I am a Mexican-American, so naturally, Spanish is my first language. By the time I was three years old, I had quickly picked up the English language through watching Sesame Street and Barney & Friends religiously. Education came easy for me, partly because my mother is a teacher and from a young age, she would always have me read books. I never objected because I loved reading and learning.
In first grade, I quickly excelled in reading, so I would be taken out of my bilingual classroom and be placed in an English-speaking classroom for an hour each day. Third grade came and I was no longer in a bilingual classroom, but an all English-speaking one. I felt as if I were in limbo because my English wasn't perfect, and at the same time, my Spanish was becoming rusty because I wasn't immersed in it daily anymore.
I vividly remember being made fun of because of this. Kids would laugh at me because I could not speak Spanish or English "correctly." I obviously did not want the teasing to continue, so I subconsciously made the decision to lose my "Mexican" accent and pretend like I didn't know how to speak Spanish very well.
Being a top student in school was extremely important to me, so throughout middle school and high school I would do my best to achieve just that. At the same time, I would see my Latino peers struggling in their English as a Second Language classes. Most of them were living in poverty or were not citizens, and would express how they would never be able to attend college, so why bother doing well.
Instead of encouraging them and showing them how we Latinos can succeed, I separated myself from the group. I didn't want to be identified as a Latina because I didn't want to be mistaken as an ESL student, as if that were something to be ashamed of. I wanted people to see me as a successful, bright student who had a future and would one day go to college.
With this mentality, I never was grouped together with my Latino peers. People didn't even identify me as a Latina, and if they did, I would be called a "white" Mexican. At the end of my high school career, I was top 10 percent and had been accepted to a university. But I had completely lost my Mexican roots, culture and I felt ashamed for being ashamed of who I was.
I wouldn't make that same mistake in college. The second I stepped on my campus, I knew I was one of the few Latinos there, and that was extremely discouraging. That observation, however, changed my mentality of trying to climb to the top and not worry about who was left behind. Instead, it motivated me to embrace the few Latinos on campus and see them as my brothers and sisters. We all had a common goal: earn a college degree.
My mentality growing up was 100 percent unacceptable and I hope that no one ever feels ashamed of where they come from. We Latinos have to stick together and help each other achieve our dreams of earning a higher education. I am blessed to have graduated college in four years, but it is now my turn to take what I have learned and show the Latino community that they too can dream big.
Today, I help out in an after-school program with at-risk kids and a majority of my students are Latinos. I want to redeem myself for all of the years I didn't spend encouraging my Latino peers to pursue their dreams. Because I am fluent in Spanish, (and not afraid to show it) I can easily communicate with my ESL students and help them with their homework. But most importantly, I can be their mentor and show them that if they work hard, they too can become a Latino college graduate.