In remembrance of a great professor, colleague, and friend of the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies.
Pasó por aquí . . . In Memoriam
Alfredo "Al" Velasco
1944 - 2011
I was serving as chair of CCS when Dr. Alfredo Velasco joined our faculty in the early 1990s. Dr. Velasco—or "Al," as we came to know him—was brought to my attention by then student, and now PhD holder, Guadalupe Corona. She was impressed by his knowledge and experience, and suggested he might be available to teach the CCS community studies course, which I had been teaching until becoming chair. This important course directly linked the department to the local community and prepared students to learn to study and support local communities.
I became aware of Al by way of a newspaper article titled "He's Chicano and proud." I knew then that I had to meet this bato, whom the article made clear was "proud" of being a Chicano and was an individual solidly committed to advocating for and improving the local barrios, especially in Sherman Heights where he was director of the Sherman Heights Community Center. There, he distinguished himself by securing funding to rebuild the center, thus providing neighborhood residents with a state-of-the-art, culturally appropriate, and welcoming center. But, our paths did not cross until Lupe recommended that I contact him.
At our first meeting, we explored our commonalities and sized each other up. He too had earned a Ford Foundation Doctoral Fellowship. Moreover, he had been admitted to the anthropology doctoral program at Stanford University, where I earned my degree in political science. But, for several reasons, he did not enroll in the program. By way of our discussion, I concluded that he was fully qualified to teach the community studies course. I later learned that he thought I might reflect an elitist attitude due to my Stanford education. Al was pleased that I did not and that we shared concerns about the local communities and making sure that our students would acquire the knowledge and tools to enable them to serve the communities.
Initially, our relationship was very formal. I was the chair; he was one of our lecturers. But as time passed, we transcended the border between chair and faculty. With Al taking the initiative, we discussed our personal histories, experiences, accomplishments, works, and many other subjects. I also experienced his irreverent spirit. By the end of his first year teaching, when he greeted me, he called me "licenciado." I laughed at this greeting, which I associated with professionals in Mexico. As our friendship grew, Al changed that greeting to "feo,"a greeting I did not mind for, as we all know, "feo" means "good looking."
Usually, he would visit me on a weekly basis. I began to look forward to the visits, knowing that I would be enlightened, laugh at least once, and escape the doldrums of some of the duties of a chair.
Stylistically, he brought grace, elegance, and sophistication into the department. I cannot recall a time when he did not look dapper. One time I teased him, telling him that he reminded me of the character of "el catrín" in the lotería game.
Professionally, Al's dapperness was complemented with sincere collegiality and affability. He also brought erudition, real world experience, street savvy, and connections to the local community that were invaluable to our students. His students encountered an unprecedented opportunity to develop literacy in the Chicano community studies literature, gain access to a professional and committed instructor who knew the richness and complexities of community life, and receive training in skills ranging from participant observation to grantsmanship abilities
I will especially remember Al for his quick wit, charm, and sense of style. You couldn't miss recognizing this fine Chicano as he approached you: the trim sombrero, the long hair, the elegant tie, well-ironed shirts and polished shoes. He never appeared hurried or frazzled and took the time to stop, look you in the eye and greet you. In my case, it was always, "Buenos días, doctora." On more occasions than I can count he made me laugh, as we walked to class together, with his irreverent observations. I grew accustomed to casually bumping into him here in the neighborhood we both shared, or seeing him drive by. I will miss him. Que en paz descanse.
Students became a presence in Sherman Heights as they conducted observations on street corners in the neighborhood, symbolically linking SDSU to the neighborhood. The course, in short, became a site of praxis for students, unavailable anywhere at SDSU or in institutions of higher education in the county.
He consistently evoked positive student evaluations, establishing him as "one of the best" of our faculty. Students of diverse backgrounds and academic class levels rated him high. They almost uniformly praised his accessibility, enthusiasm, commitment, professionalism, expertise, dedication to their learning, knowledge and commitment to academic excellence. He eventually began to also teach our folklore class, the lifestyles course, and the introduction to the Chicano heritage class.
The only student complaints concerned his extensive use of the overhead projector and excessive notes. Some students recommended that he shift to higher forms of technology. When I discussed this with him, he asked whether I used Blackboard or PowerPoint. As a technologically challenged Chicano, I responded "no, I still finger point." He then replied with a sly grin on his face and using one of his famous words, "then F… it." But, subsequently he modified the use of the projector, a change students appreciated.
As chair and later as his colleague, I was impressed by his performance, especially since it was occurring at the same time he often served as a consultant to federally funded research projects, coordinated the Chicano Federation's Leadership Training Institute, taught professionals for Springfield College, and was engaged in many other important activities, attesting to the recognition of and demand for his expertise and leadership abilities. On one occasion I asked him why he continued the work off campus. Al informed me that during the 1970s, while serving as lecturer in anthropology, he learned that it was not wise to depend solely on academia for employment given the funding instability for higher education and the vagaries of academic politics. Where he found the energy to perform all of these roles, I never really knew.
Despite his accomplishments throughout the years, he continually inquired about readings, reflecting his wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and commitment to learning. As he became acquainted with my success in mentoring students, he began referring students to me, and we shared on their success.
When I learned about his memorial service, I wished that there would have been a way of inviting him to attend the service so that he could see how much he was appreciated and respected. But, then I secretly laughed for I remembered his response to other invitations in the past: "No man, too many Mexicans!" Those of you who knew his sense of humor can certainly appreciate that response.
On occasions Al and I discussed what our life would be like in our later years, especially if we ended up in a warehouse retirement home. We laughed that, if we had been more intelligent, we would have planned by investing in a home where "the old Chicanos" would feel at home and he and I could continue to have discussions. It would be a place where, among other things, you could have tea in the afternoon followed by Chicano movement traditions such as the "Chicano clap," as well as just "shooting the breeze."
As he fought cancer, I admired his courage and commitment to students. He never flinched in the face of the cancer and its recurrence. And, he did not miss a single class even while undergoing physically taxing treatments.
The Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: "when you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight." Since I learned of Al's death I have been weeping. Al was one of the delights, indeed blessings, of my personal and professional lives. In the working class communities that I grew up in in south Texas, one of the most significant tributes that one could pay to a person was to say "es buena gente." Al Velasco was buena gente. Pasó por aquí.
CCS professor and