Professor of Educational Foundations, Teacher Education, and Indigenous Educational History.
Bernardo P Gallegos
From Postcolonial Indigenous Performances:
Fort Lewis College was to me, like a resort, a haven from the problems of the world back home. It would be difficult to overstate the incredible lightness of being and freedom that characterized my college existence compared to my life back home.
To be fair, it was not all perfect. I did experience racism as a football player on scholarship at Fort Lewis College in Colorado. However, having friends and teammates make repeated and derogatory comments about Mexicans and Indians did not initially compare to the stresses of the stories from home. I already knew I was from the “wrong side of the tracks.” I had learned that at St. Pius, the mostly white, Catholic, privileged high school that I attended my junior and senior years. I had grown accustomed to derogatory comments about Mexicans and Indians. I had simply learned to return them in kind. I had learned from family after all, that we were superior to Anglos (whites).
In fact, growing up, I had learned that “we” (Aragon’s, my maternal family) were superior to everyone else. Thus, when I received racially motivated insulting remarks from teammates I would simply return the insult in kind. My family narratives had in fact had made me quite arrogant about issues of racial identity. When people made insulting comments about Mexicans, I understood well that they were talking about people from my community. However, I was not greatly bothered as I understood from family that we were not really Mexicans.
When the derogatory comments were about Indians, I took solace in the idea that even though I had Indian blood I was not really an Indian. It was a way of thinking that served me well in everyday interactions with teammates, fellow students, and others outside of my community. The hybrid indigenous identity that I had occupied as an adolescent and young adult was in retrospect, problematic. However, at the time it worked for me. The racial insults however did not get easier to deal with. In fact, they became increasingly more painful and began to take a toll. In retrospect, those early encounters with race and identity and the resulting cognitive dissonance provided much of the foundation for the theorizing about identity in the essays that follow.
One experience as a freshman at Fort Lewis College in particular, played a major role in my growing dissonance. It had to do with “Leo and the little Mexicans” as they were called by fellow teammates. They were a group of perhaps five or six boys who would show up to watch the football team practice. Proudly sporting bicycles with butterfly handlebars, streamers and banana seats, the boys took a special interest in me. Almost instinctively, I understood they were the same boys that I grew up with. They were riding the same bicycle that I used to own. They could have been my neighbors back home. Before games, as we sat on the grass suited and to play, they would gather by me, just to chat or sometimes just to sit around. One of them had a transistor radio and they would ask what type of music I wanted to hear. They would wait for me after we left the field, letting me know what they thought about the game, which we normally lost.
Among my teammates, “Leo and the little Mexicans.” were most often disparaged as thieves and untrustworthy. Every time something was missing from the locker room, a car, virtually anywhere, it was always ‘Leo and those little Mexicans,” who accordingly, should not be allowed on the campus. I however, did not have the heart to reject “Leo and the little Mexicans” who aside from being so hospitable, reminded me of myself at an earlier age. On the contrary, I occasionally treated them to ice cream cones at the Dairy Queen near the campus. It seemed that the more my teammates attempted to ridicule my association with them, the more I instinctively resisted and felt an even closer bond with “Leo and the little Mexicans.”
After a painful disagreement with a backfield coordinator named as the new head coach at the end of my sophomore season, I left Fort Lewis College. I returned to Albuquerque and worked for several months as a coach at the Old Town Boys Club, where once again I was in the midst of a group of kids who were living in dire poverty. Actually, I used to attend the Old Town Boys Club myself as a kid, as my mother had a theory that it would keep me from associating with bad company (friends) in my neighborhood. It was a huge mistake. It took a few scuffles, a couple of bloody noses and a lot of complaining, for her to be convinced that it was not a safe space for me. As a young adult and a coach however, my experience at the Boys Club was much different. I was now in a position of being a mentor to these kids, many who would be considered "gang-members," in today’s media environment. Like “Leo and the little Mexicans,” they were very nice and respectable kids, who for the most part were dealt a bad hand through no fault of their own. My time there greatly impacted my thoughts on what was happening in the world at the time and even though I didn’t quite know it then, it would have a profound effect on my future academic work.
Fortunately, I had a friend and mentor who had been a football coach at Fort Lewis College during my freshman year and who was now coaching at the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse. Coach Swede Pearson convinced me to enroll there and play football. After a year as a red-shirt I had a second knee surgery and decided to call it quits for football. Moreover, all sorts of new and engaging ideas were swirling about my life in the form of social movements. The anti-war movement, the Black Movement, the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican and the Chicano Movements were in their heyday at that time. It was also at that time that I met Professor Nelia Olivencia, a New York Puerto Rican from Spanish Harlem, who soon became an important and valuable mentor. Dr. Olivencia was the first professor I knew on a personal basis. I can recall spending hours at her home, debating a multitude of topics with her and her husband Dr. Singer, also a professor. One of our interchanges was especially memorable. It was during a discussion of identity (of which we had many) that she finally broke my connection to a simplistic essentialist analysis by the following words that continue to resonate in my consciousness. “Yes…we are descendants of people…but we are also descendants of ideas.” It was a transformative moment, one of several that characterized that epoch of my life. I had in fact become a sociology major out of a desire to make sense of the world. It was the beginning of what I now understand as the seriousness of academic work.
My children Bernardo, Mario, and Rosalea, with my Paternal Grandpa, Henry Gallegos in Barelas.
My childhood home in Barelas. Large home on left was that of my maternal Grandparents, Amadeo and Libradita Aragon. Home on right was my Uncle Junior's, both on one city lot.