If you haven’t already, please read this super brave+powerful+important post by Tiffany Martinez!
“There are students who will be assumed capable without the need to list their credentials in the beginning of a reflective piece. How many degrees do I need for someone to believe I am an academic?”
My mother has no less than 10 degrees. When she moved from Cuba to America, she was told that education was the only way to the top. And for every degree she got, she was told it was not enough. And when she got a whole slew of degrees, she was told things like, “Why are you overcompensating? You must be super bad at something else. That’s just too much.”
The first time I ever got accused of plagiarism, it was in an extremely similar manner to Tiffany Martinez. I was told that my language was too advanced, too clear, and that even though it was consistent throughout my piece, I must have somehow copied and pasted from somewhere else. It was suggested briefly that I could have had an adult help me… but notably, my own mother was left out of that suggestion.
I was so scared to go home and tell my mom, worried that she wouldn’t believe I didn’t cheat. But when I handed her the note from the teacher my mother beamed. She still brings the story up today. The time her daughter wrote so well the teacher thought it had been written by… well, a ‘real’ American child. Someone who wasn’t first generation, someone who hadn’t grown up on a mix of Yiddish/ Spanish/ ‘Broken’ English. The fact that there was a perceived dissonance between my heritage and my actions was a point of pride. A smart, well-spoken, assimilated child: the ultimate goal of the poor immigrant.
I don’t mean this in any way as an insult to my mom. She navigated within a messed up, racist system the best she could. Growing up I hated her insistence that my English speaking/reading/writing/analytical skills all needed to consistently be so much better than those of my classmates. I was so annoyed that I wasn’t allowed to use slang at home. I was so frustrated when I was made to leave the dinner table to look up a word in the giant dictionary we still have on a pedestal in the center of the living room, or to turn off the TV for several hours of reading out loud to my dogs each and every night. None of the other kids ever had to do this. I didn’t get it. It didn’t feel fair.
All of her hard work- and by extension, mine- meant that my reading skills tested at college level by the time I reached 4th grade. I have never gotten less than an A in any English class I’ve taken, including honors/AP. And when I took the MCAT recently, I didn’t spend a single day studying for the English part, and got a perfect score.
My English skills have given me so many opportunities and privileges that she never had. People are always surprised when they find out I’m first generation, and I’ve been told multiple times it’s because of how advanced my English is.
“Wow, you don’t SOUND first generation!”
It’s not a problem with my mother, and it’s not a problem with me. It’s a problem with how our system is run. How immigrants and their children are treated. The assumptions made before people even meet us that continue to persist long after.
It has been made clear to both of us we need to speak “American” to get anywhere in life. We have both been forced for the majority of our lives to use “THEIR” words…. only to be told that they will never be OUR words, no matter what.
When my mother moved to this country America did its best to take her culture, her pride, and her achievements away from her. They took away her language to the point where she struggles to remember words in Spanish she has no problem using in English. America has taken so much from us, but they cannot take our voice.
English is my best language. These are MY words. My mother’s words. Tiffany Martinez’s words. So we’ve surpassed America’s expectations for us time and time again, leaving non-immigrant Americans confused and angry? That’s just too bad. THEIR system, THEIR problem. They can go ahead and make all the excuses they want. It doesn’t change the fact that we’ve taken everything racists have thrown at us and come back stronger. HENCE, local racists can use their words to complain all they want. But it won’t change a thing, because these are OUR words too.