DEMING, N.M. — “One of the things that happens when you pick onions is that when you’re done, you still reek of onions,” said Robert O. Marquez, PhD as we drove from a little coffee shop in Las Cruces, New Mexico to explore his hometown of Deming one clear afternoon. “You can’t take enough baths to get the smell out!”
Marquez, 52, is one of the recipients of the 11th Annual McDonald’s Hispanos Triunfadores award for his accomplishments in science. He enthusiastically shared the story of his scant upbringing, starting as a poor ranch boy in the deserts of Deming to his professional success and philanthropy in the fields of science and engineering during our trip.
Marquez sported a black cowboy hat on top of his long salt-and-pepper Apache hair, jeans and boots that echoed his working-class upbringing and a long-sleeve button-down shirt that was equal parts business and ranchero.
In this instance, he recounted his time picking onions as a kid: “When we would come into town, people would say, ‘Whew! Here come the cebolleros, the onion guys.’ As a large family, it was kind of embarrassing. My parents, rather than taking us into the stores, they would try to find a place to leave us. One of the places back then – this is back in the 60’s – was right here in the university [New Mexico State]. There’s a horseshoe out in front over there. That horseshoe was one of the few places that had really nice trees and a really nice lawn. They used to leave us there at the university with my two older sisters taking care of us. By playing out in the front lawn, I used to wonder, ‘What’s in those buildings over there? What is this place?'”
Marquez currently works as affiliated faculty at NMSU, which is where he got his Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and Doctorate in Analytical Chemistry. “I had a déjà vu moment when I started studying Mechanical Engineering. I got a job at the department and I was working for Dr. Ray Willem. He had an office that looked out onto the lawn. I was looking into the window as a kid and as an older guy, I was looking out the same window.”
This déjà vu moment would be one of many on our excursion around Deming.
Some of his earliest memories were of his natural surroundings, the openness of living in the desert. At a young age, he and his brother, Miguel, worked with their father as cow herders in the desert surrounding Deming.
“[My brother] was nine and I was five…My dad would tell us, ‘You guys go get those cows from behind those mountains.’ Me and him would pack our rolls and saddlebags and take off on horses and be gone for two or three weeks living on the desert. He took care of me.”
Marquez considers his brother one of his earliest heroes:
“One time we got attacked by a bunch of wild dogs. My brother was there swinging a stick. He wouldn’t let them get close to our legs. I kept throwing rocks from behind him. To me, it seemed like an eternity. It was probably about an hour.
“When we got back home, my brother was kind of upset, telling my dad, ‘How do you expect me to do my job if I’m taking care of this one?’ All my dad said was, ‘Did you take the 30-30?'” [Marquez laughed amusingly.] “After that point, we never forgot that rifle and we learned how to shoot. It was such a powerful rifle for two little kids. I used to have to lean on him when he practiced shooting. To this day, I still look up to him. We have a really good relationship.”
A few years later, he got a job as a paperboy, then a job shining shoes at Frank’s Barbershop in downtown Deming. He started shining shoes as a way to get out of the winter cold selling papers. Francisco “Kiko” Barrio, the shop’s owner, someone Marquez considers a mentor and champion of his success, got him the job. “My older brother was the first one to get a job at the barbershop,” Marquez said. “They had a shoeshine stand and the owner would have you clean the shop, sweep, keep it clean. He provided the stand and some of the supplies and you kept all the money that you made. Later on, my brother was the one that gave me that job.”
“They were some of the poorest people in Deming,” said Fernando Barrio, son of Frank Barrio, who still operates his father’s barbershop. “The thing that my dad was so happy to see is that they were survivors. They struggled as young kids. They were good students since they were small. You could see young kids getting into trouble. They worked their way up to get what they accomplished.”
“[Frank Barrios] was a good, good man because even through high school, he knew I was struggling,” said Marquez. “Even when I wasn’t shoe shining any more, he was always looking out for me. He got me a job at a grocery store and because he knew I was raising my brothers and sister. He knew that I needed to have a really, really good job.”
One of the jobs Barrio helped get for the young Marquez was at a grocery store. At the time, Marquez’s family had fallen apart and he was raising his younger siblings all by himself.
Marquez recalled the days when he first started at the grocery store in the middle of that December. With no money, he had learned that he would not be getting his first pay until after the Christmas holiday. He asked his boss for an advance to buy food to make his family a decent Christmas meal — an advance he did not receive.
One day, during his lunch break, he went home to check on his siblings and decided to take an unfamiliar route home. It was a dirt path, littered with bushes, transients and winos. “That particular day, I don’t know what got into me,” he said. “I decided to go through that route. That day, I was walking with my head down, kind of praying. I really was just going home because you had to take a lunch break.
“And as I’m walking like this, I see a $10 bill on the ground in the bushes. It was like it came from heaven! And to this day, my brothers and sister remember. We’d have tears in our eyes because we remember that meal, which was the best meal ever for a holiday. ”
Marquez’s parents divorced when he was 11-years-old. His father left the family and his mother started drinking heavily. Marquez was forced to live out on the streets. “I couldn’t put up with that behavior,” he said. “There was a lot of conflict with me and the alcoholics that she would bring over. That’s when she finally kicked me out of the house. I would get into fights with them. My siblings would beg me to come back home.”
He spent close to two years living on the streets and eating out of trashcans. During our tour, he showed me the wooden steps of an armory (now a museum) where he used to sleep. “In the winter time, it’s very, very cold and you need a place to sleep, you don’t want to sleep on concrete, you sleep on the wood,” he said. “I would bundle up with newspaper and stuff like that.”
“So finally, when I came back home, that’s when she moved out,” he remembered. “She just left us and left me with them. They didn’t live on the streets — they lived in that house. But we ate out of a lot of trashcans because there was no food. For them, they might as well have been living on the streets because we didn’t have any beds. My mom had taken everything out of the house. There wasn’t even curtains!”
Marquez was only 12-years-old.
For the Marquez family, even their faith was something that had abandoned them. “I was brought up in the Catholic Church,” he said. “Divorce was frowned upon very much in the Catholic Church. It’s kind of like they didn’t want us there. I was always looking for a church that would accept us.”
Without their parents, members of the churches did not give concern or sympathy. Rather, there was a value placed on the wholeness of the family. Some churches required sign-up to take account of its congregation. “At some point or another, our parents would come up as a concern in the churches. When we couldn’t produce parents and when we were going to sign up, they’d kind of kick us out.”
For Marquez, his impoverished life did take its toll on him, but not his spirit. One thing that he had to his advantage was the Apache culture that taught him survival.
“Raising my younger brothers and sister by myself, we were hungry, and yes, we ate out of trashcans and we did stuff like that to survive,” he said. “But there wasn’t a problem I couldn’t solve…I’m very independent. Apaches learn very early on in life and it’s about being independent. It’s about survival. A 12-year-old, most people would think that’s a little kid. But in the Apache world, you should know how to survive by then. ”
Growing up in the culture, Marquez acquired skills for survival such as hunting, weapon building and knowing how to utilize the environment. “I grew up deer hunting,” he recalled. “That’s the kind of meat we had. We had rabbits, elk. We had fish in the summer. We would stock up for the winter. We didn’t go to a grocery store. That’s what made it difficult for me growing up: a life like that where I had plenty of game and fish, then you move into town and you’re eating out of trashcans, you’re not eating very healthy food. You’re depending on money so you can go buy food. I wasn’t used to that.”
After getting his BS in Mechanical Engineering from NMSU in 1981, he was recruited into a high-paying job working at Hewlett Packard in Boise, Idaho. There, he worked on disk drives, color scanners and the laser printer, most notably the optical and paper paths. But being raised in the Apache culture, he knew that a greater responsibility was at hand to his family and community. So, he returned home. “I was doing real well at Hewlett Packard, making lots of money,” he said. “They didn’t understand… It’s about your people. It’s not just about you. You have that social responsibility that whatever you’re doing is not just for you, it’s for everybody. That’s why I did it.
“One of the things I realized is, yeah, I’ve done things, but it’s about them,” said Marquez about moving back for his sons. “I’ve got to figure out what’s their life going to be like. If they grew up in middle class suburbia, would they have a relationship with their relatives?”
He made the move out to the Navajo Reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico to reconnect with the Navajo culture and brought his wife – a Navajo, herself – and sons with him. There, he continued giving back to his people by starting the Science Scholars Program at Navajo Community College, presently Diné College. “It was a program to try to attract these young kids into the sciences and give them the tools they need to survive in the sciences,” he described. “Because of that program, that’s why we see a lot of kids with degrees. Within two years, we had almost an 80% success rate. Not very many native students go to college, even make it through high school. On top of that, those that do go to college, very few of them make it past the first two years.”
In 1994, Marquez re-entered NMSU for graduate school to study Analytical Chemistry. There, he worked with Los Alamos National Lab helping brick makers get decreased yields of pollution in kilns. “The problem is people live around these kilns,” he said. “People breathe in all that stuff.” He eventually devised a kiln, the MK Kiln, made entirely out of mud that decreased pollution. “We went from 80 to 100 kilograms of particulate matter in the air per burn, down to two kilograms,” he said.
During that same time, a non-profit group called Potters for Peace was interested in Marquez’s work with the kilns. The group was interested in the MK Kiln to fire the pots it was using in its own philanthropy. A part of that philanthropy was making water filters. Marquez saw another worthy project and started experimenting with materials made with his kiln that would make for good, inexpensive water filters. He came across a form of porous brick that could be used to filter water. In various carnations using things like plastic paint buckets, store-bought water dispensers and five-gallon water bottles, he has used the brick to make affordable, portable water filters.
He has brought his MK Kiln and water filters to places to places in Guatemala, Africa, Mexico and Bolivia with help from non-profit organizations like Instituto Tierra Y Cal, Birambye International and the Ixtatán Foundation. Given the recent Cholera outbreak, he also hopes to bring his water filters to Haiti.
It was his philanthropy in using his MK Kiln and water filters to solve problems in the world that earned him a McDonald’s Triunfadores Award in the field of science. The 11th annual award ceremony took place on September 22, 2010. “I was shocked. I really was,” said Marquez about receiving the award.
Marquez’s future ventures in philanthropy include work with his own non-profit community development corporation, PublicUs, which he founded. The group plans on bringing the MK Kiln and his water filter to the poorer colonias along the border. They also plan on working with the Women’s Intercultral Center in Anthony, New Mexico to teach them how to build his water filters, among other projects.
“It’s human nature to focus on the here-and-now,” he said, reflecting on his deep motivation for philanthropy. “We have to fight against that tendency to be right here and we should care about things outside of ourselves. If you realize that you’re not that significant and you’re a part of something bigger, and you help contribute to that outside of you, it does get better.
“Right now. I really don’t work for anybody. I have a lab at the university. I come and go as I please. I do what I need to do. I get involved where I need to get involved. That’s one of the reasons that it’s too late in life to get caught up in a job…I just don’t have that much time left. So, my view is that I’d rather be making change out in the community.”