Harvard Homecoming

Another Shade of Crimson

by | May 21, 2000

I don’t do sequels. In ten years as a writer, I’ve published more than 400 articles, essays, and op-eds. I’ve written a book, and contributed to others. I’ve done a newspaper column and magazine features. But, as I trudge along, I try to never retell a story that’s already been told.

That’s just as well, since one of my favorite stories would be hard to revisit.

The storyline is different. The circumstances that fed its drama have changed. The setting, while familiar in some respects, is, in others, barely recognizable.

Ten years ago this June, I stood in Harvard Yard in a cap and gown, a cigar in one hand and a champagne bottle in the other. A few months later, I set out to write about my experience as a Mexican-American student at Harvard. That experience, while among the most enriching in my life, was taxing at times. The challenges weren’t academic, but cultural.

I was alienated from my surroundings, and that alienation colored much–too much–of my Harvard education.

In the late 1980’s, Mexican-Americans made up just 2.5% of Harvard College’s 6,000 undergraduates. Despite demands by Latin@ students that Harvard keep pace with innovations at competitor schools like Yale and Stanford, there were no Latin@ professors, no courses in Latin@ studies, and no real support system for those Chicano students whom the Admissions Office was so aggressively recruiting out of warm and nurturing towns in the Southwest.

Part of the problem was geographic. Harvard is in Massachusetts–a state where there were, just ten years ago, few Latin@s of any sort and virtually no Mexicans, where Spanish was rarely if ever heard on street corners, and where the Mexican food should have come with a warning label.

The rest of the problem was the nature of Harvard itself. My left-leaning classmates and I were, at the time, inclined toward the conventional view that Harvard was “too conservative” to come to grips with what was, even then, foreseeable demographic changes and the coming “Latinization” of the United States. We were convinced that Harvard was failing its students by failing to adequately prepare them for the changes ahead, and that the most prestigious educational institution in the country was preparing the “best and brightest” to succeed in a new century alright–the 19th Century.

We were wrong. As I realized only years later, the problem wasn’t that Harvard was too conservative, but that it was too liberal.

There are at least three things that liberals do poorly: put aside their arrogance long enough to take criticism; absorb an alternative view that conflicts with their own; and question the fruits of their good intentions. And there’s at least one tenet of American liberalism that has caused more confusion, more contortions, and more contradictions on the part of its proponents than could have ever been imagined when the concept was originally conceived.

The ideal of “colorblindness” makes liberals’ heads spin. Always has.

Back then, liberal Harvard administrators freely acknowledged that they had, during the admissions process, taken into account the ethnicity of Mexican-American, and other minority, students. They almost bragged about it, apparently considering such color-consciousness to be an enlightened and necessary part of admissions. But once the students arrived on campus, those same administrators suddenly decided that being enlightened meant being colorblind and paying no heed to ethnic differences that might complicate students’ transition to university life. In fact, they ignored those cultural distinctions as if they were an infliction of some sort. And given their arrogant resistance to criticism–especially from the people (in this case, students) who they were trying to help–there was just no getting through to them.

What did get eventually through, what did sneak past the threshold of Johnston Gate late one night several years later and jump into John Harvard’s lap, are the very demographic changes that Harvard had refused to recognize.

Harvard would change. Massachusetts would change. All of New England would change. It would all change. And fittingly, the changes would come not because of demands from a bunch of assimilated, elite, Chicano students with good grades and bad Spanish, but because of Mexican immigrants.

Last fall, ten years after popping the cork on that champagne bottle, I came back to Harvard to complete a one-year Masters’ program in Public Administration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

For a moment, I thought I’d taken a wrong turn at New Haven.

Massachusetts has become more Latin@. Population figures don’t tell the whole story. In 1998, Latin@s made up just over 5 percent of Boston’s population. But the numbers are growing, and they’ll soon eclipse those of African-Americans. Besides, no matter what their number, Latin@s tend to stand out in any population by retaining, and displaying, their culture.

On subway trains, Spanish words pepper the chatter of commuters. The street vendor selling mittens in Downtown Crossing says he’s from Honduras. Brazilian nannies sitting in a Somerville park gossip about the families that employ them as their young charges run and play. The storefront in Maverick that housed a Greek restaurant now hosts an always-crowded Mexican taqueria.

There are political changes as well. Mexican, and Central American, immigrant parents whose children attend a Boston school district have united in an association to advocate for a better education. The first three Latin@ members of the Massachusetts state legislature have taken their oaths. Among the contentious issues on the state’s political horizon is reform of the state’s bilingual education system, in which immigrant parents complain their children are trapped.

And Harvard, once behind the times, is trying to get ahead of the curve. Last fall, the Kennedy School of Government held a forum intended to give a peak at a group of voters who might decide the 2000 election. The perfectly-timed event took place the same week that the Wall Street Journal astutely proclaimed Latin@ voters the “soccer moms” of this election, sure to be courted by both major parties, and as Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore had begun to trot out their best Spanish in stump speeches.

There are now Latin@ studies courses in the Harvard catalog, Latin@-themed events on campus, and even a handful of Latin@ surnames in the faculty directory–though mainly at the graduate level.

Then there’s the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, which Harvard created in 1994. Its mission statement describes the endeavor as seeking to “expand research and teaching about Latin America and related fields” at the University and “strengthen ties between Harvard and institutions throughout Latin America.”

There are taco shacks on Massachusetts Avenue where a more edible form of Mexican food is cooked up by real Mexicans. Go into a celebrated pizza parlor in Harvard Square, the one with the Italian flags and the postcards from Sicily, and you’ll find Mexican immigrants twirling pies as the Italian owner issues commands in Spanish. In the belly of the Kennedy School, I practice my Spanish with janitors from El Salvador who perform all types of labor in all sorts of weather while, a few doors down, the only Latin@ professor on staff cluelessly lectures about how “unskilled” Latin@ immigrants are clinging to welfare.

To the degree that my book was inspired by alienation to my surroundings, I’m not sure I could write it now. That is, I’m not sure–if I could relieve my undergraduate experience in these new surroundings–that the alienation would be as strong as it was back then.

Of course, not everyone is happy about these changes.

Last summer, when a small Texas town on the Mexican border declared Spanish its official language, the hosts of a Boston radio show howled in protest as their callers let loose with nativist hysteria. The callers didn’t hesitate to tell the cultural subversives to “go back to Mexico,” ignoring the fact that Texans have especially deep roots and that some of the Tejanos embracing Spanish have been on this side of the border longer than the New Englanders’ ancestors have been on this side of the Atlantic.

I prefer to think of Massachusetts’ new arrivals as more blessing than burden. With a strong work ethic and an optimism about the future, these immigrants will revitalize neighborhoods in Boston and Cambridge, reopen abandoned businesses, earn money and pay taxes, and restore the luster of the American dream. They’ll change, and they’ll change us.

I’ve long ago made my peace with Harvard, and I now feel only enormous gratitude for all it’s given me. This magnificent institution has, time and again, been invented, and re-invented, by castaways and misfits of all colors and cultures. And it has only been enriched in the process.

Already the Mexican food has gotten better.

Spring 2000

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