Very Far Out Of Omaha – San Diego
In April 2017 I retired from the University of California, San Diego after twenty-eight years as an administrator and instructor. I was hired in 1989 as the coordinator of the OASIS Summer Bridge Program, a four-week academic and residential program for newly enrolled students from historically underrepresented ethnic backgrounds. In 1996, after completing my doctoral degree in Higher Education Policy and Student Development from a joint Ph.D. program (San Diego State University and the Claremont Graduate University), I was appointed Director of OASIS. The Office of Academic Support and Instructional services (OASIS) at UCSD was the campus learning center, home to most of its academic support, e.g., mentoring and tutoring. OASIS also maintained a mission to support the success of underrepresented students of color at UCSD.
Before beginning my employment at UCSD, I had a background in education, community service, and advocacy in the city where I was born and raised, Omaha, Nebraska. My grandparents had immigrated from Central México in the early 1900’s. They settled in Omaha to work in the then burgeoning meatpacking industry. My family was one of the first Mexican families to settle in South Omaha. I attended public school and although I was largely unmotivated and uninformed when I graduated from high school, I matriculated to the University of Nebraska campus in Omaha (UNO), which at the time had open admission for residents of Nebraska. After staggering around without a major for two years, I declared a Social Work major at the end of my sophomore year. Before that step, I was almost completely apolitical and unengaged despite the swirling demands for societal change during that era (the late 1960’s and early 1970’s). My older brother had started at the university two years before me and he was instrumental in my adjustment to UNO. My brother Gary was a conscientious objector to the military draft that was carried on throughout the years of U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. While we were in college together, he exposed me to my first taste of literature that challenged U.S. ideology through the work of white radicals like Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman. I found it interesting but not something with which I could identify.
After declaring a major, I found myself in Social Work classes with fellow Chicanos, or as I identified, Mexican Americans, that were also involved in the UNO Chicano student organization, the Chicano Association of United Students for Action (La CAUSA). These included José Arrieta and Reynaldo Cervantes. They assertively pulled me into that organization, which would have the most significant impact on my university education. Through La CAUSA I would become a volunteer at a local community agency, the Chicano Awareness Center (CAC), that provided cultural programs and advocacy for the Omaha Chicano/Mexicano community. It would become a life changing experience. After a few years of active engagement at the CAC, I joined their board of directors. I helped start a career counseling program at a high school that most of South Omaha’s Chicanos attended, an action that was heavily resisted by the school district and the school itself, Omaha South High School. This was the start of my experience in community organizing and advocacy. I was fortunate to have a powerful mentor in Lupana Flores, a Chicana who was executive director of the CAC. Together with my courses in community organizing in my Social Work major, this experience provided me a strong grounding in the principles of effective advocacy on behalf of a subordinate community such as Chicanos.
I eventually became the full-time career counselor for the CAC, working within Omaha South High School. I never saw myself as having the patience and dedication necessary to become a classroom teacher but I found great fulfillment working individually with students to develop their educational and career plans. As part of the CAC’s philosophy, we strove to contribute to students’ instrumental outcomes as well as their social and political consciousness, including the development of a strong ethnic identity as Chicanos. After serving in this role for a couple of years, I found myself appointed as the CAC’s executive director, a position that I once considered far beyond my capacity.
I then served as the CAC director for almost five years. Our agency had grown considerably since I began there as a volunteer during my undergraduate years. By then I had completed my Bachelors Degree in Social Work and my Masters Degree in Urban Education, both at UNO. We had become a United Way agency, which meant that we had stable funding to maintain a professional staff. However, we had an uneasy relationship with United Way, which of course was dominated by corporations and a strong corporate, i.e., racist mentality. Their leadership was uncomfortable with our consistent advocacy for equity that challenged the policies and practices of the Omaha Public School District (OPS). The district employed thousands of individuals, most of whom contributed to United Way. The district used its political muscle to squeeze United Way into a position that opposed our advocacy against OPS. This was a powerful learning experience for me. I found that only by securing a high level of support for our agency among local Chicanos could we challenge much more powerful institutions. In turn, only by providing substantive, effective services could we secure that community support. In addition to educational advocacy at all levels, we fought for Chicanos to receive an appropriate level of service from local substance abuse providers, local law enforcement, the local Catholic archdiocese, and various government agencies at the city, county, and state levels. As executive director of the CAC, I was usually in the middle of these storms. At one time I was both the vice president of the Omaha chapter of the Latino Peace Officers and a sponsor for the Mexican Awareness Through Association (MATA), an organization of Nebraska’s Chicano prison inmates.
By the late 1980’s I was feeling increasingly frustrated and disillusioned. To say the least, Omaha was a very conservative, racist space. I found a great deal of solace and some degree of advocacy success through work with a small number of strong, local Chicanos, African Americans, and Native Americans. However, as in virtually any racist, colonial space, a large portion of the community had internalized that colonialism and they tacitly and sometimes openly supported policies and practices that maintained Omaha’s communities of color in a subordinate position. Amongst those communities, educational achievement was low while unemployment, incarceration, and substance abuse levels were high.
At that time, I had occasion to visit a former college classmate that had moved to North Hollywood, California. It was mind-bending to leave the gray, frozen tundra of Omaha in December and find abundant sunshine and flowers in Southern California. The final straw for me was when my daughter Aylia and her mother moved to Los Angeles. It was time for me to leave Nebraska. Fortunately, another former friend, Matt Sandoval, had moved to San Diego and offered to house me for a few months until I found a job. With the support of the CAC’s board of directors, including its president, Paul Gutierrez, I took a three-month leave of absence and hit the road for sunny San Diego. I had a very romantic vision of Southern California as a place where all the Chicanos would be progressive activists and I would feel much more at home than in Omaha. Little did I know that I was leaving one conservative space to join yet another.
Long story short, after three months of hitting the bricks in search of employment in San Diego, I found what would be my home away from home for the next twenty-eight years. I had decided that rather than seek a position in a community with which I was unfamiliar, I would look for work in higher education. The job-hunting was an arduous process as I had no access to the internet and in those days most local higher education did not post open positions electronically. I remember that San Diego State University, where I would end up attending doctoral classes, had its weekly job openings in one large binder to peruse. I also made an attempt at networking, meeting with Chicano staff at local institutions and seeking their help to extend my network. They all tried to be helpful and one, Gus Chavez, the director of the Equal Opportunity Program at San Diego State, was critical to my successful efforts. He put me in touch with the director of OASIS at UCSD, Laurel Corona, who was filling a position for the coordinator of their OASIS Summer Bridge Program.
Another long story short, I applied for the Summer Bridge position and was hired. During my subsequent years at UCSD, when graduating students expressed their deep fears about going into the “real world” to seek employment, I often told them the story of my hiring in OASIS. In truth, it wasn’t really supposed to have happened. The search committee formed to recommend candidates for the Summer Bridge position did not select me for an interview. However, one of the selected candidates made a last minute decision to cancel his interview. When the search committee reported this to Dr. Corona, she asked them to interview me in his place. This only happened because Gus Chavez had suggested that I send my resume directly to Dr. Corona since she would not see it ahead of the search committee. Apparently something in my background appealed to Dr. Corona and I was granted an interview and subsequently hired. I told my students that this was an example of the power of networking but also just being in the right place at the right time. As they say, sometimes luck is more important than talent.
Learning to function as both a professional and an advocate at UCSD was a great challenge. Coming from my position as a community advocate, I had learned that one principle of effective advocacy was not to take shit from anyone. Racists are inherently bullies and bullies will always look for your weakness, pushing as far as you allow them. But the protocols at a pristine, Research I university like UCSD were far different from those of the hardscrabble streets of South Omaha. Politeness was expected at all times. My instincts told me that some of my best allies would be UCSD students and one of my first acts at UCSD was to attend a meeting of the UCSD chapter of the Moviemiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, MEChA. The chair of MEChA, Veronica Castro, had been a member of the search committee that interviewed me so I had that contact. When I attended the MEChA meeting, I merely introduced myself and offered my support. This would be the beginning of perhaps my most important relationship at UCSD.
I also met students that were members of a campus Chicano newspaper, La Voz Fronteriza. When I told them that I wrote for the CAC’s newsletter in Omaha, they asked me to write an op-ed about issues in the Chicano community. They published my op-ed, which I wrote in the style I became accustomed to in my home town. I soon received a phone call from one of the highest ranking Chicano administrators on the campus, a notoriously colonized, conservative military veteran that established his worth to UCSD by upholding racist policies and practices in Student Affairs. He remarked that he was happy to see me working with the Chicano students and supporting their efforts but that he wished I had toned down my language in the op-ed. I was initially surprised by his call but looking back years later, it made perfect sense. This was his role to serve as a buffer to progressive voices in the local Chicano community. His supervisor, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Joseph Watson, would prove to be one of my primary nemeses at UCSD.
I soon met a few Chicano professionals in Student Affairs, which housed OASIS, that were involved in the UCSD Hispanic Staff Association. That’s right, “Hispanic” Staff Association. Even in backward Omaha, Nebraska, there were progressive Raza that identified as Chicano. Yet here in San Diego, Southern California, Aztlán, educated professional Raza were still calling themselves “Hispanic.” I could only shake my head.
My first day working in OASIS at UCSD was March 1, 1989. I spent months working with the professional and student staff to prepare for my first experience implementing the OASIS Summer Bridge Program in August 1989. It was remarkable, a four-week academic and residential experience that placed 200 incoming UCSD students of color—African American, Chicano, Latino, Native American, and Pilipino—with approximately sixty student staff and a dozen professional staff, most of whom were also people of color. In both the academic and residential contexts, we emphasized curriculum and other learning experiences that focused on diversity and equity. We discussed racism and other forms of structural oppression in a most frank, comprehensive manner. After four weeks of this intensive experience, one that could never be duplicated in “real life,” there were incredibly strong bonds among the students and among students and staff. I then understood why the entire campus seemed to feel a sense of ownership for this summer program and why the conservative, even racist administration felt compelled to control its strategies and outcomes.
Jumping forward almost thirty years, I had a conversation with my graduate school mentor in San Diego, Dr. Alberto Ochoa, a couple of years after my retirement from UCSD. Dr. Ochoa was a great man, the truest embodiment of the scholar-activist model that I had met in San Diego. He marveled at the fact that somehow I survived twenty-eight years in the crucible of institutional racism that was UC San Diego. Dr. Ochoa strongly suggested that I needed to document my years at UCSD as a collection of lessons on how progressive Chicanos might struggle for substantive institutional change and somehow survive the process. Although I was consciously trying to move on from the often traumatic time I spent fighting the UCSD administration, his suggestion intrigued me. As I reflected on the idea I decided that indeed my experience might be useful for a future generation of Chicanos that had not internalized our colonial conditions and were instead poised to create positive transformation.
Patrick Velasquez, Ph.D.