Education was important to my parents, but they made no secret about their lack of it. My mother finished the equivalent of middle school in Mexico, and my father made it to the Mexican version of a high school graduation. Yet, they both respected and valued education in a way only people who were denied it can. When the college acceptance letters started coming in, it was a toss-up about who was happier: my parents or me. What they were not happy about was my choice of college: a small, private, Catholic institution 400 miles from home.
"It's pretty, mija. The church is the first thing you see. That's reassuring," said my mother as we pulled into the long drive flanked by cherry trees leading onto the campus.
A bit of guilt hit me then. I was the oldest and the only girl in a Catholic, Mexican-American family. Traditionally, I wouldn't leave my parents' home until I was married. Thankfully, my parents were more conservative than traditional. That meant even though my mother's back was ramrod straight with fear and worry, she wasn't going to stop me. I was attending college and that was a point of pride. The guilt quickly turned to embarrassment as we pulled up to the dorm behind a forest green Jaguar convertible with a big-screen TV in the back seat.
Everything counselors and teachers tell you about the differences between people in college seems exaggerated, until you see it parked in front of your family's two-toned minivan. In that moment, standing outside the dorm ashamed of the vehicle I had driven to college in, I realized it wasn't just cultural differences that my mentors had tried to warn me about. Outside of my hometown, where 60 percent of the population was working-class Latino, I was a minority both ethnically and economically.
Groups of boisterous upperclassmen were helping the freshmen move in. A group of them—members of the basketball team I would later learn—offered to help unload the van. My father and brothers jumped at the offer. As the cargo door popped open and I saw what I had brought with me I couldn't blame them. Somehow, I had managed to pack an entire bedroom into a cargo hold.
Once on the second floor, boxes of romance novels, dorm room basics and childhood knick-knacks filled the open space of the square dorm room and spilled out into the hallway. Methodically, my mother put away my clothes as I made the bed and filled the bookshelves behind the headboard. The men had gone to Target to get an Ethernet cord. When it came time for my family to leave, my excitement returned and my fears of not belonging abated; things, places and people were out there waiting. I needed to get going.
I walked my family out and as the passenger-side door closed and the window rolled down I asked, "La bendicion, Mami?"
I bent my head, my chin touching my chest, as my mother chanted a protective prayer and made the sign of the cross again and again over my head.
Almost four years after that blessing, I climbed some metal steps, shook the president of the College's hand and accepted a blue leather portfolio. The smile on my face brightened right before I saw and heard all of my professoras standing in the back row on the stage cheering me on, wearing the pink opera-length gloves meant to symbolize the Women's Studies department.
Then the smile disappeared and the tears began. Late nights used for shenanigans in between chapters. Wonderful days absorbed walking the cobblestone streets of London, Dublin, Paris and Madrid. Mornings spent working as a summer congressional office intern. Buying milk and crossing my fingers that one of the paychecks from one of my three part-time jobs cleared before Visa cashed my payment. I felt all the moments leading up to graduation hit me like an ocean's wave. Once in college, it had not taken me long to shake the complete feeling of "otherness" I had experienced outside the dorm that first day, although from time to time some form of it came back throughout those four years. Only another "other" could understand why it was in that moment of accomplishment and joy that the tears came.
-Nora Z. Garcia '08, MFA '12
Garcia lives in Pomona, California