Darinka Lechuga of Milwaukee is a first-generation college student of immigrant parents who graduates with bachelor’s degrees in both social work and Spanish. She also earned a global scholar certificate. On campus Lechuga worked in the Women’s Center, Dean of Students Office and Accessibility Center and served on the executive board of the United Students in Residence Halls. In December 2021, Lechuga was bestowed an I-RISE Award, which recognizes students’ resiliency in the face of adversity while they continue to advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion. After graduation, Lechuga hopes to work in higher education helping multicultural students find success.
The following are Lechuga’s prepared remarks from the morning ceremony during UWO’s 148th spring commencement:
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Today, I present my American Dream. The dream my parents wanted to give me. According to Merriam-Webster, the American Dream is, and I quote “a happy way of living that is thought of by many Americans as something that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful.” The example they gave was, and I quote, again, “With good jobs, a nice house, two children, and plenty of money, they believed they were living the American Dream.”
In the early 2000s, the American Dream was thought of as desirable, somewhat hard to accomplish, yet achievable. There are many of us in this room today who believed in that American Dream. A dream of accomplishments, freedom, privilege, dignity and worth. Along with those assets, our parents, guardians, loved ones and peers helped make that possible for all of us here today.
The original American Dream was a concept only for privileged individuals living in the United States. However, this concept was also shared with folks who were not privileged and were not living in the United States. As we learn about this dream that brings us hope and desire, we struggle to imagine what it looks like for others. The American Dream did not include struggle, stress, sadness and oppression for these individuals.
As previously mentioned, my parents wanted to give their children the American Dream. My mother traveled from the Dominican Republic all the way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in hopes of finding something better. My father traveled from Mexico all the way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as well, in hopes of finding the same answer. They wanted to give their children a chance at life. They would always see people travel into the United States becoming successful along with their children also being successful at a rapid pace. My parents would always say, “Yo no quería tener mis hijos por aya” meaning they did not want to have and raise their children in their home country. As many other parents in this room, they did not see their environment as adequate to build a family.
From the moment they saw the opportunity to migrate to the United States, they took that chance without hesitation. My parents worked from sunrise to sunset, hoping that one day, it would all be worth it. Like any other parent desiring well for their children, they imagined having successful children become doctors, lawyers or police officers. Growing up, I lived that so called “American Dream.” My parents sought good jobs, children, plenty of money, and so when they did, they believed they had truly given their children a great platform to start a better chance at life.
As time went by, my sisters and me started to realize things that were not part of that platform. Sometimes, we would see them drag themselves throughout their day trying to manage bills, going to work, taking care of my siblings and me, all while receiving their citizenship and GED. They wanted to make sure that their children were set in life for whatever they may need and desire. We all know people we look up to and admire for all their hard work. Mine happen to be my parents. My parents have pushed my siblings and me for a better change.
When they gave us that American Dream, they told us, “please go to school and get a degree, so you won’t struggle like we did.” And so we went to school, stacking our achievements on the platform they had laid out for us. These achievements were being involved in sports, music, leadership organizations and still managing straight A’s while being an English as a Second Language ESL student. You ask me how we managed to keep up in class after being pulled out for 2 hours so they could test our English skills, I would not have been able to give you an answer then. Now I can just simply say, hard work, dedication and commitment.
My sisters and I later graduated from high school. The first set of diplomas seen in our entire family. And then we went off to college in hopes of getting that degree that would keep us from struggling. As first-generation students, my sisters and I were completely lost. We did not know where to start, however, we knew we were going to graduate so our parents knew how much giving us that American Dream meant to us. As others may relate, during our academic years, we had to jump through hoops to stay on track with the other students. We took extra classes to improve our English reading and writing skills, while also jumping into 300 level Spanish courses. Because we struggled with our English it made us believe that we also struggled with our native language.
Something that the dream did not tell us about and an achievement we did not want on the platform that was placed there for us. When our parents would call and ask, “How is school?” Most of us would say, “Bien, echandole ganas a los estudios.” “Esa es mi hija, that is my daughter!” they would respond. But in reality we did not want to tell them, “I’m actually planning on switching my major, I do not want to be a doctor, lawyer or police officer.” But we were scared that platform would be taken away, leaving us with carrying our achievements on our backs for no one to see or share.
At the Womxn Leading UWO conference this year, I was asked, “What is somethings folks do not know about you?” I responded, “Most folks do not know that both of my parents came to the United States chasing a dream for only the privileged citizens living in the United States. That I am in fact a first-generation student receiving multiple degrees to turn around and give back to my parents because they worked hard for it, as well.” That day was the day I realized I had created my own dream.
My mom would always tell me on my rainy days, “No llores, que tu vas hacer alguien en la vida. Do not cry, because you will be someone in life.” The identity that I carry with mes being part of the Latin/x community. I am a privileged Afrolatina who was able to continue on my parents’ dream and convert it into my dream. And that dream is completely different from the American Dream I claimed and manifested.
Today we celebrate a beautiful day, and the dream that we celebrate today, looks different for each graduate in this room. The biggest goal that our parents and loved ones want for us is for us to realize ourselves and find ourselves in a profession where we will not drag ourselves or need to work extra hours for necessities. Let today be the beginning of a new realization where we are all creating our own dreams. It is achievable, if it is possible.