Williams College’s treasured Mountain Day tradition consists of a random Friday in October in which the president decides it is too nice to go to classes. Instead, there is a day of activities and hikes. At the top of the mountain, students are awaited with apple cider, donuts, and acapella performances. We are encouraged to introduce ourselves to someone we don’t know.
When I made it up to the mountain, I saw President Adam Falk standing by himself, enjoying the view and the good Mountain Day vibe. I gathered the courage to introduce myself. The former chair of the board for the college hired him and taught at my high school, so I figured I had a solid conversation starter. He asked me about my classes and how I was enjoying my overall time at Williams. The conversation was going smoothly. Then he asked me where I was from and I said California. He said, “No, where are you from?”
I was struck and didn’t really know how to answer. Then I said, “Um… well my parents are from El Salvador”. He nodded and smiled, satisfied with getting the answer he wanted. “Do you visit family back there often?” he asked. I responded, “No. I have actually never been… But I have always wanted to go and learn more”. “Yeah, that would be great. I am sure you could do it in the future. And I can relate. My grandparents were immigrants”. I don’t remember how the conversation ended because I was still trying to process this.
What exactly does an American look like? What exactly do I look like? What made him assume that the place I was born, California, U.S.A., was not where I was from? I have never been to El Salvador, so I believe it would be an injustice to say I was from there. I am descended from there, but I am Salvadoran-American. America is a country of immigrants. This means that anything that does not fit your view of the standard American should not be considered abnormal or automatically determined “other” because of what you perceive. Pardon me, but I also do not think that you can relate to my experience with having immigrant parents. I have seen my mother broken down in tears because her entire body hurts from working two labor-intensive jobs cleaning hotel rooms and preparing food. I have seen my father unemployed and struggling to find a job because he is undocumented and no place will take him. I have lived my mother’s childhood stories through the taste of platanos con crema, casamiento, tamales, pupusas, pastelitos, yuca frita con chicharón, atol de elote, Kolashampan.
I have worked twice as hard as some of my peers to get to Williams. And I do not say that for praise or acceptance. I say that because it is a fact that I believe needs to be recognized at an institution that was not established for a student like me: low-income, first-gen, Latina.
Do not get me wrong. I take extreme pride in being a Latina and having parents who come from El Salvador. What bothers me is the fact that you already have something in mind about what an American looks like. What bothers me is the fact that by not looking like that ideal, you already categorize me as separate. What bothers me is that you assumed my place of origin and you assumed that I had the economic access to stay in touch with my mother’s country.I am another student attempting to achieve in the world of higher education. I am first-generation. I am low-income. I am from East Menlo Park. I am from the Bay Area. I am from California, which is in the United States. But my parents are from El Salvador. And I take pride in that. I am Salvadoran-American.