Category Archives: Education

Focus on Dr. Daisy Cocco De Filippis

Dominican Blue Book

President Daisy Cocco De Filippis was born in Santo Domingo. Her parents moved to the United States when she was 13 years old. She served for many years as professor of Spanish and Latin-American Literature at The City University of New York (York College). De Filippis is currently president of Naugatuck Valley Community College—the first Dominican president of a community college in the United States.

President De Filippis holds a Ph.D. in Spanish Language and a M. Phil. in Spanish Literature from the Graduate School and University Center of CUNY, as well as an M.A. in Spanish Literature and a B.A. in Spanish and English Literatures summa cum laude from Queens College, CUNY. A published author and literary critic, her scholarly work is recognized internationally as pioneering the field of Dominican women studies and Dominican authors in the U.S.

Prior to coming to NVCC, Dr. De Filippis served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY). Dr. De Filippis began her career at York College as an adjunct lecturer in 1978, advancing to become a professor of Spanish and ultimately being appointed associate dean for academic affairs.

As president of NVCC, Dr. De Filippis has been honored by the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, the Boys and Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity and the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission. She was also invited to speak at the Waterbury mayoral inauguration in 2012 and named Dominican Mayor of the Day in 2013. She has previously been the recipient of, among many other honors and awards, the Woman of the Year Award from the Association of Dominican-American Supervisors (2006), the Order of Merit, Duarte, Sanchez and Mella in the Rank of Commander, presented by Dr. Leonel Fernandez, President of the Dominican Republic (2005), the Hija Distinguida of Santo Domingo (Distinguished Daughter) Award, presented by the Mayor of Santo Domingo (2005), the Educator of the Year Award from Dominican Times Magazine (2004), the Order of Merit Cristóbal Colón, in the Rank of Commander, presented by Hipólito Mejía, President of the Dominican Republic (2003), the Myers Outstanding Book Award, presented by the Gustavus Meyer Center for the Study of Bigotry in North America, to authors of Telling To Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (Duke University Press, 2001), Simmons College (2002), the Influential Latina Award, El Diario/La Prensa (1998), a Citation for Outstanding Contribution to the Community and Academe, Ruth Messinger, President, Borough of Manhattan, New York (1996), and a Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Academe, Claire Shulman, President, Borough of Queens, New York (1994).

Like the best professors, De Filippis begins our interview by directing me to the definitive written resource on the subject at hand, in this case her remarkable essay “The House that Mamá Biela Built,” published in Telling to Live. She then proceeds to speak spontaneously, with flowing ease and often poignant honesty, about her early life and intellectual formation.

“My grandmother was a teacher. Born in 1898, she had very emancipated ideas for a woman of her time. She believed that girls could do anything boys could do, and she also believed in me with a passion that nobody else has yet believed in me. My parents were divorced when I was very young, and she taught me to love one of my fundamental loves, the place where I go to find a sense of order and beauty in the world and that is poetry. Poetry defines the manner in which I communicate. I’m not really a poet, although I do write poetry for my granddaughters, because I would like them to remember me in a similar fashion; but I have written many books promoting, translating, and analyzing the poetry of Dominican writers. I learned from her a sense of who I was and what it meant to be Dominican. We used to walk the street to visit women who had been friends of her mother. I was a little girl who actually liked to sit with old people and listen to them tell me stories about how the city was formed, who our family was and what they contributed to that. I would sit in the park and read and make sense of things, I was going through a difficult time since it’s not easy to have your mother remarry when you are four years old. She was my anchor, and through her, I learned to love my island and love my half-island; and through her I learned that there are many traits in my character, resilience and creativity and endurance, that come precisely from what it means to grow up with palm trees that never bend, though they certainly sway, and are not broken by the storm. All of that shaped my view of the world.”

At the Graduate School and University Center of CUNY, De Filippis wrote her doctoral thesis on Dominican poetry: the first dissertation to deal with Dominican literature, it thus became the first of numerous historic milestones she has chiselled out for the community in her career. Due to the boldness of her endeavour, she was advised to present the subject in a European theoretical framework. “I used the theories of Michel Riffaterre. The semiotic study of poetry really looks at the way words relate to one another so that they make meaning. The words need to have a reason to be there, to belong. Semiotics is about organizing. That was the framework, but I got into texts that dealt with a Dominican reality, that brought in the voices of the Dominican countryside. It created a controversy in the Dominican Republic.” De Filippis acquired the reputation of being “a Dominican critic who promotes Dominican works.” In fact, however, her guiding principle was much broader: “I just promised myself I wouldn’t write about anything I didn’t like. That I would just take the time to bring justice to good works.”

With President De Filippis, the conversation flows naturally and easily back and forth between life, literature and language. “My dreams and aspirations have always been very, very high,” she recalls, “because I grew up with a grandmother who introduced me to books as the best way to find meaning in life. In a difficult situation, the best getaway is to enter a book and find yourself in it and find comfort in it and through reading, you understand that there are multiple ways to make meaning in this world and there are different ways of organizing and creating stability, beauty, and knowledge that are not dictated by one culture or by one gender or one people. So I learned very early on, I was bilingual in the Dominican Republic, by the time I was eight or nine I was fluent in Italian, and I learned a lot. My stepfather’s mother came to live with us, and since I gravitated towards old people, I had two grandmothers, one Italian, one Dominican. It shaped my understanding that you could say things in different ways and it would still mean the same thing. You could look at the world, organize the world with different grammatical order, with different words, and the meaning at the heart would still be the same.”

Stories that tug the heartstrings featured prominently in the adolescent De Filippis’s development of her keen eye for patterns of meaning. She likes to say that Charles Dickens picked up where her grandmother left off: “in the sense that Great Expectations was the first complete novel that I read in English, in 9th grade. You know Dickens talks about children who are abandoned and disenfranchised but in the end, somehow justice prevails. There’s a sense of comfort that things are going to work out. And so I think that first year, being in this country and being away from my grandmother, and the way she taught me, reading took over that role.” Later in life, visiting the Dominican Republic for the summer with children of her own, De Filippis had the chance to watch her grandmother giving the same lessons to them. “She would draw a leaf, and she would begin to show me the different parts of the leaf in her drawing, and then we would go to the park– el Parque de Ramfis, now called el Parque de Hostos. What we try to teach our college students in General Studies, which is how connected things are—I learned that from her, as a kid: that a leaf can nurture a life, can feed it, but also can nurture the spirit if you paint it or if you write a poem about it, if you write a story about a tree. Those lessons I learned from her early on and I brought them here, and then Dickens gave me the sense that I could survive, because junior high school is a really tough environment.” De Filippis has since written articles on the subject of the trials and tribulations of junior high students. She notes that she still mourns her grandmother, who died at the age of 86.

Summarizing her revelatory essay, De Filippis tells me that “the conclusion of ‘The House that Mamá Biela Built’ is that I am that house. I am that house that she built, and my survival or my strength and the fact that I can go to New York and now be in Connecticut and have a way to make home and I use the tools to make this home: being who I am, a Dominican mother who is now a grandmother, who is also an administrator and educator but who has also written many books and reads poetry. This campus reads poetry all the time.” She mentions that acclaimed Dominican writers Chiqui Vicioso and Marianela Medrano (a close personal friend of long standing) will be visiting soon. Medrano hosts a poetry reading called Confluencia four times a year at Naugatuck Valley Community College, a tradition now in its sixth year. The fifth-anniversary milestone was marked by the publication of a book: Confluencia in the Valley: Five Years of Converging with Words, with a Foreword by President De Filippis herself.

De Filippis recently stepped down as president of the Dominican Studies Association, a position she had held since the 1990s. “We would get together every couple of years: it was about me disseminating Dominican Studies but also about having the young people that were coming up get to know one another and hear what they have to say and create our own sense of space and history.”

What challenges she has faced as the first Dominican community college president? “I think the challenges that I have are about the same as I would have, whether I were Dominican or not. You’re really trying to open the doors, to bring people in. This past May, our graduating class was aged 17-71. We have a group of students who are finishing high school and for two years they take some college-level courses and get a certificate in manufacturing, so I had a bunch of 17 year-olds who were graduating from high school who already had a certificate from a community college so that they could begin to look for work.” Though the school is predominantly white (60%), De Filippis is proud to say that the current freshman class is 25% Latino (the figure for the entire student body was 14% when she arrived), and that the school is applying Hispanic-Serving status.

As De Filippis tells it, the story of her becoming president of NVCC hinged on a basic, undeniable chemistry, a sense of mutual trust and serendipitous synergy that became apparent in her immediate encounter with the school, with the people who work and study there. “There was an incredible meeting of minds when I came here. I really wasn’t planning to come. Somebody nominated me. They wrote to me asking if I would like to be considered and my husband said, ‘You can’t say no to what hasn’t been offered, or to what you have not seen.’ He and I drove over here and I saw Waterbury, which has one of the highest poverty rates in Connecticut. And I saw a lot of young men, especially black and Latino men, on the corners. And I thought, ‘So, I have a reason for coming to this place.’ I came here and the search committee had set up interviews with all the different constituencies in the school from 9:00 in the morning until 5:00 PM, when I finally met the search committee. The students, faculty senate, student senate, different administrators, you name it. And the message I got at the end of the interviews was: We really want you to come. So by the time I talked to the search committee, I also wanted to come. The challenge I had was this: I came to an environment that was ready for change. I always say, I’m very grateful to those who came before me, because they did some work that I don’t have to do.”

Although the college sits in a landscape of sweeping storybook grandeur, there were some changes to the space and its use that immediately cried out to be made. De Filippis followed her intuition and common sense. “Having been at CUNY, where it was very difficult to see any green, and having come from an island, here, I’m surrounded by a glacial ridge of trees. What I didn’t see, however, what was lacking, was the pulse, the vibrancy, the life, that we had at Hostos Community College, where I had been the Provost for six and a half years and which I loved very much. Here, I had all this beautiful space, but there wasn’t a single garden. I walked through the fifth floor that connects all the buildings on campus, but with these beautiful corridors with glass so you see all this wonderful vegetation outside, there wasn’t a chair for the students to sit in. Everything was beige. There was a sense that, as Aida Cartagena Portalatin (about whom De Filippis has published a book) would say, a woman was needed here, and I am that woman.

“What it was lacking was a kind of nesting, creating a space and organizing the space. I looked around and I didn’t see too many services being offered. I also noticed that the graduation numbers were not high. There were many things like that. So I started by defining the space as a place where student success is our expectation.” De Filippis also notes with approval that how to make a good flan has become widespread knowledge at NVCC– thanks to the many flans that she herself has made for her constituents (it is, she says, part of the essence of governing as a Hispanic woman).

Far from imposing an autocratic vision, the dynamic transformation De Filippis has wrought consists in empowering her various constituencies in multiple ways. “I have taken the fifth floor and given people permission to paint the walls.” De Filippis found painters and encouraged them to get started changing the look of the place, adding more warmth and color. “We reconfigured one space on the fifth floor and created the Academic Center for Excellence. I envision it as a New York loft with movable pieces, so the students have free tutoring and mentoring that they can go to seven days a week, including at night.” The library was reorganized to make it more accessible, more integrated with the heart of the campus.

“We took all the furniture from the core of the building and sent it to the prisons to be reupholstered. We got the students in the arts program to take ownership of the walls and paint them, so we began to create this learning commons, with multiple seating areas for the students.” These initiatives inspired the workers in the Admissions, Registrar, and Cashier’s Office to come forward with ideas for reorganizing their working spaces “in an orderly way that would make sense for the students,” De Filippis tells me. Services were streamlined and consolidated. The staff of the Center for Academic Planning and Student Success also spoke up in turn with ideas for optimal use of their space.

President De Filippis has also worked with local and elected leadership to bring evening bus service to Waterbury, secure funding for an Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center, receive two Fulbright Scholar-In-Residence guests and bring the federal GEAR UP program to Waterbury. NVCC also established a Bridge to College office, which administers $12 million in grants aimed at preparing students to enter and succeed in college.

With striking clarity of vision, De Filippis repeatedly returns to the connection between these enormous practical and logistical advances made at NVCC under her administration and her lifelong passion for literature. “You see, my writing a doctoral dissertation on the semiotics of Dominican poetry was great because it brought me into the world of Dominican letters. I studied poetry as a tribute to my grandmother. But then I came here and I said, wait a second! Semiotics is also lean management. Everything is where it’s supposed to be, for the purpose that it’s supposed to have.

“I arrived here on Bastille Day, July 14, and I remind them of that. The number of graduating students this year was 1,353. So we’ve more than doubled the number of completions.” Under her guidance, student retention has steadily risen, enrollment has increased from 6,128 students (fall 2008) to 7,293 students (fall 2013), and graduation awards have grown from 521 (2007–08) to 1,353 (2013–14) total awards.

“We are the only community college in Connecticut that has had the honor of having more than 1,000 completions in a year. This is the third year in a row. The first year the number was 1,008, then it went up to 1,252, and now it’s 1,353. But for the black and Hispanic students, the numbers have more than doubled. It’s a 200% improvement in completion. So I’m here for everybody. But because I am here and because I’ve created an environment where the students all know me as ‘President Daisy,’ and I spend time and I listen to them, and they all feel that if this sixty-something woman, who’s a grandmother, who has an accent, who’s an immigrant, can be one of the most effective presidents for a community college—and I’m not bragging, it’s a fact, my supervisor tells me that—then they can do anything. So my being a woman, my being Dominican, my being Latina—and I embrace all of my students, I don’t care what color they are, because anybody who comes here is mine, I’m their mother, guide and mentor, I’m their defender, but to have the black and Latino kids rise the way they have risen gives me tremendous satisfaction. I am doing what I have done my entire life, which is: I am an educator for everybody; I try to help my people as much as I can.”

I ask what her proudest accomplishment as president so far is. “Having created an environment where students believe in themselves and having given the support for them to jump high, to aim high, and achieve, and I’m going by the number of completions, which is spectacular here.” In her scholarly work? “Giving voice to the Dominican literature written in the United States in Spanish.” Here, again, De Filippis’s sense of literature as a dynamic social force is crucial. “I have received as much recognition from the community as I have from the academy. Helping as much as I can to create space, not only at the institutions where I am but in the institutions where I have friends who are academics, for Dominican writers in particular, but not limited to those. You want to maintain the flow of the community. I think I contributed to that.” She is also a prolific translator, but mentions that only in passing, as she moves on toward more vital concerns. “As much as time would permit, I have done a lot of work to promote that. I (and many others) have become a vehicle for the country to open itself to its racial makeup, to the role of women, to the need to embrace the Haitian as your brother or sister, because after all, we are Haitians here. Who cares whether I was born on the west or east side of the island? I’m very proud that the women in particular have embraced a very open and inclusive approach. We, from here, have become examples; have become a constant mirror to some of the lesser angels of the island.”

The unity of art, scholarship, and life is a truth De Filippis affirms once more as I ask for her advice to young aspiring scholars or administrators. “I never took a course in administration, education, or accounting. I have managed more budgets than I could tell you. The humanities and the arts teach you to think on your feet, teach you to read, teach you to communicate, teach you to be serious, and give you the tools to do anything. The best administrators, in my experience, are those who begin as faculty, who learn what it’s like to get through one semester, which bring the experience and can then guide others and become the chair and ultimately, if they have the patience for many meetings, continue to advance. I always tell the women’s groups I get invited to speak to that I didn’t have a road map; what I kept on with was my spirit open to possibilities. And then, when you go there, whatever it is that you do, the important thing is to believe in it. If you love it, you will do your best. When I began teaching at York College, everybody thought that being an accountant was the way to go. But in the end, you’ve got to be able to get up in the morning. I love my job. I love what I do. It has meaning for me. I want to do more of it. And I could tell you honestly that since the day I began working in 1975 when I graduated from Queens College with a bachelor’s degree and they made me an adjunct—I taught two courses. And I went to pick up my first check. I laughed all the way home, because I would have paid to stand in front of a classroom and teach.”

As we conclude our conversation, President De Filippis stresses the continuity between her past, whether as a child in the Dominican Republic or as a young teacher at CUNY, her present at Naugatuck Valley, and her future legacy. “Wherever I came, I carry all those people with me. Wherever I am, I’m Dominican. Wherever I am, I will honor that. And wherever I am, I want people to understand that it is a good and beautiful and honorable thing to be Dominican. I have three sons and two beautiful granddaughters, one of whom is nine years old, and she writes poetry. She sent me a poem last week: ‘I am from / burnt caramel flan / and the soft fabric / of my abuela’s shawl.’ My work is done.”

This is one of several profiles featured in the newly launched Dominican Blue Book by the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, which this year is celebrating its 20th Anniversary with a grand event, The Dominican Intellectual Legacy Gala, on Saturday, December 6, 2014, at 6:30 p.m. Congratulations to the Dominican Studies Institute on this important anniversary!

“Presumed Incompetent” and Fight the Tower

presumed incompetentDr. Ramona Fernandez

Since the publication of  Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women (PI) edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, and Angela P. Harris in late 2012, a quiet storm is gathering on the edges of academia. The book and subsequent Berkeley conference gave isolated women of color in academia impetus to step forward. Reading Presumed Incompetent is painful, so painful and so familiar many of us have to take it in small doses.

The truth is, academia is not a way station where rationality overcomes prejudice, but a site for the enactment of oppression essentially no different from any location. Under the rubric of what we assume is an honorable profession dedicated to making the world a better place, all the irrational competition and hatred that is race, gender, class (and the host of –isms which help prop up these central three) remains at the center of the intellectual project. Presumed Incompetent gathers together more than 500 pages of documentation of discrimination against women of color in academia. As stereotypical oppression after oppression is revealed in this collection, the reader is overwhelmed by the inevitable conclusion that not much has changed in this supposedly post-racial world. Many of us have been suffering in relative silence, believing that the treatment we have been receiving was unique and somehow pinpointed real faults of our own. Now, it is both liberating and frightening to realize that our sisters have been enduring similar treatment and worse.

As the stories poured out in response to the volume, it became clear that there was a need both to continue documenting them and to create a movement. The book has caused so many of us to come out of the woodwork, expounding our similar stories, that two law journals have made a coordinated effort to gather subsequent stories together.  Both the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice and the Seattle Journal of Social Justice are publishing issues devoted to follow-up on Presumed Incompetent. fight the towerThe revelations in PI have inspired a movement which is coalescing around a site created by Kieu-Linh Caroline Valverde, herself one of the most courageous survivors. Her battle for tenure damaged her health to the point she lost her unborn child and was clinically dead for ninety minutes before being resuscitated. The details of her story can be found in the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of the Seattle Journal for Social Justice along with the details of my own journey. Her site, Fight the Tower, will continue documenting stories and pressing for the kind of change we need in order to remake academia into a place where we do not have to be ten times as competent just to survive.

My own story includes the ridiculous fight for tenure I had to endure because of the veto of one Dean. Despite passing muster through all the relevant committees, this Dean refused to support my tenure bid twice, reluctantly not standing in my way the third time. By the time I was finally tenured, I had endured damage to my health and professional confidence. And before I had regained my footing, I found myself the sole caregiver for my handicapped and elderly mother while also undergoing a transplant operation. Every time I was poised to regain my former health and momentum, either the continuing abuse of my institution or my health problems surfaced in such a way that I found it literally impossible to walk or talk the path I knew was my destiny. Instead of perceiving me as the treasure I am, complicated institutional politics continued to bludgeon me with ridiculous assumptions about my work and health. Collapsing in the department office and being transported by ambulance to the hospital only increased the abuse. Ironically, one of my most vivid nightmares came true: I would almost expire right in front of the eyes of my “colleagues” who didn’t care enough to check whether I was dead or alive. “My” institution has lost all moral authority over me as a result of this litany of absurdities, and I consider myself a free agent living inside the mouth of the monster.

Women of color all over the nation are waking up to the struggles we have in front of us for the foreseeable future, realizing that academia is another battleground where we must continue to fight for recognition and respect. Academia is not for the feint of heart because it has long propped up all the elements of oppression in a complicated alliance with the powers that be. Our inclusion has tested its foundations and its foundations have been found wanting. We should never assume we are living in an ivory tower from which we can leverage social change: the ivory tower is allied with an abusive social structure, props it up in formal and informal practices and itself needs to be resisted. The stories emerging in the aftermath of Presumed Incompetent are stories of multiply valenced oppressions which enter our bodies, causing permanent disabilities which further weaken our efforts to fight the tower.

Research has demonstrated that oppression causes a host of chronic illnesses which are then used as excuses for further oppression and, for some, result in the end of their careers. The increased demands for work product created by neoliberalism since the middle of the twentieth century have increased productivity in every job sector without subsequent compensation. Academia has not been immune to this global trend, but the toll it has taken on those of us who are not enfranchised is huge. Those in the majority may produce adequately but for those of us not accepted inside academia as legitimate, no amount of production or excellence will suffice. The pressures create impossible demands, demands we seek to fulfill at the risk of permanent damage to our physical and psychological well-being. Wed to these demands are constant criticism born out of prejudice and hatred, born out of the simple fact that few in the majority have truly internalized their own pronouncements about equality and justice.

PI points out that “Betrayal of women faculty of color is also the betrayal of explicitly stated institutional values and goals within higher education in the United States” (Collin 302). We know that silence in an indication of abuse; the publication of this volume and its subsequent collections represent an end to the silence and a cry for action. Part of that action recognizes that those who should stand beside us, our fellow women of color, are sometimes among those actively complicit in our oppression. For this reason and many others, it is critical that all of us speak truth to power as often and as loudly as possible. Latinas are the most underrepresented cohort in academia. That will not change without tremendous effort. We must learn to ally ourselves, and we must do so in an organized fashion with a cohort of other women of color who are willing to be part of an effective resistance movement, a movement which is organized, courageous and committed to changing academia as just one of the many steps we need to take to change our world.

Works Cited

Collin, Robin Morris. “Book Review of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersection of Race and    Class for Women in Academia.” Seattle Journal for Social Justice 12.2 (2013): 301–317. Print.

Gutiérrez y Muhs, Gabriella et al., eds. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Boulder, Colo: University Press of Colorado, 2012. Print.

Dr. Ramona Fernandez is an Associate Professor who has taught at the college level for forty four years and is a graduate of The History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her book, Imagining Literacy: Rhizomes of Knowledge in American Culture and Literature was a finalist for the Frederick W. Ness award from the Association of Colleges and Universities and is now available in a Kindle version. She is gratified beyond measure to be part of the Presumed Incompetent movement.

Dichos for Success While in College a Long Way From Home

by Sara A. Ramirez

It’s been over a decade since I left my childhood home in Dallas, Texas, to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of Notre Dame. And it has almost been a decade since I graduated from there. Although I was the first in my family to leave home for college, I was certainly not the first out of that group to leave a place I understood as “home.” I am the daughter and granddaughter of Mexican immigrants. My people are migratory people. We have been moving for centuries, and I’ve learned to appreciate my nomadic status as part of my life path.

One of the Chicanas whose writings have helped me understand “home” differently is Gloria Anzaldúa, who professes, “[I]n leaving home I did not lose touch with my origins because lo mexicano is in my system. I am turtle, wherever I go I carry ‘home’ on my back.” I haven’t lived in Dallas since I was 18, but “home” has been with me when I lived in other places like South Bend, Indiana; Oakland, California; San Antonio, Texas; and even London, England.

Since I left, I’ve met lots of Latinas—who like me—have chosen to attend college a long ways from home. I’ve consulted with one of them, Sonia I. Valencia, to offer you some dichos. Sonia is originally from Orange, California, and has also relocated to three cities away from home to pursue her bachelor’s, master’s, and now doctoral degrees. I hope the following tips help you on your journey as you leave one of the first places you’ve called “home” and come to know the home you carry on your back.

“La/El que nace para maceta del corredor no sale.”

This dicho encourages you to break out of the maceta (the plant pot). Like a healthy plant, you are bound to blossom. Imagine your consciousness to be like roots that—as you experience and learn more—grow longer and deeper into the pot in which you’ve grown comfortable. You will likely get the feeling that the pot isn’t for you anymore. Allow your roots, your leaves, your flowers to keep growing beyond the pot, off the porch, past the sidewalk, and as far as you can go.

This growth may happen in lots of different ways. For instance, many of us who are the first in our families to go to university believe we should pursue majors that will make our families happy, so that one day they can proudly tell la comadre that you’re a doctora, an abogada, or an ingeniera. But just as you made the decision to leave the place you call home, you will recognize the importance of continuing to pave and follow your own path. Anzaldúa writes, “I had to leave home so I could find myself, find my own intrinsic nature buried under the personality that had been imposed on me.” Let yourself fall in love with subjects outside of what is considered traditional. Take a Women’s Studies class or an Ethnic Studies class when you get the chance. When you’re at the campus bookstore, check out what other professors are having their students read. If the books seem interesting, get the book and/or jot down the name of the class and/or professor. Google their faculty profile, and try to take a class with them in the future.

Remember, you won’t know what’s “out there” or “in here” (*points to heart*) until you venture off the path you think you’re supposed to follow.

“No hay mal por que bien no venga.”

But while you’re out there reaching far beyond your comfy plant pot, you will stumble and sometimes fall. Although you may proceed with caution, some things will not go as you planned. This dicho is for those times. Loosely translated, it means, “No bad will come without good.” I have heard this dicho not only from my parents but also from my beloved Chicana mentors, and I live by it.

When something goes wrong, try to remember that there is a silver lining to every cloud. There will likely be times when you will remember the dicho above and then ask, “What good could possibly come of this?” When that question comes up, consider any lessons you may have learned or how this “bad” incident will direct you to a different path that could possibly be good. When I was a senior at Notre Dame, I applied to various doctoral programs in English and two M.A. programs in English  I was accepted only to the Master’s programs, one of which was at Notre Dame and the other was in San Antonio. Going to San Antonio was the best thing that could have ever happened to me; this is where I met three Chican@ mentors, who helped me come to consciousness as a Chicana feminist. It was they who encouraged me to pursue Chican@ Studies or Women’s Studies for my doctorate. With their guidance, I was accepted to five of the eight doctoral programs I applied to the second time around. Of course, I cried when I didn’t get into the other programs, but I had to remind myself, “No hay mal por que bien no venga.” When one door shuts, another one opens, and here I am.

“La sangre te hace pariente, pero la lealtad entre amig@s te hace familia.”

To help you see the “bien” in the dicho above, you’ll need social support. For many, family is important, but don’t believe that that’s all you have. There are people outside of your family who can and will care about you as much as (and sometimes more than) those with whom you grew up. As this dicho indicates, “blood” makes you relatives, but loyalty between friends makes you family.

Learn “to make familia from scratch” even when your relatives are close. This means forming bonds with the people who are around you at school. Get to know the student organizations on campus. Type in “student organizations” (sometimes called “Student Activities” or “Student Life”) into your school’s homepage search bar to learn about what’s out there. Pay attention to flyers put up on student bulletin boards to find out when their meetings are, and attend! If you don’t see an organization that reflects your interests, ask one of the staff at the Student Activities office how to create your own.

Creating community is essential to not only your college experience but also your life experience. A lot of times we’re told to seek out people who are unlike us so that we can learn from them and they can learn from us, and that’s important. It’s equally significant, however, to seek out people who will understand you (e.g., your humor) and share your interests (e.g., your love for cumbia, your disdain for homophobia and sexism). You’ll need a support system during rough times, which might happen when you miss your loved ones or when you get your first C.

Special thanks to Luz Ponce de Chihuahua, México, who directed me to these dichos.

Sara A. Ramírez is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also part of the Third Woman Press Collective and an adjunct instructor in Women’s Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Of Puerto Rico, Perfumes and Colonies

by Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo

It was circa 1983, when I was a junior high student in the public school system in Puerto Rico, that I experienced one of my first deep contemplations about Puerto Rico’s political status by way of an exchange between a teacher and a classmate. The exchange was in Spanish, of course, so before I actually delve into the tale, I need to explain the “punch line” (in my opinion, the biggest disadvantage of translation). Mainly, in Spanish, the word for colony, “colonia,” is also the word for cologne. Understanding the nuances of this story, and why I found it so meaningful, is contingent upon understanding this homophone.

The Story

My eighth grade Social Studies teacher, I will call her here Miss Vilas, was a young woman fresh out of college, who came to work every morning on the back of a black Harley Davidson driven by her boyfriend, at a time when young women did not have “boyfriends,” did not ride in motorcycles, and definitely did not ride in their boyfriend’s motorcycle.  But she didn’t seem to care about societal expectations, and that translated to her work in the classroom. Always eager to teach us a few things about Puerto Rican society beyond what was stipulated in our curriculum, Miss Vilas was a good teacher, and her willingness to step out of boundaries appealed to my inquisitive mind. One day, out of the blue she began a discussion about the political status of the island, an event completely out of the ordinary, for up to that moment, the political status of Puerto Rico had been presented to us, not discussed in class. The Estado Libre Asociado or ELA (that is the Commonwealth status) was always taken for granted in the curriculum, and if anything, up to that particular day, I was under the impression that the ELA would always be an immutable and permanent fixture in the island’s government.

Our extraordinary discussion soon generated what seemed an extraordinary reaction. Upon hearing the name “Estado Libre Asociado,” “Bill,” one of my most articulate classmates, scoffed loudly and rolled his eyes, while playing air drums with his pencils to a tune only he could hear. Bill’s reaction made Miss Vilas stop dead in her tracks and look at him, intently, with a mysterious, undecipherable smile. Bill, still playing air drums, had closed his eyes, completely unaware of our teacher’s penetrating gaze until she finally asked: “why such a strong reaction, Bill?” Bill responded (without missing a beat with the pencils and with a mysterious smile of his own) that the ELA was nothing but a colony (“el ELA no es nada más que una colonia, Missis,” he quipped). The rest of us gasped in collective unison, but Miss Vilas quickly but firmly shot back: “colonia no, perfume” (which roughly translates as “not cologne, but perfume”). Her smile was intact.

The Lesson

The majority of us understood her point: perfumes are supposed to be of better quality than colognes, which are generally less expensive. Many of us laughed at her response, while Bill seemed to be taken aback by it—his air drumming stopped altogether, his smile turned into a frown. I laughed with the majority of my classmates, but I had to process what that really meant. Was she defending the political status of the island? I may have looked at it as a permanent fixture, but even I knew that the ELA was nothing if not flawed. This exchange between my teacher and my classmate stayed with me long after I graduated from junior high, from high school, and from college, and through my years as a graduate student and now as an academic. After all, Miss Vilas was not the only one on the island who thought that the Commonwealth was indeed not a form of cheap cologne but a fine bottled-up perfume.

The Take Away

Thirty years later, I now see Miss Vilas’ witty response to Bill not necessarily as a defense of the Commonwealth status, but as a tactic for dealing with a taxing situation (i.e., an unresolved political status that has lasted for half a millenium) by exerting some agency against its overwhelming weight. She was, in a perhaps awkward way, redefining her subject position (and by extension the subject position of all of us in her classroom, for we were all Puerto Ricans) vis-à-vis the US: in the end she did not want to be seen as (nor did she want to be) the subject of a cheap colonial configuration, to be sure. Miss Vilas’ way of engaging with the Commonwealth taught me an enduring lesson: regardless of the position from which they may advocate a particular political view, Puerto Ricans are painfully aware of the Commonwealth and its impacts, and do what they can to negotiate their location within it. It was also telling that even though we had never been formally taught about colonies as such, we still knew, as thirteen-year-olds, that the word (especially as it was being used by our classmate Bill) was meant as an insult, and a clear indictment of the island’s government. Our collective gasp reflected how much we knew, at such a young age, about colonies and about insults.  That the status of the island could be articulated as an insult, and thus something to be wielded in order to put people (us!) down, was a major insight to me that day.

In retrospect, the fact that I remember this particular exchange so vividly is indicative of how ingrained and even traumatic notions of Puerto Rico’s status can be. My recollection of the exchange often returns in my musings about the island, as it was around that time that I began to consciously process and sift through ideologies about its political status.  The exchange between my teacher and my classmate ultimately taught me that, as a Puerto Rican, I should learn to simultaneously deal with sensibilities that metaphorically articulate Puerto Rico’s status as a “cologne,” and those that articulate it as a “perfume.” The biggest insight for me now, however, after years of studying, thinking and writing about Puerto Rico’s political status, is that, although the island may actually be a little more than cologne, in the end, it is all colony. From the government to the educational system. From the economy to its daily diversions and entertainments. From the unemployment rate to the ever-expanding Diaspora (of which I have been a member for 20 years now). From every institution to every minute aspect of life. All colony. Then (when I was in school learning about the ELA), and now (as I continue the struggle to envision a future for Puerto Rico beyond the ELA).

Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University. Her current research is on Latinos in the US, “the War on Terror,” and popular culture. She is a member of the Mujeres Talk Editorial Group.