At the age of 13, the first Chicana Ph.D. I had ever met handed me The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. In the inside cover, she wrote: “We offer this book to reflect on life’s journey. We hope you enjoy it. May you continue to pursue and follow all your dreams so that you go away to come back for the ones who cannot out.”
She changed my life trajectory.
Now, as I open the withered book to read those words, the hair on my arm raises and chills run down my spine. I realize in that moment I experienced two things for the first time. It was the first time I met someone with a Ph.D. who looked like me, which I never knew was an option before. Second, it was the first piece of literature I read that my experiences as a Chicana/Puerto Rican were written into existence. I had the experiences on a tangible page, to underline, question and revisit as many times as I wanted.
I found my calling. It was time to write about the communities I came from. I did this by pursuing a Ph.D. to “go away to come back for the ones who cannot out.” Cisneros concludes The House on Mango Street with these words, as the Chicana protagonist, Esperanza, envisions leaving her home to become a writer. Esperanza realizes that once you leave, you must not ever forget where you came from. You must return home to pay it forward because others from your community may not have had the same opportunities – a conclusion that has stuck with me since I first read it.
That same Chicana became my undergraduate advisor and exposed me to This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, a labor of love coedited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. It is one of the first anthologies of writings by women of color who challenged issues of race, class, gender and sexuality in academia and beyond. Anzaldúa, at the risk of displeasure, wrote without permission. She states, “I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me…To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself.” It is this intellectual genealogy that I ground my writings in.
Recently, I attended the 2018 NASPA Conference, where thousands of student affairs professionals gather to engage in dialogue regarding topics in higher education. I was invited to sit on a panel for the Latino/a Knowledge Community to discuss my educational and professional trajectory. During the Q&A, a Latina audience member raised her hand and asked, “How do you write for the communities you come from?” and “Who do you ask permission to do so?” I responded, “You do not need permission to write for yourself or your community.”
How do I write without permission? Writing is an art – you must practice. I write every day, even if it is just a sentence without substance. Writing is a personal process,. Find the time and place where you write best. If you find yourself stuck in the writing process, read your way out of it. Everything you write is a work in progress; there is no such thing as a final draft. Take risks and share your writing. Finally, ask yourself, “Who is it that I am writing for?”
The U.S. Census projects that by 2035, one-third of all American children and youth will be Latina/o. In fact, Latina/o children are the fastest-growing student population in the U.S.
With this knowledge, I write for that next 13-year-old Chicana/Puerto Rican student in search of their experiences reflected in a text. I write without permission to demonstrate to Latino/a youth that writing from personal experiences is revolutionary. The risk of displeasure may present itself, but it is the risk-takers that are remembered the most.
Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. You can follow her on Twitter @DrNicholeGarcia