SANGER, CALIF. — I remember my father telling my grandmother that I was going to Harvard. I remember her dismay; why did I have to go so far away, why leave home? Ours was a simple family that has struggled for three generations to etch out a simple existence in a simple farm town. I remember him explaining that Harvard was "the Kennedys' school." That, she yielded to. Mexican grandmothers love their families, but they also love the Kennedys.
For the three dozen Mexican-Americans who enter Harvard each year, it is a leap forward, from immigrant to Harvard in two or three generations, a reaffirmation of the immigrant dream that in America, with hard work anything is possible. For me, as I consider the degree to which my ethnicity has permeated my education, it was also a leap inward, to settle questions of my own identity.
For those of us fortunate enough to live that dream, the adventure begins with an overstuffed envelope in our parents' mailbox. The Mexican community rallies around its hope for the future, as strangers up and down Main Street claim their portion of our success--"Hey, we made it!"--and offer sincere words of support. Inevitably, though, there is resentment, even hostility, from Anglo classmates for perceived "reverse discrimination." People with grades not as good as mine greeted my news with, "Well, if you hadn't been Mexican. . . ."
After sifting through stacks of literature espousing Harvard's "Commitment to Diversity," Chicano students begin to understand that ethnicity was a big factor in our admission. We assume that Harvard broke with its elitist tradition and accepted us into its ranks because it expected us to make a unique cultural contribution to the academic mosaic that it purports to have within its walls. Accordingly, from the moment we pass through Johnston Gate and onto sacred soil, we intend not to disappoint. We take on, as our part of the affirmative-action bargain, the responsibility to teach the white kid from Exeter what it is like to be "Mexican." Cautiously, we share with them tortillas from home. Shamelessly, we make up colorful (fictitious) stories about our experiences. ("Cesar Chavez? Sure, everyone back home knows Cesar.") We walk a certain way. We talk a certain way.
The cultural charade over which I obsessed for half my time at Harvard stemmed from my first ethnic identity crisis 15 years earlier, at a gray elementary school in a brown and white town. One day, I walked home from kindergarten and confronted my mother with the fundamental question. I remarked that there were some kids at school whose skin was white and others whose skin was brown. Mine, I noted was a confused shade of beige. Then and there, I demanded to know: "What am I?"
As children, my parents never had the luxury of wondering about such things. They knew, all too well, what color they were, and what was expected of them. In high school--the same one I attended--they were told by guidance counselors that Mexicans were "good with their hands" and that their future lay in the grape fields that still surround our small town like a fortress of low expectations. They saw friends and family members drop out of school without knowing how to read or write. They were told (and they believed) that those with light skin were naturally more intelligent than those whose skin was dark.
They determined to surmount that fortress, and they did. They were able to provide a middle-class life for their children. They committed themselves to making sure that we would not be infected by the cancers of racism, poverty and low expectation. They spoke to us only in English; they read to us, took us on trips outside the Valley, bought us books and computers that they couldn't afford. They told us that we could be anything in this world. And we believed them.
They also did their children a tragic disservice. They sheltered us not only from cultural stumbling blocks, but also from culture itself. With the best of intentions, they protected us from being "too Mexican" and instead left us confused about just how Mexican we really were. More than that, they denied us the intimacy of a language, a culture, and a people that are notoriously unforgiving of abandonment.
Years later and a world away, I woke up one morning in an ancient dormitory along the Charles River and studied the image in the bathroom mirror. It was a week before my graduation from the oldest college in the country. I had survived and prospered; my family was pleased, and back in California, strangers would stop me and express satisfaction that "one of us" had done what for their generation was impossible. Still, the face in the mirror asked, "What am I?"