Sometimes getting to Berkeley is as difficult as getting into Berkeley.
The University attracts from all the world’s pathways, be they paved or unpaved, clamorous or still, open or closed—a dazzling array of brainpower hitched to goodwill.
Of all the people from around the globe who study or work at Cal, or do both, we have chosen a disparate quartet who arrived at zip code 94720 from three continents and four countries, including this one.
The people you are about to meet do not know one another, but they have several things in common: They are very smart and very ambitious, and not merely for themselves. All four profess themselves, in different ways, grateful for the level of scholarship and opportunities at Cal. OK, another commonality is that not one mentioned the word bear, singular or plural.
The moves for these four people—from Mexico, from Kenya, from Iran, and from Connecticut (via the ancestral Blackfeet Nation of Montana)—have not been without challenges and surprises … in a phrase, culture shock. But sometimes much of the shock happened along the journey, with the University of California, Berkeley, eventually and unexpectedly becoming a shock absorber. Who knew?
Edwin Ombuya Okong’o
Edwin Okong’o, M.J. ’07, left southwestern Kenya in 1995 at the age of 20 to live with an uncle in Santa Clara. Edwin’s main motive was to get away from his critical and abusive father, but he was also chasing the American dream, or maybe it was the American fantasy.
“The perception that we have of America from Kenya, it’s a place where money grows on trees, to use a cliché here. People really believe that.”
Then reality hit. “My uncle, who I thought lived in the kind of mansions I saw on TV and in pictures about America, lived in a two-bedroom apartment with six other people. And I was the seventh person. It was so shocking to me that really there is poverty in this country. I learned very early that things weren’t going to be easy.”
A big clue came when Edwin announced he’d like to go to college. “My uncle, who had already been here for a while, goes, ‘Do you have the $8,000 needed for college?'” Edwin started looking for a job.
Because Kenya was a British colony, Edwin was fluent in English. His father, furthermore, taught primary school. And Edwin had a high school diploma and a semester at a technical college in Kenya. But he lacked work experience. “So what I had to do was lie that I’d been here a couple years.” When he did well, he said, they told him, “‘Because you speak English better than some of the immigrants, OK, we’re going to put you at the register. But you can’t count money.’ Now they think that something is wrong with your head.”
Edwin, who today is a writer, humorist, and lecturer in Swahili in the Department of African American Studies, is sitting in a white T-shirt, slacks, and sandals over a plate of delectable food at Asmara Ethiopian restaurant in Oakland, recalling an early job selling ham. It was during a busy Thanksgiving weekend.
“The grandson of a regular customer reserved a ham, but did not specify the butt, and the shank was the default.” The grandfather picked it up, realized he did not get the cut he wanted, and asked for an exchange. “I said, ‘It’s all reserved, so I can’t.’ He said, ‘It’s been a tradition in our family. We don’t serve the shank, and I’m not leaving here.’ It was a long line, I had people waiting. I said, ‘Let me talk to my manager.'”
Via the manager, Edwin offered an extra shank, free. The man was not interested. “He goes, ‘Do you understand English?'” Edwin rolled his eyes at the telling. “‘No, I don’t. Do you?’ And I went into, ‘You think just because maybe I speak with an accent, I’m wearing an apron, you think I’m stupid? You can’t talk to me like that, sir.'”
The manager fired him. “Because the customer’s always right. Even when they’re being a jerk.”
When Edwin was a restaurant busboy, a customer (“a really nice guy”) was so thirsty, he asked Edwin to leave a pitcher of water at his table. Edwin did so. The manager was furious. Edwin was fired, again.
“There was a lot of doing jobs like these and people looking down on you. It’s like you’re a stupid person, when in fact you could be, as in my case, using this job as a transition to get to somewhere. Even some other people that are actually ‘stuck’ in those jobs. I mean, who doesn’t want to better their life? This is what a lot of people don’t understand.”
After several years of service jobs, Edwin decided that he was tired of being “treated like crap.” His avenue of escape was warehouse work.
“The people you talk to, they’re people you work with. And the warehouse is kind of fun. It’s a lot of blue-collar dudes talking about anything. You load your truck, you get out of there, and you go home. You don’t have to deal with those idiots at customer service.”
Edwin has especially fond memories of a semiconductor manufacturing company in Milpitas. He should have; it changed his life. He advanced to shift leader, before becoming restless. “The most I could ever earn was $22 an hour. Guys doing that job, who had a college degree, were getting paid $80,000 a year. Just because they had a college degree. It wasn’t even related to what they might have had a college degree in.”
In Kenya, children are taught that all white people are smart, he said. But at one point, a warehouse manager who was white discovered that Edwin could write better than he could. “So he would have me look at reports he had prepared,” he said. “The guy couldn’t write if you put a gun on his head.”
Edwin edited the reports. “I didn’t even have an AA degree.” And they were turned in without giving credit to Edwin. That’s when he realized he needed to finish college.
By then he was 27 years old and had been taking classes periodically at a West Valley College in Santa Clara. He got an AA degree in 2003, in communication studies and liberal arts. “By then I had been laid off three times from my job at the warehouse. They lay you off and then they call you back.”
Enough, he decided. “I need to go to college. I need to push.”
Credit a co-worker (and still friend), “a 54-year-old white guy.” He told Edwin about his experience attending San Jose State on a basketball scholarship. There he encountered players taller and better than he was, got depressed for being benched, dropped out of college, and to his lasting regret, stayed out. “He would tell me, ‘You see me in the warehouse, joke with you guys, but when I get home I crash. Sometimes I fall [asleep] without even taking a shower, because I’m so tired. Here I try to look strong and to lift things with you to keep my job. If you get a chance, go to college.’ That was all I needed.”
That year Edwin was accepted at Cal State Hayward. He planned to study radio broadcasting, as part of a dream to make millions doing stand-up comedy. But the program had been cut. “I’m already enrolled. What am I going to do?” He took some classes in mass communication instead.
Long story short: A string of teachers, starting with former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Marsha Ginsburg, encouraged Edwin into journalism. “That was the first time anybody ever told me that I was good at anything. First time in my life. My father would have been like, ‘Why is a comma missing here?’ Then I began to think, ‘Is she just saying this because I’m the only African kid in the class?’ I still think white people are very smart and they must be writing flawlessly.”
Another professor, Robert Terrell, famously a taskmaster, gave Edwin an A and told him, “You need to think about becoming a writer.” A third teacher, Lonny Brooks, asked if he could use one of Edwin’s papers to instruct a class.
Before Edwin even graduated, Terrell told him he needed to go to graduate school. “I go, ‘No, you’re really playing with my mind. Me?’ A bachelor’s degree was an overachievement already. I’m happy. But he said, ‘No, you need to.’ He’s really funny. He’s an African-American guy. He goes, ‘Most people think the black guy that white people are afraid of is the one hanging out at the corner smoking weed, saggy pants. No. They know what to do with him. They can pick him up anytime and lock him up. The one they’re afraid of is the one with the higher education, because you know their shit and they can’t bullshit you.’ He put it very candidly.”
After getting letters of recommendation from Terrell and Ginsburg, Edwin applied only to Berkeley. “I was so intimidated. Berkeley is like the cream of the crop.” But he worked hard on his statement of purpose and made the short list. Then he received a packet containing the words Welcome to Berkeley. “I was at a parking lot at my apartment building and I just broke down and cried like a little kid. Is this really happening? And that’s how I started my career.”
By career, he does not mean teaching Swahili; he means his own writing.
Once Edwin realized from his professors that journalists need not write only straight news stories, he decided he most wanted to tell his own stories of Africa. “There are stories beyond child soldiers, wars, and AIDS,” he said. Countless subjects were at his disposal. For one assignment, Edwin wrote about his great-grandmother, to whom he often ran for shelter, to escape his father’s beatings. His father, Edwin added, beat him only when sober, never when he drank.
“She was a no-nonsense woman,” he said of his great-grandmother. “Everything anybody [thinks] about an African woman, she totally turned upside-down. She beat up men and she fought men.” And as punishment for refusing to pay a property tax to the colonial government, she spent five days a year in jail.
Edwin’s writing breakthrough came in a class taught by Adam Hochschild, whom he had long admired for his book about Africa, King Leopold’s Ghost. Thrilled to be admitted to the class, Edwin was especially struck by hearing of Hochschild’s problems with his own father. “Wow, even white people go through this!” He smiled, adding, “That is what education is supposed to do. It makes you learn more about other people. We are not alone at this. It got me so interested in other cultures and other people. Through that class I learned that the human experience is pretty much the same.”
He also credits Hochschild with teaching him that if he didn’t want to bore people or make them feel sorry for him, he would have to find a way to write about his father with some balance. Edwin then wrote not only of his father’s cruelties, but his kindness, such as that he stayed loyal to his wife, refused to hit her or to take a second wife, as did other men. And he once bought Edwin the Oxford English Dictionary. “I read that sucker from beginning to end.”
The person in the Journalism Department he especially credits with helping him hone his writing craft is Deirdre English, head of the J-School’s Clay Felker Magazine Program. “Five years after I graduated from Berkeley, she continues to be a mentor, not only in my writing, but also in my life. She is my mother in America.”
After Edwin got his master’s and held some temporary jobs, he received an offer to teach Swahili at Berkeley. Although he would like to see his African stories published and/or to have his comedy routines take off, he needs stable income—his responsibilities now extend not only to himself, but his wife, whom he met in the local Kenyan community, and their 18-month-old daughter. And he clearly revels in teaching, for which he employs both his sense of humor and his sense of Africa.
Edwin Okong’o wants to teach with a unique approach, as one who is proficient but “who also is a human being, relates to students as human beings and knows their struggles.”
Mona Shirpour has one heck of an office address: Environmental Energy Technologies Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 1 Cyclotron Road.
While giving a tour of the busy chemistry lab where she is doing post-doctoral research, she endeavored to explain her work, showing pieces of materials she uses to improve the function of batteries—specifically, lithium-ion batteries.
Mona was born in Tehran in 1980, a year after the revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. She left Iran in 2007, when she was 27, so she speaks English with an accent and some awkwardness. But she speaks Science with breathtaking fluency. The title of a paper she coauthored for a 2011 conference in France was “Blocking grain boundaries in barium zirconate proton conductors.”
Mona is a polite and enthusiastic translator of science to the lay level. Every attempt I made to understand a fraction of what she described in the laboratory—or over refreshments she brought for an afternoon break (Berkeley Lab does not sell coffee during the hours when an expatriate Iranian is accustomed to a boost)—was met with a bright smile and the word, “Exactly!”
As in, “Exactly! These structures are usually Li-containing oxides.”
Mona Shirpour, furthermore, is extraordinarily modest. She mentioned going to Stuttgart in 2007 to study, but it wasn’t clear until she sent me her résumé that going to Stuttgart meant getting her Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute, where she graduated summa cum laude. Her thesis was “Grain boundary characterization of electroceramics: Acceptor-doped BaZrO 3, an intermediate temperature proton conductor.”
Mona’s path to Berkeley was paved by chemistry and hindered by politics.
Some background: Mona, the daughter of a civil engineer and a stay-at-home mother of two, studied materials science, getting a bachelor’s degree from Iran University of Science and Technology and a master’s from Sharif University of Technology. She began her marital as well as scientific trajectory in Iran. “I met my husband at the university when I was in Tehran.” She was 18 years old, and the couple attended school together and then worked at the same company, said Mona. “I first moved to Germany for my Ph.D., and he joined me later to start his Ph.D. Now he’s doing post doc at UC Davis.”
In a way, studying at the Max Planck Institute and working at the Berkeley Lab seem to have been less foreign than was her experience of the world outside Iran.
“When I moved to Germany, I would say I was shocked more with my society and my culture rather than their society and their culture. I actually grew up in a very open family…. What I have always looked for is an open society which accepts you and respects you as you are.”
She still seems affected by life in Germany and the other Western Europe countries she visited. “There is a kind of absolute freedom in daily life of ordinary people, and society is safe and very healthy. You can go out anytime of the day and night, and nothing goes wrong.”
Mona was also surprised that in comparison to the ostentation she knew in Iran (“People buy a lot of things. They decorate their houses a lot.”), Germans she met did not seek a “luxury life” but preferred a “more simple life.” If they came into a lot of money, they rarely spent it on a bigger house, newer luxurious furniture, or cars. She was struck by the fact that even her supervisor took the bus, as did she and other students.
Yet she noticed a lack of worldliness among other graduate students. People didn’t know much about other countries, she said. They seemed to think that east of Turkey “is a black area called Middle East, and they couldn’t really recognize between Arab countries, Iran, Pakistan.”
Fellow graduate students asked weird questions. “What I didn’t like was that when I got there, people were asking me, ‘Do you eat meat? Do you wear a skirt?’ Or ‘Why you don’t wear a scarf?'”
And “Oh! ‘Have you ever seen snow?’ I think seeing snow doesn’t bring any privilege. Does it?” Tehran, she said, is near a mountain. “We see the snow-capped Damavand. We have a normal winter. We have snow for a few weeks. We have a hot summer and a cold winter.” Such ignorance from others made her feel hurt and disappointed toward colleagues “from everywhere around the world, from China, Mongolia, India, Brazil, United States, and Germany, of course.”
Then one day, she asked a Chinese friend if the house in her hometown was made from wood or concrete. “The friend got upset and said of course it is made from concrete,” she said. It made Mona realize how little she knew about other people’s homelands. “Then I’m hurting them in the same way.”
She started reading books, especially novels, about various countries. “I became more soft and I decided to change myself.” So when the questions came, she knew that those asking them did not “have any bad intentions. I was happy to explain things for them in details. Then I found more friends. The atmosphere became more friendly. After that I realized that it was my fault. I should integrate into a society.”
It took more than bridging cultural differences for this Iranian scientist to be accepted onto the staff of the Berkeley National Lab.
Mona got a job interview at Berkeley Lab seven months after her husband had finished his Ph.D. and gone to UC Davis. In addition to the interview, she was required to take a seminar, which she gladly did. “But I was told that because of my nationality I would need a special kind of clearance. This, unfortunately, took five months.” The hard part, she said, was uncertainty. She did not know how long she would have to wait, or if she would even get the security clearance.
In the meantime, she had to stay in the United States, or risk not getting back in. So in Davis, she waited. She does not blame her host country. “I was always telling my husband that I cannot expect anything from a country which is not my homeland. You can expect something from your own parents, but not from your neighbors,” she said.
Mona’s clearance for a job in the American government–affiliated laboratory was finally granted. “I got to work on November 1st, 2011.”
She is a hard working and dedicated scientist, according to her supervisor, Marca Doeff. In fact, Mona works such long hours at the lab, she rented a small studio only a block away rather than make a daily round-trip to Davis. “I got car phobia.” She reunites with her husband on weekends.
She has little time to hang out, but goes sailing with Berkeley friends, and on picnics. “I take any opportunity.”
An unhappy difference between working at the Max Planck Institute and the Berkeley Lab is the role of funding for research. “I did my Ph.D. in a German institution with a high yearly budget. There was apparently no funding issue. I am very new here, but soon realized that researchers are struggling hard to get funding for their research.” It might come from, say, the Department of Energy or the National Science Foundation. “And this of course is very stressful and tough.”
Funding issues aside, there is no hiding Mona Shirpour’s excitement about battery research, for advances such as replacing expensive organic electrolytes with aqueous ones as cheap as sea salt and water. She added, “Actually these cells are working. They don’t have that high-energy density as nonaqueous ones. But [they] can be perfect for grid applications.”
She is uncertain what is next for her. Her field, materials science, offers “very good quality” research opportunities, mainly in the United States, Japan, then Germany and France and others, she listed. Ideally, she would continue her research, preferably at a university, but she figures chances are slim for her to get an academic position here. “I’m not very optimistic we can stay in California.” And she is “just a bit worried” about her next destination.
“I would like to live in an open society. I sometimes hear that people [in other parts of the U.S.] are being asked about their religion or ethnicity while renting an apartment.” She has not encountered this problem in the Bay Area. “I found this society very kind, very open. Not only in the lab. Even outside.” Californians rarely ask her about what she wears or eats or if she has seen snow.
“I feel much more comfortable here,” she smiled. “In Germany you get to the bus and everybody is blonde except you.” That, she said, does not happen here.
The common way to identify in print the tribal affiliation of a Native American is to write the name of the tribe in parentheses after the person’s name. Case in point: Darren Modzelewski (Blackfeet). On one website, however, he’s listed as Darren Modzelewski (Blackfeet/Polish).
“My dad’s parents immigrated from Poland in the ’30s. They lived on the Russian border of Poland, so they left for a variety of reasons. He grew up a typical emigrant, didn’t know much about that side of the family. His parents would say, ‘You’re in America. You’re an American now.'”
An American who made his way to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, met and married a woman there, and had baby Darren? Not even close.
“I grew up in Connecticut, a small town about 45 minutes due north of New Haven called Southbury. It’s in between Woodbury and Middlebury and Waterbury and Roxbury. The ‘bury’ section of Connecticut,” he smiled.
The setting for our talk was the patio at Strada, more or less across the street from Berkeley (Boalt) Law, where Darren is a third-year student. He had just hurried over from a meeting of the International Human Rights Law Clinic. His internship project there involves assembling a full record of the boarding school system that Canada (like the United States) foisted on its indigenous population, often with horrific results.
Darren’s Blackfeet affiliation comes from a maternal great-great-grandmother in Montana. The little the family knows about her is that she married a German man, left Montana, and gave birth to Darren’s mother’s grandmother in Connecticut. For whatever reason, she left both him and Connecticut, and returned to Montana.
“I don’t have connections to [the main Blackfeet town of] Browning. I grew up around eastern tribal people. I learned traditions from the east and grew up around folks from Wampanoag Nation, Mohawk Nation, Mohegan Nation, Abenaki people. They became an extended family. Because my immediate family is very small.”
Both his parents, Darren said, furthered and encouraged this connection to Native heritage, even if it was not Blackfeet.
His western migration was all his own.
“I moved to California in the summer of 2003 to start the graduate program here in anthropology.” His undergraduate degree, from Brown, was in archeology and history. “I grew up hearing stories and histories of people and they were very real and very emotional. The history that I was learning was amazing history, but it was political, social, and economic. I didn’t see the people. In the archeology courses that I was taking in particular, I found people. I found histories. In archeology I could tell stories about the past. And I found concordance with contemporary problems and those stories, through archeology.”
He got his master’s degree in 2004. “For me, archeology was a tool for other things. I wouldn’t have been able to say it then, but now—social change, political activism.” He applied to law school in 2009, he said, to continue to pursue those questions where he saw problems of social justice in the area of “overlap between archeology and law.”
That overlap could mean only one thing: NAGPRA.
NAGPRA is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. Basically, it means that institutions and museums holding Native materials are obliged, if possible, to inform the tribe they came from exactly what the materials are, so the tribe can try to get them back. The underlying assumption is that countless items, including bones, were stolen or collected under unfair circumstances. Repatriation, for both parties, is an arduous process.
For his dissertation, Darren found an enormous, contentious, and controversial niche: the repatriation to a particular tribe of some of the ancestral remains held by the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
“I was lucky enough to be given permission by the Tachi Yokut tribe of Southern California to do research on collections at the Hearst Museum, and work on a repatriation project with them.… Tachi had made a claim on the collection, but they couldn’t have it repatriated because it was unaffiliated. You have to show affiliation before you can actually get ancestral remains back. So the faculty at the anthropology department and the museum, knowing me, said, ‘Well, look. Here’s somebody that’s willing to do this work, can do this work, wants to do this work.’ I was vetted by the tribe. They said, ‘OK, fine.'”
Darren plans to work with the Tachi Yokut “to seek repatriation for both burial offerings as well as ancestral remains,” once affiliation is determined.
The question of whether university scientists have the right to conduct experiments on others’ bones is part of the controversy. But the paramount concern to tribes is that their ancestors are returned to the place from which they came. So far, the remains he has studied have not been repatriated. “We’re still working on it. It takes a long time.”
Darren is clearly one busy man. Evidence for that is not only his seven-page résumé, listing honors, associations, activities, teaching jobs as a graduate student, grants and awards, research topics, fellowships, archeological field experience, conference papers, service positions (for example, Tutor/Mentor, American Indian Child Resource Center, Oakland), and degrees. In addition, he took on two daunting tasks simultaneously.
Or, as he put it in an email, “Yes, while in law school I was finishing my Ph.D.” He has completed his dissertation, “Constructing Native American Identity in the Context of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” and plans to file it this semester.
Darren is nothing if not diplomatic about the University’s response to his work. He understands that having an outside organization come in and make a lot of demands on the University is time consuming and expensive and distracts from day-to-day operations. He also admits to knowing little about university administration. But in his opinion, Berkeley has been slow to engage with NAGPRA and with tribal communities. Perhaps, he suggests, the University doesn’t see the bill as “a piece of human rights legislation,” or as “a federal statute that they are required to carry out.”
“Then there’s potentially misunderstanding on what and who tribal people are. And what it truly means to be sovereign.”
At issue, as well, is how some students and even faculty feel about Natives and Native issues. By the vagaries of heritage, Darren is an inadvertent interloper. His chiseled face resembles a Plains Indian, but he is as light-skinned as, say, a Pole.
“Most people don’t recognize that I’m part Native. So some of the things that I hear are less than encouraging.” Asked for an example of what he hears, he said, “Well, one that comes up often is [that] Indian people all have casinos. They’re all rich. Or they’re all just a bunch of drunks. These are ideas or words that are said by some undergraduates here. Graduate students tend to be, but not always, a little more careful with their words—just because it’s the nature of being a graduate student, to be careful of your words.”
And though, he said, he occasionally comes across a member of the faculty who believes that “Indians are just a special interest group” that gets “special rights,” he finds others “who are incredibly knowledgeable, and they’re incredibly active within tribal communities, Native and non-Native, who are working for substantive social change. It runs the gamut. It really does. And I think that’s indicative. This is a large public institution.”
Darren knows well that the Bay Area has a large Native population, but as in many urban areas, Natives may be invisible to others and sometimes one another, except on certain days. “We have Indigenous Peoples Day, Berkeley has the powwow and supports it, the powwows that go on through the Native American Health Center in San Francisco.” So maybe there is a bit more awareness here, he said.
Yet Native students might feel isolated, if it were not for a woman Darren calls “a savior”: Carmen Foghorn.
“Carmen’s the advisor for Native grad students on campus. Carmen seeks us out,” not the other way around, he said. Foghorn, who is half Isleta Pueblo and half Navajo, starts emailing grad students even before they start school, he said. “She’s just … She is in a lot of ways … She’s uplifting.”
Foghorn, he said, and Cindy Andallo, who helps run the American Indian Graduate Program, work “well beyond the hours they are paid to work.”
In a way, Darren seems entirely uber-capable, self-sufficient, and self-starting. But he has also wandered into a world that’s very different from the one he comes from. He knows how other Native students feel when they arrive at Berkeley from a more rural place, especially a rural reservation. They feel “hemmed in,” he said. “Pick a big place with big sky, and then come here. And come here where the clock works on a different schedule.”
He shook his head. The hands of his clock, of course, are spinning.
His parents met when Luis’s father, who helped run the family’s Chinese restaurant in Sinaloa, Mexico, did daily business at a bank where Luis’s mother worked. “I’m actually half Chinese, half Mexican,” says Luis. The family, including Luis’s three younger sisters, lived in a home attached to the back of the restaurant, walking through it to come and go. Little Luis bought Buddha keychains in bulk, then sold them at a profit to restaurant customers.
This year, at the age of 22, he graduated from Berkeley with a bachelor’s in business.
Over lunch at a Thai restaurant on University, Luis explained that the most difficult part of his trajectory did not come from being a double minority, or poor, or gay, but from being undocumented.
We spoke two days before he—among many others—lined up to take advantage of President Obama’s offer allowing young people in his situation “deferred action,” a two-year period to be in this country legally, without fear of deportation. Luis seemed almost too excited to eat.
Eight years ago, his mother left Mexico on a tourist visa and took her children to Buena Park in Orange County (“It’s really close to Knott’s Berry Farm.”) to seek medical help for one of his sisters. Initially, Luis thought they were on vacation. “I didn’t even say ‘Bye’ to my friends or nothing. And that was bad, at the beginning, because I was really sad.” His sister got the medical help she needed, and then his mother kept them in the United States after their visa ran out, trying to apply for residency. (Luis remembers her often crying in frustration.) Meanwhile, her husband went back and forth, pursuing various business ventures. Eventually, they divorced. She and the children stayed.
Luis, 14 years old at the beginning of a visit that has not yet ended, began going to Buena Park High School. He spoke Spanish, traces of Mandarin, and no English. “I had the perfect score in math. Then in English I was taking three ESL classes per day.” A teacher allowed him to stay after school daily to use the computer.
By his senior year, Luis was put in advanced placement classes and thinking of college. He was the only student from the school nominated for a scholarship of several thousand dollars. That was when he learned the value of a social security number.
“They sent my application and they gave me the scholarship and they gave me the interview and everything, but then they called back again and they asked for the number. That’s when I couldn’t get the money. They had to nominate another.” He poked at his food. “That’s when everything started to make sense to me.”
“I was working really hard during high school. I came as a sophomore … and then I was number 14 out of 300-and-something students. And my GPA was 4.14. I only had A’s in my transcript.
“So when that happened I was really depressed. I was going to orientations and I saw that the price was like $25,000 per semester or something. How am I supposed to get so much money? And I couldn’t apply for any financial aid.”
Luis ended up at Fullerton Community College in Orange County for three years, thanks in part to scholarships that did not require a social security number. And, through pluck and effort—and more scholarships (two of them from the Cal Alumni Association, which publishes this magazine)—he was accepted at Berkeley as an undergraduate. He had looked at other schools but wanted Cal. “It was the first university public school in California. I liked that history. Haas is really well known by so many places, and it’s one of the top schools.” And he wanted to study business.
But he was stressed and homesick. “I missed my family. And I was taking five classes every semester.” He got his first C, which still pains him. When he could manage, he made monthly visits to his mother and sisters in Orange County.
His mother would make his favorite foods, including frijoles puercos. “It’s beans with pork.” If she also packed more food to go, plus cookies, plus items like shampoo, Luis would travel by bus or get a ride. If the gifts were lighter, he would take a plane. Unlike other undocumented people, Luis can travel by air; he carries a valid Mexican passport. But he has not returned to Mexico for fear that he would not be allowed back into the United States.
During his time at Berkeley, Luis met many Asian-American students, but … “I know I’m Asian. I know I look a little bit Asian. And I know my last name is Asian. But I don’t feel that connection with them.”
Luis joined or started various organizations such as the Latino Business Student Association and got hired at various jobs, including being an accountant for a community nonprofit. No social security number necessary—he is an “independent contractor” with a tax ID number. He pays nearly a third of his income to the IRS in taxes, he said.
Why would anyone deport him? he wondered out loud. “I have done so many things for this community, which is my community as well, that I don’t think it’s going to be fair for me and even for them, to send me back to Mexico. At my other job [an internship with Inner City Advisors], I created businesses, and they have Socials, so I’m creating jobs for people who can work. I’m not here just doing nothing, you know?”
At one point, Luis extended his allegiances; he became a Greek. “I just wanted to be part of a fraternity on campus.” The one he chose, Sigma Epsilon Omega, was gay and it was multicultural. “I wanted to see how other gays act.”
Some of his fraternity brothers, he discovered, are “not even out to their families. I was like, ‘Whoa. That’s hard.'” He helped create a workshop for people in his situation. “Because we feel that being undocumented and being queer at the same time is really hard. It’s like a double challenge. When I was in my fraternity, I came out as undocumented to them.”
That, he said, was much more fraught than coming out as gay. He carries his Mexican passport wherever he goes, in case Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stops him and threatens him with deportation.
“One day, my passport was showing, and [some friends on campus] told me, ‘I’m going to call ICE to pick you up.'” The guys meant it as a joke. But Luis, who once feared he might be deported when he was ticketed for driving without a driver’s license, which of course he can’t have, did not laugh.
“That’s some of the things I notice in Berkeley. The campus is really diverse and really open to anyone, but the people on campus, sometimes they’re not.”
Yet he says he is thankful for the opportunity given him by donors and others. There are so many people, “who day by day believe in the strengths and potential that students,” regardless of their status, bring to Berkeley.