I grew up in Highland Park, Los Angeles, a working-class neighborhood of mostly Mexican and Central American immigrants. Violence, family, and celebration are all a part of Highland Park’s Latino culture. When I was younger, this culture was my own. I chose fighting over schoolwork. I looked and acted like all the kids on my block—dark-skinned and feisty. But I differed in one way: my mom was white. We looked so different from each other that many people did not believe she was my mom.
My mom, Cidne Hart, comes from a WASP family in Connecticut. She met my father—Manuel Rodriguez, an Afro-Cuban immigrant—after he’d arrived on the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. The marriage ended when I was five. I stayed with my mother, and my father eventually faded out of my life. Mom was my sibling, my travel companion, my driver, my sponsor, my everything. Although she had distanced herself from her family, she brought many of their values and habits with her to Highland Park. From the time I was little she read to me at bedtime, until the day came when I took the book from her to read for myself. During middle school I found myself becoming turned off by the violence around me, and I began retreating into books and hoping to leave Highland Park. This meant going to a high school an hour away and striving for an elite college instead of becoming pregnant right out of high school, as most of my friends would do.
Latino culture remained part of our household as well. After my parents divorced, a Salvadorian single mother named Teresa came with her son to live with us. Teresa cooked and cleaned for rich families in the L.A. area. She took me to her conservative Baptist church. During the ten years that she lived with us,Teresa was the driving Latina influence in our household.
Since the beginning of my time at Brown, my life has been a struggle to be the “right” person. To fit in, I have had to dilute my sometimes strong language and be more sensitive, more politically correct, less opinionated, more diligent, smarter, more “East Coast.” Recently I was in a class overwhelmingly made up of Latinos—classmates more similar to me than I’ve been with here—and many non-Latino students at Brown see me first as a Latino woman. But I have never been comfortable with the label others put on my ethnicity. English, after all, was my first language, and I am my mother’s daughter.
Before coming to Brown I slid through these two worlds smoothly, not having to choose. When I’m home, I relax and let my language slip into its old ways. But when I return to Brown, I pull myself together and tone myself down. I shouldn’t complain, though. When I learned a year ago that the younger sister of my best friend from home was pregnant, I was confronted again with the reality of where I come from. I asked myself: How do I deserve all this when everyone at home is struggling to survive?
Now, as I leave the University to “make something” of myself, I have a new struggle to face. My mom has invested a lot of money into my dream. People at home expect something that shows it wasn’t all a waste, and so do I. Yet I don’t know if it’s possible to immerse myself into this post–Ivy League way of life while still holding onto where I come from in my core. Brown grooms you to be great. I’m not sure
I want that. What I want is to be happy.
Cristina Rodriguez-Hart is an Egyptology concentrator.