Climbing the Mountain of Education
G: Can you share with us a bit about your background and where you are from?
R: I was born in El Paso, Texas. We lived there for just a little while and then we moved to Tucson, Arizona. During those periods of my life, my parents were mostly migrant farm workers. At one point in Arizona, my dad had a heart attack and we had to stabilize a little bit. He then became a part time baker and we moved to Santa Rosa which is about an hour from San Francisco. At that time there were a lot of changes, but one of the changes was obviously that Santa Rosa, was much more of an urban setting. So I grew up in what would be called a ghetto basically. Also, it was a time of, this is more my older brother’s and sister’s, but a time of change. They got involved in the Brown Berets, the brown Chicano movement and in various types of movements empowering Latinos. My sister went into law school and she got into Chicano consciousness; I was a little kid deeply influenced by my older siblings.
In terms of professionally, I went to Piner High School. At first I had to go to school in Arizona and that was not a good experience for the most part. The rest of the time I was in California and I had some really bad experiences, but by the time I got to junior high and high school they became pleasant. Then I took off from school for about nine years. I eventually went back to college and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History and Religion Studies from Holy Names University. I obtained my masters at the University of Notre Dame and am currently getting my PhD from Boston College.
G: What was the focus of your master’s degree?
R: Master of Theological Studies. This allowed me to study a lot of areas in theology like: ethics, biblical studies, scripture etc. in a broad way before I focused on a specific area, which I think is a good way to go. I’m a big fan of learning some sort of broad thing before specializing. In that sense I like what we would term now as the liberal arts or the humanities tradition of education.
G: What made you go into theology?
R: It’s funny people always ask that. I tell people all the time I don’t know that you ever know 100% why you do anything, and certainly not when you’re doing it. So as kind of odd as it sounds, I think for me one of the reasons I went into theology is because when I was growing up, it’s kind of sad but its bittersweet now that I am older, is that there was just a lot of change and bad things. There was a lack of permanence; when you are working out in the field and also just when you are poor. When you are marginalized, there is sort of a “nothing stays around” feeling, you know you are always worried about bad things happening, of “the other shoe dropping.” And so I think part of studying about God or religion, was about trying to find something that was permanent. Something that stayed and I really believe that is part of why I studied God and sought God; it was to sort of have a sense of control, of what I felt as a kid was a world out of control. So that’s honestly why I began studying theology, for sort of self preservation if you want, but somewhere along the way that transformed. So now it is much more about how can I serve God? How can I serve the common good? I think theology and religion are extremely important and I think that we all kind of have them in a sense. We are all seeking meaning and seeking something that lasts; we are all trying to understand what justice is and what love is. So that is why I think I got into studying theology.
G: How did that passion or that interest that you had in theology make you go into education? Did you always, when you started to study theology, think that you wanted to transfer that knowledge to others?
R: I remember when I was in junior high this guy, his name is Hank Patterson, was probably the most influential person in my life, with the exception of my immediate biological parents and my family. He was a science teacher, a junior high science teacher, and in fact I use him when I’m applying for jobs for university teaching. They typically ask you to do your teaching philosophy and I use Hank a lot because what he taught me was how to be a person; how to love well. I remember the first day of class in 7th grade, it was a science class. I remember sitting at the back of the class and he came into the class and said, “My name is Mr. Patterson and you don’t have to like me but you can’t stop me from loving you.” I just remember being so confused. I never had someone so clearly wanting to love me. I get sentimental even thinking about it. It was like no matter what he was going to break down all of my barriers and my defense mechanisms and overcome my fears. So Hank was very influential to me and he really shaped my life. When my dad died he’s one of the guys that helped me through that difficult period.
I remember telling Hank in 9th grade, “I’m going to be a teacher because I want to be like you.” He said “No, be a lawyer you’ll make more money and it’s better job security” and I told him “No, no you have made an impact in my life and I really want to teach and do that to others,” and he said “Rene, you’re always going to be a teacher, you’re the kind of person that always helps people by teaching them things.” So he said, “Just be a lawyer, you’ll get paid like a lawyer but you’ll be a teacher wherever you go it’s always going to be part of who you are as a person, you are a teacher; you’re a born teacher. So you don’t necessarily have to do it as a job, that’s what you’re going to be as person.” So I think I was always, like Hank said, “always a teacher.” It is in my heart, it is how I live life; as a teacher.
How did I land in the class room? I was a youth minister and I was studying theology, studying political science, sociology, and economic theory. I wasn’t in school at all; I was literally learning all this stuff on my own. I was reading anything I could get my hands on and I was working at places like Sears Automotive and at a daycare and at all these odd jobs. During the night after I got off work I would read all of this intellectual stuff. What happened is that there was this teacher that taught high school, he was my friend, he taught at a Catholic high school. He taught theology and one day he said, “Hey can you come in and give a talk in my class because you know so much” and I agreed. I got in the classroom and I really liked it.
When people realized I knew theology I began getting other speaking engagements, especially at churches. I realized that I was the happiest when I was in a kind of like a classroom setting teaching; that really made my day brighter. Then learning the material really well was important and good, but not enough. What was really important was sharing it. That is how I went from just studying theology and political science and all these kinds of theoretical things to teaching. That is what pushed me into the classroom. I went to John and said “I want to do what you do. I want to wake up in the morning and go teach a class. How do I do that?” He told me “Well you have to get a BA and that is when I went back to college to become a teacher, but in a way Hank is right, I have always been a teacher.
G: I know you taught high school. Is that where you began teaching after you got your BA?
R: My first teaching job was at St. Joseph the Worker in Berkeley and it was really difficult. You know it is very difficult for first and second year teachers. I tell them that the first three years of teaching is nothing like real life teaching. It was a horrible stressed out time, but I knew that I wanted to reach the kids. I wanted to somehow make a difference. The year ended, they wanted me to sign for another year. I said no. I wanted to teach high school, this were junior high kids. I really think that with teaching you have to find, in a funny way, who your classroom is. For me, junior high was not my gift. So I did not sign with St. Joseph the Worker and I looked for work. I remember, very vividly, I had about $38 dollars in my checking account, my rent was two months past due, I was living in Berkeley. I was stretching to go for a run and I remember thinking, I had sent out applications, if I don’t get a call soon, I’m going to have to move in with my mom. I went for a run and I came back and there was a message on my phone machine and I pressed the button and it said, “This is Berni Puccini from Moreau High School, secretary to Patricia Guister from Moreau High School we’d like to interview you for a job, for the remainder of the year.” It was half way through the school year and so I got a job at Moreau High School, which is now called Moreau Catholic High School.
I remember right when I got into the classroom I felt like this is my classroom. I taught ten plus years there and I loved every minute of it virtually. The kids are wonderful! At some point I realized I wanted to teach college. I continue with the same philosophy of loving the students. That’s what I want them to get, is how much I love them and how much God loves them, and how much it’s really about that, about the love. The classroom changes a little bit, now I like teaching college, although I substitute at the high school I still love teaching high school students. High school is a really interesting time in life; big changes take place during this time.
G: What are some of your thoughts on Latin@s in education?
R: Two things: one is that I think we have to honor that we are a brilliant people. I remember when I was in high school always wanting to read and wanting to be an intellectual. Kids thought that behaving in this manner was a white thing to do. And the funny thing is this, people say, well that was your own peers bringing you down, which it kind of was, but the other part, says, but where did they learn that lie? They learned it from a system that disempowered them; that gave them no history, no authentic heroes to follow. Malcolm X said, “If you don’t know how much you’ve done, you won’t know how much you can do.” We Latin@s have done a lot already. We are literally building on the shoulders of giants. At one time I know there were more Noble Prize Laureates in Literature from the Latin@ countries than any other place in the world. Reading, writing, intelligence, creativity, and education is in our blood. So it is not a matter of starting from scratch; this is really important. We are not starting from scratch; we have a heritage of brilliance. It is because of racist practices, policies, and a sort of stage of amnesia that the U.S. has been really good at cultivating, that we have lost sense of our capabilities. I think it is important for Latin@ students to realize how brilliant they already are and that their people are brilliant people.
The other thing about education for Latin@s is to have them understand that education always a kind of agenda or ideology built into it . When getting educated it is important for me as a Latino to say I’m getting educated not just so that I can have more money, I don’t just want to buy into the capitalist system that says, education is about getting a good job and a good job equals or is defined as high paying or prestigious. But rather to shift the dynamic, to say education is a way in which we can gain power which will be served for use of the common good or those that are marginalized. So education does not automatically make you a good person. It also does not make you a snob or a bad person. You have to have education of the heart, and of head and of the body too. You have to move in the direction of, in my opinion, justice and care and concern for people. So for Latin@s getting an education, I really would tell them to be cautious in this system. Education is about getting access to power just for yourself. I don’t think that’s what it should be about. I think we have to get access to power through education to serve the larger community, not only the Latin@ community, but also the poor, the marginalized, the gay lesbian transgender folks, the young people, the old people, the working class poor who are getting beaten up pretty badly in this country and in the world. That is why education is purposeful and is good, but just to have a degree for the sake of a degree or to have money for the sake of money, I don’t think that is so good.
G: What are some projects that you have worked on in the community?
R: I have taught a lot at the parish level at the churches. I’ve done everything from teaching to giving retreats to migrant workers in Fresno. I worked a lot, in the 80’s particularly, with Catholic workers in the movement. It was sort of odd in that, what I did was stress relief. I taught the people who were going through difficult times how to relax themselves. What ends up happening for me is I learn these skills and I really don’t know yet how they are going to be applied at the moment but then later on its almost like God says, okay this is why I had you learn this stuff so you can help this community. I’ve been very blessed.
I taught literacy to adults and children. When you teach people that are illiterate, when you open the world of words to them, it’s really like opening an entire universe, it is quite magical. You tend to forget that, if you are literate. The place of words and the magic that books open and literacy opens its quite stunning. I just got a job at University of Portland, which I will be going to in the Fall 2011 and wherever God takes me is where I will go. It’s always been a bit of a struggle because I kind of want to stay near my family, and it is not that Portland is far, yet you know it is whatever you need to go you go.
G: When do you plan to defend for your dissertation?
R: Si Dios quiere in the next four or five months. I turned in my conclusion to Roberto Gosuega, my director. He said he would read it as soon as possible. In the mean time I’m looking for an editor. All of the five chapters are done, the introduction is done; I only have to do one minor revision in the introduction. Right now it will be Fall 2011 when I will defend, I am just not sure when. Then I will get a PhD. It has been a long journey. I was just telling someone that I grew up in a place called Los Siete Infiernos in Segundo Barrio, Tejas. I could start crying thinking about it. A lot of people don’t make it out of there you know and I want to go back too, just to see because I don’t really have a point of reference. So it’s been a really long good ride in that sense and I couldn’t have done it without my family and God and all my dear friends.
G: How does it feel, to know there is such a small number of Latin@s that make it to where you are, receiving a PhD.? Especially coming from a minority group and from the barrio. How do you feel and what do you think you could tell students to inspire them or to let them see that this is possible?
R: How it makes me feel, it’s very, very powerful. It’s all a blessing, it’s very powerful in terms of I am incredibly sad, I am incredibly grateful, I’m incredibly happy and that’s just in 10 minutes. It is a big deal and the funny thing about it, is that I never thought it was a big deal. I don’t know why that is, I am not sure if that is a healthy thing or an unhealthy thing, but I grew up on a dirt floor. The second house we had, had windows, the first house we had didn’t. I always thought everyone does this and I’m talking to this woman named Laura, who did research on education and it is a minuscule percentage of people that have done what I am doing. So I am really happy and I am also really tired and I’m really joyous. You know there are just a lot of feelings and a lot of it, is kind of an epic thing and again I try not to think that too much because to me it’s more like “I just have to go get coffee, and maybe get across the bridge without you know without the wind blowing me off.” I try to keep it small. There is a part of me that has to acknowledge that this is a big deal.
What I would tell students is that you don’t have to do it alone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I think part of our failure is precisely that we over emphasize this sort of individual victory of people. This perverted sense of individuality that we have. Ask for help, get help. Nobody did it by themselves. If they say they did they are lying, ask for help because you are never too strong or too weak to ask. In other words, asking for help is not a matter of strength or weakness; It is about you either need the help or you don’t. You ask for help when you need it. You don’t do this journey alone. Pray, ask for your antepasados to help you. God helps you. We need each other and if you are going to climb the mountains of education you don’t do it alone, you don’t have to.