By Brenda Velasquez | Asian Avenue magazine

Head shotAmidst its vibrant diversity, American culture presents racial minorities with a stressful dilemma concerning identity. Caught between their heritage and their American environment, minorities learn to walk a tight rope balancing each identity expression. Arriving in the U.S. at the age of four, 21-year old Jeffrey Mariano shares some of the sobering ways this dilemma has influenced his personal life, experiences that have propelled him to explore his cultural identity and spark conversations for others to share their own stories.

“As a first-generation Filipino-American, I was under a lot of pressure to ‘reach the American dream’ or ‘become more American’ because it would help me ‘succeed in life.’ Because of that pressure, my decision to attend a predominantly white institution was instantaneous. It seemed like the right decision.”

Mariano soon followed his school selection with the decision to join a traditional as opposed to multicultural fraternity, hoping to give his social status a boost and facilitate his integration into white culture. Although he’s since forged profound relationships with his brothers, Mariano recalls his bumpy beginnings in the predominantly white fraternity.

“There were jokes made about me being from Hawaii, my shortness, the color of my skin, etc. I definitely had to find different ways to relate to them and make a name for myself in the fraternity. I was once called the token Hawaiian and that I represented diversity. Since that comment, I’ve made a conscious effort to expose my brothers to diverse groups of people in order to expand their worldview.”

These seemingly innocent jokes otherwise termed ‘microaggressions’ contribute to the covert institution of racism that Mariano and other U.S. minorities struggle against every day. Mariano describes his initial survival strategy for cushioning the frequent blows to his Asian heritage.

“I began pushing away my cultural identity and laughing at the jokes. My Otherness became a punchline I had to deal with constantly. I hid behind laughter and perceived my silence as a form of strength; ‘I will not let them break me’, I thought.”

2013 Summer Leadership Institute at Iowa State University
2013 Summer Leadership Institute at Iowa State University

During a memorable study abroad trip in Australia where he worked as an intern for Action Aid, an organization fighting poverty and social injustice, Mariano took time to sit back and contemplate his experiences.

“Everything changed. Self-reflection became part of my daily routine. It made me question what was I doing with my life and why was I so unhappy. These questions came easily; the answer, on the other hand, did not.”

It wasn’t until his senior year that Mariano came upon an alternative to conformity: speaking out against microaggressions and reaching inward to recover what was previously shunned in the path towards success.

“I realized that my silence was a prison. I have decided to speak up against the norm and am beginning to take part in more conversations about social justice, diversity, and cultural differences.”

These encounters with racial injustice have inspired Mariano to pursue a career in Higher Education as a Student Affairs professional focusing on multiculturalism and access for underrepresented groups. Mariano has sought preparation at the NASPA Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education Summer Leadership Institute program last year and is currently looking forward to becoming a Graduate Resident Director at the University of Denver as part of their Master in Higher Education graduate program.

“Higher education has provided me with a context to examine and work toward disrupting forms of oppression, specifically racism, sexism, and classism.”

Mariano finds hope in the changes that are already occurring for instance in his fraternity, as his brothers become more aware of oppressive statements and inquire about cultural appropriation following enlightening conversations with each other.

“I’ve learned that education works both ways. There’s progress there, but as I always say, the journey continues.”

Members of ASA celebrating the culmination of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and their biggest event, eXpressions.
Members of ASA celebrating the culmination of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and their biggest event, eXpressions.

About Jeffrey Mariano

  • Hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii
  • School: University of Denver – Intercultural Communications and Public Policy major, Marketing minor
  • Involvements: Theta Chi Fraternity VP of Public Relations; Asian Student Alliance Vice President; USG On Campus Senator; Hawaii Club President; NASPA Undergraduate Fellow
  • Hobbies/Interests: hiking, camping, bowling, travelling, blogging
  • Quote Jeff Lives By: “The greatest crime in the world is not developing your potential. When you do what you do best, you are helping not only yourself, but the world.”– Roger Williams
  • Jeff in three words: intentional, resolute, enthusiastic
  • Dream job: A Chief Operating Officer