First Gen Entrepreneur

Way before talk of a wall, my aunt traveled across the border with a paid coyote. She was Black, dark enough to fit outside the norms of Latino identity. If ever that was a benefit, it was at the border. But her sons looked more mestizo so they were tucked in a compartment beneath the backseat. They were driven to San Diego where they met her brother. Some twenty years later, their citizenship applications were finally completed. That was the somewhat norm of experiences of my family and other migrants from Nicaragua in the 1980s and 90s.

When I think about Central American migrants then and now, resilience and tenacity immediately come to mind.

My dad is from Panama, and he arrived many years before my aunt and cousins from Nicaragua. When I think about my dad’s experiences at home, deciding to come to the US, only to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, then decades later discovering cancer, “tenacity” and “resilience” hardly cover it.

These aren’t things that we talked about much. You sort of learn enough not to ask, and just enough to hopefully learn some of the same lessons they did. Growing up, there were certainly times when I felt guilty for having anything especially when those moments were punctuated with a “There are children in Nicaragua who would [insert a really dramatic verb] for what you have.” But the greater lessons came in learning to be, learning to maneuver among people who do have plenty but don’t have someone dropping those dramatic verbs to provide context, learning that your best doesn’t come at someone else’s expense.

It’s a unique perspective especially in being an entrepreneur. It’s a world that seems to value the exact opposite.

More than a year ago, I started working at Stanford after a decade of ups and downs of grad school while single parenting. I had been teaching for nearly two decades at that point, finding my way through New York City, a rural village in Moldova, to the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and back home to the Bay. I founded two companies that went through such ups and downs that my son and I lived in a hotel for much of their starts. And now, at such a prestigious university, I was finding my footing in the area of race, tech, and schooling.

On this day, I was walking across campus with a professor discussing the data analytics I was playing with in my app.

“That’s some really interesting analytics you’ve got going there. Did you do some of that in your grad coursework?”

“No. I was a single mom teaching in public schools in the Bay Area. I had to supplement my income so I got in on the best game in town,” I said, voice quivering, completely giving away my actual lack of confidence. Of the many things I learned in grad school, one had to be how to easily manage a Coursera course or two. But in the Silicon Valley there were tech bros aplenty and I wasn’t sure I had enough pairs of Allbirds to count myself amongst them.

“Yeah.” We were about the same age and he was one of a few faculty of color on campus. I watched him slip sometimes, especially around Black students, into what Alim and Smitherman describe so well in their text. So his “yeah” seemed extra real to me.

“I have to tell you,” he continued. “I admire your tenacity.”

“Oh.” I paused. There were a lot of words I wasn’t quite sure belonged together especially with “your.”

There was something else that came along with being a child of immigrants from developing, war-torn countries — we know how to hide.

I had perfected the art of hiding in plain sight, similar to my cousins in that compartment in the backseat. It took a lot for me to receive praise or even ask for help. And I certainly wasn’t volunteering to go first to do anything.

So I shrugged under his praise, lowered my gaze, tucked my hands in my pockets, and kept walking.

“Seriously,” he added.

I glanced over at him as he gave me a nod.

He paused for another moment before continuing, “Sister, you have to finish all that you’re doing. You’re a black woman, data analyst, race scholar. I mean…”

I nodded again. This time I was trying to hide tears.

“And entrepreneur. That’s real hustle.”

I flashed back to my last college race in indoor track season: the lead in the 4 x 400. I was the alternate and the original lead twisted her ankle while she was long jumping. I hated that race and even more that it was a relay everyone would be watching. But I figured it would be a way better story if I really killed it, so I set out to leave it all on the track. I could hardly hear my coach screaming at the top of his lungs, “That’s how a senior does it!” When it came time, I could be the lead, be at the center.

“Thank you,” I said finally.

I was ten years old the day my dad came home from work, saw me sitting there watching television and declared, “I’m not raising lazy Americans.” He took me on his after-work six-mile run. It was during those long runs that he really taught me tenacity and resilience, and hiding in plain sight more as a subtle listener, leader, and thinker, rather than being overly humble.

I would never know what it was like to cross the border, leave one war to encounter another. But I would know how to appreciate those lessons enough to pass them on to my son.

“You’re nine now.”

“Yes,” my son nodded.

“It’s almost time for you to go running with me. Are you ready for that?”

“Yes, mom.”