By Elizabeth Labiner
Mario Alberto Aguilar Buenrostro was born in La Manzanilla de la Paz, a small farming town in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. When he was two years old, his parents made the difficult decision to migrate as a family to the United States. Aguilar’s family would follow the agricultural seasons from California to Washington state, where his parents eventually made a living in the Yakima Valley, and where they continue to work in farming today.
Aguilar’s early schooling wasn’t easy; when he entered the school system as a native Spanish-speaker, he was immediately enrolled in ESL (English as a Second Language) courses. On top of that, he says, “It was difficult for me to participate in class and there were other difficulties presented throughout my K-12 education as I worked alongside my parents during the school year and during the summer fruit harvest.” After high school, he continued to do agricultural work alongside his parents, as well as stints working at a winery and a slaughterhouse.
Eventually, though, Aguilar chose to pursue a college degree, a choice he credits to his parents’ encouragement. He reminisces, “My parents’ wise words are the main motivation for my decision to pursue a college education. Growing up, my parents always told us, ‘Get an education. It does not matter in what, just as long as you are not breaking your back like we are.’” He first enrolled in Yakima Valley Community College to pursue an Associate’s Degree, then decided to continue his education at Eastern Washington University. There, he earned a double Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and Criminal Justice.
After his undergraduate degrees, graduate school was the natural next step in the progression of Aguilar’s work:
I decided to pursue a graduate education as I was being exposed to theoretical frameworks that were addressing my lived experiences and I was intrigued to gain further knowledge. I wanted to be a part of the future changes in my Latinx farm working community. I wanted my own generational history and lived experience to be heard, but most importantly I wanted to center the history of many immigrant Latinx farm working individuals in the process of social justice change.
The University of Arizona attracted Aguilar because of its status as a land-grant institution offering many opportunities for both academic research and community involvement. Additionally, he says, the Mexican American Studies program at UArizona focuses on many of his research interests, allowing him to explore and expand his own personal experiences as well as the experiences of many (im)migrant individuals. Aguilar says, “I believe UArizona and the MAS Department will provide exceptional mentorship and specialized training in the application of methodology, theory, and practice to my research process.”
Aguilar’s research is guided by his experiences as a migrant and seasonal farmworker in Washington, giving rise to his interest in structural violence and health disparities in the farm-working community. His focus is on public health and wellness, (im)migration studies, and critical education centering the Latinx community. The likely topic of his dissertation? “Culturally Relevant and Equitable Curriculum in Latinx Farm Working Communities.”
The pandemic has thrown his concerns and his work into sharp relief. Aguilar explains,
Like many other marginalized communities, farm workers are among those populations on whom the current pandemic has had a devastating effect. The exploitation of farmworkers has been a part of the US before the current pandemic or the term “essential worker.” There is no such thing as a day off in the life of a farmworker whether it is rain, extreme temperatures, fires, or the current pandemic. Farmworkers must go out and survive even if this means being exposed to the virus. There is no safety or concern for the many marginalized communities during this pandemic. Therefore, thank you to all the essential workers who devote and put their lives on the line every single day in order to keep the US running.
The pandemic has kept Aguilar from visiting his family, but, he says, it has added fuel to his drive regarding his scholarship and his academic future. He hopes to become a professor in Mexican American Studies, and in that role to inspire and mentor minority, underrepresented, and first- generation students in their pursuit of a career in academia and research. He is excited to one day aid diverse students in developing their own narratives and forging paths for themselves. His lived experience as an immigrant, a farmworker, and a first-generation Latinx student all shape his scholarship and pedagogy. He says, “As a progressive educator and researcher, I have the opportunity to bring a critical lens to further identify the inequities and the structural processes that have affected individuals like myself. It is my hope to continue the utilization of critical pedagogical frameworks and apply counter-hegemonic forms of pedagogy that are reflective of the complex and multiple dimensions of people of color.”