Surviving Institutions That Weren't Created For You

Stressed businesswoman with head in hands at office desk
Stressed businesswoman with head in hands at office desk

Going away to college is both a source of pride and anxiety.

Your heart shines when Mama tells family members that you're going away to the best university in your state. Her smile makes you feel invincible. This is the reason why you don't tell her about the chunks of hair that fall out every semester you go back. You don't tell anyone for months about how the stress that stems from finishing assignments, being heavily involved, and trying to survive a predominantly white institution with your integrity still intact. Being the first in your family to go away to college will give you a set of survival skills no one understands.

No one tells you how to survive in institutions that weren't created for you. No one tells you how to navigate through buildings that are named after men that would have spat in your face when they were administrators. Your choices are limited: assimilate, drop out or fight like hell. Sharpen your nails on chalkboards that try to hide behind words like diversity, have white professors spilling out your history, acting like they know it better than you -- a child of the Diaspora, the product of what they're teaching. You're their Ph.D.

The realization leaves you stinging for days.

Assimilation was never an option. How could you leave behind things that you're proud of? How could you leave behind your accent, the loudness of your voice or the hood? You, with the curly hair and brazen attitude, would never fit in anyways.

Academia thrives off creating papers on people that look and sound like you. You fuel their research and paychecks, but you'll never be completely accepted. That is why there is a need to raze traditional academia to the ground and make sure that on the rebuilding, you are an ideological equal.

To the predominantly and historically white institutions, who have majors like Latino Studies, but refuse to see the difference between that discipline and Latin American Studies, we see you. Don't water down our history and identity, make it easy for y'all to chew. You can't swallow us. We've got too much lucha, too much conga, too much history, too many milagros, we've got too much for y'all. You pillage our national treasures, record our voices and leave them stored in archives that will rarely reach those that need them the most. You want academic writings, put our experiences into words that alienate our community. What does my research on Nicaraguan history matter if my family cannot understand it? Sell it to white academia and move on? I'd rather burn all my tapes. I'd rather burn all my papers. I'd rather white academia made the ethical decision to stop profiting and gaining accolades off the betrayal of Brown bodies.

But, we know how that goes.

To the predominantly and historically white institutions, who bring well-known Latinx speakers but have the audacity to stop student activism, we see you. To the predominantly and historically white institutions who have failed to hire and invest in their faculty and staff of color, we see you.

To the predominantly and historically white institutions, who allow white and rich students to silence, manipulate and demean students of color and then refuse to interfere and help, under the guise of it being a "student issue," we definitely see you. Y'all want our money after we're alumni, want our help promoting the school's brand, but wash your hands clean of our blood and tears.

To the college student who is on the verge of dropping out, to the college student who feels like they don't belong, to the college student who is about to give up -- hold your head high. You do belong, and it doesn't matter how long it will take you -- you will finish. One day, you'll graduate and show them that yes, we can. During my second year of college, I really wanted to drop out, come back home to Mama, and let her hold me. I wanted to run away because the more I realized that my institution served the idea of a student, the more I learned about institutional problems, the more distanced and hopeless I became. I decided to stop placing my values in their hands. It wasn't easy -- as a student with a full scholarship I felt indebted. How could I speak up and see the bad when I was so lucky? Why couldn't I just shut up and focus on the good? I still don't know where I got the courage from.

If academia really isn't really what your heart desires, that's okay too. Maybe there are things beyond your control that keep on making it impossible to finish, maybe you need some time off. Let me kiss your forehead and hands, we are in this struggle together. You are still important, that piece of paper can never define who you are. Together, we have a narrative and don't ever let anyone tell you that a piece of paper makes them worth more than you. Bendición. May your path be glorious. Let your feet soak in rivers of hope.