My parents have cared for lawns in Sarasota County for over 35 years. The life of a laborer is an honest one, but that will never make up for the long hours, sore backs, red eyes and stress that comes from living with no other options. I sometimes doubted my own potential as I noticed how others reacted to my family’s position on the social ladder. I felt as though I was being judged as talented for “what I was” – a category apart and somewhat inferior to the general pool. But since working with Leaven, I‘ve seen things in a different light.
Reflecting on my childhood, I don’t feel I was ever truly disadvantaged. Instead, I learned how to make the most from what I had. I can make something from nothing. Like Leaven, I aim to fix and create.
I was taught that poverty didn’t have to look like poverty. I inherited the practice of handwashing shoes so no one could tell I only had three pairs, two of which were sewn with rubber from bike tires. I painstakingly shaved hand-me-down sweaters lined with lint so others couldn’t tell they weren’t mine to begin with. But I am not simply construed from federal food stamps, the First-Generation Low-Income title, or Goodwill mattresses. With Leaven’s support, I am my own creation.
I was born with malformed feet requiring multiple surgeries. So, my childhood aspiration to become a dancer yielded into a passion for reading and learning – anything about astronomy, physics or geology. I looked up at the night sky and dreamed about exploring exotic worlds in space, black holes and other high-gravity phenomena.
As a Mexican-American, low-income, first-generation college student, I often feel drowned within a hyphenated limbo. Coupled with the outsider label of being a “first” — a title that results in only the highest of expectations from those watching — the fear of failure looms in the presence of each opportunity to succeed. While the expectation of greatness often feels overwhelming, I appreciate that the option to flourish even exists — and for the first time for someone in my family, it’s within reach.
My parents came to America from Slovakia with high hopes and big dreams. They worked house cleaning and repair jobs, learned English and built a life to ensure a brighter future for me. “Study hard and you’ll have better jobs than we do,” my mother’s Rusyn words echoed in my head. “All your hard work will pay off.”
I have two sides – my quantitative side and my creative side. On one side, I take classes like Physics, Multivariate Calculus and Differential Equations. On the other, I play bass with symphonic orchestras, jazz bands and a rock band formed in high school. Both sides don’t simply co-exist, they harmonize.
I am not underprivileged. I am not impoverished. I am low-income. I am powerful.
It’s taken me a long time to understand these concepts and appreciate the weight that rests on my shoulders. I am the product of various seemingly contradictory forces: a citizen of Peru and now also the United States; formerly under-resourced, now on full scholarship; first-generation college student, now at Williams College. Prestige without pedigree.