Race-work, Race-love

Letter to a Young Latina College Freshwoman Attending a Historically White University

In Uncategorized on August 19, 2011 at 1:21 pm

‎According to an article in the LA Times, close to 60% of Latinos who attend four year institutions, are at least 50 miles away from home (Gordon, 2010). With this in mind, I recall exactly how I felt the week before I went off to college. I write this piece using three questions I was asked by a young Latina, a first year student attending a historically White college.

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” — Maya Angelou

“Why is everyone so excited to go away, except for me?”

I don’t know why some of your friends may be so excited. I didn’t understand either when I was going away to school. But I do understand why you may not feel as thrilled as your friends may seem. We come from a very close-knit family. Many Latinos/as do. We grow up really appreciating bonds of the nuclear family. For immigrant families, sometimes we are even more closely knit often because our extended family members still live in their countries of origin. Thus, we rely on each other greatly for social activity and economic necessity.

So your excitement to go to college may just be crowded out by your love for your family. I can assure you that you are not alone on this… I felt this way too. Leaving my family to go off to college was one of the toughest things I had to do. But, you have the ability to be both excited and sad to miss your family. When those moments of excitement creep up, please share that with your family too. We often think that expressing our happiness to leave for college is wrong. But it is perfectly natural to be excited one minute and be sad the next.

I think I was less excited about going away to college because I genuinely had no idea what college or being away from home was going to be like. I didn’t know many people who attended and the ones I did know, I didn’t really know what kind of questions to ask. Also, because I knew I was going to miss my family, I stayed close to them as much as possible until it was absolutely time to part. Our family members tried to advise me. That last week before I went off to college was full of family visits and questions I could not answer. Since I was the first to go to college in our family, we were all new to this experience. I heard many warnings of “Be careful” and “Don’t worry — God will protect you”.

As loving as that was, I felt like I needed more. It’s evident to me that you need more too, more answers and more of an idea of what you are about to face. I don’t know what your experience will be like. That is for you to shape. But, I can tell you that we share an identity in common that could influence your experience: we are first generation Latina college students. Before going away, I had no knoweldge of those terms or what they meant together — “Latina” “first generation college” “freshman/freshwoman”. These terms mean that we share a common experience, not exactly the same, but certain things like not being excited about going away is one of them. I know this now. Back then, I started off being me, identified with “those terms” and then I settled into that identity. I write to you from this perspective. I probably will always write from this perspective.

“Did you find your passion in college?”
I think college both helped reveal what I was always passionate about and help nurture new ones. For example, I have always had an interest in race and continue this passion in my doctoral work today. Another passion that I was surprised to discover was my love for Latino culture. Choosing courses that shed light on Latino culture encouraged me to continue to fight for other Latino students to be exposed to similar work. This helped bring my grades up, boosted my confidence, and helped me begin a vocabulary that identified the issues Latino college students faced. I also always had an interest in dance. The opportunity to learn came randomly. My friend, a Black woman, became captain of the cheerleading team. When that happened, the white women all resigned and she was left without a team. She needed her friends then and without hesitation, we joined. This experience has influenced me in many ways – both politically and personally. I’ve been dancing and talking more about race and racism ever since.

“Everyone already seems like they are ahead, like they already know what they want – they worked in their families’ businesses, companies, restaurants over the summer. I feel left behind”

I went to school with people whose grandparents’ names were on buildings. The dorms I slept in, the hallways I walked through, the bench outside my professors’ offices, books that we read — at some point I met people who were closely affiliated to those names I’ve crossed mulitple times to get to class or to go to sleep. In many ways, I felt left behind too. They all seemed to know the popular music, faculty on campus, have worked in internships already and know what they wanted to do. They even knew how to discuss how ironic the word ironic is (true story). I was too focused on what I thought they had and not enough on what contributions I can make. I felt behind because I didn’t reinforce and expand what I already knew. Here are some examples:

1. Family Cultural Wealth – I learned this phrase as a graduate student when I read the book “Over the Ivy Walls: The Educational Mobility of Low-Income Chicanos” by Patricia Gandara. In it she describes the role that recounting family history played in the lives of Mexican-Americans who achieved doctorates. Your grandmother, my Tia Mercedes valued education so much, she was willing to send her children (your mother) away to school so that they received a better education. She used to get criticized for this. But Tia Mercedes was adamant that her daughters receive a formal education. Like my dad, your grandmother only attended up to the second grade. See your grandmother could have easily asked your mom and her sisters to help with the farm. She didn’t. She wanted a different life for her daughters and eventually her grandchildren (you). Family cultural wealth. We value education in our family. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that Latinos don’t value education.

2. “Don’t forget to speak Spanish”. — Indeed, this was one of the most valuable lessons my mother, gave me before she and my dad left me on campus. My mother’s initial fear for me going away was that I wouldn’t have anyone taking care of me. What will she eat, she thought? Where will she wash her clothes? When she came to campus on that first day I could tell she was terrified. My father verbalized some of what she was thinking “Who can I talk to in Spanish when my daughter is in trouble?” It was heartbreaking. I didn’t have any answers for them. So before she left, my mother said, “Don’t forget to speak Spanish.” I had no idea the significance then. But I understand now the importance of her statement. It is our link to our family. Our connection to our past. Historically, in the US, Latinos were banned from speaking Spanish in schools. Speaking Spanish, reinforcing it, getting better at it, was therefore a revolutionary act, cloaked in love. I will always thank my mother for that reminder.

3. Read about our history — I fell in love with the Young Lords, the Brown Berets, and the Black Panthers. I fell in love with Junot Diaz, Sandra Cisneros, Edwidge Danticat, Pedro Pietri, Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldua, and Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz. I fell in love with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Guayasmin, and Eduardo Kingman. They increased my Latino cultural wealth. They restored my Latina soul. They gave me an Ecuadorian direction. And I’ve been inspired ever since.

In other words, forget who is behind and who is ahead. Take note of where you are. Step by step. Moment by moment. What can you learn in that moment? Who can you talk to if you need that internship? Where can you go if you are looking for guidance? Get answers to those questions and start working on you.

Finally, I have some last words of advice:

Take pictures of your surroundings. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Pictures and literature are your best defense.

Sit at the front of the classroom. I would sit in the back and become distracted by what I saw. A sea of white kids. One Black student. One Latina student (me). Observations like these are good if you’re a researcher. But since you are there to study, and if you don’t want to be distracted by what you will inevitably witness outside of the classroom, sit in the front. On the occasion that you do want to observe what is happening in a classroom and all its race and class dynamics, go to a class on your free time and sit in the back.

When you hear a comment that you are not sure is racist or not, and you have the urge to say something, try putting it back on them by asking them questions. Things like “How so?” And “What evidence do you have for your statement?” are ways to make those people have to explain their negative comment. And you don’t have to sit there and try to figure out what they *actually* meant.

Be respectful to administrative personnel, maintenance staff, and cafeteria employees. Always say good morning, good afternoon, or evening. When you ask them how are you doing, wait for a response. I always think that they could have been my dad and hoped that someone would be kind to him. Secretaries know when professors will be in and out. Maintenance staff can help you locate items that you may need. And cafeteria employees may help you with getting good food! Above all, they may share with you their own stories, and add to your family cultural wealth. I say this because many of them became my family at Brandeis University. They inspired me with their stories. They were happier to see me than most faculty I knew. They would encourage me to keep going like they would their own children. And – some knew how to pronounce my name and help me never forget to speak Spanish.

I don’t know what your future holds, but if my story, and the countless other stories of Latinas/os in higher education are any indication, you my dear, shall be no different.

It is now your turn to create more family cultural wealth!

Pa’lante Latina College Freshwoman!

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