Chasing dreams as a first-generation Pinay

Cal in Color

raquel-navarro-calara_mug-online

“Samásnan mu ing pagarahalan mu,” my parents often told me in our native Kapampangan language: Do your best in your education. This notion lit a fire in my soul; one that would motivate me to blaze the trail, but also burn me in the process.

My parents are from the Philippines, a country suffering from the implications of 333 years of Spanish colonialism and half a century of U.S. occupation. They grew up surrounded by poverty and corruption. They prayed to the sky in hopes of a life better than what they and their families were given, but were left unanswered. Like many Filipinos, they had no choice but to pack the Philippines into their hearts, leave everything they knew and cross the ocean for the promised land.

My parents were just another arrival at the San Francisco International Airport, stumbling among unfamiliarity with high hopes and wistful aspirations. With nothing but ambition, they immigrated, hoping to attain the elusive American dream. Expecting abundant opportunities, they were met with the same unanswered prayers.

Poverty followed my parents from the Philippines to the United States. People say money makes the world go round. Our lack of money would shake my family’s world to the very core. Growing up, I overheard many arguments between my parents over how money should be earned and spent. I witnessed my father sacrifice his dignity for grueling, dead-end jobs. I saw my mother lose herself, both physically and mentally, from immense stress and turmoil.

In these moments of struggle, moments that seemed unending, they would turn to me and my two other sisters for solace. “Samásnan mu ing pagarahalan mu,” they pleaded, “Masakit ing bie,” meaning, “Do your best in education. Life is hard.” Life is hard without a degree that bears your name, and immigrants understand this reality better than anyone.

I manifested into their American dream. From elementary school to middle school to high school, everything I did was in pursuit of an infinitely lighter future not only for myself but for my parents as well. When I was accepted into the UC Berkeley, the future I struggled for felt more tangible. We’re getting closer and closer, I thought to myself. This was only the beginning.

With each passing year at UC Berkeley, I would lose a piece of myself. My parents constantly told me to do well in my academics, but I didn’t know how to. I was balancing two jobs to support myself and doing community work to support first-generation students of color like myself. I was finally working toward a bachelor’s degree, but it was at the expense of my mental health. My body became heavier in the mornings, and I had no energy or motivation to go to my lectures. I was no longer meeting deadlines. I neglected my responsibilities in the respective organizations I was a part of and isolated myself from the people I loved.

This dream felt more like a nightmare, and the future that once felt tangible began to slip away from my mind. The fire within me was slowly going out and the “withdrawal” button on CalCentral became a more tempting future to follow. Retention rates of Pilipinx students at UC Berkeley always frustrated me, but at times like these, I was numb to the idea of becoming a part of those statistics.

Contradictions consumed me. I felt guilty for hating this school because I had the privilege not many have of attending a prestigious university. I felt guilty for allowing myself to feel this low when my hardships didn’t compare to my parents’. I felt guilty for letting go of the dreams built on my parents’ sacrifices.

These spaces — spaces like UC Berkeley — were never created for people like me. When I would turn to Sproul Hall or Letters and Science Advising for support and guidance, I was just another 10-minute slot in their eyes. Another “clueless” student. I became lost in the rotation of the system and did not know how to navigate my way out of it. The chancellor and administration throw around and take pride in the word “diversity,” yet we don’t have enough sustainable resources and support systems for communities of color on campus.

I am currently a junior, and I am still trying to navigate both the system and my feelings. I am still trying to find validity in my presence on campus. I am still trying to create a balance between pursuing my own dreams and my parents’ dreams. I am still trying to take better care of myself, both physically and mentally. I am still trying to graduate. I am still trying, and that is all that matters. I am still trying because I am endowed with the same resilience my parents have.

We’re getting closer and closer, and I can’t stop now. The dream has and will always be ours.

Raquel Navarro Calara is a junior at UC Berkeley and a member of the Pilipinx community on campus.