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Beyond Aztlán: Chicanos in the Ivy League

By Sergio Troncoso

Drawings by Jorge Enciso

'Chicanos in the Ivy League' often means 'Chicanos in exile.' When we go beyond Aztlán, beyond our communities in Texas or California or New Mexico or Colorado, we cross our own frontera, in a way, and we have to find how to survive and even thrive. Sometimes we can't go back 'home' in just the same way as we came. Like Odysseus, we set ourselves adrift, our curiosity pushes us a bit further from home, and when we finally make it back, if we make it back, we find the world has changed. We have changed. After our geographical and cultural travels and travails, we may also be the ones with the most questions about who we are.

Not all Chicanos go through the cultural adjustment trauma that I experienced. But some still do, and probably some always will. When I went to Harvard, I wasn't a sophisticated Chicano from LA. I certainly wasn't a sophisticated Mexican-American from Houston or San Antonio. I wasn't even a sophisticated Mexicano from El Paso. I was from Ysleta, a colonia on the rural outskirts of El Paso. At one time, my family had an outhouse in the backyard, and instead of electricity, we had kerosene lamps and stoves. When I arrived at Harvard Square, which I thought was a public park instead of the center of the university, I was hungry, but for ideas. I was wild with passion, but for reading. I was a dangerous, don't-even-think-about-messin'-with-me savage. That's why I majored in Political Science.

Being away from home meant I thought about home more often. From this new, sometimes painful, sometimes illuminating perspective, I began to understand the 'home' I had taken for granted, its history, its unique bilingual culture. I saw la frontera more as an object since I wasn't immersed in it anymore. This reflection, of course, also turned inward, toward my own self, since la frontera was, and always will be, a part of my blood. More than anything else, I also simply missed my family.

I know that many of you have experienced this selfsame reflection about 'home' and also about who you are now, and who you are becoming. You may struggle with your sense of self-worth and identity just as I did. But then again, you may not. I sometimes run into the Chicanas and Chicanos at Columbia and Barnard, and let me tell you, they have their act together. Maybe it's New York City. But they are truly much more sophisticated than I ever was in college.

But if you do find yourself asking tough questions about where you came from and who you really are, then you have a duty to answer these questions. This is not just a personal duty, but also a duty to your community. When you go 'beyond Aztlán,' to the Ivy League or wherever the songs of the siren tempt you, find your own way back. I tried to find a new relationship to El Paso by writing about it in The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, by trying to bring out the moral character of la gente decente. Others, instead of writing about home, will actually go back home and work in the community where they were born. Some will go back to this home, and after a few years, leave again, for other adventures. And still others will never go back, but instead form new communities in New York or Boston or Washington, D.C. The trick, I think, is to engage Aztlán again, in your own way, to develop a continual dialogue with your heritage, and to remake this proud heritage --with your unique contribution-- into something new, something modern, something vigorously and passionately alive. The tragedy would be if you simply turned away from who you are.

For Chicanos in the Ivy League, and for our community in general, we also have one specific challenge. We must make the Ivy League, and any place that reflects the apex of success in America, we must make this place a home for Chicanos. And that will be done not only by fighting for our place in the Ivy League, through focus, hard work, and sacrifice, but also by accepting that we belong there. Our parents send us to the Ivy League to succeed, and I am talking about not only financial, but also intellectual success. They send us here to have better lives than they did. My father always told me that he would succeed as a parent if his children did better than he did. And of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't value the harsh sacrifices de nuestros padres. On the contrary, the more steps I take toward my goals, the more I appreciate the incredibly difficult life my parents conquered. Arriving in a foreign country without knowing the language. Having nothing, no money, no land, no house, no job. Facing discrimination and even outright abuse by those too eager to dismiss the power of your mind, your heart, your character. Would I have done so well in my parents' shoes? Would I have been such a good parent at home while I fought tooth and nail to get a foothold in America? Would all my children have finished college and achieved good careers? Could I have succeeded in staying deeply in love with my spouse for over forty years? I am not so sure. One thing I am sure about is that I have great parents. And I will never forget that.

But my struggles as a Chicano are in many ways different from their struggles, and that is another way in which new generations go 'beyond Aztlán.' We should not somehow put down these new struggles as merely intellectual or not really political or somehow irrelevant to those who don't have meat on the table. We cannot be saying that if you are a successful Chicano, then you are not a Chicano at all. How absurd can that be? So we need to accept that the new struggles of Chicanos, as we fight to advance in America, will not always be the same as the struggles of the past. This is in part the price of success. The next generation needs to venture out and conquer these news worlds. In my case, this world is more about intellectual combat and finding my place in the literature of America. But I do not forget where I came from and where my home is. I do not forget that many Mexicanos are just beginning the hard life in America that my own parents began years ago. They are undoubtedly mi familia too. So there is this duty for successful Chicanos, too. We must remember where we belong and help those who are just beginning the treacherous journey to find a basic foothold in a new world. I just hope that I do not lose my own self in this turmoil between the past and the future.

The Odyssey, as you have probably guessed by now, is one of my favorite books. Why doesn't this Odysseus Martínez just forget about finding his way back home? And when he does make it back, his family has nearly forgotten him and has moved on without him. They have changed, and he has changed. But Odysseus goes about repairing the trauma of his original separation from home with new bridges into his family's heart, with new ways of connecting with them. And that's what you must do. You must find that new and evolving self from Columbia and Barnard, and you must bring it back home. And maybe your father, like my father, will surprise you at the dinner table one day, as you eat your enchiladas, and whip out his Spanish translation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Just remember what I told you tonight, and you won't be as shocked as I was and snort the chile through your nose. You will be ready to be the 'sophisticated' Chicano from the Ivy League. Thank you.


"Beyond Aztlán: Chicanos in the Ivy League" was a speech given to the Chicano Caucus at Columbia University in the fall of 2000. The speech followed the Yale University conference of the East Coast Chicano Student Forum, "Beyond Aztlán: The Spreading Reach of Chicanismo." Copyright 2000 by Sergio Troncoso.

Other essays: A Day Without Ideas and Why Should Latinos Write Their Own Stories?

Short stories: Angie Luna, The Snake, A Rock Trying to be a Stone, and Espíritu Santo.  See discussion questions for The Last Tortilla and Other Stories.  "Angie Luna," "Espíritu Santo," "A Rock Trying to be a Stone," and "The Snake" are included in that book of short stories.