Opinion

Parting palabras: A Chicana’s Macalester Reality

Four years here and I am grateful, blessed really, to have learned so much, met so many inspiring people, and accessed so many resources. I have met those who will remain lifelong friends and mentors, and had more Grille mozzarella sticks than are humanly healthy. But while I have come to appreciate the opportunities of Macalester, I have also become aware of its shortcomings, its failures, its grey areas. This is a letter to all you who love Macalester, hoping that this positive feeling will not blind you of the realities this campus presents to a Chicana from East LA.

From East LA to Ontario, the first 17 years of my life stretched across more geography that I could have ever imagined growing up in Southern California. After my father died when I was five, I went from two “conventional” parents to three unique, inspiring ones—my single mother, my brother (ten years my senior), and my sister (seven years my senior). Thereafter, my childhood crossed more barrio borders than my siblings’ and found home in no single neighborhood as my familia raised me, nurtured me, educated me. My mother commuted hours in LA rush hour as a children’s social worker; my brother took a school bus across town to Marshall H.S. to attend “apparently” the best disabled students’ program in the district; my sister took three Metro buses to go high school in Burbank; and a family friend would pick me up at elementary in Highland Park and drive me to the rec center free-after-school program in Glassell Park. To eight-year-old Chelita, this was the epitome of travel and the extent of my mundo.

Flash forward eight years and there I am on the quad at O.H.S. talking to some friends one year older than me about the c-word: college. You laugh, but it really was this mystifying concept to me. My mother always encouraged me to go: “Chela, go to college, always pursue your education,” yet I never really knew what that meant or how to do it. I didn’t even always know if I would go, as I spent the first years of high school imagining my future as a musician. When that light-bulb moment hit me, most colleges on my radar were within a 50-mile radius and begun with a UC or a CSU or ended with a CC. That lonche charla with my girlfriends fue la primera vez que escuché de un “liberal arts college,” all because they joined a college-access program. “They look expensive but that’s cause they have way more money to give you. It’s like a trick.” From that moment on, I committed myself to going to one of these trickster schools to finance my educación, which meant leaving the homeland, leaving the familia.

My family repeated two things two me as I prepared to move to Minnesota, “You’re going to freeze your butt off!” and, “mija, there’s a lot of white people over there.” In the past four years, I have found, indeed, that both are true. This is where my world travel comes in; I had never felt below 55 degrees and never had the experience of being the only Mexican (let alone Latina, let alone person of color) in the room, like ever. My Macalester reality is inextricably linked to my journey here, to a land I knew nothing about but that also knew nothing about me, a land in the upper Midwest and in the few-block-parameters of 1600 Grand Avenue.

Recently, Mac alum Daniel Vidal Soto wrote a Mac Weekly piece describing his experiences of feeling tokenized. To all of you who were pissed off and offended at such radical sentiments and felt the need to relive your frustrations aloud, obnoxiously, and perhaps unknowingly right next to me in the HRC, library etc., let me say that tokenization is real and it is endemic on this campus.

As one of few [email protected] students at Mac, I cannot count the number of times white students have perceived my body as a human Rosetta Stone. As we meet for the first time, the interaction usually goes,

Hi, I’m _____

Hi, I’m Isela. what year are you?

oh! EE-SAY-Lah! yo hablo espanol. en que grado eres?

I’m a senior. you?

more insistent lines in Spanish

Within a few seconds, this person manages to stop seeing me as a person, as someone worthy of meaningful conversation and begin to see my body as a sort of battery-operated dictionary/ translator. An electronic that, when not responding as expected, can be pushed, shaken, and talked into operating correctly. For clarity, I do not mean that I reject or have ever rejected speaking Spanish, as it is one of the many tongues my family speaks, nor do I dislike conversing in Spanish with [email protected] folks. I do mean that I cannot stand the feeling of being posited as a linguistic arcade game, in which my body and my tongue become a fun “quiz” for Spanish brownie points for people who do (not care) to know me. Similarly, I have felt increasingly uncomfortable in predominantly white Hispanic Studies courses in which students stare at me confused as to why a Brown body would occupy that space, ignorant of this country’s continuing practices of linguistic terrorism towards immigrants and their children. And then professors wonder about my silence in these classes.

Speaking of the classroom, we should stay away from trivializing those token moments. The “token,” a symbol of money, always links to institutional power. Mac has tokenized the diversity of its student body and insufficiently created a campus environment that supports students of color and students with non-normative histories. Where is the institutional support for students who are not just from out-of-state, but who cannot afford to go home and visit during breaks nor during times of ill-health or family crisis? Where is the institutional support for these students who must on their own negotiate this tension in home life and school life? As one of these students, Mac has focused on getting these students here through admissions but not to supporting their academic success.

The few spaces and people that have supported me include the Dept of Multicultural Life, professors in American Studies, mis [email protected] in Adelante, and some friends. But the situation remains that even with these few spaces, I have still felt marginalized and still felt as though my success is not valued at Mac. Yes, I did receive two awards granted to graduating seniors and I am incredibly honored. Though at a large level, I have often felt the pressures of this college’s unrealistic expectations to strive for academic excellence and “serve the community.” The reality is that “community service” to me is not about “helping” a group of people who are victims, but about being part of the liberation of the community that raised me and fought for me to get to Macalester in the first place. So when it comes upon a stressful time of the academic semester at the same time vital legislation that impacts my community is on the Senate table, I find it frustrating when people tell me to “prioritize” one over the other. When the Prosperity Act is being voted at the Capitol during a class, I cannot easily say that I will not attend the hearing because of its implications for my community. Simultaneously, I am getting an education that, without scholarship and loans, my family cannot afford, and thus cannot easily decide to skip class. I do not have the privilege to easily “prioritize” the intersectional aspects of my life.

Also in my time here, the geography I have crossed has increased: Chicago, Managua, San Salvador, D.C., Chapel Hill, San Antonio and more. But I hesitate to say this because of how the idea of “my world expanding” stigmatizes the ways in which I traveled up to age 17. I know Southern California freeways, great restaurants, and people like the back of my hand, and the experience of having to navigate between cities at different hours has allowed me to orient myself in every new city I visit, while everyone else relies on their iPhones or gets lost. While I appreciate the traveling opportunities Mac has offered me, I have noticed that it has simultaneously delegitimized the value of knowing the intimate details and secrets of certain areas.

In expressing my Macalester reality, I hope to contribute to the multiplicity of views of this place I have found home in the past four years. I need to be clear that I speak for myself and do not seek to essentialize the experiences of any certain demographic at Macalester. That said, I know of many students who feel as I do. My identity as an East LA/Ontario Chicana has impacted my experience at Macalester. I appreciate this place for teaching me and providing me with the tools to also be able to critique it. My family is as important in my decisions as I leave this place as it was when I decided to come here and I hope that Macalester will institute programs, policies, and even courses that acknowledge the role of families in students’ academic lives. My journey to here has informed my journey while here and will shape my path out as well.

May 3, 2013

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