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Scholarship Boys, Nepantla, and Concientización


Cover for Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982)
Cover for Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982)

In 2015, I read Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, a book that would change the course of my writing. The autobiography focuses on Rodriguez's Mexican-American culture, particularly his relationship to language and religion, and its collision with higher education. Throughout his narrative, Rodriguez expressed an experience I knew all too well: The plight of the "scholarship boy," a term coined in 1957 by Richard Hoggart in his academic tome, The Uses of Literacy.


As a scholarship boy, Rodriguez struggled to maintain his intimacy with his Mexican-American culture as he delved deeper into the world of higher education, where Spanish was a subject to be studied rather than a language connecting him to intergenerational family members. With each passing year in college, Rodriguez distanced himself further from his culture and felt increasingly isolated in an in-between state:



"This is what matters to me: the story of the scholarship boy who returns home one summer from college to discover bewildering silence, facing his parents... lacking the same words to develop our sentences and to shape our interests, what was there to say?”

- Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory


Ultimately reaching the reading rooms at the British Museum, Rodriguez wrote a touching narrative that has touched thousands of lives since its publication in 1982. It has certainly touched mine: I realized I, too, was a scholarship boy at Princeton University. Thanks to Rodriguez's personal engagement with the concept, I reflected on my collegiate experiences and wrote the final short story in The River Runs aptly titled "Scholarship Boy."


However, another reason the book continues to intrigue modern readers is Rodriguez's advocacy against bilingual education. Rather than affirm bilingualism as a tool for success in America, Rodriguez promotes assimilation into American culture through learning English rather than integrating dual languages into instruction.


Cover for El Curso de la Raza: The Education of Aurelio Manuel Montemayor (2023)
Cover for El Curso de la Raza: The Education of Aurelio Manuel Montemayor (2023)

How, then, could such a narrative serve as one of my models for El Curso de la Raza: The Education of Aurelio Manuel Montemayor, whose titular character was a Chicano Movement activist who co-founded the first accredited Chicano college?


On the surface, Rodriguez and Montemayor share similar stories. Both grew up attending Catholic schools and returning to working-class households that spoke Spanish and embraced Mexican-American culture. Both left their childhood hometowns to pursue better opportunities in college, and both educated themselves fervently. In fact, education serves a central role in Montemayor's story: His formal education, his teaching years, his co-facilitating Cursos or courses for barrio men, and his co-founding the Colegio Jacinto Treviño all demonstrate a life trajectory directed by learning and teaching.


What Montemayor gained from his education, however, was distinctly different from Rodriguez's education:


"But what was a borderlands boy, exactly? He’s bold, eager to flash his herida abierta to the world and allow it to seep inside, infecting himself with life. Everywhere he goes, he carries the borderlands with him—but it’s never the same... The border does not define him forever; he defines borders everywhere he goes with his fronterizo consciousness. And just as his vision has been altered, so has his writing. I wanted all of this and more. I just didn’t know it yet."

- Aurelio Manuel Montemayor and Thomas Ray Garcia, El Curso de la Raza

Aurelio Manuel Montemayor and Thomas Ray Garcia presenting El Curso de la Raza at NACCS Tejas Foco 2023 in Brownsville, Texas.
Aurelio Manuel Montemayor and I presenting on El Curso de la Raza at NACCS Tejas Foco 2023 in Brownsville, Texas.

Throughout El Curso de la Raza, Montemayor and I explore the quintessential conflict plaguing fronterizos that scholars like Gloria Anzaldua have articulated for decades: We exist in a liminal state of nepantla that grants us unique perspectives, powers, and pains. We are not quite here nor there, exactly this or precisely that. It is more acute than the pithy dichotomy popularized by Edward James Olmos in the 1997 Selena biopic, "We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time!"


It is precisely this state of in-betweenness that motivated Montemayor to return to the Texas-Mexico border after graduating from college to teach and to become an activist:


"It took leaving the borderlands to learn I possessed such a [fronterizo] vision, which involved doubling back on myself to realize that I was both like and unlike my peers at St. Edward’s University. Although the term was not much in use then, they often viewed me as a strange, hybrid Mexican American while I saw myself as simultaneously Mexican and American. But such a gaze required sharpening after living in Austin even though the city was, to me, the mecca for the arts and literature."

- Aurelio Manuel Montemayor and Thomas Ray Garcia, El Curso de la Raza


This fronterizo consciousness distinguishes Montemayor's experiences from Rodriguez's alienation from his Mexican-American culture as he navigates Stanford University, Columbia University, and UC-Berkeley. Whereas higher education left Rodriguez at a loss of words to connect with the figureheads of his culture, it propelled Montemayor to forge new connections with his students at San Felipe High School, the white VISTAs, and the varying activist factions in the South Texas Chicano Movement.


Thomas Ray Garcia and Aurelio Manuel Montemayor discussing El Curso de la Raza at The Twig Book Shop
Discussing El Curso de la Raza at The Twig Book Shop

Such is the condition of growing up a fronterizo: alienation is a state of being, and it's simply what a fronterizo does with this fact that determines their path.


The borrowed subtitle from Hunger of Memory, "The Education of Aurelio Manuel Montemayor," goes beyond the impact of formal education on Montemayor by exploring his concientización, a Paulo Freire concept that tracks how individuals come into their critical consciousness of society through reflecting and acting. In Montemayor's experience:



"... as a high school teacher fresh out of college, I experienced concientización without having named it yet. By the time I was ready to leap into activism, I knew teaching English literature to young Mexicanos along the Texas-Mexico border was not enough to uplift my ethnic family. My struggle to derive pedagogy out of oppression taught me my life’s most important lesson: how to combine my seemingly disparate identities of educator and activist."

- Aurelio Manuel Montemayor and Thomas Ray Garcia, El Curso de la Raza


In the amusing Venn Diagram between these two books, the overlapping experiences of becoming scholarship boys connect Montemayor and Rodriguez --- and I to them, by extension. However, it is Montemayor's and my identification as fronterizos that lead us to reframe the scholarship boy experience.


It's true that Montemayor's hunger for education alienated himself from his Texas-Mexico border culture. But, already living in an in-between state along the border, Montemayor developed his liberatory pedagogy based on growing up and returning to this in-between world. The power of nepantla, in Montemayor's case, leads to his concientización:


"While it was clear to me that working-class Mexicans did not often attend St. Edward’s, I felt uncomfortable submitting to simple stereotypes like the poor Mexican who 'stayed true' to his roots or the learned Mexican who 'acted white.' Rather than choosing a binary stance between Mexicans and Americans, I was more aware of an elitist, culturally superior point of view that existed in parallel worlds in Mexico City and Austin. If I could have taken introspective stock then, I would have encountered jarring contradictions in my understanding of the world. Imagine a blue-collar, Spanish-speaking neighbor rubbing shoulders with a New York literary critic and a counter-culture roadie. I imagined myself as all three simultaneously. Truly a wide catholicity of tastes somehow disparate and unblended, my cultural pride flowing between the diverse cultural and linguistic streams of my heritage."

- Aurelio Manuel Montemayor and Thomas Ray Garcia, El Curso de la Raza


While co-writing El Curso de la Raza, I was struck by the narrative's uncanny echoes to Rodriguez's upbringing and educational journey, as well as by the books' completely different conclusions. To this day, Rodriguez is labeled as anti-bilingual education and anti-affirmative action, two initiatives that critics maintain were central to Rodriguez's education.


Although I disagree with Rodriguez's conclusions, I understand fundamentally where he is coming from because of our shared identities as scholarship boys. In the journey of belonging and becoming, I have found it easy to view identity as a zero-sum game. In order to succeed at Princeton University, I had to learn how to navigate spaces not traditionally designed for minorities and first-generation, low-income college students. The internal conflict emerges exactly because one way of being is being supplanted with another, and this can produce a sense of loss:


“With [scholarship boys] the sense of loss is increased precisely because they are emotionally uprooted from their class, often under the stimulus of a stronger critical intelligence or imagination, qualities which can lead them into an unusual self-consciousness before their own situation.”

- Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy


However, it is exactly through shedding off the binary of "Mexican" and "American" that enabled me to discover my fronterizo identity, which was there all along. To me, being a fronterizo wasn't about speaking more Spanish than English or coming across more American than Mexican at opportune moments. It was becoming critically conscious of nepantla and learning how to thrive in this liminal identity, space, and place.


Easier said than done, of course. But, as I've written elsewhere: "I did not know [Rio Grande] Valley history until I felt the need to discover my fronterizo identity. Far from home, I strove to know my home so I could know myself." My concientización involved learning about myself through learning about my hometown's history. This resulted in my growing closer to my home life by using the tools I acquired in my university life, as if the scholarship boy's two worlds were forming "una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds."


Would Richard Rodriguez have arrived at different conclusions on bilingual education and affirmative action if he were a fronterizo rather than a Sacramentan? We can only surmise.


Aurelio Manuel Montemayor and Thomas Ray Garcia discussing El Curso de la Raza at the Pharr Memorial Library
Discussing El Curso de la Raza at the Pharr Memorial Library

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