Content warning: suicide and self-harm
The only reason I am at UC Berkeley is that my parents risked everything to leave Coatzingo, Puebla, Mexico, and give me the opportunities that they never had. In their small rural village, many children were forced to work and financially support their own families rather than go to school. For so many families that still live in their village, sending their children to school is impossible or not worthwhile. When I visit Coatzingo, it is obvious that I lead a very different lifestyle from the youth there. Thanks to my parents and their sacrifices, I am in such a privileged position compared to those in Coatzingo and others around the world.
But I know that this education system was not meant for people like me — people of color and marginalized communities. I grew up in a low-income community in South Central Los Angeles where saying that I went to a “predominantly Black and Latinx school” translated to saying “a poor school” or a “low-achieving school.”
Still, having any kind of access to education was so empowering. Despite the disparities and inequalities that schools in my community faced, I worked diligently because I knew I was my parents’ American dream. It was ingrained in me that going to college was important and that pursuing higher education would give me protection. I wouldn’t have to work overtime as a seamstress for minimum wage, clean people’s houses and be dehumanized and insulted on a daily basis or be exploited and disrespected by my bosses like my immigrant, non-English-speaking mother has been.
Knowing where my family comes from and the privilege that I have as a U.S. citizen, I was extremely dedicated to my education. But when my father passed away, everything collapsed. His death was extremely painful for me. I did not have the best relationship with him because of my parents’ divorce years prior. So after his death, I was left feeling guilty for not being there for him or telling him how much I loved him before he passed away.
During that period of my life, I became extremely depressed and even engaged in self-harm. The void, the anger, the desperation and the overwhelming grief I felt after losing my father made me lose interest in everything I once cared about. I stopped going to school and stopped caring about my education or my life moving forward because how could I move on when my dad could no longer move along with me?
But while I pondered on suicidal thoughts, I came across a letter in the mail from a university that my dad had apparently been attending without my knowing. In Coatzingo, my dad did not have great access to schooling, and when he migrated to the United States, he had to work in order to survive. But my father was insanely smart and determined in everything he did — it turns out that he was going back to school in his adult years to receive a degree in criminology. He died just months before receiving his diploma. Finding out that my dad was taken from this world before finishing one of his life goals made me find meaning in my own life again.
I took all the depression, guilt and anger that I had constantly built up within me and took it upon myself to accomplish my father’s unfinished mission. It wasn’t easy to get back on my feet, and I worried that I would fail my father because even though I had a lot of passion and determination, I felt completely lost.
As a first-generation college student, I had to navigate the college application process mostly on my own. Taking the SAT was incredibly discouraging and made me think that I would never make it to a university. No matter how many outdated practice books I rented from the public library, my scores were not comparable to the average scores for the competitive schools I was looking into. Feeling insignificant after using up all of my SAT fee waivers, I learned that it was never a measurement of knowledge but rather a measure of my socioeconomic status — while some of my peers paid for SAT boot camp and private tutors, I didn’t even have an updated prep book.
With my scores, I questioned whether anywhere would accept me — until acceptance letters started to arrive. USC, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Harvard and Brown all somehow wanted me. I thought that they must’ve made a mistake — why would they choose me, a low-income, first-generation student of color from South Central LA? Still confused but excited, I chose to come to UC Berkeley as a fully-funded Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholar. My mother didn’t really understand how big of a deal it was to be attending UC Berkeley with one of the most prestigious undergraduate scholarships. But she was so thrilled and overwhelmed with pride that her daughter — her first-born — would do what she could never do. It was surreal!
In my time at UC Berkeley, I’ve had to grapple with my identity and constantly continued to question whether I belonged, but I am very lucky to be here and I know that I and other low-income, first-generation students of color deserve to be here too. My story and cultural history of struggle inspire me to fight against poverty, oppression and marginalization in my communities and across the globe.
From experience, I believe that education, not necessarily schooling, is the key to empowerment and poverty alleviation. I want to make sure that kids like those in Coatzingo have access to an education that will open doors that have been closed to them. As a second-semester junior, I am close to realizing my father’s dreams. My accomplishments are not just my own — they belong to my parents, my family, my culture and my community. They belong to the people who made me who I am.
Marbrisa Flores is a junior at UC Berkeley studying psychology and is the co-director of The Suitcase Clinic.