It’s December in my Southern California town, and the mornings are always cold. If I can convince my father to turn on the barely functional heater before bedtime, he will turn it off by four in the morning to save money. I do not blame him. Neither he nor my mother has a stable job — and not only because of the widespread job losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In spite of being two of the hardest-working people I know, they have lived at the economic edge — and sometimes slipped over it — my entire life.
I am home from Harvard University, a place that is almost devoid of students like me. This fact makes me feel wanted and unwanted at the same time.
I had never heard of Harvard, or even imagined it, when I was a boy. With my three brothers — two older, one younger — and our parents, I lived in shelters and, occasionally, motel rooms. When I was five, my undocumented parents were granted asylum. A year or so later, in August 2001, they had their green cards, which enabled us to move into Section 8 housing in Palmdale. For a long time, I thought we ate off the dollar menu of fast-food restaurants because we just liked it better.
In his native Nicaragua, my father had protested against the dictatorships of Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle and Daniel Ortega. When he first arrived in the United States in 1993, he found work as a migrant farmer, a roofer, and by standing outside Home Depot in the hope of being picked up for odd jobs for which he was sometimes paid, sometimes not. Today, he drives patients from their homes to clinic appointments. The company he works for is often in the red; he is lucky if he earns minimum wage on payday. He does not protest. My mother, who had raised her nine siblings and survived domestic violence as a child, became a housekeeper at Motel 6.
I pull back the five blankets that cover my shivering body and walk to the living room to peek out the window. Under the bright morning sky, I see the overpass of California State Route 14 that connects our city, Lancaster, to Los Angeles. Below it, a tent encampment sprawls across the ground.
My attention is pulled away — something smells sweet. My mother has left me breakfast before leaving for work. I do not know how she finds the time or energy to cook between cleaning offices and homes and waiting tables. She has always been so loving. She is my hero.
To reciprocate my mother’s love when I was little, I saved chicken nuggets from my school’s free lunch program and smuggled them home to her in my socks. As I grew up, I surprised her with school offerings of another kind: certificates of achievement, report cards with straight As, and trophies that made her smile. My two older brothers had been expected to help support our family right out of high school; I had the privilege of dreaming of an education.
That dream took on a particular urgency the year before I entered high school, when we lost our home to foreclosure and the six of us moved into a two-bed motel room on Sierra Highway. Around the same time, a family friend who had helped raise me, an undocumented woman I loved and called Aunt Mary, succumbed to breast cancer. She died prematurely because she lacked access to health care. That summer my aspiration crystallized: One day, I would work with and for the sick and the poor.
In 2013, I became the first person in my family to attend college. Four years later, I became the first person from my city to attend Harvard Medical School. In 2024, I will become the first person ever to graduate from Harvard’s Medical School, Business School, and Kennedy School of Government.
At home in Lancaster, while Harvard’s classes are being held remotely, my worlds meet at the flimsy desk in my niece’s old bedroom from which I join Zoom calls, send emails, and write research papers. (I’m grateful for the WiFi — last year, I had to hotspot WiFi from my cell phone or drive to my brother’s house to use the Internet.) When I can’t work any more, I close my laptop and go for an afternoon run. “Cuídate” — “Take care of yourself” — says my mother, who’s returned home. Last year, a woman tried to steal my mother’s bike while she was riding it. “Yo sé” — “I know” — I tell her. I know where to run and, more important, where not to.
Back from my run, I hear a lone man singing ranchera — a traditional Mexican musical genre made popular during the Mexican Revolution and a precursor to mariachi. His voice reverberates through my bedroom’s thin walls. This is Guille, who is 45 and from Mexico. The odd jobs that supplemented his regular income disappeared when the pandemic hit, and he has struggled to stay afloat and help support his disabled eight-year-old nephew, who has expensive medical needs. He sleeps in my parents’ garage across from a father and his six-year-old daughter — Enok, my parents’ compadre who works as a dishwasher and cook, and Kaylee.
That evening, we gather at the table to eat my mother’s delicious rice and carne asada and the vegetables that are boxed and given away at the church down the street. I hear a child’s laughter followed by a knock on our front door. It is Enok, Kaylee, and Guille, come to join us.
My parents end our meal with a prayer, and I leave to pack my bags. To protect myself from the coronavirus, I had planned to drive to Massachusetts for the January start of the school year. My car, however, was deemed unfit for the cross-country drive. So instead, I put on two masks, head to Los Angeles International Airport, and board a plane. Two girls who have just met each other converse in the row behind me. The taller one says to the shorter one that she attends Harvard College. “I have never met anyone who goes to Harvard!” replies her seatmate. I buckle my seatbelt and open my book. I think back to a time when I would have said the same thing.
Alex, a Lyft driver, delivers me from Logan Airport to a building modeled after the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge in England. It was home to US Navy cadets during the Second World War, and to thousands of scholars since. It is my home now.
Exhausted from the flight, I trudge to my room. It is warm, perhaps even too warm. I open the curtains and stare in awe. The calm blue water of the Charles River shines below me. Runners braving the cold jog past. I open my laptop on my Harvard-funded portable standing desk and read a notification: My weekly coronavirus tests will be delivered to my door the next morning. More news: The gym, open to students and faculty, will open next month. The dining hall, replete with unlimited fun snacks and tasty meals, will reopen in a few weeks.
I shower, feel my eyelids heavy as I lie on my bed. I think of the impending inauguration, just days away. I think of my parents in Lancaster, the aroma of my mother’s cooking still in my nostrils, the taste of love. I think of their struggle, and of Enok and Kaylee and Guille, and I feel hope that a new administration will narrow the inequity I see, the inequity I have lived. Maybe it’s a new day of compassion for the marginalized. Maybe all children, regardless of where or to whom they are born, will find refuge and opportunity, not disadvantage and suffering.
I toss and turn in my comfortable bed and notice that there is no singing on the other side of my door. My mind races. It is hard to sleep. But at least I know that tonight, I will only need one blanket.
David Velasquez is a fellow at the Center for Public Leadership and a graduate student at Harvard University.