From Chihuahua to Connecticut, by M.A.M., Guest Contributor
Growing up in Latin America is an underrated life-hack. Nothing is easy, nothing is given. Latin American people, like me, grow up in places where challenges force them to wake up every morning wishing things were different. I come from a place where a history of submission has been transformed into kindness and hospitality. I consider being born and raised in Mexico a blessing like no other. It is a land that sustains itself thanks to the thousands of hands of honest hard-working people who give their all for their families every single day. A country that demands people to reinvent themselves because of instability and creates kind and solid communities that are willing to unify to keep each other afloat. After all, we need to learn how to jump into the obstacle course of life.
I learned that I had to constantly reinvent myself at a very young age. Since I was a little girl, I knew what it was like to look for an anchor to sustain me. I was born and raised in Chihuahua, a small city in the north of Mexico, with my parents and my two younger siblings. For many years we tried to survive the economic limitations that were more difficult for a family as dysfunctional as ours. During my elementary school years, waking up in the middle of the night and running to my sibling’s room was almost a daily routine. I remember cuddling with Ernesto and Cesar to shield them from my parents’ loud arguing across the hall. Ernesto was seven when he started having, what I did not know then, was anxiety, which I tried to appease by rubbing his back and keeping his head close to my chest.
At some point, we went from hiding under the covers to being the only physical barrier that would stop my fathers’ arm from beating my mother. It was heartbreaking to see my mother brought to her knees, and a terrified expression on her face trying to fake a smile and saying: “I am OK,” to calm our fear.
Fortunately, the three of us found positive ways to build our emotional protective armor. My siblings found their refuge in music and sports, and my grandmother’s love sheltered me everyday.
Despite the adversities of my childhood, I also had great experiences. At sixteen I had a full-time job at a coffee shop after school. During the time I worked there, I learned some important lessons. I learned to connect with people, to listen, to observe and to be patient.
I liked memorizing the orders of regular customers to try to make their day a bit better. I knew Rogelio did not like to wait and that Julia was allergic to cinnamon. Seeing their appreciative faces when I made them feel memorable was my way of making a difference. I learned that we always get something in return for the good things we do, even if it is not monetary.
What I enjoyed most about working there was getting to know myself. My job taught me that there is always room for improvement. The coffee shop showed me that even by doing small things we can achieve great things. It also taught me how to deal with frustration and disappointment.
My skin thickened just in time and prepared me for the day my father decided to leave. Without a warning and without a goodbye, my father had decided that the family he had formed with us was not what he wanted for his life anymore. Coming home to my mother crying in front of the closet my father had emptied changed the perspective I always had. The day my father left was the day I realized that my upbringing had prepared me for that moment.
I understood that I didn’t want situations like that to define me and that I wanted to do something remarkable with my life. I focused on school, my job, and being my mother’s greatest emotional support. I put on my shoulders a responsibility that I could not carry, but had to assume for my family’s well-being. My mom and I always say that we formed a team of two without realizing it. We made an unspoken agreement to build a new foundation to support a family that was falling apart.
Sometimes I look back to those times and I cannot believe that the woman I once saw lamenting the loss of her marriage became the strong and determined mother I so admire. A woman who raised three children by herself and who used everything in her power to make them good people. After my father left, my mother not only knew how to deal wisely with the anguish of an uncertain future for her now single parent family, but also she knew how to anticipate all of our needs.
After graduating high school I intended to apply to medical school, however, I ended up enrolling in dentistry school at my local public university. It was my mother who motivated me to continue learning, growing and working on myself, but coming from a conservative culture, she suggested dentistry, not medicine, would be the career that allowed me to have time for a family.
During my studies, I began to learn how fascinating the human body is and everything that we still need to learn from it. Nonetheless, the fatigue caught up with me. I needed more hours in the day to be able to work full-time while attending a school as demanding as dentistry. Even though I was passionate about my studies, I understood that what I was doing was not sustainable.
I ventured to enroll in the Au Pair program. It was the perfect way to combine my love for children and my desire to travel. In less time than I thought possible, I had filled out the necessary paperwork and was being interviewed by families from all over the United States. The Stevens family opened their home to me, and they trusted me to take care of what is most precious to them: their children.
I moved to a different country by myself, to live with a family that I only knew through a screen. Moving abroad brought out the brave woman that I didn’t know I had inside me. I moved to a place where English was not, at least then, my dominant language and the traditions and customs were considerably different. The moment I stepped off the plane and heard people speaking English, I realized what a huge step I had taken. I adjusted to living with three wonderful kids, and eating frozen food for dinner. I grew to enjoy the tranquility of the suburbs and realized how much I liked eating bagels with cream cheese on the weekends.
Living in the US sparked my ambition and reignited the desire to move forward. Coming from Mexico where there are so many shortcomings made me appreciate how the US offers opportunity everywhere. I never dreamed of moving to the United States, however my time here transformed me. Being away from everything I knew helped me to see that although many of the events in my past were not up to me, there was a point where I could decide where I wanted to go. My experience here also demonstrated to me how fortunate I am, after I volunteered at Person-to-Person. I had the chance to help P2P organize clothing donations. Many people who went there were Spanish-speaking immigrants who did not know a word of English.
It was gratifying to allow them to feel heard in their own language while having someone guide them through the process of acquiring items. I could see myself in the eyes of the people I helped, because I always thought that it could be me who needed a hand. I saw the relief on their faces when they heard me speaking Spanish, because that meant that at least for a moment they would not have to feel so vulnerable being in an unknown place. What they did not know is that they also made me feel closer to home.
At the end of my au pair program, after a year and a half in the United States, I returned to Mexico with the intention of finishing dentistry school. Returning to Chihuahua after having traveled to many big cities and towns in America had altered me. One Mary Ann left but a new Mary Ann, who now lived day-to-day much more consciously, had returned. After living in a place where children read, enjoy art and play tons of sports, where people respect traffic signals and do not try to bribe the police, my vision evolved. It was heartbreaking to return and realize that although I will always love Mexico, what I am looking for is not there. Although I felt renewed, full of life, and ready to continue with my journey, neither my school, nor my family, nor any situation around me had changed. I was different but the circumstances that welcomed me home were the same.
I never expected to return to find a closed door. I ran into barriers in obtaining an education. I tried a thousand ways to secure aid from my educational institution, the government, and private funds, but nothing was available. In Mexico, not enough funds are allocated to students. Mexico does not invest in the education of its inhabitants and that is why people who believe they have potential seek support in other countries. I also ran into the barrier of the customs and traditions of a conservative country, where it is thought that there is a certain age you are too old to go back to school, and where as a woman you should be focusing on finding a husband and starting a family. I decided to fight against the social pressure of following a traditional path, and did not hesitate when the Stevens family offered to sponsor me to return to the United States as a student.
I enrolled in community college and registered for classes in the Allied Health Department. There, I have had an enriching experience which continued feeding my interest in the health sciences. An undergraduate degree will pave the way to broaden my knowledge in areas inside and outside of my major, and prepare me for my next academic steps. I wish to enter Smith College to continue my pursuit of scholarship and realize my ambition of forging a career in medicine. I am particularly interested in the summer research programs Smith offers, where I will improve upon my skills obtained assisting research in the microbiology laboratory the few years I attended dentistry school.
Smith will give me the opportunity to be part of a diverse community that values knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I wish to be part of Smith College because of its challenging academic standards and the sense of community that it promotes. It excites me that the Ada Comstock program will allow me to be fully immersed in a scholarly environment, and where I will meet students from other colleges and universities. I want to attend Smith because it will establish a solid foundation as I advance in my career.
The course I charted transformed the girl who once hid under the covers with her brothers into a better version of herself, which then led her to choose her life’s path. Growing up in Mexico and moving to the United States in my 20’s showed me that determination and resilience, along with kindness and honesty, ease the way through life’s uncertainties. The underrated life hack of a Latin American childhood has served me well, and I know that my will to move myself forward, my desire for knowledge and my community-based engagement will contribute to Smith College.
Yet another beautiful journey begins.
UPDATE!!!! M.A.M. informed us last week that she was accepted to both Smith College and Mt. Holyoke on a full ride! M.A.M. has decided on Smith. How great is that?
Some images courtesy of Flemming Madsen, fashion photographs by Louise Dahl-Wolfe.