Hey! I’m Not a Basket Case and I Don’t Regret My Ph.D.

Disclosure: I finished my Ph.D, in English in 2011.  Since then I’ve worked as a freelance editor, writing consultant and adjunct.  

There have been a number of articles lately in Slate and The Chronicle (and elsewhere) expressing regret for the time spent getting a Ph.D., feelings of failure, warnings to others not to go and generally expressing what, to me, reads like a great deal of entitled exhausted (?) angst.  In response, Emory Ph.D. student Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote an excellent blog post on reasons why students of color should look at getting a Ph.D. and the power said degree has in helping one make their way through a white world.

Yes, finishing my dissertation and getting my Ph.D. were the hardest things I’ve ever done.  Yes, there were bad times, including moments when I was sick, out of money and (the worst) faced with racism on the part of my fellow graduate students who openly expressed their suspicions that I hadn’t gotten where I was on merit but  was a product of affirmative action (which, whatever my merits, I am). But getting to work on my Ph.D., becoming the first in my family to be called “doctor” was and is the greatest privilege of my fortunate life. I got to spend a decade studying literature, mostly Chicana/o literature, which continues to inspire me to tears at its beauty. Along the way I got to teach, advise and edit undergraduate and graduate students. I got to do all this while my sister worked cleaning houses, serving food, doing retail and generally working at whatever she could to get by without health insurance or any security, asking me to recommend books she could read for thirty minutes or so before she goes asleep.

At the same time, I also found a community of Latina scholars, including my dissertation advisor, who have heard and understood my pain, especially the pain of feeling alienated from my mostly all white department, who have told me I’m good enough, who have supported my scholarship whatever my affiliation or lack thereof.  There is a history in Chicana/o scholarship of research being done be people in a variety of positions — there aren’t generations of Chicana full professors at research universities.  We’ve always struggled from the margins. Important work is and has been done by librarians, grammar and high school teachers, administrative support people and community activists. I’m not ashamed I’m not in a tenure line position — those before me weren’t necessarily either.

Yes, part of me reads these articles and understands. The job market / adjunct situation is bad. Rejection sucks. Uncertainty is hard. But nothing is ever certain. My family is proud of the adjuncting work I do, proud of the editing work I do, proud of me. They wouldn’t understand (or care) about the difference between a tenured and untenured position. To them all employment is uncertain, all work has dignity.

I wonder if some of what gives me strength and makes me see struggle for the beauty and gift that it is, are the very writings I study.  Whether it’s the passion and life-long activism of Betita Martinez or the raw celebration of life and pain of Gloria Anzáldua, Chicana writing is about feeding one’s soul in order to then go out and do what can and should be done.

As Ella Diaz remarked when I expressed surprise at the number and tone of the articles out there, perhaps we should create a reading list of the works that keep us sane, that sustain our souls and share them with those who feel their degree wasn’t worthwhile.  I think what it comes down to for me is I believe the work I do on the literature I work on is important and valuable. I will do it however I can for as long as I can as hard as I can.

Because when I see Latina/o scholars I think we’re beautiful.


Building a Class: The Chicana/o Gothic

While I was at the MALCS Summer Institute I confided in another attendee that I was nervous about the process of creating course syllabi as I’d never done it before.  She, an associate professor of Spanish and all around lovely person, enthused that creating a syllabus was fun, and then told me she sometimes writes them to amuse herself.

With her words in mind, I tried to embrace this as an opportunity rather than something to fear. Sure enough, as I sat through the next talk, thinking about Chicana literature (I knew whatever course I came up with would be one focusing on Chicana/o literature), I came up with the idea of the “Chicana/o Gothic” — a course that would explore canonical and recent Chicana/o text through the dark lens of the gothic.

This is what I’ve come up with so far. I’d love to hear what you think — criticism is helpful.  This version of the course is being imagined as one offered for a 10 week quarter.  I’ve linked the texts I’ve reviewed to the reviews I’ve blogged.

Required Texts:
Bless Me Ultima – Rudolfo Anaya
Calligraphy of the Witch – Alicia Gaspar de Alba
Brides and Sinners in El Chuco – Christine Granados
The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction – Jerrold E. Hogle
The Rain God – Arturo Islas
The Hungry Woman – Cherríe L. Moraga
What You See in the Dark – Manuel Munoz
Demon in the Mirror by by S. Joaquin Rivera
The Hummingbird’s Daughter – Luis Alberto Urea
Gods Go Begging – Alfredo Véa

Course Description
Is there a Chicana/o Gothic?

What is called “Chicana/o literature” has many origins and forms and is itself a contested space — from the Chicana/o civil rights movement to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to the pre-Columbian legends of Aztlán. Likewise, defining the “gothic” in literature encompasses literary periods and styles from the eighteenth through twenty-first centuries.

Gothic literature conveys a sense of uncertainty through bizarre twists, violence, and moral ambivalence to create suspense. Looking at Chicana/o texts, some recent, some canonical, can we see these techniques being used to explore the social, political, and racial issues of the Chicano community and Southwestern United States as the works move away from supernatural events and onto something which affects the reader’s state of mind regarding social issues and experience? Are Chicana/o novels and poems using elements of the horrific, the violent, the unorthodox, and/or the supernatural to guide the reader through the story’s action and explore anxieties about the instability of identity and nation? Is such a comparison between the gothic and the magical real useful to our understanding of Chicana/o literature as part of the larger U.S. literary canon? Drawing from constructions of the Southern Gothic and magical realism, what we may come to call “Chicano/a Gothic” is an attempt to discuss and define a Chicano/a and American sub-genre of gothic fiction.

MALCS Institute Paper: The Case of the Second Chicana

This paper was written for and given at the 2011 MALCS Summer Institute held last weekend at Cal State LA. It was wonderful and energizing conference. I’m including some of the slides as images — we’ll see how that goes.

In the introduction to her anthology, Chicana Feminist Thought, Chicana sociologist Alma Garcia gives her criteria for the selection of writings:

the substance of a document;
the historical importance of a particular document; and
the historical importance of a particular writer.

I would further argue that writings coming from the underground presses and newspapers of political and cultural resistance movements — like the Chicano and feminist movements — can be said to gain intellectual capital by both the frequency of their publication (and re-publication) and the extent of their distribution.

On those terms Enriqueta Vásquez’s variously titled article can be counted as one of the most influential essays of the Chicano movement. Certainly it qualifies as one of the most widely read and republished Chicana-authored pieces, crossing and criss-crossing Chicano and feminist boundaries, including its publications in Sisterhood is Powerful and Liberation Now!.

On my first readings of Robin Morgan’s anthology I assumed that the single Chicana author included in Sisterhood Is Powerful was Enriqueta Vasquez. I believed that Vasquez’s piece stood alone in representing Chicana feminists, as if saying that Vasquez was the solitary Chicana feminist not only in the text, but perhaps also in the larger feminist community. Its inclusion in Sisterhood Is Powerful does not stand on its own, however, but the five-page article is powerfully mediated by Elizabeth Sutherland in a three-page introduction explaining the article’s context. An identical version of “The Mexican American Woman,” complete with the same introduction by Sutherland, appeared in the 1971 anthology Liberation Now! under the title “Colonized Women: The Chicana.” However, in the case of the version in Liberation Now! the article is indexed as being by Sutherland, with the Vasquez article appearing as though within it.

The inclusion of Sutherland’s introduction is significant and striking. Among the anthology’s sixty-nine articles, only the contribution by Vasquez merits an introduction by another author. The structure of the introduction is itself interesting. Elizabeth Sutherland, in the tradition of the slave narrative, appears to function as an Anglo authenticating feminist voice. As such, she seems to vouch for Vasquez’s inclusion in the text as a feminist, as if otherwise there would be some doubt about the article — or even about Vasquez herself belonging in this community of sisterhood. Sutherland explicitly calls on the — presumably white — readers to “listen for her [Vasquez’s] own voice, not merely for echoes of their own.” The assumption, based solely on her name and the fact that Sutherland does not identify herself as ‘of-color’ — that Sutherland herself is white is one that should be examined, but is one that readers (myself included) would be likely to make.

However, a careful reading of the contributors list at the anthology’s end gives more information, (re)naming and identifying the author as “Elizabeth Sutherland (Martínez),” giving a clue she may not be as Anglo as her name would make her seem, though again it would take both careful reading and some insider knowledge or research to decipher the clues. The (Martínez) addition is not included in either the table of contents or the article text. It can only be read by going to the “Contributors” biography section at the end of the anthology. There she is further identified as the editor of the New Mexican based Chicano movement newspaper El Grito Del Norte. Further research into El Grito — reveals that Sutherland to be the second Chicana contributor to Sisterhood Is Powerful, Elizabeth (Betita) Martínez. Martínez was the founding editor of El Grito where Vasquez wrote regular columns and where the article was originally published. The name “Elizabeth Sutherland” is Martínez’s Anglo pseudonym, one that, by 1969, she had employed for several years.

Betita Martinez - Photo by Margaret Randall

Sutherland’s curious mediation, and the editor’s feeling that the introduction should be — or needed to be — included would be interesting in its own right. However, it is all the more so when one realizes that “Elizabeth Sutherland” is not in fact an Anglo feminist, but Vasquez’s Chicana editor writing under her Anglo-assumed name. Read with this knowledge, Martínez becomes the second Chicana contributor to the anthology; one with an extensive publication history, both before and subsequent to this contribution, and one arguably far better known (to the east coast Left community) than Vasquez would have been.

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