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Yes They Did

First generation Latino brothers build bright futures with Ph.D.s in history.

By Pamela J. Johnson
May 14, 2009

Gerardo Licón (left) and his brother Gustavo advised youth to avoid the "crab in a bucket" mentality — when one person tries to better him or herself and others try to pull them down. "Lift as you climb," Gerardo said. Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.

Gerardo Licón (left) and his brother Gustavo advised youth to avoid the "crab in a bucket" mentality — when one person tries to better him or herself and others try to pull them down. "Lift as you climb," Gerardo said. Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.

Gerardo "Lalo" Licon was a freshman at Inglewood High School when riots broke out between black and Latino students during a Cinco de Mayo celebration in 1990.

Gerardo "Lalo" Licón was a freshman at Inglewood High School when riots broke out between black and Latino students during a Cinco de Mayo celebration in 1990.

By his sophomore year, he belonged to a posse affiliated with an infamous local street gang in the southwest L.A. city during the '90s.

"I thought by the time I was 18, I would either be dead or in jail," said Gerardo, who graduated Friday with a doctorate in history.

His decision to hit the books not only drastically changed his own life path, but that of his brother, Gustavo Licón. Four years younger, Gustavo mimicked his older brother. When Gerardo considered gangs, so did Gustavo.

When Gerardo instead enrolled in Santa Monica College and began studying Mexican-American history, Gustavo began reading his older brother’s textbooks. On Friday, Gustavo also donned his cap and gown, earning his Ph.D. in history. In all, the College presented about 2,200 degrees during commencement: 1,800 undergraduate; 245 master’s and 170 Ph.D.

The brothers’ parents emigrated from Mexico, where their father left school in the first grade for fieldwork. Both brothers credit the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) for educating them about their Mexican heritage and giving them the drive to succeed.

Gustavo was in high school working as a busboy when he was accepted into an Ivy League university for his undergraduate studies.

Regular customers who had never before acknowledged him slapped him on the back, saying, “Your father must be proud.”

“You can ask him yourself,” Gustavo remembers telling them. “He’s pouring your water.”

Gustavo’s father was a busboy at the same restaurant, and still clears and sets tables for a living. The brothers are deeply proud of their parents and humbled by their sacrifices.

“They always went without, so they could give to us,” said Gerardo, 32. “They did it all for the benefit of their sons.”

 

Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Spring/Summer 2009 issue.