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I’ve often been in the middle.
My family is middle-class—as middle-class as you can get in America. My mother, the daughter of immigrants, went to college and got a bachelor’s degree, the first in her family to do so. My father, a Mexican immigrant, didn’t.
I’ve always been aware of labels—especially “first-generation,” with all its meanings. Does my background make me a first-generation American? Through my father, I have many of the experiences and stories that come with having a parent who directly faced the struggles of immigrating to and navigating this country.
But practically, I’m not first-generation. I've received many of the benefits of having a parent who was born here, speaks English, and was college-educated. It has made a difference in my upbringing, especially in my majority-minority, lower-middle-class Los Angeles suburb, where I often felt advantaged as compared to my peers. Many of my friends’ parents spoke only Spanish, Chinese, or Vietnamese. They were often the first to go to college in their families, relying on friends, the occasional older sibling, or teacher guidance in navigating the college admissions process.
But despite my mother’s experiences, my understanding of the college admissions process was not perfect. I ended up relying on many resources, especially as I made my way through high school. Friends and especially teachers often were the ones to recommend higher-level courses to me, suggest which tests to take, and which colleges to look at. In retrospect, I wasn’t all that advantaged in the college application process, because my mother and peers could not tell me everything I wanted and needed to know. For example, I did not visit many of the schools I applied to beforehand, Harvard included. I was often left alone to seek a path no one I knew had trod.
And then I came to Harvard, and I experienced what I thought it must be like to be less advantaged for the first time in my life. I had lived in a bubble—one where no one went to private school, people did not regularly vacation in Europe, and squash and sailing were not typical sports. My high school did not offer courses in computer science, much less Latin, ethics, or any of the courses commonplace in my peers’ transcripts. Even now, I still gape at some of my classmates’ backgrounds, their casual stories about skiing vacations, trips to the Cape, or far-flung gap years.
Even with a mother who was college-educated, who could tell me about experiences and mistakes she made growing up, I could not prepare for what Harvard presented. Like the child of immigrants who struggles to understand his place in society, I’ve often wondered where I stand in relation to others.
I wrote once about how different life and expectations are in my hometown, compared to at Harvard. Yet when I returned home last May, my mother chuckled after I used a certain word in conversation. I don’t remember the word, but it was sufficiently polysyllabic (though I thought it unassuming enough) for her to remark: “Every time you come back, you talk differently, and slowly, it goes away.”
And like that, the ice-cold feeling of falseness I thought I had shed crept back, consuming me. I was an imposter in my own home, in front of someone I had always known. It was something that had been growing for a while, but I hadn’t wanted to face it: I felt a different person in Massachusetts than in California.
A daunting question now crossed my mind: How could I reconcile the two worlds I walked? Would I choose one over the other? Would I halve myself, or merge?
Late one seasonably warm January night, I walked down the main street of Alhambra, California. A street band played songs in a diner’s open patio, which caught my attention. I tried to remember where I had first heard the song playing, when it hit me—it was from “The Fantasticks,” a musical I had discovered at Harvard.
I cast my mind around, and my thoughts landed in Cambridge, and Pforzheimer House, and the Charles River, and the Barker Center, and all the images that fill me when I think of my snowy home away from home. That late-night diner was so far away from it, and yet so close—a simple song could make those three thousand miles taper into a single vanishing point. In that moment, Cambridge and Los Angeles were one, and my memories were one—and I was one.
I got home, and stayed up late thinking about my two worlds. I understood now—I can, and have a right to, feel equally at home at both. I love both Harvard and home fiercely, for all they’ve given me. I do not have to give up one to accept the other. I can use what I learn in one to appreciate the other, for nothing exists in a vacuum. For those of us who struggle with belonging at Harvard, we need to be honest and comfortable with reconciling our many sides—we just need to be comfortable in the middle. We can only do that by finding the vanishing point on the horizon between our two worlds—sometimes as simple, and elusive, as a song.
Robert Miranda ’20, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House.
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