For My Family, Seeing Their First-Gen Latina Daughter Walk Across the Stage Would Have Been Everything

May 22, 2020 12:59:00 PM


If I were a magician for a day, I would strike my wand and eliminate the memory of the coronavirus as well as its impact. Instead, I am a high school senior adjusting to life during a pandemic that has ruined everything.

When I entered my senior year, I was looking forward to senior pictures, prom, grad night and a class trip to Yosemite Park.

When I got a temporary position doing phone banking for the 2020 Census, I was looking forward to earning enough money to pay for senior year festivities.

When I went to school, I enjoyed being a part of a community of people who understood me—people who understood the challenges facing a Latina youth from a poor or working-class family.

My graduation was supposed to represent hard work and accomplishment. Not just for me, but for my family as well. [pullquote]As a first-generation student, a graduation ceremony would have been significant to my family.[/pullquote] It would have meant that their sacrifices had paid off and were recognized in a public way. These weren’t just optional traditions—these were things that many of us anticipated for most of our middle and high school years.

Now, the hopes that I had for this phase of my life are a distant memory. The thought of graduating once kept me going. Uncertainty about tomorrow has left me questioning how to move forward.

Despite all that is going on, my classmates and I have been expected to perform like nothing has changed. [pullquote position="right"]How can we be expected to carry on like our world hasn’t been turned upside down?[/pullquote]

Before the pandemic, we completed our work via physical documentation. A lot of students at my school don’t have laptops. When we switched to online learning, my school received a limited number of laptops, but they ran out of them pretty quickly and I couldn’t get one. Not only is online learning tough when you lack the necessary equipment, but it also isn’t suited for all learning styles. I’m a very talkative person and I’m a visual learner. Online schooling takes away my ability to do both. I have tried to adjust but my grades are slipping.

Being assigned homework was always stressful. But when you can’t go to school to get help from teachers or classmates, homework becomes especially difficult. When you add in the sadness that many of us are feeling, and the lack of tools and technology to actually complete the work, homework in this environment feels like another hurdle. The thing is, all our lives, we’ve faced hurdles.

A Lot of Families Were Hanging On By A Thread Before COVID-19

Prior to COVID-19, a lot of families were already hanging on by a thread. My family is no exception. We had financial hardships before all of this began. The coronavirus pandemic has made everything worse. For instance, my sister was laid off and had to move back home. She is helping out a lot around the house. While it's nice to have her here, she shouldn’t have to take on responsibilities that are even hard for adults to manage.

This isn’t just my reality. A lot of students I know are struggling. And if we cannot communicate with our families, and get support from them, we feel isolated and alone. My family, like many Hispanic households, is under so much pressure to survive financially, that stopping to deal with depression means we may not have money to eat or pay our bills. So, while I feel sad at times, [pullquote]it's hard for my family to make space for anything other than working.[/pullquote]

But, “For children with a history of mental illness, the lack of structure and increased stress in the family can exacerbate psychiatric symptoms, such as depression and anxiety,” according to Dr. Jena Lee, medical director of pediatric consultation/liaison and emergency psychiatry at David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Lee said, “These symptoms may manifest clinically as somatic complaints, difficulty sleeping or eating, or behavioral regression, depending on the developmental stage of the child.”

If mental health professionals know and say this, schools and the community should do more to help. [pullquote position="right"]We need understanding from educators, and awareness that we are struggling right now.[/pullquote] This says nothing of the young people whose loved ones have gotten sick as a result of the coronavirus. What are they supposed to do? What are we supposed to do?

I have tried to rely on InnerCity Struggle, a nonprofit organization that teaches youth about social justice and helps us engage in campaigns to uplift our community. They have also launched a campaign to help raise money for students like me to get a laptop. If we are going to survive, we need more programs like this, not online learning that refuses to adjust to our reality.

As we try to make sense of our new reality, we will do so while imagining a future for which there is no blueprint. Any progress we make should be cause for celebration. We need education, but we don’t need punitive schooling and we don’t need to pretend that we’re living in normal times.

If kids are expected to face this new reality, adults should too.

Karen Balbuena

Karen Balbuena is an upcoming graduate from Lincoln High School located on the eastside of Los Angeles, California. Throughout high school, Karen became involved in many social justice clubs that target young people, such as herself, to bring about dignified change in her community. Centered by her economic and housing insecurity, Karen has led "Know Your Rights" workshops and gathered data from youth across LA county about their issues and needs, bringing impactful change not only to her peers but the wider Los Angeles community. She plans to major in psychology and eventually become a therapist to return to the eastside. Her goal is to support the mental health of her community and destigmatize the barriers that people face when confronting mental health challenges.

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