Raul Aguirre noticed the flier on his way to class. A poster that many University of Arizona students would walk past. But something stopped him: Bilingual host wanted. The audition deadline: 5 p.m.
Raul looked at his watch: 4:30 p.m.
He could make it if he rushed.
It was the 1970s. Raul remembers his Xicano pride: Long hair crowned by a bandana. Poncho draped over his shoulders like a cape. Leather huaraches, the only thing standing between his feet and desert pavement hot enough to burn. The auditioner took one long judgy stare at the Mexican college kid.
“The guy looked at me and went like, ‘I don’t know if we have a cameraman, right now,” Raul remembers.
“He tried to push me away,” Raul says. “I go, ‘No, but it says five o’clock. And only it’s 4:35.’”
Raul got his audition. He also got the job. They told him he’d host a program called “Fiesta.”
The set for the variety show was a mashup of American stereotypes for Mexicans: Sombreros, fire-red chiles and fringed sarapes.
“Can we kind of modernize this set?,” Raul recalls thinking. “I like that. I eat those. I wear that. But can we not put it all on at the same time?’”
More than 30 years later, Raul is leaning back in his office chair next to a bright blue conference table at his company headquarters — a house-turned-office near his alma mater in Tucson. He’s still got the swagger of a Mexican college kid who fights for an audition no one wants him for, and a voice for speaking up for his community.
Raul is in his 60s now. He shifts from chuckling at old memories to the seriousness of someone who knows what it takes to grow up Mexican-American and make it in a border state.
The house is filled with mementos. A collection of new treasures have yet to be displayed. Politically-themed paintings by local artists and framed doodles by his namesake and fellow longtime Southern Arizonan — Congressman Raúl Grijalva.
Raul’s company, REA Media Group, is the culmination of his sweeping career in media, where he’s been everything from an international journalist to a radio producer/DJ.
He’s quick to share his old DJ name: the “Electric Xicano.”
It’s a trip to look back and trace his way to today. He could have been a laborer like his family. He started college wanting to be a lawyer. He should have been an educator if you count his degree.
How did a kid born in México City who crossed the border to grow up in Nogales and South Tucson get here?
Here in his media and marketing office, Raul talks about having moved between a life as a prospective attorney, a bilingual radio pioneer, a mentor and a father.
As a teenager in South Tucson on the cusp of the 1970s, Raul saw his future through the process of elimination. At the time, all he knew was he didn’t want to work in a mine or construction like the rest of his family.
He wanted to build on their work. But alternatives during the civil rights movement for a Mexican kid seemed non-existent.
“There was not a lot of wiggle room,” he says. ”The counselor would pretty much drive everybody to the vocations. Not to the academics.”
The 1960s and 1970s were pivotal decades for educational equity for Latinx students who were tired of being pushed to trades rather than college.
The historic Chicano Movement grew, spurring Latino-led protests across the U.S. Among the most famous was the massive 1968 Los Angeles high school walkouts, where thousands of student activists from four schools raised demands:
Better counselors for college
Mexican American history classes
Bilingual classes for those who needed them
Parental advisory boards.
Organizations like the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund emerged to fight for Latino rights by “providing more resources and funds to hire lawyers and file lawsuits against schools and other institutions that were denying Latinos equitable educational opportunities,” according to a National Park Service American history essay, Demanding their Rights: The Latino Struggle for Educational Access and Equity.
Their efforts proved fruitful.
These stories are part of a series of profiles supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation for in-depth reporting on Latino education equity opportunities and gaps.
“Before 1970, the number of Latino youth entering college was disproportionately smaller than that of white or African American youth. Latinos took advantage of greater access to higher education during the 1970s, pouring into community colleges, state universities, and Ivy League campuses,” the study states.
Raul is one of these students.
He says many educators and school administrators believed that Latino students were better off doing manual labor. But Raul says that he lived what it means to understand the power of a few to change lives.
“I think I found myself wanting to achieve because I had a couple of teachers that said, ‘Hey, I see that you have a lot of aptitude and drive,’” Raul says, “Really kind of opened my eyes about who I was, where I was, why I was and where I could be.”
In 1974, Raul started school at the University of Arizona and joined the only 18% of Hispanics aged 18-24 enrolled in college.
Raul earned an education degree at the UA. He never went into the field. Instead, he says, broadcasting chose him.
He considers himself an “edutainer.”
The pursuit of higher education is embedded in his family doctrine. He’s worked hard to create for his own nine children and other kids what he didn’t see in his youth: A choice.
“I tried to teach my children to go to college so they can become critical thinkers and do whatever they want, with the opportunities in our country,” Raul says. “And at the same time, bring other people up and talk to other people that are in poverty, that are marginalized.”
Raul and his educator wife, Corina Ontiveros, are first-generation college graduates. Together, they climbed the rungs of upward mobility and wanted to make that ladder taller and more accessible for others.
They founded the Ivy League Project of Southern Arizona — sponsored by Southwest Leadership Initiative — where they guide students from underrepresented backgrounds to top-tier colleges and universities. Program participants get instruction on college readiness and take trips to prestigious campuses.
“We call it the new generation of world leaders,” Raul says. His voice echoes in the conference room.
As the father of a Latina who graduated from Brown University, an Ivy League college, Raul knows the struggle doesn’t end once a student gets into a top-tier school. By supporting and spearheading events that spotlight Chicanos in fields like the arts and business, Raul says he’s helping combat the psychological and equity barriers that can keep Latinos out of positions of power.
“Our impact … is taking that garbage out of our kids’ psyche – that they’re not good enough – and putting them in prime positions to not feel like an imposter if they go to an Ivy League,” he says. ”To know that they’re not only good enough, but even better than they think.”
As a businessman, Raul is hyper aware of the importance of Latinos in power, especially given their ballooning economic growth. From 2010-2020 the U.S. Latino Gross Domestic Product was “the third fastest growing” among the 10 largest GDPs in the world, according to a 2022 report by the Latino Donor Collaborative.
“The increase in the growth and strength of Latino human capital has resulted in a powerful economic engine for our country,” the report says.
Raul believes that not having Latinos proportionately represented in the corporate world makes it difficult for CEOs to understand the Latino demographic. They’re missing out on entire communities, he says. Not so different from when the auditioner in Tucson 30 years ago almost missed out on a chance to hire a bilingual TV host who could connect with his own community.
“We’re not in corporate boards,” Raul says. “We’re very less than 3%. And that’s a problem.”
In 2020, Latinos held 3% of the board seats among companies on the Fortune 1000 list, according to a report by the KPMG Board Leadership Center and the Latino Corporate Directors Association.
From 2020 to 2022, the nation’s three largest ethnic groups saw limited growth in representation as boardroom members at Fortune 500 companies. Despite Latinos constituting 19.1% of the country’s population — making them the largest ethnic minority according to the 2022 U.S. Census — their boardroom growth was the slowest.
Representation from Hispanic/Latino(a) people increased from 4.1% to 4.7%, according to a “Missing Pieces” report by Deloitte and Alliance for Board Diversity. Representation from African American/Black people increased from 8.7% to 11.9% and rose from 4.6% to 5.4% for Asian/Pacific Islander communities.
While communities of color in the U.S. remain represented at disparate rates compared to their population, the percentage of White people in boardrooms is closely proportionate to their representation in the nation. White people constitute 75.5% of the U.S. population and their presence in boardrooms is at 77.8%. That’s a narrow decrease from 2020 when White people represented 82.5% of boardroom members in Fortune 500 companies.
American Indians/Alaskan Natives continue to represent less than 1% of board seats, according to a 2022 SpencerStewart report looking at diversity and parity in corporate boardrooms.
While the breadth of Latino representation and success that Raul wants to see transcends the field of education, he knows future success is rooted in learning. He wants people to view educational investments in Latino populations as an investment in the nation, not just in a particular ethnic group.
“We are the old Americans. We are the new Americans,” Raul says. “The system needs to look at us in a more intellectual way.”
Today, Raul is a CEO. He owns a thriving advertising public relations company that focuses on what Raul likes to call “the power of the Latino consumer.”
His hair isn’t long anymore. He wears ties more than ponchos. He still leads with Xicano pride. Raul wants to see more fellow Latinos succeed, and he knows that starts with educational opportunities in schools from kindergarten to college. He shares this message with students who are part of his and his wife’s Ivy League program.
“This is my slogan: Get in, get going, get done, and give back,” he says, smiling and leaning back in his chair.
On the wall across from his office conference table, Raul mounted a mural saturated with colors – hot pink and sunshine yellows. Frida Kahlo is laughing with Chavela Vargas. It’s the room’s centerpiece.
As he starts walking out the door, Raul stops. He points out another art piece: A comic-like illustration of a family of luchadores dressed in gold and blue and driving a flame-painted car are being pulled over.
The patriarch with “Selena” tattooed on his chest makes a demand: WHY AM I BEING STOPPED? His Wonder Woman-looking wife with long raven hair has his back and his confused baby peeks through the window.
The self-proclaimed edutainer, the artist formerly known as The Electric Xicano, the kid from México who grew up in Nogales and then South Tucson has learned: You must make demands of anyone who thinks you don’t belong.
Raul chuckles, and then puts the drawing down. He has a company to run.
Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of children Raul Aguirre and his wife Corina Ontiveros have. Nine children is the accurate number.
Editor: Dianna M. Náñez Copy Editor: Irene McKisson Visuals: Mike McKisson Translation: Carolina Cuellar