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Winter 2001

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On being brown at
Skidmore

by Juleyka Lantigua ’96

     I have great and bittersweet memories of Skidmore.

     I made life-long friends, blossomed intellectually, and made many of the choices that will be with me for the rest of my life. But being at Skidmore was harder than it should have been.

     I began Skidmore with a complete lack of self-awareness. Growing up in the South Bronx, I had no idea that I was brown, that I had an accent, and that I was poor. To me, being poor meant being barefoot, having no food, having no TV. My family was not like that. Coming to Skidmore completely warped my sense of reality. People, especially white folks, readily pointed out my accent and inquired cheerily about its origin. Figuring out I was poor took about two hours after my arrival for first-year orientation. Ironically, the realization that I was brown became my political shield and most empowering trait.

     I came to Skidmore through the Higher Education Opportunity Program for students who are academically capable but can’t afford college. I didn’t wear Donna Karan to the Junior Ring Ball. I didn’t drive the latest Saab. My mother was able to visit me only a couple of times during the four years that I was at Skidmore—it took so much planning. I didn’t go skiing for spring break; I returned to the South Bronx on Greyhound to a family that was always welcoming and offered me everything they had.

     To my absolute shock, many Skidmore students had never met someone brown. For me it was fascinating to watch someone who was obviously eager to talk to me, to see that person walk toward me, then stop and turn away. I often suspected they simply had no clue what they would say if they started a conversation. Maybe they were afraid to make a mistake or hurt my feelings or “get something wrong.”

     Then I started doing the same thing! I had never met really rich people; I had never met people who had gone to Italy, people who played the violin. I was as dumbstruck as some of my classmates. And I was just as curious. On all sides, there seemed to be intrinsic barriers to making a connection.

     There was an unsavory episode in a sociology class. I was the only brown person in class when we were discussing the American welfare system. The professor turned to me and asked, “So, Juleyka, what’s it like to be on welfare?” I said, “I don’t even know what that is.” Both of my parents had multiple jobs. During junior high school I had bagged groceries after school.

     None of that mattered to me. I was here to launch myself. But first I had to overcome some of my deepest hang-ups.

     For my first two and a half years, I felt that I had entered Skidmore through the back door. Then I realized, yes, I did come in through a special door, but I should feel proud because it was almost as if I had to fight twice as hard to get in. After all, I had faced serious competition to earn a spot in HEOP.

     During college I was determined to be the very first Dominican Supreme Court judge. (I decided that shortly after learning that I couldn’t be president because I wasn’t born here!) Studying Spanish was an organic choice; it was the surest way to nurture my sense of self. Hence, my choice in majors: political science drove me, but Spanish kept me sane.

     During my most trying times, Spanish professor Patricia Rubio was my salvation. I went to her office and cried. She was someone with whom I could speak Spanish. She would remind me, “You’ll be fine.” It was almost impossible for me to maintain similar relationships with non-Hispanic faculty—there were so many things to deal with. I often felt like my professors were pleasantly surprised by how hard I worked. Although mostly supportive, a few had a hard time accepting that I was equal to the task.

     The most striking of all my Skidmore memories is that no one outside the HEOP office—not administrators, not faculty, not other students—was willing to risk making a jerk of themselves, “getting it wrong,” so they could get to know me. How to pronounce my name? Was I from Morocco? Where exactly is the Dominican Republic?

     That unwillingness to fumble was a big problem then. It still is. That’s why we’re still talking about it. I think we have to be more willing to say, “I don’t know how to say your name. Tell me twice, and I’ll try to get it right.”

     I guess my message is: let yourself be embarrassed once in a while. Put yourself out there for other people. You’ll be surprised what you learn about others and about yourself.

A double major in Spanish and government, Juleyka Lantigua ’96 was president of Raìces, the student Latino organization. After research in Madrid on a Fulbright scholarship, she earned a master’s in journalism and is now managing editor of Urban Latino magazine. This essay is adapted from her remarks at a Parents Council diversity panel during Family Weekend this fall.

 


© 2001 Skidmore College