A Winding Road to the Doorstep of Dr. Ernesto Galarza, and to Joining the Fight for Social Justice
It was a sun-drenched, refreshingly crisp late summer-early fall morning in 1972 that I drove my powder blue VW, with its manual-rotation sunroof and semi-automatic transmission, searching for 1031 Franquette Avenue in the Willow Glen neighborhood section of San José, California, the residence of Dr. Ernesto Galarza—whom I had never met and only spoken to briefly one time by phone. I felt both composed and uncertain as to where I was going and for what purpose.
This emotional mixture was my characteristic approach to interacting with new surroundings, situations, or people. However, since earning my BA in August 1966 from la Universidad de las Américas in Mexico City, with an interdisciplinary major in Latin American Studies and Social Sciences, my life had been increasingly unpredictable in terms of repeated changes in geography and role.
Rather than the fairly predictable smooth and straight path I had lived as a university student in the highly cosmopolitan context that was Mexico City, my path now resembled that of a pinball. I felt myself being propelled at different speeds, spinning, ricocheting continually against different and similar positions on a seemingly inclined surface, moving in indeterminate directions toward uncertain destinations. Controlling the speed, force, direction and goal of the pinball that was now my life did not seem to be a viable option.
I had moved to thirteen locations within Mexico, the United States, and Germany from the time I graduated from la universidad to this particular morning, a span of 6 years. Concomitantly, I had changed learning−or earning−roles 9 times, as well—and was being interviewed for my 10th change. In Mexico, I had gone from graduate student, private school teacher at various schools and a private language institute, to positions of regional manager and, later, director of sales and promotions within the private sector. In the US, as a draftee, soldado raso, beginning in May 1969, I was trained or stationed in three US Army locations and at European Headquarters, Office of the Engineer, in Heidelberg, Germany.
Back in the USA, in early 1972, I was briefly employed as a personnel specialist at San José City Hall and, in a somewhat longer capacity as a relocation specialist at the San José Redevelopment Agency. Two extended trips to Los Gatos, California, and Fairbanks, Alaska, were sandwiched in between Mexico and the US Army, and a part-time job happily selling clothes in the Men’s Department at Macy’s before landing full-time jobs in San José, was also part of the role-shifting scenario.
In a nutshell, the geographical and role switches were deep, numerous, and unpredictable. As is probably self-evident, travel was not conducted for the pleasure of visiting a locale, as in each case there were economic or military-related motives, including being discharged a few months early from the US Army to return to Mexico City as a graduate student.
How had I even arrived to this Willow Glen address, to speak with a person whom I had yet to meet in person and had only briefly chatted with from a pay phone about a nebulous undertaking related to an educational project not yet on the books? My physical return to the States is easy enough to understand. I had left Mexico City, reluctantly and embarrassingly in debt to my alma mater and to my parents due to a very simple but devastatingly damaging occurrence within the Admissions Office at the University’s branch site of its MBA program. To take advantage of the GI Bill benefits related to tuition coverage and living stipend, I had dutifully completed my part of the US Veterans Administration forms and submitted them to the Admissions office so the forms could be further completed, and then signed, sealed and delivered by mail to the VA.
I kept waiting for my checks to arrive and for my tuition to be paid, but instead, I began to receive notices from the university that my account was past due and emotionally-charged, escalating inquiries from my parents as to what I was actually doing in Mexico City with the funds they had sent me and that I had promised to repay. This economically disconcerting circumstance went on for two academic quarters. I finally reached the point where my faith suffered a total lapse that the checks would be in the mail, and in an effort to track the postal trail of the documents, I decided to ask the staff at the Admissions Office when they had actually mailed the documents.
I will never forget how they looked at each other and then at my bemused visage as if I were daft. They told me, with a hint of amusement-cum-disdain in their voices and facial expressions, that they hadn’t had the slightest idea as to what the documents were for and had thrown them directly in the trash! Thus, simply stated, I was pushed out of “el DF”—as everyone there referred to it in Spanish at that time.
But what set of factors pulled me to this part of California, in late 1971, as opposed to a closer and more familiar geographical context, such as Texas? In a word: family. I selected Los Gatos, less than an hour south of San Francisco, because I had a passing familiarity with it. During part of the Summer of Love, in 1967, I had stayed with my older brother Arthur and his family.
Although the nostalgic tug of my summer 1967 experiences was present, perhaps more important was the fact that in late 1971 Arthur—known in our immediate and extended family as Fonsin—was still working at IBM in San José, California, and my younger brother George was completing the last year of his undergraduate degree at the University of Santa Clara, from where Arthur had earned his undergraduate and two graduate degrees, as well as a “lifetime” teaching credential that remained and remains unused to this day. Arthur was not in love with the thought of teaching after his student-teaching experience, but the certificate hangs on his wall, hiding a nasty stain that’s lying there, à la 10cc.
I arrived at the San Francisco International Airport in the same way I had left Mexico City—penniless and jobless, and, having relinquished my university studies, I now could not claim the empathetic social designation of “student” that would at least give pause to others before passing judgment on my ruinous circumstance. I was not a poster child for promoting the benefits that would accrue to one by having earned an undergraduate degree or for giving witness to having received well-earned educational benefits for having served one’s country and getting a leg up on one’s future.
I did have my pride and my vision, as well as six MBA courses successfully completed under my belt, but as we all know, none of that puts food on the table or money in the bank. Following my brother Art’s advice, I sought the assistance of a private employment service, where the agent modified my actual résumé into a fantastical smorgasbord of talents and achievements that produced yet another disdainful scoff by the sole interviewer when I pointed out the inaccuracies of the exaggerated claims.
Still, it was a company that sold some sort of technical equipment—let’s say, copiers—and they scheduled me for a second interview. I thought about it and on the day I was to be interviewed, I called them and told them I was not interested in further pursuing the job opportunity. I reminded myself: “I did not come to the United States to sell copiers.”
My professional reasons—the socio-economic pull factors—for returning to the United States were more complex and deep—somewhat akin to Bonfil Batalla’s México Profundo, my reasons were profoundly, culturally existential and persistent, my own Tejas Profundo. I had always been naturally oriented toward “fighting the good fight.” Having been born in Texas, as I was, with a Spanish last name and demonstrating competency in both English and Spanish made one instantly foreign, and open to ridicule and verbal and physical abuse.
Even before I was in kindergarten, I saw older kids gang up on my brother, who was nearly 3 years older than I; and by the time I was in early elementary school, I experienced the sting of being called ethnic slurs. We were a cultured, upwardly-mobile, economically well-off family, but my father—who probably had had similar experiences growing up and who had been a high school athlete and Marine during WWII—told me to defend myself against these types of people and injustices. So, I learned to fight and would physically confront those who would insult or otherwise taunt me—and there were numerous of these physical altercations before leaving Texas for Spain.
Even so, I had lived virtually half my life outside the United States, and even more importantly, the formative years of late childhood through early adulthood. Unbeknownst to me at the time, there was a vast disconnect in my intellect, attitudes and perceptions, formed as they were outside the US, and the major social justice/civil rights movements occurring in the United States that I fervently desired to understand and engage in.
On the one hand, in el DF, I could read and strongly empathize with the works, say, of James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time) and Elridge Cleaver (Soul on Ice); the inspiring genius and transformational oratorical and activist power of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the singular, strong, unique voice and actions of Malcolm X; and the majesty and momentousness of Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ Black Power salute (as it was seen to be then) as both medalists stood on the Olympic podium during the Star-Spangled Banner on October 16, 1968, in Mexico City—to the point of wishing to be an active part of the movement in the US, as I felt like an insider.
Also, I had an outsider’s empathy and understanding of the driving forces and values associated with the student and earlier unionists’ protests in Mexico City for democratic action and fairness in labor wages, benefits and conditions—but at the same time, would never dare to become an activist there as there was no doubt that life was cheap, and danger—certain death— was imminent. This certainty was evident to me years before the massacre of Tlaltelolco and was not only “floating” in the air of el DF, but palpable, as well.
The sad irony for me and for my peers was that the pachuco, the pocho, and the chicano were collapsed into the same negative stereotype based on the status quo frameworks and perceptions created, published and disseminated by popular, even acclaimed, cultural spokespersons and widely accepted by the educated and professional class. Thus, in direct contradistinction to my empathy and desire to be an active part of the black civil rights movement, I arrived to the Bay Area having a misguided disdain for the group identified as Chicano that I had read about in the Mexico City newspapers and that had been presented as trouble-makers, who were somehow less than Mexican in language, dress and behavior, and whose showy, tasteless actions were an affront and embarrassment to Mexico.
Nevertheless I knew that my professional aim was in the realm of social change and not sales, and thus I began in late 1971 to seek employment in that arena and found myself interviewing for jobs where my bilingualism was an advantage. I remember vividly, and will forever, upon my arrival in late 1971, purchasing and reading a number of edited paperback volumes in the social sciences whose chapters were authored in the main, but not solely, by black or latino authors, in order to achieve a better grasp of the social context within which I wished to work. I still thought that I was merely refining my existing knowledge base and perspectives, and that my attitudes were in no need of refinement; what I was really doing, however, was preparing myself unwittingly to experience a transformation on all three counts.
At the end of one particular chapter on Mexican Americans/Chicanos, there was a survey that one could take and, through adding up the points achieved associated with each item, derive a total score, which could then be related to a range of categories, where the last category, signifying that the test-taker had no knowledge whatsoever about the context or people within it, was Pendejo. (Note: The term pendejo has many meanings throughout Latin America, mostly pejorative regardless of it having a standard, non-vulgar meaning relating to pubic hair. But in Mexico, its meaning is extremely pejorative, insulting and to be used with caution—although its use is ubiquitous. That’s a socio-cultural contradiction one must deal with.)
I assiduously completed the survey, patiently tallied up my points, and calmly searched for the appropriate category, only to be shocked and genuinely befuddled that my score had placed me in the Pendejo category. It was a moment of epiphany. I respected the survey design sufficiently to at that very moment question the value of my self-assessment of my knowledge base, perceptions and attitudes as they applied to the Mexican American/Chicano context and the issues the community was confronting, and, especially, what I thought I knew of its members and the diverse manifestations of their cultural expression.
Privately, I assumed the questionable sobriquet of pendejo as I realized that it served as the base line from which I could only go up in my development at all levels. From that point on, my readings were not filtered through my preconceived notions, attitudes or interpretations, which enabled me to absorb facts, information, frameworks, analyses and interpretations upon which I could reflect and begin to re-build a new framework that would serve me operationally within the context in which I wished to work, and that would refine my development as a human being.
And that was my state of being as I approached the front door of Dr. Galarza’s modest house in San José, California, perhaps not dressed to kill, but certainly to fight.
The central feature of Dr. Galarza were his eyes. Their dark, brilliantly lit orbs shone as if permanently illuminated by a fire within him. As I stood there, the light they produced was a welcoming one that drew me comfortably into his sphere. At 67 years old, his hair was thick, a bit unwieldy on top—a natural mechón—and totally white; his skin tone, su piel, brought to mind Manuel Machado’s poetic words in Adelfos, “vieja amiga del sol.” His smile was genuine, easy, and open, complementing with its sparkle, the light that beamed from his eyes. His voice, mellow, rich and deliberate in tone and cadence, with each syllable clearly and smoothly articulated, projected sincerity and honesty toward his interlocutor.
He spoke of a project that involved collecting artifacts that would need a curator to catalogue them for use in developing educational materials for teachers and students in Spanish. I heard the word “curator” and imagined at that moment being in a section of a library where the light coming in through the windows highlighted the dust particles floating in the air and falling on scores of card catalogue cabinets, and I could see someone, perhaps myself, in a dark, rumpled suit, wearing frameless glasses, and even having dandruff on the shoulders of the suitcoat.
The word “curator” for some reason conjured up that mental image and had stopped me in my tracks such that I lost for a moment the thread of our conversation. I honestly couldn’t see myself in such a routine, clerk-type role and thought it too boring for the dynamic professional expectations I had envisioned. I subtly pulled myself together, refocused my eyes on his, and began to listen attentively again.
But I felt that the interview was coming to its natural end, and suddenly Dr. Galarza asked me what was to be the final question: “Roberto, do you like to fight?” Without hesitation, and with a clear, confident, even-toned voice, I replied in all honesty: “It’s what I do best.” He threw back his head and let out a roaring laugh.
I did not know it at the time, but I had landed the position as Coordinator of the Bilingual-Bicultural Studio/Laboratory. I was to be part of Dr. Galarza’s team of consultants working within the San Jose Unified School District, and my role as Coordinator would be far from that of the curator I had imagined. Specifically, the team would develop and provide (a) learning materials and activities in Spanish for Spanish-dominant children in grades K through 3, reflecting the children’s real-life contexts, and their cultural and historical contexts, and (b) long-term, professional development for their teachers and teaching assistants.
I experienced yet another epiphany upon joining the team: the realization that from this point on, I would be fighting the good fight daily together with Dr. Galarza−my mentor, my coach, my teacher−in the service of social justice. I felt humbled. I felt rewarded. I felt I arrived home.
Later, of course, in working with Dr. Galarza on a daily basis, I learned more about him—his birth in 1905 in Nayarit, Mexico and immigration to the US with his mother and relatives when he was around 6 years old; his early experience as a farm laborer; his sterling undergraduate academic achievement that earned him membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Honors organization, and later graduate degrees at Stanford and Columbia; his long, relentless and substantive careers in the Pan American Union and as a labor organizer and leader in the National Farm Labor Union and secretary of the National Agricultural Workers Union; his life-long dedication to social change and justice as an activist-scholar, whose commitment to and application of rigorous social science research methods led to publications that were respected and relevant; his extraordinary command of and verbal and written eloquence in English and Spanish; his untiring strength, vision and ability to follow through on projects to help communities and groups at the mercy of government agencies or private enterprises, organize, gain power and visibility, and fight for their rights; his never-ending passion for education as a context and experience for students to learn through meaningful curricula and activities that reflect their immediate social and environmental surroundings and cultural heritage.
Dr. Galarza well understood that the role of language was paramount in meaningful communicative interaction with students. I remember with delight the night a group of us from the Bilingual-Bicultural Studio/Laboratory team had been invited to his house on Franquette Avenue to see and listen to a taped broadcast of an interview with him on bilingual education. Dr. Galarza’s clarion call for quality education is forever etched in my mind, heart and soul: “Bilingual Education cannot be boring the students to death in two languages!”
Dr. Galarza was embraced by many groups—even by those who tried to guide and control his endeavors within the Studio Laboratory—but I never heard him attach a label to his identity. He was an individual with a social conscious, and a life-long belief in the principles of social justice and universal human rights, in my estimation, who had no love for working within or being associated with postsecondary academic institutions. In one of his published essays, I recall reading that after a short while teaching in any university setting, he felt as if he were among ghosts in its hallways. I drove him once to a venue in San José where he was to address an audience of Chicano or Mexican American academics, and before I dropped him off he said “But they will be surprised because I am not going to tell them what they expect to hear.”
Dr. Galarza was a polymath of grand, integrative proportions: a thinker, visionary, activist, scholar, poet, researcher, and gardener—and those are only the roles with which I had first-hand knowledge. He was profound, original and essentially unknowable, for he purposely did not leave a self-recorded trail other than Barrio Boy.*
Dr. Galarza found memories to be unreliable accounts of the past, even or especially one’s own. He chose instead to settle firmly within the context of rigorous scholarship to document, analyze, interpret and publish research that related to the greater issues outside the self that plagued communities and groups, and to work on a small, even personal, scale to address the issues indefatigably and with full knowledge of the challenge before him. Dr. Galarza operated, in my mind, as a chess grandmaster, seeing the field and its players before him, and understanding from a challenger’s first move how the rest of the game will be played out, including all its alternative moves and countermoves.
I sensed this in 1974, when it became evident to me that the Studio Laboratory would not gain the ongoing support of the San Jose Unified School District and instead support a district-friendly bilingual education version headed by willing players with Spanish surnames. I also recognized that Dr. Galarza saw this inevitable ending and would see it through to the end, which meant the demise of the Studio Laboratory.
I felt I was a pawn in this particular game and that my actions, and those of my colleagues, would not lead to further development—it appeared to be a planned fade-out and extinguishing to serve the purpose of moving to the next stage in Dr. Galarza’s continuing fight for relevant social change in the context of education for Spanish-dominant pre-school and early elementary students. I drove over to his house, sat in an overstuffed chair and shared my thoughts, after which he asked me what I planned to do with my newfound analysis. I responded that I felt that I would have to leave my position as coordinator if that were indeed the scenario being followed.
Dr. Galarza, without hesitation, looked directly at me from his standing position and merely said: “We all have to do what we feel is right.” I left the Studio Laboratory in October 1974 to work as supervisor of the grant development unit at Economic and Social Opportunities, a community action agency of Santa Clara County, and nine months later had completed my master’s in Mexican American Graduate Studies, and settled in at Stanford to pursue my PhD in Curriculum and Teacher Education, with a concentration in Bilingual (Bidialectal)/Bicultural Education.
Dr. Galarza submitted a letter of recommendation advocating for my acceptance into the university and also accepted my invitation later to speak in the School of Education to students and faculty regarding the by-then-defunct Studio Laboratory, at which point he stated to the audience that “Roberto and I were colleagues there.” It made me feel humble and proud, and I am forever grateful to have met, worked with, learned from, and fought the good fight alongside el doctor Galarza.
Roberto A. DeVillar, a native of San Antonio, Texas, has written and published academically for decades, but only recently began writing memoirs about his life from 10 to 18 in Seville, Spain. Upon returning to the US, he left for Mexico City, where he earned his BA in Latin American Studies (Social Sciences) at the Universidad de las Américas. While seeking a degree in Mexican American Graduate Studies at San Jose State University (1973-75), he worked with Dr. Ernesto Galarza as coordinator of the Bilingual-Bicultural Studio/Laboratory (1972-74) and Economic and Social Opportunities, Inc. (1974-75). Though widely traveled and experienced in private sector corporate affairs, he returned to complete a master's and doctorate at Stanford University, graduating in 1987. Until 2017, he taught and conducted research in various university systems in the U.S. and abroad.
*Barrio Boy The Story Of A Boy's Acculturation, byGalarza, Ernesto, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN and London, 1971.