Over the past several weeks, I’ve experienced elevated, irregular bursts of imposter syndrome and survivor guilt. As a first-generation college student, I have been submerged in a grueling and expedited process of upward mobility and assimilation. It feels like I have been worlds apart from my family, particularly my parents, over the past several years.
As a result, one particular topic I’ve reflected on lately is family, specifically my parents. It’s pretty apparent from my previous articles that being first-gen means a lot to me. In addition to my hyperawareness of social class, my first-gen identity is interwoven and inseparable from my working-class upbringing. It is rooted in my family tree and exists precisely because previous generations did not go to college.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been reticent to share details about my personal life with others, especially in most spaces at the University, like Ross. I think every working-class student’s worst nightmare is for their background and family to be ridiculed by their peers. This fear is best captured in one scene in the “Hillbilly Elegy” film. The initial enumeration of accomplishments and credentials that impresses others. The awkward silence that follows when one shares details about their family and the working-class setting they grew up in. The tone-deaf questions and classist remarks. The dramatization in this brief instance highlights how out of place someone from a scrappy upbringing can feel among some upper-class peers and in various elite spaces, both of which might purportedly espouse egalitarianism.
To avert similar scenarios, I frequently code-switch and compartmentalize the different spaces I traverse as a defense mechanism — as though I am a chameleon that can blend into and adapt to many environments. One particular area where these partitions are evident is how people refer to me. Some past nicknames of mine include Goose, Gucci, Gus Bus, Gussy and Gustavito. But my primary nickname is Gus, which is what I usually went by prior to college — and still do either for the sake of my own or for someone else’s convenience if I’ve repeated my full name more than three times in a personal introduction.
Over the past month, I’ve shared another nickname with a few people. My family, primarily my parents, actually refer to me as Tavo. Most people are familiar with Gus as a nickname for Gustavo, but Tavo is another nickname that exists in some Spanish-speaking communities. My parents have always called me Tavo, yet even native Spanish speakers might not be familiar with this uncommon nickname. The only time I’ve ever been called Tavo by a non-family member was from a stylist over a year ago at a salon in my hometown. Most of the stylists and clientele are native Spanish speakers, and upon hearing my name, she instantly knew my family referred to me as Tavo. And so, hearing my nickname is endearing and creates a sense of closeness if someone outside of my family calls me Tavo.
Up until recently, I had never told anyone outside of my family about this nickname. This nickname usually slips my mind as I tend to forget about Tavo outside of home. But lately I have been reflecting on the drastic transformation I’ve undergone through college. Even though I feel like I have lost traces of my working-class Latino roots over the past several years, my nickname serves as a reminder that my upbringing and identities will always be an indisputable part of me. Additionally, it felt special to be known as Tavo by my family only, though this is a minor reason. As I’ve begun sharing this nickname, I have become aware that others love this nickname.
I am Gustavo to most, Gus to others and Tavo to a few. Feel free to call me Tavo!
I typically possess a reserved demeanor, since I struggle to convey my feelings. But sometimes the internal strife from constant code-switching can be overbearing at times, resulting in frequent glitches in my thought processes, making my partitions flimsy and rendering me vulnerable. When I feel most out of place, I shut down and become timid like a whimpering lost puppy.
Reminders of occasions like Parents & Family Weekend slightly sting me every time I see an email or retrieve a physical letter from the mail. Although I am generally able to tune out these occasions, there is always a slight amount of residual envy that singes me whenever I see hordes of Wolverines with their parents — who are visiting for football games or other occasions — in clusters across campus. Long-distance travel and lodging for graduation, Parents & Family Weekend, Campus Day and a bevy of other occasions aren’t for working-class parents like mine.
These occasions are for parents with careers that provide salaries, benefits and a relatively cozier existence — parents who own co-branded credit cards from their respective frequent flier programs.
On the other hand, these occasions are not for parents with jobs that pay hourly wages and who don’t possess resumes, LinkedIn profiles or even email addresses — parents who rely on public transit, taxis or walking for hours to get to work and travel around.
There are numerous other daily facets that remind me of the Michigan difference between my peers and me. One glaring reminder is the food spending culture on campus, which seems normal for most Wolverines but feels weird to me. In addition to the financial burden, I am not inclined to eat out because I’m not accustomed to doing so. Moreover, I’ve always been uncomfortable eating out because survivor guilt always creeps in as I think about how I can’t remember ever sitting down at a restaurant with my family. Maybe I’d be a bit less apprehensive about dining out if I knew my parents were experiencing this either with me, the rest of the family or on their own.
On my birthday in early November, I received a phone call from my mom in the middle of a dinner with Dwight, former professor of mine, and his wife Sylvia. I sobbed right after because I knew she requested a break in the midst of her busy shift when there is a steady stream of cars at the drive-thru. Traces of Tavo could be found in my tears.
Sometimes, I dream of being able to summon a magical elevator with transparent windows and doors. One that defies the laws of reality as it rips through the fabric of space. Through this elevator, my parents would be able to gaze through the various spaces I have traversed over the past several years during the ascent and descent. Each floor is a different environment, unperturbed by our presence as I explain to them the significance of each setting.
29th floor: The Kidport located under Terminal C of the Boston Logan Airport. I missed a connecting flight and I explored the terminal as I had to stay awake and semi-sleep overnight.
34th floor: The ritzy main lobby of a multinational bank’s office in New York City. I attended a few diversity conferences, which are sometimes held in the conference rooms of glass-and-steel towers that require security clearance and elevators to reach.
57th floor: The Ross School of Business’s Davidson Winter Garden at noon. A peculiar site where “Rossholes” dwell and it is almost impossible to find a seat in the middle of the day.
113th floor: The University’s First-Gen Gateway. A reliable study spot where I frequently chatted with Adan, the University’s First-Generation Project Manager and advisor to the FGCS@Michigan student club.
Nth floor: The door finally opens at the Michigan Ross commencement. Due to finances and other constraints, my parents were unable to attend.
Perhaps it was best that my family wasn’t here. I would love to give my parents a tour of the University’s picturesque campus. But the idyllic allure quickly fades once I realize how brutal this endeavor would be. I’d probably get verklempt trying to explain certain matters like the terracotta edifice. Fortunately, I was not alone at graduation, as Dwight and Sylvia from the birthday dinner mentioned earlier accompanied me. Moreover, I am able to express myself and pour my emotions into my writing.
It truly means the world to me whenever someone praises my writing — whether it is a brief compliment or paragraphs of detailed feedback. My parents can’t communicate much in English and are native Spanish-speakers. In addition to the language barrier, my mom is unable to read or write. While she was a child, her father passed away and she had to drop out of school to support her family. My mom can write a few words, letters and numbers and relies on memory to understand recurring symbols. As a result, she is even more reliant on my siblings and I to assist her.
It truly means the world to me to see my parents wearing U-M apparel. The same merchandise that the parents of continuing-gen Wolverines wear — who are typically white-collar workers in law, business, medicine and other professional fields — is worn by my working-class parents. My mom and dad, employed as a fast food worker and landscaper respectively, can adorn themselves in “Michigan Mom” and “Michigan Dad” t-shirts and sweaters.
“In my family, it took just one generation to go from segregation to the Supreme Court of the United States,” exclaimed Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson in a recent speech she gave after her historic Supreme Court confirmation. This quote was deeply profound because I believe that many first-gens can express a similar sentiment in relation to their family. In the face of generational trauma, a lack of generational wealth and other factors, my family went from Mexico to McDonald’s to Michigan in one generation.
Whenever I return home, I always look forward to and love home-cooked meals. My mom’s cooking includes refried beans and Mexican tortas, but I crave arroz con frijoles y pollo the most. Due to easy preparation and low-cost ingredients, it can be prepared in bulk or for the sake of sustenance. I often ate this dish growing up and it likely consists of roughly half of the meals I’ve ever eaten. Having served as a staple throughout my existence, I have grown fond of the mushy, juicy and seasoned combination. Much like my free/reduced school lunch meals of warm chicken patties and stale tater tots, arroz con frijoles y pollo will always be comfort food. Sometimes my parents insist that I eat something else!
But my parents have fed me more than meals. They might not have been able to provide much guidance for matters outside of home, like school, but they have influenced my character and values. My parents are much more impressive than I am. I hope I can achieve their level of grit, mental stamina and earnest character.
MiC Columnist Gustavo Sacramento can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.