April 5, 2011

starting place.

by la rebelde

So, I have a presentation coming up.  Not the usual dry academic kind where one often begins with a good story and ends up trailing off into an abyss of monotony, but monotony about really important things like, you know, social justice, and the creativity and strength of those who came before us in the face of imperialism.  This time I have to talk about my academic “journey” to a group of aspiring academics at my small-midwestern-college alma mater–undergraduate seniors who have been placed on the Ph.D. track, like I was.  The administrators of the program said they chose me because I’m “real” and “NOT boring.”  Ha!  I guess I should take that as a compliment.

I know they want me to be an example of someone who “made it,” to demonstrate that it is possible to get all the way through a doctoral program and come out a model of academic achievement and still be “real.”  On paper, I have been one of the lucky privileged ones.  I did finish the program at an elite institution.  I got a fancy postdoc in a location where I want to live, during an incredibly tight market.  But the costs were extremely high. (And I’m not just referring to my student loans!)  During the last year of my dissertation-writing, I experienced one of the worst soul-crushing emotional traumas ever in my life.  To be honest, I’m not sure it was all worth it.

The only way I got through the last bit, was to remind myself that I decided to go to graduate school for good reasons–reasons that I believed in, reasons that people who had greatest power over my future and, at that moment my livelihood, did not share.  And fortunately I had incredibly supportive friends and family who believed in me and checked in on me.  I am still healing, but I am stronger.

I know I’m not alone in struggling with the contradictions of being part of, and resisting, the academic industrial complex.  For this presentation and in most other instances, my story, my work, and my knowledge are commodities that are supposed to make advisers and institutions look good.  And so, I don’t think I can give the kind of celebratory pro-grad school presentation that they expect of me.  I can’t say “hooray academia!” when I’m really thinking, “fuck that crazy shit and go do something else that will make you happy!”  But, there are many lessons learned.  And that seems a good place to start.

March 28, 2010

did you run?

by la rebelde

When I was small—maybe 7 or 8—I was fascinated by my abuelo’s story about when he came home from the war.  I don’t remember his words, but I do remember the image in my head, which had nothing to do with war, but more to do with coming home after being away for a long, long time.  I imagined him, a young man, walking with his pack, wearing those old boots he always had on and a white t-shirt, his shirt in his hand.  I imagined his route from the plaza, past Our Lady of Guadalupe, across la loma to the house where my tío has lived since before I was born, where my great grandparents lived until they died.  I remember asking him, “Did you run home because you were so excited?”  He said no—he’d worked so hard, experienced injury and illness, so his body was tired.  My child self didn’t understand.

This story has been on my mind a lot lately as I’ve been writing—or at least the idea of being so excited to reach something that running seems the only sensible thing to do.  I dreamed a few weeks ago that I am standing in the center of the plaza with my abuelo.  It is 1942—four years after my dissertation ends, and before the hippy takeover in Taos.  My laptop feels heavy in my little backpack as I trot across the road toward the church and over to la loma.  And I’m not running.

I keep wondering why I’m not typing as fast as I possibly can, to reach the pinche dissertation finish line that is an email attachment to the profes.  If there is a crisis moment to be had, now is it.  My feet are dragging, but I really want to run.

August 22, 2009

highlight of the day.

by la rebelde
fried pickle slices

fried pickle slices

I’ve got a fire under my ass.  A fire that says I must finish two chapters by the end of the first week of September or else I should not go on the market.  (No, this is not a good year to be on the market, but I’m supposed to be trying to be done, right?)  So I’ve been working steadily.  Steadily, but not quickly.  I may write for several hours each day, getting in a page here or a paragraph there.  Colegas who have finished tell me this is a good pace, but it doesn’t seem fast enough.

Unfortunately, my most “productive” writing periods happen when I have a deadline that requires me to write intensely for 2-3 days — and do little else but watch t.v., eat and sleep.  In these 2-3 days I may be able to write about 10 pages of solid—even good—work.  But in these 2-3 days I get a little squirrelly, from lack of face-to-face human contact.  And afterward my brain is so fried that I have to let it rest for a few days.  And then I go back to the slow-and-steady thing, which isn’t enough.  It’s a vicious cycle, really.  No bueno.

In an effort to get one of those chapters out of the way this weekend, an amiga and I decided to work together this afternoon.  An intense 5-hour writing session in my lovely new air-conditioned apartment with the wonderful windows, and my favorite piñon coffee.  At dinnertime we decided to have a beer and share a burger—a small reward for our hard work.  Well, we shared the burger, but we each had our own beers.  C’mon, now!

And I have to say that the highlight of the day were the fried pickles that I insisted we order to go with our meal.  I have not had fried pickles since I lived in small-midwestern-college-town.  Nearby there was another small-midwestern-college-town that had a charming little bar/restaurant on the edge of the railroad tracks (literally just a couple feet from trains zooming past) that served fried pickles.  There they used the wedge pickles, which were very tasty, but perhaps more juicy than I liked (because of the juiciness, they get really hot, but if you wait for them to cool, then the friedness isn’t as good).  But today, at this new place that opened just blocks away from my place, they used pickle SLICES.   The perfect combination of salty and juicy and greasy goodness.  Almost better than fried potatoes…and you know I love me some fried potatoes!

Ah if only I could be this excited about my chapters…

p.s. I actually have about 20 pages of each chapter drafted, so it’s possible to finish both in time, but probably not without a lot of pain.  And now back to work!

Photo by Sauce Supreme: http://www.flickr.com/photos/taste-buzz/ / CC BY 2.0

August 2, 2009

all in a day.

by la rebelde

Home. I’m home for a week or so. Haven’t been home since my abuelo left us. His physical absence is everywhere. My grandma is having a hard time. I wish there was something I could do to ease the pain that brings the tears to sting her eyes. “There’s days worse than others,” she told me just minutes ago. When my grandpa became very ill, she stopped paying attention to her own body–only focused on caring for his.  Now she focuses on hers. Tomorrow we take her to have a cataract removed. The other eye will be done in a few weeks.  On the way to the casino, for her daily dose of bingo, she walks faster than I do.  And tonight we sat together in front of my computer with Manito D and youtubed her favorite mariachi songs.  I am grateful for her health.

Niños. Manito D has a way with the children. Over the last few weeks, he has been building a patio/porch from his own design. And he has been doing most of the work by himself. Well, almost by himself–the neighborhood boys from his block, about 13-14 years old, have all been coming over everyday to help out. Why? Because Manito D is “so cool!” This is what they have testified. I’d have to agree. Yesterday he helped them each make their own picnic table/bench to take home for their familias. Five minutes ago, he was up on the rooftop with two of the kids. They tap, tap, tap, nails into shingles to keep the rain and the snow out. Grandma pulled out a 5 dollar bill, “Go buy them a box of ice cream!” The patio is going to be beautiful…even more so, because it became a community project. Photos of the patio in-progress to come soon.

Writing. There’s always writing to do.  And writing I did…well, at least for a couple hours.  In between the rooftop banging, cleaning the bathroom, getting groceries and making dinner.

Sopa. This morning after I took my grandma to mass, we all had breakfast at García’s. They have a new dessert menu. Yum! We didn’t try any of the new items because, well, sopaipillas come with. I had the refried special: 1 egg, scrambled. frijolitos. papitas. chile, red. y una tortilla. I didn’t eat the sopa. My papa and I discussed how, for us, “sopa” means both breadpudding and a nickname for sopaipilla (not soup for us!) Then we couldn’t remember what other people call breadpudding. Took us at least 10 minutes before my papa asked one of the meseras, who is from México. Capirotada!

July 21, 2009

boxes.

by la rebelde

IMG_2126

Well I finally have the internets! Modernity is now at large in my new apartment, even if files remain in boxes, open, half-full. Files that document my many years in higher education, but which tend to be structured by my academic world, a world that butts up against the alternative worlds I struggle to create. Boxes of check marks—courses taught, courses taken, exams completed, articles read, papers written. Check. Check. Check.

These are the boxes that Manito D could not help unpack, lest I lose something super central to the course of my dissertation process, that I might “need” immediately…or soon anyway. In retrospect, the things he helped with were the really important ones—dishes, clothes, furniture arrangement, lights, fans. He moved the washing machine so I could have room to put the detergent in a place I could reach. He re-wired my shower caddy so I could reach my shampoo. He attached my bed to the headboard I have on loan from an amiga. He assembled my most crucial new purchases: A new bedside lamp that actually works without risking electrocution. A rug to cushion my footsteps. A step-stool that will allow me to reach everything in the kitchen cabinets because, well, I’m dang short. (If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ve moved into an apartment designed for mutants. Literally, when I stand in the shower I can see the underside of the soap dish that is built into the wall.)

And finally, after a week of moving madness, we stopped dealing with boxes, grilled some chicken, and went to the beach. I sat chillin on the sand while Manito D dove through wave after wave. Then we had pizza and ice cream. I missed him even before I dropped him off at the airport for his return trip to the homeland.

June 13, 2009

stream of consciousness.

by la rebelde

PERHAPS it was a series of events. I don’t think I realized what was going on—the number of things I was mulling over inside consciously…or maybe unconsciously. My amigas seemed to know what was going on with me before I did. They know when I’m off my game. And I am lucky to have them in my life.

MOURNING. A couple months ago, I thought to myself, I’m not sure that I even know how to mourn. The last time I was in Nuevo México, I spent all my time taking care of my abuelita and everyone else, that I didn’t have time to confront my own emotions about my abuelito having left this world for a better one. Now, I haven’t been a mass-going sister since I went away for college when I was 18, just 3 years after I decided not to be confirmed and 5 years after I finished my 9th year of Catholic schooling. But during many hours spent at church, at rosarios, at mass, the novena, with familia, I was reminded of the power of meditation, of praying in a way that I find healing. In the weeks following my abuelito’s passing, three of my amigas have lost close family members. Praying, thinking, talking in my thoughts with ancestors past. I am still learning.

AMIGAS.  Jennifer’s and Joseph’s wedding.  A four-day-long reunion with amigas I’ve known for ten years now (ten years!).  Good times catching up, sharing tasty meals and lots and lots of dancing!  Despite my exhaustion from driving all around LA and Bakersfield, it was refreshing. And a welcome follow-up to my trip to Austin just a few weeks before (a reunion, as well, minus the dancing). It’s not that I’d forgotten how amazing it is to be around good friends, it’s just that it has been a while since I spent time with more than one good friend at once. There’s so much that doesn’t need to be explained when you’re with friends you’ve known for so long.

MANITO D. He had been working the graveyard shift at the drugstore for a couple of months, to make up hours lost since my abuelito’s health took a turn for the worse. He experienced not one, but two, robberies at gunpoint within a month. The second one was really scary. I’m so thankful that he is okay and that he has some time off to heal and focus on himself. He told me the other day that between my abuelito’s passing and having his life threatened twice, he’s been thinking a lot about life, how precious it is, and how he doesn’t want to put off spending time with people he loves and on things that are really important to him. For me too, it is a reminder.

BABIES. Two of my closest amigas in the whole world are making new life in their wombs. They will be the first mothers among my close friends. It’s exciting! And I anticipate that it will mean big changes for our relationships as well, although I’m not sure yet what these changes will look like.

MOVING. I wrote my last post in the midst of all of these things. For a month I spent a lot of energy weighing the pros and cons of moving to small-midwestern-college-town versus staying in Los Angeles. I am not one to think quantitatively. And in the end, I realized that I could make many different lists (I am good at making lists!). I could see which list was longer. I could make a good argument for either place, arguments that would be in my best interest in one way or another. But some decisions cannot be based on lists. Three years ago, during the oral defense of my comprehensive exams, my profes asked me, at what kind of institution do you see yourself teaching when you finish? I told them it depended on what was going on in my life, that place is more important to me than the type of school, that academia alone is not going to make me happy. They were shocked that I’d said it out loud.

LOS ANGELES. I decided to stay here. I still cannot quite put all of these thoughts that I have collected over the last year or more into words. Perhaps I don’t need to. Who knows what the coming year will bring for me and my loved ones? But I have a good feeling about it!

May 27, 2009

on finishing.

by la rebelde

So…I’ve been dealing with a pretty difficult and stressful decision over the last few weeks:   whether or not to leave Los Angeles and move back to small-midwestern-college-town at the end of the summer.  And I think I’m about 90% decided on moving.  Why would you leave sunshine and brown people, you ask?  I need to finish up this pinche dissertation and finally get my Ph.D. on.

I need to make a final decision very soon, if only to stop stressing about it and make some plans.  And also, so I can stop bugging my lovely amigas about it.  Sigh.

Here they are, some of the messy and sometimes contradictory pros and cons of it all, in no particular order.

Pros:

  • two super close friends who are also trying to finish up, who will likely stick it out with me for many hours at the coffeeshops when we write and then celebrate the little victories with me over tequila gimlets
  • academic community who I will inevitably run into daily on the street, in the hallways and in the cafes
  • regular access to my committee profes
  • library privileges at one of the best university libraries in the country (sorry UCLA and Spiffyton, you don’t compare)
  • workshops and resources for the impending job market in the fall
  • less time may pass before my unconscious body would be found, should I accidentally slip in the shower and knock myself out on the edge of the tub (that may sound ridiculous and morbid, but hey, since I don’t get to see LA friends very often, it’s something I think about from time to time)

Cons:

  • the 3 dark months, which will be horrifyingly cold and wet (and which will inevitably turn my skin back to that weird putrid gray color from lack of sunlight)
  • lots and lots of white liberals (hey, you gotta love them sometimes, but they can be exhausting) and very few brown people (and by brown I mean not white), which also has the unfortunate side-effect of vastly limiting my dating pool (not that I date a lot in LA, but I’m just saying)
  • fewer options to enjoy the nourishing food of my peoples and much less fresh produce at the mercado
  • little access to my archivos
  • very far familia in nuevo méxico (although, closer to my mama)
  • another expensive and time-consuming relocation (I would not even break even on the lower rental costs in small-town, and it would take away about a month of writing time.  But on the flip-side, I might be able to write more productively from over there.)
  • the possibility that I could get stuck in small-midwestern-college-town for more than a year, should I not finish and/or not get a gig for Fall 2010  (this is the BIGGEST CON and is possibly the one that is holding onto that last 10%)

The hard part about this decision is that there are no guarantees.  I could write from LA and fly back to small-town for a handful of 2-week trips.  Or I could write from small-town and fly back to LA for a quick archival visit if I need to.  What it comes down to, it seems, is lifestyle…and which place will provide a situation that will be good for me in the long run.  As one of my amigas says, “you will be fine no matter where you decide to be.”  And I know she is right.

May 22, 2009

embracing solitude.

by la rebelde

2067444995_cde68e199d

I spent a couple days this week at the Spiffy-ton library–not researching in los archivos like before.  Just writing.  My colegas recommend that I write there because in the “reading room” you are not alone.  You are not alone.  There are many others hunched over in the darkness, typing away. The only light, it seems, comes from the brass desk lamps–one at each desk–that shine on books and documents propped up under them.  The lamps and the eery blue-ish glow of laptop screens reflecting on pale faces adorned with spectacles.  I am often the youngest one there–or at least one of the only ones without a head of white hair.  The room has that old library feel like those old ivy schools back east.  All four walls are two stories high, covered floor-to-ceiling with books. There are no windows and no skylights.  It feels like a dungeon to me.

At 11:45 most folks begin to trickle out for lunch, meeting up with other scholars who frequent the Spiffy, most of whom have come to town for an intense visit to look at all that old dusty stuff they keep in the basement vaults somewhere beneath where we sit.  A couple of times, I have had pleasant conversations with well-established visiting scholars, who, like me, have no one else to eat lunch with.  We talk about the beautiful botanical gardens, our research, our home institutions.

It is a nice place to get lots of work done, but I can’t seem to get on board with the gushing excitement everyone else seems to feel about working there.  It may be real pretty, but it is, after all, a private and very exclusive library that requires an extensive process to prove one’s scholarly business in order to enter the building.  Nothing demonstrates exclusion like 10-foot-high iron fencing stretching a few miles around the perimeter.  And as a young-looking brown woman, I have been chased down the hallway while entering with a group of white scholars because the receptionist didn’t get a good look at my research badge.  Once I was turned away at the gate when the grounds were closed to the public (even though the library was open) because I didn’t look like a scholar to the guard (even though I showed him my research badge, he said it was closed that day–and when I inquired the following day at the library, it turned out that the library actually had been open).  I heard once that they leave a little gate open on the side of the grounds for 30 min every morning so that the Latina/o staff–gardening and custodial workers–don’t have to walk the extra mile around to the main gate.  These workers have been the most friendly to me.  I may be a good historian.  Heck, I may even be great one day.  But I don’t think I will ever feel comfortable at the Spiffy.  Not that the university setting is much better, but somehow it’s different.

You may not be alone while writing at the Spiffy, but writing is a lonely process regardless.  My mom, who just finished her Ph.D. last fall, keeps telling me that I need to embrace my solitude.  “I know you are a social person, but you don’t really need a social life right now.  You just need to write,” she’d said on the phone last week.  A few days later, a mentor-friend told me that writing a dissertation is not a human(izing) process, thereby confirming my barely-suppressed feelings of anxiety about isolation and lack of community.  A lot of academics tend toward the hermit-ish, but I have never been one of them.  And so, I am trying to embrace my solitude.  And I am deciding whether or not to move back to small-midwestern-college-town for what better be my final year of dissertation-writing.  And in the meantime I will keep going to the Spiffy.  And hopefully some days my brown colegas will be there.  And I will keep going to my favorite coffee shops (despite the hipsters).  And I will keep writing.

May 3, 2009

misunderstandings.

by la rebelde

“this morning

the people hanging out

by the coffee shop

laugh and languish

their carefree tourist manner void of history, of memory

neither attachment nor sentiment to time and place

no scars as enduring testaments

to the questions posed, the answers given”

–Leo Romero, “One Last Cruise: Taos Plaza”

Over the last couple months, my tío has been sending me email letters once a week, updating me on familia and sharing his writing. He’s been writing stories of his childhood and stories he remembers from the elders. It’s his latest post-retirement project. Clearly story-telling runs in the familia. But more on that later…

Last week, when an amiga shared with me the work of nuevomexicano poet, Leo Romero, I wanted to pass it along. I enjoy many of them, but this poem about Taos Plaza was especially striking to me because it tells the story of how the plaza has changed with the influx of large numbers of white hippie types and artists. Back in the day, local people—and by local people I mean, mexicano (no they don’t generally call themselves that in NM, but I do) and native people whose familias go way, WAY back on that tierra—used the plaza for everyday life, like groceries and sodas, passing time together, community events and meeting primos (if you’re from northern nuevomexico, you know that calling someone primo is not only about cousins, but is often a term of endearment and confianza). Back then, the plaza was not for perusing pastel-colored objectifying tourist-oriented artwork. And not for searching for cheap imported kitschy fake southwestern crap like teeny clear plastic boxes of “Mexican jumping beans,” tacky t-shirts and mass produced pottery, like it is today. But I digress.

I emailed the poem to mis manitos, prima and primo, like I usually do, and this time I included my tío. The next day, my tío wrote back very excitedly: Congratulations! I guess we will be planning a trip to small-midwestern-college-town to see you graduate! When I read your email, my heart leaped with joy about your accomplishments! He’d seen my “professional” signature, which says I’m a “Doctoral Candidate” and mistook it for an announcement on having completed the degree.

His email was so warm and so genuine, that I almost didn’t have the heart to write back and tell him that I’m not done, that it will be at least another year before I can even think about a graduation, that this has been a rough year and I’ve fallen so far behind with my pinche dissertation. But I did write back—within three minutes of his message—clarifying that I’m not graduating…not yet.

Then this morning my papá called to tell me that my tío had been over to visit, had informed my papá and my abuela of my news, and that abuelita “had better start packing her suitcases, because we have a graduation to attend!” Papá was worried that I’d told my tío before telling him. Primo called too, just to clarify, and asked if I was going to break the news to my tío or if I wanted him to.  Who knows what more is left of the fallout.

Even though I knew it already (well… sorta), it’s heartening to know how much my tío supports my efforts at this Ph.D. thing.  And even though we haven’t talked about it much, I know that we share the commitment toward story-telling, toward recognizing the importance of time and place in (re)creating histories and living memories.

April 24, 2009

surprise.

by la rebelde

When I first started grad school, I was one of those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 22-year-old fresh-out-of-undergrad, annoying first-years. Not much different than the ones I have trouble connecting with now. But I was different than most in that I wasn’t excited to bury my head in books and archives. I’d decided to go to grad school because I thought it could be a way—a way that I was good at—to help make this world a better place. I believed—and still do—that one road to liberation was through learning. History was not simply “an interesting intellectual project,” as many approach it.  Rather, its connections to the present world were/are essential to making history matter—and to imagining a different, better, more just world. When I was teaching, my students challenged me on that point everyday. And while I had a deep investment in making these connections, my graduate training in a field where everyone is disciplined to worry about being “presentist”—especially women, people of color, queer folks, etc. who are more prone to such accusations—made it fairly difficult.

My experience at a small liberal arts school in the late 90s, where there were no grad students, and where struggles for Ethnic Studies—most specifically, for Asian American Studies—was a well-organized student-run project that had been maintained over decades. And it continues now. Because there were no courses, students read on their own, and led classes and discussions amongst each other. The movement for ES was based on students’ visions, which took a connection between community with the academy, along with a critical eye to privileges in their many forms, as its fundamental basis.

So it threw me for a loop the other day, when a colega of mine expressed frustration at not only the presence, but the participation, of undergraduates at a certain ES conference underway as I write this post. Colega felt that undergraduate participation lessened the rigor of her own academic experience at the conference, that panels should be reserved for graduate students and faculty. I argued that undergraduates should always be a central part of the fabric of ethnic studies, that we have much to learn from them as they do from us, that ES should be a place where we challenge these kinds of hierarchies even if we recognize that they are real and powerful.

The conversation left me pissed off and, frankly, surprised. I was surprised, not only because we actually went to the same undergrad institution, with overlapping activist friends, but because the conversation revealed to me that we have a fundamental, somewhat existential, disagreement. After all these years in the elite academic circles, you’d think I would no longer be surprised. You’d think that I would be better able to accept that not everyone comes to it with the same political and personal investments as I do. You’d think that after one of my own institutions’ programs has “reserved” one panel for graduate students to present at its 25th anniversary event, and we’d have to compete for one of four spots on that panel—another incarnation of the same logic that my colega expressed—that I would not be tripped up by the pervasiveness of elitism. I’m surprised by my own surprise, but not surprised by my disappointment. I’m not naïve. But I guess I’m still an idealist, even if a cynical one.