Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Martinez: The extended working draft of my college essay

My mom told me that the only argument she ever had with my dad was the right to not legally erase her Bolivian last name, Anzoleaga, when she got married. Those deciding moments in the courthouse were recounted like a bedtime story, a parable of courage as she fought to hold on to her identity from across the Atlantic Ocean. 

It seems ironic then, after the story, that I would also choose to float between names. My parents named me Clara, but my abuelos call me Clarita. In Spanish, the diminutive “ita” or “ito,” depending on the gender of the noun, can be attached to a surprising number of words as a term of endearment. My abuelos have never called me anything else. 

I was seven-years-old the first time I went to Bolivia; I remember afternoons spent lying under the shade of the palms in my grandparent’s backyard, waiting to hear my grandparents call for “Clarita” to set the table. 

I like this little anecdote. It’s unthreatening. One might call it sweet. It definitely gets at the identity and race component of a college application that — in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling — can be kept hidden as a factor of admission when asked in an optional dropdown menu on the Common Application. But, just because the electronic box has disappeared from the Common App doesn’t mean that the push to define yourself is lost from the college process.

But now I must tell you why it matters. It’s not enough for you to know that I played piano for the school musical and care about community service, and regardless, you feel familiar with those other things from my hours-per-week and weeks-per-year activities breakdown.

My Spanish nickname is the sound that floats down the sunbaked streets of Bolivia. The calling for a granddaughter so far away that the neighbors believe her to be an apparition of her grandmother’s imagination until she appears for Christmas or summer. I believed it to be my true name when I returned home, a house that now seemed empty without “cuñapès” in the oven and palm trees in the yard. I realized I would always be pulled back to Bolivia, if only to hear my name spoken again.

Alongside visiting Bolivia, I lived in four countries and seven different residences throughout my childhood. Growing up as an expat was like jury-rigging pieces together just long enough to hope that they didn’t come apart. I was always short of breath. My arms were tired from hauling boxes and not knowing how long I could set them down before I had to pick them back up. 

“La calle de Las Palmas,” where my abuelos lived and had lived since the pavement first dried, became a place where I could catch my breath. Hearing my nickname reminded me that for a moment, I didn’t have to worry whether I had dropped something as I moved from place to place. It was all there, contained in those two extra letters that made my nickname longer than my real name.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have conflict. Arguably too much: the use of the term “jury-rig” in a college essay walks a fine line of displaying too much internal dissonance, and should probably be substituted with something less melodramatic — perhaps puzzle pieces, or Jenga. The original phrasing shows a bit too much struggle that could make the reader uncomfortable, a little unsure of how the next 200-or-so words is going to put the student back into the position of the persevering hero, a figure with a cape and latex suit standing atop a boulder in the final square of a comic strip. 

Nonetheless, the closing visual of a figurine drawn in full clarity seems like a practical stopping place. I could craft a conclusion of success, feigning the conquest of a beast that remains a mystery. 

There’s more. 

After my abuela passed away, I wondered whether it was really the name spoken aloud that anchored me, or the voice that said it. I lost my abuela in the darkness of Christmas morning, and when the sun rose on “la calle de Las Palmas,” my nickname seemed to no longer belong to me. When a merchant in the plaza selling oranges called out to me with my Spanish nickname, it sounded like a lie. It reverberated around the hollow walls of the house in a way that was taunting and distorted. Cardboard boxes of clothes and antiques filled the house with musk and left dust static in the air.  

My mom had taken ownership of her identity by gripping her last name and not letting it go, and when I returned home from Bolivia at the end of winter break, I realized I had nothing left to hold onto. 

Rather somber. Rather self-indulgent. I knew this wouldn’t fly. I wrote nearly a dozen different final paragraphs, but all of them were insincere. 

How to conclude a story that has no finale, no lasting parable? I thought my mom’s story of keeping her Bolivian last name had an ending: the night she declared to my dad that she would not drive to the courthouse and sign away her connection to a part of her identity. But that would not be the truth. She returned to teaching a few years ago and introduced herself using my dad’s surname because she was tired of kids mispronouncing her Bolivian name like in years past, or reverting to a fragmented “Mrs. A.”

She found a way to tell her story with finality. But how could I end an incomplete story without fabricating a coda, or worse, the sentiment of self-assurance? I know nothing more than years of departure and arrivals, waving goodbye at the gate and leaving pieces behind until the last box is empty. I will make no false promise: I may have tried that in the early drafts of my college essay, but I refuse to leave you with the sought-after singularity that could confine my character into a checkbox. Clara Martinez is a high school senior and was a student at the Northwestern-Medill Journalism Institute this summer. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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