As the son of immigrants and native to the border city of San Diego, Cal State Fullerton Chicano/a studies professor Alexandro José Gradilla reflects on his journey in higher education, his identity and growing up as a man of color.
“My home was maybe 10 or 15 minutes away from the U.S.-Mexico border,” Gradilla said. “But in our imagination, the border was two hours away, and that was figurative, but we literally felt the need to say Mexico was further away than it is so we wouldn’t be identified with that.”
Growing up along the border in the 1970s, Gradilla said the community could feel the racial and cultural changes happening all over the city at the time.
Gradilla began his work at CSUF 15 years ago and said that his commitment to ethnic studies along with his knowledge in the topic led him to lead the march to bring awareness of the department.
Earlier this year, CSUF’s Academic Senate passed a new resolution to follow the state-mandated ethnic studies requirement. However before the passing of this resolution, Gradilla said he had spent his time mobilizing the campus’ student body to advocate for AB 1460, the bill that would mandate a three-unit ethnic studies course as a graduation requirement within the Cal State Universities.
Gradilla said that before his arrival at CSUF, the ethnic studies department was marginalized, which led him to make the university’s administration aware of the department’s existence.
“It’s been great being on campus because the campus has afforded me the chance to demonstrate what ethnic studies is,” Gradilla said. “It’s given me a chance to let them know this is what a Latino faculty person, a Chicano faculty person can do, despite any passive or aggressive stereotypes.”
During high school, Gradilla said he was the only Mexican-American student in a gifted and talented program and that many teachers often said they wished other Mexican students would be like him.
Gradilla said he did not realize until later that this was a form of microaggressions, where backhanded compliments were at the same time insulting minorities.
“For me I was like ‘Oh, thank you,’ you know? What do you say to that?” Gradilla said. “When you have the anecdotal facts in front of you that you’re the only Mexican kid in the advanced placement classes, what do you say?”
Gradilla said that at the time, he didn’t understand the racial dynamics of students of color being part of advanced classes and said that now when he looks back at his experiences, he understands more of the racial undertones of circumstances like these.
Gradilla, the first in his family to graduate from college, received a bachelor’s degree in Chicano/a studies and anthropology. He also pursued a doctorate in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Michigan.
Despite his degrees, Gradilla said that his first semester at Berkeley was difficult, he put himself on academic probation and struggled with being away from his family.
As an early admit to Berkeley, Gradilla said he struggled with not knowing how to be a college student and faced a lot of racial tension.
Gradilla said he discovered a new world of Mexican-Americans that were not afraid to embrace whiteness, specifically people from Los Angeles.
“For me, being around all the LA people was very empowering to me, because LA had already started shifting in ways that now we’re seeing in parts of the Inland Empire, Orange County, where Mexican is normal, where Latino is normal,” Gradilla said.
Gradilla said that he found his path in ethnic studies and anthropology, and was fascinated by Mexico. He said he questioned its origins and the native indigenous groups in the country which led him to become a professor.
Julián Jefferies, affiliated faculty member with the Chicano/a studies and education departments, said Gradilla has been a mentor and a great leader while also someone he feels lucky to work with.
“He’s an inspiring figure to me because he’s a person that works to make the university better for our students and so I’ve always looked up to him. He’s also been a person that’s united faculty,” Jefferies said.
Jefferies said Gradilla’s push and support for legislation and changes in the university is something he believes has improved students’ academic experiences.
“It takes a lot of work to improve this university structurally, not just the adornments, but change how the university works,” Jefferies said. “He was very instrumental in making the ethnic studies requirement something significant.”
Gradilla also serves as the secretary of the executive committee for the Academic Senate. Stephen Stambough, the chair of the Academic Senate, said that he has worked with Gradilla for a very long time as part of the Academic Senate.
“He’s a voice in the senate that people look to,” Stambough said. “There’s a respect in terms of the knowledge of policy that he brings to the table, across all types of different policies.”
Besides his knowledge, Stambough said that Gradilla is eager to listen and help anyone and that he has worked hard to make sure faculty members mentor students and support their academic success.
“His involvement with some of the student groups at the university level, that’s where his passion really lies,” Stambough said. “That’s where he sees the biggest impact.”