Finding strength to uplift those in my community

Cal in Color

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I’ve always known that I needed to go to college. The prospect of being able to help people in my community who didn’t have enough economic resources to advocate for themselves made me want to give back. As a first-generation Mexican American, it was expected of me to go to college in order to have a successful career that would one day allow me to get my family and myself out of the working class. Going to college had become practically embedded in me because I realized early on that I not only had a responsibility to my parents but also to those in my community. Economic and racial disparities are so rampant in my hometown that I was struck with the need to help as many people as I could in as many ways as possible. 

Growing up, I hated seeing my brother and my friends get stopped by the police, questioned for no reason, asked to get out of the car; I thought it was a violation of human dignity. I often wished I knew how to help my family and those in my community so that law enforcement wouldn’t take advantage of them. I thought if I could inform my friends about the law, they’d understand how to advocate for themselves. Oakland has a history of violence and crime along with people of color who are not informed of their rights, so it is easy for police officers to take advantage of them. As a child, this fact didn’t sit right with me. It lit a fire in me that I couldn’t tame, and I needed to figure out a way to help my community.

I know firsthand what it’s like to be in a community in which people struggle to pay for the resources they need — money has always been hard to acquire and hard to save. We were poor and so were the people around our neighborhood. We didn’t live in houses but in apartments. Growing up, we didn’t have our own rooms; we shared one. I never knew anything different, so it was jarring to come to UC Berkeley and see that so many students were middle-class or just well off, living a stable life.

Throughout my childhood, I thought my family was middle-class, and I didn’t realize I was part of the working class until I was in high school. This realization, along with my knowledge and experience of what life was like in Oakland, came with the epiphany that I needed to be a legal studies major. I always knew that I needed to help my community and that somehow I’d be able to do just that.

My decision to become a legal studies major wasn’t only a desire. Even though I am absolutely interested in the institutions of the law and legality, their theoretical frameworks and cultural embeddedness, my decision was also a need. Now that I look back and reflect on my decisions growing up, I’ve come to realize that I’ve always felt I needed to go to school to study a subject that would tell me how I could help as many low-income people of color as possible. I couldn’t stand thinking about how there were families out there struggling to pay rent and buy groceries. Additionally, if they were somehow involved in any sort of legal dilemma, there would hardly be any resources available for them.

When it came to my decision on whether or not to become a legal studies major, the answer was evident. There were reasons upon reasons for me to major in legal studies, and though the fact of the matter is that the legal system is designed by lawyers because it is expected that they will be the ones to participate in the system, there are those in low-income communities who lack the financial resources to represent themselves. These people need a helping hand because they often lose a lot of civil suits due to this. It’ll take a lot to change the system, but the least I can do is work with it.

Genesis Alejo writes the Friday column on being a first-generation student. Contact her at [email protected]