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Looking out the window, a red Mars greeted me. The rocky expanse of the Chihuahuan desert made me wonder how anyone could live in a place so devoid of water and life. It was my first time landing in El Paso.
While many of my friends were enjoying the beach or heading home for spring break, I decided to take a journey with my father to El Paso, Texas to learn about my family’s history. Growing up in Ohio, I was removed from the Hispanic culture that defined my father’s family and his life growing up. To be able to sit at one big table exchanging laughs, stories, and Spanish with my cousins did not surpassed my father’s retellings. To be there living it — that was something completely different.
The mountainous landscape dotted with adobe homes and pickup trucks felt more like Northern Mexico than America. My own prejudice of what “America” looked like included front lawns, burger shacks, country clubs, and “Anglos” as my cousins call them. That’s what I was used to seeing in the Midwest and the east coast. Yet El Paso was comforting to me in a way that I had never felt before. It seemed that family members and cousins were scattered everywhere. At the presidio and the panedería, our family was known just because of our last name. They even pronounced it correctly.
Over flautas, some good Texas barbecue, and an old George Strait record, I learned of my family’s past. Listening to stories about my grandparents and cousins gave me a newfound appreciation of the struggles they faced growing up in a small town founded in the 1500s on the border, where Spanish was spoken everywhere but high school. Somehow, amazingly, my grandparents were able to progress through hardship and secure a better future for themselves and future generations of the family. I am a product of their success.
Living in a predominantly “Anglo” town in southwestern Ohio, I grew up in a very comfortable bubble. I spent my weekends and summers playing catch with the neighborhood kids, got good grades in school, and somehow earned a spot at Harvard after working really hard in high school. Yet looking back, none of this would have been possible had it not been for the work of my grandparents.
Since the start of high school, I bought into the idea of focusing on differentiating myself from others: in school, in order to make friends, and in order to try and figure out what I was good at. However, I have realized that this mentality can lead to a feeling of loneliness, a result of convincing myself that I was the center of my own world. For a while, my identity had nothing to do with my family and where we came from. Some of that was because of where I grew up, and some of that was because I chose not to include it. I now acknowledge my family’s legacy as an integral part of my own story, and it now shapes the kind of person that I want to become in the future.
As Harvard students we especially fall victim to the negative side effects of a “self-improvement” mentality, with all the amazing opportunities for personal achievement at this institution. We seek out exclusive opportunities, friend groups, and comps. And we do it because we want to be “better.” Even student groups place an emphasis on performance, rather than fellowship and creating meaningful relationships. This hyperfocusing can become harmful when many of us somewhere along the line, are a product of a humble beginning. As students, we may find out that we have more in common after digging into our roots and realize the important part many of us play in our own family legacies.
Regardless of race, ethnicity, or skin color, those of us with humble beginnings share some kind of family miracle, where our relatives defied the odds and lived some version of the “American Dream,” even if it wasn’t in America. Many of our friends and classmates at the College are that miracle. For those of us who were fortunate enough to grow up in comfortable circumstances, finding our roots provides the opportunity to better connect with those who are trying to make a better future for their own families.
As people growing up in the maelstrom of an increasingly hyper-focused and self-gratifying world, we owe it to ourselves and our ancestors to dig a little deeper: to find out how we came to be, and to humble ourselves in the dreams we are living out for those who came before us.
George A. Arenas ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Grays Hall.
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