Bread, Rice, or Tostada: Cultural Inclusion at The Transition Table, Part 4: Cake

Autor Jovan Barba in a burgundy shirt and black glasses.

Editor’s Note: In the fourth and final installment of our four-part blog series; Jovany Barba, a first-generation Latinx American, shares the experience of navigating the tensions between their parents’, teachers’, and own expectations of transition and independence. Read the full article here 

When I think of food and celebrations that depict a transition in time, such as Quinceañeras, weddings, and graduations, I picture the intricate layered cake that towers over the other displays, making its presence known.  

That, my friends, is how I depict transitions in life, not separate in and of themselves, but rather layers that build upon one another. And while life is full of transitions, I would like to expand on three major transitions that have occurred in my lifetime: education, independence, and personal growth.  

Education 

You could say I had a pretty average childhood. I went to school, played with my friends, and got into trouble like most kids do. I can recall one instance vividly when I was riding my bike down the street and accidentally crashed into the neighbor’s car, breaking the taillight. Obviously, I was scared to the bone in the moment. Nevertheless, reflecting on this, I believe that this is exactly what my parents wanted to happen. Not necessarily to anger the neighbor and incur a bill, but provide the freedom to make mistakes; to not be sheltered from the world.  

This set me up for success. As a first-generation American, a blind individual, and firstborn of the family, there was certainly a lot to navigate for my parents and myself. My parents, being immigrants to the United States, did not understand English. As a result, a lot of the decisions revolving around school came down to administrators and teachers.  

I am incredibly grateful that I was able to attend a public school, albeit outside of my hometown. There I was able to learn braille in addition to other blindness skills, while having a classroom for the visually impaired available on campus and attending mainstream classes.  

Continued Education 

In the Latinx community, the sentiment of machismo, providing for oneself and their family and being an active member of society holds strong. As a result, even though I am blind, there was no exception, which is why education was a cornerstone of my parents’ philosophy. They would constantly pressure me to do well in school so that I may one day be able to provide for myself and the family. Thanks in part to their support, the encouragement of my teachers, and the motivation from my peers, I exceled in my academics, first transitioning to community college, and eventually to UCLA. The transitions to those respective schools were monumental moments for me, for I felt that I was making a difference in my family tree, that I was achieving what people had believed to be possible. Most importantly, I gained greater belief in myself, in the knowledge that I could learn and earn degrees.  

In all honesty, choosing and thriving at my community college and UCLA were not easy endeavors. Yes, there were the typical obstacles such as learning how to navigate a new campus, the nuances of college life, and leaving the comforts of TVI’s behind. However, given my cultural background and socio-economic status, there was more to consider. For one thing, how on earth would I pay for college? My parents had always said, “Either we have a house or you go to school. You’d better find a way to finance this without the need for loans.” Thankfully I did, via financial aid and scholarships. Once on campus, it was up to me to figure out how the disability office works, and how to seek out resources. Nobody else in my family had done this before, nor did they know who to ask for assistance.  

Thank goodness I am self-determined and persistent in seeking out resources. 

As is life, there was another transition taking place simultaneously as I continued post-secondary education.  

Independence 

It was through those formidable years where I felt a powerful change taking place inside me. I began to attend workshops from Wayfinder Family Services which is where, for the first time, I met peers my age outside of academia. Even more significantly, I was introduced to a network of blind professionals who inspired me, who motivated and told me that I can have a successful career and live in my own home. I had found a network of happily employed individuals whom I could see myself in. 

I then incrementally worked my way up to participating in a three-week, seven-week, and eventually a year-long residential program. As much as my parents wanted me to be independent, I felt that I would never achieve that if I did not leave the nest. As a result, I took it upon myself to take a gap year from college and attend The Hatlen Center for the Blind in northern California.  

My parents, as you can imagine, were not pleased to hear this news. They were afraid of the fact that I would be hundreds of miles away and living on my own. “You don’t even know how to cook,” my mother would say. “You’ll burn the house down and starve to death.” “Well, that is the reason I am going,” I would tell her. As much as I had excelled in my academics, I felt that I was lacking in independent living skills. It took some convincing, but with their blessing, I took the plunge and moved.  

It was not easy by any means leaving the place I had called home for my entire life, but I felt deep down that this was a necessary step for my own development. And you know what, leaving everything and everyone I knew behind turned out to be one of the best decisions I could have ever made.  

It’s not easy for Latinx communities to let go of their children. I was never told to leave the house at 18, but for the sake of my independence, I felt I needed to do so. Throughout that year I learned and grew in ways I could not have even imagined. I gained the skills and confidence to cook, grocery shop, travel, manage finances, and even sharpen knives! I knew from then on that with my academic background and new-found independent living skills, there was nothing holding me back from achieving my goals!  

At the same time, my family was forced to let me go and see all that I am capable of. My parents would visit every so often, and it was I who would cook for them, take them on outings, and demonstrate the capable person I am.  

Personal Growth 

Lastly, I would like to discuss another life-changing transitional moment. At this point I had the academics, I had my new found independence, but there was one more thing holding me back, my sexuality. You see, growing up I did not have mentors, nor was there rhetoric of the LGBTQ community in media. My parents, coming from a small town in Mexico, certainly did not discuss LGBT issues, and when they did, they were always negative. For years I buried my LGBT identity for fear of the unknown.  

At first it was not too difficult; I was occupied with getting good grades, working in college, and learning independence skills. All of these things kept me from diving deep into myself. There came a point, however, while living away from home, I felt that if I were to truly be myself, then I had to “transition” into my full identity. 

I put transition in quotation marks because I wouldn’t say I transitioned; I had always been who I am, but rather I transitioned into letting the world know. By no means do I mean to make this a coming out story, but I felt that this is an important part of who I am as it intersects with other parts of my identity. My culture, religion, and blindness all play a role in my lived experience.  

To not leave you hanging, I am overjoyed to report that I am accepted and loved by my family and friends despite the cultural difficulties.  

Remember how I mentioned the ornate cake present during celebrations?  I feel it depicts who I am and how I define transitions in my life. The transitions that have taken place in my life built upon each other. My parents, teachers, and peers provided a strong foundational layer that allowed me to excel in school. Leaving the comforts of home gave me the confidence to thrive independently and network with others. Finally, the top layer in which I came into my own and expressed my true identity is supported by my previous lived experiences. Each of these layers provide the support on which I can stand. I can show the world who I am, where I come from, what I have accomplished, and where I am headed.  

Elegant quinceanera cake on a glass table surrounded by big flower arrangements.

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You can also read the full text of Bread, Rice, or Tostada: Cultural Inclusion at The Transition Table written by: Ann Wai-Yee Kwong, Daisy Soto, and Jovany Barba