It was the day – the first day of college. I’d been in Ann Arbor for four days, and it didn’t hit me until that morning.
It didn’t hit me as I told you that your only child was moving 206 miles away for college, nor did it hit me as you waved goodbye from the car window. I kept telling myself that I was okay. After all, I spent most of my life craving a whit of independence. The day before that morning, I strategically picked out my outfit, just like I did every year. You always told me that first impressions were crucial. I picked up my black mules, dark blue jeans and a black top, and the red beaded necklace I bought in our homeland, Ecuador. As I got ready, my heart was heavy, and it cried for you. I was officially a first-generation college student, and I was drowning. Once again, I was drowning in the American world of workaholism and college football. That morning, it finally hit me that I would say goodbye to the folkloric dance group sessions and our Ecuavolley (a form of volleyball invented by Ecuadorians) weekends that I called home for 18 years. Through the heartache, I got ready because I wanted this world to see me. I sought visibility after years of being shamed for my long black hair and broken English. Knowing that I carried you within the red beaded necklace gave comfort to my heart – comfort that I needed as I embarked on new terrain.
Learning the English language at a young age was the first time I felt myself drowning in this world. This process was new to us, given I was the first in my long ancestral Indigenous line to speak English. I was becoming a depiction of the phrase: ‘I am my Ancestors’ wildest dreams.’ I didn’t know it yet, but I was unfolding a lifelong process of being two-in-one. To you, I was your Mija (mi Hija, or daughter). But to this world, I was the daughter of immigrants. For my childhood friends and I, learning English meant unlocking a world filled with possibilities – possibilities our immigrant, low-income families didn’t have access to. We were too young to understand the value of American schooling, but you knew that attaining an education was key to our prosperity in this country. As I unlocked this world, I began to understand my life as a constant battle between two worlds: America and ours. At school, I was learning to be American. At home, I was back to being Ecuadorian-Indigenous. As I learned English, not only was I amazed by the social and cultural differences, but I was adding another layer to my dual identity. As astounding as learning a foreign language was, I resented my learning process. In school, following the English language standards was crucial for academic success. I couldn’t help but question how I was supposed to excel in school when no one at home could help me. Sometime in my early years of schooling, I realized that I would have to navigate this world without your guidance. That realization was reinforced by my placement in classes specialized for English learners. I recall feeling left out, so I began assimilating myself into this world. Ultimately, I began to receive academic validation. We relished those moments, but – deep in my heart – I felt misplaced.
Learning English and accommodating myself to this world inaugurated my lifelong journey of finding ways to live between both worlds. The more proficient I was in English, the more distant I felt from our culture. When did you start feeling my distance too? Was it when I explained to you why there are 535 people in the United States Congress? Or when I started forgetting how to say certain words in Spanish? Every day, I was more American than the day before, which was confusing to my Ecuadorian identity that was battling to show itself every day. I was burying your Mija, but I needed to for this world to accept me. This world didn’t let me speak Spanish in the classrooms. The longer my black hair got, the more I got called an ‘Indian’ by my school peers. Too often, I wanted to storm out of the classrooms and find you because you accepted me just the way I was. Every day in this world’s classrooms was a battle until I uncovered a solution: code-switching.
The ability to switch between dialects was the answer to all my worries – at least, that’s what I thought. I could make a doctor’s appointment and rapidly repeat all the details back to you in Spanish. It was a gift. However, the more skilled I was at it, the more it felt like a chore. My code-switching skills steered me to be your local translator; gas paper bills, government-issued documents, and street signs in English seized my childhood. I had to translate backhanded comments like “Hey girl, tell your Dad to move the car?” and “You cannot help him fill out this form, okay?” Constantly using my linguistic skills to translate took over my younger years to the extent to which I felt tired and angry, but you know that. I felt worn out after having long days of school and coming home to another set of tasks. There was only so much my younger self could handle. I felt angry with this world that promoted equality and advertised itself as the Land of the Free but did not have a Spanish translator at our local Secretary of State facility. Although it was backbreaking at first, I could not say no to you, you who came to this world with nothing and allowed me to continue carrying out my ancestors’ wildest dream. As I battled through my American teenage years and learned more about this world, it became clear to me that code-switching could only help so much. Since then, I have been on the hunt for new ways to live in between worlds.
So that morning – after 18 years of resistance and invisibility – I realized I also had to come to peace with my dual identity. College would be a fresh start and an opportunity to pursue my dreams, so I decided to embrace who I was across both worlds: Ecuadorian-Indigenous and American. I recall putting on the black mules I bought at a Nordstrom store and thinking: Is this too American? However, the red beaded necklace I bought in a small artisan market in Ecuador a couple of years ago assured me that I was still your Mija. Since that day, I’ve found comfort in the little things. On some days, I wear the beaded earrings I stole from your closet for my research team Zoom meetings. When my professors and employers ask me to introduce myself, I tell them I am Ecuadorian-American and a first-generation college student. And when I hear someone mispronounce my name, I respectfully correct them because I recognize my name has power. I no longer feel like I am drowning. Instead, I am unapologetically swimming in a pool that I know wasn’t made for me. I walk into the classrooms of this 204-year-old institution every day acknowledging the history and power I carry. You gifted me life, and my everyday goal is to keep writing the history of our long ancestral line, even if it does take place in this new world.
MiC Columnist Luz Mayancela can be reached at email@example.com.