Aliens and Others in Search of the Tribe in Academia
tatiana de la tierra
Our effectiveness depends on our capacity to be audacious and astute, clear and appealing. I would hope that we can create a language more fearless and beautiful than that used by conformist writers to greet the twilight.
I am a fat, slightly bearded lesbian. A white Latina of Colombian extraction. A pagan lacking in Catholic guilt. A hedonist who knows shame. I have been diagnosed with lupus. Drive a pink and purple pickup. Collect rocks. Been poor most of my life. Knew gold-plated Gucci wealth for a few memorable years. I am a writer. I speak and dream in Spanish, inglés y Spanglish. I am a feminist, an activist, una gitana. I have a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and a Master’s in Library Science. I am a teacher and a librarian. I am, with all my identifying quirks and contradictions, a part of the academy.
Yet I am the eternal outsider. From within the university system I carry a prognosis—regardless of how many years I reside here, an integral part of me will always be distant from the mainstream. I will never belong. I am, and always have been, Other. I am one of those smelly mismatched misfits, squawking weirdos, invisible meek clods, strange birds, stupid beings, or even worse, brainy ones. We are the marginalized, the outsiders, the queer ones, the immigrants. The aliens. We have no land to call our own, no comfort zone. We are dust and desert souls.
They told me, they told us: You don’t belong here.
How many of us are “the weary travelers, the dislocated, those of us who left because we didn’t fit any more, those of us who still haven’t arrived because we don’t know where to arrive at, or because we can’t go back any more?” (Gomez-Peña 38). How many of us in academe are eternally in search of our tribe?
“Others” are those who are not part of the dominant power structure. We are the ones who are not white, wealthy, or heterosexual. We are socially and economically disadvantaged. We are those who speak another language. Some of us—the immigrants, the poor, the gays, and those of us who are “of color”—are directly affected by homophobic, imperialist, anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative action, anti-poor and anti-other legislation. Some of us are in solidarity with each other. All of us are gendered, racialized, sexualized, ethno-cized and class-ified beings. We exist on the outside of society while being a significant part of it. We do not belong, yet here we are.
We are all we have and so we become obsessed with who we are, with our history and identity. We must feel the vibration of the resonance of our identities. In “Documented/Undocumented,” Mexican writer and performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña writes about this longing that so many of us Others have for ourselves:
The recapitulation of my personal and collective topography has become my cultural obsession since I arrived in the United States. I look for the traces of my generation, whose distance stretches not only from México City to California, but also from the past to the future, from pre-Columbian America to high technology and from Spanish to English, passing through “Spanglish.” As a result of this process I have become a cultural topographer, border-crosser, and hunter of myths. And it doesn’t matter where I find myself, in Califas or México City, in Barcelona or West Berlin; I always have the sensation that I belong to the same species: the migrant tribe of fiery pupils. (37)
They told me, they told us: Go back where you came from.
I did not conceptualize my own otherness for many years; I just lived it. I was seven years old when my feet touched Miami asphalt. I did not speak English. I did not understand many aspects of US culture, including the intense racial divide. This came much later. But I did know that I was Other, that I was inferior, that I was not meant to succeed.
They told me, they told us: English Only.
One day, as an adult, upon hearing the words for the first time, I instinctively identified with being a “woman of color,” even though I am racially white. My alliances were not with white culture or politics; my experience as an immigrant in this country Othered and de-whited me. In her analysis of Cuban lesbian performance artist Alina Troyano, “Too Spik or Too Dyke: Carmelita Tropicana,” Lillian Manzor-Coats conceptualizes the de-pigmentation of “color.” “The racial imaginary of the United States seems to be a product of a binary structure where the only categories are the polar opposites white/nonwhite. Within this racial imaginary, Latinas/os automatically occupy the non-white position, regardless of their racial configuration” (39). As a light-skinned person I have white privilege. Also, I do not have a Spanish accent when I speak in English now, while my mother does and my father doesn’t even speak English. Within the context of a society that bulldozes over otherness, though, I embodied the hatred that was bottled and distributed just for me and mi gente. We were belittled, stereotyped, tokenized, de-humanized, impotent.
How can anyone overcome a self-hatred that was borne of a white, patriarchal social construction? Honestly, I don’t know that I have quite accomplished this.
They told me, they told us: Cockroaches for dinner.
It could be said that everyone has equal opportunity to be an Other. Not all of those who are a part of the “mainstream” feel a sense of belonging or agree with this group’s racist, sexist and classist tenets. The “white trash” phenomenon is representative of the complexities of race and power. White does not always equal might. Being “white” or “brown” is no one’s doing; it is what we are. Yet what we are does dictate, to a great extent, what we can hope to accomplish.
Racism is a constant factor that affects all of us, all the time. African American author, activist and librarian E. J. Josey, who has been a librarian since 1953, defines racism as “a system of advantages that benefits all whites, whether or not they seek it. In America, whites are not simply in the majority. They hold most of the positions of power, they own most of the wealth and set most of the nation’s policies, and they are for all these reasons the norm” (“To Be Black” 82). Institutionalized racism (and classism and sexism) in the academy translates into privileged white men making decisions that affect everyone within the system. And, often, this means that, in the classroom, the materials and pedagogy are of such white male heterosexual origin. We all learn our place within the system; we take our positions and occupy the space allotted to us, nothing more. To transgress is to endanger the little that is ours.
They told me, they told us: Too brown, too loud.
Like all people of color, Latinos exist outside of the norm of pop culture in this country. Despite demographic predictions that Latinos are the fastest growing minority, I am concerned about the glaring invisibility of Latinos in places that represent mass culture. Where are Latinos in Hollywood? (We are violent criminals, servants and whores.) In literature? (Think fast—Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz—there cannot be too many of us, as the room fills up quickly.) In Washington, DC? (Tending tables and washing dishes.) On the radio? (The select few who “make it” to mainstream airwaves are Anglicized for mass consumption.) In academe? (Scrubbing toilets or not there at all, though some of us are trying, against odds, to Be Somebody, Get Somewhere, Graduate.) After the glitter settles on the supposed Latin Boom, I want to know—Will Latinos ever be perceived as anything more than spicy and ridiculous “yo quiero Taco Bell” hot tamales? Will key issues that affect our survival in this country—bilingual education, immigrant rights, environmental racism, representation in the White House, equitable access to higher education and technology—ever be worked out in our favor?
They told me, they told us: Ghetto, ghetto, ghetto.
For many years now, the ethnic look has been saturating mass culture. White teenagers sport tribal tattoos and dreadlocks while their parents swing on Brazilian hammocks in the comfort of their living rooms. You could even be fooled into thinking that this is the Age of the Other. Queer is hip, salsa is happening, rap is here to stay. But are we anything beyond the flavor of the month?
We are still a quantifiable minority in every stratum of society, except that which corresponds to low wages and poor education. In comparison to non-Latino whites, for instance, as of March, 1999, Latinos are three times as likely to be living in poverty (25.6 percent, compared with 8.2 percent for non-Latino whites); significantly less likely to graduate from high school (56.1 percent, compared with 87.7 percent); and less likely to graduate from college with a Bachelor’s degree or more (10.9 percent, compared to 27.7 percent) (US Census). “Color-blind” theorists and anti-affirmative action politicians and racists are waving the flag of equality when, in fact, all is not equal.
They told me, they told us: Ignorance becomes you.
Legal challenges and state initiatives designed to eliminate affirmative action in educational institutions (and elsewhere) spell impending doom for people of color in academe. Affirmative action has had a positive impact on the presence of Others in higher education. A1995 report from the White House stated that, “Only in the wake of affirmative action measures in the late 1960s and early 1970s did the percentage of black college students begin to climb steadily” (“Legal Developments” 8). The same is true for other minority groups.
Ironically, Others are multiplying in meteoric rates in the US as affirmative action programs are being challenged and eliminated. According to the US Department of Commerce, ninety percent of the total US population growth from 1995 to 2050 will be attributed to racial and ethnic minorities. Also, the non-minority youth population is expected to decline, while the minority youth population will more than double. All demographic statistics and trends in higher education point to a decrease in white student enrollment and an increase for students of color (Jones). In the future, we can expect a more diverse student population on college campuses.
They told me, they told us: Proposition 209, Initiative 200.
Personally, I did not initially envision education beyond Miami-Dade Community College, where I obtained my Associate’s Degree in Arts in the early nineteen eighties. I did not have high academic expectations for myself. My mother did not graduate from high school; she cleaned houses for twenty-one years. My father, who had a college education and spoke English at the time, had tried his hand at the “American dream” and failed. By the time I graduated from high school, my father was an entrepreneur living, mostly, in Colombia, with erratic success.
Even though I had been in honors programs in junior high and high school, I believed that my own road to “opportunity” was inherently limited. Thanks to Federal financial aid and economic support from relatives in Colombia, though, I completed my Bachelor’s at the University of Florida. Twelve years later, after much traveling, activism, writing, publishing and barely making a living, I went to graduate school, the result of a defining moment in my life. While at a writing retreat in the Northwest, I ended up in the hospital with a lupus “flare up” in the form of pneumonia, pleurisy and other painful manifestations. Since I was unemployed and uninsured, I went to Colombia to heal, where a relative paid for my therapies. For months, in the mountains on the outskirts of Santa Fé de Bogotá, I submitted myself to every treatment in my path that resonated with me—from intravenous oxygen and rebirthing to flower essences, intravenous chemotherapy and walking barefoot in the mountains.
I did a lot of reading and thinking while the IV delivered molecular concoctions into my bloodstream. I entertained myself with far-out fantasies during the grueling solo three-hour walks: I would create a New Age adventure tour company in Colombia; I would have a baby and travel the world with her; I would go to Valledupar with a group of women and start a lesbian vallenato band; I would be what I’ve always wanted to be, a songwriter; I would stay on my mom’s farm in the outskirts of Palmira and write the Great Colombian-American novel; I would go to graduate school and Do Something That Equaled Survival.
They told me, they told us: You get what you deserve.
I tried the farm idea first. I loaded up with a month’s worth of supplies—groceries, writing tools, novels, rolls of black-and-white film—and relaxed into a writing mode. Two days later, after nightfall, a group of masked men came for me with their guns cocked. Supposed guerrillas of some sort, they had orders to interrogate and kidnap me. After playing their game for several hours, they left me intact and walked off with the worldly possessions that defined me at that time in my life: Nikon camera and lenses, Gucci watch and gold jewelry, Sony camcorder, professional recording equipment, Tarot cards, camping gear, music. At the crack of dawn I said goodbye to my mom’s gardens and cows, and to the green mountains, the brightly-painted farmhouses, and the forever fields of sugar cane that form the landscape on the winding path to town.
They told me, they told us: Go back where you came from.
Three months later, I was in graduate school in a bilingual MFA creative writing program on the border of the US and Mexico, at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). The program was disappointing—the fact that we were on the border did not translate into having courses or professors that reflected the immediate surroundings. British literature and white heterosexual instructors and graduate students dominated the English department. Every once in a while, a Chicano or African American literature course was offered. The Spanish department was parochial and male-defined. With the exception of one Colombian instructor who included a significant amount of female writers in her literature courses, most of the required readings were by male authors. There was not any palpable queer presence in the contents of the courses in either of the departments, or any cutting-edge anything, for that matter.
I was not a happy graduate student, though I did eventually invent ways to make my own work meaningful and I identified allies in the process. I remember feeling, as a student, ripped off. There was no inherent support for me as a creative person or as a Latina or a dyke, no courses that reflected my bicultural, bilingual reality, no critical feedback to my writings that offered a basic understanding of who I was. (I remember having to explain the concept of a lesbian femme in a writing workshop. That was just the beginning.) I, along with the other Others, were strangely alienated in a place that promised just the opposite. I developed an Us-against-Them mentality and bonded with select Others in the program—the three Chicanas from Los Angeles and myself became the “WCC” (women of color corner). We performed our work at a local art gallery at a reading entitled, “This Frontera Called My Lengua: A Reading by Linguistic Terrorists.” That was our way of surviving.
While being a student was disempowering, being a teacher was just the opposite. I was a Teaching Assistant, which meant that I taught two sections of English composition each semester. Immediately, I recognized the potency of each of the components of teaching—creating a syllabus, making lesson plans, selecting course materials, lecturing and grading.
Because of our relative invisibility in academia, those of us who are Others in the classroom inherently have particularly powerful personas that we take with us. I occupied space in the classroom fully aware of who I was and who my students were. At UTEP, 70% of the undergraduates are of Mexican American descent; most are the first ever in their family to attend college, and many never graduate. I wanted to teach in a way that was respectful of my students and myself and that was also fun. My approach to teaching English composition, which I experimented with and developed along the way, entailed having a multicultural reader, doing creative writing exercises as well as traditional lesson plans, coming out in the classroom, and creating an environment that invited students to play with words, including Spanglish and Caló.
My students were conscious of my Otherness—I was a stranger in their land, as well as an outsider to the university that we all attended. Instructors who identify themselves or are identified as Other wear a neon sign in academic settings. I was a queer role model for my gay students. They would visit during and after office hours and come out to me; one of them even came out in the classroom. Likewise, even though I am not Chicana, my students knew that I understood their culture, familia, economic situation, and their language. All of this had a tremendous impact in the dynamics of required English composition courses (De la Tierra “Coming Out”).
By being one of the few recognizable faces in a sea of white academics, we, whether we want to or not, represent our raza. This is not necessarily a good thing. We are just who we are—individuals. We are not representatives of countries, gender, ethnicity or sexuality. Yet, because there are so few of us, we often end up shouldering more identity than we can bear. Although it’s unfair and unrealistic, it is part of our path. Likewise, it is part of our power. If we are conscious of this connection, and if we care, we can make our time in the classroom purposeful and more potent than it naturally is.
I remember Mrs. Garcia, a Cuban math teacher at Homestead Junior High. Unlike most of the “American” teachers, she wore makeup and clicked down the hall in high heels. She was brassy; she spoke loud and fast and in Spanish with her Latin students. She wasn’t my teacher, but even so, I memorized her image and identified her as a person of power. She was an idol in the corner of my eye, and yet, she was nothing more than a math teacher. She represented the possibility that even if I was poor and Colombian I could still, someday, be someone. It was that simple.
They told me, they told us: Matensen, matensen.
Many of us Others are in tune with the power of our identity. We expect more from ourselves and we know that more is expected of us. Our writings are historical documents, and our achievements, or lack of, represent the grace or doom of our culture. We forge our paths swinging our sharpened hand-held machetes. We often feel that our writing and our presence make our gente visible and maybe even powerful. During a speech at the National Council of Teachers in English Annual Convention in 1995 in San Diego, Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros expressed the hope that her stories “give name to communities that have been silent or distant, give voice to people who don’t have a voice” (“Cisneros”). Going a step further, Alicia Gaspar de Alba explains the role of Chicana writers in “Literary Wetback:”
The Chicana writer, like the curandera (medicine woman) or the bruja (witch), is the keeper of the culture, keeper of the memories, rituals, the stories, the superstitions, the language, the imagery of her Mexican heritage. She is also the one who changes the culture, the one who breeds a new language and a new lifestyle, new values, new images and rhythms, new dreams and conflicts into that heritage making all of this brouhaha and cultural schizophrenia a new legacy for those who have still to squeeze into legitimacy as human beings and American citizens. (245)
Why does a Chicana writer shoulder the entire history, imagery and future of her people? With such a small handful of visible Chicana writers, each one’s social and cultural responsibility is magnified. Cherríe Moraga cites one of the drawbacks. “There are so few latina lesbians who are getting national readership or national recognition that there’s always a lot of weight attached to anything we produce. It’s like wanting every latina lesbian novel to be the definitive when we have like two or three to choose from. I think the pressure is a little much” (De la Tierra “Cherríe Moraga” 6).
I agree. We are under intense pressure to represent and produce and succeed when we are only idiosyncratic beings. For five years, I was one of the editors of the Latina lesbian magazines, esto no tiene nombre and conmoción. I was convinced that if it weren’t for these magazines, Latina lesbians would not be published or otherwise visible. And this is not far from the truth. Rarely are Latina lesbian writers, artists, performers and activists featured within contemporary literature. Even though Latina lesbian visibility increased within our community as a result of the magazines that I edited from 1991-1996, our cultura continues to be apart from. Other.
They told me, they told us: Alien, alien, alien.
I think back to my own otherness—leaving my magical, mountainous country at seven years of age to be indoctrinated into North American culture; learning a foreign language as if it were a weapon for my survival; being a fat, savage teenager; being a member of the first Latin family in the neighborhood and listening to my mom explain plátanos asados to the rednecks; being so poor that we had to clean the carpet with our fingers; spending summers in Colombia and no longer being one of “them”; living as a “Resident Alien”; being branded with a diagnosis of lupus, incurable; loving women forever. And I know that regardless of ethnic and queer buzzwords, I will always be Other. It is the only place that I can call my own.
In her rock song “Alienation,” Naomi Morena sings a Latina lesbian anthem: “Tell me where do I belong, my hair is short and my skin is brown. Won’t take a man and I got no plans for the future.” I remember jamming to this song, recorded in 1984, as a baby dyke in Miami and, eventually, meeting the author in Portland during my travels.
Part of my own path in the land of Otherness is to meet other Others. We are, scattered throughout the world, sisters, familia. For many years, I was a gitana in search of Us—I drove, flew, walked, rode horseback, and swam to anywhere that we were. I went to conferences, music festivals, teepees, communes, bedrooms, bars, bookstores, cafés. I have been an audience to so many of our awesome performers, a publisher of some of our talented writers and artistas, a consumer of the products that we stamp with our own seal of Otherness.
I have found that our deep-seated anger, a response to being belittled and virtually erased, is the fuel that ignites our work. Juanita Ramos, editor of the Latina lesbian anthology Compañeras, dedicates the book, “For Latina lesbians everywhere. With much love and the conviction that one day we will be able to live our lives to our fullest potential without anyone to oppress us.” Achy Obejas, Cuban lesbian writer, cites incidents of “barbaric” racist remarks spewed at her during childhood and concludes that, in her role as a creative writing instructor, “There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than correcting an American in English. It’s the ultimate fuck you” (De la Tierra “Achy Obejas” 38).
Perhaps “fuck you” is at the heart of our identity. It’s definitely a part of who I am. In my “coming to America” story, entitled “Wings,” I wrote:
I dreaded those public moments that highlighted the fact that I was a foreigner. Sometimes I sat at my desk, plotting my revenge. I would master the English language. I would infiltrate the gringo culture without letting on that I was a traitor. I would battle in their tongue and make them stumble. I would cut out their souls and leave them on the shore to be pecked on by vultures. Winged words would be my weapon.
They told me, they told us: Jodensen, jodensen.
Yet I realize that we have to evolve beyond our eternal rage. We have to survive, be functional, stay out of prison, dream, dance, live in peace, know beauty.
Today, I am everything that I ever was, and more, but my stomping ground is academe. After completing my MFA, I moved across the country again, this time to the Northeast, where I was the recipient of the Library Internship/Residency Program for underrepresented academic librarians at the University at Buffalo (UB). Once again, I was one of very few people of color in graduate school. One of my professors was African American; the rest were white. According to the 1998 Library and Information Science Education Statistical Report, 15.7 % of full-time faculty in ALA-accredited programs were people of color; only 2.4% were Latin (20). I studied alongside a handful of African American and Asian graduate students; there were no other Latinos that I knew of during the time that I was in the program. In 1996-1997, 94 Master’s degrees, out of a total of 5,068, were awarded to Latinos who attended ALA-accredited library schools (114). In Buffalo, only one Latino received a Master’s during this time, along with 1 Asian or Pacific Islander and 4 African Americans (117). Considering that many of the students who attend UB are from the area, and that Buffalo has a significant Black and Puerto Rican population, these numbers are disproportionately low.
During library school, I saw things through the eyes of an Other. While library science revolves around keyword searching, databases, cataloging, reference sources, bibliographic retrieval and the Internet, all of these topics also have political ramifications that are not usually explored in the classroom. The only exception at UB was the African American professor, who routinely included race, politics, and an international perspective in all of her courses. As a graduate student, I occupied myself with researching and writing about the Other side of library science—the digital divide; resources for Spanish-speaking patrons; the cataloging of Latina lesbian literature; threats to the intellectual freedom of independent Cuban libraries; the effect that Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble superstores have on publishing queers and authors of color; and the lack of people of color in library school and, correspondingly, in libraries and universities.
I was fortunate while in graduate school at UB because, as a result of the Intership/Residency, I had a built-in support system. Along with my own office, I had a mentor and a cadre of librarians whom I could count on to help me with my studies. Not coincidentally, most of the librarians who were there for me were also people of color. Along with academic support, though, I also associated myself with a creative lesbian group in the community and a Latino social and academic organization on campus. All of these different support systems, combined, provided me with the nourishment that allowed me to grow and graduate.
Being one of the few Others in academe can be a difficult and alienating experience. Racism, classism and homophobia are present every step of the way. It takes grit to endure the isolation. It takes strength of character to proceed even when you are treated as a trespasser. It takes shape-shifting ability and wizardry to be able to walk and run with a nail in your shoe.
Being in solidarity with each Other is key to being successful in academe. We are each Other’s strongest allies. We need to look into each Other’s eyes, acknowledge our mutual presence and, if possible, appropriate, and heartfelt, offer and seek support. We need to know that we also have white allies and that, many times, actively seeking what we need yields positive results. We need to know that sometimes, it takes more courage not to fight.
We need to remember that our presence exists within an institutional system that is not designed in our favor, and that our part in the system is prescribed. Still, we are not powerless. As students, we are learning a discipline and a code of behavior, a language that puts us at another level, one that we can explore and inhabit, if we choose. As professors, we are in positions to create change, student by student, to be mentors, to select materials and teaching methods, to actively participate in and affect the discourse of academe. As students and as professors we can be subversive within the system; the fact that we are even a part of it is significant.
We have to remember that we have a right to be here. We have to consider that, today, we are few, but tomorrow, there will be many more of us. Our presence is more meaningful than we may realize. We are etching our names on the academic walls. I was here. We are writing about us. “One may write as if to say: ‘We are here, we were here; we are thus, we were thus” (Galeano 125).
A key part of our evolution lies in our holistic identity, in honoring everything that we are, all of the time. We are always individuals, and at the same time, we are a piece of the land or the body or the goddess that birthed us. We are our own independent republics, our own minorities. All of us who bring ourselves with us into the classroom are walking, talking, breathing, replicas of many others like us. Wherever we are, we have a scent, we speak in a certain tone, we express ourselves with our personal décor. We can’t get away from ourselves, or from our Otherness, even if we try.
They told me, they told us
So many goddamn things
That some of us even believe them.
They told me, they told us
So many goddamn things
That some of us know better.
They told me, they told us
So many goddamn things
That I invented alchemy all by myself.
All the pain becomes a refrain
The disempowerment a parade
The fucked-up feeling, un festival
The fuck-you-too, un carnaval
The you-don’t-belong-here, un madrigal.
Originally written in 1996, el paso, tejas.
Revised 12 de marzo de 2000, bufalo, nueva york.
American Council on Education. “Legal Developments Related to Affirmative Action in Higher Education: An Update for College and University Presidents, Trustees, and Administrators.” June 1999.
Association for Library and Information Science Education. Library and Information Science and Education Statistical Report. Washington, DC: ALISE, 1998.
“Cisneros Shares Her ‘Life Lessons’ with Teachers at San Diego Convention.” English Journal Feb. (1996): 97.
de la tierra, tatiana. “Achy Obejas: She came all the way from Cuba so she could write like this.” Deneuve April (1995): 38-39.
de la tierra, tatiana. “Cherríe Moraga: Cultural Activist, Writer and Mom.” conmoción 1 (1995): 6-7.
—–. “Coming Out and Creating Queer Awareness in the Classroom: An Approach from the US-Mexican Border.” Lesbian and Gay Studies and the Teaching of English Composition. William Spurlin, Ed. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2000.
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Morena, Naomi. “Alienation.” conmoción 3 (1996): 34.
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US Census Bureau. “The Hispanic Population in the United States.” March 1999.
de la tierra, tatiana. “Aliens and Others in Search of the Tribe in Academe.” This Bridge We Call Home. Ed. Gloria Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keating. New York: Routledge. 2002. 358-368.