Content Warning: Sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicidality
On the eve of the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, my parents immigrated from Encarnación de Díaz, Jalisco, to Azusa, California, to raise a family. Like many children at the time, I was born into a crib of crack cocaine, as my papa, in the midst of his acculturation, lingered along the crossroads of fatherhood and drug addiction. For years, my family spun through the revolving doors of incarceration, and in 2004, my papa was deported and exiled to Mexico.
My papa left behind damage that resulted in my family’s tribulations of eviction, homelessness and poverty, and burdened us with the trauma of domestic violence and substance abuse. My courageous mama, through the miracle of her being, persisted in raising my four siblings and me on her own. And we survived long enough to see Section 8 housing and improved living conditions. The fruit of my mama’s labor ultimately manifested itself in the form of access to higher education. It is through her love, strength and resilience that I am sharing this story today.
Five years ago, when I first arrived to the city of Berkeley via bridges Senior Weekend, I didn’t even know Cal and UC Berkeley were the same place. Fortunately, I found my home in Hermanos Unidos, a Latinx retention-based student organization, or more affectionately referred to as a familia. With burning curiosity, I carefully carved out an education that allowed me to process the many complex traumas of my childhood. I joined June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, explored different majors and engaged with service work to better understand the systemic forces and histories that shaped my upbringing.
My second year I had the privilege of reconnecting with my papa in Mexico after being apart from him for 10 years. During this trip, I met my four half-siblings and instantly fell in love with everything about them. I had vivid dreams that my binational family would someday find peace in a home without borders. But, my heart grew heavy to see that my papa had not changed his ways. In fact, his new partner was in the process of leaving him because of his continued abuse toward her.
I returned to UC Berkeley disillusioned and emotionally unstable. Periodic phone calls to my brothers and their mama in Mexico became a source of transnational trauma. It hurt so much to be separated from them knowing that my papa was still causing them so much pain. At times, I experienced a profound dissociation from myself such that I did not believe I was in my own body.
I actively sought support through the Disabled Students’ Program and the Tang Center. Overall, the services were basic and lacked crucial intersectional perspectives that I needed. Out of desperation, I developed toxic coping mechanisms such as self-medication and social isolation. My habitual truancy progressively led me to withdraw from school altogether, as 20 years of unresolved trauma erupted into suicidal tendencies. In July 2015, I was hospitalized at Alta Bates Medical Center for chronic depression and self-harm.
Upon my release from a 5150, I reconnected with an adviser who provided an abundance of resources as well as the social support that I needed to get back on track. I eventually lowered my guard around this individual and gave myself ample space to be emotionally vulnerable in an academic setting. Our working relationship noticeably improved my grind and focus, and each check-in affirmed the grace that I needed to love myself again.
Unfortunately, this did not last long, as consensual side hugs escalated to nonconsensual kisses on the neck and cheek. When I voiced discontent with these advances, I faced retaliation through verbal abuse. It wasn’t until this experience that I discovered the open secret that many people already knew; this individual was a highly problematic campus staff member who preyed on vulnerable students by leveraging opportunities and resources.
The following semester I became a PATH to Care Center peer educator in the Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Prevention program. The leaders of this program and my fellow peers empowered me to file a staff complaint to the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination. Reporting sexual harassment was a taxing process that lasted about three months. In the end, I was protected by my village of loving people and the case was settled privately. The adviser was relieved of responsibilities, and I felt safe again. All praise be to the powerful women of color and queer students of color who inspired me to follow through with this.
I share my story to provide an socio-ecological perspective of the contextual factors that influenced the violence that I endured on campus. At UC Berkeley, students of color face immense risk when navigating formal methods of support, so there is a reason why we distrust most staff, faculty and administration who do not align with our identities and perspectives. We do so much work outside of school just to start the work we actually need to do to graduate. It’s hella exhausting to constantly seek additional services to process the services we were already seeking.
It’s a miracle that I am graduating today — I am definitely an outlier based on my privileges. But now it is time to heal. I leave y’all with this: Never let this school invalidate you or your experiences. Own your story. Connect it to the bigger picture and love yourself throughout the process. Always.
Adrián Alejandro Chávez is a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, PATH to Care peer educator and former co-chair of Hermanos Unidos. He is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social welfare and a minor in public policy.