SAN MARCOS – Chicano educator Dr. Xuan Santos, an associate professor at California State University at San Marcos (CSUSM), has been a mentor to many over the years, a blessing he attributes to his own mentors. He calls them “OGs,” a term he coined that does not, in fact, mean original gangsters, but “opportunity givers.”
Santos, a first-generation immigrant from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, grew up in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles that has long been heavily impacted by crime and poverty.
“As a youngster, I didn’t know what my life was going to be like. I wanted to do exactly what my father and my mother did and just keep a blue-collar job. I wanted to be a worker in a factory,” Santos said. “Then I came into contact with mentors that saw something in me that very few people did.”
Mentors a.k.a. opportunity givers
“When my teachers and mentors started telling me about college and the prospect of having a better life – that I didn’t have to be in Boyle Heights forever, that I could actually become the architect of my future if I just pursued higher education —I just ran with it,” Santos said.
He attended Cal State Los Angeles for his undergraduate degree, he got his first masters at Cal State Dominguez Hills and went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) in Sociology.
For the past 10 years, Santos has been at CSUSM and now works as an associate professor in the Department of Sociology & Criminology and Justice Studies.
“I didn’t know that I wanted to become a teacher until I came across teachers that reminded me of my worth. They inspired me, and I decided that I wanted to pay back my community through research and teaching,” Santos said.
Santos also works with formerly incarcerated youth and gang-involved students. He serves as the faculty director of Project Rebound, a program that helps formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students to be accepted and retained at the university and to graduate.
“We’re very disproportionately represented in academia, so to come from this highly stigmatized context and to thrive and become a role model as a professor, I always keep in mind all of the people that mentored me along the way,” Santos said. “I refer to them as OGs, opportunity givers, people that understand your plight, your struggle; people that understand that you are a person that has potential and your life has meaning.”
Martin Leyva, the program coordinator of Project Rebound and a lecturer in the sociology department at CSUSM, has known Santos for roughly 11 years.
Leyva told The Coast News that he considers Santos his mentor, a status he doesn’t hand out lightly.
“When I met him, he was one of the first Chicanos I actually saw myself in – the way he talks, the way he dresses, the way that he communicates,” Leyva said. “He was the first Chicano that I’d seen who was getting his Ph.D., and it was very inspiring to me.”
Leyva said that Santos’ students and colleagues naturally tend to gravitate toward him because he’s real and isn’t afraid to be himself.
“When you look at the history of academia, especially higher education, there’s not a lot of Black and Brown representation within our classrooms or even in our curriculums and books,” Leyva said. “That’s the beautiful thing about having someone like Dr. Santos who comes from that Chicano perspective, as well as a very marginalized community like Boyle Heights.”
Santos told The Coast News that he’s grateful to his parents, his family and his background for where he is today, and he hopes to pay it forward.
“I see a future in every person I come into contact with because I was once in their shoes, I was once misguided, I was once afraid, and I didn’t feel like the world was open to me,” Santos said. “That’s why it’s important to create a network of faculty members that understands that struggle.”
He added that being an educator has been a gift that has allowed him to connect with people from all walks of life.
“We have to create bridges across genders, sexualities, socioeconomic statuses and races. We have to do this so that we can create cohesion in our communities,” Santos said. “As an educator, I understand that we’re not all going to agree on everything, but we all need to teach respect, compassion and accepting of difference. That’s what I strive to do.”