My Guilt As A First-Generation American Student

On move-in day my freshman year, my dad’s trusty cab escorted us from the South Bronx to Cornell. Upon our arrival, I felt like Marty McFly in “Back To The Future,” traveling to the year 2015 dressed in a way fit only for the ’80s. Jumping straight out of the time-machine, from some far-away land and into the golden present, I was embarrassed;I didn’t want the other kids with their fancy cars and U-Haul trucks to think this was actually our car — I didn’t want them to know that this was actually my dad. Designated parking areas didn’t help either. They unintentionally stratified families by car models like an auto show. Welcome to Cornell University.

My family would love this place. I used to wander around campus in awe of its beauty, especially Sage Chapel, the subtle smell of incense luring me in like Sunday mass at Cristo Rey. Despite me no longer believing in a higher power, in those moments I would desperately wish for a God and all of my aunt’s favorite santos to be real, just for her; if God existed the way that he does in her heart, I’d believe in him, too.

However, sometimes I’d forget my family. Ignoring their struggle used to be a shamefully blissful thing. They became reduced to mere voices on the end of the phone line, bouncing back and forth between satellites. After the first few weeks of being back in Cornell, my family then begins to exist as unanswered voicemails. When you have life as good as you have it here, you don’t want to know what’s going on back home. How could I not feel guilty, knowing that I have the comfort of going to Gannett Health Services when my health is compromised, but my family is reduced to waiting rooms, rude nurses and unsanitary facilities? I don’t want to know that your lungs are filled with water, that your heart is bursting with anxiety and that your back is plagued by a ceaseless pain.

At home, Cornell becomes a story of wonder, adventure and great success — through these stories, they have sat with me in the stacks at midnight, cheered me through my prelims and held me through my despair when getting up in the morning felt like peeling my back off my bed, the only thing that felt safe. They live off the countless chapters and plot-twists, and when the story finally ends, they crave for the words to be theirs, too.

I tell them everything they want to hear, from how beautiful the gorges are, to the opportunities available for students like me on campus, while sweeping the extra nuances under the rug — like how Cornell can always be better for students like me, and how being critical of a place that I’m so unbelievably grateful for, insisting on always challenging it, is misconstrued as ungratefulness by students who can’t even begin to fit into my shoes.

There will be times though, that I won’t be able to bring them along with me, not even through these stories. There’s no way for me to explain to them what a PhD is, what constitutes Human Development, what a minor is and why I have three of them — to explain to them my research (what is research) and the powerful pull that social justice has on me, all because of them. How do I really translate stereotype threat, oppression, internalized and institutionalized racism into Spanish so that they can understand the kind of hell that it’s been for my sister and me, and students like us, to graduate? I know now why we’re in the condition that we’re in, why we continue to remain in it, and what we can do to change it. How do I explain to them institutional racism, that I can see — that I can quantify — a monster that’s designed not to be visible to them; that I desire to study, critique and destroy this structural and institutional entity through academia. All they know of are doctors, lawyers and the proverbial Harvard. Cornell only became the “highly esteemed” Cornell University in my dad’s mind when a passenger flipped out after he told her why his daughter isn’t going to be home for the fall in 2013. And then he understood me — not all of me, but my essence — my power, and that it was all worth it.

When I graduate, I won’t be walking that stage alone. What I will have accomplished isn’t what demands a standing ovation; what my family will have done for us to finally take that walk together — to finally graduate, and to reap all the unimaginable rewards and benefits that having this title will present to me — for me to have a better life, is nothing short of magic. We survived, and after all, it’s only just the beginning.

Follow my friends and I at Cafecito con Chisme: Latinx Podcast for more on Cornell, Latinidad, resistance, y chisme. Also follow Oblivion Magazine for intercampus narratives written by, and for, students of color.

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