I was 17 when I registered at East Los Angeles College (ELAC). Community college was my second chance to use education to help me out of poverty. I didn’t know it then. I just knew that I didn’t want to continue to live in poverty all of my life. I wanted a better life. I didn’t know what that meant. My parents wanted a better life for me. We didn’t know what that looked like or how I could get it. But meeting Professor Maria Elena Yepes gave me all of the proof of the possibilities. Literally… ALL THE PROOF.
In her, I saw my future and potential self. I saw a wonderful woman full of love and hope. I saw an educator who was unapologetically Chicana. I saw a politicized and graceful Chicana college administrator. I saw an intellectual and a responsive and loving Chicana mother. I saw when East LA met UCLA. I saw when UCLA met the Jesuits. I saw an English degree. I saw English mastery. I saw Mexicana elegance. I saw Chicana joy realized. I saw Black Brown unity abd love. I saw wisdom and laughter. I saw self-respect. I saw self-defense. Her encouragement, guidance, and example have had an incredible impact on my life and I want to share her lessons with others. Maria Elena gave me the blueprint to follow to use education as protection.
In my first year as a college student, I worked full time in the garment industry where I quickly learned that Latinas were not considered good enough to be designers- even though the entire clothing manufacturing industry exists on the shoulders of women of color and Latinas, specifically, throughout our continent. I saw and felt the racism in fashion and I decided to end that dream at 18. Instead, I decided to pursue a formal education full-time. I went from working full time in the garment industry and going to school at night where my classes ended at 10 pm to becoming a daytime student. I still worked but I worked around my school schedule, instead of going to school around my work schedule. It made all the difference and I credit that decision to living the life I currently live. As an evening student, I saw the injustices against evening students. We had almost none of the resources that daytime students had- including staff, counselors, and access to being able to buy food and our books. It was a mess. Evening community college students are among the most disenfranchised students in all of California.
During my second year on campus, I decided to become a student leader and ran for student government. I wanted to represent the needs of the evening students. I was elected as Commissioner of Political Affairs and quickly wanted to make the equity agenda part of the leadership’s agenda. I didn’t know that women were not respected as much as the young men. I didn’t know just how entrenched anti-women actions and behaviors were at the community college level. When I complained about some of the inequity, I was referred to Maria Elena as someone who could help me navigate the pendejadas that I was experiencing. Little did I know meeting Maria Elena would become one of the most consequential relationships of my lifetime. She has taught me so much. I wish we could bottle up that amazing Chicana chingonaness that she is. But since we can’t, I’ve decided to include the most important lessons this Chicana/Latina educator has helped me understand.
Maria Elena’s advice to me was clear y aqui te va:
1. Surround yourself with good people
She encouraged me to meet other students in the learning lab and develop friendships with students who also wanted to transfer to a 4-year school. She instilled in me the idea of “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” I am blessed to have very dear friends from this time. They continue to be pillars of love, encouragement after all of these years. We were all able to transfer and graduate from 4-year schools, defying all of the odds against low-income, first-generation, students of color like us.
2. It’s okay to be a feminine woman and be ambitious
I actually love being all the woman I am. By all standards, I am a feminine woman. But in school, like in society, women are encouraged to be men-like in order to be successful. Maria Elena taught me that I could be both feminine and goal-oriented. I didn’t have to pretend to be something that I was not in order to be successful and ambitious. She taught me that I could be my whole self and I engage the world that way since meeting her. I’ve instilled this in my daughter too.
3. It’s a good thing to want to finish a 4-year school
She encouraged me to transfer and even though I couldn’t see the way, she made it clear that there was a way. She encouraged me to follow the IGETC which are the classes required to transfer to a 4-year school. I’ve learned since then that figuring out the rules to any game is key. If I want to win, I master the rules. She told me finishing school would be hard but that living on a limited income would be harder over a lifetime. She told me that finishing a 4-year degree would help me live the kind of life I wanted to live. She was right.
4. Advocate for yourself
Maria Elena reminded me that in life, there will be people who want to stomp on you because of their own internal turmoil. She reminded me that educated people will do that too- after all, hurt people hurt people. She explained that it was important to advocate for yourself, to defend yourself and be unapologetic about standing up for your own rights. This is often counterintuitive as our Latino culture teaches us differently.
5. Dominate writing and the English language
While my 6th grade English teacher, Mr. Manuel Rangell, was the last teacher in my k-12 experience to teach me academically, Maria Elena affirmed the lessons he taught me: learning to write and mastering English are key to success in college and life. I took extra English classes and got feedback on my writing because I understood some would see it as a reflection of my intellect, like it or not. I invested in this and the benefits have been priceless.
6. You can be a great mom and a great professional
I’ve followed the María Elena playbook on mothering as a Chicana professional. The kids come first. Punto. She’s created generations of community servant leaders- low key, behind the scenes, all while raising three amazing Chicano boys who are now wonderful men. She never compromised on being an amazing mom. She loved on them hard. While I remember them coming to campus, I also remember her going to their sports games, involved in their schooling and faith and being very present as a mom.
She taught me that I could be a great mom and not sacrifice my dream of being a professional mujer. I’m proud to have lived her example with my daughter.
7. Supporting women is a wonderful thing
Maria Elena has always been a cheerleader for other women. I remember her supporting her colleagues then-Professor Judy Chu and friend Hilda Solis, who was on the Rio Hondo College Board of Trustees. Judy Chu is now in Congress and Hilda Solis is now the LA County Supervisor, after being the first Latina Secretary of Labor appointed by President Obama. I saw how she supported them and celebrated their successes as though they were her own. Because they were her wins too. Maria Elena supported my crazy ideas to start Comisión Femenil de ELAC to support Latinas in our community college. Supporting other women is one of my greatest joys. The La Comadre Network and La Comadre platform are part of Maria Elena’s legacy of real sisterhood and comadrazgo.
8. You don’t have to act like a baller to be one
When she was a student, she was a Chicano Movement student leader. She started the precursor to MEChA in UMAS, United Mexican American Students. She navigated the world as one of the first Chicanas to graduate from the English Department at UCLA. One of my favorite pics of all time was one that I was shocked to see was in a book. It was one of her organizing alongside the iconic journalist Ruben Salazar as a student at UCLA. She had never told me about that. All of these years, she’s never boasted about her accomplishments or leadership. But she has been one of the most consequential Chicana leaders of the Chicano movement in the United States.
Once you find and learn from Maria Elena, you can be like Maria Elena.
Thank you querida María Elena for the last 28 years worth of lessons. You have taught me that we can all rise together and that there is enough sun for all of us to shine.
Alma V. Marquez
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