In the summer of 2016, I decided to outdo myself by moving to Scotland for grad school. I like attention and I was the problem child in my family. This meant that I had residue of guilt for being troublesome, and wanted to let everyone know that I am the best. I couldn’t just go to grad school. I had to move to another country to do it. So I did (I'm also a Leo). After putting together an application and signing my life away to federal student loans, little ole me from South Central LA moved to the small city of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Now, before I go on, I want to add a note on the privilege I have. First of all, I was fortunate to have had a first degree before completing my application for grad school. I was a mess in high school, but had super supportive parents who went to parent conferences and learned about college applications and the process to obtain financial aid. Not a lot of immigrant parents learn this information. I also had loads of support from my older sister, who was a way better student than me, she was a valedictorian. Long story short: I managed to pull off a full ride to the University of Southern California right after high school.
When I started undergrad at USC, I told myself that the school did not define me. I did not want to be a conventional student who followed rules and went on to get a fancy job after college – that life sounded too pretentious to me and couldn’t have made me happy (it's true; after graduation, I tried the whole 9 to 5 thing and was miserable from day 1). I also understood that I would be among a lot of white people. Somehow in my young 18 year old mind, I got the idea that if I breezed past and pretended not to care about grades, the dominant number of white classmates wouldn’t overwhelm me. That tactic didn’t work; I cared about grades and ended up making white friends.
Nonetheless, I was still in a privileged position. There I was attending a private university, but when I would come home, it felt so weird to share this information with family and old friends. It felt as though the reason this was such a big deal was that I was in such close proximity to wealth and whiteness, even if the wealth and whiteness was not my own. Yet it was as though the ultimate goal was wealth and whiteness. I did not approve of this. Wealth and whiteness is the opposite of where I came from. It was as though these items were rejecting the Brown and working class I came from. It was as though there was no pride or value to these things that make up large fractions of my identity. Why was my own community placing so much importance on wealth and whiteness? The very things that constantly made me feel small and dumb within the college campus was being seen with bright eyes by my community. It is here where the conflict begins. It is here where I wondered how to handle the privilege of having access to higher education. I wondered what to do with this privilege and whether I can handle it at all.
Before undergrad, I never thought I had an accent. My parents are both Mexican and my dad has an accent when he speaks English. The typical “es” instead of “is” flows through his Mexican tongue when he speaks. I do not have this accent. However, somewhere during my college presentations, peer to peer interactions, and group assignments, someone pointed out the limits that my accent holds when I say certain words. Someone pointed out my accent.
Before undergrad, I had two ways of speaking: speaking with friends and speaking with adults in Spanish (I spoke to English speaking adults informally; it was the Spanish speaking ones that judged me for being rude). At some point, I got the idea that I needed to be taken seriously. I was not being taken seriously with the way I was speaking: loud, fast and truncated. I began to change the way I spoke, I to mimicked an exaggerated SoCal accent, aggressively throwing "I feel like" before my sentences.
The one thing I found the most frustrating was how inaccessible my education was to my parents. I found myself having trouble explaining my field of study to them. There were some complicated English words that I could not translate to Spanish. By the time I decided to go to grad school in another country, I had grown a thick skin that I was convinced would protect me from the bureaucracy and pretentiousness of higher ed. Although I also acknowledged that I was choosing to create an even larger gap between my education and my family. Before I left to grad school, my mom pointed out that she wouldn't be able to fly over to attend my graduation. I knew this when I applied. There were many parts of my grad school process that my parents were not at all involved with, not because they weren't interested, but because they were unsure of how to help. This only highlighted a power imbalance between me and my parents.
A few weeks ago, I attended my graduation ceremony and was unfazed as I saw other graduates with their parents and families. First of all, I had my beautiful queer family with me. Secondly, I knew that grad school would be the most rejecting of my family. Though I went in and grabbed that degree, I still cannot bring myself to claim higher education as a space where I belong. I do not want to belong in a world that made me redefine myself and created a power imbalance between me and my parents. My parents never attended high school, and here I was with an education that automatically recognized me as a respectable member of society. My parents struggled with the English language, and here I was preparing presentations and writing dissertations in proper English, academic vocabulary. In society's eyes, I am placed higher than my own parents just because I have two expensive pieces of paper that say I completed a university course. Higher education put me in a place so far removed from where I came from. By the time I sat and wrote the very dissertation that granted my Master's degree, I stopped taking things too seriously. In fact, I made it a goal to make everything look easy, as though higher ed never affected me, never screwed with me and my identity.
I was born into a culture that predestined me to never even consider college, to not touch the dainty white pages of text books with my rough, Brown hands. I used to sit in my writer's blocked mind and think about the transformation my parents' life took when they moved out of their pueblo. I used to motivate myself with reminders of the physical work my family members have done, and the fruit pickers' work in the fields. It was the work that people like me do, and work that I would never have to do. I would sit and listen to "Trabajador, Trabajadora" by Las Cafeteras on repeat. I had to bring the world I came from with me as I theorized and cited. It was an absolute privilege. My mom constantly tells me "Que soy preparada", that I am prepared, that I am trained, and educated. I've never busted her bubble and revealed how difficult and ridiculous the experience was for me.
I always tell myself that I am too punk rock for university, but obtaining my degrees have also been the most punk rock thing I've done. I'm the girl who wore nothing but chains, fishnets, and bright pink boots to her USC graduation. I'm the girl who twirled across the stage and had people scared that she'd kiss the principal of the university at her Edinburgh Uni graduation. The most relevant thing higher ed taught me was that most spaces in this world seek to deny me entry, but I can, and should, bring myself everywhere I go. Brown baggage and all.