Latino Americans Blog

From Homeless to Harvard

August 19, 2013 8:55 PM by Cemelli De Aztlan

Cemelli De AztlanNot many people would have thought that a homeless, high school dropout from El Paso, Texas would make history at Harvard University. My story is only surreal because the opportunities are scarce, the teachings are censored, and discrimination still persists.
When I came back to El Paso, I wanted to make a difference in a place that I knew in my blood and bones. As a Racial Justice advocate and activist, I have the opportunity to engage people in discussions about real human struggles. Often, people ask: “What is Racial Justice?” and I explain that Racial Justice is about making wrongs, right. It is about speaking your mind when others want you to be silent. It is about breaking the stereotypes that are intended to keep you down. Racial Justice is about empowering yourself through education. Currently, if you are Hispanic, data shows you are 50% more likely to dropout of high school. Getting an education turns the tables of a history of discrimination, injustice and destined-to-fail-statistics, which is why pursing an education is Racial Justice.   

As the daughter of activists in the Chicano Movement, my education began early, as a child revolutionary in makeshift classrooms around kitchen tables and on living room floors. I learned about my ancestors, sang songs in sweat lodges, planted vegetable gardens, and walked alongside my parents at protests. I was always taught to have pride in my culture, respect mother earth and always, I mean always, question authority.

As a child, I was constantly in the principal’s office for ‘bad behavior’. I complained about the ‘English Only’ policy after witnessing a student get punished for speaking Spanish in class. I made good grades, but detention programs took me out of the classroom. I was left to my own defenses alongside fellow troublemakers. Between working the night shift at the neighborhood 24-hour diner and constantly getting in trouble, school easily fell to the wayside. By the time I was 15 years old, I was a high school dropout, pregnant and living on the streets.

It took a lot of courage to go back to school when I was 18 years old. I was older than the other kids, while they were busy living what I thought to be perfect lives, I was struggling to put my life back together.

When I finally graduated high school, I was accepted into Concordia University. College was hard. I had lived too much already and worse, I was the only woman in my program, as well as the only non-white. By the end of my 1st year, I was ready to drop out… again. On the last day of class I informed my professors that I would not be returning. One professor reached out and challenged me to stay. Alongside that challenge, he handed me a book, “A New Religious America” by Diana Eck.  In her writing, she credited the indigenous peoples for instilling the ‘American’ idea that multiple beliefs can unite in a common understanding. When I read her bio and realized she was a professor at Harvard University, I decided that one day I was going to study at Harvard. It was this sense of inspiration that allowed me to stay in college. Despite the fear, the discrimination and myself, I didn’t dropout.

The day the acceptance letter came was the most surreal moment of my life. I could not believe I had been accepted into Harvard University.

That first fall in Cambridge the knowledge and power was palpable. During my first month I was on a pink cloud- as if the barriers were finally dismantled; as if discrimination didn’t exist, because someone like me was given the opportunity to be amongst them- but that didn’t last long.

One of my first projects was to build an altar for the annual “Dia de los Muertos” celebration hosted at the Harvard Peabody Museum. Dr. David Carrasco had organized the celebration and invited the Consulate of Mexico in Boston as the honored guest.

During the course of the celebration, a crowd of protestors gathered around the museum, condemning the Mexican government for the suppression of the teacher’s union strike in Oaxaca. Tensions were high, and the museum was put on ‘lock-down’. Along with a few other students, I headed down to the 2nd floor in search for a restroom. Out of nowhere, a Harvard cop grabbed me, pulled me down two flights of stairs and pushed me out the back door into a crowd of police and protestors!
In a daze, I bypassed the protest and retreated to the Divinity school, where the altar I worked on was being displayed. While trying to make sense of what just happened, a professor approached me to discuss the altar. Upon notice of my glazed stare, she asked ‘if everything was okay?’ I replayed the events that just happened. At the end of my story I heard the loud voice of Dr. Carrasco exclaim, “THEY DID WHAT?!” In a heartbeat, he had a crowd of us walking with a cause to the Peabody Museum. When we got to the back door that I had been pushed out, Dr. Carassco unlocked the door – But, when he opened it, that cop forced his arm against my professor’s neck and commanded him to step away, and slammed the door in his face.  

It was this experience that set into motion my advocacy at Harvard. It ignited an anger in me about being profiled, pushed around and pushed out. I immediately found reason to secure allies, put up my defenses and demand change.

I began to study our culture and how history has left us out of the history books. I challenged professors, deans, students, political leaders and I demanded that our Educational Systems change; I demanded that the history between Cuauhtémoc and Cesar Chavez be accounted for. When I graduated in 2009 with a Master in Divinity, I was told, that because of my advocacy, I had made history at Harvard University.

Cemelli de Aztlan, MDiv, born and raised in El Paso, Texas, has been engaged in community organizing, advocacy and non-profit work throughout her career. One of deAztlan’s proudest endeavors as Racial Justice Program Manager at the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region was the establishment of the Librotraficante Underground Library, which houses a collection of books by Mexican-American authors recently banned from Arizona public schools to raise awareness and engage community members to re-interpret Mexican-American literature through the lens of censorship and discrimination. As an artist, activist and academic, deAztlan incorporates her experiences and education into her work. She has a B.A. in Religious Studies from Concordia University and a Master in Divinity with a focus on Women in Religious Studies and Indigenous Religious Studies from Harvard University. She is a proudmother of two children, Itzea de Aztlan and Ameyalli de Aztlan.
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