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Insight: College made me find balance in my collectivist roots and individuality

Finding myself feels like a battle between two cultures, and my pursuit of individuality often feels stifled by my collectivist roots


“As I grew older and further immersed myself into American culture, I became exposed to contrasting perspectives from the traditionalist, familial values I was raised on.” Illustration published on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

As a first-generation college student, I’ve often been stuck in an endless battle between my collectivist roots and my own personal individuality.

Being of Mexican heritage, I am constantly reminded my priorities must align with the interests of the family unit. 

“We only have each other,” my mother often reminded me — such a unit was built upon traditionalist ideology and Catholic values, having transcended generations and laid the groundwork for my upbringing.

For much of my life, my attitudes, morality and judgement were dictated under such conditions.

In Latino culture, respect is valued above all else — respect for your elders, respect for authority, among other things. This concept of respect is not a utopian ideal, but rather a tactic used to enforce a strict power dynamic as a means to suppress dissent.

As a result, I was taught to never question or reject the actions and beliefs of those around me, but rather to comply with and accept them, as though they were the norm.

My moral code was governed by devout righteousness and Catholic scorn. A fear of God dictated my attitudes toward the surrounding world. For much of my life, I rejected my youth. I weighed an impossible ideal of morality with every action, rebuking any traditional notion of sin.

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I was often told I was “mature” for my age. I would take this as a compliment, never questioning the underlying message behind it. Throughout my childhood, I’d behave accordingly, never questioning those above me as I held contempt for all actions regarded as morally impure.

Not until recently did I realize this sense of so-called "maturity" was synonymous with obedience. Much of what I did was tainted by conformity and traditionalism.

As I grew older and further immersed myself into American culture, I became exposed to contrasting perspectives from the traditionalist, familial values I was raised on.

I no longer saw the world in black and white, nor did I stratify my surroundings as simply good or bad.

As a result, I was seen as subversive in my own household, as I rejected the consensus in regard to major sociocultural events which shaped not only my identity, but Generation Z as a whole.

Most recently, my world view was uprooted by the events which transpired this summer in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. I became more conscious of how systemic injustice is ingrained into the foundations of our society.

A sense of hyper criticalness awoke in me as I grew weary of institution and tradition. Said weariness allowed me to question the principles of my own ways of life. I’ve come to further understand and reject these notions from my upbringing in the dawning of my life's new chapter.

And as I crossed the threshold into a world that existed outside those four walls, I became paralyzed by the looming sense of confusion in this journey of self-discovery. 

I am torn between the shame of forsaking my collectivist values and becoming an individual of my own conviction. 

I fear by renouncing part of my collectivist beliefs in pursuit of my individuality, I am falling victim to colonization and American exceptionalism.

At times, I feel immense guilt for breaking tradition and leaving home. I feel as though I have abandoned my family in exchange for the freedom to pursue my own dreams which contradict preconceived expectations.

Yet, part of me feels relief.

The prospect of deconstructing everything I’ve ever known excites me. I find comfort in the possibility of losing and rediscovering myself, only to lose myself once more.

On the other hand, I find myself exhausted in my pursuit. 

Why must I always work so hard to distinguish myself from the crowd? Why must my self-worth be measured extrinsically by my productivity?

In my quest to reconcile my individualist ambitions with my collectivist obligations, I am beginning to discover a home within myself.

I am quickly finding there is much work to be done: healing intergenerational trauma, making amends with my inner child, accepting moral ambiguity and embracing the fact that self-discovery is a life-long journey.

Such a quest often feels isolating and directionless. Navigating this trek feels impossible most days, let alone amid a pandemic.

There is much I’ve yet to discover. What I’ve found is, I am further away from home than I thought.

Reach the reporter at and follow @contrerastefano on Twitter. 

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