I was the first Latino/a/x to serve on the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times.

I’m the first U.S. Latina woman to be on the tenure track in journalism at California State University, Long Beach.

I was in the first generation of my family to go to college and become a college professor.

These are just a few ways I have been the first. 

It’s a  heavy responsibility to be the first, especially when others see it. I’ve had more students than I can count tell me you are the first Latino/a/x college professor I’ve ever had.

This shocks me that they wouldn’t have had a Latino/a/x professor in math, English or another  general education subject.

But only around 5 percent of college professors nationwide are Latino/a/x  and at CSULB it’s higher around 9 percent. But this is still low when almost half of our student body is Latino/a/x.

I always knew I would go to college. My sister is almost 10 years older than me and she went to college first.

I remember when I was 10 going with my little sister, then 8, to spend the weekend with our big sister at the University of Illinois. We had a slumber party in her dorm room and ate pizza. I remember walking around campus, through the student union and the library.

I knew that I would go to college because she went to college. My big sister helped me navigate the application process. This was before the Internet and our family didn’t have money for college tours. So I picked a university based on the brochure and also the ranking of their journalism program.

My mother always encouraged us to study and as a family we sat around our long wood dining table and did our homework together. In fact, my older sister and mom were in college at the same time and they graduated the same year. We were a family that studied together.

I knew that a college education was required for a career in journalism. I eventually earned a Master of Fine Arts degree, which opened the door to me teaching at the university level.

As a first, I feel a responsibility to teach and mentor other Latino/a/x students. Many of my students are also in the first generation to go to college.

I told them they too may be one of the firsts in a job or position one day. With that comes responsibility and sometimes pressure.

If you are the first person of color in a job, you are sometimes warned not to screw that up, or they won’t give the job again to a person of color.

That isn’t fair at all. We should be judged as individuals and not for our race or ethnicity. But this is reality.

I hope that one day there will be more Latinos/as/xs in education, journalism and other fields so nobody will have to be the first. 

One thing I do know is that I didn’t become a first by myself. I had the support of my mother, sister and other family members. I’ve had the support of other journalists who have mentored me and given me career guidance. I have the support of colleagues at the university where I teach.

One does not become the first alone.

“Yes, I am the first Latino poet laureate in the United States. But I’m also here for everyone and from everyone,” said Juan Felipe Herrera. “My voice is made by everyone’s voices.” 

Let’s remember this as we honor the Latino/a/x history not just for a month but every day of the year.

Teresa Puente

Teresa Puente has spent her career reporting on immigration and Latino issues in the U.S. and has also reported extensively from Mexico. Previously, she was a staff reporter at the Chicago Tribune and...