“El anglo con cara de inocente”
This is how Gloria Anzaldua described the college professors of the then Pan American College in Edinburg, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley in the1960s. My writing mother tells me, no te rajes Chicanita, and I don’t.
Because of capitalism, my dad became a bracero in the 1940s and left his home in Nuevo Leon, Mexico and travelled to Illinois when he was a teen. The first barrio historian I ever knew, I would follow his footsteps of learning via reading and gathering stories and oral traditions though he never talks about the bracero experience.
My mother was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico and because of imperialism and colonialism left la isla to Chicago when she was five with her grandmother, mom, siblings and tias. In Chicago schools, she would be labeled a black immigrant, fresh off the boat. When I was born, I was an ‘illegal’ twice over.
My dad tells me before there were borders, his family went back and forth what is now the Texas-Mexico borderline, what is now Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. He took care of the family’s goats and my tias tell stories of how he’d get in trouble because he’d get lost reading and the goats would wonder off.
La familia de mi mama-worked the fields and land en Puerto Rico, made music, steamed food in deep pits covered in Earth, were known as slaves and they were cultural workers at a time when culture was a barbed wire.
We are a living Pan-Indio border* and I come from many homelands. I find myself at home in South Texas. Soy de aqui.
The Rio Grande Valley has a long history of producing cultural workers by means of writers, artists, poetas, musicians and non-traditional teachers. We have been nurturing healers and radical change makers outside the walls of academia in community accessible ways. When I created Mujerfest, the first queer friendly Mujer centric (women of color and Latina led) festival years ago, it was the community that showed up, both labor wise and audience wise. It was not theory being created in a vacuum or tested in small numbers in a classroom, but it was an accessible community-led effort.
In early February a young Chicanx wrote a manifesto on social media because they were at odds with the local Mexican American Studies department being co-directed by a white person and another white person with Mexican lineage somewhere down the line but with definite white privilege. More importantly, the student put the white professors on blast by implying they were victims of racism in the valley, as they were not in the majority.
With no clear goals set or objectives, I nevertheless applauded the honesty and didn’t question their choice in deliverance-for we know that asking for appropriate avenues of discourse is terminology used to silence and oppress by those in power. I gave the student a virtual nod and let the students do their thing, chiming in when I noticed young men of color misapplying what racism was and not understanding what institutional racism was or the history of institutional racism at the now UTRGV. Several grad students of this very department didn’t or wouldn’t comprehend that being critical of how they were being taught cultural studies was an important formation of autonomous thought troubled me.
I thought nothing more of it and wondered how we could do better. If the communities on the streets are learning the critical thinking skills and learning how to be gentle with each other and our ever-evolving identities, why isn’t the local academia?
A few days later I was made aware that the two white professors reported the young student both to the police and to the dean. A short version of the police report appeared in the local university newspaper.
I was sick and disgusted. We live in an area that has been called a militarized border area with an overwhelming immigrant community. Across the country, violence is committed against the bodies of Black, Mexican and Indigenous young people. Young people, families are deported without due process, sent to their deaths. This is not rhetoric.
When the acting director of Mexican American Studies Department and half of the reporting duo took it upon herself to socially castigate me and other local Chicana cultural workers for supporting this student without any intent to dialogue, I was at first taken aback and I will admit, angry. Because sometimes you get tired of being the bridge. I had been cordial and had played the nice “Latina” poet by visiting her classroom to talk about poetry, had attending a few events that the department sponsored in hopes that local students be made aware of alternative media, zines, poetry and how those can be connected to local history-my passions.
I joked with friends– she didn’t even buy my book. And while it’s true and it can be argued that my poetry doesn’t belong in the ivory tower or deemed important by a white feminist professor of American literature or what have you, I can’t help but draw comparisons to how geographically the worth of our Chicana cultural workers-those that produce art, poetry, music, food and carry our culture from one generation to the next, who have produced radical scholarship in writing and art and in new art forms continue to be under appreciated and go unnoticed or even worse, compared in racist ways. Notice how cultural worker, valley artist, community member and internationally recognized artist Celeste De Luna recounts her experiences here and here and here:
Gloria left the valley before it could kill her. The white establishment that would continue to drive out countless of our poetas and musicians, those that didn’t adhere to a strict learned Euro-language or wouldn’t go with the patriarchal Euro white-centric standards would leave the valley to write screenplays, poems and verses in more accepting atmospheres. Others simply shut that part off.
A few years ago when the MAS department was approved, I had my reservations but generally felt it would work out. But it was my error to believe any sort of conocimiento can be had at an institution that insists on not educating its students, our kids, on the fundamentals of power and privilege and institutional racism. I worry about the sociopolitical implications of students of color defending white professors who don’t realize history is repeating itself. Being witness to this display of silencing and cultural genocide is painful yet, oddly and paradoxically, appropriate as we live on these borderlands, the metaphor of home is always in flux. The diaspora experience means we are constantly forging points of intersections, we belong to the future as much as to the past. We continue to create poems for our people and lands while departments continue to set up rules and tests to keep us out.
Poets and artists continue to create.
*From Divided Border: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity, Juan Flores. P 202.
For more thoughts on the caribbean and Gloria Anzaldua, see Negrón-Muntaner, Frances. “Bridging Islands: Gloria Anzaldúa and the Caribbean”. PMLA 121.1 (2006): 272–278.
Noemi Ixchel Martinez is a poet-curandera cultural worker. She wrote about the love/hate dichotomy of South Texas in a poem+photo collection, South Texas Experience: Love Letters. Find it here: http://www.hermanaresistpress.com/product/stletters/
I am not part of any academic setting or part of any university. What I know and write about is filtered from being a member of the community and that is where I’m writing this from. The point of this post was to highlight the resiliency of valley artists and poets in the face of adversary. This wasn’t meant to detail several sides to a story, as it is, I feel white woman’s history and stories and history and stories from a man’s point of view already get too much airtime and if you’re looking for that point of view here, you’re in the wrong space. This is my space and time where I talk of resistance.