Andrea Ortiz went down to the Charles River on the afternoon that she—victoriously—submitted her senior thesis. There she was, a girl born in Mexico City, an immigrant raised in Miami, a bright light, the first in her family line to get to Harvard. Yet she felt a wave of sadness, and that, she reasoned, made no sense. So she sat by the river to think until it came to her: this was yearning.
“You never accomplish anything alone. I was feeling the absence of the people who were most influential in getting me to this point,” she said later. “I wished they could be here too.”
Her grandmother is one of those people. She is a woman who created her own philosophy and humanities class in Mexico City for people, like herself at the time, without access to a college education. Later in rural Comitán de Dominguez, where Ortiz spent childhood summers, her grandmother mail-ordered hundreds of books. The family home became an informal library for rural housewives.
As a child, Ortiz listened raptly as her grandmother told stories about Princesa Mariposa, the butterfly princess. In this homespun version of Greek mythology, a human girl, Psyche, outsmarts the gods, defies great obstacles, escapes the underworld, acquires wings, and is free like the butterfly: a symbol of the soul. It was one in a long line of lessons in female empowerment.
“Everything I do at Harvard is in some ways for my grandmother,” said Ortiz. “She did not have these opportunities but she wanted them for me.”
For as long as she can remember, Ortiz has straddled two worlds: a family world that unfolds in Spanish and a public one that does not. One in which she is an American citizen who has a driver’s license and the right to attend college, and another in which her undocumented friends do not. One in which privilege, even if hard-earned, has led to Harvard and a world of connections—and another inhabited by relatives in Comitán de Dominguez, where people marry young, raise cattle, and often never leave.
By the river, Ortiz, who will soon graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies, thought about all of this—and how she had produced a deeply felt thesis of 120 pages, a political sociology study, and grown attached to it. “One of the most beautiful things about writing my thesis was realizing, afterward, why I wrote it. It is the story of my family in a lot of ways.”
In it, Ortiz analyzes what works, and what could work better, when Mexican immigrants in the US organize and fund projects intended to improve the quality of life back home. With a research grant from Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, she lived in the northern region of Zacatecas, Mexico last summer. She interviewed people in three rural towns, and came to understand how they handle the influx of support from abroad—or sometimes, due to corruption and inefficient governance, fail to. At heart, it is a paper about giving back, and how best to do that.
“People don’t just leave and forget about home. Immigrants want to help those they left behind. That really matters to them,” she said.
While at Harvard, Ortiz chose to give back. She was extensively involved in community service programs at the Phillips Brooks House Association, which she now describes as a second home. As part of the Athena Gender Empowerment Program, she mentored a Nigerian teen. As part of the Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment Program, she taught immigrant children in Dorchester to speak English and navigate some of what puzzled her as a newcomer to the US: sports references, inane metaphors, and how to make a Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, Ortiz has taken on so many volunteer projects and immigrant rights issues, they number too many to list.
Academically, she has focused on political economy and development in Latin America. She intends to build a career that enables her to address issues of poverty, education, immigration, and crime in low-income communities in the US. In the near future, she plans to return to Miami and, hopefully, work with a migrant farmworker organization near her parents’ suburban home. “I’m driven partly by the feeling that I’ve been lucky enough to have a foot in both worlds when other immigrants in this country don’t,” she said.
On the day Ortiz finished her thesis, she called to share the news with her seventy-two-year-old grandmother in Comitán de Dominguez, who will arrive in Boston for the first time in May. She is thrilled to attend her granddaughter’s Harvard graduation but, before that, straight away, wants to visit the Widener Library and take a good look at its 3.5 million books.
—Meg Murphy, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs
Undergraduate Associate Andrea Ortiz is a Williams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She is also a graduating senior in the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies at Harvard College. A version of this piece ran in the Gazette on April 11, 2016.
Photo credit: Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer.