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Los Vendidos, The Sellouts

What does it mean to be a Latinx sellout?

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.

Zoe: Don’t forget where you come from. A string of seemingly innocent words, this sentence has haunted me for most of my life. The phrase that I carried with me through the hallways of my joint elementary and middle school on the affluent side of Houston. I received the best education I could and became one of a handful of the school’s Latinx students until I left for high school.

Ten years later, my Harvard enrollment signified endless educational opportunity in exchange for being a minority at a predominantly white institution. Doors opened for my first-generation, low-income Latina hands. Doors that had always been closed to those before me. With that opportunity came the transformation of “don’t forget where you come from” to “don’t sell out.”

Ruben: The conversation is almost mechanical: If you are among the half of the surveyed graduating class that enter the fields of finance (18 percent), consulting (18 percent), or technology (14 percent), you’re a sell out. This is especially true if you belong to a demographic systemically hurt by these industries, especially low-income communities of color.

If you’re a person of color working in these fields, you contribute to gentrification, the displacement of poor people, and systems built off the backs of people from backgrounds similar to yours. You contribute to the oppression of the community you come from. There’s no way of parsing this reality any other way.

But, simultaneously, a job in these fields brings a substantial salary. In addition to ensuring rent and food security, you’re able to provide for family members who are struggling. “Selling out” is not always just about you and your personal gain — it’s about helping a sick relative or ensuring family members are able to make rent.

Z: Soon enough I wasn’t just me. I was my community. My decisions held weight, because I was one of few Latinx students in an elite space. To work in the private sector was equated with spitting on the hands that had lifted me here, shirking my responsibility as the future of my community. Forgetting where I had come from in favor of a high-paying salary meant being a sellout, a traitor. The only way to avoid those labels was by working in the public sector, considered the only way any Latinx person could fight oppression.

R: More than 50 percent of surveyed graduating seniors entering the workforce report starting salaries greater than $70,000, with 11 percent reporting salaries upwards of $110,000. This means that many low-income students will make more money in their first year of work than their families do in a year. For students who come from annual household incomes below $20,000, entering tech, finance, or consulting could double or triple their family’s income. Can we, in good conscience, criticize their career choice?

Z: What did it mean to be a sellout? I could see the privilege that had brought me to this point. How my single-mother made money stretch, so I could spend high school studying instead of working. I recognized how my primary education had groomed me for an elite university, even then. These privileges, among others, were the pillars to my spot at the Ivy League. I knew most in my community didn’t get that shot.

At home, getting a well-paying job is what it meant to be successful. It was the purpose of my education. At school, getting a well-paying private sector job is what it meant to “forget” where I come from. It was the antithesis of being a Latinx student at an elite university.

R: The question of selling out or not, especially among students of color, isn’t clean cut. You do contribute to the oppression of others within career fields that, in their very design, siphon other people of color out, and hurt a wide swath of already marginalized people. But unlike a white classmate who comes from a background of mind-boggling wealth and family connections, entering morally-questionable fields is often a necessity. It allows an individual to directly contribute to the livelihoods — the very survival — of the people they love, the people who’ve nursed them and made their very journey to Harvard possible.

Z: As a student of color, I am intimately aware of the oppressive societal systems that exist everywhere. I understand the past of my community, I know its precarious future. As one of the few who made it out, I am meant to fight for the rest, to push for their success. Yet too often that narrative is one that is tied to certain sectors, certain jobs, and certain positions. The public sector is not, and can not, be the only place where Latinxs fight for our community. The constant villainization of the private sector and the Latinx students who choose to be employed by it neglects that those predominantly white spaces must also diversify. We are meant to open doors for others, not shut them.

R: “Selling out” does not look the same for everyone. Folks who enter exploitative industries must acknowledge the way their choices and jobs hurt other people of color. We must critique these phenomena. But as we do, we should also avoid demonizing folks who have good reason to enter these fields, especially when their reasons feel existential. Doing so shifts our focus from los vendidos, to the system that threatens to crush us all.

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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