We Deserve Success
Sometimes it is hard to celebrate yourself. Maybe you feel like an imposter. A fake. Like you don’t deserve it. Or maybe it is because you don’t remember what happiness feels like anymore and it scares you.
What if it (happiness) goes away? You’re so unfamiliar with it, that you don’t see it when it is there– missing it once it is too late and it is gone. We self-sabotage without knowing, a default setting that may come from not being fully healed from our past traumas. So we project.
At the age of 25, I was convicted of a non-violent offense for a crime I committed when I was 18. A first-time offender, I was sentenced to four years. This became a part of my identity. I was boxed in and confined, literally and metaphorically. I was marked. My Scarlet Letter.
I was full of reasons why I should not participate in my California State University Northridge graduation ceremony. Who’s going to even show up? I didn’t want to be reminded of what I did not have. Parents. A supportive family. I felt alone, and graduation was going to bring all of those feelings to the surface.
I wasn’t ready for it. I had buried it all deep within me, or so I thought. They were living in my chest. Besides my inner struggles, I was also struggling financially. I couldn’t afford to graduate.
As a survivor of multiple forms of violence and trauma, there was a lot I was still coming to terms with. For years I rejected parts of me instead of learning how to dance with them. Among the things I’d buried were the two-and-a-half years in solitary confinement.
What are you doing after graduation? I felt boxed in again. I applied for jobs on campus and was disqualified because of my background. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, much less what I would do after graduation. I had no roadmap. My future seemed bleak, hopeless.
Nah, I’m good with graduation. I was raw, unable to heal from one wound and already
nursing another. All of this simply served to deepen my insecurities and fears. I didn’t know what my next move would be. I was figuring it out.
As the date approached, I got into my head more and more. At times I was excited and, at others, I just didn’t know what to feel. Imagine being the first “Homegirl” to graduate from Homeboy Industries with a bachelor’s degree.
Huge for sure–but in my mind I was a lousy student. I froze when asked to write a literature review. I didn’t know how to ask for help or where to begin. I stopped going to class for a bit. Other students were working way harder and were more deserving. Maybe academia wasn’t for me.
If you want different results then you gotta do things differently. I reached out. I started occasionally seeing my therapist at Homeboy again. It helped.
An amazing thing was happening to me, but it was clouded by doubts and make-believe obstacles. Maybe I could have been a better student, but I should not have allowed all those dark thoughts to discredit my accomplishment or to cheat me out of this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience. In spite of all the good that was coming my way, they did, however.
Mija, after all the fire you have been through, you are graduating. This was a major achievement that at the moment I could not grasp. I missed all the necessary deadlines and even had to take an incomplete for my thesis class — that damned literature review!
I saw my college advisor at a campus poetry reading. He’s the same guy that told me there was no way I would be walking across that stage in May of 2016. When I first met with him I had just been accepted to CSUN. I was late to my appointment and had been on campus only once before. I took my then 2-year-old son Logan with me to my advisement appointment, making the trek from South Central to the Valley. Logan had fallen asleep in the car and in transitioning him to his stroller he woke up in a horrible “oh no you didn’t just wake me from this nap” mood, screaming for his Hulk and Spider Man toys that were somewhere in the backseat.
When we finally made it to his office I was told to reschedule because
I was 15 minutes late.
“Nah, homie. I am not driving back.” We busted out the Cheerios and sat in his office, we waited. He finally met with me.
I explained my circumstances and asked what I needed to graduate the following spring. “It’s not going to happen. You are on academic probation. You need 18 units, and you need to pass the upper division writing exam.
There is no way you can walk by Spring of 2016,” he told me. Logan dropped Cheerios all over his office floor, I didn’t even try to pick them up. I walked out feeling overwhelmed.
As I stood before him at the poetry event. I was off of academic probation, had passed the exam and was only in need of three units, which still made me eligible to walk. He asked me if I had submitted all the necessary forms for graduation. Not only did I miss the deadlines, I didn’t have the funds.
“Come see me,” he said. I went the next day.
How could this guy, who once told me it couldn’t be done, all of a sudden want me to walk? I sat in his office once more. This time he wanted me to walk, he was happy and nearly in tears as he checked off boxes while doing my grad check. “Wow, Lilia! I can’t believe it.
You did it!” he exclaimed, getting up from his chair with tears in his eyes and giving me the tightest hug, saying how proud he was of me. “You have to walk, I will make it happen.”
He set all the wheels in motion and moved mountains to ensure I walked across the stage. But I didn’t really want to.
Homeboy Industries paid for my cap and gown and degree. CSUN gave them 50 tickets to the ceremony, way more than the regular seven each graduate customarily gets. It was a big deal and everyone knew it.
Me still, not so much. All I saw were the roadblocks. The doors that were closed and some that were never open. The uncertainty. The unknown is scary.
Everyone came out to cheer me on.
Much later, I came to realize that it wasn’t about me. It was for others like me and creating a pathway for them. The ones who didn’t think they would make it this far, much less have a small army cheering them on. It was about the importance of us being reflected in and a part of higher education.
For Homegirls everywhere to say, “Yo tambien! Because Homegirls get degrees too!”
My incarceration no longer solely defines who I am or what I will be and I had to own that.
We are not our past. We are not our mistakes, and we are not defined by the worst things that have been a part of our journey.
I wish I would have embraced and welcomed the scary and the unknown, but back then I didn’t know how to. So if you’re having a hard a time celebrating yourself and your accomplishments, do it. Celebrate. Cry. Delight in it all. You’ve made it. You deserve it. You are worthy.
Lily Gonzalez is a full time student, mother, activist and community organizer for “All of Us or None” Los Angeles and Long Beach chapters. She is also co-founder of Revolutionary Scholars, a campus organization that supports students affected by mass incarceration.