As a first-generation Mexican immigrant woman, who stands at just 5 feet tall, I knew navigating academe would be difficult.
I immigrated to the United States when I was four years old with my parents and four siblings. Although my parents lacked formal education and had very limited English skills, they knew they had to apply to legalize our status through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
How in the world did they know of the importance? How did they navigate the bureaucracy and legal paperwork? How were they able to gather the amount of money needed to legalize the status of all 7 members of my family on just a $16,000 annual salary? How did they know how to do all of it? I have asked them many times and their response is always the same: “we just knew we had to.”
Why is this relevant to my identity as a Latina mami scholar? Well, it forms the basis for my ability to legally reside within a country that has recently outright declared war on all immigrants. I am where I am today due to the Amnesty of 1986, my ability to effect change in the classroom, to contribute to society and to prepare educators to serve students all goes back to the opportunity granted to 3 million immigrants. Yet, it was only recently that I have begun to celebrate my intersecting identities – in particular that of being a Mexican born immigrant.
I live a complicated identity given my family unit is racially and culturally diverse, I self-identify as a critical scholar, and I am non-apologetic about being a #LatinaMamiScholar. My desire to effect change in the classroom is fueled by the numerous, deep, oozing, painful cuts inflicted upon me by a society that will never fully see me as an American. Then, I think about the term American and I have no connection to it, so why is it that I want to belong to a group that has outright excluded and violated so many of my intersecting identities?
The cognitive dissonance makes me dizzy, I don’t know what the answer is but I do know how it feels to live in a perpetual state of not being enough. I have forever dwelled in what Gloria Anzaldúa termed the borderlands. Not American enough, not Mexican enough, not academic enough, not critical enough, not … not … not … and the list goes on.
Yet, contemporary social political issues have jolted me into a constant state of alertness. As a Latina faculty member, I sense the weight and feelings of inadequacy many students are forced to withstanding every-single minute of the day; that has kicked into high gear the moral and ethical responsibility to center my academic-mother identity.
Being on the tenure-track is both nerve-wracking and an honor. I have the privilege of working with gifted students who are eager to learn and are yearning to be conceptually challenged – even though most don’t know it. Holding conversations about xenophobia, sexism, racism, islamophobia, homophobia and systems of privilege and oppression is difficult when I have the looming cloud of tenure over my head.
How do we engage in difficult conversations when our professional future is at risk? When we have been warned by mentors that it may jeopardize our tenure process? On the other hand, how do I remain authentic to myself and serve the needs of so many minoritized students if I don’t challenge the status quo? How do I pay it forward to those disenfranchised by a system that only accepts the parts of us that don’t seem threatening? As I engaged in a perpetual cost-benefit-analysis between consejos, professional goals, tenure-track and other obligations, the universe decided it had its own way of communicating to me what I needed to do.
My family started off 2019 with the news that my cousin had been kidnapped in Mexico. He is the son of a brick maker (ladrillero) and a stay at home mother. He is brilliant and has managed to stay in school by earning multiple academic scholarships since elementary school. Currently, he works as a pharmacy tech to pay for his educational and travel expenses. He was kidnapped for three days, and for three days horrific scenarios played out in our heads about what he may be going through. For three days we negotiated ransom with the kidnappers and with every word they spoke, my anger towards them grew exponentially but so did my guilt. We were negotiating his life, his body, his future. He was eventually released but the trauma will never leave his body, his mind, his soul. I could have been my cousin, I could have been a brick maker, I could have been an unaccompanied minor, I could have been one of the thousands of people who lose their life while seeking to become an American.
American. That’s exactly why I have a love-hate relationship with that word. And while I may never be seen as an American, I do believe in the American dream. I am a product of that dream. My parents literally and figuratively gave me life. As an educator I understand I have the moral and ethical obligation to amplify the voices that may not be present in the room. I have the responsibility to engage in conversations that help us become humane with one another. As I navigate the tenure-track, I will continue to do so with authentic care and love for all my students. I cannot think of a better time to elevate and center my Mexican immigrant identity than the now. It is a small form of activism that celebrates the legacy of this country.
Dr. Claudia García-Louis is an assistant professor of educational leadership & policy studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.