered if we were related to Fastsuo Beynaybedays. We weren't, but I was starting to realize why I was there and each subsequent graduation I attended with my grandfather would be more meaningful.

About 20 Hispanics graduated that day. My grandfather and I cheered as loudly as we could for all of them. We didn't know them, we were just proud of them. We also clapped politely for all who graduated that day, no matter what the color of their skin. We were proud of them, too. As I recall, there were two African Americans graduating that day, too. Like the Hispanics, they were greeted with some boos.

I was a young man. I had been taught in Mexicano culture "que los hombres no lloran (men don't cry)." But I felt a tear roll down one of my eyes when grandpa Chapa asked me if I had enjoyed the ceremony. I told him, "Yes" and thanked him for bringing me. We would do this for another five years til I got to high school and had other "more important" things to do, like growing up. But the message was clear. Getting an education is important. I'm proud to say I got my college degree, two master's and a doctorate. I hope I made my grandpa proud. I wonder what he would have done when he saw me cross the stage, get hooded and get my doctorate degree. I wonder . . . .

So, I will never forget the lessons my grandfather taught me. He was showing me, in his on way, how important a college education was. He was showing me that a college education should be celebrated and honored and that the people who complete their college degree at whatever level must be congratulated with gusto. It takes hard work and discipline to achieve and earn a college degree.

Last Friday at the SPEC on the campus of Texas A&M-Kingsville, 550 students earned their degrees. Three were American Indian, seven were Asian, 15 were Black, 158 were white, 117 were international students and 249 were Hispanic. At least 30 of them had taken at least one class with me. I felt proud. We had come a long way.

Oh, and no one was booed.

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