Ellen Ochoa has a life story that highlights just how well second generation immigrants from Mexico are doing in America today! Her story should inspire us all, especially the children and grandchildren of immigrants from third world nations. Ellen Ochoa’s origins are humble, but she reached for and realized the American dream, becoming a PhD, an engineer, the world’s first female Hispanic astronaut, and now the director of one of NASA’s premier facilities, the Johnson Space Center, also known as mission control.
Early Life and Family of Ellen Ochoa
Ellen Ochoa was born in 1958 in Los Angeles, one of five children of Joseph and Roseanne Ochoa. Joseph Ochoa was a retail store manager, and Roseanne Ochoa a homemaker. Ellen grew up mostly in La Mesa, California.
Joseph was born and raised in Arizona to immigrant parents from Sonora, Mexico, one of 12 children. His parents were born in the 1870s, and his father was a newspaper editor in Mexico, then owned a store in Arizona. Ellen didn’t know her grandparents, as they were already in their 80s when she was born, but certainly their hard working immigrant values and ambition passed down to Ellen. Had they still been alive for Ellen’s first space flight, we can be sure they would have felt immense pride.
While growing up in Arizona, Joseph felt the sting of rampant discrimination against Hispanics, for example Hispanics were only allowed to use the public pool the day before cleaning because it was felt they dirtied the pool. Though Joseph was bilingual, he spoke English only at home, not wanting to teach his children Spanish, fearing the lash of discrimination he had experienced if they spoke Spanish or spoke English with an accent.
Roseanne Ochoa, mother of five, began part-time college studies when Ellen Ochoa was just one, and though she could only take one class at a time and didn’t graduate from college until 22 years later, her example of perseverance clearly inspired Ellen Ochoa to excel in school.
Joseph and Roseanne Ochoa divorced when Ellen was in junior high school, and Ellen and her four siblings lived with their mother.
Education of Ellen Ochoa
Ellen Ochoa was an excellent student, and despite the trauma of her parents’ divorce, Ellen graduated as valedictorian of Grossmont High School in San Diego. Ellen then attended San Diego State University, majoring in physics, and graduated once again as valedictorian!
Ellen Ochoa then received a master of science degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1981 and 1985. At the time there were few women studying engineering and the sciences, and Ellen Ochoa was discouraged from pursuing these fields because she was a woman, but she persevered and excelled.
Side note: as an electrical engineer myself, I can tell you that electrical engineering is a grueling curriculum, requiring a strong foundation in math and the sciences. Stanford is a top notch university for engineering and the sciences, and just being admitted to a prestigious university like Stanford is an accomplishment in itself. I studied Electrical engineering about the same time as Ellen at UNO, and just six of 150 students were women, who were all especially hard working and motivated to succeed.
Ellen Ochoa’s Career
From her NASA bio:
As a doctoral student at Stanford, and later as a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories and NASA Ames Research Center, Dr. Ochoa investigated optical systems for performing information processing. She is a co-inventor on three patents for an optical inspection system, an optical object recognition method, and a method for noise removal in images. As Chief of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at Ames, she supervised 35 engineers and scientists in the research and development of computational systems for aerospace missions. Dr. Ochoa has presented numerous papers at technical conferences and in scientific journals.
Selected by NASA in January 1990, Dr. Ochoa became an astronaut in July 1991. Her technical assignments in the Astronaut Office include serving as the Crew Representative for flight software, computer hardware and robotics, Assistant for Space Station to the Chief of the Astronaut Office, lead spacecraft communicator (CAPCOM) in Mission Control, Acting Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office, Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations, and Director, Flight Crew Operations, where she managed and directed the Astronaut Office and Aircraft Operations. A veteran of four space flights, Dr. Ochoa has logged over 978 hours in space. She was a mission specialist on STS-56 (1993), was the Payload Commander on STS-66 (1994), and was a mission specialist and flight engineer on STS-96 (1999) and STS-110 (2002). Dr. Ochoa currently serves as Director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Here’s a video clip of the launch of mission ST-56, first space flight of Ellen Ochoa, also the first Hispanic woman astronaut!
And here’s the landing:
And post flight press conference, in which Ellen Ochoa explains their mission.
Director of the Johnson Space Center
Ellen Ochoa’s latest accomplishments were at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where she became the 11th director effective January 1, 2013. The Johnson Space Center, often called mission control, is NASA’s premier center for human spaceflight training, research, and flight control. There are approximately 3,200 civil servants, including 110 astronauts, employed at Johnson Space Center. The bulk of the workforce are the over 15,000 contractors.
Ellen Ochoa is an inspiration to us all, and yet another example of how well the children and grandchildren of even the most humble immigrants from some of the poorest nations on Earth can realize the American dream. Ellen’s family is typical in many ways. Her father came from a very large family, and Ellen herself has four siblings. Ellen has just two. Mexican-American demographics are for large families in the first generation, less in the second generation, and still less in the third (Ellen Ochoa and her husband have two children which is the norm for Americans in general these days). In terms of education, immigrants from Latin America tend to have low educational levels, reflecting the lack of opportunities in their home nations, then each successive generation greatly surpassed the previous, reflecting access to better educational opportunities.
If Nativists had had their way, Ellen’s grandparents might well have been barred from ever immigrating to the U.S. In fact, from 1924 until the 1950s, immigration was restricted to those who could naturalize, and from 1790 to 1965 only whites could naturalize. There was a legislative attempt in Congress in 1930 to ban Mexicans altogether, and during the great depression approximately one million “Mexicans” were deported or forced out, of which 60% were U.S. Citizens. Fortunately for America, Ellen Ochoa’s parents and grandparents were spared the “Mexican repatriation.”
Nativists like Ann Coulter insist that allowing immigration from third world nations is importing poverty and creating a permanent underclass, but when I look at Ellen Ochoa and countless other successful Hispanic Americans whose families immigrated 1-2 generations ago, I see the American dream, not poverty and dependency.
Recent immigrants are no different that those of previous eras, often arriving poor and undereducated, and then within 1-2 generations fully assimilating and realizing the American dream. Sadly, many of today’s Nativists still don’t ‘get it’ and the myths about immigrants often still drive bad immigration policy. Immigrants are an asset, not a liability! The more immigration we have, the more America benefits!
Bob Quasius is the founder and president of Cafe Con Leche Republicans