Harvest of Acclaim
For Arnoldo De León, the military lifted him out of poverty and the history profession elevated him from obscurity.
The son of humble but hard-working parents who labored in the fields of South Texas, De León today is a nationally recognized and respected historian who has taught on the Angelo State University faculty since 1973.
Growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s on farms around Robstown in Nueces County, De León lived among other Hispanic families, attended integrated schools and encountered little of the discrimination that had been more common during his parents’ generation.
“People have learned about the Mexican-American experience, not just from my books, but from many others. Certainly, I am proud that I have contributed to shaping the Mexican-American identity, especially for people who have grown up in more modern times and do not know about segregation and prejudice or have only lived it vicariously.”
“I don’t remember any of that discrimination,” De León recalled, “though I always had the feeling that white people didn’t like us.”
The impoverished circumstances of his youth, however, left a more lasting impression and provided the incentive for him to escape the cotton fields where he spent so much of his youth working.
“I guess what affected me most about that experience,” De León said, “was my poverty, our poverty. Everybody was poor and we felt it. It was cold in the winter and very hot in the summer, 105 or 107 degrees. You didn’t have air conditioners. We were hungry because my parents didn’t make much money. Like I said, as far as discrimination, I don’t remember too much of that. It existed, but I never felt it. I did feel the poverty.”
As much as he longed to escape the cotton fields, however, the tools of his future success took root there.
“The other thing I remember,” De León said, “was my father’s work ethic. He was a field hand, but he was always working. He would get off work and then get busy with something else around the house. He seemed to be working all the time and he could fix anything. I can’t fix a thing, but I assimilated his work ethic.”
As a result, De León is likely the most prolific author in ASU history, authoring, co-authoring or editing 20 books, contributing multiple encyclopedia entries, making 30 academic presentations, publishing 70 book reviews and producing many other publications that he, though not everyone else, classifies as minor.
When the state’s seventh graders study Texas history, they are likely to read Texas and Texans, the textbook De León published in 2002 with four co-authors for Glencoe/McGraw-Hill. The most-used collegiate textbook on the state’s past is The History of Texas, which he co-authored with Robert A. Calvert and Gregg Cantrell. The book is now in its fourth edition with Harlan Davidson. For college courses examining the state’s Hispanic history, De León has written Mexican Americans in Texas, now in its second edition, also from Harlan Davidson.
“I am particularly interested in portraying Texas Mexicans as subjects in the ongoing Texas story and not merely as the objects in another people’s history,” De León said.
His North to Aztlán: A History of Mexican Americans in the United States is a survey work that elevates his scholarship on Hispanics to the national level.
“People have learned about the Mexican-American experience, not just from my books, but from many others,” De León said. “Certainly, I am proud that I have contributed to shaping the Mexican-American identity, especially for people who have grown up in more modern times and do not know about segregation and prejudice or have only lived it vicariously.”
De León’s journey from the cotton field to respected historian began with a year at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, but he struggled financially and joined the U.S. Air Force to get steady work and educational benefits. Assigned to Goodfellow AFB for a year, he met and married his wife, Dolores, while in San Angelo. When he finished his Air Force enlistment in Florida, he returned to San Angelo and resumed his college studies at ASU.
After getting a bachelor’s degree at Angelo State, he went to Texas Christian University and earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in history before returning to his alma mater where he has taught generations of ASU students.
His advice to those students and anyone pursuing an education is an offspring of his experiences first in the cotton field and later in the classroom.
“Study hard, commit yourself and set goals,” De León said. “Appreciate the advantages and the privileges that exist in this country.”