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.
R: Eventually, I found the Latinx community on campus. Fuerza Latina meetings almost felt like home. The classmates I met there understood what it meant to be the only brown face in a white place. They worked ten or more hours per week. Spanglish slipped from their lips, naturally and unapologetically, the way I wished it would come from mine. So I desperately wanted to be a part of their club, one that prioritized melanin over whiteness and stories of struggle over those of wealth.
Z: By 11, my Spanish was as broken as my hope I would be able to speak it fluently one day. As the token Latina of my majority-white middle school on the nice side of town, I received the nickname “Dora” when I cut my hair short. I was considered the sole representative of my poor, tanned community, an expert in all things Latinx. They didn’t know how much of a fraud I truly was, coming from a place that equated speaking Spanish with being Latina.
R: Yet, as desperately as I wanted to belong, I did not feel authentic. I soon realized that a large portion of those involved in the Latinx community—and the majority of people who’ve led the Latinx organizations in recent memory—have been first-generation students on full financial aid. I myself am first-generation and Harvard was my cheapest option for college after I received substantial financial aide. But because my income level was above that deemed low-income, I felt as if I was intruding on a space that wasn’t mine.
I felt that the authentic Latinxs, the proper heirs to those spaces, were those who grew up in communities where almost everyone was Latinx. I went to a high school that was over 60 percent Asian American, and the majority of Latinx people I knew were my extended family members. I did not fit into what I’d convinced myself was the archetype for a Harvard Latino. When I imagined an authentic Latino, I did not picture the bitter brown boy in the mirror.
Z: “Aren’t you ashamed? How can you consider yourself Mexican?” someone asked me after finding out I couldn’t speak Spanish. I stayed silent, because I was ashamed of feeling like a failure because of the words I never learned and the sentences I always messed up. “That’s not how you say that,” my family would tell me. I could hear the American accent transforming my words from authentic to outsider, when my tanned skin should have meant I was the real deal instead of a disappointingly false advertisement. It was only reinforced with every person who looked at me with a confused face when I had to explain why I didn’t understand all of the words they’d say, a face that was accompanied by the silent question, “how, if you look like that?” I spent my entire life being stripped of my Latinidad with an intensity that often came from other Latinxs who couldn’t conceptualize that my cultural identity wasn’t founded in being taught how to speak the language perfectly. When I thought of a true Latina, I didn’t think of myself.
Z+R: A quick look at the Latinx community here at Harvard exposes the lies we’ve all been taught. Black, native, and Asian Latinx students have a right to embrace their identity. Whether a student speaks English or Spanish or Portuguese, they have an equal stake in Latinidad. Those who seek to police our community have failed to learn that the Latinx identity is not something that fits into a box or a neat list of descriptors.
The next time you wonder if you’re Latinx enough, or authentic enough, remember: You are. You are. You are.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. Zoe D. Ortiz ’19, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. Their column usually appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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