Finding the Middle: The Dual Identity of a Modern Latina
During my lunch break at one of the most prominent federal agencies in the country, I stare out over the high rises of San Francisco’s Financial District and reflect on my life and how I’ve gotten to where I am today. Rewind nearly ten years and you’d find a seventeen year old me; thoughtful, hopeful but severely insecure and afraid. At the time I don’t think I even knew how terrified of the world I was. It’s at this point in my life where I began a journey, a journey that ends with me sitting at in this office, only months away from graduating from one of top ten law schools in the world.
At seventeen I left my home in Artesia, Ca to move to Santa Barbara, Ca (“SB”) – when I say Santa Barbara I really mean Isla Vista (“IV”), the small college town where the students of the University of California, Santa Barbara (“UCSB”) mainly reside. Now I didn’t go to SB because I was admitted to UCSB. Oh, no, no, not me, not at this point in my life. I went because – note that this realization took me years to discover – I felt out of place with my family at home. My parents had divorced a few years earlier and when my mother remarried, I felt like an outsider in my own home. So, when my boyfriend at the time suggested I move to SB, I jumped at the opportunity to potentially go off and start my own family. I enrolled at Santa Barbara City College (“SBCC”) and began the journey that would shape the rest of my life. Now although this would seem like an exciting and happy time in my life – finally off on my own with a loving and loyal boyfriend – this time in my life was actually defined by depression and a crisis of my identity. I had never felt this type of inner turmoil before and I have never felt it again since.
My boyfriend was white, male and enrolled at UCSB; a school that in 2007 had over 50% white students and continues to have a significant majority of white students. I was a Latina, born to immigrant parents, a father who had never even gone to middle school and a mother who struggled in order to receive the highest education in my family thus far – an AA from community college. Without knowing it, these facts colored my identity and my attitude about where I belonged and who I was. Enrolled at SBCC, I felt that statistically this is where someone from my background would be and perhaps the whole world agreed that this is where I belonged. I struggled with how to live in a world and system run by white culture. Most of my values, culture and ideas on family were not shared by those around me. I remember feeling that my boyfriend treated me like John Smith treated Pocahontas. Like a savage that needed help navigating the “civilized world” of higher education. In some ways, he was right, I was never exposed to this world and no one had ever taught me what to expect out of school or even out of myself.
I recall the voices whispering in my ear during this time. My boyfriend’s mother, “you know B, there are other spicy Latinas with big boobs do you have to pick this one, she’s not even in college.” As much as I now hate to admit it, I took these types of comments to heart. My father: “Meli, you have green eyes and light skin, tell people you’re white and they’ll respect you more.” Advice coming from a good place but so wrong. The SBCC admissions lady, “you took a math placement test at another community college? Well, that doesn’t count here – this school is for students who want to go to UCSB, you know UCSB, the university? We have higher standards.” I won’t force upon you all the details about the racism I experienced sporadically throughout my time in SB – the hollers of boys claiming it’s refreshing to have “color” in IV, the suspicious stares from people who heard me pronounce “El Colegio St.” without an English accent, and the reminders from my boyfriend that I’d never get far with my “over-attachment” to my family. What really matters is the person I became in spite of all this.
After a few months in SB, my psychological pot was boiling over. Who am I? Who do I want to be and is that even up to me? Should I pretend to be white? Should I bring up cultural differences in casual conversations or will people give me that suspicious look? Is my boyfriend’s mother right; am I nothing more than a weight on the shoulders of her accomplished son? At this point I had to sink or swim … and I did not sink. I got angry. Not at my boyfriend, my friends nor white culture but at myself for underutilizing and underappreciating my strongest asset – my own culture and diversity. This realization changed everything. I decided that my culture is not to be hidden but to be used to my advantage. My parents never got BAs and were not professionals, but they had work ethic, dedication and true passion. These are people that risked their lives to come to this country in order for me to have a chance at a better life. What greater inspiration could I have? What better mandate to succeed is there?
I began to focus intensely in community college; I moved back to Artesia and enrolled at Cerritos Community College. Two years later I became the first person in my family to be admitted to a four-year university; and not just any university, my dream school, the University of California, Los Angeles (“UCLA”)! At UCLA I found organizations that were dedicating to empowering first generation and Latino students. I listened intently and continued the battle with my identity. I am American, born here and proud, but I am also Latina. I felt pressure to major in Chicano Studies and enroll in a PhD program but that was not my identity either. I am “the middle.” The new generation of Latinos that exist in our country – immigrant parents and strong cultural ties but at the same time defined by our American-ness and shaped by its culture. I found a way to both embrace my Latina identity but also live my American dream. I became a political science major with a concentration in American Government and by my senior year I was admitted to one of the best law schools in the world – Berkeley Law.
At Berkeley I became a leader in the La Raza Association and the La Raza Law Journal. I participated in the formation of a new student group, The First Generation Professionals dedicated to finding first generation lawyers to be role model/mentors for minority students. But I also pursued my interests outside of my identity as a Latina. I did not study immigration law or choose to do public interest – which would provide a means to directly work with Latinos and other minorities in my community – but instead chose to concentrate in business law and recently accepted an offer to work at one of the largest law firms in the country. I feel that I am affecting my community in a positive way simply by existing in a sphere where Latinos are hardly represented. I no longer resist the duality of my identity or feel ashamed for not choosing one identity over the other. I no longer struggle or hide from who I am but embrace it and use my life as an example of what it means to be Latino-American today.
Now, my two younger siblings have become students at UCSB. Their presence there has reclaimed Santa Barbara for me. I am not a Latina seductress without any prospects in life, far from good enough for a UCSB student – as my boyfriend’s mother had defined me – I am a UCLA graduate, scholar of the law, older sister to two UCSB students, a business woman and a Latina. I have worked for District Court judges, federal agencies and mega-law firms. I do not mean to suggest that human value exists merely in jobs, money or prestige but these experiences have shaped who I am, and next week, when I got to visit my siblings in SB, I’ll go to the spot by the cliffs where I once pondered my existence, but on that day, unlike ten years ago, I will know myself and be proud.