When I was given the opportunity to review Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education for the Women in Higher Education newsletter, I jumped at the chance. As a Latina working in higher education myself, and only the second person in my immediate family to complete an undergraduate degree, I was thrilled to read an anthology of essays by other Latinas on their experiences in academia.
Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), curated by author Jennifer De Leon, includes 21 different Latina writers in one volume. The pieces cover issues of identity and language, leaving home, being the first to attend school and finding oneself. Though some common themes come up again and again, like the dynamics between these wise Latinas and their parents, or the relationships between Latina scholars and traditional machista fathers, the collection conveys that there is no ‘average’ Latina experience of attending or working in college.
The greatest strength of the text is that it refuses to render Latina students a monolith, no matter how Latinas/-os are designated or categorized for governmental or economic purposes. But this strength also makes the collection somewhat weak. It’s hard to pinpoint through these well-written and moving pieces what it is that makes us Latinas to begin with.
Breaking down the Latina college experience
De Leon divides the book into four sections: “Worlds Apart,” “Rooms of Our Own,” “Inside These Academic Walls” and “In Tribute, In Time.” The first section closely examines ideas of location, trauma, migration, and exile and the ways in which immersion in a college setting can work a deeply affecting change on these Latina students.
One of the standouts in this section is Gail M. Dottin’s, “WhiteGirlColorlessAfriPana,” a series of journal entries and letters to herself that illuminate Dottin’s struggle with her Afro-Latin identity, her queer sexuality and finding a place on campus. Dottin plays with the idea of “Latina” wonderfully, talking herself in and out of solidarity with Blackness. As the child of Panamanian immigrants, with roots in Barbados and Jamaica, Dottin straddles an intersectional identity of Black woman, Latina, second-generation immigrant, and queer woman. Though I loved Dottin’s essay, I wish there had been more essays that elaborated on AfroLatina experiences.
“Rooms of our Own” concentrates more fully on the concept of leaving home to attend school and the worlds that open up for those women. The essays in “Rooms of our Own” skew toward independence and moving away from home, family and the lives these Latinas conceived of before academia changed their lives. Daisy Hernandez’s “Stories She Told Us” features a daughter who believes she can teach her hard-working, immigrant mother what feminism is without even possessing the Spanish with which to do so. Lorraine M. Lopez’s “My Stalker” is a particularly difficult essay to read, as it deals with a sexual relationship that turned violent and abusive. Here, Lopez tells us her stalker was Latino, perhaps elaborating on the deeply ingrained gender dynamics that become a part of life for many Latinos.
“Inside These Academic Walls” examines more directly the experiences of Latinas as professional academics, professors and researchers. It is here that Julia Álvarez’s piece, “Rapunzel’s Ladder,” appears. Álvarez, known for her books In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, elaborates on her experience as an academic without a PhD attempting to obtain tenure. Álvarez also writes on a theme that prevails throughout the text: education as a means, both economic and otherwise, to a better life. Education becomes the path to upward mobility, to respectability, and a way of combating the racism and xenophobia these Latinas face.
The final section, “In Tribute, In Time,” functions more as a retrospective, where the writers engage in conversations with their younger selves. They reflect on the vast changes between them as burgeoning wise Latinas then, and the more fully realized wise Latinas now.
Every piece is unique and compelling in its own way, though a few stand out. I was particularly drawn to Beatrice Terrazas’ The Weight of Paper, a story that elaborates on the rift that can occur between students and family members who have not gone to college. Education changes us, and while many of us are lucky enough to avoid adopting the hierarchical thinking of the academy and mapping them onto our own relationships, it is still near impossible not to echo Terrazas’ own words: “It wasn’t language that would divide us in the future. … It was more a matter of our family’s cultures, values, and even religion ceding ground in my life to new, sometimes seemingly treacherous ideas and philosophies. Occasionally the chasm between us would feel so wide we would see one another and think, ‘Who is that?’” (De Leon 165).
Focus on success of Latinas
The book is a useful lens on a growing population in not just higher education but the country as a whole. But it was not especially strong on issues of race and difference at the institutional/administrative level of the university. Few microaggressions (interpersonal interactions that illustrate sexism and racism on a personal level) appear throughout the text. Even though the writers do experience a great deal of culture shock, it doesn’t seem to be as much of a focal point as their eventual success as academics and professionals.
The text shines when the authors write about the influence of family and community for Latinas in higher education. Indeed, for many students of color and first-generation college students, the road to obtaining a college degree is an endeavor that involves the entire family, and Wise Latinas makes this fact a central point.
The book also successfully highlights how the struggles many of these Latinas face intersect different identities. They are not “just” Latinas or “just” women, they are queer, of color, survivors of abuse and from different economic classes. Wise Latinas is useful in that it presents a variety of Latina voices, though it was lacking in Northeast/urban/Puerto Rican representation. As a Puerto Rican academic myself, I was especially surprised to see only one Puerto Rican writer in the collection, or rather, only one who makes her Puerto Rican roots known.
The essays play it safe, meant to be palatable to a much wider audience than the Latinas writing them. It doesn’t feel like a book written for Latinas so much as an attempt at introducing others to our experiences of higher education. The writers choose to focus more on their (much-deserved and hard-fought) accomplishments, rather than on the obstacles that arose for them. As a Latina who struggled through seven years of schooling to finish an undergraduate degree while working various jobs and helping out at home, I was hoping for more of a focus on the difficulties of obtaining an education, especially the lack of institutional support. Perhaps it is because these universities, fraught with problematic dynamics as they are, functioned as havens for these women and allowed them to pursue lives they may never have thought possible.
Of course, in a novel anthology such as this, the mere fact of its existence is encouraging. It cannot be all things to all people. I consider it a worthwhile read for those who would like a better, though by no means complete, picture of what the university is and can become to us Latinas who hope to become wise(r).
The anthology closes on a high note with Sandra Cisneros’ “Only Daughter,” a short piece in which the author reflects on her life as the only daughter amongst six sons in a Mexican-American family. Cisneros reaches a sort of peace with her father who, seeing her published writing, asks if they can make copies for the rest of the family. It’s a sweet moment, and one that serves to make the anthology come full circle, a peaceful resolution to another recurring theme in the text: the confusion our loved ones sometimes feel at discovering we’ve set off on an academic path.
Our families may have no idea what we’re doing, we may not come back with husbands after four years away, but what we do, as academics, as writers and as educators, is all so we may come back one day to a familial embrace, and be asked for copies of our theses, dissertations, first novels, bylines… whether or not our families understand or even care about our disciplines.
Shakti Castro is an oral historian at Centro — The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at City University of New York (CUNY). She also writes and edits for La Respuesta and warscapes.com. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Castro, Shakti. (2014, May). MOVEABLE TYPE: Wise Latinas on Campus. Women in Higher Education, 23(5), 20-21.