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A Toast To Chicano/Latino Graduates

Claudia Meléndez Salinas |
May 13, 2009 | 9:11 p.m. PDT

Claudia Melendez

Today, along with dozens of Latino students, I'll walk in the Latino/Chicano graduate celebration. I will follow the Aztec dancers to the Howard Jones Field, where hundreds of brown faces will look among the crowd to find their precious hija, their hard-working hijo, their admired hermano or prima. I'll walk among the children of immigrants - or immigrants themselves - who have come to this country to improve their lives, to escape warfare and to find a better future.

Somehow, I feel an usurper.

I'm not like Cathy Rojas, a U.S. native who had to jump the many obstacles a first generation graduate has to overcome to get that prized bachelor's degree in international relations.
I'm not like Eric Zúñiga, a chemical engineering graduate who grew up a world eons away from USC: the surrounding neighborhood of South Central. I did not have to study hard to compensate for deficient inner-city schools. After a lifetime of private schooling, I was well prepared for the world of academia in the United States - pero ojo, I'm not saying it was easy!

And I'm definitely not like Wendy Carrillo, our keynote speaker and a fellow graduate of the master's of specialized journalism program. Wendy was brought into this country when she was 6 years old, had to sleep in the streets, and perhaps the crossing of the borders has been the easiest thing she's had to do.

I came to this country after finishing high school in Mexico, a country that, in spite of its shortcomings, still has its good things. I received an excellent education while attending private Catholic schools, where challenging subjects like organic chemistry and Marxist economics were required of all the pupils. I graduated with honors, so naturally, when I came to this country, it was easy to continue studying and learning. I was speaking English fluently in less than a year.
Strangers gasp in admiration when they hear my story: gosh, you speak English so well (can't they hear my accent, I wonder). After meeting dozens, perhaps hundreds of immigrants who did not have the opportunities I did in my country, people find it surprising there would be people like me. Even my siblings seem surprised at times.
But there are many of us, people like Viterbi professor Andrea Hodge, an immigrant from Colombia, or Francisco Valero-Cuevas, my compatriot, both who received top-notch education in their countries and reaped the benefits here: they got admission to top schools, got scholarships, climbed the ladder.

Yes, it's hard, very hard work. But somehow, when you're better prepared, it becomes easier.
So part of me becomes a bit sad - and resentful -- when people marvel at my accomplishments: gosh, you speak English so well. Wow, how amazing that you're an immigrant. Deep down, I know they're comparing me with my compatriots, my campesino brothers and sisters who did not finish elementary school, did not have their parents pay for French lessons, did not take private English classes.

Gosh you're doing so well compared to them. Well, duh!

Many programs have been started to make students like Wendy, Eric and Candy succeed, to make sure the second generation does well in a country where they face so many obstacles. Sadly, it's often people like me who end up benefiting from them, and on top of that, we end up serving as a measuring stick for what a Latino, an immigrant, even a second generation should look like.

It's not fair.

So today when I walk with Wendy, Eric and Candy, I will do so humbly and proudly. I did not have to jump all the hoops and take all the tumbles they did. In a lot of ways, I had it a lot easier than they did, even if I had to study just as hard. I did not have to put up with an indifferent, discriminatory school system. I did not have to cross borders, travel miles every day to attend a better school, or stay up at night wondering if my education would end up benefiting my family. All I had to do was show up, be a Latina, and the rest followed.

To Wendy, Eric, Candy and all the participants at the Latino/ Chicano graduate celebration, my hat goes off to you. Your presence makes my accomplishments pale, and yet they make them the more significant. I may not be like you, but I'm of you, and proudly so.



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