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  • Writer's pictureLa Voz Latina

Growing up First-Gen in small town America

Written by: Carlos Sanchez

Carlos Sanchez holding a handmade craft at a Ravens pep rally at Bel Air Elementary School on Oct. 22, 2015 (Rosalva Gonzalez)

The door opens, and my dad arrives after a long day of waiting tables. Me and my sister rush over, give our dad a hug and kiss, and ask “¿¡Hola como estas?! ¿Como te fue en el trabajo?” Tired and exhausted, my dad always put on a strong face and said it went well. Sights like these were daily as a first-generation college student and American. 

Growing up first-gen, I didn’t really notice a difference between me and other Americans before elementary school began. From a young age, I was surrounded by Hispanic culture, particularly Mexican culture. Even though my hometown of Bel Air, Maryland was more than 81% white and 8% Hispanic per the Census, my family was heavily integrated with the small Hispanic community, giving me a sense of comfort. I never felt different than others because I mainly saw people that had similar traditions and customs to me, at least until elementary school began. 

As soon as the bell rung on the first day of classes, I quickly noticed that I was one of the few Latinos in many aspects of my life, especially in school. I found friends no matter their background, but it was definitely a culture shock considering my upbringing. I grew up with Spanish as my first language until I was 4-years-old, so much so that I was in the English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program my first few years of school. Once I learned English, I quickly started to develop a second identity. 

Two languages meant my life was split between two countries and two identities. I learned in English, but I lived in Spanish. 

I was living two lives. A lot of people once they have this realization have two options: either abandon your original identity and Americanize and assimilate. Another option is to embrace both for what they are and emphasize the best parts of each. 

I really appreciated the values that were instilled in me from a young age: culturally, religiously, and through cultural traditions. I really loved and wanted to embrace my Mexican identity. However, there were other components of my identity that strongly conflicted with my American identity. America and Mexico have vastly different cultures, which is a double-edged sword. 

American identity runs on being driven, as well as ideals such as freedom and liberty.  Aspects like this I very much appreciate about being American. However, some values such as the decreased emphasis on family and the less tight knit community compared to being Latino were aspects I couldn’t bring into my worldview. I can say all this now that I'm older, but it definitely took many years of growing up and soul searching to decide what parts of each identity I really wanted to embrace. 

This wasn’t an easy task either. Now I own my identity but there were definitely many times when I was younger and more insecure, that I was almost ashamed to be Mexican. I felt like to fit in, I simply had to suppress that part of my identity especially in certain social settings such as around my White friends. 

Oftentimes I noticed that people tried pressuring me to ignore my own culture.

 Somebody once commented on my Instagram post in 2017 “note to you no one cares that you’re Mexican please stop posting about it.” This is a common problem I’ve heard in talking with other first gen/minority people, and I know at least in my life it only served to emphasize my insecurities with having a double identity. 

As I grew older and into my high school years, I became much more in touch with my Mexican identity as I learned to embrace it. The struggles didn’t end at becoming closer to your true self, they continued in other ways.

From a young age, I saw the struggles my parents faced at the whim of the immigration system, as well as the difficulty of overcoming the language barrier. I was able to help bridge the gap, especially when it came to language. I see this as a big benefit in my life, but not one without its drawbacks. I was able to become independent much quicker through needing to learn things on my own, but I also needed to learn how to focus on myself as well.

 Stress, worry, and sadness are prevalent in the first-gen community, and it’s an oftentimes overlooked issue. Oftentimes we learn from a young age to focus on others through the years of translating and filling out paperwork, and one might even feel guilty initially once they have to start looking out for themselves.

 I remember thinking when I was younger “if my parents sacrificed their entire livelihoods to immigrate to the US, I need to finish this assignment now.” While it’s a driven mindset, it often leads to stress and anxiety if left unchecked. 

These issues compounded upon themselves with the college application process, where among club responsibilities, being class president, and difficult high school coursework, I and many other first-gen students had to figure out the path to college with very little help. 

Through reaching out to counselors and friends who knew how to navigate the American college system, as well as my own research, I figured out things such as the FAFSA, SAT, and what to consider in applying to schools. Organizations like “Linking All So Others Succeed” (LASOS , Inc) back at home are so integral in this process as well, as they provide help with a wide variety of problems such as navigating college, finding opportunities, and navigating the legal system.

 I will forever be grateful to my parents as well, as without knowing much about the system, they always tried their best to help me or find someone who could.

Through it all, I reflect back on my own future and I want to help others navigate the complicated process of being first-gen, whether it be through support or just through sharing my experience. 

Things are changing for the better in this country and opportunities are opening up. Even in my quaint and small town hometown, there’s been more diversity recently with immigrants choosing to make Bel Air a new home. 

As mentioned earlier, we need to remember to focus on ourselves while also remembering our family. In time, learn to channel that inner voice reminding you of your family’s sacrifice into good, while not letting it overwhelm you. Wear your identity proudly and share your story. There needs to be more people that openly speak up about their experiences being first gen, as everybody’s story matters. Lastly, we should celebrate our accomplishments and what the future holds. The fact we are even here is success enough. 

The fact that we’re breaking multigenerational barriers is enough. The fact we’re on the path to pull our families out of poverty is enough. No matter what, I’ll always be grateful to be raised in the U.S. in small town America in Bel Air. Circling back to the 2017 instagram comment I received earlier, I’d reply with one phrase; “I won't stop posting about being Mexican. This is me and unequivocally me, and there’s more stories like mine left to be heard.”

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