Between Two Cultures

‘No pudiera olvidar mi español’

Ford Burkhart, Jacob Chinn photo

In Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, everyone knew the precocious 8-year-old at the family hardware store who counted change for customers. Back then, he beamed with pride giving back 75 pesos for a 100 peso bill that had paid for a 25 peso wrench. He was helping out his hero and inspiration — his grandfather.

Today, that youngster is Manuel Felix, the ASUA student body president. He credits his grandfather, Joaquin Manuel Felix Castro, for showing him how to embrace the world. 

From the get-go, young Felix was a leader. He taught English lessons and gave classes in ajedrez, chess, to older kids. He sold his old toys on the sidewalk outside the store and made ice pops with his sister Rebecca — cherry, lemon, grape — and sold them for 5 pesos.

“I was always looking for a chance to do some business,” he recalls.

Felix, who goes by Manny, is still on the move. His ASUA presidency is filled with plans to make campus a lively center for political discourse leading up to the 2016 U.S. elections. He also wants to use his office to strengthen sexual assault awareness efforts and diversity programs.

Two worlds coexist comfortably inside his head. “I can snap my fingers and switch from English to Spanish or back,” he says. “Yo no pudiera olvidar mi español.” (“I could not forget my Spanish.”)

In fact, a program in Spanish language with emphasis on translation makes up of half of his academic focus. The other half is political science, especially international relations — he’s been on summer programs in Italy and Brazil — and he has set a goal of law school and perhaps a career in diplomacy, as an ambassador or with the United Nations. 

Felix was born in Tucson, but returned soon after to Mexico. He enjoyed 12 years of traditional life in an ancestral home near the plaza in Magdalena, which is lined with buildings built by his grandfather. He attended high school in Nogales, Arizona, where he excelled on the tennis team and became interested in politics. 

He reveres the beloved political figure from his home town, Luis Donaldo Colosio, a family friend and candidate for president for the PRI party until his assassination in 1994. And he admires Franklin Roosevelt for his accomplishments as a skilled politician.

He was recruited by the University of California, Berkeley, well known for political activity. Even with a scholarship at Cal, he knew he’d need loans. The summer before college, he heard from the UA Hispanic Alumni Scholarship Program. It offered a four-year scholarship which, along with an Arizona Regent’s High Honors award and a Southwestern Foundation award, meant he could afford college without loans. He never looked back.

Neither his mother nor his father went to college. And now, Felix is a member of Bobcats Senior Honorary, devoted to service to the UA. “We are students who simply bleed red and blue,” Felix says. “We try to bring the history of the UA to life for all students. It’s a diverse group with a wide range of interests, and all together we make up a great powerhouse for the UA.”

Culturally, Felix has roots equally deep on both sides of the frontera. He makes it back to Magdalena in early October for the rousing Fiesta de San Francisco Javier, when pilgrims come from afar to sing “Las Mañanitas” (roughly, “Happy Birthday”) to their patron saint.  “They go on all night,” Felix says, “and you stay up maybe until 6 a.m.”

And at the UA, each day he reminds himself of the advice of his grandfather and namesake: “Get a good education and do what you are passionate about and you will be invincible.” 

That is, “Será invencible.”