By ELIA MORELOS
My homegirl called me up on FaceTime a few days ago—first time I had seen her face in months—and asked me how I have been dealing with New York and if I had lost my mind yet.
Shit’s rough out here, bro, I said, laughed, and we moved onto whatever news was going down in the Pacoima. Two thousand miles away from Ithaca, friendships are fading, couples are expecting children, friends are being swallowed alive by the workload that they’ve taken on, and my brother is entering high school. My friends and I cover the insecurity that brewed within us upon entering college by laughing, making fun of how rough our essays are coming out or how badly we bombed our tests the other day. When my brother calls, I never tell him about how things are shaping up out here. I don’t mention how many times I’ve bit into my tongue clean during class, tasting the copperness of pennies, to stop myself from saying something that would incriminate me, isolate me, make it clear that I was not the other students around here. I don’t describe how much my stomach dropped first semester when I realized the small differences that accumulated beyond what part of the Valley we’re from, but also how much money our parents made, if we can afford that plane ticket back home for break, and if we went to public schools or not. I want him to apply to college, so I tell him about how interesting my classes are, how beautiful the weather is out here, how much I miss them back home, how I keep exploring new interesting places around campus.
Something never sits right with me, though.
How do you explain to someone how it feels like to not belong in a place that accepted you and to not belong in the place you come from? To say that you worked your whole life to get here and that you’re ready to move back at any given time, if it weren’t for how stubborn you were, or the fact that this is your only way out? To know that people back home and back at the rancho think you’ve forgotten where you come from, who your gente are? To know relatives believe you’ve forgotten the language that connects you to your mother, your father, your abuelos, tios, tias, primos, tu propia cultura? El asco you must feel at the taste of rice and beans with your newly acquired tastes?
Back home my mom can count the amount of people that tell her that she’s blessed. They say she’s lucky she doesn’t have to deal with bad kids, kids who don’t care about education, because education is number one in her home. And this much is true. I enrolled in preschool earlier than was allowed, doubled up on ESL classes so I would stop stuttering over simple words other students would understand, took on too many advanced courses to fill up the gaps I had in high school, spent my summers at the community college twenty minutes away from me instead of sleeping in. And I looked real nice when I did that like the students on those brochures advertising college to poor Latinx students trying to make it out of the barrio and into gringolandia. However, when they told my mom that she should thank la Virgencita and Jesucristo y San Juditas for making sure we followed the right route, they placed a label onto my being that I’ve seen on others coming from similar backgrounds, all trying to make it to an out-of-state school. With this label, the only thing that was visible was that I took more than ten AP classes and that I volunteered at X and Y on the weekends. The only thing visible was that I got accepted to some good schools — no one could see years of classism behind me, years of discrimination behind me, years of teachers and friends and adults all around telling me that college was a lost cause for me because, honestly, children of Latinos and children of immigrants don’t make it to college.
But it happened. I wrote my common application essay, copy and pasted, expanded on a few thoughts and sent them out. The acceptance first came in a nice email, then in a nice folder. I visited the campus, got lost in between the store and the slope, saw the gorges, and was ready to sign off on the next four years right then and there. Didn’t matter that I was moving from a city with eighty-one thousand people to one with thirty thousand, or that the shops around here were less commercialized than the ones back home, or that the cars speeding down University Ave were BMWs. Back in Pacoima it’s puro Dodge and Toyotas, the slickest cars I’ve ever known, fresh paint on them and the bumpers shining. Some looked so run-down they should be in a junkyard, pero their radios still worked beautifully, playing different corridos y bandas. I never posted it up on Facebook, never even wore that Cornell 2021 shirt until the summer. I didn’t want to be proud of something that could still be taken away from me, even as I signed the housing contract and woke up late to pre-enroll into my classes over the summer. I guess it just felt like someone was playing a joke on me and that one day someone was going to pop out laughing, and I didn’t want to be on the receiving end.
Coming to a campus so far away from home was bound to be a shock for me. Hell, even driving to Granada Hills or Burbank continues to be a reality-check: seeing how quick the roads become nicer, how greener it all looks, how upright and neat and big the houses are once you cross that district line, how my mom rolls up the windows so no one hears the voice of Irma Serrano crooning when she picks up my brother at his predominantly white school. She tells me, mija, cuando ya te gradúes, solo voy a poder hablar en inglés en esos rumbos. When you graduate, I’ll only be able to speak English around those parts. And being at Cornell felt like holding my breath for the longest.
It’s hard for me to encapsulate how I feel in a few words, but it is easier for me to do it in Spanish. It reminds me of the streets back in Pacoima, where Spanish flows from our tongues with fickleness, not as fluent or assured as the tongues of our parents and our aunts and uncles, but surer of themselves than that of a non-speaker. It muddles itself with English and reminds us of how white-washed our roots have become, how close we feel to Mexico or Guatemala or the Dominican Republic, pero how alienated we feel at the same time— spread across the US with some sort of skewed identity, still tied to the lands that our ancestors hailed from but so far away from them as well. Spanish is a reminder of when my brother and I would chase down the elotero after school, the sun beating against our backs and a few quarters to our names, putting cheese on our Flamin’ Hot Cheetos after school, filling ourselves up with tamales and pozole and other delicacies our family makes in abundance come Christmas, stuffing our oven with pots and pans to get rid of the clutter.
Estoy cansada, I tell my mom almost every time she calls.
Pues, de todo.
It’s easy to think that you, a first-gen-applicant, got anywhere that’s out of the barrio by luck or even by the boxes you check off. Even easier to think this way when you have everyone on sites like CollegeConfidential and Facebook saying that one or two Latinx and Black students that get into a decent college is by luck, like their name was picked out of a hat; they don’t shed light on what these students powered through or ask if their mental health reached a limit but they had to keep it under guise because if you pray enough, you’ll relax. My mom tells me make the best of what’s happened. It doesn’t matter if you think you belong here or not—you’re here, so that’s that. When I fly back in three weeks, I’ll meet up with my friends who spread themselves across California to study to open more doors than their parents are able to, and we’ll let the sweltering sun lick our skin as we take in the sound of roaring traffic in the freeways next to us, the ringing bells of the paletero selling his raspados y elotes to the neighborhood kids, and the next summer hits, ignoring the weight of summer jobs and summer internships and our first-year GPAs. I’ll fold these memories up, put them in my Snapchat Memories, store them in my phone’s camera roll and my computer’s drive, and look at them when I feel that same feeling creep around next year; I’ll remind myself that I already paid more than a thousand dollars to get here just in plane rides, that the TCAT feels somewhat similar to the Metro, regret those late nights at Uris. I’ll find some new memories to put in my library so that one day I can melt the memories I have of home with the memories I have here and feel an inkling of belonging.