First Gen: A Memoir
By Alejandra Campoverdi
Grand Central Publishing; hardcover, 288 pages; $28.00
Alejandra Campoverdi is a nationally recognized women's health advocate who was the first White House deputy director of Hispanic media under President Barack Obama. She produced and appeared in the groundbreaking PBS documentary Inheritance, and founded the Latinos & BRCA awareness initiative in partnership with Penn Medicine's Basser Center. She is on the boards of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy; the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino; and the California Community Foundation.
While Campoverdi certainly has many accomplishments, the memoir First Gen is her chance to retrace her trajectory as a Mexican American woman raised by an immigrant single mother in Los Angeles.
This is a chance for Campoverdi to go beyond, as she terms it, "the glossy version of my life, neatly packaged into six words: from welfare to the White House." She gives a powerful testimony that shatters the one-dimensional narrative about what it takes to achieve the American dream.
This memoir examines the contradictory extremes in Campoverdi's life, which comes with the territory when you're a "First and Only." She has been a child on welfare, a Harvard graduate, a gang member's girlfriend, a White House aide to President Obama, has appeared in Maxim magazine, had a double mastectomy, and has been a candidate for U.S. Congress. Alejandra writes that she is "grateful for the added perspective and empathy that come with living a life of contradictory extremes."
Campoverdi draws from these experiences to name and frame the challenges First and Onlys face, illuminating a path to truth, healing, and change. This is a story of generational inheritance, aspiration, and the true meaning of belonging, part of what she terms the Trailblazer Toll.
In this excerpt, Campoverdi writes about telling her journey to graduates in a speech at Harvard: "I'm gonna keep it real with you.
This was the unspoken promise I made to an auditorium full of students at Harvard University's 2016 Latinx Graduation. As I approached the podium at my alma mater, I had planned to give remarks of the I-did-it-so-you-can-too variety. But as I stared out at the hundreds of earnest faces in identical black gowns, many of them with PRODUCTO DE IMMIGRANTES stenciled in white letters across the top of their caps, something about that narrative suddenly felt unfair and incomplete. My gut told me that the moment called for something more truthful. If anything, out of respect. These weren't just any students, after all. They were cycle breakers.
These young people had just white-knuckled their way through school guided solely by the possibility of a better life than their parents'. They personified single-minded tenacity and blind faith in the American Dream. And yet, having stood in their shoes over a decade earlier, I knew that many of the unique struggles they faced had likely not been validated. They might've even been glossed over or minimized as worthy sacrifices for a greater cause. I was also well aware of the tough realities that were crouching in the wings as these graduates launched themselves into their lives and careers. They hung in the air between us like unidentified mutual ancestors. How could my words of encouragement be helpful to them if I didn't point out the ghosts?
After all, it's not east to be what I refer to as a First and Only - those of us who are the 'first generation' or the 'only' person in our family, community, or social demographic group to cross a threshold. Some of us are first-generation Americans, first-generation college students, first-generation professionals. Or we're the only person of color, woman, or LGBTQ+ person at the table or in the room. The specific borders we breach are different, but what unites us is a shared familiarity with a particular set of experiences, challenges, and expectations that come with the territory. What I call the Trailblazer Toll...
It is a beautiful thing to be a First and Only, the one who disrupts deep-rooted generational patterns to become out ancestors' wildest dreams. And it also comes at a price.
To be a First and Only in America is a delicate balance of surviving where you come from while acting like you belong where you're going. Success in the former does not make the latter any easier. In fact, the more effective you are at surviving, the larger the experience gap there is to bridge. But in reality, First and Onlys aren't crossing a bridge at all. We are the bridge - painstakingly stretched from where we come from to where we hope to arrive.
The Trailblazer Toll is the emotional cost of social and economic mobility. It's the tax we pay to become the proverbial bridge. I conceived of the phrase because up until now, I've seen surprisingly little about the comprehensive emotional experiences of First and Onlys. Some aspects receive a lot of attention while others are rarely publicly acknowledged, despite being widespread, normal, and even expected. And therein lies the problem. Shifting a paradigm is isolating and terrifying work, and we rarely talk about that part. We focus on the victory lap instead.
It would have been easy, standing at the podium that day at Harvard, to share the glossy version of my life, neatly packaged into six words: from welfare to the White House. But using such an oversimplified shorthand would have been incomplete at best, and misleading at worst - and all too often we're conditioned to do just that. To be so grateful for our opportunities and so protective of our fragile new status that we leave no room for questions, doubts, or our own humanity. But it's unreasonable to create the expectation that any of us can navigate social mobility unscathed.
Certainly, the circumstances of being a First and Only vary, defying simple categorization, and evolve over time...
Identifying the emotional scar tissue of being a First and Only is not meant to be discouraging; on the contrary, it is essential. Because we can't heal from that which we can't name. It's perhaps our best hope to ensure that we aren't set up for a life lived with outward success but emotional isolation. We can and must hold space for it all. Pain alongside pride. Trauma next to hope. Guilt and success.
To my fellow First and Onlys, we have blazed trails and broken ground for countless others throughout our lives. It's now our time...to heal."