Testimonios: Dr Hortensia Soto

Dr. Hortensia Soto; Illustration created by Ana Valle.

In the Beginning

I want to begin with the story of Agustin Soto and Sara Ramírez, my parents, because their journey, their struggles, their sacrifice, and their work ethic molded me into the person I am today. It’s important that I apologize to my parents because I am omitting their life experiences that occurred before they were married. They both came from well-to-do families; my mom was the tenth child of eleven children, and Daddy was the oldest of eight children. They each had their own adventures; my mom recalls climbing trees, going to serenatas, [1] while learning all the skills needed by Mexican women of that era, which included grinding corn for the masa, [2] cooking, sewing, raising children—all things to be a “good wife.” Daddy’s life consisted mostly of work; at age six he plowed with an ox, and at the age of eight he spent nights out in the fields, where the corn bundles scared him. He credited his Padrino [3] Jesús, who was very patient with him, for making the work bearable and fun.

Daddy, Tía Tila, Padrino Pablo.

My daddy Agustin and mom Sara married on October 4, 1962, in Santa María del Valle, Jalisco. They lived next to my paternal grandparents where Daddy farmed and raised pigs with his dad. While they each had a wealth of life skills, they only had a third-grade education. Their marriage started off fairly normally until my paternal grandfather was shot and killed. After this tragedy, my paternal grandmother sold everything, including Daddy’s animals, and moved to Nochistlán, Zacatecas and left my parents with nothing. This dramatically changed the direction of my parents’ lives.

Mother, my maternal great-grandfather Manuel, and Tía Eva.

My parents then moved to Belén del Refujio, Jalisco where Daddy worked for a farmer. This is where my older sister, Eliasar, and I were born. Photos below show the two-room home where I was born; the piece on the end is the hogón, [4] where my mom cooked. In this adobe home, my mom saw snakes coming through the roof as my sister and I slept. My parents suffered much during this time. They struggled to feed us, and Daddy almost died because he became ill and didn’t have money for a doctor. He used to talk about his sandals that were held together with corn husks. Hunger led us to emigrate.

The house where I was born—one door went into the bedroom and the second to the kitchen; I visited it for the first time when I was 15.
I am on the far right, mom on far left, boy in blue is brother Mauro. Others are cousins and Tía Anjelina (Daddy’s sister).

My maternal grandmother’s dying wish was for us to move to the United States, where my mom had a lot of family members. My mom’s brother, Tío Lupe, who lived in Nebraska, contracted the coyote [5] and we were set to cross the Rio Grande without either of my parents knowing how to swim. It was 1967, and I was a little over a year old and Eliasar was three years old. Daddy crossed first, with his total savings of $7.00. [6] My mom was supposed to be next, but fear set in and she refused to cross. This resulted in the three of us staying with the coyote’s grandmother for ten days at the border; there I learned to walk, while Daddy waited in Nebraska for the coyote to figure out how to get us to him without having to swim across a river. For $30.00, the coyote arranged for my mom to use a woman’s passport and for Eliasar and I to use passports from another couple’s daughters. Although there were passports for all three of us, crossing the border had to be done in shifts—first my mom and then me and my sister. The coyote took my mom across and left her at a theatre (this was her first time at a theatre!) and instructed her to stay there until someone came by to notify her that we would be arriving. With fear that she would never see us again, my mom waited about five hours. Finally, a young man arrived and escorted her to the back seat of a car, where my mom was uncertain of what would happen. Then in the rear-view mirror, she saw a car emerge, the coyote walked out, opened the door, and there were her girls. After driving straight through, only stopping once in Colorado for a meal, we reunited with Daddy. My mom and dad raised us to always give thanks to God for the people who have helped us; Tío Lupe and his family are on that list.

Mother and Daddy after reuniting in U.S.
Eliasar and me after arriving to U.S.
Agustin Jr. on the way.

We settled in Morrill, Nebraska, where the population numbers fewer than 1,000. Daddy had odd jobs and one of his first big jobs was helping to build the Morrill Golf Course. His bosses were impressed with his attention to detail, his ability to learn quickly, and his innovativeness so much so that they recommended him to a local farmer, Art Dienes, who was seeking a hired man. Art wasn’t keen about hiring Daddy because he didn’t speak English, but my Dad said he would work for free for two weeks, and then Art could decide whether or not to hire him. At the end of the first week, Art decided to hire him. This job allowed us to move from a house that shook when the trains went by to a house where Daddy made all of us sit in the car for fear that the house would explode when he lit the pilot to the heater. We later moved to another two-room house. I remember this house fondly because Eliasar and I played in a run-down school bus that sat behind the house. By this time, my brother Agustin Jr. was born, and we discovered that we had been reported to the immigration authorities. Art helped Daddy get a lawyer, who let us know that we couldn’t be deported because Agustin Jr. was a U.S. citizen.

Me and my mom on my second birthday in the house that Daddy feared would explode.

After a long wait and another addition to the family (my brother Ernie), we finally obtained our green cards and were allowed to live in the U.S. legally. By this time, I was in kindergarten. Also, when my mom was pregnant with Ernie, Art and his family moved to a smaller house so we could live in the main farm home. This was a house with indoor plumbing, a restroom, a phone, a front and back porch, an upstairs, a dining room, and a big yard. According to my five-year-old eyes, we lived in a mansion. We moved out of that house when I was 12, but to this day when I dream of home, it is that house. Art helped Daddy start farming on his own, shared his equipment with Daddy, and was instrumental in Daddy buying our farm (this is a magical story). Art became our grandfather we called him “el patrón”—not in reference to being the “boss,” but to the patron saint who saved us. He and his family are on the gratitude list.

Another farmer, Art, and Daddy.

Hortensia’s Early Years

I did not know English when I started kindergarten, but with the most compassionate memories. I clearly remember learning the word “scissors” when my kindergarten teacher taught me how to cut because I didn’t know how to hold scissors. My first-grade teacher left my name up on her door so I could go to it to see how to spell my name—it took me a while to learn this task. She didn’t make a big deal about it; she let me do what I needed in order to learn. That year, Daddy also discovered that I had memorized my reading books and didn’t actually know how to read. He quickly put a stop to that by randomly selecting words for me to pronounce, covering all the other words, and making me sound out words one at a time. During this time, he attended night school to learn English thus he was able to help.

I have two very vivid and important memories from second grade, one in spelling class and one in math class. After spelling “lace” correctly out loud, my teacher asked me to use it in a sentence. Knowing that I was at a total loss, she added “it’s on your dress.” My mom made all my clothes and there were lots of things on this dress, such as buttons, polka-dots, and a zipper. None of these resulted in a positive response as I pointed to them, so my teacher hinted that it was at the bottom of my dress. I incorrectly translated bottom to mean under, so I slightly lifted my dress to show my slip, but with excitement my teacher commented: “you are touching it.” That day I learned the definition of lace and I also learned what patience looked like. The second memorable experience from second grade was the day we were exposed to exercises that looked like this:

3 + 5 = ☐, 3 + ☐ = 8, ☐ + 5 = 8, 11 – 7 = ☐, 11 – ☐ = 4, ☐ – 7 = 4.

I struggled with exercises of the last two types, but I found them intriguing. I wondered how one would get the answer without trial and error, which is what I did. Imagine my excitement when I learned algebra—memories of these exercises flooded my brain and I was in awe.

Second grade might have been when my passion for mathematics began. Most people who know me know that my fifth-grade teacher transformed my life. The teacher kept me in during recess to catch me up so I could move to the “high group”—the group of students who were more successful academically. I was not excited about this because the “high group” did not have any Hispanics and according to me, since they could afford to be in band, they were also rich. I cried as my teacher walked me to the “high class,” the class for the high achieving academic students; she hugged me and said that I would be just fine. I was worried about feeling out of place, but my first class with the “high group” was mathematics and she was right, I did just fine. By seventh grade, I decided that I wanted to attend college. Knowing that this was only feasible if I got scholarships, I decided that I would work towards becoming valedictorian of my class.

Even though they were different worlds, it is difficult to separate my educational experiences from my home experiences, so I will try to weave the two worlds. While most kids yelled with glee at the end of the school year, I cried because I hated summer. Yes, I hated summer! At the age of six, I started working in the fields, hoeing beets, weeding beans, and even weeding cornfields. I did this until I went away to college. My summers consisted of getting up at 4:30 am, packing a breakfast, getting the younger kids ready, helping my mom prepare lunch, and going to the fields. We generally arrived between 5:30 and 6:00 am and ate breakfast there; the kids who were less than six years old stayed by the car. My mom was creative and covered the windshield of the car with a blanket and left the doors ajar, so it would stay cool. We went home for lunch at noon, washed the dishes, and by 2:00 pm we were back in the fields till about 7:00 pm; sometimes we had to go irrigate the fields after this. It wasn’t unheard of for us to have dinner at 9 pm. This was our routine six days a week, starting mid-May until school started in August.

In the fall, we had other harvest-related work; in the winter we mostly helped to separate calves from the cows or move cattle. I didn’t complain much about the work in the fall and winter, but of all of us nine kids, I complained the most about the summer work. It seemed that every farmer north of Morrill wanted us to work their fields, and I wondered why their kids didn’t do the work. My mom frequently reminded us (mostly me) to be grateful because these farmers were trying to help us; they knew that we needed work. My parents worked so hard, especially in the summer; I can only imagine what time they arose in the morning. The one benefit of working in fields was that it gave me time to daydream. I daydreamed of becoming valedictorian, going to college, becoming a lawyer, and helping Daddy pay off the farm. Unlike other kids, I didn’t learn to swim, play sports, go to the movies, go to birthday parties or have friends spend the night. I learned to work.

Given that I didn’t have a social life, it was easy to bury myself in learning during high school, and my mathematics class quickly became my favorite class. Math was the last homework that I worked on—it was dessert. I had the same mathematics teacher all through high school, and his pedagogical knowledge was ahead of his time. He rarely lectured; instead, we worked in groups on scaffolded packets where we discovered the big ideas. Sometimes, we had oral exams where the teacher probed further into our understanding. I loved my “aha” moments, where I connected concepts and explained them to others. I got pretty good at explaining and if there was a need for a substitute teacher, I was asked to teach the mathematics classes for that day. This seemed crazy to me because it meant missing other classes, but I loved it. For me, mathematics was one big puzzle and each class offered more pieces to the puzzle. My teacher was very supportive and encouraged me to pursue mathematics as a career, but I wanted to be a lawyer and most importantly, I hadn’t yet convinced my mom that it was OK for a young woman to leave home to attend college. This was a huge obstacle!

Top L to R: Diana (deceased), Ernie, Agustin Jr., Bruno, Mauro. Bottom L to R: Eliasar, Daddy, Mother, Sarah, and me. I have another sister Norma who died when I was 12.

My mom’s belief was that girls stayed home and learned how to become a wife, until they got married. As I got older, I understood this, but as an adolescent, I fought with her quite a bit about this issue. I was stubborn and determined to go away (far away) to college —I would not work in the fields for the rest of my life. Art had Daddy’s ear and shared the importance of a college education. In fact, Art and a woman whose house we cleaned set up a scholarship for Eliasar to attend one of the local community colleges (another magical story). This was my breakthrough; in my junior year, Daddy said that if I started off at a local community college and lived at home, then he would help pay so that I could finish my bachelor’s degree. I agreed but knew that this would be a financial burden because by this time there were nine kids in my family. Thus, I continued working on my valedictorian goal and decided that I would become a naturalized citizen when I turned 18 so that I could qualify for Pell Grants. [7]

I graduated high school as prom queen, president of student council, and valedictorian, and that summer Eliasar and I became naturalized citizens. My first two years at Eastern Wyoming College (EWC) were completely paid for with scholarships. I was on my way to becoming a lawyer. As a side note, all my siblings have a college education. When my youngest sister, Sarah, graduated from college my mom looked at Daddy and said, “We did it; they all have an education.”

Hortensia’s College Life

At EWC, I started off as a political science major and was the only mathematics tutor. After completing first-semester calculus, I met with my advisor to discuss courses for the following semester where I planned to enroll in Calculus II and the following conversation occurred.

Him: Calculus II isn’t a requirement for a political science major.
Me: But we didn’t finish the book.
Him: Don’t you think you should be a math major?
Me: Yes, I do.

After graduating from EWC, I moved away to start summer classes at Chadron State College (CSC), where I planned to become a high school mathematics teacher because I had no idea what else one did with a mathematics degree. With new scholarships that covered tuition at CSC, I just needed rent, food and book money, so within a week I was a Pizza Hut waitress. At CSC, I also graded for the most amazing and supportive advisor and teacher, James Kaus, who is on the gratitude list. In his classes, he challenged us, we struggled and worked together, he patiently asked questions, and we learned. One day, while working on a topology problem in his office, he remarked, “You should get a PhD” I asked, “What’s a PhD?” I don’t remember doing anything special—I was just working away on the problem that I asked him about. I valued and trusted Mr. Kaus—if he said to do something then I did it. I didn’t even know what a PhD was so I didn’t have any goals on getting one. I only wanted one when he suggested I get one, when I realized he believed in me.

I student-taught, but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do. So during a job fair at CSC, I visited Mr. Kaus and told him about my uncertainty of teaching high school. He suggested that I apply to CSC’s master’s in mathematics education program, so I did. I received a position as a Teaching Assistant that included tuition and a $3,000.00 stipend a year. This wasn’t enough money to cover my living expenses, so I tutored on the side and I also worked at a local store on the weekends. Teaching collegiate-level mathematics immediately felt right—I found my passion. I loved my time at CSC, because I got to spread my wings. I am also very proud of my CSC education and that my parents didn’t have to pay for any of it. If I needed fun money, Eliasar was my bank. Eliasar was working at an insurance agency at the time. We were raised with the philosophy that the more you give the more you get. Eliasar claimed that every time she lent me money, she would get a raise or bonus. After earning a bachelor’s and master’s in mathematics education, I was in debt $400.00 to her … interest-free. She is on my gratitude list.

Upon graduating from CSC, I applied for a job as the Director of the Mathematics Learning Center at the University of Southern Colorado (USC). One of the interview questions was about where I saw myself in five years. I replied, “working on my PhD.” I got the job, and this is where I met my future husband, who was a statistician in the department. Shortly after getting married, we moved so I could pursue my PhD in mathematics education at the University of Arizona (UA).

Struggle. For some reason at UA, I immediately felt inferior. It seemed that all the other graduate students came from elite schools and that I was under-prepared for what lay ahead. Some of these students had already earned a PhD in another country. Every mathematical concept seemed so foreign to me. For the first time in my mathematical life, I was scared that I wasn’t smart enough, and I lost all my confidence in my ability to learn mathematics. The fact that by the third week some of the courses dwindled down in size, scared me even more—if the smart people dropped the course, what was I doing there? Although the graduate students supported one another, I felt no support from the faculty, and they didn’t seem eager to create a rapport with any of us. One time when I asked a question in analysis, the instructor replied, “All I can do is say it louder…” and then he said it louder. When I went to his office to ask about a homework problem that had been marked incorrectly, he said, “I don’t really think you know what you are doing so, I didn’t read it,” as he flung my homework back to me. After 18 years of having some of the most compassionate, patient, and encouraging teachers, I was at a place where teachers quickly dismissed my questions. I did not pass one of the analysis qualifying exams and, thus I had to leave the program. My advisor helped me to find a new program in mathematics education and it happened to be at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC). I left UA with a second master’s in mathematics, deflated, embarrassed, feeling less than human, and certain that I didn’t know any mathematics. It took me years to get over this.

Resurrection. The first faculty member that I met at UNC was the graduate advisor, Dr. Ricardo Diaz (also on the gratitude list). On our first meeting, we were scheduled to go over courses that I had completed, and I was unconfident and full of shame. His first words were, “you have a very strong math background.” These words brought a little glimmer of hope that maybe I could earn a PhD. I cruised through the program and surprised myself at what I knew. All of a sudden, I had ideas, answers, and creative proofs—my confidence came back. Yes, I struggled with some concepts, but I wasn’t afraid to tinker and my instructors were helpful, pushed me, and had faith that I could do it. In retrospect, I did learn a lot of good mathematics at UA and developed as a mathematician, though it wasn’t clear at the time. Most importantly, at UNC I learned how to conduct mathematics education research. I defended my dissertation shortly before my thirtieth birthday, received the Dean’s Citation for Excellence Award at graduation, and delivered the commencement address. I did it!

Hortensia’s Professional Life

My professional life has been full of wonderful surprises. After completing my PhD, I started as an assistant professor of mathematics at USC and was accepted as a Mathematical Association of America (MAA) Project NExT fellow. This is a two-year professional development program for collegiate faculty that offers suggestions on integrating student-centered teaching and learning, writing grant proposals, and maintaining a research program. As part of this program, the second-year cohort creates and offers sessions to the new cohort. At the end of my first year, one of the project directors, Chris Stevens, asked if I would organize the sessions for the new cohort. I was stunned and honored that of the 70+ fellows, she asked me and, of course I said yes—which is what Joe Gallian taught us as part of Project NExT. This is how I found my professional home. In 2002, I became the first Project NExT fellow to serve on the MAA Board of Governors. I can still remember seeing Martha Siegel (Secretary), Anne Watkins (President), and Tina Straley (Executive Director) on the stage running the show. It was the first time I saw women with such power and authority—I was in awe. Martha and Tina quickly took me under their wings and invited me to serve on committees, some of which I was not qualified for, but they believed in me. The MAA community seemed to see something in me that I didn’t know I had: leadership skills, which they nurtured and continue to nurture. I am beyond grateful for all the opportunities that the MAA has offered. It has been a pleasure to serve on the various committees, as the Governor for Minority Affairs, Associate Treasurer, and now as the Associate Secretary. In fact, I am the first female, first Hispanic, and first mathematics educator to serve in the role of Associate Secretary. I truly LOVE this community, which consists of so many friends.

Teaching with an embodied activity.

After spending nine years at USC, now known as Colorado State University—Pueblo, my then-husband and I decided to leave USC because I wanted an opportunity to conduct more research and I had a high teaching load there; thus, I began to apply for jobs. UNC was also hiring, but I did not apply because I was certain that they wouldn’t hire one of their graduates. Later they called me, asking me to apply, and I got the job. The downside was that I had to give up tenure and rank, but I did get three years of service towards promotion—this was very stressful. I spent the next two years working till 2 am and sacrificed family time. Teaching 18 credits a year, conducting my own research, and guiding dissertations took a toll on my marriage. I got divorced (so grateful that we remain friends), became a single mom, and delved into work. My research on the teaching and learning of complex analysis along with my work on embodied cognition began to thrive. My graduate students are publishing in top-tier journals—professional life is good.

My work has been recognized by both UNC and the MAA. At UNC, I was the recipient of the College of Natural and Health Sciences’ Excellence in Faculty Research Mentor at the Graduate Level and the Excellence in Service Award. I am also the recipient of the Burton W. Jones Distinguished Teaching Award—MAA Rocky Mountain Section, and the MAA Meritorious Service Award. I am also the first Hispanic person to receive the MAA Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics. In fall of 2020, I started as a tenured full professor at Colorado State University. My work has paid off—I am so grateful.

Conclusion and Advice

Although I didn’t know it growing up, I am blessed to have a big family. My parents instilled in us a work ethic and a strong faith in God. From this story it is probably no surprise that I am a daddy’s girl—he passed away in 2017 and I miss him dearly. He was the first to hear of any of my successes. My son Miguel Agustin Johnson is my greatest gift. We are very close, and I treasure any time with him because he is pure love.

Daddy and me on his 74th birthday.

My advice to students is do not be afraid to have dreams that seem unreachable. The people who believe in you will emerge and push you to become more than you dreamed. My advice to mentors is that sometimes it is the little acts of kindness that make the biggest difference. Do not be afraid to be a human being and vulnerable with your students. Have high expectations while showing patience and compassion.

Me and Miguel.

[1] Serenatas are musical performance delivered in honor of someone or something.
[2] Masa is Spanish for dough that is traditionally made of flour used to make tamales, tortillas, and many other Mexican foods.
[3] Padrino is godfather in Spanish.
[4] Hogón is the Spanish word for bonfire.
[5] A coyote is a common term for a person who is hired to assist people to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
[6] For reference, we note that based on inflation rates in the United States, $1.00 in 1974 is approximately the equivalent of $5.56 in 2020.
[7] Pell Grants are a subsidy the U.S. federal government which provides financial support for students who need it to pay for college.

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