When the four smartest white kids in my junior year English class banded together and called themselves the Snow Leopards, I knew that things would get ugly. They formed their unfortunately named group in response to our teacher’s decision to include a unit on race in America. (The Black Panthers would be so disappointed.) They went on the defensive. They argued that Irish immigrants faced racism comparable to Black people. They were dubious about the invisible knapsack of white privilege thing. And they really hated affirmative action.
“It’s just not fair,” one of them said during a particularly dramatic class discussion on racism in the education system. “It’s not my fault that I was born white and now I’ve worked my butt off to go to a good college, but I won’t get in because I’m white.” She was later recruited to one of the best schools in the country for rowing.
I should say that, at this time, the Snow Leopards were my friends. Not my close friends, but the kind of classmates who Facebook messaged me for homework help or contributed to a group study guide for a test. They didn’t hate Black and Brown people, so they didn’t want to be held responsible for white supremacy. They said these things in front of me all the time.
At the time, I wondered what they would say if I reminded them that I would ostensibly benefit from the thing they hated so much. To get the acceptances they didn’t think I deserved.
I had become good at camouflaging; white people say things to me about people of color as if I am just like them. The Snow Leopards saw me as white because I went to an Irish Catholic school and didn’t have an accent. But if I reminded them of my last name, I knew the jig would be up. The racism that they thought would be okay to spew in front of me would no longer be okay.
When it was reported in August that the Department of Justice would begin investigating university affirmative action policies, I remembered that Snow Leopards grow up and become politicians. They want to make sure that admissions policies don’t discriminate against white applicants. I remember the Snow Leopards who were afraid of the “reverse racism” that might, for once, not benefit them.
Escobar, I want to scream. Why are you so scared of my name?
My last name is a gift. It’s a clue for people who cannot make sense of the racial patchwork that is my body: my Polish mother’s freckled cheeks, my Salvadoran father’s tanned skin, my aunt’s stick-straight hair, my tias’ thick eyebrows and upper-lip hair. It’s a piece of El Salvador that I get to keep with me, a piece that proves I am my father’s daughter even though I can’t speak his first language.
It’s a ticket, I am told, to the college of my dreams, to the jobs I want, to the awards I might receive for my work. These are things, white classmates will tell me, that white people cannot get because they are not one-sixteenth Native American and “nothing bad has ever happened to them.” This is supposed to evoke sympathy.
I went to a college preparatory high school, meaning that we were led by guidance counselors who desperately wanted us to reach our full potential. (read: apply to elite, selective schools). Here, I learn that “Escobar” opens doors for me. (Never mind that future coworkers will unironically ask if I am related to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.) “Escobar” means that I can go wherever I want for college. (Never mind that my father, who bequeathed me this name, will not set foot in Evanston until my graduation.)
My teachers’ faces lit up when I told them my test scores. “With those scores and your last name,” one said, “you should be applying to Ivies!” I did not apply to Ivies because none of them had journalism programs. My guidance counselor reminded me to list “Latina” on all of my applications. She was well-meaning. In her mind, this would get me into college.
In 2017, we make up 12 percent of Northwestern’s undergraduate student body. In 2000, it was 4 percent, a whopping total of 321 bodies in chairs tasked with the implicit duty of teaching their white classmates about Latinidad by osmosis. This is progress. And still, 48 percent of the student body is white.
Every time I check a box for Latino/a , I think of the Snow Leopards. I wonder if they thought I mostly got into Northwestern because of my name. I wonder if my teachers think this too, even though they’re the ones who told me to pull out Latina when I needed it. Still, I mark the box because it is true, not because I think it’ll make me a shoe-in. Sometimes, though, I hope it will.
What if the race card really worked like that? Wouldn’t life be so much easier if I got to use “Escobar” the way that someone’s wealthy white father could call in a favor with his old buddy to get his kid a job? What if “Escobar” became a substitute for generational wealth that let me take unpaid internships without a second thought? What if “Escobar” became white?
Instead, my race card works like this: my mother incredulously asks me why I’ve started calling myself “a woman of color” in college because she’s never considered me a Latina. Every white guy I’ve ever dated has spoken better Spanish than me. My sixth grade seat partner tells me that he’s going to buy me a razor for my birthday so I can shave off my upper lip hair, the dark mustache I’ve inherited from my Tia Aracely. I write letters to get my cousin out of an immigration detention center.
I got into Northwestern because my Catholic school kindergarten teacher pulled me out of class to read chapter books since I had already learned how to read. I had parents who had the time to read to me before bed, to take me to zoos and museums and sign me up for violin lessons. I had access to a public library within walking distance of my house, where 10-year-old me checked out 10 books a week and read all of them. I went to a Catholic high school where counselors and teachers had the time to mentor me, which gave me a scholarship to attend Medill’s high school journalism program. I’ve been lucky for reasons that have nothing to do with my name.
And hell, I might have gotten in because of my last name. But why does that matter? I shouldn’t have to prove that I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps to get into an elite institution. I shouldn’t have to prove that I got in on my own merit because meritocracies are bullshit. No one gets into college just because they’re smart. That’s not how it works. They get in because they know how to play the game of test scores, recommendation letters and alumni interviews. They get in because of legacy, because their dad knows a guy, because they were able to play an expensive club sport to get recruited. Sometimes, they get in because of affirmative action.
My mom went to college, so I’m not a first-generation student. Still, I think of my father. He barely graduated high school. After fleeing El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s as a teenager, he learned English from watching children’s television. I think of watching PBS documentaries with him and seeing him research the Big Bang on Wikipedia. I think of him naming all the different types of trees when we go north of San Francisco to the Redwoods. I call him after my Latino Studies classes to talk about the theoretical frameworks of migration that match up with his lived experiences of crawling through pipes to get to the U.S. I send him books on California mission architecture that my Latin American art history professor recommends to me; he tells me his father never went to college, either.
I can’t go back in time and get my father a better education, but I’m getting mine now, and my children can, too. I’ve had access to resources my tios and primos never had in El Salvador, and I feel the urge to pay it forward somehow – making their resumes, sharing things I’ve learned in my classes, reporting on the immigration policy that’s determined so much of their lives.
Sometimes, though, thinking about my dad on graduation day is all I need. “You keep on putting me on the clouds,” he texted me the other day after I sent him a story I had written. “I couldn’t be more proud.”