As I wrote and published more essays in these pages, I found great joy in knowing that I was writing myself in the history of this place, Princeton. It may only be a few thousand words by the time I graduate, but they will be there. In addition to the titles of prestigious winners and major world events, I have added, among other things, one celebrating my birthday, some mourning my losses and one honoring my identity.
At least, part of it.
For some reason, I hesitated to write more explicitly about my Mexican identity or my immigration history. These are strange and complex identities and issues that I often struggle to understand on a personal and internal level, especially as an immigrant to a country with a distinctly difficult history of race and otherness. But after so long as a student here, it might be a lie of omission not to write that part of me into the history of this place.
For starters, I have to go back to a high school dance. At that time, I had only visited the Princeton campus once and submitted my early action request as soon as possible. I was determined to call this place home. Not yet December at the time of this dance, I hadn’t heard from Princeton yet. But that didn’t stop a friend’s relative from asking me about my candidacy essays.
Posing awkwardly for a photo, as one does with a platonic date, I answered questions. I remember smiling as I answered questions about my family’s background and history in Mexico. I remember brushing off a comment about the shame they felt of not having family in Mexico, poor and working on a farm, that I could write about for my essay. It was a joke for them. It was a caricature of my family and my native country for me.
I swiped because I had neither the time nor the inclination to explain: to explain that part of my family actually lives in the countryside, to explain that many of my maternal grandfather’s generation are engineers because that my mother’s own father moved everything to town to study and lead by example. To explain that each previous generation has worked harder than I could imagine so that one day I could come here and enjoy its luxuries.
And what I couldn’t explain that day, because it hadn’t happened yet, was that in the morning when I open my Princeton-provided wardrobe and choose one of the many , many button-up shirts my friends know me by, I can’t help but hear in my head the story my mom told me and my brother more times than I can count: his dad washed and ironed his shirt every day so he could go to college because he didn’t have a closet full of shirts like me. He had only one shirt.
I have 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.
When December rolled around and I received my acceptance letter, I finally remembered this parent’s comments. I clearly still do to this day. But they were just the beginning.
The next incident that stood out happened in January 2020, when I traveled to Florida with the Princeton Triangle Club for their annual tour. I’ve written about Triangle extensively before, and pretty much only in positive terms – for good reason. Every time I step behind a spotlight or step onto a set of catwalks or even jiggle up a ladder 30 feet or more in the air, I’m reminded of how much I love doing my lighting job. – no matter how well I can finish The next day.
But that doesn’t change the fact that on the fringes of my amazing tour memories there remain racist comments made by our former hosts and later repeated for laughs on the tour bus. I laughed alongside everyone in first grade; that was the easiest way, I thought, to eliminate those things. But sweeping things away doesn’t erase them.
Since then I have been told by club officials that the next tour (whenever we can finally make it happen again) will not treat such comments in the same way, and I trust that promise. But I’ll always regret just laughing on my first tour.
I regret laughing because that’s not the only time I brushed things off involving Triangle alumni. If anything, this was just the very first instance. I’ve brushed off conversations in which I’ve been made to feel complicit in a token gesture. I swept away the vague 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 excitement of seeing those little triangles light up the McCarter curtain and hearing the wild cheers as my friends start strutting around in a kickline, those big memories will be still a bit spoiled by what some old timers did.
There is a certain irony in the fact that it is so often the alumni who tarnish my memories of Princeton when the school so often celebrates its close ties with alumni.
In fact, all the fences erected around campus these days in preparation for Reunions remind me of just how much alumni can dominate the history of this place; alumni as the Old White Man at the Ohio Valley Princeton Association Christmas Party during winter vacation.
Despite everything I have just written, I am still very proud of the students of the Triangle Club. So when our wonderfully generous host asked me to do a campus update for all the party alumni, I of course included Triangle’s triumphant return to the McCarter stage.
Afterwards, this old man ended up talking to me, mentioning that he had once hosted the club in Cincinnati. After commenting that I would like a future tour to go through Cincinnati again, I heard the dreaded, almost clichéd question, “Where are you from?” This is 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 a different, outsider. They see your skin too dark to be just tan and hear your non-English name and demand to know how you are less American than them.
So I gave my standard answer when in Cincinnati from Loveland, a suburb northeast of the city. He followed exactly what I expected: “No, your family.”
This time I had just enough energy to explain that we were from Mexico, but I would have liked to ask him the same questions until he named a European country – probably Germany or Ireland, given Cincinnati’s history. But I didn’t push; I just came home shortly after and swept it up.
But I can’t keep sweeping things away. I have to find – somewhere, anywhere – a line to hold fast. I write now – adding this long overdue part of my story to the story of this place. A recent incident involving an elder reminded me that there are things I must refuse to sweep away.
Maybe the alum misspoke, as is almost always the case in these storylines. But misrepresentation or not, the incident brought back all those memories I’ve now written about. It brought up so many gross and uncomfortable feelings that I had previously tried to simply eliminate.
All those memories, all those feelings, they’re part of my story, and they’re also part of Princeton’s story. And yet, there’s a part of me that’s reluctant to highlight those moments in my Princeton story. There’s a part of me that wishes I could write about my Mexican immigrant self without struggling with those moments of being other – made to feel separate and alone. There’s a part of me that wishes I could write about my grandfather without worrying about feeding the toxic narrative of a model immigrant.
But at this point, I decided to just write, to join my story and Princeton’s story.
This idea of being part of the history of a place is the one I first encountered in one of Brittani Telfair’s columns. She discussed an essay by Myriam Gurbawho criticizes Joan Didion’s racial grammar to, among other things, diminish my own Mexico.
In some recognition of Didion’s influence, Gurba writes:
“She showed how being part of the story of a place convinces readers that the place is yours. You, the author, merge with the rhetoric and the facts. Your body joins the topography.
Reading these lines for the first time a few weeks ago and even now, as I write all this, brings some peace to the very unease I discovered when the Daily Princetonian diversity report revealed that at the time, only six percent of those papers identified as Hispanic or Latino—zero percent among those who had spent more than three college years at the “Prince.”
With these numbers, I’m pretty sure I’m the only Mexican immigrant to grow up in Ohio in his third year at “Prince.” There aren’t many people like me here to tell our stories. I have only managed to say mine so far.
There is indeed a certain uneasiness or loneliness in this reality. But the peace I found in response is the one I created by adding the missing part of my story, finally, to this paper and to this place. Title after title, I’ve made this place more my own.
José Pablo Fernández García is a junior from Loveland, Ohio and outlook editor at “Prince.” He can be contacted at [email protected]