I’m tired of having to explain to white folks that many people in my working class Mexican community cannot persevere no matter how hard they may try. I’m often met with this response: “But you did it!” which they seem to think is a compliment. It’s not. I consider myself simply luckier that many of the kids I grew up with.
I don’t want to be anyone’s token Mexican. I was lucky that pieces of my life were aligned in such a way that I was able to pursue my goals. Success doesn’t just happen, it’s a delicate recipe that requires certain ingredients to work. You can’t overcome the system when you’re not a part of it.
This American bootstrap mentality and rhetoric infuriates me. The idea that if you try hard enough, you can achieve anything is completely delusional. So often our environment entirely dictates what we’re allowed to do in this life. I remember teaching ESL to poor kids in the Dominican Republic, for example, and feeling terrible when some of them told me they wanted to be doctors. Their socioeconomic status was almost completely insurmountable. I could not imagine how they could possibly escape their poverty.
Though my childhood was less than ideal (i.e. growing up in a neighborhood with prostitutes and gangs on the corners), I had decent enough conditions to thrive. Unlike some of my peers, I was not undocumented, I was never hungry, and both my parents were present and encouraged education. I also had plenty of books, which was imperative to my development. Sometimes I think of how arbitrary our circumstances can be. Had I been undocumented, where would I be? What kind of life would I have? Where would I work? Lacking legal status when you are a child can unfairly determine the entire course of your life. This is why the failure of the DREAM Act is so inhumane and baffling to me.
Some of the kids I grew up with joined gangs because their parents were never home. They lacked a family, so they sought one out in the streets. Many young girls got pregnant as young as 14 because of sheer ignorance and lack of guidance. So many Mexican parents had to work brutal shifts at factories and were unable to properly care for their children. What exactly can be expected of a child who lacks basic resources, education, and whose parents are either absent or too exhausted to raise them well?
Though I attended a very troubled public high school school, I was fortunate that my test scores were high and I was put in advanced placement and honors courses. While I had some excellent teachers, many of my peers did not. Some of them were encouraged to pursue a vocation instead of a college education. Many trickled through the system with severely low reading levels. Those of us in the advanced courses were expected to go to college, though. We took the necessary classes to qualify, were given advice on how to complete applications, and were taken on trips to visit campuses. We were the chosen ones, the ones who were supposed to succeed.
Yes, I am a very determined person. I have overcome many obstacles (racism and financial hurdles, to name two). I have two degrees and many accomplishments to show for my hard work, but I don’t ever want to be used as an example of someone’s warped notion of the American Dream. And though I don’t at all feel like I’ve “made it” yet, if I had been born on the other side of the border, my life would be so much worse.
I’m tired of hearing people who have no idea what it’s like to be both poor and a person of color give advice on how to succeed in life. People’s lives are not that simple. Success depends on factors outside of our control. I’m also tired of being some sort of “well-speaking” model minority. I’m tired of hearing people insinuate that those who don’t excel are simply lazy. I’m tired of hearing that all children in this country are given the same opportunities. No matter how many times I hear it, that kind of ignorance will never fail to astound me.[Photo By leoncillo sabino]