On Being THE ONLY LATINA on a Rural College Campus

22 Jul

To be honest, I didn’t move up to Plumas County thinking I was going to be the only Latina/o teaching on a rural college campus. It didn’t occur to me that there would be a shortage of us on campus because I’d never been on a high school or college campus where Latinas were that kind of invisible.

I’d gone to a parochial college prep high school that was 90% Latino. We didn’t walk around wondering whether we’d go to college after high school—we were wondering which college we’d go to. I’d lived a good deal of my life in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I didn’t think about being Latina because—everybody I went to college with was Latina.

My mother was retiring up in the mountains; I was expecting my first child and moving to the middle of nowhere and teaching at the local community college sounded like a great plan. I could teach after my husband came home from work. NO need for outside the family childcare. I looked up the demographics of the county. At the time? There were 200 Latinos—in the whole county.

200?! THere seems to be like 200 at one of my husband’s family’s gatherings. How was it even possible to have the numbers so low?

My husband and I surmised that food choices were probably not going to be great restaurant wise but our kids would know what fresh air was and what trees were and the rent would be cheap in the tiny dot of red in blue state California. And with that naivete, we drove into Plumas County and I took a job in the English department at the college.

I didn’t notice anything unusual about being a Latina on campus right away–perhaps that was cause I mostly taught at night. I thought wow. This is so cool.

And then it seemed after a couple of semesters things got a little strange. I was there during the day, you see. And I saw.

First of all? I’m the only Latina faculty member. There is one Latino faculty member. I’m English; he’s math. There are two African –American assistant coaches for football and basketball. The rest of our campus is all white all the time. All the people with PhDs who should be doing research at a four year university, are slumming it doing the one thing they weren’t trained to do: teach.

And then it started.

“Are you the Spanish teacher? Can you add me to your Spanish class?” This came from students, who on hearing my last name was Garcia assumed I must be the one who teaches Spanish. At first I was polite about it.
“No, sorry. I teach English. Ms. So and So teaches Spanish.”

But then it kept happening. And happening. And gradually my answers began to change.

“Nope. I don’t teach Spanish,” whispering like it’s a conspiracy, “They let us teach English now.”

But it wasn’t just the students. My department chair and division chair have both asked me if I can teach Spanish.

“Sorry. Third generation. My Spanish is horrible. I can speak to grandparents at best. I could actually teach Japanese…”

This lack of Spanish on my part then led my colleagues to believe I must not be Latina at all. Who’d ever heard of a Latina who can’t speak Spanish? Well, I certainly had, of course. I mean that’s my whole family, my friends, my colleagues in LA and SF. But my rural white campus could not get over it.

And then I was on a hiring committee and at the end when we were filling out what the demographics were for the committee the leader of the group sighed and said, “once again, it’s an all white committee.”

I looked at him and said, “Am I not here? Do I not count?”

“Oh. I thought you were just Garcia by marriage.”

“That’s my name.”

“But aren’t you married to a Mexican?”

“Yes—“

“And he does landscaping?”

Um, he’s the IT Co-ordinator for the school district….”

You can see where this was going.

I had a similar interaction in the town we settled in. A homeschooling family heard that we’d moved to town, looked us up and called.

“Hi. I heard you are new in town and that you’re Mexican.”

“Yes?”

“Didn’t your mother move here too?”

“Yes. We actually followed her up here.”

“Well, I’m homeschooling my kids and am looking for a Spanish speaker who can help my kids learn Spanish and clean my house at the same time. Would your mother be interested in coming to work for us?”

I tried to picture my mother—a Latina Virgo who keeps an immaculate house and was the manager of the local hospital working as a domestic for a woman who wanted to teach her kids Spanish so they could vacation in Cabo.”

“I’ll let my mom know, but I thinks she’s pretty busy these days running the hospital. Thanks.”

They did need a Spanish teacher on campus and I recommended my husband since he is a native speaker of Spanish be considered for the position, but since he never took Spanish classes from a university as he was too busy speaking it in his home, they wouldn’t hire him.

I started wondering just what my role on campus was. Am I just an English teacher like all the English teachers? Am I some sort of ambassador or diplomat. Am I supposed to be explaining the basics here? And why is it my role to do any of this?

For awhile, I decided to remain silent on all things related to ethnicity. I didn’t want to sound defensive or like a broken record. Sometimes I got snarky or perhaps funny, but I left it at that. It was under my breath. The doormat approach. I wouldn’t make waves and hope when a full time position opened up, they’d consider me. I didn’t think I could be a one-woman committee.

But then? Students started coming up to me. Through the grapevine and reputation they’d found out a few things and started talking to me.

They were the students with the Spanish surnames.

They were the students who were the first in their families to go to college—just like I was.

They were students who’d come here to play soccer or came to get away from it all and had no idea there was a pocket of California untouched by fast food restaurants and time.

A homeboy from LA once lifted his shirt after class to show me his Old English tattoo of the his name and mine GARCIA across his chest.

“I can hook you up Ms. Garcia” he smiled proudly.

“That’s okay.”

“I never thought one of us would be my English teacher.”

Once? A group of young women cornered me after class and said, “We just wanted to tell you we’re so excited to see you on campus. We feel like maybe we could do it too someday.”

It hadn’t occurred to me that I could be a role model until I was one.

And more things happened.

There was last Spring when a flyer was circulated with a drunk Speedy Gonzales dancing with drunk jalapeno peppers for a carwash fundraiser for the softball team. I couldn’t bite my tongue. I’d just done an event where every little inch of a flyer had been scrutinized and here this was going out in our email system to everyone.

I emailed the office that handles such affairs.

She said: “It’s Cinco de Mayo.”

I said: “Racist much?”

I then was treated to a lecture on how it wasn’t intended as racism. I decided to try and be the diplomat here. I googled papers on Speedy Gonzales and forwarded them since my word on the matter would not have the value a peer reviewed article on Speedy would have.

I forwarded my concerns about drunk jalapenos as representations on a college campus of the Mexican experience.

The all-white diversity committee hauled me in for a meeting. Could I please explain what was wrong with the flyer.

If you have to ask…….

Maybe I was in a generous mood that day but I decided not to just smile and take it anymore. Nor did I decide to let them see the full rage of Latina passion (though I admit, throwing a chancla at the committee had really tempting value to me).

I chose their approach.

I gave up and went with powerpoint logic.

They were of course, apologetic.

It hasn’t ended the discussion on our campus regarding the treatment and depiction of Latinas on campus but it’s a start in our rural area. I have to, in my mind, strike a balance between bridging the gap between their limited knowledge and my frustration. But I’m no longer the silent doormat.

It was Women’s History Month. The diversity committee put up a display of women in American history to celebrate for various achievements. Not a single panel had a Latina or Asian American. Diversity to the diversity committee is literally about white and black.

So with a heavy sigh I went back to the committee and politely diplomatically informed them of their omission.

Perhaps this is what they need from me. Perhaps I’ll be the thorn in their collective side. But more importantly my students, our students will benefit from my work to improve the conversation for all of us.

It isn’t like me and it doesn’t feel good to have to be the watch dog. I want to teach. I want my students to learn. I want it to be 2014 California not 1960 Alabama.

When I make suggestions in my department, the female co-chair talks louder to me as if I’m hard of hearing. She explains basic concepts of 20th century literature to me as if I’m stupid. She has no real Latinos or Latinas on her book list. EVER.

It’s important that minority students see themselves on college campuses not just as the maids and the landscapers (I’m the first college graduate on my mother’s side, my grandfather was a gardener with a sixth grade education). It’s important that they see us teaching subjects other than Spanish. It’s important they have examples of contributions they can make. It’s also important that minority students do not see minority instructors being milquetoast and bowing down to white English department demands as if we are their servants.

But my department can’t get beyond the basics. The basics being? This Latina is smart. And I’m not here to make your bed. I’m not here to take your kids for a walk or get them off to school. I’m here with my Masters to teach and to learn. I’m here to expose my students to a wide variety of literature. I’m here to show them what can be possible. But sometimes what should be possible isn’t possible for me.

Let me do my job.

Pool Girl

18 Jul

My daughter is
Swimming laps and laps
She is darker than dark in her
mid-summer tan
and her Copper-toned ass.

She’s nine and proud
Of her accomplishments:
Gliding under the water
on one breath half-way down the pool,

Doing handstands,
cartwheels,
headstands
under the chlorine blue.

Watch me, mama, watch me!

This morning she didn’t even
want to come here,
didn’t want to swim today.

Once again in the monotony of the midday heat,
she is full of splashes,
and confidence and she emerges from the water

nine year old perfect body
of muscle and tone and baby fat

Of baby body leaving
and girl body coming on

Two piece confidence

and she informs me

She’s going for ice cream
at the town market down the street,

she leaves in nothing
but flip flops and bikini and
a couple of dollars

I’m waiting and I don’t mean to.

Waiting for the end
when the world
Starts to tell her,
that that body of hers
That sweet smile,
That brown skin,

isn’t good enough…

All Too True

14 Jul

I actually don’t post many videos or links to other things on my page, but when I saw this– this morning it instantly rang true. This is almost exactly the experience of being one of the few Latinas living in red state California and working on a rural college campus as a –god forbid — educated Latina!

Notes from the City

19 Jun

I’ve been in San Francisco for five days now. Going home sometime tomorrow night. I’ve come out here with one child instead of the usual two. Mostly I’m here this week to deliver child one to camp. Because when you live in the mountains your kid doesn’t do summer camp to make wallets and go fishing. Your kid’s summer camp is in the City because the City is what you’re missing.

I used to live in San Francisco. If it had been an affordable City where one could raise children without a 200K a year income, I’d have stayed. But the idea of having to raise two kids in a one bedroom apartment and lugging strollers up flights of stairs got the better of me. And so 12 years ago, I left. There are many things I still love about San Francisco, but the competition for decent affordable housing will never be one of them.

But it’s not a unique story. Most of my friends who don’t make 200K a year—that would be all but my two friends who own houses here and one who became the last woman standing on her rent controlled apartment–have left too. For me, it really can be a City of ghosts. Friends died here too in the 80s and 90s. It is after all, San Francisco.

I usually feel quite smug and justified in my decision to move to the Sierras, but the City offers a counter narrative; she makes me feel like a loser for giving up so easily. I am reminded while I’m here why I liked here in the first place. What the Sierras have lacked and will always lack.

How is it that rural places never have decent cuisine? Or a decent book store? Or a record store? Or a theatre that shows great plays and films? They are stupid questions. We expect rural to be void of culture. What if we raised our expectations? Why does the beauty of the state, the country really, belong instead to those who decorate front lawns with flags and gun casings? To tri-tip and mayonnaise salads? Why are the two worlds so mutually exclusive.

This morning I will deliver my son to the 4th day of Lego iMovie camp. He is with other nerds around the Bay Area.I will meet a friend in North Beach for coffee and lunch and I know already whatever I eat will be fabulous. I will bother with hair and makeup. I will be self-conscious about my unshaved legs no one will see.

In truth I miss this place. If she would have me back, I would be back in SF in a heart beat.

Casting Call in Plumas County

30 May

Yo. Need actors: CASTING CALL

Calling all local actors: auditions for the world premiere of the locally authored play Before You Barefoot will take place on June 22nd and June 23rd in Greenville. We’re looking for three men and three women and two young girls. Must be willing to sing 60s style girl group song. Please email me to schedule audition time and receive location. Bring a brief monologue to read, (we’ll also provide script on site) and be prepared to sing for us. Thank you! See you at auditions. Show goes up in Quincy Sept 25-26. Rehearsals mostly in August & September.

Hooray for original drama in the Sierras!

What the #YESALLWOMEN Brings Me: Memory

26 May

Margaret2

First off before I get started let me say this: I didn’t start out privileged but I am now. It’s the privilege that comes with long fought years of things not being quite right until one’s made such a world for one’s self that it’s easy to forget the struggle until the moment the struggle literally tries to hit you in the face.

I read through the #yesallwomen hashtags yesterday and this morning–impossible to look away really, as they keep coming in. Each one has a story or multiple stories behind it. And as I read them I remembered.

1 out of 6 women face assault. I faced it three times with three different men/boys at three different times in my life in three different ways. Even if you go on your guard against one form of assault another can literally creep up behind you. The last one who tried to make my life hell was in 1991 — so that’s a long time that I’ve been free. Some women never get those decades of freedom. My life pre-1991 was so typical of women’s experience that mentioning it, writing about it, felt trite and typical and expected — so often I shy away from those stories because they’ve been told over and over again.

I grew up with a wicked stepfather who was angry that he’d been saddled with me. But so many of us do that our expression of that sorrow is too common place. Too done. Too yesterday. When I was in junior high a couple of good looking brothers from the high school tried to rape me. They lived across the street from me on a military base. But because I was cute and no actual vaginas were penetrated with cocks while filming this movie, my experience doesn’t exist as trauma in the American vernacular. Instead? It’s just growing up. When I was nineteen I dated an asshole who was the junior wicked stepfather in training and thankfully I woke up from the trance before it was too late. But not before he tore me down. Not before the assault, the pregnancy, the abortion. Not before he hit me on such a regular basis that I was numb to his blows being violence. Not before he’d convinced me that I was too fat and too pathetic for regular love and that I was lucky to have him. A miracle of love broke me free. A miracle of women’s studies classes broke me free. A miracle of publishing a poem and being paid for it broke me free.

It was not until I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s beautiful memoir masterpiece, Chronology of Water that I began respecting my experience and wanting to write it down for me , if not for others. It’s also telling that when my college was picking a book in common for the school to read, and I recommended this one, that they instead went with The Book Thief: A young adult novel set in World War 2 written by a white man just like the last book we read in common. Because WW2? Yeah, it’s a safer space than the American family. Than the experience of American daughters.

I’m privileged too because I’m a little fat. Which in my case probably cut down some of the more overt misogyny in the cat calling business. It left me with misogyny’s twin brother: invisibility. Given the choices, I’d take invisibility any day.

I am older now. Age is a privilege. I am Obi-Wan Kenobi reluctant to enter the fray because I know where this leads. I know the anger. The fire in the belly. I know the feeling of escape, the need for escape I will feel. It’s hard to walk through this world as a feminist and just breathe in the fresh air and enjoy the path because being a feminist means that you see everything in your path. You hear the sounds the predators make. You smell the fire miles away. You taste the death in the air. It’s no way to live blindly, peacefully, ignorant. We older feminists too often look smugly at our youth and think, ‘they’ll learn’ when we should be thinking ‘fuck, why am I complacent? Why did I give in?’

I have a daughter who is nine years old. I get to revel in her wonder and her experiment of the world. I am there to tell her– to witness to her– that she can do anything. I am there when she realizes there have been no women presidents and no women on the Dodger’s. She’s already been told she acts ‘too smart’ for the boys. That she’ll have to be quiet to get a boyfriend someday. I have to answer to this bullshit and try not to give her bullshit answers. How do mothers explain to their daughters without sounding like crushing defeat that their lives will be a battle for self preservation? Of body? Of spirit?

She is with me in the car listening to NPR when we hear of the UCSB shootings. She wants this random, not so randomness explained. What is a sorority? Why was that guy mad at the girls? Why were the girls mean to him? Because even on NPR this is the conversation: what did you do to deserve this? Even here you have to go beneath….because explaining misogyny on the radio would look like bias. Because the real bias is the norm.

I can’t bring myself to read the comment sections of articles about the shootings, about guns, about the mainstream denial that rape culture exists. It hurts my soul too much. I’ve already walked through that wall of fire too many times. There are still marks on my skin. I have to turn it off. I know what it comes down to though: either you see your actions and the collective actions of the world as interconnected (feminism) or you don’t (mainstream patriarchy). Either you are caught up in the details of how many men and women were killed or you recognize that white male privilege demands a body count in the first place. Either you walk outside and smell the global warming in the air and realize that the degradation of Mother Earth is just the largest metaphor ever for destruction of the feminine, or you walk around oblivious to the connection.

Either you recognize that some men and women’s choices are a part of their social conditioning and not active choices or you don’t.

I’m a college instructor. I arguably just finished the hardest semester of my teaching career. Perhaps it’s because I see too many connections. Without going into detail, I teach at a college without Women’s Studies courses and an administration that doesn’t understand the need. I teach at a college where each semester older women with boyfriends and husbands come back to school, are empowered by education and see their relationships crumble as they learn that the men who wanted them to go back so they could earn ‘extra money’ didn’t realize that reading would make them think. I teach at a college where male students complain that there are too many women on the reading list if there’s more than one female author but female students never make the same complaint in the opposite. I teach at a college where male students can say “I can’t relate because it was written by a woman and why does she have to give us details that we don’t want to know.” I teach at a college where female students have to endure male students and male identified female students talk about taking away their rights to abortion. I teach at a college where white male students who’ve plagiarized run to the dean to say I’m being unfair to their futures while students of color who’ve plagiarized acknowledged their wrong doing. I teach at a college where a male student threatened me for giving him an F–behavior he admittedly never used on his male teachers.

So #yesallwomen I’m in this fight too–whether I want to be or not.

And the hope? That bottom of the box?

I live in a world of my own creation with friends and family who get it. I have a good father. A good husband. A good son. I even have a good employer willing to hear me out even if they don’t understand the fight. Even if they haven’t realized they are part of the problem. I live in a world where I have met other women with similar fights and similar stories who together are calling bullshit on it all — from our forced swallowing of East Coast establishment writing as ‘the’ art, to the more literal rapist down the street. We see you. We know who you are. You can no longer make us feel bad about ourselves. I live in a world where women enjoy and don’t apologize for pleasure. I live in a world without a church, without a male deity. I live in as much freedom as I can muster. It’s taken years, decades, but my address is freedom.

Until I realize #yesallwomen , that that ‘all’ includes me. Includes my daughter. Includes this very planet. And that the fear I’ve tried to throw off like shackles is really never that far away.

The Big Interview

14 May

Not often do I give an interview –or rather anyone requests one–regarding my writing process, etc.

But Jenny Forrester of Unchaste Readers asked for one so I gave one. Here’s the full-text:

Interviews of Unchaste Women

I’m Margaret E1ysia Garcia and I write…stuff. I’m also a college professor, a mother of two, radio DJ, and have recently taken up singing again.

I try and follow a regular writing routine but it almost never works out. Wednesday and the weekends are suppose to be my writing times in my office but it’s rarely ever that linear.

Writers need to not be afraid to be alone with their head and their hearts. It’s a scary place but that’s where real writing comes from. We need to not be afraid of making ourselves look bad when we’ve been bad. We also need to revise. Try harder. Walk away and comeback.

The things I tend to write come in waves of images and sound to me and I have to get them down so they leave me alone.

I don’t have writer’s block ever. I have life block of being a parent, broke parent, broke parent who is also a teacher who grades too many papers by students who don’t give a shit. Sometimes life takes over writing time. That’s when I get resentful. When I do feel blocked, so to speak, I tend to cook elaborate meals or do elaborate art projects with my kids to get me out of it. My family can tell what’s up with me by whether they’re over fed or eating top ramen.

I don’t know that I ever have advice for other writers except shut up and quit talking about writing and just sit down and write.

I don’t know if there is one solitary message in my writing. I feel often that I lived kind of a strange life –birth to present. Though I’m part of many ‘subcultures’ I never feel really represented by any of them: gay family, Mexican family, Anglo family, army brat, agnostic, urbanite living in rural countryside, poor kids with education, etc. But I’ve always met people that I can relate to. I guess I kind of want to say “We are here! We are here!” And I’ve come to acknowledge that the heart and desire do funny things to you. Best not to deny any of it. Like that Gnostic quote: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. (Gospel of St. Thomas).”

I learn a good deal from all my writing and art projects and music projects. Sometimes I sense connections between all of them even if I can’t quite articulate it that way.

I have too many projects at once—kind of one in each genre. My memoir about growing up in a gay military family is near the end of edits (yay). When done, I want to go back to my novel about a girl coming of age in West Germany in the 80s with Marlene Dietrich as a guardian angel. At the same time? I’m working on a book of poetry where food and beverages tie into the ecstasy of spirituality and sex (Recipes for Ascension). Also along the line of food, I’ve always wanted to do a cookbook about leftovers and stories about various cultures and their leftovers. That’s in note and recipe stage. Probably the next thing I finish will be Before You Barefoot –a play I’ve written that’s also in editing stage about aLibertinish sort of man with a foot fetish for deformed feet who then marries someone with perfect toes and banishes his lovers. It has both Diana Ross & the Supremes covers AND a Greek Chorus AND a treatise in it as to why the Disney’s Little Mermaid sucks. Oh and I’m doing a zine called SadGirl with my nine year old. Oh and working up a collection of erotica.

When I think of influences of my writing, I look no further than my bookcase in my office which houses the books I never sell and always get up from my desk and consult—as if they are a team to help me through. In no particular order that bookcase houses a complete collection of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Zora Neal Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Kate Bravermen, Jeanette Winterson, James Ellroy, Julio Cortozar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s next to a poetry bookcase that houses Charles Baudelaire, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Rexroth’s 100 Japanese Poems (possibly my favorite book), Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets. But the funny thing with me is for all my heavy hitters (and Jesus, look at all those men on that list?) my true loves are really art, photo, and music. I’m just as influenced by songwriters and staring at art and photo as I am by reading novels of fiction. Architecture too. As hokey as it sounds? I’m also influenced by my mother carrying around bic ballpoint pens and yellow legal pads in the 70s writing household budgets with poems in the margins. Fuck. That made me think of Lynda Barry. Freaking LOVE her and the freedom she’s given so many of us. Also my office mate is the award winning environmental journalist Jane Braxton Little and she’s freaking amazing too. I look up to her –though she’d say that’s because her office is on the second floor.

Margaret Elysia Garcia writes essays, fiction, memoir, and poetry. Her recent work can be HipMama and Catamaran Literary Journal as well as many other literary places. She writes the zine SadGirl with her daughter Paloma Garcia-Couoh. Her short story collection Sad Girls & Other Stories will be out this July on Solstice Literary Press. She lives in the remote northeastern corner of the Sierra Nevadas, where she teaches at Feather River College and hosts Milkshake & Honey–a women’s music radio show on Plumas Community Radio at http://www.kqny919.org. She’s also a two-time regional director for the national Listen to Your Mother show.

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