The independent news organization of Duke University

For my place at the table

To those willing to listen,

“A better life for us…” The phrase dangles from my lips. It has carried across generations, freshly-dewed cerros, ‘cross deserts, ‘cross nations. Inside an ivory tower, on the corner of success and cultural shock, I type these caffeinated words—two-stepping my past. Each thesis, each token-rant, is driven with meaning.

Being a Latino in America is one thing, being Latino in higher education is another, but being Latino in a prestigious elite institution, by this point we’ve crossed so many words that our return proves treacherous. Each step is to deal with a violent memory, an erasure of self. That sharp tongue that once reveled in hyphenated identity loses its cultural nurturing. In its place is a barrage of academic jargon, of –isms, of –zations. It is amassing an incredible vocabulary, but never forgetting that your family will never understand your imperialist language. But they love you, God how they love you. Across your back are written their restless dreams. You must understand that your success is premised on removal and your acceptance on alien-nation.

Therein lies the barrio experience, the inner-city that is, for better or worse, your roots. How the richest zip code in America is one freeway exit away from the former highest murder-rate in America. You remember the cramped rooms, their scratched up floors, the resume-building teachers who rotated faster than spiffed blunts behind rotting portables. The slicked back hair, the long white T-shirt’s, the sagging pants, the inflated chisme, the pseudo-gang culture. The cardboard epitaphs tied against a ragged fence, the narrow-streets, tectonic sidewalks pressing against a rushed adolescence. And yet, these are my roots and I love them. But are they? Cultural customs agents interrogate from both sides, pressing for documentation. Less hazily, you remember manicured lawns, fake grass, pristine bathrooms, thinly veiled micro-aggressions, a rationalized white guilt ideology—its tragic logic. Adopting a village in Kenya, yet the people who picked your fruit at lunch are paid below minimum-wage, yet brothers’ corpses are written as “justifiable homicide.” To visit a third world country for three months, take a selfie next to oppression, and now you can check-off community service and traveling off your list. The dialectic of a marginalized black-and-brown populace grates against rationalized affluence, making for an identity that borders on the schizophrenic. Internal contradiction is not some esoteric principle reserved for Marxist circles—as an “educated” (because my people have no knowledge to impart) person of color, as a Latino, it is the root of your existence.

So to be Latino, in a university, is to be inspired, be angered, by this cultural poverty that surrounds material wealth and that no one mentions because it is supposedly awkward. Because “my existence” is “awkward” for you. Because “my speaking” jeopardizes the sanctuary of your ignorance. For if I…si yo, as a mestizo body exist only insofar as to smile on your brochures, if I exist only insofar as dorms need to be cleaned, for crops to be picked, for buildings to be constructed…if I must fight, to eat next to you in this house, then are we equal? Sabes que, maybe you’re right, maybe I did get here because I am Mexican. But I refuse to let that belittle my hard work. So while you monetize this house, while you envision towering shelves of books furnishing its floors, as well-to-do kids and their parents flock its Quad , admiring the ornate décor, I will pull you aside to ask what self-respecting human being would ask, “Excuse me, but where do I stay? Where’s my place?”

This isn’t an intervention, por el amor de Dios, please don’t stop reading this to wallow in guilt. This isn’t me scaffolding a public humiliation ceremony, with you as our pale-skinned special guest. This is an invitation to shaky but honest dialogue. This is an outcry of pent-up injustice, of the beautiful people that humbly confess to me, “Hechele ganas.” Give it your all. But what is ganas, what is desire? Ganas is to wake up at three in the morning, to hear your mother prepare her lunch for her job in the textile factory. Ganas is your aunt holding you in an intense embrace as you left the airport from Guadalajara, tears in her eyes, saying, “Don’t forget about us.” Ganas is the custodial ladies, smiling as they see you, “Mira nomas,” they cry,one of us is here!”

For better or worse, you are one of the delegates to an entire diaspora. Not by choice, but out of necessity. Regardless of your personal upbringing, you must fight for our people’s place, for your memory, while rusty, is rare. I don’t pretend to represent all Latinos. However, I do believe there’s a profound commonality amongst our voices. If Isaac Newton stood on shoulders of giants, then we stand on mountains. Below lie straining spines, tipsy bachatas and the humble pride of knowing that we can never be broken.

But hold on, remember, this isn’t about you, this isn’t about feigning this “strong minority” archetype—it’s about who you, by default, represent. There is solidarity to be created, allies to reach out towards and ojala, compel others to confront harbored prejudice, blinded by privilege. All of this isn’t mandatory, but with the implicit acceptance that if you don’t fight for our space, who will?

I am sure I could’ve said this better, no question. But my only regret with these words is that, in my three years inside the Gothic Wonderland, I didn’t say all this sooner.

Con esperanza,

Tony Lopez

Tony Lopez is a Trinity junior.


Discussion

Share and discuss “For my place at the table” on social media.

Trending