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Columns

Creating Community, Losing Ourselves

On burning out in our attempts to create a supportive Latinx community at Harvard

By Zoe D. Ortiz and Ruben E. Reyes Jr., Crimson Opinion Writers
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. Zoe D. Ortiz ’19, a former Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House.

Ruben: When I listen close to the freshmen bustling around — especially those like me, Latinx students, the children of immigrants, people who feel out of place — I’m brought back to my first few weeks on campus. Back then, Latinx upperclassmen were my saving grace. They told me that this place wasn’t built for people like me. They encouraged me to get mental health counseling.They helped me believe, through their example, that I too could be a researcher, writer, artist, all-around-badass.

Zoe: I was nervous. Doubt plagued me as I asked, “I don’t speak Spanish fluently, can I be in your community?” I’d grown up being called white-washed for not instinctively speaking Spanish. So, I waited for the self-assured Harvard Latina to dismiss me, to ask, “How can you even consider yourself Mexican?” Instead, she smiled and said, “Of course.” With those two words she gave me hope and breathed life into an identity I’d never been empowered to claim. I thought, maybe, this could be my community, too.

R: After only a few months, I’d seen how differently these upperclassmen understood Harvard. Harvard for them was microaggressions, questions about their worth, classism, mental health appointments, and lack of good and timely ones. And, shockingly to me then, but far too real now, they also had problems with the Latinx community. Some defined themselves as bitter, fed up with the drama and disagreements within these circles.

Z: I was in love. In love with the strength that came from walking into a room and feeling accepted, affirmed in my identity. But, it wasn’t all perfect. When the veneer of being in a new environment fell away, I could see the strain on their faces. They’d talk about why some people didn’t come around anymore, why some organizations refused to collaborate. I fell hard and fast into this imperfect community. Before I knew it, I was dreaming about how I could fix it. I wanted to recreate how it felt when that upperclassman said I could be who I’d always wanted to be: a Latina.

R: When the upperclassmen who I’d relied on slowly pulled back from the community — stepping out of leadership roles, showing up less often to meetings and events — my reaction was visceral. Logically, I understood they had increasingly busy lives. Yet, given their role in preparing me to face an often inhospitable institution, it was difficult to see them go. I promised I’d never be bitter, that I’d stick around to help the Latinx community improve its cohesion and reach.

Z: I was in deep. I had deadlines to meet, papers to submit, exams to take, but nothing seemed to matter more than supporting the Latinx community. I had to make sure we had enough money. I had to make sure we were reaching enough people. Did that Latinx student I just passed know about us? Did they feel welcome? Every day brought on a new worry and every hour found me trying to devise a solution. I couldn’t stop, because my love had turned into an impossible challenge. I could feel the pressure to fix every problem exposed to me. I gave it everything I had, but it still didn’t feel like enough.

R: I don’t know for certain why the upperclassmen stopped being involved, but burnout must have played a role. You become tired, even in a community that you treasure deeply, and the exhaustion can eventually push you out. I am tired. It feels like a betrayal to admit that given how much I love all the underclassmen I’ve been lucky enough to mentor. But it’s true. I am tired. I am burnt out. Building community on this campus strips you down, takes a toll, and leaves you little choice but to retreat.

Z: I was still in love. I had reached a place of power. Finally, I thought, I could build a healthy community. But words of affirmation were few and far between. The community I’d always sought to please took all that I had to offer and told me I’d done nothing. The upperclassmen who had once nurtured me, said I was forgetting the people I spent every moment considering. But still, I couldn’t stop, even as I looked back and realized that most things had remained unchanged. That I hadn’t saved anything, even as I lost myself. But, I couldn’t lose hope, it was the only thing keeping me from becoming bitter.

R: A paradox emerges: The Latinx community suffers when people don’t stick around to invest in it, but investing in it burns people out to the point where they don’t want to stick around. To prevent this cycle, we must acknowledge this particular brand of burnout. We must be kinder to each other, and realize that community-building is not easy, painless work. If we continue burning people out because it keeps events happening in the short term, we hurt our ability to make these organizations better for more students.

These two things can be true at once: I love every Latinx organization I’ve been a part of and I am burnt out. I hope that future members of the Latinx community at Harvard, those here now and those yet to be admitted, can work to make only the former true. Admitting that burnout is central to our community’s current design is the first step towards that future.

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. Zoe D. Ortiz ’19, a former Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House.

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