New Mexico Secretary of Higher Education Jose Garcia told Eastern New Mexico University students on Friday he was naive about growing up in a multicultural household. And how he would later learn to be proud of his heritage.
Garcia was the guest speaker at the Hispanic Affairs' luncheon in ENMU's Sandia Room which was part of Hispanic Heritage Month events.
His father, a diplomat, was Hispanic. His mother white. He moved around when he was young to places including Peru and Germany.
"I had no concept of ethnicity," Garcia said, thinking living in a bilingual and multicultural household was the norm.
He experienced culture shock when he settled in Dexter at age 14, he said. That was when he was exposed to segregation that divided the town. It didn't help that the Hispanic-Americans didn't feel he was Hispanic enough. He left New Mexico after graduating high school.
"I was tired of struggling with ethnicity," Garcia said. "I spent a great deal of my life explaining who I am."
Educated in the U.S. and in Spain, Garcia said he discovered who he was while working in Chico, Calif.
"I got a job in the affirmative action period," Garcia said. "I could be who I was, I didn't have to twist my personality into a pretzel."
While in Chico, he worked with organizations connected to American farm worker and labor leader Cesar Chavez.
"We could get Cesar on a 24-hour notice when we mentioned labor unions," Garcia joked.
A student asked Garcia how he came to terms with not relating to the Mexican-American community of New Mexico.
Garcia responded that it's important to be able to communicate with the language of people. He added that working with the organizations connected through Chavez made him realize that he was dedicated to a cause bigger than himself and that he was proud to be Hispanic-American.
Another student asked Garcia how he sees his journey in comparison to today's Hispanic-Americans.
Garcia said that the U.S. is more mature today than it was when he was growing up.
"Society is more open and tolerant," Garcia said. "That's a major change."
He said he does feel that ethnic solidarity has diminished. He cited the Jewish people as an example of ethnic solidarity because he said their population has survived over hundreds of years because of the strength of their identity.
An ENMU professor asked about Garcia's plans for New Mexico education.
Garcia said in order for New Mexico to be globally competitive, schools have to improve education and graduate more students.
"We can't get there unless we solve the achievement gap," Garcia said. "I'm always delighted to hear how well this school is doing. It's an exciting time for me to be involved in education."
Rey Coss, ENMU student body president, said Garcia visiting the campus was important.
"The leadership position and for it being Hispanic Heritage month means a lot for him to come," said Coss, who is Mexican-American. "Everything he said was about who we are as Hispanics and where we need to be."