Dear Portuguese-American Graduates of the 2020 High School Graduating Class:
Your high school experience is but a mere single thread in the variegated tapestry of your life. It is a moment. You may feel frustrated perhaps feeling robbed of a traditional graduation ceremony or the sort of festa in your honor that involves all your cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. For this, I do not blame you. But please know that your sacrifice is bigger than pomp and circumstance. Your achievements were always bigger than a cap, gown, tassel, or even a diploma. The experience is always bigger than the ceremonious conclusion.
As a society, we find ourselves in unchartered waters. Allow this moment to teach you that there is no single trajectory, no linear progression. One moment you will feel invincible and the next you will find yourself calling upon all the strength you have to continue. Embrace these highs and these lows for which you will have many.
For those considering entering the workforce, working a trade, or going to trade school, I want you to know that this is not your only option — even if it may be the only thing you see in your immediate daily lives. But, of course, if you have a passion for working with your hands or no interest in academic scholarship, then I support you with all my being and wish you the best of luck, offering the following advice.
- Use your network. We have so many in the Luso-American community performing in trades everyday and there may perhaps be nothing quite like on-the-job training.
- Create and build a network within your communities. Be sure to sell yourself in your trade and never be afraid to tell a customer to tell their friends if they appreciated the service you performed. We have a tendency to sell ourselves short as a culture. Don’t. Our community is stronger when we work to build each other up.
You may be entering an academic institution of higher learning, which will undoubtedly illustrate a hybridity of experience unlike any experiences of those who came before you. You may be learning remotely or in a classroom some distance apart, but the knowledge you have assembled over the past four years and will continue to gather has never been, and never will be, solely produced in academy classrooms. You need only recall the stories you’ve been told by your parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents evidencing this fact.
I want you to know that our lives probably weren’t very different. Did you struggle with the decision as to whether to disclose your ethnicity and race when you were applying to college? Or even what to write in that “other” bubble? If you’re like me, maybe you felt something of an identity crisis, questioning, “Am I Hispanic?” Did you struggle with the notion of applying for Portuguese-American scholarships? This isn’t coincidental. You may have been brought up on shame and Portuguese-Catholic guilt. You live in a country where it, unfortunately, remains controversial for persons of groups who have been historically discriminated against for generations to receive the crumb that is admittance into higher education. On some unconscious level, you may have internalized this prejudice and racism. And it may have held you back from seizing the opportunities and resources available to you. Let that die now. Your education and time are far too expensive not to maximize every opportunity and resource.
I will share with you two advising experiences in the hopes that these prepare you for some of the things you might encounter as you take on the all-too-often culturally-white world of university scholarship and beyond.
I was a sophomore in college when I met with an advisor who told me I should take a foreign language course to “get culture.” I stared at the pale-skinned woman across the desk with a raised eyebrow. Was an academic advising appointment the proper setting to educate this woman about how I grew up in a bilingual household? How I was born to two immigrant parents whose respective families ventured over in the 70s? How I was born in Ponta Delgada’s sister city where, a study conducted in 2005, found that more than 49 percent of residents were of Portuguese ancestry? How, before enrolling in college, I lived in Portuguese enclaves for as long as I could remember? How I took foreign language classes as a child outside of school (because the small Catholic school I attended did not offer foreign language classes)? How I had spent summers at my Avos’ house, translating Portuguese into English (and vice versa) between my grandmother and my cousins? How I took three years of Portuguese in junior high school? How, from kindergarten to eighth grade, I attended schools where most students were of Portuguese ancestry? How I walked in Portuguese processions and participated in Portuguese feasts more times than I can name?
How I was an altar server at Portuguese masses for six years? How, until high school, I knew more people of Portuguese descent than any other ethnicity combined? How I was forced to take Spanish in high school because the school didn’t offer Portuguese and easily earned the requisite grades to garner membership into Sociedad Honoraria Hispánica (the Spanish Honor Society)? How, in my high school Spanish class, I did an entire presentation on family, and on the way back to my seat, my teacher said, “Good job, next time do it en Espanol,” as I had almost unconsciously delivered the entire presentation in Portuguese?
I remember biting my tongue, then shaking my head for the rest of the day. Would she have said the same if my skin looked more like that of my dad – a man with no discernible accent who regularly gets mistaken for Mexican and Hispanic? Would she have said the same if I could have afforded a semester in a study abroad program? This was not just about the lack of visible cultural cues on my face, it was about socio-economic class. This person had looked across the desk and saw an accent-less girl with white skin, who had aced an Emily-Dickinson-focused English Literature course (which, she informed, most students struggled with), but had not enrolled in a foreign language course — and, from that, deduced I needed to “get culture.” I learned that very day that, no matter how liberal or open-minded a person I would meet, this would be the popular, unconscious assumption of me in spaces of higher education outside the enclaves of familiarity.
Regrettably, I couldn’t take a foreign language course as it would, at that point, have added another semester to my studies, pouring onto the considerable debt I had already accumulated.
My advice to you is to find a way to take that foreign language (even if it’s not Portuguese) as early as possible in your studies, but not because you need to “get culture.” You do not need a language course or an overpriced study abroad experience to have culture. For many of you, culture is within you. Embrace your culture, learn about the cultures of those who have been marginalized historically (they share more in common with you than it may appear at first glance), and educate those in the culturally-white institution known as the ivory tower of higher education. Finds sites of commonalities and difference, but do not waste energy on a metric of oppression that says “I had it worse” – it merely serves the interests of culturally-white, affluent persons in power.
I was applying to law school – a prospect that was unheard of in my big Portuguese family. My parents tried to dissuade me from the endeavor. After all, I was already going to be mountains in debt. But some part of me was rebelling against this notion that higher education wasn’t for me. The honest answer is that it was never made for someone like me. But the Portuguese stubbornness I had inherited from my parents – both the first in their respective families to graduate from high school – was determined to do it anyway, despite having no concept of the law school landscape. I never declared “Pre-Law,” but I reached out to the school’s Pre-Law advisor to ask him some questions about the application process.
I remembered the stress and pressure I had experienced in applying to colleges in high school – and how the mother of one of my soccer teammates helped me even when I didn’t know how to ask for help. In college, I knew I would need to seek out the assistance of persons who had been through the process.
And this is an important point. Always ask for help. Be stubborn about your abilities and your worth. But never let your pride or your ego hold you back from learning about anything and everything.
Fully embracing my journalistic studies, I did research and arrived at the advising meeting armed with a notepad full of general and specific questions. We talked for a while, and at some point, I asked the white man sitting behind the desk about the diversity statement these law schools requested, but had marked “optional.” There was almost no writing prompt for any of these diversity statements, so I didn’t quite understand it. A combination of nerves and the inarticulate pattern of speech one adopts when confronted with something of which they are wholly unaware, my question (phrased as a statement) was something like, “So, um, this diversity statement, uh, it says it’s optional, but I don’t really know what it is that they’re looking for.” The Pre-Law advisor explained it was a way that applicants could explain how they contribute to the “overall diversity of the law school,” then looked straight into my eyes and said, “If you don’t have anything, don’t write about it. If you’re struggling to think of something to write, then you probably don’t have anything. Don’t make something up.”
I left that room, feeling torn. All my work in journalism taught me that less is more. But my women’s studies courses taught me to look at the full picture of a human being, that is, the various dimensions of identity (e.g. race, class, gender, ethnic background, religion, sexuality, etc.), which intersect and overlap to shape experiences and diverse standpoints.
Why did this white man look at me and think I had nothing to contribute by way of diversity?
Is it because, in America, diversity gets coded as black or Asian? That our institutions of higher learning exclusively exploit the faces of people of color on university brochures whenever diversity is discussed (oftentimes, irrespective of just how few people of color are given the opportunity to attend said institution)? Maybe he looked into my face and saw one thing: unequivocal white skin.
It was obvious that my black and Asian friends contributed to diversity in college. I learned some of the most important lessons of my life from them. But did the word “diversity,” in academic circles, exclusively refer to skin color? I knew black Brazilians and black Ethiopians who each had different backgrounds and perspectives that contributed to diversity in different ways. I had befriended Ethiopian immigrants and Ethiopians born in America who sometimes brought completely different standpoints, histories, and ideas to the table. Their experiences were not monolithic. This man being an academic advisor at a school as diverse as Maryland’s flagship university obviously knew this, I assumed.
Is it because data showed that women surpassed men enrollees in law school? Even though every billboard I had ever seen that advertised some law firm featured men. And that, despite all the data surrounding the glass ceiling, he assumed it no longer existed. “Surely, he can’t be that obtuse and still work here,” I thought.
Is it because he saw me as wealthy? Not knowing the extent to which this advisor, a former corporate attorney, might influence my application, I had sought to make a good impression during the meeting, wearing my best button-down shirt, a Ralph Lauren blouse that I had owned for years, but only worn sparingly, and a set of my mother’s pearl earrings that she had received as a gift years before.
As a child living in a rented triple-decker apartment off North Main Street in Fall River, Mass., I was called a “welfare case” by a boy whose parents, standing within earshot, had said and done nothing to correct him. At our lowest, my household was told we didn’t qualify for food stamps because we were a mere $11 over the income line. I have vivid memories of going to the community food pantry as a child.
I grew up at my parents’ workplaces: a Catholic school my dad cleaned where I helped teachers move books and helped my dad clean handrails on the staircases; the construction office my mom worked where I would occasionally be asked to help answer the phones; and the local Portuguese club where I was to remain silent, then help my mother count the money (and then, sometimes, was rewarded by a gentleman who made the most divine galao).
During my childhood, I worked with my dad cleaning a salon, a construction office, a plumber’s office, and the homes of affluent families who lived some distance away from my neighborhood. Most days, I made $5 for roughly three hours of work. I regularly cleaned a dentist’s office with my aunt, whose first job in America was sewing in a Fall River sweatshop. And my first “real” job was scrubbing toilets for $8 an hour at a university – a job my father got me in the summer before college through the only connections he had – after I had put in applications everywhere from Target to local AC-less laundromats, but could not get work.
While studying at the private high school that my parents paid for by remortgaging their house and putting payments on credit cards, I rationed lunch money, so that I could eat decent meals on game days. In a school where my classmates pulled into the parking lot with their Lexus- and Mercedes- brand cars, I was ridiculed for driving the family car to school because it was an 11-year-old Honda.
When I was in college, my family nearly lost our home (a date for foreclosure was set) when my mother was denied disability claims twice, despite her doctors adamantly stating she could not work at the call center. As this was happening, I remember feeling embarrassed, asking a supervisor at my prestigious (unpaid) internship (my first “professional” work experience) if the organization could reimburse me for the Metro rides I took from College Park to Dupont Circle. Until then, the money I had made driving the transit bus that semester (intended to fund the meal plan I never had), was being drained by the commute.
I again bit my tongue, trying not to complain when I would use the student loan money to pay for groceries in bags that ripped on my way home when I didn’t have a car in college. And I bit my tongue even harder when the laptop I had purchased with toilet money and student loans got stolen from my residence, forcing me to walk to the on-campus library at various hours of the day and night.
Reflecting on the meeting, I cocked my head, wondering, “Did I just meet the only person who ever thought I (or my family) had money?” I scoffed, thinking to myself. “Nah, no way, too implausible.”
Maybe he somehow noticed the St. Michael pendant that was permanently around my neck, deducing that I was Catholic, and therefore, part of the single largest religious group in the United States, and therefore lacked diversity.
Would this white man have made this assumption if I wore, like my university friends, a yarmulke or a hijab? I knew my Jewish and Muslim friends had so much to contribute to educational spaces. After all, they had schooled me when I wasn’t in classes with them. But did that mean law schools deemed me unworthy of any contribution to the “overall diversity” of the law school?
I wondered then if the advisor knew what that pendant meant to me. That, though it pictured the archangel who defeated Satan, it symbolized where and who I came from – that both my parents were born in Sao Miguel in the Azores – islands that many of my college peers didn’t know existed; that I went to St. Michael School in a Portuguese enclave in the United States; that I worshipped at the adjoining St. Michael Parish, where I celebrated the St. Michael Parish Feast and walked in more processions than I can remember; that this tradition was something Azoreans brought with them; and that such traditions remain the most visible representation of keeping our culture alive. That the reason I never took it off was to ground me and never let me forget the sacrifices my parents and grandparents made, the hardships they endured, and the privilege I enjoyed because of them.
Maybe he was so perceptive as to recognize my pendant, but thought I really was just another Catholic girl with no experiences to offer that might contribute to the overall diversity of law school. “Doesn’t seem that perceptive,” I thought.
I kept thinking. His words, replaying in my head like a song you can’t turn off: “You probably don’t have anything.”
That my parents – both of whom had skipped a grade in their American high schools – had to convince my grandparents to let them attend college while they worked, all the while, contributing to their respective household incomes wasn’t anything. That, at the time, I didn’t know one Portuguese lawyer, despite growing up in predominantly Portuguese communities, but could rattle off multiple Portuguese landscaping, construction, and cleaning companies wasn’t anything. That I was the first person in my household to be born in the United States wasn’t anything. That I would be the first person in my house to graduate from college wasn’t anything. His words made me question if my story mattered. Or was it just the white-washed story that he had painted of me?
I decided that if I was going to be rejected by law schools, it was going to be as me – the real me. I would not fail because I allowed myself to be made small. Unlike my college admissions essay, this time I wouldn’t hide or write around my identity. I wrote my diversity statement about walking in processions, growing up in a Portuguese enclave as a first-generation Azorean-American, and how sharing my culture and learning from persons of different backgrounds helped me to embrace diversity and become the first person in my household to graduate college. I sent it to the Pre-Law advisor, asking if my words met what the schools were looking for. He called it “perfect,” then added, “I had no idea.”
I never asked him about what he precisely had no idea about. I let my work educate him.
Academia will try to do this to you: Put you in a box that you never felt comfortable in, erasing the parts of you that do not fit. My advice is to leave boxes for recycling. Convert the waste that is bestowed upon you by a space that was never created for you – and make it reusable. Many professionals and academics, even those well-intentioned and good natured, will make assumptions about your place in the world. But you get to create and re-create that place. You will find yourself, at times, the purveyors of a history you cannot find in books about this country. And you have the opportunity to write your own future.
You will be looking for answers. Know that you shouldn’t have all of them and that you never will. It’s okay. No one does. You don’t need to have every answer to make a difference and work for social justice or personal growth. Do not mute your story. And do not let it be coopted. You always have something. And you are enough.
The world as we knew it ceases to exist. You are uniquely situated to reimagine what it can become. Do not replicate the mistakes of the generations that came before you. My hope for you is that you continually examine and challenge within and outside your personal matrices of privilege and oppression to leverage your talents and skills in reconceptualizing and changing the wider world. If you’re skeptical, know that, if your scene is your whole existence, then changing the world might be as simple as changing the scene.
This can be your moment — but only if you seize it and grasp on with both hands so strongly that it leaves claw marks. So, forca! Do not wait for permission to make your mark. The world needs your idealism, energy and courage. Congratulations, Class of 2020! Show us what we know to be true: you are more than just a vision for new realities. Create new realities. Craft your lives and communities on your own terms. Weave new worlds. Your limit is the horizon line.
I wish you way more than luck.