A tribute to Professor Carlos Leal

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In March 2020, the University of Northern Colorado shifted to all-online education as the coronavirus outbreak started threatening lives and forced all campuses to close for the remainder of the semester. In April 2020, the board proposed the satisfactory-unsatisfactory option for the following spring and summer semester. Photo courtesy of unco.edu.

Greatness, love and compassion are immeasurable. The impact of Professor Carlos Leal Jr. (who died May 28 in Greeley after a long battle with cancer) on countless lives as well as my own, is indeed immeasurable. If it weren’t for Carlos Leal, I would not have become a successful professor, humanitarian and internationally known author.

Professor Carlos Leal Jr. Photo courtesy of the Johnstown Breeze.

It was around 1975-76 when I first arrived at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. I was a young Chicana who had graduated from Roosevelt High School in Johnstown in 1967, dreaming of attending a university. However, like many other Chicanos from that time period, our socio-economic circumstances and the fact that we were not encouraged to pursue a higher education, made it virtually impossible.

Despite these barriers, it was while I was working as a teacher aide at Letford Elementary School that I was able to obtain a grant in Distributive Education, which opened the doors for me at UNC.

As destiny would have it, or “La mano de Dios” as we often say in Spanish, Carlos Leal became my very first Chicano Studies professor when I enrolled in one of his early Mexican-American Studies courses. This revolutionary course would inspire me to become one of the first double majors in Mexican-American Studies and Spanish at UNC.

Having Carlos Leal as my professor truly impacted my life. It was the first time in my young life that I’d met a Chicano who wasn’t a field laborer or factory worker, but instead, a professional man with a college degree. I became even more empowered in Professor Leal’s classes as I studied about my Mexican history and culture. It was only then that I began to acknowledge and value my unique cultural identity and my native Spanish language. Having been born and raised in conservative Colorado, from the time I was a young girl through my adolescence I was made to feel invisible. I was conditioned to believe I was a “Dirty Mexican” whose only worth was in doing field labor. I can still recall the No Mexicans Allowed signs in some of the restaurants in Loveland, the Sweetheart City of Colorado, where I was born.

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Professor Leal’s classes transformed my life and self-identity. Carlos became my first role-model and mentor who truly recognized my intellectual abilities and hunger to succeed. In his classes, he would call on me constantly, challenging me intellectually, showing me that my voice and unique perspective were of the utmost importance. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the educational experience for people of color in Colorado consisted of invisibility and high push-out rates. Thus, it is no surprise that from my elementary school years through my Roosevelt High School years in Johnstown, not a single teacher encouraged me or even suggested I was smart. It was from Professor Leal that I learned to believe and accept that I was intelligent, that I could achieve anything I desired, even a Ph.D from an Ivy League university. Eager for his guidance, knowledge and wisdom, I would seek him out constantly in the Mexican-American Studies Department or in his office.

While at UNC, it was Professor Carlos Leal who encouraged me to apply for one of the first Dr. Martín Candelaria Awards. Carlos was present at that award ceremony and those that followed such as the Honored Alumni Award and the University of Northern Colorado’s Hall of Fame Award, where I became the first Chicana inducted into their prestigious Hall of Fame. Professor Leal was extremely proud of me and he never once doubted my potential. It was while I was taking his Mexican-American Studies courses that I fell in love with literature. When I told him about this, he right away encouraged me to continue on for the Ph.D. When I applied and received a doctoral fellowship at Stanford University, I felt very nervous and insecure wondering whether I should accept it.

“What if I’m not smart enough?” I asked Professor Leal, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He reiterated his complete confidence in my ability to complete a doctoral program. He never once hesitated, encouraging me to talk with several of his colleagues who had completed their doctoral studies at Stanford. I followed his advice and went to speak with them.

Afterward, when I told Carlos they had discouraged me, telling me it might be too difficult for me, he was irate. He shook his head in disbelief, repeating that if anyone could do this, it was me. Professor Leal’s total faith and belief in my intellectual abilities were what inspired me to complete both my Master’s and Ph.D. at Stanford University.

Professor Leal’s leadership and the infinite love of his community also inspired me to learn about the impact of social justice and humanitarian goals. His compassion and awareness of social inequality inspired me as an undergraduate to become involved in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s. It was in one of Professor Leal’s Mexican-American Studies classes that I first read about Reies López Tijierina, one of the five early Chicano Movement Leaders, who sought to correct the social injustices in New Mexico. When Tijerina later came to speak at UNC, it was a life-changing moment that inspired me to join Corky Gonzalez’s chapter of the Crusade for Justice. As a result of this, I became directly involved in community protests throughout Greeley to raise awareness about issues related to racism and social inequities within the Mexican-American community. I would later meet César Chávez for the first time at El Centro Chicano at Stanford University, joining the Farmworker Struggle and UFW protests.

It was also during this time when I was becoming more politicized, that I became directly involved in the Chicano Art Renaissance with Chicano artists throughout the United States and in Europe, using our art to promote social change. Of special significance, Professor Leal was the first person in my life who encouraged me to develop and publish my early poetry. He was extremely proud of me and throughout the years, whenever I visited Colorado, he would drive to Johnstown to meet me at Leo’s Place, the local hangout. One of our final visits there sometime in the 1990s clearly stands out. I was working on Ankiza, the fifth novel in my Roosevelt High School Series, when I asked Carlos if he would let me use his actual name in reference to an important mentor and role-model for one of my characters. He looked at me, his eyes shining with pride, and without any hesitation, he agreed. To date, I can proudly state that Professor Carlos Leal is forever immortalized in my fiction.

Above all, after graduating from Stanford and becoming a professor at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, I have always strived to model myself after Professor Leal. As Carlos so often did throughout my UNC years, I continually seek to inspire and believe in all of my students, but especially underrepresented students. Over the years, I’ve brought students into my home, helping them both financially and spiritually. I’ve even let them use my office to study or use my computer just like Carlos did for myself and so many others. For underrepresented students at UNC, Carlos was like a father or Tío. Modeling myself after him, I can proudly say that in my more than 30 years of teaching at Cal Poly, I’m known as the “Tía” or aunt, especially amongst our students of color. This is what I learned from Carlos, the concept of familia, which is sadly lacking in most institutions. Since many underrepresented students are away from their families for the very first time, we often serve as their familia. At Stanford University, Cecilia and Antonio Burciaga would take on that role, often inviting us into their homes.

The impact of Professor Carlos Leal at the University of Northern Colorado, in the Greeley community and throughout Colorado will forever remain immeasurable and unforgotten. There is no doubt in my mind I would not be who I am today, the Chicano Studies professor, role model, author and humanitarian, if it weren’t for Professor Leal. His knowledge, integrity, compassion and spirit were what inspired me and taught me to truly believe in myself. The powerful message I learned from him as my mentor and role-model of always speaking out for social justice and humanitarian goals, is invaluable. And given the worldwide protests over the murder of George Floyd and countless other African-American men, this message continues to be of great importance.  

Considered an early pioneer of the Chicano Literary Renaissance, Gloria L. Velásquez began writing and publishing during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 70s. An internationally acclaimed author, Velásquez holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Latin American and Chicano Literatures. She is the author of two collections of poetry, I Used to Be a Superwoman (1994); Xicana on the Run (2005); and the bilingual novella, Soldaditos y muñecas/Toy Soldiers and Dolls (2019). Velásquez is creator of the popular Roosevelt High School Series: Juanita Fights the School Board (1994), Maya’s Divided World (1995), Tommy Stands Alone (1995), Rina’s Family Secret (1998), Ankiza (2000), Teen Angel (2003), Tyrone’s Betrayal (2006), Rudy’s Memory Walk (2009), Tommy Stands Tall (2013), Forgiving Moses (2018) and the forthcoming 12th novel in the RHS series, Zakiya, Don’t Do It (2020). Velasquez’s poetry and fiction have appeared in journals and anthologies throughout the U.S. as well as in Europe. She is an Emeritus Professor in the World Languages and Cultures Department at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. She now tours throughout the United States performing songs and poetry from her SUPERWOMAN CHICANA CD as well as mentoring youth with her Roosevelt High Series of young adult books.

This story originally ran in The Johnstown Breeze.

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