I was invited to give a distinguished lecture at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP). The title of my lecture was Equity and Computing in an Era of Chaos. While the lecture went well, the experience was profoundly moving for me.

I’d never been to El Paso before.  It is right on the border of Mexico. Ciudad Juarez is the adjoining city. The border between the United States and Mexico is less than mile from the UTEP campus. You can, in fact, see Mexico from many campus offices and classrooms.

I have never been on an American college campus where nearly everyone is Hispanic – the students, the dean, the department chair, the president, the janitor, the barista. The student population of UTEP is approximately 80 percent Mexican and Mexican/American students. Walking on campus (which is stunningly beautiful) amid the sea of students, it takes a while before you see someone who isn’t Hispanic. It is like walking at my alma mater, UC Berkeley, where it takes a while before you see someone who is.

Why does this matter?

Physically experiencing an institution of high level intellectual power where everyone is Hispanic forced me to acknowledge the magnitude of the forces we’re up against. The narrative of Hispanic people and students in the country at the moment is ensnared in a vicious and debilitating theme. They are considered a problem to be dealt with, students with deficits to be addressed. They are invisible workers – in kitchens, on construction sites, in yards, in fields and factories. In the context of DACA, they are expected to clean and not study. They are invisible residents – segregated, like everyone else, and relegated to their communities, wherever they are in whatever city. I am sophisticated enough to know the difference between Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans and Mexicans, for example, and that the term Hispanic itself is virtually useless as a cultural category. But yet, it is laden. What I am painting is a picture of a popular and damning image.

There is no natural link in our national DNA that equates Hispanic students to high level intellectual rigor and accomplishment. This is especially true in technical fields. This is the core of the battle we’re up against. Underlying the polices and sweeping efforts to broaden participation in STEM fields and to democratize computing and bring inclusion and diversity to American workspaces, lurks this basic challenge.

Expansion of the image and location associated with intellect and technical mastery.

On UTEP’s campus I experienced this. Intellectual fire power. Ambition. Confidence. Drive. I spent the entire day on campus meeting with various faculty, administrators and students. I walked and listened and reflected. In advocating for equity in STEM education in general and computing education in particular, the image of the students we’re advocating for is important. The sound of their voices, the colors of their skin and hair, the cadence of their dialogue, the precision of their questions, the fluid movement between English and Spanish, all matter. Taking note of these characteristics helps build the mental association between the perception of intellect and people. It is hard to do if you do not experience it, if you do not see it. It is the difference between experiential and theoretical.

I also learned about fortitude. Nearly 2,000 students at UTEP live in Ciudad Juarez. They have to cross the U.S. – Mexico border every day to go to school. As a practical matter, that means many of them rise before 5 in the morning, in predawn darkness, to get to the border gate and then wait in line for up to an hour to have their papers and cars checked for expedited entry to the U.S. – so they can go to class.

I had to pause for a moment and reflect on that reality which I had never considered. There are US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at the border. Men with guns. There are border patrol agents – newly emboldened by the current President – on the prowl looking for Mexicans to entrap. There are parents in Juarez sending their children across this volatile and potentially dangerous divide every day. They are sending them across the veil into an America in which they are invisible and degraded. Yet they persist in computer science, in STEM fields, in English and in Spanish, with grace and just…. as students at UTEP.

Their lesson to the rest of us is profound – equate intellect, fortitude, technical aptitude, achievement, and human dignity – with Hispanic.

kamau