After the final bell rings, the school is lost in a velvety silence, with random bouts of laughter and tangles of voices bursting out, and then seemingly evaporating into the air. While I wait at a table for the interview to begin, I hear the sound of Carmen Vizin-Esquivel’s boots clacking against the linoleum floors. The sharp, piercing sounds interrupt the sound of the rain sighing against the ground outside. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Carmen sporting satiny black boots with jewel-toned flowers stitched through the fabric. Her oversized white woolen sweater sways underneath her purple tweed jacket as she walks toward the table in a stark black pencil skirt. As she goes, the tight bun her hair is in does not budge or sway one bit. Even her rich leather handbag stays stiff underneath her arm. Her clothes are immaculate, without wrinkle, without lint. Carmen dresses like she is prepared for meetings with Wall Street executives and Capitol Hill politicians, not like she has to finish her calculus homework before fifth period. Even now, it’s clear that Carmen is quickly outgrowing the village of Oswego, and ready to explore other places.
Carmen is someone born out of two very different cultures: Hungarian and Mexican. Her father, an indigenous Mexican, was raised in Chicago in a lower-income neighborhood that was plagued with gang activity. Her mother, on the other hand, was born and raised in an upper-class family in Hungary, on the outskirts of Budapest. Juggling between these two identities, Carmen is often unsure of herself and is even questioned by other members of her respective cultures. Even though Carmen actively identifies with and participates in both cultures, she still can find it difficult to connect to others, as she feels alienated on both sides.
“Being mixed race is hard. You’re essentially exposed to this idea that you are not welcome in neither the Latino community nor Caucasian community. With Latino students, the biggest pain I have is simply being questioned about my ethnicity. To me, this hurts more because my Mexican culture is very rich and has always been something I struggled to get in touch with,” Carmen says, as her face sours, casting her eyes downward for a moment and pursing her lips. She gives a half-hearted shrug.
As she continues to learn more about herself, Carmen has been actively making an effort to learn about her unexplored Mexican heritage. Nevertheless, she constantly receives odd looks from others who badger her with questions about her ethnicity, which Carmen says she feels is a method they use to “outcast” her. However, it’s inside the home that she really sees both parts of herself being wholly embraced. Even though these cultural differences can cause some internal conflict to appear within Carmen, she explains that both cultures are practiced and respected within her home. Some days will consist of her eating tamales, beans, and rice and the other day she could be having something like goulash. Carmen’s mom, Viktoria Vizin, says that three languages being spoken in their home forces Carmen to never forget her background. Despite this, in the beginning, it wasn’t exactly an intentional effort. Carmen’s father spoke Spanish to Viktoria as a way to say things without his children understanding him, but this just made Carmen and her brother get so used to hearing Spanish that they began to speak it themselves. As time went on, Carmen’s parents made keeping her heritage relevant in her life a large priority for the family.
“Basically, our whole entire life needs to be a big effort to teach our children their heritage. In [our quick-paced] life, it takes lot out of an adult to think through and decide what they can and want to pass onto the next generation. When I come home from work where I speak in English. It is very difficult to keep on going and finish the day in my mother tongue. Yet I have the inner urge to do it,” Viktoria says.
On her own part, Carmen uses specific words to identify herself, like “chicano,” in order to empower that side of herself.
“Using this term has liberated me from any pain I’ve gotten from struggling to find myself and accept myself,” Carmen says, the word “chicano” rolling off her tongue effortlessly.
Even so, it’s not just language that tethers Carmen to both of her cultures. Every week, without fail, Carmen speaks to her maternal grandparents in Hungarian and was introduced to Hungarian folk dance and music from an early age. Even though Carmen finds herself in the suburbs of Chicago, she is never really that far away from home. Of course, her regular trips to Hungary always help, as well. Ever since she was seven weeks old, Carmen has been travelling to Europe, which Viktoria believes has widened Carmen’s perspectives and political views by being exposed to so many different belief systems. The various opportunities she has had to explore her Hungarian side have, for much of her life, nudged her into identifying more with that part of her culture.
“For the longest time she felt more Hungarian. Now I see [her identity] more balanced as she stands up for indigenous and Latino rights, building friendships with Hispanic students amongst all. I think she is a proud Hispanic-Hungarian-American girl,” Viktoria explains.
No matter her parents’ respective cultures, Carmen says that she is always encouraged to explore other parts of herself. For instance, last year, Carmen attended a Day of the Dead event in Chicago which was hosted by the National Museum of Mexican Art. In doing so, she was able to see her culture being practiced outside of her home and feel welcome to understand herself better. However, she understands that there’s more work to do in order to embrace both parts of her heritage.
“Things that have helped me with this are realizing that we are a colonized people, who don’t have a part of our identity anymore, so it makes me feel more determined to figure out who I am as a second-generation Mexican. Ultimately though, I am proud to be both, and I definitely wouldn’t have it any other way,” Carmen contemplates. With one hand, she pushes a lock of light brown hair behind her ear, revealing large wine-red jewel earrings that glint in the light. She then pauses for a moment and adjusts her tweed jacket, drawing it closer around her shoulders. Her other hand ruffles through her leather bag for something, retrieving a rose-scented lip balm that she applies quickly. Her warm brown eyes return back to me.
However, it’s not just pride that Carmen holds in her heart, but a set of moral codes. As she has grown increasingly familiar with her Mexican side, she has become closer and closer to the activist community. Carmen doesn’t just want to be part of the community, she also wants to fight for it. In pursuit of her culture and standing up for her community, Carmen claims that she has found strength in numbers. At East, she began the Upstanders club and is in the process of beginning an indigenous youth organization. Still, she finds herself at the hand of ridicule when she participates in these sort of activist groups.
“I’m kind of looked down upon for just the fact that I’m trying to stand up for other people’s rights that aren’t necessarily [affecting me]. A lot of them just don’t seem the value or purpose in it. Plain and simple, they just don’t support minority groups,” Carmen says, her brows furrowed.
As early on as middle school, Carmen was taunted by her peers for participating in a group called the Bully Busters, which aimed to lower harmful behavior in schools. While she has grown out of that particular club, Carmen still witnesses the judgemental looks given by others when they see her as the stereotypical “social justice warrior”. Some even went so far as to call her racial slurs when she pledged her support to the Black Lives Matter movement. Growing up, Carmen struggled to fully stand up for her own beliefs, but now she takes pride in her work and who she is.
“Ultimately though, I am proud to be both [Hungarian and Mexican], and I definitely wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“I’ve found that it’s annoying and almost a sin for human beings to laugh at [oppressed people] and exploit them for using their voice to stand up and speak out. Granting people the power to speak up after being stripped of [that right] is an absolute honor, and it makes me happy to have that duty as a program leader,” Carmen asserts, straightening out her back and raising her chin up a bit.
Stephanie Krzeminski, her AP Seminar teacher who has known Carmen for over two years now, claims that it is Carmen’s drive and energy that allows her to have the motivation to start and participate in these social justice groups. In fact, for Krzeminski, having a student as passionate as her is something she enjoys greatly and even sees a little bit of herself in Carmen.
“She has a real deep desire to help other people and to bring [a] voice to those who may not have always had one. I think that has been the genesis behind her wanting to start the Upstanders club and why she is beginning to form an indigenous youth council,” Krzeminski says, a hint of a smile on her face.
Finding like-minded people who could understand and respect her ideas was one of the motivating factors for her activism. Without the help of a team, she wouldn’t have found the courage to become who she is now.
“These groups have absolutely made me form a community. Even outside of my meetings, all of the members I have in [both] of my programs stay connected to me and are activists like me. We all like to bond over that fact,” Carmen professes, the corners of her mouth tugging upwards.
As the leader of these groups, Carmen doesn’t shy away from the responsibility it entails and makes sure Upstanders doesn’t waste any time. Since the beginning of the year, she makes powerpoints for each meeting, sends recap emails, and puts out reminders, never failing to be thorough. Because of this, Carmen is exactly the type of person Krzeminski considers to be a natural leader and someone she can always count on to answer the questions no one else wants to. She even went as far as to say that Carmen has the ability to accomplish anything she sets her mind to.
“Carmen is so extra, but in the best way. She is probably, in my whole career, in the top five of people who just knew what to do before you had to say it. She approaches life with such preparedness. She’s just highly organized, very detailed, [and] thrives in the details of things,” Krzeminski adds, letting out a hoot of laughter.
While Carmen is incredibly methodical and approaches life with the aid of her meticulous bullet journal and planner, her ability to empathize and take a moment to have difficult discussions is not lost.
“[Her multicultural background] certainly gives her a sensitivity [for social justice issues]. Not everyone comes in with an appreciation for what it means to be the other…Carmen is able to take what would have been uncomfortable moments for her and turn those into teachable moments for others,” Krzeminski says, her face turning solemn. “I think that is the sign of a mature and emotionally healthy person, but also someone who understands the value in inspiring those sort of experiences.”
Even at home, Carmen’s mom is a witness to the effect participating in activism has had on her daughter. Conversations at the dinner table often include discussion about current events and what can be done to help. Throughout the years, Carmen has grown increasingly focused on doing justice to both of her cultures and fighting for those in and out of her communities.
“For me, forming activist groups allows our youth to stand up and use their own voice with the help of others…We won’t keep getting stronger by being silent,” Carmen insists, her eyes persistently staring back at me.
Carmen will be continuing her education at DePaul University this fall, with a major in Music Performance.
Ashita Wagh is the Arts & Entertainment Editor for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl