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El Miedo a lo Desconocido: Overcoming My Fear of Change as a Mexican-American Student at Harvard

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Growing up, my family always reminded me that there’s beauty in the unknown; something that is new isn’t necessarily something to be afraid of.

I mean, it works that way with food. I still remember my horror at eating grasshoppers for the first time in Oaxaca, Mexico. Everywhere I looked on my plate, a million beady eyes stared right into my soul. I took my first bite with my eyes squeezed shut — yet a few chews later, I realized that grasshoppers taste practically like chicken. Not so scary after all.

Harvard is similar to eating grasshoppers. When I first chose Harvard, I was ecstatic — everything I’d ever worked toward was mine. But, as the months progressed, that overwhelming ecstasy morphed into a twisted feeling, reminiscent of my grasshopper-eating experience. I couldn’t stomach knowing that my life was about to drastically change.

You see, 95 percent of Laredo, Texas, my hometown, is comprised of Hispanic or Latino Americans, and these demographics heavily influenced everyday life. I spoke in Spanish to my friends between classes, joked about the “chisme” circulating within our hallways, and learned from three Ms. Garcias, two Ms. Rodriguezes, and two Mr. Gonzalezes throughout my education. Whether I realized it or not, my Mexican culture enveloped me throughout my childhood and teenage years.

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When I came to Harvard, however, this comforting blanket was torn from me. For instance, people on campus were unable to say my name. I’m Silvana. Yet, throughout my first semester at Harvard, the name gifted to me by my mother morphed into Savannah, then Svetlana, then Sylvia, until I finally began asking people to “call me Silver…yes, like the metal.” Since my not-so-voluntary name change, I can probably count the number of people that have attempted to pronounce my actual name on two hands.

My most jarring experience of culture shock at Harvard happened on Sept. 16, 2021, my first Mexican Independence Day away from home. I dressed in my handmade Oaxacan huipil, rebozo, and filigree jewelry. After struggling to apply my dried-out red lipstick, I left my Wigglesworth suite fully prepared for a Mariachi’s serenade — and needless to say, that wasn’t the case. Instead, I was met with a gloomy gray sky and soggy ground. September 16th may be commonly known as Mexican Independence Day (although some confuse it for May 5th), but in my calendar, it’s marked as the day when I realized I was no longer at home.

Home, however, is with me wherever I go. I may not be as immersed in my Mexican culture as I am in Laredo, but I haven’t forgotten it. Whenever I see a Hispanic student on campus, I immediately have a full-blown conversation with them in Spanish, and I plan to dress up every September 16th, even if no one recognizes the cultural significance of my outfit.

Although I haven’t been taught by another Ms. Garcia at Harvard, the proctor of the entryway I am a Peer Advising Fellow for coincidentally shares the same Iberian surname as my favorite 10th grade World History teacher. And sure, it sucks that I don’t hear my name as often anymore — especially considering its importance to my identity — but maybe “Silver” indicates the new person I’m becoming while I’m here.

When my childhood friends ask me, “What’s Harvard like?” I’m unsure of what to tell them. A casual “it’s pretty cool” usually suffices, yet these words hide what it’s really like to be a Mexican-American student at Harvard. On the one hand, Harvard is a “land of opportunity,” where Wall Street geniuses invest billions of endowment dollars on our education. And as a Latina, I’m living, breathing proof that far-fetched dreams like Harvard can be reached with dedication and a “sí se puede.”

However, the disconnect that exists within our communities is palpable. I’m ashamed of my homesickness, especially when I’m an “inspiration” to those who weren’t able to leave Laredo in the first place. Sometimes, I wish I could force people to pronounce my name correctly because I miss Silvana and what she represented. Yet, I appreciate everything Silver has done for me.

Unfortunately, the disconnect I feel at Harvard is part of the deal. When we all chose Harvard, we chose to leave our homes, and with that, a part of our identities. However, this detachment shouldn’t be mourned. If anything, we’re each a missing puzzle piece that belongs to a different puzzle. Try fitting us together, and we won’t create a single image. But we all fit together somehow, even if imperfectly.

Coming to Harvard detached me from my past identity, but introduced me to a version of myself that is equally as important. I’m still a missing puzzle piece, but I’m slowly finding people and communities that I see myself fitting in with.

I now realize I’ve been so focused on keeping Silvana’s memory alive that I’ve missed out on the person I’m becoming. Exactly who that is, I’m not yet sure, but I’m excited to find out.

Silvana Yarrington Pacchiano ’25 lives in Eliot House.

This piece is part of a focus on Hispanic authors and experiences for Hispanic Heritage Month.

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