New Cal State Chancellor Emphasizes Mexican American Heritage To Connect With Campus Communities

California State University trustees appointed Fresno State president Joseph Castro as system chancellor on September 23, 2020. (Screenshot)

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California State University trustees announced last month that Joseph Castro will be the next chancellor of the 23-campus system. He wasted no time telling the online audience why he thought his appointment was groundbreaking.

"I'm excited and honored to be the first California native and first Mexican American to serve as the chancellor of the California State University," he said.

He made a clear distinction in his acceptance speech — while Castro has on occasion described himself as Latino, he said in an interview with LAist that he specified "Mexican American" because it better embodied his heritage as a son of the San Joaquin Valley.

"I wanted to describe my background in a way that would resonate with the people of California and the country," he said.

That background includes ancestors who were pushed out of Mexico during a period of great violence in the early 20th century, and who worked as laborers when they arrived in California's Central Valley.

In a time when Latino, Latinx, and Hispanic are used as catch-all labels, the specific use of the term 'Mexican American' by such a high-profile public official highlights his experiences for people who have become a plurality in the state. Castro said he hopes specifying his roots will inspire others and said it will inform the policies he carries out leading the nearly 500,000 student system.

Castro's great-grandparents emigrated to central California from Mexico.

"My great-grandfather came here about 100 years ago to work on the railroad, and brought my grandfather, who was a Dreamer of his time, about two and a half, 3 years old," he said.

The first generation helped build the railroads, the second were farmworkers.

"Myself as a first-gen Mexicana, Chicana faculty member, I felt absolutely seen by that," said Cal State Dominguez Hills Professor Yesenia Fernandez.

She lived in Mexico until she was 8 years old. She said what was powerful about Castro's description of his ancestors and self-identifying as Mexican American is that it centered his ancestor's journey from the old country and how they worked the land.

"My paternal grandfather... taught me how to ride a horse at 5 years old, and he taught me how to work with my hands and the land in the same way," Fernandez said "I think about my paternal grandmother, who wasn't allowed to practice her indigenous beliefs."

Castro's achievements are well known in the Central Valley, from his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley to his Stanford University doctorate and his work as an administrator for the Office of the UC President, UC San Francisco, UC Santa Barbara, and helping found UC Merced, the Central Valley's newest university. He's been president of Fresno State for the last seven years.

"I believe representation matters and diversity and inclusion really matters," said third-year Fresno State student Tanya Acosta. Both of her parents were born and raised in Mexico.

"I love my culture and I love being a part of Fresno State, which has so many Latinx students," she said. "I feel like his background could and does influence his decisions."

Fresno State University is part of the 23-campus California State University system. (Cary Edmondson/Fresno State)

Nearly 40% of Californians are Latino or Hispanic — the term used by the U.S. Census. A slightly higher percentage of the California State University student population is classified as Hispanic/Latinx — but most of those students have roots in Mexico.

"The university that he leaves behind, Fresno State, the student body is majority Latino," said scholar David Ayon, author of "Power Shift: How Latinos in California Transformed Politics in America," "and the university that he helped set up, UC Merced, it's just barely but also majority Latino. But the overwhelming majority of that majority, I mean, overwhelming — almost entirely — is of Mexican origin, Mexican American."

It's reflective, Castro said, of his own experiences.

"There was a lot of pride in my hometown of Hanford. And a realization that there were immigrants from many different places," he said.

California's Central Valley is twice the size of New Jersey. It's been the agricultural engine of the western United States for over a century. In that time the demand for farm labor, transportation, and other industries has attracted people from different parts of the U.S. and the world.

"The population is heavily folks who work [agriculture]," said Sara Borjas, who grew up in Fresno and teaches creative writing at UC Riverside. "And those folks who work ag tend to be refugees in some form, fleeing, trying to survive. So the valley's full of Mexican Americans, it's full of Filipino families, Punjabi, Armenian, and Hmong families."

Borjas wrote a poem, "What I Know About Fresno," that adds to a long tradition of writers from the Central Valley who have written about their experiences growing up there.

"It's kind of what we have to lean on, when we don't really have a lot of other things to lean on, you know," she said. "The fact that we have, like a large family or that we're dedicated, that we're devoted, that we're loyal. And sometimes they're like the only things that we have to hold us up."

For the first time in the state's history, the Cal State Chancellor, Community Colleges Chancellor, University of California President, and State Superintendent of Schools will be Black or Latino, or both.

That's important for all Californians.

"It doesn't matter just for Latinx students, but it also matters for non Latinx students," said UC Merced professor Daisy Reyes, "to show that Latinx people belong everywhere and should have a seat at all tables."

But with higher education in California in a tough spot, what is likely to resonate more with campus communities are how those leaders will cope with a global pandemic and growing budget deficits.

"It's a very typical thing for Americans to tell these sort of like origin stories of how they made it," Reyes said. "And that doesn't really get most people anywhere. People are going to be looking to see what this looks like in practice. What does this actually mean in your agenda?"

CSU students are already asking that.

Student Acosta doesn't feel as strongly about Castro's self-identity as she does about her feelings that university administrators need to do more to help students.

"[Castro] needs to ensure that... students have access to resources and equity, and a comfortable and welcoming environment in the CSU system," she said.