By BAY STEPHENS/Montana State News

“Growing up, I thought only Mexicans were poor,” Eric Lopez told an  University Montana State Latino Texts and Cinema class, “because I only saw poor Mexicans.” With kind eyes and a smile that melts a bad attitude, Lopez, 48, is a huggable guy, even in a suit. Though he can talk about himself and tell his own story with humor and verve, it’s easy to see that Lopez doesn’t derive his joy from self-focus. He is an encourager and a team player, of which his life and work bear the evidence.

Growing up the son of Mexican-American migrant workers, privileges such as college were not exactly expected. Lopez’ parents worked hard to put him and his brother through Catholic school, instead of the less sterling public schools. Though it was strange at some points— he jokes that he was “raised by a wild pack of Irish nuns” who taught him and his brother to say Spanish names wrong—their educators were far more tolerant of difference than in his parents’ day.

Lopez was the first in his family to go to college, not to mention get a master’s and Ph.D. in school psychology. Today he is the dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M, San Antonio, his home city.

That’s where he would be now, but he smiles and shares his experiences in an office in Montana Hall while the Bridger Range glistens over his shoulder in the afternoon sun. So, this year’s a little different, especially with a view of mountains from his desk. He is taking a year from his home university in Texas to work with President Waded Cruzado and Rusty Barcelo, of Chico State, on a diversity plan to be incorporated into Montana State’s new Strategic Plan.

With only 17 percent of MSU’s student population being non-white according to the Office of Planning and Analysis, diversity has been a point of improvement for several years now. Lopez comes from a university where nearly 82 percent of the students identify as Latino/Hispanic. Though he offers some distinct and valuable perspective, he is also looking to learn a lot, especially in terms of high-impact ideas, programs and projects to bring back to A&M, San Antonio.

Part of the reason he is here is because of MSU’s status as a land grant university, as was his undergrad university, Texas A&M, College Station.

“Yea, I’m an Aggie,” he says, his massive class ring adorning his right hand. These land grant institutions, he explained, were given so that the sons and daughters of each state might receive a higher education. All of Lopez’ professional career has been in land grant schools. What he always tells the faculty and staff in his college is that, “A&M is not for the rich people or the pretty people. It’s for all the people, and we have to always remember that.”

This idea of collective benefit has a deep resonance with Lopez’ roots. He’s especially aware of the individual and independent cultural bent in the United States because of how collective Mexican-American culture is in contrast. Adjusting to the dominant culture was difficult from grade school to graduate school and can still poses challenges.

“We were taught, ‘Help your cousins, help your friends,’ but in school, it was called cheating!” He laughed and his shoulders touched his ears. “In our families, if you weren’t good at math, then you didn’t do the math. Your cousin or your brother who was good at it did it.” With that collective perspective, everyone contributed with their strengths, picking up the slack of others’ weaknesses.

It didn’t take long for Lopez to realize that he couldn’t act the same way in every context.

“To be successful in one environment, you had to acculturate to those norms. To be successful in another environment, you also needed to understand those norms.”

Much of his life has been lived with one foot in each world, doing this code-switching dance to perform in a culturally appropriate manner. It’s hard to maintain all the time though; sometimes he slips into Spanish mid-sentence without realizing it.

Spanish is his emotional language. “I can’t date in English,” Lopez said, “can’t fight in English either.” When it comes to raw responses and his understanding of emotions, it comes in Spanish. If he wants to or needs to express it in English, he has to filter the emotion-charged words to English on the spot. It’s a process that most monolingual individuals haven’t experienced.

For Lopez, the capability to adjust to fit context, whether linguistically or culturally, constitutes giftedness. It’s a very different perspective than that of a gifted individual having an IQ of 130 or greater.

The two worlds were sometimes in direct odds. In graduate school in Iowa, he and the other psychology students would receive an assignment which required certain journal articles from the library. “So someone, from either counselling or clinical [psychology], would go and cut out the article from the journal—they were the book journals—so by the time we got to the library, they weren’t there.” Everyone else would have to order the journal from another school. By the time the journal arrived, the assignment was due.

“I would say, ‘That’s sick. Who would do that?’”

Lopez’ collective upbringing had some influence in changing the students’ approach. “We decided, ‘Why can’t we all get A’s? Why only one person?’ It changed that culture from ‘me, me, me, I, I, I’ to ‘Why can’t we all get the degree and be successful?’”

Though we don’t know the details as of yet, we can trust that his work with President Cruzado will have similar aims. In the upcoming months, Lopez will be travelling all over the country visiting various universities and learning what he can from their leadership styles.

When he’s not on the road, no doubt he’ll be looking for other Mexican-Americans to play mariachi with. With 55 million Mexican-Americans in the United States, there’s usually someone. Music, he explained, is his cultural nutrient, the piece of home that gives him fresh air in strange and unfamiliar environments.

Leaving for college, Lopez’ first complete immersion in a culture not his own, his parents told him two things: “Don’t call us. We’ll call you”—long-distance was expensive in those days—and “Don’t forget where you came from.”

It has become his work to live in two worlds, making connections between his beginnings and what he’s learned along the way. Lopez sees diversity as a powerful thing, as well as something our country can’t continue without embracing. Eric Lopez is a living example that you don’t have to lose one world to gain the other.

– edited by Amanda Grover

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