Ruben: When I arrived on campus more than two years ago, I realized quickly that I did not belong. There’s no romantic way of saying this. I was one of only a handful of Latinx students in a 75-person class marketed as an introduction to the humanities. My finances gave me anxiety as I juggled a part-time job with an academic workload beyond anything I’d attempted before. I was strung between two worlds—Harvard and home were further apart than simply the 3,000 miles I’d trekked to get here.
Zoe: When I was little, I would listen to Spanish beautifully and effortlessly flow from my grandparents’ lips. When I would see them, I would do my best to mimic the songs they were singing, trying to roll my r’s and remember to make the “y” sound for “ll.” At the age of five, I hadn’t yet been taught to be embarrassed. I can only remember panicking when my grandma yelled for the escoba and I brought her a pan, only to find out she wanted the broom. I could feel sentences forming in my mind when I saw her, with the holes remaining unfilled by the words I had never been taught.
Ruben: My U.S. citizenship grants me privileges. It allows me to travel from the United States to El Salvador with relative ease. I have to pay $10 for a tourist card, because although I travel there every two years and and have dozens of relatives in the country, it’s not considered my “legal” home. When I visit my Abuela Carmen, whose home sits between tropical trees and gleaming green leaves, I tell her that I’ll see her soon. And because international mobility is not treated as the human right it should be, telling Abuela that I’ll see her again is a privilege.
Last week, I bought a book of poetry by Javier Zamora, a Salvadoran-American poet who crossed the Mexico-U.S. border at nine years old. In the opening poem, Letter to Abuelita Nelli, he writes, “I can’t go back and return. There’s no path to papers. I’ve got nothing left but dreams.” The ability to cross borders is a privilege afforded by the trivial circumstances of my birth.
Ruben: You’re a senior in high school and your hands are shaking because you’ve just opened the admissions portal to see that you’ve been admitted to Harvard—or, as all your relatives pronounce it, Járvar. You jump on a plane from Los Angeles, Texas, or Florida, and land in Boston. It’s way colder than you’d imagined, but your shining smile and the glow from your brown skin make it bearable. This place is the place for you: You’re sure of it.
Zoe: I had a big dream. It was a dream that my family had never dreamed before: I wanted to go to college and, better yet, I wanted to leave the state that had been my home my entire life. I wanted to be all of the dreams my single mother could never realize. I wanted to be those classes she didn’t get the chance to take and the success she could have had if she had been zoned to a better school in a zip code whose residents didn’t have an 8% college graduation rate. I was the hope for a future that was going to be different. I didn’t cry when I opened that admissions packet, but I have cried since I got here.
Zoe: The lessons began before I even hit puberty. They came in the form of comments to cover up a body that was quickly transforming into something that could attract unwanted male attention. Attention, I was taught, wouldn’t come if I acted like a proper lady. I was warned to expect eyes on my body, crawling like bugs up and down my limbs, taking without permission. No amount of clothing layered on top of skin seemed to be enough to prevent the violation I would feel. Violation that would keep my heartbeat racing, my steps moving a little bit quicker, my eyes shifting to the ground, and sending prayers that somehow I would become invisible. I learned through firsthand experience that it didn’t take much for a gaze to become hands touching without consent. It was the first time I realized part of my being a woman meant always anticipating what a man around me might do next, it meant living, without choice, in a machista world.
Ruben: I was thirteen years old and my body was changing. I had to start wearing deodorant and was convinced that my brain was broken because I couldn’t stop thinking about that girl in my class. The awkward videos about how puberty worked started to make sense. I’d barely left childhood—although most men act like children until at least their early 30s—but I was suddenly bombarded with questions about my sex life. Sometimes they came from sweaty, brown-skinned teammates whose grossly explicit fantasies about smashing girls hinted at an upcoming lifetime of violent masculinity. But, much more often, the questions were implicit and from family members. They’d ask if I had a girlfriend, make suggestive comments when I said I didn’t, and treat me like I was a full-fledged, girl-crazy, conquest-prone, machista adult before I even knew what a blowjob was. Machismo was thrust upon me like an old coat, one that I wore because it was bequeathed even though it fit uncomfortably.
Ruben: Porque esta phrase está escrita en Español, la mayoría de nuestros compañeros tendrán dificultades entendiendo. Pero, that’s the belleza of it. Growing up in a household where my mother spoke mostly Spanish and my father spoke both Spanish and English, I learned the beautiful duality of Spanglish. It was an entirely new language, one born in the borderlands, one birthed of American military involvement in El Salvador, and one that is sweeter than any other language I’ve tried to learn. But, aunque ahora no me sorprende, I’ve learned that it makes people uncomfortable at Harvard.
Zoe: We were in a place shrouded in shadows, the lights were dimmed—it was almost time. Happiness. I can only remember un sentimiento completo de felicidad. We were in a room mixed con gente de culturas diferentes, but dominated by the majority—white space, white place—como un mar de gringos con specks de color. I started with a story in the language que quería hablar, el idioma de mi cultura, de chisme. “No puedo creer que eso ocurrió...” I told Ruben with a smile, as our event hadn’t started just yet. “Hey!” I turned to look at this girl, my friend, una sonrisa lista, about to ask her what was up. “English only, please,” she said authoritatively, aggressively. My face fell, my heart racing. Silencio. No pude responder.