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.
Ruben: I have 39 cousins—my sisters and I counted when I was home last winter break. We got through the cousins living in the United States pretty easily. They were counted on the hands my youngest sister held up. Ten slender, brown fingers. The rest of our cousins live in El Salvador, and most of their educational goals fall by the wayside when there’s livestock to be fed and farms to be tended to. To them, Harvard is nothing but a hollow, insignificant name of some university in the United States.
Zoe: When I was in the third grade, I’d catch the school bus down the street at 5:45 a.m. when the sky wasn’t even thinking of brightening to welcome a new day. I’d travel for an hour and a half with the sun rising behind us as we ate up miles upon miles of black asphalt on freeways that, like the yellow brick road, would end in a completely different place from anything I had ever known. My own Oz was a school for gifted and talented students, dominated by white and Asian upper-middle-class residents on the west side of town. To say it was different from the predominantly Latino and low-income elementary school I was zoned to on the east side is an understatement. Despite the fact that Houston had a sizable Latino population at the time, I was the only Latina in my entire grade for three years before I got to middle school.
Ruben: During recruiting season, it seems like everyone at this college wants to work for Goldman Sachs. You’ll see people who study economics, history and literature, or government, dressed in business formal wearing the name tag from their recruiting event like a badge. And, if you look hard enough, you might find those who don’t want to go into finance or consulting, so maybe they’ll shun Goldman Sachs in favor of a humble career in medicine, law, academia, or journalism. But I feel so detached from even those people because they feel entitled to a professional career in a way that I frankly just don’t.
Zoe: When I was in middle school, my mom told me I should be a lawyer, because I was so great at arguing with her. I didn’t think much of it; lawyers were the sort of people that showed up on my TV when I was flipping through the channels. They were the actors on Law & Order, the people who never looked like me: typically male, sometimes of color, but never Latina. College was the first time I ever walked on a law school’s campus, the first time I met real-life law school students. Nevertheless, the beautiful rooms of the Law School Library only brought newfound anxiety as I realized I had no clue how to get there, how to eventually make it to a courtroom, defending people who deserve to have their rights protected.