Monday, February 15, 2010

Recognize Latinos’ triumphs

Slaying of doctoral student Salcedo should remind community to appreciate those who inspire others

Guest essay by Álvaro Huerta

The tragic death of Agustin Roberto “Bobby” Salcedo, 33, in Mexico on New Year’s Eve raises several important questions: Why, for instance, do we wait until something horrific like this occurs to honor those who have accomplished so much? This also goes for those who live honest, ordinary lives with modest ambitions. And why don’t elected officials and the media focus on more people like Bobby – educator, UCLA doctoral student and public servant – when discussing the plight of Latinos in working-class communities like El Monte?

What is it about human beings that makes us neglect to tell those around us how much we love them or how special they are on a more regular basis? It is very common in wakes and funerals for family members and friends to mourn the loss of a loved one with lingering regrets of not telling or showing those who passed away more affection when they were alive.

Why didn’t I tell him I loved him before he left to go to work? Why didn’t I tell her I’m sorry for getting mad for no apparent reason? Why did I let him drive the car when I knew he had too much to drink? These are just a sample of questions murmured at wakes and funerals throughout the country.

Regret. Agony. Self-blame. These are some of the feelings that go through the minds of family members and friends when someone passes away prematurely. The harsh reality is that sometimes we can make a difference, like making sure a mother takes her heart medication, and other times, it’s just random madness: being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the case of my parents, not a day goes by when I don’t blame myself for not doing more to prevent their deaths. “I should have done more to convince my father to get operated for his prostate cancer before it spread to his bones,” I say to myself. “Why wasn’t I there with my mother when she had her stroke that sent her into a coma?” I ask myself, nightly.

According to news reports, Bobby was abducted and murdered in the state of Durango by a group of armed men as an innocent victim of the country’s vicious drug war. While I’ve kept up with the news of his untimely death, I’m well aware of the positive impact he had not only on his family – wife, parents, siblings, nephews, uncles – but also on the lives of so many young people where he served as a public servant and vice principal in El Monte.

While I never had the pleasure of meeting Bobby, I know his older brother Carlos – a colleague of my wife, Antonia, at an elementary school in East Los Angeles. I will never forget how fondly Carlos spoke of his younger brother, letting me know that Bobby, like me, was getting his Ph.D. from an elite university.

Despite the fact that individuals of Mexican descent make up a large ethnic group in this country, according to a recent study by the UCLA researchers, Chicanos (or Mexican Americans) represented less than 2 percent of all doctoral recipients from 1990 to 2000. In this so-called post-racial era, this is unacceptable. More needs to be done to ensure that Chicanos and other Latinos are well-represented at all levels of the educational system.
As the son of Mexican immigrants, Bobby’s passion for education led him to apply and eventually be accepted to one of the country’s top doctoral programs in education at UCLA.

Focusing on programs aimed at helping Latino boys, in particular, to finish high school and pursue college degrees, Bobby’s dissertation work represents the type of research we need to make sure that more young Latinos get the institutional support and resources needed to improve their lives and open up future opportunities. This is especially necessary in a time when states are cutting back on public education, leaving young people who grow up in barrios and ghettos throughout the country with limited opportunities for upward mobility.

This brings me back to my second point: Elected officials and the mainstream media need to do a better job of shedding light on the positive aspects and role models found in working-class Latino communities. While it’s necessary to discuss the problems that impact these communities at higher rates than the national average, such as unacceptable high school dropout rates, teenage pregnancies, crime, gang involvement and incarceration, we also need to see more cases where Latinos prevail in education, law, medicine, movies and community service.

While the story of a drive-by shooting sells more papers and gets higher ratings on the evening news, let’s not ignore the untold stories of Latinos who attend community colleges, vocational trade centers and other institutions aimed to improve their occupational status in this country while holding down a job and helping their families.

[This essay first appeared in UCLA’s Daily Bruin. Huerta is a UCLA alumnus who is currently a visiting scholar at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.]

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