Veronica Montes long journey from Mexico to Bryn Mawr
By Azalia Sprecher
Since crossing the U.S.-Mexico border at age 18 in 1988, professor Veronica Montes of the Bryn Mawr College Sociology department has dedicated herself to building bridges between the classes she teaches and her life experiences.
Montes, a petite woman with a large presence and lively eyes, energetically entered her classroom one recent Monday afternoon and greeted her students who had just returned from spring break. They mumbled a hello.
“Okay, who had a fun spring break? Any cool trips?”
She looked around, hopeful and expecting her students to respond, but to no avail. She smacked her lips and picked a student.
“Amanda, I know you did something fun. Tell us about it!”
Montes’ enthusiasm for teaching is undeniable, and she is adamant in connecting with her students. It helps that she is motherly, emitting a warm and welcoming presence that can lift the spirits of any post-spring break college student. Another undeniable characteristic that sets Montes apart from other Bryn Mawr professors is the songlike accent that carries her words to the ears and hearts of her students. Accents are usually the first thing one looks for when pointing out a foreigner, but what most people don’t think about is the journey behind the accent.
Montes was born in the state of Guerrero, Mexico in 1970 to a working-class family who struggled to make ends meet. The family decided to relocate to Mexico City, and as a teen in Mexico’s largest city, Montes had dreams of continuing her life in the nation and culture she loved. All that changed during the 1980s when Mexico’s economy took a turn for the worst as the value of Mexican currency plummeted. The Montes household lost everything, and after her father abandoned his wife and children, Montes’ mother was left to fend for the family. She was the first to migrate to Los Angeles in 1986 with the help of a coyote, a smuggler who aids migrants in illegally crossing the border. The Montes children stayed behind to finish their education.
“Like thousands of migrant women, my mother did not know what she would face once she stepped on American soil,” said Montes about her mother’s decision to leave her children behind.
Montes’ mother found work as a seamstress and sent her children money so they could focus on school. Montes and her older sister graduated high school in 1988 and their mother immediately arranged for them to travel by bus from Mexico City to the border town of Tijuana. Here the two teenagers and their five-year-old sister met the coyote who would smuggle them across the border.
“Okay, let’s break up into small groups and answer the following questions: What do you know about your family migration history? What would you like to know about that migration experience that you do not know? Share one thing you admire from your family’s migration experience .”
Montes highlights student experiences in her “Sociology of Migration” class. Her focus is on what students can take away from the theory in the textbooks and how they can apply it to their lives. Unlike most other teachers, who expect students to understand complex theories without connecting them to real life, Montes always uses personal narratives to ground her explanations of migratory theories. Montes managed to explain labor laws, political asylum processes, education and migration without referencing a textbook. Instead she used the stories her students told about their personal migration stories to illustrate how U.S. laws affected people’s decision to migrate.
“Come on, we all have to share our stories. Think about how your family’s migration history has affected you,” said Montes as she excitedly rubbed her hands together and smiled, shooting her excited look across student faces.
Montes is adamant about focusing on the needs of her students and brings a compassion that allows her to relate, especially to those who have a similar background as her. She remembers the difficulties she faced as a student in the United States, beginning as a cashier at Burger King who took English classes at night, then earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2001, and eventually gained her Ph.D. at the same institution in 2013.
But Montes didn’t always want to be a professor. Montes’ eyes light up as she remembers her educational journey and she is transported back to a younger, less experienced self.
“My decision wasn’t very thought out, and I did not have the slightest idea of what it entailed to earn a PhD,” said Montes.
The decision to go to graduate school was circumstantial since she never imagined herself achieving more than a bachelor’s degree. Montes’ husband, Diego, was offered a job at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but to avoid a long commute to Los Angeles, Montes, her husband, and their young daughter moved to Santa Barbara in 2005. Montes was unsure about her career options in Santa Barbara, so her undergraduate mentor, Dr. William Robinson, suggested she apply to graduate school.
Montes was unsure of her ability to succeed in graduate school. She was reluctant to apply, and Robinson had to convince her to submit her application after she initially failed the Graduate Records Examination and missed the first application deadline.
Montes describes her journey as “learning on the go”. As a first-generation college student and a migrant, she was not familiar with the U.S. education system and was scared at the prospect of being a 35-year-old graduate student surrounded by younger twentysomethings who did not have to spend hours crouched over a textbook with an English-Spanish dictionary in hand.
She has a matter of fact approach to explaining the obstacles she encountered, but as she talks about the frustration she felt while in graduate school, her brow furrows and the light in her eyes dims. Her frown reflects the many years she fought self-doubt.
“The terminology used in class was daunting, and I considered quitting many times. I remember running out of a seminar one day, crying and feeling like a fool. The only thing that kept me motivated was thinking ‘If I crossed a border, I can finish grad school’,” said Montes.
Montes received her PhD in 2013 and arrived at Bryn Mawr College in 2015, and admitted she was nervous that her Mexican accent would mark her as an outsider amongst faculty.
“I was ashamed of my accent because of the discrimination I’ve faced. Now I love it because I appreciate the story behind my accent.”
Montes still finds it difficult to navigate “froufrou” academic spaces because she still sees herself as a migrant girl from Los Angeles.
“I’m expected to be objective and take on a persona that to me feels fake, but I cannot isolate myself from my own experience.”
Montes is the only Latina and immigrant professor in the sociology department, but was happy to have organized the Day of the Dead celebration at Bryn Mawr this past November. She is proud to have share her Mexican culture with other students and professors.
“I don’t pretend to be something I’m not, I am who I am, and this is how I present myself. It’s not that I’m not formal—well, I’m not— but I’m very honest and transparent” she said earnestly.
Montes honors the stories of those she encounters, both her students and the communities she bases her research on. Her research focuses on the intersection of gender and migration, and she specializes on the role that gender plays in the design and maintenance of migrant household economies. Montes’ studies are reminiscent of her family’s structure as migrant children supported by a migrant single mother.
Montes’ humility and own migration experience have helped her build relationships with other migrants, gaining their trust so she can tell their stories. Her investigation is personal, and she can understand her research because her experience fits within her research.
“My investigation is nurtured by my experiences, and like me, it transcends barriers and all types of borders that exist between communities.”
Montes has spent the greater part of her life defined by a border, and she does not intend for barriers to stand in the way of her work or her identity. She has entered each of her endeavors with an open and humble heart, not as a pretender, but as someone común y corriente– common and simple.