When I sat down to write my memoir FIRST GEN, I was struck by the music that regularly played in my head as I sifted through decades worth of memories: ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s, ’10s.
The songs that came rushing back were specific, eclectic, and almost contradictory. In many ways, they mirrored the twisty, nonlinear journey of being a “First and Only,” the term I use in my book to describe those who are the first in their family to cross a societal threshold.
It’s why I wrote FIRST GEN in the first place—to challenge our inclination to smooth over the emotional cost of social mobility for those who are First and Onlys, as well as to normalize an experience that can feel deeply isolating, despite being widespread.
I eventually came to understand that these songs symbolized and encapsulated too much to serve only as inspiration. They were meant to be chapter titles, laying out the musical soundtrack of my book.
In honor of National First-Generation College week, I invite you to journey with me through these songs that, in many ways, are sense memories—evoking sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feelings related to particular moments in time that I revisit in FIRST GEN.
“Fast Car” (Tracy Chapman)/Chapter 1
When I was a child, my grandmother Abi (short for abuelita) and I would sweep the leaves off of the sidewalk outside of our apartment building, as fast cars whizzed by on Lincoln Boulevard. I remember watching the cars and wondering about the people inside of them—who they were and where they were going. At the time, there were seven of us crammed into a three-bedroom, and financial insecurity engulfed our daily lives. While we swept, I’d imagine I was Cinderella—poor, yet only temporarily. Unknown, yet soon to be discovered. I was convinced that one day, I’d be a part of something that truly mattered in the world. It’s the same feeling of blind faith and hope amid struggle (and despite the odds) that is evoked when I hear the melancholy guitar and lyrics of “Fast Car”—“I had a feeling that I belonged. I had a feeling I could be someone.”
“Born on the Bayou” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)/Chapter 2
My mom loves telling stories about her time as a teenager in Tecate, Mexico. Back then, she would often ride her bike to the U.S.-Mexico border and raise her cheap transistor radio over her head in the air until it picked up the signal from American stations. The fact that she didn’t speak English at the time made no difference. She loved listening to Janis Joplin and the Beatles, and would sing along despite not understanding the words she was saying. One of her favorite songs was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou.” You can’t help but feel a sense of anticipation, defiance, and adventure when you hear the first few notes of the song. For those of us who are First and Onlys, ancestral inheritance—the place where we are born (and to whom)—can feel especially complex. “Born on the Bayou” captures the spirit and audacity of the women who came before me and the constellation of legacies—both difficult and inspiring—that were set into motion decades before I was born.
“Amor Eterno” (Juan Gabriel)/Chapter 2
It’s hard for me to hear this song and not tear up. Same goes for my mom. “Amor Eterno” and Juan Gabriel are so closely associated with our memories of my grandmother Abi. In my childhood apartment, we had a record player with a little stack of beloved and well-worn records. Al Green, Billie Holiday, and the most threadbare of them all: Juan Gabriel. Abi played this record when she cleaned, when she cooked, when she did pretty much anything. Often, we’d find her cleaning with tears in her eyes because the song “Amor Eterno,” in particular, brought back a tidal wave of memories of her mother. Little did she know that one day, my mom and I would play “Amor Eterno” and our eyes would swell remembering her.
“Keep Their Heads Ringin’” (Dr. Dre)/Chapter 4
I remember exactly where I was sitting the first time I heard this song. I was a sophomore at Saint Monica High School at the time and my boyfriend Spider and I were watching music videos on MTV in my living room. All of a sudden, “Keep Their Heads Ringin’” came on, with its unmistakable G-funk sound and bass line. As Spider and I sat on the couch bobbing our heads, he started throwing up gang signs to the beat. I thought he was the coolest guy I’d ever met. Falling for Spider is one of the central stories of my teenage years, a time when I struggled to balance bicultural identities that felt contradictory at times. G-funk remains on heavy rotation in my car and home to this day, yet few songs bring back memories as vivid “Keep Their Heads Ringin.’”
“Crash Into Me” (Dave Matthews Band)/Chapter 5
Several artists stand out from my undergrad years at USC—Jimmy Buffet, Sublime, AC/DC—but no one seemed more ubiquitous in those days than Dave Matthews Band. I had never heard of them before I set foot on campus in the fall of ’97, and it wasn’t the kind of music I normally listened to. Soon I had no choice. It echoed out of open fraternity house windows on sunny California days, set the mood late at night for many a hook-up, and would come on as the “last dance” song at themed house parties. I heard “Crash Into Me” a lot during those college years, so much so that its smooth guitar riffs instantly take me back to the precariousness of that time. It was a time when I crashed into a new social class and foreign environment on every level, including the music.
“On the Bound” (Fiona Apple)/Chapter 6
Fiona Apple put into words many of the twisty and confusing emotions that were coming up for me in my post-college years. I thought graduating from college meant I’d be set with a great job, financial security, and a sense of direction. Instead, I found myself taking a string of random jobs, sleeping on a futon in my friend’s living room, and waiting tables as I tried to figure out how to stay afloat. It was an approach that fell apart when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Imagining she’d die soon after her diagnosis (like Abi had) and leave me with an 11-year-old sister to raise as a single mother in my early twenties, I saw the time to pursue my dreams as having run out. I’d drive around L.A. in my Jeep Wrangler blasting Fiona Apple’s album When the Pawn..., and the song “On the Bound,” in particular, and feel a hybrid cocktail of demoralized, desperate, and disappointed in myself. The pounding drums and Fiona’s wailing cries gave voice to the pain I was swallowing. “Maybe some faith would do me good” she says at the end. And I had to agree.
“How to Save a Life” (The Fray)/Chapter 7
I associate “How to Save a Life” with going to the laundromat in the snow. It’s perhaps not the most romantic of scenes but to a born-and-bred Angeleno in awe of the changing seasons while attending graduate school at Harvard, I felt like I was living in the most beautiful of snow globes. When our hampers overflowed with sweaters and sweatshirts, my roommates and I would pile into a car and head to the laundromat, doing weeks’ worth of laundry at a time. I remember “How to Save a Life” playing while we drove home at night, as snow flurries floated in the air around us like magic. I had a feeling that everything was about the change yet again, but I wasn’t sure how yet. This was a time when I took number of calculated risks rooted in intuition—Harvard, the ’08 Obama campaign, dropping out of business school. It’s reflective of that ambiguous in-between time when First and Onlys often find ourselves in the magic dark.
“Everlong” (Foo Fighters)/Chapter 8
There were many pinch-me moments during my time in the Obama White House. Some were serious, like the night we toasted the passage of the Affordable Care Act on the Truman balcony. And some were just plain fun, like the night Foo Fighters played on the White House South Lawn for the Fourth of July. White House staff, various elected officials, and other guests were invited to celebrate the holiday, and I don’t know if I’ll ever have a more symbolic Fourth. As the unmistakable opening guitar riff of “Everlong” blasted out of speakers just feet from the White House, fireworks exploded across the sky over the Washington Monument and the First Family looked on from a balcony. “And I wonder … if anything could ever be this good again,” Dave Grohl cried out. All I could think of was “nope.”
“La Trenza” (Mon Laferte)/Chapter 9
My mom introduced me to this song. I was already a fan of Mon Laferte but I’d never heard “La Trenza” before. “You have to listen to it. It reminds me of us and always makes me cry,” she said. When I listened to it, I understood why. It’s about braiding a child’s hair and imagining that when she grows up, she will live a free and beautiful life; unlike the one of the braider, whose own options and dreams were clawed away by misguided love. Yet the song is also meaningful to me for a parallel reason: my journey has been intertwined, even integrated, into my mom and grandmother’s lives and lessons. Like the pigtail braids my mom weaved into my hair as a child. Inextricably linked and generationally experienced through time. A braid. La Trenza.
“It’s Only Love That Gets You Through” (Sade)/Author’s Note
In “It’s Only Love That Gets You Through,” Sade’s voice echoes softly over the sound of church-like organs. It’s a raw and unadorned song that feels powerfully intimate, as if she’s speaking directly to you. “Girl you are rich, even with nothing. You know tenderness comes from pain.” I first discovered this song during my years at the White House and it’s been a musical “hug” to the soul during difficult times ever since. Listening to this song soothes and centers me. I shared the fireplace Abi built me out of cardboard and foil when I was a child. It was significant in its symbolism at the time and it was also one of the ways Abi showed me what unconditional love truly felt like. She may not have realized it at the time, but she steadied the ground under my feet by demonstrating that this kind of love existed, and that I was worthy of it. It was one the many gifts she left me with.