Jennifer De Leon
Spring of my senior year in college I needed to buy a dress for graduation. Not just any dress, of course. Vaya, my mother had said. So we drove to the mall, our special mother-daughter terrain. We were experts at tracking discounts. Tuesdays were retail markdown days. The salespeople at Macy’s gave out coupons. And twice a year, if you purchased full-price bras at Victoria’s Secret, you got a free lip-gloss. That day, weeks before I would be the second in my entire extended family (next to my older sister) to graduate from college, my mother and I had a clear goal: find the dress.
And there it was underneath the shade of soft lighting bulbs inside Ann Taylor. Magenta, magical. My mother and I gazed at the silk fabric through the storefront window. A headless mannequin showed off the exquisite A-line cut. Sleeveless, sophisticated. Nothing but a pane of fingerprint-proof glass parked between us. We stepped inside the store and were greeted by the sweet smell of leather and cashmere-blend tops. The aura of credit card transactions hovered around us like a mist.
“How much?” my mother asked.
I massaged the crisp white price tag between my thumb and forefinger. “How much do you think?”
We left the mall defeated that day. The dress cost one hundred dollars, well over what we could afford. I was a scholarship student at Connecticut College, a private liberal arts school that resembled a country club. My mother worked as a housekeeper. I made six dollars an hour babysitting for families near campus. I would need to buy a suit for upcoming job interviews, not to mention outfit an apartment in Boston where I planned to live with two friends from college come September. My mother and I, expert shoppers, knew storefront items wouldn’t be marked down for weeks, maybe months. Graduation was in seventeen days.
“I’ll find a dress at the mall near school,” I assured her, my voice rinsed of confidence as I pictured the crowded racks inside the mall in New London. She lowered her lashes. Vaya.
My college graduation dress was as important to her as a wedding gown. Ever since my mother was a schoolgirl in Guatemala, where she had often earned the honor of carrying the flag in the annual school parade (which was something only the students with the highest marks in each grade did), she dreamed of going to college. Education was like a religion in our household. She preached the importance of straight A’s. She snuck in consejos like mashed up vitamins in our morning mosh. If you study hard you can get a good job and then you can do whatever you want, she’d say. Or, Books are your friends. When she was driving my sisters and me to gymnastics or Girl Scouts or church, and we were stuck in the backseat, she’d tell us about a family whose house she cleaned, how the son went to Duke (the name made me think of a prison), and how he got a scholarship (the word sounded like a disease).
Thanks to my mother’s persistence I eventually learned the meaning of a scholarship. One semester in college she spoke to my Women & World Studies class. Seated at the far end of a rectangular wooden table in the snug classroom of an old ivy-covered campus building, my mother crossed her arms and described her experience moving from Guatemala to the United States at the age of eighteen, and we discussed how globalization played a role in our family’s economic, political, and cultural trials. I got an A. Then, she visited me at the offices of Ms. magazine in New York City where I interned one summer. I’ll never forget the moment that Gloria Steinem’s long-fingered, delicate hand knotted with my mother’s coarse, nail polish-chipped hand—just for an instant. How lovely to meet you, Ms. Steinem said. You too, my mother replied. The next fall, when I studied abroad in Paris, my mother came to visit. She insisted on taking pictures of the small cars she said looked like sneakers and then asked me to take photos of her posed in front of them. In between visits to the Louvre and the Sorbonne, where I was studying feminist philosophy and attending lectures by Hélène Cixous, my mother bought miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower for relatives in Boston. Throughout the years she held tight the picture in her mind of each of her daughters on one of the most important days of her life: graduation day.
Dress or no dress, I still needed to prepare for class of 2001 senior week, a to-do list that, after failed attempts to find a dress at the local mall, included raiding my friend’s closet for graduation day. While I was fixated on campus matters, the world was still celebrating the turn of the century, unaware of the events that would occur just a few months later on September 11. Around the time of my graduation, across the country, the University of California, Berkeley, hosted a conference on Hispanic judges. One of the speakers at the conference was Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In a speech that is now famous, Sotomayor said, in response to a discussion of an appellate court with multiple judges, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.” Years later, when she was nominated as a Supreme Court justice, this comment inspired furious backlash from conservative commentators. On the cover of the National Review, cartoonists portrayed Sotomayor as a Buddha with Asian features. Rush Limbaugh and others labeled her a “racist.” Yet in her 2001 speech, Sotomayor was using the term in a specific context that addressed the group dynamics on a US Supreme Court of nine justices who converse publicly during oral arguments and privately during conferences over cases. In these settings, a justice’s identity undoubtedly affects his or her thinking about cases. By 2050, Hispanics will make up 30 percent of the US population, yet of 112 Supreme Court justices, all but four have been white men. Sotomayor’s controversial comment was nothing more than common sense: shouldn’t our judicial system better represent our population?
For me, when I hear the words wise Latina, I immediately think of my mother. She is a woman who came to the United States at a young age, alone, speaking no English. Four years passed before she returned to Guatemala with platform shoes, a new hairstyle of pressed waves, and a black-and-white television as a gift for the family. Then she left again for Los Angeles and eventually, Boston, where she married and had three daughters. All her life, my mother wanted more. She learned English, became a US citizen, and bought a house. Education, she believed, provided a set of master keys that unlocked multiple doors—career, money, travel, health, relationships, even love.
Through her daughters, she would live the lives she had imagined for herself, and every one included a college education. A Latina housekeeper who drives her caravan full of daughters to admissions tours at Brown, Alfred, TCU (yes, we drove to Fort Worth, Texas), may not be Rush Limbaugh’s picture of a wise Latina. Then again, Limbaugh doesn’t exactly embody my ideal of wisdom, either. To such myopic commentators, the phrase wise Latina was controversial because they considered the term an oxymoron. The dominant media narrative does not include Latinas in medicine, the arts, or politics. We are encouraged to laugh at Latina housekeepers on sitcoms, to ignore the invisible Latina workers mopping the floors in public restrooms. The term wise Latina continues to unfold preconceptions and stereotypes of what it is to be wise and what it is to be Latina.
Higher education is a complex experience for many Latinas, who are traditionally expected to leave home when they get married. When I was in college, I yearned for a book that contained stories from different Latinas that could help me feel, for once, like I had company. Of course there were books and authors that grounded me and inspired me, but I longed for a book that made me feel less alone. An anthology. While developing my idea for a book, I was always brought back to poet and cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa whose famous work Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza shaped so much of my consciousness as a Latina, a writer, and an educator. It gave voice to the questions, emotions, and realizations I grappled with as a young woman struggling to find my way in the world. Of anthologies in particular, Anzaldúa believed:
“Making anthologies is also activism. In the process of creating the composition, the work of art…you’re creating the culture. You’re rewriting the culture, which is very much an activist kind of thing.”[i]
It took me several years to put together and edit the Wise Latina anthology. In many ways the project stands as a form of activism. It seeks to unveil the true Latina educational experience and dispel the stereotypes. With mainstream media and those in power in charge of the writing of history—herstory—as a means of controlling what is considered true, the need for authentic stories—by women of color in particular—is critical. Each of the women who share their stories in the anthology is in her own way a wise Latina. These women dispel myths about the roles of Latinas who come from immigrant families. They explore the higher-education experience within the context of being a woman of Latin American descent in a predominantly white system. Not one story repeats, and the common denominators are sometimes unexpected. Some of us were expected to marry and have babies shortly after high school. Others of us were expected to go to law school or become doctoras. Some of us earned scholarships. Others lived at home and commuted to save money. We lost our virginity, came out of the closet, gave birth, earned Fulbrights, studied abroad in places our parents never dreamed of visiting. We wrote research papers while home on spring break, cousins buzzing in our ears. Our families filled three entire rows at graduation. As Latinas, as writers, as college graduates, we each have something unique to say—to ourselves, to our ancestors, to those middle school selves in all of us.
Individually and collectively, these women’s stories inform the larger discussion of Latinas and higher education. We hear from the community college student and the PhD candidate, the adult student and the first-generation student, the commuter and the globe-trotter. We read about the college experiences of Latinas from diverse backgrounds and in different parts of the United States, small private schools and big public institutions, and from different generations. These authors reflect on different issues—sexuality, body image, academic preparation, alienation, race, class, parent weekends, spring break, work-study, financial aid, dorm life, drugs, drinking, and identity. Others write about post-graduate adventures and their paths as professors.
For some Latinas, college was the first time they were immersed in American culture outside of the home—and where the values of two cultures often clashed. For most of us, it was a space where we grew, where we shaped our independence and struggled to make sense of our surroundings. In her essay “Only Daughter,” Sandra Cisneros writes, “After four years in college and two more in graduate school, and still no husband, my father shakes his head even now and says I wasted all that education.”
While there is no one Latina college experience, each of the writers in the anthology contributes her individual thread to this shared textile. These stories, these testimonios by Latina writers, are the nourishment and validation I sought as a first-generation college student right up until the moment I needed the “perfect” graduation dress.
The final weekend before college graduation, my mother came to visit me on campus. She had packed a weekend bag and driven the two hours down to campus. By now she knew where to park and how to type in the seven-digit code required for entering the dorm. There, inside my room, she relaxed on the purple comforter (the one that she had sewn herself) and talked to my grandmother on the phone while I wore headphones and worked on a final paper. That night we ate dinner in Mystic, a quaint seaport town fifteen minutes away. We sat upstairs in a restaurant overlooking the bridge, where we ordered piña coladas and split an entrée of stuffed scallops. Afterward, back on campus, we drank frothy beers from plastic red cups and met up with my friends. By then, they knew and loved her.
The following morning, my mother and I ate brunch in the dining hall and then took a long walk in the school arboretum. Before she returned home, she handed me a department store bag full of hair gel, toothpaste, shampoo, and raspberry-flavored Fig Newtons. I stood on the concrete steps outside the dorm and watched her drive away, the car a little lighter, both of our hearts a bit heavier. I could tell she was already mourning her visits to Connecticut College. Monday passed. Tuesday. Finally, on Wednesday morning of my last week of classes, I dug in my closet for a shirt to wear to my final presentation in Women’s Studies. There, tucked between a sparkly tank top and a white button-down, I felt the crinkle of a cream-colored plastic garment bag. I pulled it out gently and read the words: ANN TAYLOR. I didn’t have to look because I already knew what was inside.
*From Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education edited by Jennifer De Leon by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Forthcoming Spring 2014.
[i] Andrea A. Lunsford, “Toward a Mestiza Rhetoric: Gloria Anzaldua on Composition and Postcoloniality,” JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory 18, no. 1 (1998): 1-27
Jennifer De Leon
Jennifer De Leon is the winner of the Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Ms., Briar Cliff Review, Brevity, Poets & Writers, Guernica, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, and elsewhere. She has published author interviews in Granta and Agni, and she has been awarded scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. The editor of the anthology Wise Latina: Writers on Higher Education (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), she is also working on a memoir and a novel.