“I Am My Language”: Navigating College as a First Generation Undocumented Student


ext.-harvard-divinity-schoolAs first generation Latino college students, in the American education system we are taught things which many times contradict the world from which we come from, our customs or our beliefs. With its emphasis on individualism the system diminishes our communal life, and with its focus on Anglo-American national history it negates our right to belong. At the same time, the education system gives us the chance to fight for an opportunity, to pursue our academic and professional goals. When we are successful in making it to college, we come to have experiences to which a large part of our community has not yet been exposed to. As we learn new knowledge and listen to other ideas, we shape ourselves; our vocabulary changes, the way we perceive life may be altered, our vision of the world expands. In short, the fact that we attend college makes us different, at least in appearance, from the community that we come from (a community which most of its members did not have the opportunity to pursue a college degree – porque tenían que trabajar).

However, the world of education or academia to which we have entered does not fully accept us. Here too, we are different, and even if we do not feel like it we will be reminded that we do not fully belong. Our membership to the institution is challenged, no matter how smart we think we are, hablamos Español, we are from this or that town (El Paso, El Valle, Laredo), or simply put, we look Mexican (what they really mean is that we look Mestizo/Indio). Our right to belong is constantly questioned, with a look, with a comment, or without saying any words; we are just ignored as if we were not there. Therefore, we face a dilemma because we are strangers in both worlds. We experience our sense of belonging being challenged and we may come to feel as if we are not from here, not from there.

I must acknowledge that I do not completely identified with either world, but one thing I know, I want to be in both. I want to continue pursing education and at the same time stay close to my community. I want to pursue a PhD and become a professor, but how do I become who I want to be and yet stay humble and authentic, maintaining a true and real relationship to my family and my people? I think that our identities conflict, as Dreamers/Latinos/Chicanos/Mexican-Americans/First generation students, in the American higher education system should be seen not as a problem, but rather as a blessing, or to put it in secular terms, as an opportunity.

In order to solve this dilemma of being strangers in two worlds I believe that we must, as the apostle Paul said, “become all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9). I realized that I have to change my vocabulary, my conversation themes, and my accent (unconsciously) to communicate with different groups of people. I have to change my language and the language within my language. This realization became more apparent to me when I read Gloria Anzaldua’s work. She states, “I am my language. Until I can take pride of my language, I cannot take pride in myself” (Borderlands/La Frontera The New Mestiza). This means, in part, that language is constitutive to her identity. And by language she does not only mean English and Spanish, but the variations within one language. For instance, Anzaldua states that she speaks ‘Standard English, Standard Spanish, North Mexican Spanish dialect, and Tex-Mex.’ Since she is her language, and she speaks several languages, then she has several identities.

I am one when I speak Spanish at home, other when I speak Spanish to my friends, and I am someone else when I speak English at Harvard or A&M. These selves constitute my identity, or rather, are my identities. In other words, my identity changes as I change my language. However, I do not cease to be Alfredo when I change my identity based on who I am talking to, such as Paul did not cease to be a Christian when he “became all things to all men.” I express different identities as I navigate different environments. I adjust to the reality that is around me in order to communicate and relate with others. I am, as Virgilio Elizondo has stated, a new-being.

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Categories: Navigating college

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