My mother came from Alamogordo, New Mexico. My dad is from Mexico but he grew up in Laredo, Texas, and my two younger sisters and I grew up in San Antonio, Texas. It was a very stable environment, as we only moved once in the entire time I was growing up. While my dad’s side of the family is from Mexico, they are largely from European and Spanish ancestry, so they are lighter skinned than my mother’s side of the family where there is great cultural mixing between the Mexican and the indigenous cultures of Mexico. This mix of cultures has always been something I’m aware of, because it showed me how differences in skin color really affect the way people view you.My mom’s side of the family can be traced back to the Aztecs. My grandmother used to tell me about how the tribes could use the stars to understand nature. These stories helped me to become interested in science and especially physics because that is the branch of science that astronomy fell under. My early interest in science shaped the first twenty-two years of my life.
I always knew that I wanted to be an astronomer, but it was not until I was in graduate school that I found out I should change to astrophysics. I learned early that everyone who seemed to be doing astrophysics was a Ph.D. or going after a Ph.D., and yet there really weren’t any role models that helped show me it would possible to be get all the education that I would need to become an astrophysicist.
I was a pretty good high school student, but when I got to college I remember thinking, ”This is hard!” I think the problem was that when I was in high school things were too easy. I had picked up some bad study habits so school was rough for a few years, and in some ways I lost quite a bit of self-esteem as an undergraduate. I was even wondering if I had what it took to go on to graduate school. I can trace my problems in school back to not being as prepared by high school as the other students who came in.
Physics was a difficult undergraduate major, and my family suggested that I go into something more applicable, such as law or engineering. However I really wanted to be an astronomer. I knew the only way that I could do that was to get a physics degree. I stuck with it knowing somehow that I would do it. There was a department chair at the University of Dallas who was sure that I was a very bright student. He gave me some encouragement even when there were other faculty who were not so supportive. Fortunately, I took a year off from school, and I got a very boring job. That helped me realize that having a boring job was not the way I wanted to spend the next forty years of my life! I decided I wanted to go ahead and become an astrophysicist. I eventually applied to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, because the Space Telescope Science Institute had just been established there. Baltimore had no Chicano or Latino community at that time and for a while I hated it there. I thought seriously about dropping out of the program and transferring to another university. However, over time, I really grew to love the city. I eventually earned a Ph.D. in physics.
I am now anassociate professor of physics at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos just south of Austin, Texas. I am responsible for educating students who are interested in becoming physicists or engineers. The other part of my job is research. My research now contributes toward the development of very thin film coating materials for the magnetic sensor and semiconductor and microfabrication industries. For example, video cassettes use magnetic films to record information. These films are sometimes only a few atoms in thickness! To get an idea of how thin these films are, a dime is about five million atoms thick!
Probably the best way that I have to connect with students right now is advising a group here on campus called MAES(Mexican-American Engineers and Scientists). I talk to the MAES students and encourage them to become involved in K-12 outreach efforts. What I say to them is never underestimate the power of education, and never stop learning, no matter what your career is. People who do this are the people who always succeed in whatever they choose to do with their lives.