Narrating Cultural Citizenship: Oral Histories of First-Generation College Students of Mexican Origin
Benmayor, Rina, Social Justice
When I was in high school, I worked in the summers. Not because my parents made me...it was me, I wanted to do it. I wanted to have money for myself and to help them out. It was in the summer that I got a letter from ETS [Educational Talent Search], asking me to come to a program called FOCUS. It is a mini bridge program preparing us for college....(1) I did it for a week and then I went back to work in the broccoli fields in Greenfield. All of a sudden, I got a call on the walkie-talkie. I was putting the boxes of broccoli together in the trailer. It was my supervisor's brother. He said "Pedro, I got some news for you." He hands me the walkie-talkie. [My supervisor on the other end] told me he got a call that I got accepted [to the university]. I was pretty happy! I told my mom. She started screaming! She was packing broccoli. She stopped and said she was very proud of me. It was good. All she could do was smile. She was so happy. Her dream for me to go to college was going to be complete (Student interview, Gonzalez, 2000).
THE "BROCCOLI STORY," AS I HAVE DUBBED IT, 15 ONE OF MY FAVORITES AMONG more than 80 hours of oral histories with first-generation college students on our campus. In a graphic and poignant way, Pedro Gonzalez captures the pride and hope that going to college represents for so many Mexican-origin (2) students and their parents. I always think of this story as I drive through the patchwork fields in the region. How many of the women and men I see stooping over this green gold are dreaming these dreams for their children?
Pedro's story also reminds me of why I joined the founding faculty of California State University. Monterey Bay (CSUMB). This new university was envisioned specifically to serve the historically underrepresented in higher education--low-income, working-class students from ethnic, racial, and im/migrant backgrounds. Given its geographic location at the edge of the Salinas Valley in California, I knew that many of my new students would be the daughters and Sons of migrant mexicana/o farm workers, who work the fields to put food on our tables every day. Young women and men of Mexican heritage comprise 25% of our student body, and most of them are the first in their families to attend college, sometimes the first to graduate from high school. (3) The opportunity to combine professional and political purposes in one coherent effort remains very seductive.
Along with its emotional force, the "broccoli story" draws me in with its subtexts, interpretive possibilities, and theoretical potential. The story is about a personal and collective dream of achieving a college education. It makes a point of affirming a strong sense of responsibility to family, which for students often takes the form of continued contributions to the family economy, as well as role modeling, paving the way to higher education for younger siblings. These commitments shape Mexican-origin students' goals and aspirations in very significant ways. Pedro was not in the fields when telling this story. He was at the university library, constructing his account. He could tell the story because at that time he was living it.
How do I, as an oral historian, faculty member, and informal ethnographer on my own campus, interpret this story? Does it merely assert the culturally gendered role of the independent male provider? Or is the story really about how first-generation students of Mexican origin construct and fulfill that educational dream? How do they negotiate the transformative experience of higher education? Are they "losing their culture" to upward mobility, as some studies would claim? Do they experience college as a process of deracination? Or are they negotiating multiple cultural worlds in integrative ways, venturing into the unknown world of higher education to bring new resources to their cultural communities? …