Review: Jennifer De Leon’s Wise Latinas
By Tanya Pérez-Brennan
I can remember certain feelings of alienation – like the ones described by some of the writers in Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education – when I first attended Emerson College as a journalism major. I only lasted a year; the small, Liberal Arts College was too expensive and I couldn’t relate to many of the upper middle class white students who attended. When I transferred to the University of Massachusetts Boston, I suddenly felt like I was at home. The sprawling campus offered a diverse student body; several languages could be heard as I walked down its halls, and I soon became involved with the Latino student association, where I made friends.
So when I had a chance to pick up a copy of this anthology — edited by Jennifer De Leon, also a UMB graduate, whom I know through Boston’s writing community – I was eager to get a taste of Latinas in higher education. In her introduction, De Leon writes that her intention is to “dispel myths about the Latina college experience,” and this anthology offers a good first attempt at showing that Latinas are not a monolithic group. Though it could have presented a more accurate snapshot by offering more Afro-Latina and LGBT voices, more than one Puerto Rican perspective, and perhaps more on Latinas of mixed heritage, it does offer a fairly varied sample of Latinas from different generations, cultural backgrounds, and socio-economic classes. It includes – among others — the work of renowned authors Julia Alvarez and Sandra Cisneros.
De Leon organizes the twenty-one essays into four sections. The first, “Worlds Apart,” depicts the realities of migration and separation from one’s family. Some of them describe culture shock, like the essay “Nomadic” by Ingrid Contreras Rojas, who conveys the shock of moving from her native Bogotá, Colombia, to Chicago, where she is forced to deal with snow and wearing cold weather gear. She writes, “Soon, I was spending all my money on coats. No coat was ever good enough. Fur was itchy, and the chill of the wind still got through. Leather was constricting, and though it blocked the wind, it was never warm. Sherpa and wool were not warm enough on their own. I took to wearing my coats inside the apartment, rotating them to match them with my socks and shoes. My hands were cold and rheumatic. I drank whiskey to warm myself.”
The second section, “Rooms of Our Own” – with a nod to Virginia Woolf – offers a view of Latinas who long for independence from their families. Here, Iris Gómez writes of the tenuous relationship between mother and daughter in her essay, “Independence.” Because she felt guilty for leaving her mother to attend college, Gómez writes that she and her mother would engage in a weekly telephone ritual, during which she would try to help her mother fix problems at home but, at the same time, would offer tidbits about her college experience. “The telephone wire simulated an emotional umbilical cord that had never been cut,” she writes.
In the third section, “Inside These Academic Walls,” the essays address the challenges and obstacles inherent in climbing the walls of the ivory tower. Julia’s Alvarez’s essay, “Rapunzel’s Ladder,” is particularly insightful. In it, she points out that even though the academy welcomed her, “the content of the education that I got as a student and that later I was asked to pass down to my own students often did not include people like me.” As a result, she learned to live a “double life in those ivory towers,” eventually choosing to be a full-time writer over an academic.
Finally, the fourth section, “In Tribute, In Time,” gives credit to the families left behind, both physically and metaphorically. One of the main themes in this anthology is that of the rift that emerges within families due to educational success or achievement. The kind of exposure to ideas that one gets in an academic setting is often incompatible with the values at home. Not only do these Latinas end up inhabiting the two worlds of English and Spanish or that of mainstream culture with their culture, they must navigate the waters of a working class value system with a middle class value system. Erika Martínez explores these themes well in “To My Younger Self,” where she remembers lamenting not having a mother with whom she could discuss school or ideas. But when she graduates and sees her proud mother in the stands, she realizes all of the sacrifices her mother made for her: “Instead of aching for the mother she couldn’t be, you’ll begin to see Mami as someone who gave you all she could.”
This tension between learning and relating to family comes to a head in Daisy Hernández’s piece, “Stories She Told Us,” when Hernández tries to enlighten her mother by teaching her about feminism in an attempt to “liberate” her. She soon realizes that though her mother may not possess the words to express feminist ideas, her mother innately understands them. “All these things that I am trying to tell her, have been trying to teach her all about, all these things I needed words for, my mother already knows,” Hernández writes.
The most compelling essays in this collection are those with an emotional resonance that puts everything in context. Sandra Cisneros does a fine job of accomplishing this with her essay, “Only Daughter,” appropriately saved for the end. Cisneros explains how she longed for her father’s approval and acceptance even though he never acknowledged her writing accomplishments. This changes the day that Cisneros shows him one of her short stories –translated into Spanish – and her father reads it and says, “Where can we get more copies of this for the relatives?” Cisneros writes, “Of all of the things that happened to me last year, that was the most wonderful.”
Tanya Pérez-Brennan is a freelance interpreter/translator and journalist. Her journalism has been published in Foxnewslatino.com, The Boston Globe, The Orlando Sentinel, and The Florida Times-Union. Her poems have been published in Liberation Poetry: An Anthology, and Zalacaín, The Harvard Journal of Latin America. Tanya is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Boston and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. In June, she will graduate from the Bennington Writing Seminars with an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature. She is finishing a novel set in her mother’s native Colombia.