From jazz singer to Ph.D.: Clemson marketing professor Oriana Aragón blazed her own path to success
CLEMSON – To truly understand Oriana Aragón’s story, you must know her roots. The grandchild of Mexican immigrants, Aragón grew up in San Diego, raised by a wheelchair-bound father and a mother battling cancer. She has been a session singer, a performer on the French Riviera, a retail floor covering store owner, a theater producer and a first-time college student in her 30’s. She is a proud Latina, a single mother, a Yale graduate, a Ph.D. and – in her current incarnation – an assistant professor of marketing in Clemson University’s College of Business.
It’s been a remarkable life thus far. A life, she says, that’s a continuation of a tireless pursuit of the American dream by family who came before her.
Her father’s parents, Raquel and Manuel Aragón, immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1929, eventually settling in the California border area of El Centro. Opportunities for Mexican workers were notoriously limited then. Manuel found work in a gypsum plant and, like many of their fellow immigrants, when times got tight they went to work in the fields to make ends meet. The hope was to start a better life, literally, from the ground, up.
“My grandparents suffered from the discrimination that we still see today,” said Aragón, sitting behind the desk in her unostentatious office on the Clemson campus. She speaks eloquently and in scholarly terms, with an energy that fills the room and a hint of glamour just behind her professorial appearance.
When she speaks about her family, it’s with a contagious reverence.
“My grandfather was paid slave wages for back-breaking work, but from that humble beginning in that loving home in Calexico that generation that included my father made a life.”
Raquel and Manuel had nine children, including Oriana Aragón’s father, Charles. There were times when the whole family would be out planting crops or picking produce from dusk until dawn. It was an arduous existence, but not a hopeless one. Aragón’s grandparents revered education, the arts, logic and reading – essentials for success that are in ample supply in America even for the poorest people.
“Neither of my grandparents had more than a few years of school – maybe third- or fourth-grade educations – but that did not stop my grandmother from reading every book in the Calexico library or from playing beautiful classical music in the home,” Aragón said.
Because of that appreciation for academics and art, all nine children went on to remarkable success.
“From that dusty, small agricultural town in California they went to Harvard, Yale and Berkeley, just to name a few,” said Aragón. “Most – eight out of nine – became lawyers or business people, and then on to superior court judges and presidential advisers in the Carter administration. They served in our military, they worked in the CIA and in the prosecutor’s offices they shaped laws that serve our nation today.”
The one who took a different path was Aragón’s father, Charles. Music was his calling. He moved to Los Angeles and became a producer and songwriter for A&M Records, where he worked with the likes of Jimmy Webb, the Fifth Dimension and Paul Anka.
Aragón remembers sitting quietly in the studio next to her father watching him piece songs together. She was enthralled with the singers – how they could put a hundred different emotions into one note. She decided she was going to be a singer, too, and even started singing on some of her dad’s recordings. But just as she was finding her voice, the thick Los Angeles air tried to squeeze it out of her. She developed severe asthma.
Her father’s career “was going pretty well,” she said, “but I would have episodes where I’d pass out and turn blue – literally be near death.”
Her parents moved the family to San Diego in 1975. They started a carpet and flooring company and carried on.
Two tragedies followed: Her mother lost her 10-year battle with cancer and passed away at the young age of 52, and her father, who had suffered from a rare form of muscular dystrophy all his life, was confined to a wheelchair permanently.
Growing up with two sick parents gives you a different perspective on life, said Aragón. She had to worry about things most kids don’t even begin to think about.
“Your day is different. Just getting everyone out of bed is different,” she said. “What you plan, and what you do; different. The hardship for me as a little girl was having to be independent in day-to-day things from an early age. I helped a lot with taking care of my younger brothers. I was there as a third parent in many ways.”
Young Oriana did what she had to do for her family, because lying down is not in the Aragón DNA. It was her father who taught her that, and he led by example.
Every family has that one member who is steadier than everyone else. The person who people lean on for comfort and advice. That was her dad, said Aragón. He provided his family with material things, but more importantly he passed his own parents’ values down to the next generation, stressing the value of life, love and family above all else. He did it all from a wheelchair, but he was not disabled. She said he never complained, not one time, about his condition. But if you spoke to him for even a minute you no longer saw the wheelchair.”
The move to San Diego improved Oriana’s health, as her father had hoped. And Aragón never stopped singing. She sang on her father’s recordings, at weddings and corporate parties and became quite accomplished, several times tackling one of the ultimate challenges for a vocalist – the National Anthem – in front of 42,000 baseball fans before San Diego Padres games.
She traveled to Europe and spent a year singing in jazz clubs on the French Riviera. When she returned to the U.S. she got married and had a son. She and her husband started a floor covering store like her father’s. Like everything else she tried, she was good at it.
Then the marriage fell apart and she started to wonder if she was on the right path. She was in her mid-30s and craved more meaning in her life.
“One day I realized in the big scheme of things, that it just didn’t matter if Mrs. Johnson gets the perfect beige carpet,” she said. “I thought I could be a better person, in that my life could have some meaning beyond myself. So I went to school.”
She dabbled in night classes at the local community college. When she took a psychology class, something clicked.
“The teacher said, ‘You’re really good at this’, and I thought, ‘What? I’m good at this?’ I couldn’t believe it.”
It took two years from that moment to make the big decision to leave her business and go to school full time. She didn’t have a high school diploma, so she had to start with remedial classes at Palomar Community College. She absorbed each lesson and went right back for more.
“I knew the clock was kinda ticking,” she laughed.
A new path had opened up. The work ethic that had trickled down from her father and her grandparents took over and she committed herself to following it.
Hefting a heavy load each term, she graduated in three years. She’d been granted a summer research fellowship at Yale in 2008, so after earning her bachelor’s in psychology from California State University San Marcos in 2009, she applied to Yale for graduate school. They accepted her. “This granddaughter of immigrants was going to Yale!”
She hasn’t been the only one. So far, six Aragóns have attended Yale: Two of her uncles before her, a cousin and her little brother after, and cousin, Juliana.
Aragón spent a total of eight years at Yale, staying for a postdoctoral fellowship after earning her Ph.D. in psychology there in 2014.
“For a long time, I never told anyone anything about my past,” she said. “I was worried that somehow it would taint my accomplishments (for the good or for bad). I wanted to get a seat at the table because I deserved to be there, not because people felt sorry for me.”
She did it all while raising her son.
“I was a single mom through all of grad school. We lived very modestly. Undergrad was hard. For two years my preteen son and I lived in one bedroom of a woman’s house. It was tiiiight, boy.”
Aragón started at Clemson in 2016 and is well-known for her research into dimorphous expressions, which in layman’s terms are strangely negative responses to positive events, like crying tears of joy or seeing a puppy so cute you want to squeeze it or a baby so cute you want to smoosh its face.
“My research interests consistently align with human emotions and their consequences for observable human behavior. I want to understand how we perceive, engage and react emotionally to the people and things that we encounter.”
It’s a particularly fitting field for her, as her life has been something of a study in contrasts and emotions itself.
She relates the last story of her father, who died at nearly 80 in 2017. He passed of natural causes, but quite unexpectedly while selling a truckload of watermelons in the interior of Mexico. The thought of an 80-year-old with a truck full of watermelons conjures plenty of visuals, but of course there was a deeper meaning to his behavior.
“A young man he knew wanted to start a produce business in Mexico and my dad wanted to help him,” Aragón said. “So Dad bought a truck and helped set up the deals so the young man could eventually take over, pay back the money for the truck over time and come out of it with a small business. That was my Dad. He was busy! Fearless! Always figuring out how to make things better.”
How proud he would be to know the same can be said about his daughter.