Testimonios: Dr. Ricardo Cortez

Testimonios is edited by Pamela E. Harris, Alicia Prieto-Langarica, Vanessa Rivera Quiñones, Luis Sordo Vieira, Rosaura Uscanga, and Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez and illustrated by Ana Valle. It brings together first-person narratives from the vibrant, diverse, and complex Latinx and Hispanic mathematical community. Starting with childhood and family, the authors recount their own particular stories, highlighting their upbringing, education, and career paths. Testimonios seeks to inspire the next generation of Latinx and Hispanic mathematicians by featuring the stories of people like them, holding a mirror up to our own community.

Members of some professional organizations can access this e-book for free through their respective member libraries (MAA | other). The entire collection of 27 testimonios is available for purchase. We reproduce one chapter per month on inclusion/exclusion to better understand and celebrate the diversity of our mathematical community with folks who are not members of these organizations.


The Beginning

Dr. Ricardo Cortez, Illustration created by Ana Valle.

My story is about family, education, and service. My parents, Beatriz and Jaime, grew up in the same neighborhood in El Salvador. They were both from relatively small and low-income families. They knew each other from an early age and began dating as teenagers. When my mother finished high school, she pursued a job opportunity as an executive secretary at the United Nations and moved to New York City at the age of 19. My father, who is infinitely resourceful, found a way to follow and moved to New York shortly thereafter without knowing how to speak English and without knowing how he might support himself there. That was the beginning of a decade in New York full of momentous occasions including their wedding, the birth of their first son, my brother Jaime and two years later the birth of their second son, me. The family was complete six years later when my sister, Beatriz, was born back in El Salvador. My brother has been a musician all of his life and is now a nationally recognized liturgical musician based in Arizona. My sister is an award-winning artist and a scholar of Central American literature at Cal State Northridge. My parents have been married for 58 years now. You will hear more about them later in the chapter.

In New York, we lived in a multicultural neighborhood in Astoria, where the next-door neighbors were Greek and others were Italian. I only lived there for four and a half years and did not attend any school. My brother attended public school for a year, which he enjoyed, but not everything was reassuring to my parents. There were rumors of candy laced with drugs being given to children and other problems that, combined with the reality that my parents could not afford any private school, led them to relocate the family back to El Salvador. There, as a two-income family and substantial sacrifice, my parents could afford to send the kids to a Jesuit school, Externado de San José, where I did all 13 years of primary and secondary school.

Growing Up

The Jesuit School was rigorous academically and focused on social justice. There was a “social hours’’ requirement every year that could be fulfilled by volunteering at any one of a list of places kept by the school. I remember participating in food and clothing drives after storm-induced landslides devastated entire neighborhoods.

I was generally a good student, but I was not interested in every subject and I didn’t make my best effort when I was not interested. So, my grades were good in some subjects and acceptable in others. I was in seventh grade when I first discovered that I was good at mathematics. It wasn’t from positive reinforcement, but from a day in which the teacher did not agree with my conduct in class. On that day, two classmates and I were tossing a ball around the room every time the teacher had his back turned. When we were caught, he singled me out for being disruptive and said sarcastically that I shouldn’t worry because he didn’t give low grades based on conduct. A few minutes later he retaliated by writing a problem on the board and pointing at me to come up and do it in front of the class. I don’t remember the problem, but I did it right and, more importantly, I knew I had done it right before the teacher validated it.

In high school, I had very good math teachers who encouraged my interest in mathematics and made me feel important. One of my memories from that time is about a day I went to ask my algebra teacher questions about a procedure we learned in class. I distinctly remember his answer starting with “I am going to tell you something because I know you will understand.’’ This made me feel like I was being entrusted with information that the teacher considered beyond the scope of the class, but he knew I was capable of understanding. It was a simple statement but it had a huge impact on me. I think of that statement and choose words carefully when I talk to students now because I don’t know which statements will resonate with them.

My high school cohort was organized as a community. We arranged for one or two of us to lead tutoring sessions in different subjects for the benefit of the other students. I was selected to lead the mathematics sessions and attended sections in chemistry as a student. Outside academics, I was interested in soccer and classical guitar. I was good at soccer and played with the school team for most of my years there. Classical guitar was a different story because it was clear right away that my brother was much better at it and I wasn’t going to be in the same category as him. So I took it slowly and played only as a hobby.

Discrimination exists everywhere, even in places with little racial diversity, where the victims are those with darker skin tones and the poor. We were taught to care for the less fortunate and advocate for those who don’t have a voice or are not heard. How to do this in practice was not clear. Food drives were important and necessary at critical times, but their effect was momentary and didn’t produce long-term benefits. The political environment in El Salvador reached a boiling point after decades of oppression of the poor (which was the majority of the country) by a series of military governments. A war broke out when I was a teenager and life became difficult. I knew people who were killed or physically disabled from bullets. Childhood friends left the country on a moment’s notice. I
knew the smell of teargas and the anxiety of having to get home before curfew. All of us did.

A family decision was made that when my older brother and I finished high school we would move to the United States to go to college. We were lucky because we were U.S. citizens and could travel freely. Still, the reality was that my family could not afford to send two kids to college. Nevertheless, I was one school year behind my brother, so he went first.

Nobody in my immediate family had a university degree except one of my uncles who was an architect. Certainly, no one in my family knew a scientist or artists who made a living as artists, so when my brother mentioned that he liked music and I mentioned I liked mathematics, the advice was that we study something that my parents viewed as a career, like engineering, rather than a science or an art, which they only knew as a subject matter without a realistic option of a career. My parents’ position was that we could study anything we wanted as long as we had engineering to fall back on.

College

My older brother left El Salvador and moved to the United States as a freshman majoring in engineering at Arizona State University (ASU). A few years earlier Jaime spent nine weeks in Arizona as an exchange student and he maintained close contact with the host family, the Langstons, who became an extension to our family and remain so to this day. Having them nearby was a great relief to my parents and the number one reason for choosing ASU. A year later, when it was my turn to move out, I also went to ASU and began my studies in mechanical engineering. Moving to Arizona was a cultural shock in every way. I had just turned 18 and went from living with my parents in San Salvador to the dorms in Tempe. I did not know how the educational system worked, how the social system worked, and, while I thought I spoke English, I didn’t understand half of what people said to me. When I did understand, it took time for me to find the words to answer. My personality was different without the vocabulary to tell jokes or say something clever. I also felt some pressure to contribute financially to my education before depleting my parents’ savings.

I do not remember anyone who spoke Spanish in the dorms where I lived with my brother. The only exception was a father and son team from Mexico, who worked at the dorm cafeteria cleaning and washing dishes. After speaking with them a few times I found out that I could work at the cafeteria for minimum wage, which was not a lot, but if I worked the breakfast and dinner shifts I could get my food for free. So that’s what I did to earn some money during my first semester in college. On weekends, I had a second job as a referee for young kid’s soccer games. I had a bicycle that got me to the different locations and I had a lot of fun refereeing. After a few months, my English was getting better and my studies were going well. I knew there was University-sponsored tutoring in mathematics and I thought perhaps I could do that so I applied for the job. I started tutoring calculus while I was still a freshman and I kept adding more tutoring courses to my repertoire every semester. I worked as a tutor with that University program until I graduated.

I earned enough at my jobs to pay for my living expenses excluding tuition. I had inherited some of my father’s resourcefulness, and I found out that there were many scholarships and grants opportunities that I qualified for. Some of them provided a couple of hundred dollars, others were a little larger. Every year I would apply for a handful of scholarships in hopes I would be awarded some. This system worked well for the rest of my time at ASU without having to take on any loans.

My engineering advisor, Dr. Davidson, was helpful. He always took the time to talk with me and to work with my ideas. The school of engineering offered its own mathematics courses “for engineers.’’ When I told him that I preferred to take the equivalent courses from the mathematics department, he approved every one. A conversation with him that changed my academic path without my realizing it took place when I had run out of mathematics courses in the engineering program. I told him that I liked mathematics and that I wanted to continue taking one math class every semester even if they were not required. He said that if I was serious about it, that I should add mathematics as a second major. I didn’t know that one could do that, but I thought it was a great idea. I became a double major that day.

Family and Education

I did not finish my bachelor’s degrees simultaneously. I finished my mathematics degree first and had a few courses left to take in mechanical engineering. My brother Jaime switched majors from engineering to music, which was his passion in the first place, and graduated a year after I did. A few years later, my younger sister, who was born and raised in El Salvador was unable to make steady progress in her studies due to the political instability in the country. In a moment’s notice, she moved to Arizona, where my brother lived, and continued her education at ASU. She earned a PhD in Literature and Cultural Studies. A few years later, as a professor at Cal State Northridge, she found the time to attend CalArts and complete a master’s in Fine Arts. Now she has two concurrent careers: art, which is her passion, and the faculty position where she inspires students in the Department of Central American and Transborder Studies.

When my brother and his wife Kari started a family, my parents didn’t want to miss the chance to be a part of the lives of their grandchildren and decided to also make a move from El Salvador to Arizona. They were in their early fifties and did not know what type of jobs might be available to them, but family was most important. As it turns out they were able to find jobs and had time to enjoy the grandchildren. My mother worked as an interpreter in the courts of the city of Mesa, where she was able to take classes to earn a particular certification.

Mom and Dad’s graduation.

More importantly, taking college courses revived her desire to earn a university degree, which had been on hold for years. She started taking courses at the local college and sometimes at ASU. My father, who didn’t want to feel left out, decided to take some courses as well. They were motivated to finish and declared majors in justice studies (Mom) and studio art (Dad). Their three kids had degrees from ASU and now it was their turn. My parents graduated from ASU together in 2004.

Graduate School

Many people have similar stories about how they ended up in graduate school. For me, the path was not straight, mostly because I did not know what people did in graduate school or what the future held for somebody with a graduate degree. But some of my ASU math friends were better informed and applied to graduate programs. Among them was Stella, who is from Los Alamos where her father was a scientist. She went to the University of California (UC) Berkeley for graduate school in mathematics. During her first semester there, when I stayed behind finishing engineering, I communicated with her and she encouraged me to apply to Berkeley. She said a lot of great things about it; I trusted her. So I decided to apply to the mathematics graduate program at Berkeley; in case that didn’t work, I started interviewing for engineering jobs. That was the master plan. Besides the graduate application to Berkeley, I sent one to Arizona State University because my advisor suggested I do that.

I didn’t know much about graduate programs or if a master’s degree was a prerequisite for a PhD degree. I knew Berkeley was a top-tier institution. I was worried about my academic preparation. I decided to apply to the master’s program with the intention of switching to the PhD program after a year. I don’t know if I discussed this issue with anyone or if I did it on my own. To this day, I believe that decision made it possible for me to get a PhD. I wasn’t ready for a rigorous program. It was absolutely necessary for me to spend my first year of graduate school taking upper-division undergraduate courses.

There is a story about the way I found out I was admitted. During spring break, I still had not heard back from Berkeley. So, I decided to take a 13-hour road trip and visit the campus. I walked around the hallways, listened to conversations, and tried to get an idea of the environment. I went to the math office, and they sent me to the graduate coordinator. He asked the secretary for my application, but she couldn’t find it so, he looked on his desk and found it among a bunch of other applications. He picked it up, opened it, and said: “you are admitted.’’

When I walked out of the graduate coordinator’s office, I crossed paths with a Latino student, but we did not exchange words. By an unbelievable coincidence, he was a PhD student from El Salvador, whose father had been a teacher at the Jesuit school that I attended. Herbert Medina found out that I was an incoming student and he sent me copies of past preliminary exams for me to study in advance. Since then, Herbert has been a source of support over the years to me and hundreds of other students. He is now Acting President at the University of Portland.

In Berkeley, I became more aware of the problems faced by underrepresented minorities, especially as they relate to access to education. It was around this time that I learned about SACNAS, the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, and I attended their conference for the first time. It was a relatively small meeting held in January, and I really liked the idea of providing opportunities for undergraduate students to learn about graduate school and careers in scientific research.

Attending a SACNAS conference.
Photo courtesy of SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) sacnas.org.

I became involved in SACNAS by attending the annual meetings and eventually becoming a student board member. I did not miss many SACNAS conferences for the next 25 years and worked along with many others to increase and enhance the mathematics component of the conference. Over the years, we organized mathematics sessions at the conference and created a task force that wrote proposals to fund the participation of mathematics students. Later, we were able to connect the mathematical sciences research institutes to SACNAS so that more members of underrepresented minorities could learn about the institutes and perhaps participate in their programs in the future.

As a graduate student I was already interested in education and had the opportunity to work for programs that tried to make a difference in the education of students who were marginalized and didn’t have advocates. I got connected to these programs through friends who were in graduate programs in mathematics education. At the time, I was inexperienced and didn’t know how to determine the likelihood of success of these intervention programs or if they were designed based on best practices or research. Looking back I can see that some of those programs had little chance of success when, for example, they hired early graduate students like me to teach a course at the local high school (with no training) in order to correct a systemic problem like tracking, where students of color are often placed in remedial mathematics courses, which eventually limits their opportunities in college. At the time I didn’t have the maturity to understand that I was spending a large portion of my time on activities that were noble but had little chance of effecting lasting change. Today, I would strongly advise students to dedicate the academic year to their PhD studies and get involved in equity work only during part of the summer. Otherwise, the risk of falling behind in their studies is too great.

My time in the PhD program was full of nerve-racking moments when I needed supporters to make it through. My entire first year was an example of one. This was because, at the time, the UC Berkeley mathematics department admitted many more students than they expected to complete the program. The justification was that by doing so, they gave opportunities to students who wouldn’t usually have them. However, specific support systems for all of us to succeed were difficult to find. As a result, most of the students in my cohort dropped out of the program in the first year. The transition from undergraduate to graduate student required redesigning my study habits, learning to read textbooks, and knowing when to keep trying to solve a problem and when to ask for guidance. I took the first-year exams twice without success. There was a process to petition for a third try, which I did and passed the exams. I had made the transition.

Another nerve-racking moment was asking a professor to be my dissertation advisor. I had taken two courses with Alexandre Chorin, and I decided that I would like to work under his supervision. I didn’t know exactly how to ask or if he would accept, so it took me a few days to finally go to his office to ask him if he would be my advisor. His reply was “I was hoping that would be the case.’’ I immediately knew I was in good hands. He was a great source of support, especially when I felt discouraged or questioned my ability to finish. When I graduated, I received an award for an outstanding dissertation in applied mathematics.

Dr. Cortez (left) with Peter Lax (center) and Alexandre Chorin (right).

The Summer Math Institute

One program that had a huge impact on me was the Summer Math Institute at Berkeley. It was created by Uri Treisman and mathematics professor Leon Henkin specifically to address the underrepresentation of people of color in mathematics. Black, Latinx, and Native American undergraduates spent six to eight weeks at UC Berkeley taking a fast-paced course in an area of advanced mathematics for a couple of weeks before transitioning to group research projects. I was a graduate student at the time and worked as a Teaching Assistant in this program for two summers. The mathematics, as well as the engagement in research, were new to the students. The program had an administrator making sure that students and instructors had everything they needed to do their work and also organizing social events.

The MSRI-UP 2012 cohort.

The students were divided into two groups of 12 where each group worked on a different mathematical topic. The program also included outside speakers and professional development seminars on how to give technical presentations, how to write technical papers, what graduate school is like, and how to apply. This format, with some modifications, became the model for the design of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP), a research program for undergraduates that I co-created in 2007, and that is still going strong.

Postdoctoral and Faculty Years

Near the end of my graduate program, I applied for a National Science Foundation grant to go to NYU for three years as a postdoctoral researcher. I also applied for jobs in other places, including the National Security Agency which hires the largest number of mathematicians in the country. During a phone interview, they said that due to security risks, their employees had to sever ties with people from a list of countries that included El Salvador. I pointed out that it was impossible for me and others with family in Latin America to comply, and therefore, their policy was discriminatory toward Latinxs. I was not invited to the next interview. A decade later, I found out that the policy was still in place when a graduate student at Tulane University was forced to give up an NSA fellowship because his girlfriend was from a Latin American country on the list.

I got the National Science Foundation fellowship, which brought me back to New York, closing a circular path in my life. Besides being a time of professional growth, it was in New York where I met Kathy, who was in charge of grants administration at the Courant Institute at NYU. Kathy and I moved to New Orleans to work at Tulane University and have been together ever since. She has been a selfless supporter throughout the years and brightens every day of my life.

Final Thoughts

Working toward systemic changes involving deeply rooted practices requires actions from many angles and a substantial investment of energy and time. Even when institutions are willing to change, they call on the few people of color to do much of the groundwork. This disproportionate request to do equity work has led some to decline such invitations. While change happens at a frustratingly slow pace, there are two things that I try to remember. One is that this is a lifelong endeavor most likely to be characterized by incremental changes before major breakthroughs can happen. The second one is that to be effective in this work one has to be successful by the current measures of the system. For this reason it is important to recognize key moments when one must focus on professional advancement and self-promotion in order to reach positions of influence where one’s efforts can be more effective in the long term.

Dad, siblings, Kathy, Kari, and nephews Daniel, Nicolas and Benjamin.

I came to understand this during my postdoctoral years, which I dedicated to establishing a research program that would lead to a good academic job and extend through the transition to faculty member. As a professor, I made the decision to dedicate time to work toward increasing the participation of people of color in mathematics at the cost of a reduction in research publications and other professional output. This was my personal decision and it is not a recommendation. It required constant assessment to make sure that I advanced professionally. As an Assistant Professor I declined invitations to lead undergraduate research programs until after tenure. Instead, I involved small groups of undergraduate students of color in projects connected to my own research that would produce publishable results. I was lucky to have the mentorship of members of the SACNAS community, and especially of my colleague, long-time collaborator and friend, Lisa Fauci. Their support was critical to overcome setbacks and any obstacles placed in front of me.


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