'First Gen,' out now, chronicles the journey that led Campoverdi from Los Angeles to the Obama White House
When Alejandra Campoverdi was 13-years-old, her debut play was praised by Angela Bassett.
Campoverdi, who is now known for her extensive roles in politics and women's health advocacy, wrote the script as part of the arts nonprofit program The Virginia Project. On the show's opening night, the Academy Award-winning Bassett, who had just filmed What’s Love Got to Do with It, was in the community center audience.
Bassett, who was friends with the actress who starred in the play, was struck by its relatability. Campoverdi writes that she recalls Bassett approaching her to say, "I want you to know how much I personally related to what you wrote. Thank you for your courage and honesty."
“[That experience] showed me that vulnerability and sharing and creativity could actually be connective tissue between individuals,” Campoverdi tells PEOPLE. “So that not only helped kick off my love of writing, but it also changed the way that I live my life.”
That defining moment is just one included in Campoverdi’s memoir, First Gen, out now from Grand Central Publishing. The author details the ups and downs of her life and career, which encapsulates everything from acting to modeling to serving as a special assistant during the Obama administration, and how she navigated it all as a first-generation Mexican-American.
“I feel like I grew into this book,” Campoverdi says. “I couldn't have written this book five years ago. A lot of it had to do with my own healing journey and my own excavating of these wounds.”
Campoverdi was raised in Los Angeles by her single mother, grandparents and aunts. She details her family’s struggles over the years with financial insecurity, domestic abuse and loss, and how she felt pressure to keep the peace from a young age. These feelings of anxiety would follow her into adulthood as a First and Only, a term that she uses to describe first-generation individuals and others who are breaking barriers within their communities.
“There's millions of us,” she says. “So let's start talking to each other in a real way.”
Campoverdi does, and with candor. While she took on a handful of small acting gigs, including the 2005 Keanu Reeves flick Constantine, and waited tables in high-end L.A. restaurants, Campoverdi also faced immense imposter syndrome amongst her University of Southern California classmates. She was accepted into Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for graduate school, but instead of giving an immediate, resounding "yes," had to seriously consider the financial and emotional risks of moving cross-country and leaving her family.
As much as First Gen is a memoir, it is also a resource for other First and Onlys. Campoverdi isn’t afraid to share the emotional toll of being a groundbreaker, as well as the nuances of the Latino and immigrant experience. She breaks down her story into categories, like the Bicultural Balancing Act, where one must navigate multiple cultures at once, and Blindfolded Cliff Jumping, which refers to the feeling of navigating new fields without any previous connections.
“I had embarked on my career really trying to find a way to merge my love of my culture and what that identity meant to me with my passion and the issues that were important to me,” Campoverdi says. Her work, which had included serving as the White House’s first Deputy Director of Hispanic Media, and running for California’s 34th Congressional District in 2017, doesn’t come without challenges.
“I still face all these pieces,” Campoverdi says. “The breakaway guilt, all of this, is still very active. And this book is how I'm also dealing with it in real time.”
The author is only furthering her advocacy for her fellow First and Onlys. Campoverdi, who has benefited from therapy, provides pages of mental health resources in the book. She also launched the First Gen Fellowship, which will award ten grants to first-generation college students, per its website.
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More than anything, Campoverdi hopes that her readers feel seen and understand they are not alone. One of her own personal reckonings with this occurred when she introduced her mother and sister to President Obama during her time at the White House; an experience that Campoverdi says was “bigger” than all of them.
“It was one of the moments that you can see all of the sacrifices and the debt and the hardship and the isolation and the loneliness and everything come together,” she says. “And you understand that your story and your experience as someone who's first-gen is so much bigger than who you are.”
First Gen is now available wherever books are sold.
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