On Being THE ONLY LATINA on a Rural College Campus

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. I faired no better with the English department co-chair ; I was asked  if I could teach Spanish–despite Spanish being nowhere on my transcript or vitae.

“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 that 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 to make sure it was campus appropriate and here this flyer making fun of Mexicans 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–as if people of color need to take intent into consideration. What does that even mean? Intended. If you still treat me like a second class citizen even though you didn’t intend to, I still don’t  have health insurance or full-time status so intention means nothing.

I decided to try and be the diplomat here. I googled papers on Speedy Gonzales and forwarded them to the committee chair since my word on the matter would not have the value a peer-reviewed article or a full-time white male’s would have on Speedy. 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 in that not intentional way. We feel bad that you are offended. Rather than we are sorry we are offensive.

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. It’s the same with the book lists. Throw on James Baldwin and call it good.

So with a heavy sigh I went back to the committee and politely diplomatically informed them of their omission. They didn’t get back to me.

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.

I want to tell you that was the worst of the English department’s behavior but it wasn’t. The woman in charge continually belittled and harassed me. She talked over me. Ignored me at meetings or purposefully held them at times I said I couldn’t make.  She would hold all-white colleague meetings in local restaurants in town and I’d accidentally run into meetings where she’d be setting future schedules with her white counterparts before handing me scraps of classes.

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.

I wrote this last summer. Sad to say, I left teaching this summer. At least at this institution. I just couldn’t take the disrespect any longer despite trying to be there for the students. Racism is a powerful and horrendous tool of aggression.  I moved on. Academia’s white’s only status quo won this round. I’ve moved on. But I feel for every brown student considering academia; what it means to stay is overwhelming.

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About margaretelysiagarcia

Margaret Elysia Garcia primarily writes fiction, essays and poetry from a remote corner of the Sierra Nevada. She's currently working on a non-fiction book about plus-sized modeling. She's also searching for a publisher for her new collection of stories? Mary of the Chance Encounters. Her short story collection Sad Girls & Other Stories out now on Solstice Literary Press. She blogs here and at Throwing Chanclas and Girl Body Pride. Is a contributor to Hip Mama Magazine. She writes the zine The Adventures of Sad Girl with her daughter, Paloma. She’s a three-time director of the national Listen to Your Mother Show in Plumas County (www.listentoyourmothershow.com). She has an alternative women’s music show Milkshake & Honey on Plumas Community Radio (www.kqny919.org).
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5 Responses to On Being THE ONLY LATINA on a Rural College Campus

  1. Linda Cayot says:

    Thanks for this – and so many others. While I am well-traveled, read all kinds of literature, read history from various points of view, watch all kinds of movies, and have a world view – it’s still hard to know how it feels to be the recipient of the gambit of bigotry – anything from words that show a total lack of understanding (do you teach Spanish?) to blatant harsh or violent bigotry. I get some of that just from being female – but the oppression is different. Listening to you helps me be a better person. Thanks.

  2. rheabette says:

    I am floored by your ability to be composed under this kind of pressure. I was yelling at the computer screen, just reading this piece! The part where she speaks louder to you like you can’t understand her?! Oh my sweet corn on the cob. And the landscaping assumption? Unreal. This is a really powerful response to a painful situation in the community in which you and your family reside, and I commend you for it. The last paragraph hits so hard and I love how you are able to take your frustration at injustice and turn it into art.

  3. Wild Child Travels says:

    I feel really strongly that what the world needs more than anything is for us to speak our truth, especially when another hurts or harms. There is ignorance at a maddening level here.

    That’s why art is so important. Art in any medium is powerful because it allows us to see what’s possible, not what is. Preach it sister!

  4. lilaqweaver says:

    Great piece! There’s a familiar ring to almost everything you write. My childhood setting was the reverse of yours. We were the only Latinos in our small Alabama hometown–in the 1960s. Racism much? Better believe it.

  5. David Lewis says:

    Graffiti I saw on a wall in Kansas while hitch-hiking in 1975: “Idiots – Bigots – You are why the world isn’t what it should be.”

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