Written by Sam Chavez.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.

I once lived in a box. I lived a life of routine, conformity, and simplicity. Small-town gossip was the world news and everyone knew each other’s names. My home in La Feria, a small town in the Valley or South Texas, holds my roots and will always have a special place in my heart, but one of the best decisions I ever made was to leave it. When I first chose the University of Texas at Austin as the next step in my academic journey, I did not know what to expect. In my mind, I imagined overwhelmingly congested crowds, overbearing skyscrapers, and all the other clichés of a big city. However, I have learned that there is so much more to Austin than meets the eye. Being the only student from my high school’s graduating class at UT, I thought I would live my days in dorm isolation. Instead, I have had the opportunity to explore the campus, as well as parts of the city, where I am able to connect with others based on my ideologies, beliefs, and even my heritage.

Maybe it is the people’s spirits or demeanors, but from my personal experiences, I feel a sense of liberation here in Austin. Girls wear what makes them comfortable regardless of judgment, whether it be non-gender conforming or bold styling. Interraciality is the norm, not the exception; the LGBTQA+ community is proud and not ashamed. Compared to what I was acquainted with back home, this bold embrace of individuality is invigorating and exciting.

Being a woman, I have been conflicted within myself to accept me. Here at UT, I have learned that a woman can be anything she wants to be, despite where she comes from. I have debated for a long time what the perfect woman is: pure yet desirable, smart yet not smart enough to intimidate, social yet quiet. In such a contradictory state, I never felt that I was enough of anything. However, that changed when I meet women on campus like Professor Rachel German, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government. To Professor German, being a strong woman is not necessarily being feminine or overexerting masculinity but in “thinking bigger than the box.” When we can walk outside without worry, without complying to standards, we look beyond what society expects us to be and only then can we be our truest self; this is empowerment. This message is a struggle for some women every day, including myself.

Here at UT Austin, I have learned to accept myself.

With a last name like “Chavez,” I have learned that being Hispanic is a journey and not a category. Being the daughter of Mexican immigrants with two large, extended families, I have lived with the Mexican culture my whole life, but I was not always willing to accept it. For the first few years of my life, I grew up in a conservative town in West Texas, where I felt like a sore thumb in some way. I questioned why my father’s skin was not as light as the other fathers or why my mother cooked food the way she did. After moving to the Valley, I grew proud of my heritage, yet I still felt abnormal. While I felt too Mexican to belong in one small town, I felt too American to belong in another. My Spanish was too Tex-Mex to be acceptable and my interests too assimilated for some people’s likings. I failed to fit the mold that each side expected of me, so in an attempt to straddle both sides of my identity, I failed to satisfy either. However, I have learned at UT that identity is what you make of it. Playing off of Professor German’s ideology, I have learned that my experience is what defines me, not the status-quo. Thus, I have found pride in my Hispanic identity, even if I do not fit the stereotype of what some perceive a Hispanic to be.

When people say Austin is liberal, I see it as Austin is liberating. Here, people can venture out of their boxes.

Being from a small town has kept me grounded by allowing me to realize how little I knew on the micro-level and helping me identify it on a macro-level. On the East side of Austin, issues like gentrification continue to segregate the poor into decaying neighborhoods due to eminent domain, spiraling many into economic dislocation where it is difficult to close the income and educational disparities. This concentrated poverty has driven many away from the city. Hence, there is a low African American population in Austin and even at UT. There is an underlying inequality between those in power and those affected. Coming from an area like the Valley, where many are plagued by poverty, this truly hits home.

In Austin, there is the slogan, “Keep Austin Weird,” that has rung true for me in many ways. On one hand, the liberal, open environment has been enlightening, whether it be in confronting my past or facing my future. On the other, it simulates the structural issues that I and likely many others face in our communities back home such as poverty and inequality. While a strange parallel, Austin — for me — is a reminder that every new place has something to offer. I cherish my home, roots, and the connections I have made, but the day I packed my bags and overloaded the back of the car, I was freed from expectations and free to grow. For the first time in a long time, I was myself. No longer did I have to hide behind a facade for acceptance or conformity.

Instead, I could be out of the box — and begin building anew.

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