Natural Transitions

Why would a former Smithsonian director of Latino arts, history, and culture join a nationally recognized science organization like the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)? What's the motivation and preparation of a nonscientist for science? I am asked this question by many who know of my former positions as professor of Chicano studies and founding director of the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives. They questionably want to know how a nonscientist can work with scientists, especially after an established career in humanities and liberal arts?

Actually my desire to head SACNAS seems to me like a natural transition, a way to expand on my abilities and contribute my eclecticism to another realm of interest--science. Why would I say that my switch to science is a "natural transition?" I wasn't sure about my answer at first, but upon reflection, I realized that my life and early experiences prepared me for doing the unusual. It may seem trite to say this, but I learned as a child that whenever someone told me that I could not do something, an urge inside of me challenged that assertion.

I grew up in a Mexican community in San Diego County during the 1950s. Being a Chicano during this time was challenging because we were expected to be good neighbors and hard workers rather than academic achievers. I resented this narrow view of Mexican-Americans and knew we were just as capable of accomplishment as other groups of color. With the encouragement of my loving parents--who did not complete high school--I stood up at times to be different. I was proud of my Mexican-American heritage and told everyone who would listen, I was a Chicano. Gradually over time when others suggested that Mexicans were not destined to be scientists and professionals, I dug deep inside and said, "Oh yeah! I'll show them that we can be better than those who say we can't."

Early Peace Corps Volunteer

I applied to the Peace Corps when it originated in 1961, thinking it would cover my lack of funds and support my college education. It did, and my Peace Corps experience in Colombia (1962-64) opened my eyes to the multitude of successful Latinos in the world. It was great to see people like myself in Latin America who were also scientists and national leaders--something that I did not see happening in the United States. This informal education inspired me to complete my undergraduate studies in economics at the University of California, Berkeley, mainly because economics was something that others said I could not do successfully without years of mathematics.

Three years later, while completing my doctoral degree in agricultural economics at Michigan State University, I informed my faculty advisor of my desire to work abroad. He took great interest in my well-being and became my first mentor. He was also an international economist who consulted for the Ford Foundation. During one of his trips to Pakistan for Ford, he was asked to identify a promising economist--who also spoke Spanish--to join the foundation's team in Pakistan. Serendipity played a major role in these occurrences because I was more than prepared in economics and Spanish! I fit the description perfectly and through my advisor/mentor, I ended up in Pakistan from 1969-71. You may wonder, a Spanish-speaking economist working in Pakistan! How unique. How rare. Why? Then and there, I became part of a team of Mexican scientists who were introducing new agricultural technology with success in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh--then called East Pakistan.

My job was to perform economic analysis of the results of high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice. In this role I traveled the fields with agricultural scientists and learned the scientific terminology of plant biology, genetic "engineering," and related new technology. The serendipity of this is that the team I worked with and its leader--Norman Borlaug--won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for contributions to the world- renown " Green Revolution".

Being a part of the team also expanded my opportunities for academic work and future consulting with scientists in other parts of the world. I learned a great deal from all of this, including the most significant lesson--scientific discovery is a team effort of people and leaders from a variety of backgrounds. I also learned that my small role as a social scientist fit into a bigger mosaic of improving lives and economic well-being.

My early years as a Chicano activist taught me that Latinos can do anything, as well as anyone else, and often with a better result when it comes to global relations. The investment of time with the Green Revolution team gave me the fortitude and determination to develop interdisciplinary approaches to Latino representation later on in my career.

A Stint in the Academic World

After completing my stint as a full professor of agricultural economics and co-founder of Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Davis, I returned to my alma mater, Michigan State University, to develop a research center. I made sure that the Julian Samora Research Institute involved scientists and students from a wide range of scholarly fields.

Next, my wife Linda and I moved to Washington, D.C., to open the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives. Again, I applied my eclectic experience to my mission of educating the public about the contributions of Latinos to American history, art, culture, and scientific discovery.

I joined SACNAS in September 2003 and feel very comfortable with my new friends and associates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. I know full well that my presence here will add a different dimension to the organization and will contribute to my growth and potential as a director of SACNAS. Our programs and initiatives for Chicanos/Latinos, Native Americans, and other minorities are proving that these students and scientists are as good or better than others in many ways.

Refugio I. Rochin, Ph.D., is Executive Director of SACNAS and may be reached at

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