Southern Regional Education Board/WICHE/McNair meeting October 2000 Orlando FL

Transcript of a talk to about 500 minority faculty, post docs, and graduate students.

It's really a blessing to be here. Just when I need it, things happen that allow me to look at challenges in my life in new ways. So being here is a real blessing that has allowed me to separate myself from some of the politics that have been going on. Let me start at the very end, because I was told by Walt that 20 minutes and they kick me off. And I don't know if I even have 20 minutes.

I do? Oh, thank you. (laughter)

The bottom line of my talk is that I think you can see challenges... and I am speaking of challenges in a lot different ways, hurdles, problems and difficulties that you have... that there are ways to look at these as blessings. That how we deal with problems is what we become as individuals.

The second thing is that people who face challenges bring more to the table. We're often not as appreciated because our perspectives are often 180° from those people whose biggest challenge was which store to buy something at. And I don't mean to be unkind, I am sure that everyone has had their challenges. I just think we bring more to the table.

The third thing is that stereotypes limit our lives and I'll get into that.

The fourth thing is to play on your strengths, understand what your strengths are, and thank your weaknesses. And that is not to say that we should dwell in our weaknesses but it is our weaknesses that remind us all that we are human. And it's our weaknesses that help us connect with all sorts of individuals and it's our weakness, that as we work on being better people, that make us unique and make us better people.

And finally, I would like to say that realizing it is a blessing to have an interesting life is a good perspective to have.

My life has changed in recent months. I'm 50…okay I'm 51, I'll be honest. (laughter) and I work in the area of genomics, I am a yeast molecular geneticist and I do a lot of other things in my life, including wishing that I could sit much more having coffee on a cold afternoon and just talk story.

I think I am learning and understanding more now than I ever have. I feel like I am 10 years old again. I've come to see clearly that the hurdles and challenges and the evil, and, yes, there is evil in the world, I believe it, that these can be seen as blessings and that these can be seen to be as great a blessing as the love and support tha I… and I am going to say we, because there is no reason that I am up here and all of you aren't up here...everybody has these experiences and things to say that I think will resonnate in your lives. The problems, the challenges are as great a blessing as the support we get from families, the comfort I get from my faith that there is more to this life than getting rich, and the joy that I feel when my students and I walk in the new territory of genomics.

I've been lucky to live a long time, but like many of you, I had lived a long time by the time I was 25 years old. Those of us who've been challenged bring more to the table if we remember it and if we use our challenges as positive experiences and realize that it is a blessing to be who we are. So, one of the blessings I have had in the last few years... oh, shoot, I was going to start this watch.... you know I was blessed in the last year to have broken two watches (laughter) and so now I have one with a stopwatch because I have really been bad about 10 minute, 15 minute talks and so I promise I'll just stop.

You've heard the story now, so I'll just go to details.

One of the blessings that's happened in the last few years is that there is this group called the Zeta Phi Betas. Anybody know the Zetas? Zetas rock, you guys.(laughter). I'm right (more laughter). You know, if you're a Delta or whatever, this is not personal. The Zetas and Izzie Jenkins have gotten interested in the human genome program and by the grace of God they found me, because I happen to know all three minorities that work in the human genome program. (laughter) and you have to understand that my mom was from Mexico, so I always feel like I am a chicana escondida, a hidden chicana (laughter). Hard to say, but I'm more like a Laborador Retriever (laughter).

The Zetas have been wonderful and I met this woman....every time I go to a Zeta's meeting I meet the most incredible people- and I met this woman the Reverend Dr. Deborah Palmer Wolf. She was the head of the education subcommittee during all the time that Adam Clayton Powell was in the House of Representatives and she's 80 years old and she taught herself genomics. She came and had 16 questions written down including what's the value of a model organism? I was so impressed by this woman. And she got up and.... now I'm going to kind of do it the way she did, but I don't mean any kind of disrespect because she is just a blessing in my life, and she goes "Living is learning and if you aren't learning, you're walking around dead. And there are a lot of people walking around dead.' (laughter) So, she pumped me up. She's really great.

So let me talk about my blessings that some of you may see as challenges and I saw in my life, until I've come to deal with some of these things, I used to see them as problems. One of the blessings that I had was being racially and culturally mixed. I have always identified as a Mexican/American or Mexican or Hispanic or whatever you call it. I was raised mostly by my grandmother and my mother and so I lived hearing all the stories about Mexico and if we could turn the lights down just a is a picture of me and my dad and you can see that I fit into a lot of different groups. My hair was dark then. You can turn the lights back on. Being mixed was always a problem and it was a hard thing for me because in my heart I felt I was part of one group and in my skin everybody thought I was part of another group. I was blessed to have a lot of people who it didn't matter to and who could see that in my heart that's where I was.

When I went out to Stanford as an undergraduate I came from a high school class of 75 and I wasn't valedictorian ... and I'm not sure exactly why Stanford accepted me. The reason I went was they called Stanford "The Farm" and I was from Iowa, so I thought, well, that would be good (laughter). And the other reason I went to Stanford was that my grandparents cook in Mexico had once been Leland Stanford's cook and so I thought I had family ties to that school (laughter). I swear it's true. So I went and I tried to join the Chicano organization. Well, this was in the late '60s and everyone was into real ethnic purity and they wouldn't let me join. And so I had a very hard time because I had hung out with Chicanos all my life.

So I learned German and went to Germany, because I thought well my dad's German, maybe I'm German, maybe they're right. I went to Austria and, man, it was really hard. I had no idea what was going on in that situation at all. And when I finished college, (because I was so blessed that they gave me a full tuition scholarship) I had a little bit of money... so I went down to Mexico. And the minute I hit Mexico I knew I was home. I knew how people made their decisions, I knew how they saw life, I made these incredible connections and all of a sudden I could feel my relatives coming up through the soles of my feet. And whenever I go to Mexico I feel that. That's my blood there. It's a wonderful sense of place.

I was also blessed by getting gray hair early. My hair was really black and then one time I was down in Mexico most people don't talk about this stuff- but you have to understand I haven't been this "La Guera" very long, which is a blonde. I said when I was 50, I was just going to deal with being older and go gray, so I went into my hairdresser and I said come on, we're gonna just do it and she says, "No" I come out like this. So, I said "Oh my God" and I spent four days looking at myself in the mirror going how am I going to identify with this? And I realized, well, what is this deal with hair? It was so interesting to me because when my hair was dark in Albuquerque, when I would talk to someone in Spanish they would answer me in Spanish, and now the only place that anyone will answer me in Spanish is in Miami (laughter).

So I am just trying to say that stereotypes do separate us, you know what I mean, I love being here, seeing you, this is wonderful. But you have to understand that there are good people that you're not going to identify by the color of their skin or the color of their hair and there are people who will get in your way who you might automatically because of that think they are going to help you. You have to be a little careful. And I think that if there's one thing we do learn, it is to look at someone's heart.

The other thing I remember know I have people I actually know in this audience, some of my students are here- and one of the students was from Barbados and was living in Boston and came to work at the University of New Mexico for the summer. I had a feeling that this was the first time that he had been out of a predominantly African-American community. My sense was that he was uncomfortable at first. But everyone just loved this guy. There isn't a week that goes by that his name isn't mentioned still. So, I go to these SACNAS meetings, it the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences, but I always take a rainbow coalition, I take everybody because I think that is the way we have to do it.

I brought this student to the SACNAS meeting and at first this student was a little nervous and I said to him... the student is African-American- I said to him, "you know, the deal is that we don't have time, if you are going to lead, you have to lead us all." We've got to work together because independently or individually as ethnic groups we aren't large enough to fight off what is happening in my area of science or elsewhere. I mean, we really have to stick together.

I just want to say that it is truly a blessing for me to be here and I am honored that Ken asked me to come and talk.

Let me just talk about some principles that I have found in my life and one of the things is that I've come to realize that the concept of bridging and connecting are very important to me. I used to feel bad, I used to tell people I was telephone operator for the world, I'm always going... "Oh, you know this person, you know that person?" Always putting people together and I thought that was a bad thing.

Do we actually have the slides or are they not going to work? Okay, at this point, imagine a picture of my grandmother, Maria Concepcion Morales y Galindo and Concha, as she was called, had a special relationship with the Blessed Virgin and I don't always tell people this, because as a scientist you don't get a lot of credibility for talking about these sorts of things.... please do not let it go out of this audience. (laughter)

She had a special relationship with the Blessed Virgin and as a child I remember seeing miracles, we were never worried when my grandmother was around. We would just say "oh my gosh, it's Notre Dame's football weekend, there's no motel rooms, we didn't think to get one in advance." My grandmother would say, "don't worry." She would bow her head and I would see a "vacancy' sign. My grandmother lost everything she had when she was 40 or 50 ....they came up during the Mexican revolution and lost everything.

One of her lines- she always gave us these dichos- you know these sayings "Man proposes and god disposes", Where there's a will there's a way" and when things happen that are really bad, BLAM these dichos show up like big fluorescent signs that help me get a quick perspective on how to survive some unforseen attack or something.

Anyway, she used to say that the best thing that ever happened to our family was to lose everything we had and the saying that she had was "Thank God for nothing." And the reason for that was because then you lose everything you figure out what is important: Your family and your friends and your faith and your education. And those are the things that are really critical. If I said this to another type of an audience they might not understand, but I'm assuming, and I suppose this is a stereotype, that you understand what I am saying when I say this.

So I bring my grandmother to the table and I bring my mother to the table. My mother was kind of a wild woman, she volunteered in the state penitentiary for 30 years. She started all sorts of stuff. During the 50's they were doing all sorts of rehabilitation of minority communities by putting highways through the communities. (laughter) Right? Right. My mother and her friend Gino Salazar and Virginia Harper, who was a Black woman, found out that our town was trying ... we had the one Mexican village in the state of Iowa all the Mexicans lived in my home town...I knew all 327 of them. Now there are more Latinos...but anyway they were going to get rid of the Mexican Village by just building a highway through it. My mother found out that they were going to do this. So she and Virginia and Gino went to the Federal Highway Commission and talked. They said to the mayor of our town, "now who lives there" and the mayor says "Nobody, it's just a bunch of Mexicans, they come and go, you can't get a good census on them" And my mom says "Oh yeah? Well we live there and Judy Estrada lives there and Delgado's live there" and Gino gets up and he tells who lives where and Virginia gets up and by that time they had the whole place covered. The Federal Highway Commission asked "well do these people want to move" and they all said "No." and they stopped the highway. It was the first time, and I don't know how many times that ever happened, that private citizens were able to go and stop a minority neighborhood from being destroyed, but it's one of the things that I am most proud of in terms of what my mother did. (applause)

I'm also a bridge for students. We have a lot of Native American and Hispanic students and some African-American students at the University of New Mexico and I feel very strongly that I am someone on a bridge for them. I am extremely grateful to their parents for allowing the students to come and be in our lives as a faculty member and I gain immensely from my students, whether they're 18 or they're 30 or I have one student who is now 75 years old who is learning genomics. So, in that sense I feel very blessed.

I'm also a bridge in terms of my life experiences. If we had the next slide, what you would see is my foster brother, Bobby Delgado. And I said I grew up with 20 foster brothers and sisters, acutally there were more than that, but there were four brothers that were with me most of the time. See, I was the last of 6 and by the time I was abouit 13 ... I guess the Delgado's came when I was 7 or 8, Mother wasn't worried about me ...all the other kids had grown up and weren't juvenile delinquints and she didn't feel like she had enough to do, I guess.

So, when they called and we went to see the Delgado's my dad said, and I couldn't believe it, "well sure, have them come and live with us." These kids had had a very hard life. We went there and they were living in a house, it was 20 below zero, the food was frozen on the table, and they had no plumbing, and the church had brought them all these barrels of clothes but none of them fit, so the boys were sleeping under all these clothes and about a month earlier one of the mother's boyfriends had killed another boyfriend in front of the kids. The boys were 7, 5, 4 and 3 and they all had police records by that time.

Anyway, it's a long story, I'm not going to go into it, most of them are doing quite well. What happened to Bobby, and if you saw this picture you would see, he's just the cutest guy you ever saw. Oh, and that's part of the reason I think he couldn't live with our family after we got to high school. (Laughter). But, I really loved Bobby and when I was away at college Bobby got a job. He got what he thought was a good job. And the good job was spray painting the insides of boxcars for a granary. One day Mom called me up and she said, "Bobby died." Bobby was 24 or something like that when he died. It turns out that he'd been spraying the insides of boxcars with paint and that the company had not even thought to give him any kind of protective device and when they did the autopsy, his liver was the same color as the paint he had been spraying. The doctor said he couldn't understand how Bobby had managed to live so long like that. So one of the things that always pushes me is that I have been blessed to be able to do this and even right now with genomics, I am blessed to be able to offer people an education that allows them to make real decisions about good jobs, and make real decisions about their own health and safety. And I can offer them the potential to really seriously contribute.

That's it. It's this ability to get an education and to share it with people and to allow them to learn in an environment where they're actually loved. That is how I find my path with heart in the sciences.

I've been so lucky because I get to do all sorts of interesting things. When I was in Washington, I worked at the National Science Foundation, last year. And they asked me... the NSTC's chair is Clinton and then you have the OSTP which is the Office of Science and Technology Policy and th NSTC, which is the National Science and Technology Council ... they asked me to put together a federal report on microbial genomics. So I had to bring together like 12 agencies and institutes to do this. And so I called them all up you know...and people at DOE were really totally hacked off because they thought they should write the report because they started microbial genomics

I called everybody on the committee and I said "My mother used to say that everybody's blessings were their faults and mine is that I'm not a long.term government employee. I just want this government to work and I don't care if NSF looks good and besides it's going to look a lot better if I write the report and you look good than if you write the report and you look good." (Laughter). So, it was unbelievable, we did the report from April to July and we got it done. Then I went to the White House Offices to present the report, these people had the nerve to look at me and say "we didn't think you could get this done." I said, "Why did you ask me to do it if you didn't think anybody could get it done?" (Laughter)

I'm going to finish now but let me just say what I have given you is that challenges can be seen as blessings, people who have lived through their challenges and dealt with them bring more to the table, that sterotypes limit our lives, and that we should be grateful for being blessed with an interesting life.

This year has been one of the hardest in my whole life and it has also been one of the best.


I would be happy to talk with you about that and thank you for inviting me here to talk.