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Writing myself into Princeton’s story

<h6>José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian

As I’ve written and published more essays in these pages, I’ve discovered a great joy in knowing that I’m writing myself into the story of this place, Princeton. It may only be a few thousand words by the time I graduate, but they’ll be there. Alongside headlines of prestigious prize winners and major world events, I’ve added, among others, one celebrating my birthday, some mourning my losses, and one honoring my identity.

At least, part of it.

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For some reason, I’ve hesitated to write more explicitly about my Mexican identity or my story of immigration. They’re weird, complex identities and issues I often struggle to understand on a personal, internal level, especially as an immigrant to a country with a distinctly difficult history of race and otherness. But after this much time as a student here, it might be a lie by omission to not write this part of me into the story of this place.

To begin, I have to go back to a high school dance. By that point, I had visited Princeton’s campus only once and sent in my early action application as soon as possible. I was set on calling this place home. Not yet December at the time of this dance, I hadn’t yet heard from Princeton. But that didn’t stop a friend’s parent from asking me about my application essays. 

Awkwardly posing for a photo, the way one does with a platonic date, I fielded questions. I remember smiling through questions about my family’s background and history in Mexico. I remember brushing off a comment about what a shame, in their view, it was that I didn’t have family in Mexico, poor and working away on some farm, that I could write about for my essay. It was a joke to them. It was a caricature of my family and my birth country to me.

I brushed it off because I didn’t have the time or desire to explain: to explain that some of my family actually does live in the countryside, to explain that many from my maternal grandfather’s generation are engineers because my mom’s dad moved all on his own to the city to study and set the example. To explain that every preceding generation has worked harder than I could imagine so that one day I could get to be the one to come to this place and profit off its luxuries.

And what I couldn’t explain that day, for it had not yet happened, is that in the morning, when I open my Princeton-provided wardrobe and choose one of the many, many button-down shirts my friends know me by, I can’t help but hear in my head the story my mom has told me and my brother more times than I can count: her father would launder and iron his dress shirt each and every day so he could study at his university, because he didn’t have a wardrobe full of shirts like I do. He had a single dress shirt.

I never met him. He died a month after my older brother was born. But I always wanted to write his story as part of my story of this place.

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When December came around and I received my acceptance letter, I eventually remembered that parent’s comments. I clearly still do to this day. But they were only the beginning.

The next incident to stand out came in January 2020, when I traveled down to Florida with the Princeton Triangle Club for its then-annual tour. I’ve written about Triangle a lot before, and pretty much in only positive terms — for a good reason. Every time I get behind a spotlight or climb up to a set of catwalks or even tremble up a ladder 30 or more feet into the air, I am reminded of how much I love doing my lighting work — no matter how sore I may end up the following day.

But that doesn’t change the fact that on the fringes of my incredible tour memories remain racist comments made by our alumni hosts and later repeated for laughs on the tour bus. I laughed alongside everyone else as a freshman; it was the easiest way, I thought, to brush those things off. But brushing things off doesn’t erase them.

I’ve been told by club officers since then that the next tour (whenever we can finally make that happen again) won’t handle such comments the same way, and I trust that promise. But I’ll always regret simply laughing along during my first tour.

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I regret laughing along because it hasn’t been the only instance of brushing things off involving Triangle’s alumni. If anything, it was only the very first instance. I’ve brushed off conversations in which I’ve been made to feel complicit in tokenism. I’ve brushed off weak-willing attempts to atone for the group’s past racist sketches and songs.

I could go on, but I think that’s enough for now. It was enough for me to realize that, for all the joy and the excitement of seeing those little triangles light up the McCarter curtain and of hearing the wild cheers the moment my friends start strutting into a kickline, these great memories will always be a little marred by what some alumni have done.

There’s a certain irony that it’s so often alumni who tarnish my Princeton memories when the school so often celebrates its strong alumni connections.

In fact, all the fences going up around the campus these days in preparation for Reunions remind me of how much alumni can dominate the story of this place; alumni like the old white man at the Ohio Valley Princeton Association’s holiday party this past winter break.

Despite everything I just wrote, I still do have great pride in the students of the Triangle Club. So when asked by our wonderfully generous host to give a campus update for all the alumni at the party, I, of course, included Triangle’s then-upcoming triumphant return to the McCarter stage.

Afterwards, this old man ended up talking to me, mentioning he once hosted the club in Cincinnati. After commenting that I’d love for a future tour to swing by Cincinnati once again, I heard the dreaded, practically cliché, question: “Where are you from?” It’s so often a neutral question, but enough years in Ohio teach you that there are certain people who ask this question in order to separate you as different, foreign. They see your too-dark-to-be-just-tan skin and hear your not-English name and demand to know how you are less American than them.

So I gave my standard when-in-Cincinnati answer of Loveland, a suburb northeast of the city. He followed up exactly with what I expected: “No, your family.” 

That time, I had just enough energy to explain that we’re from Mexico, but I wish I had followed up by pushing him with the same questions until he named some European country — likely Germany or Ireland, given Cincinnati’s history. But I didn’t push; I just went home shortly after and brushed it off.

But I can’t keep brushing things off. I have to find — somewhere, anywhere — a line to hold firm. I’m writing now — adding this long-overdue part of my story to the story of this place. A recent incident involving an alum reminded me that there are things I must refuse to brush off. 

Maybe the alum misspoke, as is somehow almost always the case in these scenarios. But misstatement or not, the incident brought rushing back all these memories I’ve now written about. It brought up so many of the same gross, uncomfortable feelings I previously had tried to simply brush off.

All these memories, all these feelings, they’re part of my story, and they’re part of Princeton’s story as well. And still, there’s a part of me that hesitates to highlight these moments in my story of Princeton. There’s a part of me that wishes I could write about my Mexican immigrant self without grappling with these moments of being othered — made to feel separate and alone. There’s a part of me that wishes I could write about my grandpa without worrying about feeding into a toxic narrative of a model immigrant.

But at this point, I’ve decided to just simply write, to join my story and Princeton’s.

This idea of writing yourself into the story of a place is one I first encountered in one of Brittani Telfair’s columns. She discussed an essay by Myriam Gurba, who criticizes Joan Didion’s racial grammar for, among other things, diminishing my own Mexico.

In some acknowledgment of Didion’s influence, Gurba writes:

“She modeled how writing yourself into the story of a place convinces readers that the place is yours. You, the author, fuse with rhetoric and fact. Your body joins the topography.”

Reading these lines the first time a couple of weeks ago and again now, as I write all this, brings some peace to the very unease I discovered when The Daily Princetonian’s own diversity report revealed that, at the time, only six percent of this paper identified as Hispanic or Latino — zero percent among those who had spent more than three academic years at the ‘Prince.’

With those numbers, I’m pretty certain I’m the only Mexican immigrant who grew up in Ohio in his third year at the ‘Prince.’ There aren’t many people like me around here to tell our stories. I’ve only managed to tell my own so far.

There is indeed some unease or loneliness in this reality. But the peace I’ve found in response is one I’ve created by adding the missing part of my story, finally, to this paper and to this place. Headline by headline, I’ve made this place a little more my own.

José Pablo Fernández García is a junior from Loveland, Ohio and Head Prospect Editor at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at jpgarcia@princeton.edu. 

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect@dailyprincetonian.com.

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