“XOXO No” – by Sofia Ortiz

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Living in New York City can feel like a fever dream. Growing up here often eliminates the luxury of enjoying being a kid. Wherever in the city you’re from, there’s an incessant need to be the best, because who even are you if you’re not? 

There are some who are expected to achieve great things. Some who have it all handed to them. Some who have already established their worth. Then, there are those of us who have to work twice as hard to deem ourselves worthy of the same opportunities. 

Both of my parents are immigrants. Their hard work and dedication earned them all they have. They worked extremely hard in hopes that one day, I may achieve even more. 

Despite not having the same advantages as a lot of the other students, I was granted the privilege of attending a prestigious New York private school. One that preaches equity, progress, and opportunity. The school attempts to create a safe learning environment; one where students feel comfortable being who they are and are allowed to speak their beliefs. Unfortunately, many of my peers do not share those values. 

Personally, I experienced many microaggressions that over time compounded to make me feel uncomfortable in my own skin. People made me conscious of my gender, my sexuality, my ethnicity…nearly every aspect of my identity.

When I was younger, I was vocal about who I was and where I came from. I was proud to be a first-generation half Greek, half Puerto Rican American and of the hard work my parents had poured into creating the bright future that lay ahead of me. Unfortunately, many of my friends and classmates weren’t as supportive. Whenever we, as a class, spoke about our ancestry and I’d bring up mine, I always received looks of distaste. 

The first significant instance I experienced this was in first grade. I was brought up in a religious family. I’m Greek Orthodox, a branch of Christianity. There was a point in time on my mother’s side of the family where they had lost everything and they had become extremely faithful as a result. I was taught to always take a moment to appreciate what I had and so I would very discreetly say grace in Greek to myself before eating. Students made fun of the language, mockingly creating across with their fingers. Instead of being punished, I, a first-grader at the time, was taken aside by my teacher and told that I was “making people uncomfortable” by subtly expressing my religious freedom. The future consequence of this is that I still feel uncomfortable embracing and accepting the religious beliefs I used to identify so strongly with. 
Growing up in the city, girls are forced to grow up faster than usual. We are expected to act a certain way, and the city definitely has a way of further imposing that pressure. 

Within the judgemental environment at my old school, it was not uncommon to see girls consistently objectified, some were even targeted. This stemmed from the culture within New York private schools in particular where from a young age, girls are exploited and sexualized by their peers. There is an expectation to always act older, more mature. Consequently, boys feel entitled to thinking of girls and treating girls in that way because they know they can get away with it. 

My personal experience evolved throughout my attendance. It started out in a subtly degrading way, where I constantly felt undermined. In middle school, people had a fascination with who I (and other girls as well) liked. What hurt was the way in which many false rumors spread, and even more so, how I was minimized to a girl with a crush on whoever it was decided that week. I have always been an artistic person, and I love expressing myself through creative projects. If I wrote a song, story, poem, or any other form of artistic expression my peers decided it was about certain guys. They’d gossip about it, laugh, and make fun of my words that were sacred to me. Over time, I felt as if my creative identity was stolen from me because it no longer felt as though it was a part of me. 

Many other girls experienced this before me. When I was a freshman in high school, I experienced the first instance of sexual degradation from my peers: the classic, cliché high-school-girl-story. I went out with someone, and, of course, this person told everybody that we did stuff we did not do. I had no way of proving that it was untrue. Rumors continued to spread and I realized he and other boys had spoken about me in a very offending manner. I was described as an object that they could manipulate. I was completely humiliated. For the first time, I felt people’s eyes on me in a very different way. I used to feel very invisible, trampled on perhaps. Now, I felt too seen. Guys started treating me differently, and it made me uncomfortable. The girls were not much help either. Many iced me out, and looked down upon me for something that I had not done, shouldn’t be shamed for in the first place, and was not anybody’s business. My identity was again shattered. I did not want to express my femininity, and if I ever did, I was very conscious about it. 

Attending school with these students threatened my identity. I felt like I could not be myself because I could not embrace the many things that make me who I am. These scars remained for a long time until I finally allowed myself to slowly grow back into my shell. Many others had an even worse experience than I did. In the confinement of those brick walls, I wish I had the opportunity to stick up for myself and others without the scrutiny of the majority. I wish I had stayed true to myself, as I’ve now learned to never let anyone take my identity away from me.