Higher education felt like the only option for me once I graduated high school — I sure as hell had expectations to do more than just work a 9-to-5 job for minimum wage. With all due respect to Mickey D’s, I didn’t want to end up working a minimum wage job for the rest of my life. Working a part-time job as a server while going to school was growing old, and by pursuing education, I was making my family proud. With the odds seemingly stacked against me, I looked toward higher education as my ticket to success. Plus, I knew it would be tough for me to make a living without a college education and a few degrees.
I also didn’t want to attend the local state university everybody else from my high school went to. The local university was a great school, but it wasn’t a fit for me. I always dreamed of proving society wrong by attending a prestigious university. I was never encouraged to apply to any UC schools, and it motivated me. Why couldn’t I be the Afro-Latine student who defied the odds and applied to UC schools and other universities? Higher education offered the challenge of learning about myself through failures and triumphs.
If I was going to college, I had to do it big. “Doing it big” meant avoiding the mortifying high school reunion where I’d be surrounded by the same people I grew up with without allowing myself the possibility of meeting new people and discovering new parts of my identity elsewhere. Higher education is where I knew I could find myself, but it was something I never saw as a possibility unless it was off of an athletic scholarship. After playing football most of my life and realizing it wouldn’t last forever, I looked toward academics as a way out.
I was raised by a single mother of Mexican heritage, and my Black father was never in my life. In the beginning, the idea of attending college was not necessarily for me but for my mother: College was a dream she was never able to fulfill. Like most Black males, we’re conditioned to either play sports or live off of the streets. I had two options coming out of high school: Attend junior college, or attend a university I wasn’t too fond of attending.
It was easier accepting my identity in Berkeley than it was in my home in the San Gabriel Valley. The Bay Area is known for its diversity, and Berkeley is the best example of its inclusivity. The San Gabriel Valley is composed of a predominantly Asian population, so I always struggled with my identity growing up there because of my skin complexion. I was always the only Black dude everywhere I went. And everywhere I went, dirty looks and stares followed me — not to mention, being racially profiled by police in Pasadena for just being a Black man driving through a nice neighborhood. I always felt like Chris Tucker in “Rush Hour,” but it was a love-hate relationship because I valued my time and relationships in the San Gabriel Valley.
Education gave me the opportunity to explore my identity and learn about the various topics higher education provides. The whole aspect of education created opportunities for me to grow and fulfill the purpose of actually doing something with my life. Education gave me the option to help found the Black Student Union at East Los Angeles College and learn about the different experiences other Black students shared in higher education. The club was indicative of the underlying issues Black students face in college — there weren’t many of us.
The educational system itself is another topic of discussion, but it was tough managing being one of the few Black students at college. Not seeing any Black professors or students was tough — how could any of my peers relate to me? The lack of representation was frustrating in the sense that I had no mentors with a path similar to mine. The only time I ever saw another brotha — another Black person — outside of the classroom was on the football field. Playing football helped me explore my Blackness as the field was a mecca for Black athletes to bond and share a sense of camaraderie.
As a whole, education opens doors for many people of color, including myself. As mentioned earlier, despite being 6 feet, 1 inch and not too shabby at football, I wasn’t good enough for Division I or professional sports. Education has blessed me with the opportunity to transfer to UC Berkeley.
The mere fact of taking courses at such a prestigious institution has helped me grow as an individual as I’ve met other like-minded scholars and peers. Education allows folks to network and build long life-lasting friendships. Where else can you meet people from Japan, London and New York all in one semester? These different friendships have allowed me to value my own biracial identity in the sense that we’re all unique. Understanding that we each share a different identity has helped me fully embrace both my complexities. Berkeley has welcomed both my Mexican and Black background, but that’s what makes this city so great — it’s a mecca of sexualities, genders and nationalities. Go Bears.