I have always been passionate about helping those less fortunate than myself. From as early as I can remember, I committed myself to one day go to medical school. In fact, growing up, I told myself that I would one day become a trauma surgeon because I believed that saving someone’s life was the greatest way one could help someone. However, during my first year of college, I realized that rather than going down the pre-med track in order to help others at the individual level, I was more passionate about making a direct systemic change and addressing the inequities that are so rampant in society today.
By the time I started my sophomore year, I knew that the pre-med trajectory I had planned was out of the picture. I knew that I wanted to apply to both the School of Public Health and the Ford School of Public Policy, so I made sure to register for their prerequisite classes. Since I was unsure whether or not I would be accepted by either school, I decided to use my sophomore year to fulfill the general graduation requirements. I still needed credits in the humanities category, so I decided to take LATINOAM 311: Latinx Cultures and Communities. After all, I never formally learned my Mexican culture’s history in school. Due to my limited opportunity to learn about the rich Latinx history, much of what I was exposed to growing up covered Spanish colonialism.
Besides the random stories my father would tell my siblings and me during our Christmas dinners or our 22-hour drives to Durango, Mexico, I had no formal education of my Mexican roots. Though I learned something new through every single conversation I had with my father regarding topics such as Mexico’s independence from Spain, I never fully understood the more recent history of Mexicans in the United States. That was until I took LATINOAM 311.
Compared to the static memorization of the intricacies of human anatomy in pre-med trajectory courses, LATINOAM 311 gave me the opportunity to explore the rich history of my Mexican culture. Once I realized I was more interested in academia regarding the social determinants of health rather than the required pre-med courses such as organic chemistry and animal physiology, I knew that I should be taking courses that explored the communities these determinants are affecting firsthand. I never expected that taking this course would expose me to the different ways in which social and community context play a major role in the health outcomes of Latinx households, while also allowing me to learn about the history of Mexican families, including mine.
In LATINOAM 311, I had the opportunity to learn about the formation of different Latinx communities and their larger significance and contributions to Latinx and United States history, society and culture. In all honesty, when I was a pre-med student there were times when I would completely disregard the readings required for my classes; it was difficult for me to find some sort of motivation to push me through chapters of chemical compounds or the molarity formula. However, LATINOAM 311 was one of the first times I went out of my way to further research some of the topics we were covering in class, such as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Young Lords. While the material we covered in the course did touch on the history of Mexico, the course served as a bridge for me to make sense of the disconnect I had between my family’s history and the communities that were portrayed through pop culture.
In addition to covering material that was so relevant to my own family’s background, I had the opportunity to connect with other individuals interested in Latinx American communities. In fact, many of my peers were engaged in La Casa and actively championed rights for Latinx students across campus. Professor Francisco Beltran (God bless that man) was the instructor of LATINOAM 311 and made sure that everyone had the opportunity to have their best experience, given the fact that COVID-19 was making school difficult for everyone. In fact, during the very first class, he gave us advice that has stuck with me to this day: Do not focus solely on your letter grade; you are undoubtedly prone to end up with a good grade if you enjoy learning the material. As a pre-med student, I felt as if school was a monotonous process of ensuring I kept my letter grade as high as possible. In this class, however, I didn’t care too much about it, and as a result, I had a more compelling educational experience.
Professor Beltran’s plan for the course made it easy for me to understand and enjoy learning the material. Rather than having exams, he had us record videos of ourselves and write reflections on how the material directly correlated with our own lives. He gave us free range for the final project and allowed us to creatively explore present-day issues related to Latinx communities that we were interested in. Being that both of my parents immigrated to the United States in the ’90s, I decided to create a 10-minute long podcast in which I had both of my parents relive what it was like crossing the border, and also what their life was like once they arrived in the United States. With what I had learned in the class throughout the entire semester, I was not only able to learn about my parents’ experiences as immigrants in a new country, but also inform them about some of the lived experiences from other ethnic groups such as Cubans and Puerto Ricans. This interview assignment allowed me to understand that my parents’ difficulties did not stop after crossing the border. By far the greatest stressor my parents had to overcome was assimilating to a country that they had never set foot in. I still refer back to that recording of the conversation between my parents and I to remind myself of the struggles they went through to end up where my family is at today.
Even as everyone aims to take as many courses related to “money-making” fields, I feel that LATINOAM 311 has been more influential than any pre-med course ever has. I am entering my fourth and final year of college, and my biggest regret of the last three years is not taking more courses in the Latina/o American Studies department. As first-generation Latinx Americans, our perception of our parents’ culture has largely been the superficial depiction of cholos wearing oversized jerseys and TikTok stars putting chamoy on just about anything they eat instead of having a concrete understanding of our motherland’s native history and unfiltered, authentic culture. As I sat in LATINOAM 311 one winter morning, I learned of the trials and tribulations that native Mexicans often experienced when crossing the southern border seeking a better life. Suddenly, history was not just history anymore — I saw an image of my parents’ sweat glistening in the unforgiving sun rays of southern Texas, amongst many other individuals who shared the same experience, which eventually made up the larger history of migration in the United States. As students of Color, we have a tendency to take the lucrative fields of study that will help us support ourselves and our families in the future, subsequently leaving behind the courses specific to our ethnicities that offer a glimpse into how people who look like us have made their own space for themselves. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to take courses that will ensure you one day land a career that allows you to provide for your family. But the pressure that students of Color feel in having to take these courses should not dismiss the opportunity to learn more about your family’s roots. Which would you prefer: seeing your community having their stories told through literature and film or, rather, through memorizing different muscle groups? You tell me. I certainly know my answer.
MiC Columnist Irving Peña can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.