Jessica Flores immigrated to the United States at the age of 7 and is a former candidate for ASUC Senate. The Daily Californian spoke to her about her experiences as a first-generation immigrant on campus. This is the third in a series of photo essays on the immigrant experience at UC Berkeley.
The Daily Californian: What was it like to immigrate so young?
Jessica Flores: We moved right after my birthday. We had uncles who were already here, and I had been before to Disneyland. My mom was like, for your birthday we’re going to take you to Disneyland. … We never went back.
DC: When you arrived, what did you experience?
Flores: It was really difficult at first. I remember enrolling into third grade at the elementary school where we lived and I remember the teacher — I didn’t speak English, and the girl who sat next to me did, and so she would translate in class the first day, and the teacher called her out and said, “Hey, don’t translate for her. This is America. We speak English.” That was my first exposure to American elementary school. I went home and cried and told my mom, “I don’t want to go back.”
But after a week, we moved and I enrolled in a new school. That was a lot better. My teacher there, his name was Mr. Amigo. I don’t know if that was his real name. He believed in me so much. He was the reason I pushed myself so hard. I am very petite, and he would tell me, “You’re a little person but your brain is so big.” I learned English in six months. By December I was fluent, because of him, because of the support and the constant reminder (that) he was there for me. I was not intimidated. I won the Student of the Year award. I was in regular classes in fourth grade but by fifth grade I was in the gifted program. Then I did honors classes. It carried through to high school. It was because of him, that third grade experience.
DC: What was the family attitude toward academics?
Flores: My parents were very traditional. They said, “Your education is what really matters, it’s the one thing no one can take away from you.” They were very supportive. They didn’t get a lot if it. They didn’t know what the SAT was. Even though they didn’t understand they would still drive me to take the test. They knew that it was important to me and they were always supportive even when they didn’t know what it was, when they couldn’t understand why I was staying up so late doing work or paying to retake a test. They just knew that I had to do it and that they were going to be there for me. My mom was the type of mom who said “You’re never going to miss school, if it’s the sniffles you’re not staying home.” It was fairly new for them. My mom got to a sixth grade education. My dad got his GED in Mexico.
DC: As a first-generation immigrant, do you feel like you’ve experienced an identity crisis?
Flores: A little bit. There’s always that imposter syndrome, the token child. People say, “You did it, you’re better (than the others).” It sucks, the idea of “You made it out, good for you.” You’re highlighting my abilities for some reason because you don’t expect it from me. People say it’s so good I’m at (UC) Berkeley now. They’re shocked, which hurts a little bit too. You shouldn’t be so shocked that I could make it. … Sometimes I get dragged into that mentality that maybe I am better than what people expect from me. There are these expectations, and I outlive those expectations. But I’m not better than those other kids at my school who didn’t have the resources or the support my parents gave me. The thing that separates me from other students was my parents. They drove me to school, they supported me, and that’s not a privilege that every has. I was very lucky. It bothers me that people are shocked that I’m here, that they tokenize me.
DC: Do you think your peers tokenize you at Berkeley?
Flores: I’m pre-med. I’ll go to office hours and I think there’s this idea that people don’t want to work with me because they think that I don’t know. In office hours, the GSI doesn’t help (me) but another student who doesn’t look like me asks for help and there’s all the help in the world. I’m here and I want to learn and I am taking the time to go to office hours and help isn’t given to me because they think I won’t know. People think I’m not a suitable partner for a lab because they think I won’t succeed, and that hurts.
DC: What pushes you to fight for your education despite these challenges?
Flores: My sisters. They’re both younger than me and they look up to me. I’ve always tried to be strong for them. I don’t want them to think that I’m struggling, but I want them to see that it’s possible even when it’s not the best situation. I want them to keep pushing themselves. Also, my parents have sacrificed so much for me that at this point my education is what I have to give to them.
DC: Which culture do you most identify with?
Flores: I went to a very white middle school and so I had a bit of an identity crisis. I said, “I can’t speak Spanish, I can’t dress a certain way because I want to fit in with the white girls.” I became very distant from my culture, my language, my customs because of this. In high school, having my quinceañera in ninth grade, I realized, “This is beautiful. It means a lot to my parents for me to celebrate my culture.” Coming to (UC Berkeley), joining Latinx clubs, I am able to celebrate my culture. I wear my hoops now even though in high school I didn’t. Culturally, I am more into American culture, but now my Mexican side is coming up more. The older I get, the more appreciative I am of my parent’s culture, their teachings and the values I want to instill in my sisters. My little sister is about to go to middle school and I don’t want her to feel the way I felt. I want to show her that we can be proud to be who we are.
DC: You ran for ASUC Senate this semester. As a woman of color in politics, what were your experiences like?
Flores: I never envisioned myself being in politics. I focused on STEM. … Now I know I want to minor in public policy because there’s a beautiful thing when you bring health and policy together to create institutionalized change that affects more than just an individual. I want to promote health policy in communities like mine. I want to help people like my parents, my neighbors. … There are so many communities riding on me, despite people not taking me seriously.
Contact Lillian Holmes and Daniel Kim at [email protected].