From True Grit to Ponte Las Pilas

Jennifer M. Morton (left) and Cameron Lange (right) on stage in conversation

Photo by Christine Baker

Grit is often highly regarded as a commendable quality in the U.S. It encapsulates a psychology of passion and perseverance in the pursuit of one’s goals and is seen as a key component to success and personal development across many cultures and communities. However, the concept of grit is not without its drawbacks, especially when we consider the experiences of individuals from marginalized backgrounds. 

As a low-income, first-generation student from a Mexican background, I was frequently told “ponte las pilas” - a common expression in Latinx families that literally translates to “put your batteries in.” This encouragement often came from family members and elders, who used this phrase as a cultural way of instilling resilience and a strong work ethic in me. It's akin to the more familiar saying, “pick yourself up by your bootstraps.” For someone like myself, navigating both the cultural expectation to persevere and the ethical considerations of my socio-economic circumstances, the decision to persist becomes a complex negotiation. This negotiation extends beyond personal determination, delving into the ethical implications of striving within a system that may not offer equal opportunities to all.

Moral and Ethical Constraints to Perseverance

On March 5th, I had the pleasure of attending Jennifer M. Morton’s talk “True Grit: Striving in the Face of Adversity,” sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. According to Morton, the key question for a striving individual, or a person who seeks to attain a challenging goal, is, “Should I persevere?” Her talk complicated my understanding of grit by explaining the moral and ethical constraints that people face in their struggles to persevere. Morton argues that socioeconomic circumstances deeply affect our agency in ethically important and meaningful ways, challenging the notion that everyone begins on an even playing field. In my own life, these words especially rang true. Setting out for the ambitious goal of being the first person in my family to go to college often involves evaluating alternative routes. Given my background, my journey toward higher education unfolded on a distinctly different playing field. 

In order to better understand grit and perseverance, Morton claims that the first problem a striving individual faces is whether they should have decided to engage in another alternative. The pressure to succeed in the face of limited resources often led me to question the attainability of my chosen journey and whether I should have explored different avenues, such as entering the workforce to support my family or even postponing my educational aspirations to focus on overcoming the immediate challenges of financial instability and familial responsibilities. 

The second problem, what Morton calls “the pessimism trap,” also resonated deeply with my experiences. This involves a striving individual getting a sense of whether the goal they are aiming for is within their reach before they embark on it. The uncertainty surrounding the feasibility of such a significant milestone as being the first in my family to attend college added an extra layer of complexity to my journey that required careful consideration of the challenges and potential barriers ahead. I found myself grappling with questions like: Can I truly succeed in a system that may not fully understand or support my background? What if I invest all my time and energy into pursuing higher education, only to find more difficult barriers along the way? How do I balance the desire for personal growth and academic achievement with the practical realities of being first-generation and low-income? Each question weighed heavily on my mind and forced me to confront the harsh realities of my situation. Despite the uncertainty, I knew that finding answers to these questions was essential to charting a path forward and ultimately achieving my goals.

Another important takeaway from Morton’s talk came up in her Q&A with Cameron Lange, an undergraduate student in the Honors Program in Ethics in Society. Lange raised an insightful question concerning scenarios where individuals find themselves in environments with misconceptions regarding their prospects for success. In response, Morton delved into the complexities faced by those undertaking long-term endeavors, explaining that they might not really know what they’re signing up for, lose confidence, and start to revisit the belief that they could do it. This phenomenon is especially true for those venturing into uncharted territories, which can lead to moments of self-doubt and questioning. Morton's insights validated my feelings of uncertainty, reminding me that moments of doubt are not signs of weakness but rather natural parts of the journey toward achieving ambitious goals. In making the decision to pursue higher education at Stanford University, I embraced the unknown, knowing that while the path ahead would be challenging, it held the promise of personal growth and the opportunity to break intergenerational cycles of limited opportunities. 

The Importance of Shared Experiences

One way to combat uncertainty is by talking to others who are experiencing the same challenges. “That can be a way to socially scaffold our agency by thinking about the shared struggles or setbacks that we face,” Morton claimed. For me, this highlighted the power of collective understanding and empathy. As I underwent the challenges of navigating an institution like Stanford with a lack of financial resources and familial guidance, connecting with others who shared similar struggles became a lifeline. I found comfort in knowing that I was not alone in my struggles through the exchange of stories, shared resources, and encouragement and advice. The Latinx cultural mantra of "ponte las pilas'' resonated not as a simple individual call to action but more as a shared experience within a broader community. As such, this shared experience of striving for success provided me with a much-needed sense of solidarity and support. 

“Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” requires relying on something—or someone—else. While not always due to socioeconomic circumstances, individuals often navigate their personal journeys within a broader societal context that can either facilitate or hinder their pursuit of success. What’s important to remember is that the decision to persist and the collective strength derived from shared experiences all contribute to a nuanced understanding of grit that goes beyond the personal and challenges societal expectations. For me, I’ve learned that true grit isn't just about overcoming obstacles; it's about facing uncertainty with courage and resilience and, ultimately, about finding strength in community and shared experiences. As I continue on my journey, I carry with me the lessons learned from both Jennifer M. Morton's insights and the support of my community, knowing that I can achieve anything I set my mind to.

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April Pacheco is an undergraduate junior at Stanford studying history and comparative studies in race and ethnicity. She is passionate about immigrant rights and urban education and enjoys visiting her home in Los Angeles.