A few years ago, when I taught a class at San Francisco State University called “La Raza Teatro Workshop,” one of the students was a very engaging young Chicano. I will call him Agustín (not his real name).
He was a few years older than the rest of the students, perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s. A good looking guy, he was not afraid to speak his mind. To have students actually engaged in the learning process is one important reason why I enjoyed being a teacher.
To dare was always a key element in my teaching strategy. Especially in my theater class. Actors, I believe, have to dare to act. Dare to act silly, sexy, evil, devious. Whatever the role calls for.
Agustín spoke his mind, asked questions, engaged in the dialectical process. He dared to be a student and he dared me to be a good teacher.
He was working on a graduate degree in psychology. His girlfriend, also a Chicana, was a graduate student in Social Work. She was, Agustín told me, a key reason for his being back in school. Those two made an attractive couple.
Agustín told the class that he “took a leave of absence from regular schooling to become a student at The University of the Barrio.”
He added, smiling broadly: “I have the tattoos and the scars to prove it, profe!…I am a reformed Cholo Scholar!”
One night, I took the class to see a show that was presented at a theater located on Valencia Street, close to 16th Street. It was just before gentrification became a tsunami, barely 20 years ago.
On that cold night trip to “the Barrio,” the students were louder than usual—laughing, joking, enjoying the theater date, happy to be away from school. Only Agustín was more subdued that usual and he covered most of his face with a Palestinian keffiyeh. “He must be cold,” I thought.
After the show, we started walking towards 16th and Valencia streets. We were a loud and hungry pack. I suggested that we could cross the street and go to a popular nearby taquería.
Before we could make a decision, Agustín spoke: “Sorry Profe. I can’t cross the street. I used to claim a different part of San Pancho. That side…across the street…they were rivals. I mean…I’m no longer part of that ‘vida’…but someone might recognize me and…it would not be cool. Get it?”
So, we stayed put and did not cross the street. We found another place to eat, where Agustín might not be recognized and maybe attacked because in the not-so-distant past he claimed the wrong side of the street. Funny thing was (or maybe not funny at all) Agustín had never been to that place. “I heard that too many ‘gabachos’ go there, Profe.”
Agustín was happy to eat there, especially when he saw that, most of the workers and clients that night were a very mixed bunch: Asian, Latinos/as, South Asian, Black, White—the rainbow. And the food was good!
When we left the restaurant and said our goodbyes, Agustín smiled a little sheepishly and gave me a hug, adding quietly: “I know, I know, Profe. Don’t have to say anything.” And we went our separate ways.
I did not say anything then. But I never forgot that night.
From then on, I learned to say to my students, to my children, or to anyone I cross paths with: If you are going to claim, claim big. Don’t claim two or three blocks, don’t claim a little corner of the world, don’t claim only one nation…claim big. Claim the world!
Greta Thunberg claims the world. She is a 16 year old activist from Sweden who has given herself to an all-out fight against global warming—in spite of having been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. That syndrome, also called “a high functioning form of autism” is a mental disorder which may cause speech problems, poor social skills and the development of harmful psychological problems.
On the other hand, people with Asperger syndrome may have high intelligence and better than average verbal skills, especially on a particular subject, a subject provoking ‘an obsession,’ a hyperfocus on that particular subject.
We can consider ourselves fortunate that Greta Thunberg is including all of us in her obsession, her claim, because she claims the world. And she gives herself to the struggle, like other environmental heroes and heroines, many who have given and continue to literally give their lives for our common mother: Mother Earth.
Let us join the struggle to save our world. Let us claim the Earth back from those who destroy it and profit from its destruction. That is a claim worth having!
Six months ago, I ran into my old student, Agustín. He did earn his Masters in Psychology, near the top of his class. He was proud and so was I. He married his girlfriend, who also got her Masters and they have a 12-year old girl. We could not stop smiling.
When we said goodbye, again we hugged and this time he whispered:
“Profe, now I walk wherever I need to walk. I cross all streets!”