"I felt that I had to prove and defend myself and my heritage. I’ve always felt like I’ve had to prove myself as a Mexican woman. Prove that I am smart and driven.”

Tell me about yourself.

I am a very feeling person. I love to feel passionate about the things that I do, in everything that I do. My family is very important to me. My little sister, she was born with a learning disability, and she’s always been my main motivation to work hard in school and to get ahead. Also, my mom. I come from a family of woman leaders. My dad’s not in the picture, so, it’s been tough without him, but we’ve pulled through.

What was it like growing up in Orlando, FL?

I was born in Chicago, but I really grew up in Orlando, and Orlando is a beautiful city. I live in Pine Hills, also known as Crime Hills, so we live in a pretty bad neighborhood. But, being the only Latino family has been a little, I don’t know, different. Never really fitting in, and never really being a part of anything, but you try to find your way through it all.

Was there a huge culture shock coming from that environment to a school like Duke?

Yeah. I’ve never been around so many different people. Different nationalities, different languages, different religions. But, I think what has remained the same is that back in Orlando I was always the Latina girl, the Spanish girl, and here I think that’s been consistent, sadly. But it’s fine, because I’ve always been very proud of my heritage and my identity, and I just keep pulling through and representing my heritage to the best of my ability.

How do you identify, ethnically, and how does that identification play a role in your life?

I’m Mexican-Colombian; I am an immigrant’s daughter, and a first generation American. When I introduce myself as Mexican, I feel that people automatically think wetback, and other hateful stereotypes. But, when I introduce myself as Colombian I get like, "Oh, beauty," and, "higher status." I’ve always gotten that, in most interactions that I’ve had, and that’s something that I hate.

I was in an interracial relationship, and his family saw Mexicans as lower class people. And, I kind of had to live through that, and I hated it. I felt that I had to prove and defend myself and my heritage. I’ve always felt like I’ve had to prove myself as a Mexican woman. Prove that I am smart and driven. Yeah, my family was undocumented for a time, and a lot of them still are, and yeah, a lot of them didn’t graduate high school and barely made it out of their countries to come to the United States. Recently, I had a conversation with someone and he said “Oh, but Elizabeth, you’re Mexican, but you’re of a higher status” and I didn’t say anything, but in my head I thought, what does that mean? And, you know, I realize that Mexicans in this country are still stigmatized and we have to prove that we are of a higher status for some reason, because the standard says that we’re not. And, that’s horrible.

Hopefully not, but have you faced any challenges involving race since entering college?

You know, it’s hard to put a finger on it because at Duke, people aren’t like blatantly discriminating or racist or anything, but there are micro-aggressions. I really haven’t thought of this much, which I think is a privilege. And in talking about privilege, I’m a lighter skinned Latina and I feel like my counterparts, some darker skinned Latinas, feel more discrimination on campus than I do. So, I think that’s definitely a privilege to recognize, and that’s something I didn’t recognize until I came to Duke. But, I feel like there’s always going to be that machismo or, like, that idea that men here can accomplish more than women can, so I don’t want to be like the token “sweet Latina girl” who is in the background, I want to be a leader and not just be a woman leader, but also be a leader in itself.

What challenges have you faced being a first generation college student?

Not just first generation, but a low-income college student. I have friends of different income backgrounds, so I think that students who come from low-income backgrounds and poor schools, we do come in with a slight—well, a major disadvantage, actually. I went home over Thanksgiving break, and I told my mom, “Hey, why didn’t we do this?” and “Why didn’t you read to me at night?” “Why don’t I have as good of a vocabulary as a lot of students in my grade,” like, “Why didn’t we do this? Why didn’t we do that?” and the thing is, my mom educated me to the best of her ability, and, I’m here because of what she did. And so, as a low income, minority student, yeah, I do come with a disadvantage, but I’m here to learn and I’m here to learn from other students from different backgrounds and I’m here to keep going, and I’m not going to let that stop me, I just have to work harder.

Click here to read the other stories in this series.

Using Format