Alex Armendariz’s mom encouraged him and his siblings to earn university degrees, not solely for the salary potential they could bring, but for the doors that education could open in their lives.
One of those doors led Armendariz to connect with his Indigenous roots, prompting him to reconsider his plan to become a high school teacher. He now wants to become an advocate for access and autonomy in sustainable food production in urban Indigenous communities. Showcasing his dedication to his work and the value of his research, Armendariz was one of 26 students recognized as a President’s Scholar.
The President’s Scholars recognition honors exceptional Cal Poly Pomona graduate and undergraduate students annually and awards each student with a $3,500 scholarship. More than 500 scholarships have been awarded since 1963.
“It means a lot as an Indigenous student to earn this award. In a way, Cal Poly Pomona is acknowledging the Native American community on campus by recognizing my efforts,” said Armendariz, a master’s student in regenerative studies. “One of the difficult things as a student is financing your education, and the President’s Scholar scholarship allows me to not worry about money while I pursue my education. It helps to alleviate mental and emotional stress that financial difficulty can bring.”
Armendariz, who is Mexican and a descendant of the Mescalero Apache tribe, chose Cal Poly Pomona for his master’s program because it was one of the only universities in the Western region that offered a degree in which he could further his experiences with Indigenous communities in Southern California.
He tapped into Native American communities and student centers during his undergraduate years in Citrus Community College and at the University of California, Riverside, where he earned a bachelor’s in liberal studies with a minor in Native American studies in 2019. Through a sustainable agriculture conference in Hawaii, Armendariz learned about the struggles of Hawaiian natives in their fight to produce local and seasonal agriculture on their land. He was inspired to enroll in a master’s program to further his education in food and land sovereignty for Indigenous tribes.
“This is how we better our communities, by growing food for our community so that they don’t have to rely on a market where they may not have easy and regular access to fresh fruit and vegetables,” Armendariz said. “The connection between people, language, science and humanity matters a lot. Cal Poly Pomona’s regenerative studies program remarries those relationships and tries to bring it back together, which means a lot for me as a student and as a Native American.”
Armendariz said that attending Cal Poly Pomona was “coming home” for him – he grew up in Pomona where he was more immersed in Mexican culture. He returned to his hometown with a better understanding of his background and a focus on what he can contribute to his community.
“I was not satisfied with becoming a traditional teacher. I really wanted to make a change in a different way, and it made me think, ’What am I doing in my urban native community in California?’” Armendariz said.
Indigenous communities are reimplementing traditional, sustainable food systems that move away from big agriculture production and eliminate reliance on grocery stores and fast food, which has negatively impacted the health of Native Americans across the nation. Markets are not built on reservations, and Indigenous people would walk to grocery stores, sometimes 10 miles away in urban cities, he said. Because of the distance, choices for fresh produce are limited because they needed to decide which fruits and vegetables could last the longest, or purchase non-perishable foods, which lacked proper nutrients. By diversifying their own agricultural system on their own land, they can provide for themselves.
Before shelter in place orders took effect, Armendariz visited a San Diego reservation. He saw food sovereignty in practice – green lettuce leaves sprouting from the soil, budding plants, and remnants from a pumpkin patch being fed to pigs and chickens. These experiences continue to inspire him, and he plans to pursue a Ph.D. and work with Indigenous communities in Southern California.
“I took it upon myself to learn as much as I can, not just my own native culture, but different issues to be celebrated in Native American culture, and how to be a part of the community and involved in the student community on campus,” Armendariz said. “It’s a lifelong journey and takes time and effort, but it’s worth it to show that we didn’t disappear. We are here and we are thriving.”