Testimonios: Dr. Cynthia Oropesa Anhalt

Dr. Cynthia Oropesa Anhalt; Illustration created by Ana Valle.

A Story of Latinx

Something I heard as a child from relatives was the story that God first “baked a batch of people,” and the oven was not hot enough, so the people came out “underbaked” with light skin, so God compensated in the second batch by turning the oven temperature too high and burned the second batch creating the dark skin. For the third batch, God got the temperature exactly right, and created the brown skin Latinx people. This story warms my heart in that my extended family took pride in brown skin, but at the same time, the story is about competition and divisiveness, which has connotations of discrimination inside and outside the Latinx community. This story did not hold meaning for me until I became more aware of our ethnicity when I attended mostly-white public schools.

Early Life and Immigration

My father, Sergio Duarte Oropesa, was born in 1935 in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México to parents who worked in customs for the Mexican government. By his teenage years, his family had lived in Mexico City and various Mexican-U.S. border cities, including Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, where he met my mother, Francisca Orozco. My mother was born on a ranch in Saric, Sonora, Mexico in 1933 and only completed up to third grade in school.

The family in 1975.

My parents married in 1956 and had four children while living in Nogales. In 1959, my father gained sponsorship from Selby Motors, a Mercury and Lincoln car dealership, to work as a car technician in the U.S. For nine years, he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border daily in a 1953 Chevy pickup truck, which he fondly remembers as his first vehicle. He remembers the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the national border closed for the day, forcing him to spend the night at a hotel in the U.S. while the family was across the border, which was the first time that my father was apart from the family. It was not until 1968 that my mother, my siblings and I immigrated. My sister, Luz Elena was 11 and has a memory of seeing a large portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson as we entered the U.S., while my brother, Sergio Agustin was 10 and remembers being in a 1964 Mercury Montclair sedan as we crossed the border. My next older brother, Moses, was six, I was three, and we have little memory of entering the U.S.

Bilingualism and Biliteracy

Speaking two languages, Spanish and English, was a natural and organic part of my life. It seems that an unspoken rule was to speak Spanish at home with family and at church, while English was reserved for school and other events outside of the home. This practice became a form of diglossia, which became my parents’ mantra for the two languages we spoke; each language played a role in different social contexts for performing different functions. This ease in separating the two languages was something I never questioned because of my parents’ beliefs that they were responsible for teaching their children the heritage language. My father took English-language classes in the evening twice a week, and remembers proudly that he was the only student who was left at the end of the term. He ended up becoming close friends with his teacher, Señor Garcia, and continued taking private classes with him at no charge. At home in the evenings, my father would begin teaching English grammar to anybody that would sit by him long enough.

Conducted completely in Spanish, we attended church, and this became the space in which I learned to read academic Spanish language through the King James Bible. Through a game in Sunday School, a Bible verse was announced by its book, chapter, and verse number (eg., “Salmos (Psalms) 27:4”), and the first person to find the verse in the Bible, stand up, and publicly read it was triumphant. This motivated me to read the Bible in Spanish and design a strategy to memorize the sequence of books. I devised a code, such that the book of Genesis was assigned 1G, Exodus was 2E, and so on, in which the number was the order in which the book appeared, while the letter was the first letter in the name. I memorized this sequenced code, and while this was not a perfect system, it allowed me to play with numbers and letters and memorize the books in sequence.

My father and me.

This was an early memory of discovering how numbers play a role in developing my own schema with a purpose. While I remember this competition fondly, I never stopped to reflect on how children who did not excel felt during the game. I regret not showing my secret code to my peers, however, I am grateful that these experiences helped me to develop my literacy in the Spanish language.

Early Education

My first address in the U.S. was 197 First Street, Nogales, Arizona, 85621, and this is where I observed my siblings do homework in their elementary years, and they tell me that I used to pretend to do homework alongside them by making tiny symbols on paper pretending to write the numbers and letters. I remember clearly looking forward to watching Sesame Street on television daily, and I looked forward to it because I could watch this show while everyone was in school except for my mother and me. I believe that I learned English as I counted numbers with Count von Count and sang with Maria and Big Bird.

As an adult, I learned that Sesame Street, produced in 1969 by a non-profit organization, specifically aimed to target underprivileged pre-school age children. Sesame Street, coinciding with Head Start, were products funded under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 signed by President LBJ, which aspired to provide access to education and economic opportunities long denied to low-income families. When I attended a Head Start Program in our community, I realized how much I had been looking forward to school because I saw my siblings attend school. I felt like I belonged in school.

The summer after first grade, I asked my teacher, Ms. Laz, for all the discarded mathematics workbooks with unused pages, and she gladly cleaned up and gave me the leftover books. I remember selling the workbooks to the neighborhood kids for 25 cents each, which were required for my tuition-free summer class in the front yard of our house. My parents were supportive, and got me a standing chalkboard that flipped over when I filled one side. I believe this experience convinced me that I wanted to teach mathematics.

While in second grade, I have memories of sitting in the back seat of our car watching moving numbers on the gas pump as fuel was going into our car at $0.36 and nine-tenths per gallon. It bothered me that I could not understand what the nine-tenths meant after the 0.36 because after all, our money system only had up to the hundredths place value. I remember secretly playing a game of predicting how much the gallons would be after asking my dad how much money he was going to spend. I found the gas pump not easy to understand because the money amount and the gallon amount were changing at different rates.

Third grade.

While we attended school, my mother worked as a tailor making wedding dresses in Nogales. My father worked for Anamax Mining Company in Sahuarita, Arizona. One evening my father announced we were moving to Tucson, Arizona to the east side by Davis Monthan Air Force Base. This brought a big change to the family from a largely Latinx to mostly a white community.

At my new school, my third-grade teacher asked the class which fraction was greater, one-third or one-fourth, and I was the only one in the class who knew that one-third was greater. The other students thought that one-fourth was greater because 4 is greater than 3. The teacher asked me to explain to the class how I knew that one-third was greater. This was my opportunity to go to the board, grab a piece of chalk, draw pictures, write fractions, and explain my reasoning to my heart’s content. This experience was exhilarating.

In sixth grade, my teacher Mr. Garbini, celebrated my learning like no other teacher had ever done, and he made comments to me about how much mathematics I knew, which helped me gain more confidence. By eighth grade, when I was in algebra class, Ms. Stinson was the first teacher who used manipulatives to show concepts, such as two-color coins for positive and negative integers, and arbitrary lengths of small rods for variables. These visual representations of mathematical concepts made sense to me. By the end of junior high, I was the only student with a 4.0 grade point average, and I remember my friends’ parents coming up to congratulate me after the awards ceremony.

High school.

In my senior year, I had an amazing calculus teacher, Mr. Dorsey, and he consistently lifted my spirits by periodically reminding me that I was the only Latina student in calculus in the whole school. This made me feel special somehow to know that he kept an eye on me so that I would succeed. He encouraged our small class of 12 to study together outside of class, so we did. A group of six of us would get large butcher paper from Mr. Dorsey on Fridays so that we could study together on the weekends and use the paper as our “white board.” We were competitive but also collaborative with each other so much that we cared about each other’s grades.

Outside of academics, I played the clarinet in the school marching band following my sister’s example. I also had the privilege of competing in varsity sports, volleyball and tennis, and I especially excelled in tennis competing in the state championships for three years. My father inspired both my sister and me to play tennis, and each Christmas I got a new tennis racquet to prepare for the spring season. My father took me to a local private club for lessons every so often, and I felt privileged to be doing so with the professional instructor who was a former college and professional player. This must have cost my father a small fortune, but he wanted me to feel like I fit in. I believe that the competitive spirit with which I played tennis influenced my approach to all challenges. To this day, I enjoy playing tennis with friends of more than 20 years.

During my years in high school, and my siblings’ years in college, my father decided to get his real estate license and became a realtor and a broker. It seems as though my family spent countless hours studying except for my mother, who would take an occasional English class for adults; she was the one who made sure we always had warm meals, clean clothes, supplies for school, and homemade Halloween costumes, always selflessly giving to the family.

College

During my college years, I earned extra money by tutoring my friends in mathematics and found that I enjoyed teaching, which reinforced my childhood desire to teach mathematics. I enrolled at the University of Arizona following my siblings’ footsteps as a first-generation college student on an academic scholarship. I do not remember ever meeting with an academic advisor except in my senior year when I decided I wanted to be a teacher. I had taken core mathematics courses (calculus 1 and 2, vector calculus, linear algebra, differential equations). When reviewing my transcripts, an advisor told me that I could combine the mathematics courses and the courses I had taken in chemistry, biology, environmental science, and physics, for an interdisciplinary degree and surpass the requirements in education. Teaching mathematics consumed my thoughts, and a few years into my career, I was invited to do teacher professional development in various school districts. Following these events, I began conducting peer professional development workshops in mathematics education for teachers. After that experience, I knew that I needed to pursue graduate studies.

Graduate School

As I entered graduate school at the University of Arizona, I was a non-traditional student. I had taught public school for 10 years, had been married just as long, and had two children. In graduate school I renewed my interest in mathematics and mathematics teaching and learning. My advisor, Maria Fernandez, was my role model in that she was the only Latinx female faculty member in mathematics education, and we developed a life-long friendship beyond my graduate studies. She inspired me to become deeply engaged in the research literature in mathematics education, which consisted of research in teaching and learning of particular content areas in addition to understanding social issues within K–16 mathematics education. It is through experiential project activities, discussions, and analysis of published research that I began to understand academia in the field of mathematics education. Transition to Algebra was my first project in which I co-constructed and co-delivered professional development alongside Maria Fernandez for high school teachers. This project provided me an opportunity to study secondary teachers’ metacognitive mathematical knowledge for teaching particular algebraic topics, and my first article publication resulted from this project.

My workload during graduate school became overwhelming as I was taking courses, reading research, and conducting research in mathematics education with the College of Medicine and College of Nursing at the University of Arizona. Our research team consisted of a medical doctor, a neuropsychologist, a pediatric nurse research scientist, and me, a doctoral student in mathematics education. Our study analyzed cognitive declines in children who were undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a common childhood cancer whose survival rate went from 33% to 80% within 30 years of medical advances, and thus the surviving children were growing up and becoming adults. Autonomously, I developed curriculum for teaching mathematics in a hospital setting for 7–15 year old patients who came for medical treatments for their cancer. They spent one hour per week with me doing mathematics activities prior to their chemotherapy treatments; now I reflect back and think what a torturous research study we conducted! From this project, I co-authored a research article, “Mathematics intervention for prevention of neurocognitive deficits in childhood leukemia,” in the Pediatric Blood and Cancer journal, my first and only article in a medical journal. I was grateful for this opportunity to work in a medical setting, and I elaborate on this experience because I learned of the depth and breadth of mathematics education research, especially in interdisciplinary contexts.

Although I had unusual research projects during my graduate school, I pursued a dissertation research study focused on the development of mathematical knowledge in mathematical representation that teachers develop that is specific to the work of teaching. I was fortunate to receive support from my advisor, committee members, and my husband, who encouraged me to follow my academic dreams.

Family Life

Coming from a small town in Wisconsin, my future husband, Dennis, came to the University of Arizona for graduate school in electrical engineering, and after we met, he decided to stay in Tucson, AZ. We were married in 1988 and have two amazing children. Our oldest, Ashley, was born in 1991 and Brandon in 1992. Through the years, it was interesting to see them develop their identities. When school assignments called for cultural integration, they would ask questions about their Mexican and German backgrounds, trying to make sense of the contrast between the two cultures.

The family in 1999.

Between 1998 and 2005, we traveled annually with five families to Punta Chueca and El Desemboque on the mainland coast of the Gulf of California in Sonora, Mexico to camp on the land of the Seri Indigenous people. We developed friendships with the Seri families and traded our essential camping equipment, food, clothing, and bicycles among other things for their hand-woven baskets made of yucca plants. Influenced by these experiences, Ashley and Brandon wrote about them in school assignments. In 2013, we traveled to Yucatan, Mexico, where we immersed ourselves in the Mexican culture and had the privilege of visiting Chichén Itzá, an ancient Mayan ruin. Dennis and I wanted our children to grow up knowing their Mexican heritage and roots.

My family at Chichén Itzá.

In our current lives, Dennis works for Texas Instruments as an engineer and manager of several teams of engineers across the world including the U.S., India, Mexico, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and I am an associate research professor of mathematics education at the University of Arizona in the Department of Mathematics. Our daughter, Ashley, attended the University of Arizona earning dual bachelor’s degrees, in mathematics and in systems engineering, and earned a master’s degree in systems and industrial engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. Our son, Brandon, earned a bachelor’s degree in physiology from the University of Arizona, and earned his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin. I am proud of our accomplishments as a family, and there has been much sacrifice in the time we have spent pursuing our achievements, and in recognizing this, we appreciate the time that we spend together.

My family at home.

Final Thoughts

My path to becoming a faculty member was non-traditional. Upon graduating with my PhD, I became the director of the Center for the Mathematics Education of Latino/as (CEMELA), a National Science Foundation Center for Learning and Teaching in collaboration with three other universities. After one year of administrative service as director, I became a postdoctoral fellow since the project goals were a perfect match for my research interests in the mathematical preparation of teachers of underrepresented Latinx/Hispanic student populations in mathematics. CEMELA, under the direction of Marta Civil, served as a catalyst for my research career. Through this project, I met prominent researchers in mathematics education and mathematicians genuinely interested in mathematics education across the multiple universities.

I curiously remember discussions with my family around a quote, which to this day influences the lens in which I view the world, “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz,” spoken by Benito Juárez, the 26th president of Mexico and the first president of Indigenous origin. My interpretation of the quote, “respect for the rights of others is peace” meant that I should listen to others, appreciate their stories, and understand our differences. I raise this point because for most of my life, I presumed that others would treat me as I treat them, with respect. This presumption was not always the case in my academic experience. In my position as an Assistant Research Professor and director of the Secondary Mathematics Education Program (SMEP), tenured faculty members in my department raised questions about my junior faculty status toward gaining tenure. I suspected that the questions raised were regarding my scholarship mainly due to the decreased workload percentage in research, yet my research publication record proved exceptional, and I became an Associate Research Professor. I continue to serve on department and college-wide committees, for example, I served on the UArizona College of Science dean search committee.

I continue as the director of SMEP and participating in grant-funded projects. As principal investigator (PI) of the Arizona Noyce project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), my focus was on preparing highly qualified mathematics teachers for diverse student populations. I was PI of the Mathematical Modeling in the Middle Grades project funded by the Arizona Board of Regents to deepen and broaden teachers’ knowledge of mathematical modeling for teaching. I led professional development in the Mathematical Modeling in Cultural and Community Contexts project funded by the NSF, and created curriculum materials in mathematical modeling for secondary teacher preparation for the project, Mathematics of Doing, Understanding, Learning and Educating for Secondary Schools, funded by the NSF. My research publications focus on mathematics teacher education with emphases on mathematical modeling and development of teaching practices for inclusion, equity, and social justice. I have been privileged to participate in national and international mathematics education conferences presenting my research.

With Rachel Levy.

While on sabbatical, I had the privilege of co-leading with Rachel Levy, from the Mathematical Association of America, the 2019 Critical Issues in Mathematics Education Workshop at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, which focused on mathematical modeling in K–16 education. This workshop has been a productive setting for developing partnerships among mathematics educators and mathematicians interested in improving K–16 education. One key underpinning of my career has been to build lifelong collaborations that aim to move mathematics education research forward, and I have had the honor to collaborate with colleagues, Ricardo Cortez, Maria Fernandez, Julia Aguirre, Rochelle Gutierrez, Sylvia Celedon-Pattichis, Sandra Crespo, Anthony Fernandes, Marta Civil, and others. I am grateful that I was able to follow my passion and pursue a career in mathematics education.

With Ricardo Cortez and Rochelle Gutiérrez.

Advice

My advice to students is to pursue their dreams and passion, and use their knowledge of mathematics as a foundation for a fulfilling career. The career may be in mathematics, teaching mathematics, actuarial work, data science, and graduate opportunities in mathematics. Sharing your story with a mentor can be powerful. I share my story with students, and I appreciate their reactions and their enthusiasm for sharing their stories with me, as I believe that these interactions help build community and long-term relationships. My hope is to promote access and options, especially for Latinx students when they share their hopes and dreams.

Dr. Cynthia O. Anhalt.

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