If there was a club for Las Primeras, I would want to join. Today, I can be the first, la primera, because of all the others who have come before. My mother would certainly have been an inaugural member of the club. As women, as Latinas, many of us will be in the position to be the “first” at some endeavor, the first at some challenge. Recently, I was called to meet with a group of Mexican mothers. We met in the library of a local elementary school. Spanish speakers all, what tied them together that day was that they all had begun to volunteer in their children’s elementary school. I had been invited to share my story, how as a daughter of Mexican immigrant parents, I had been the first, la primera, to attend an Ivy League university, the first to graduate with honors, the first to receive a Ph.D.
The first. As I shared my story, I realized that twenty-five years later I continued to be the first. The first Latina to serve as a university trustee—at two universities, the first Latina to head up the Denver Mayor’s Office for Education and Children, the first Latina to receive the international Gandhi King Ikeda Award. As I was speaking I queried, how many of you were first at something? My heart believed that as women, as Latinas, we are asked to assume positions that no one in our circle of familiarity had ever served in before.
I asked the question and there was dead silence. Perhaps, I imagined my question didn’t make sense; perhaps I had asked it wrong. Then, in the back row I saw a hand raised. The woman with auburn hair shared, hesitantly, I was the first to graduate from high school. As all eyes turned to her the silence was broken by a wave of applause. All the women in the room were applauding her role as la primera.
Then another hand, I was the first in my family to ever volunteer in an elementary school. Another wave of applause. I was the first to serve as editor of my son’s school newspaper and succeeded in having it published in Spanish. The applause grew louder. I was the first to cross the border and travel to el norte. The courage was palpable in her words. The applause had gone from celebrating individual work to sharing in a collective pride. One woman in the front row, with long black hair, painfully raised her hand. She struggled to hold back her tears as she shared, I was the first to have a stable family life in this country and the first that can now help the rest of my family. With these words the tears in the room flowed. Todas juntas, together, we could feel each other’s fear, courage, and the pressure of responsibility. The applause that followed surrounded this woman with love.
We shared how alone all of us had felt, being la primera. We shared how fearful we had been walking across that threshold for the first time.
My mother was a primera. The first to travel north from Mexico, the first for her family to send all six of her children to high school and then college; and the first in her family to board an airplane to go visit her daughter’s university, Harvard.
None of these women considered being la primera a badge of honor. It just was. And, yet, when given a window to reflect on the work and effort of being la primera, the tears poured out. The relief of being able to say, it has been so hard! The relief of being able to say, I didn’t know if I would make it. The relief of being able to share how lonely it had been. And acknowledge that there was also a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment in being la primera.
We were a room full of primeras. Each of our journeys had been unique to us and yet so impactful on our entire family. As we laughed and cried at each other’s fear and courage, we were reminded that we were not alone. Not then. Not today.
So I officially want to launch La Primera Club. There are no dues, because we’ve already paid our dues by virtue of being a primera. There are no club meetings since all of us are too busy doing the meetings of life.
Our abuelitas, tias and madrinas are all inaugural members. Our job as Primeras, is to stay strong and make familiar these journeys to the young Latinas that are on their way.
The young Latinas who still are embarrassed of their moms for speaking broken English. The young Latinas who have only known store-bought tortillas. The young Latinas who wish they looked “more White.” All future members of La Primera Club.
Collectively, we have come so far. Fifty years ago, my mother faced signs on restaurants that read “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed”. Today, Latinas walk into classrooms, boardrooms, and staterooms. Las Primeras…abriendo puertas because of all who have come before us.