On Academia: An Open Letter to Myself

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A note to the reader: This is an open letter primary to myself, and secondly to my academic advisors and mentors about my lifelong journey in academia. It’s not an apology letter, but rather a lay of the land; a glimpse and backdrop of the things that I am working on and through.

What began as a small agitation in my heart has grown into this that lays before you. The writing is not straightforward, but rather textually layered, jarring in style, form, and transitions, dialectical, and written alongside and through multiple lenses and voices. The quotes serve as bridges between thoughts; markers that reveal and show the trail that I have and am traversing. It is my hope that they provide insight to how I understand, make meaning and sense of the world. I could not have written it any other way.

——

“I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am.” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom)

“Keep in mind that I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my shit.” (Erykah Badu, “Tyrone”)

“I have discovered that life doesn’t actually knock you down. It does, however, provide you with many opportunities to evaluate your standing in life: what you stand on, what you stand for, how you stand within yourself and for yourself. When your standing is weak, you don’t get knocked down. You fall down.” (Iyanla Vanzant, Peace From Broken Pieces)

There is a framed photograph of me, age 3, wearing light blue overalls, a striped white and blue polo shirt with similarly matched socks, smiling a full-set-of-teeth-smile. I remember that day today, clear as water. Posing, sparkled-eyed with curiosity and wonder. Feeling the small of my back pressed against that wall of the Washington Heights apartment my mami, sister and I shared with a Dominican family of five the first two years of our arrival from Honduras to New York City.

For the past year, I have kept this photograph atop of my writing desk, placed next to a framed mantra that reads: “I am good enough.” This picture–aside from having to beg, coerce, and wrangle it from my mami’s motherly grip–is significant and important to me. It serves as a crucial and daily self-care reminder of an earlier version of myself; an earlier time in my life, yet unmarked and unaffected by the insidious fangs of oppression, racism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, colonialism, religious oppression, classism, capitalism and consumerism.

Dreaming. I have always been a dreamer.

“I often think of grace. I have this reoccurring dream/vision of my/self running through an open field that seems to have no beginning or end. Fresh blades of the greenest grass jut out from the earth like fingers, gently grazing the bare plants of my feet. I run and run, with no real destination. No direction. No sense of where I am heading to. And yet, somehow, I know I have to keep moving, I must arrive somewhere… yes, somewhere. After what seems hours of running, I abruptly lose balance and collapse and curl into a heap of human flesh. The fall does not hurt, I am not bruised. My face lifts, instinctively, reaches upward, as though in communion with the infinite sky above. Sun-rays bathe upon my face. Drenched in warmth, instinctively I open my mouth as beams of light enter, filling me with indescribable warmth, an indescribable joy. I am safe.” (José Alfredo Menjivar, Untitled Poem, Age 16)

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” (Zora Neale Hurston)

I remember that summer, age 7, when my mother sent my sister and me to spend the weekend at the home of a trusted family from the church we attended. Guised as a weekend getaway, the actual intent was to have the effeminate beaten out of me. My mother–having given the father permission to reprimand and swat at my hands anytime caught hanging or placed on my hips–had become tired of the whispers, the questions, the not-knowing-what-to-do. “Y tu hijo es maricon?” As much as she had been able to, she had done right by God. Born into a Catholic family, and self-converting as a born-again Pentecostal Christian at the age of 7, she had spent over 20 years walking along pebble-and-dirt Honduran roads to neighboring church every Friday and Sunday. Was that not enough?

“To have a fag for a son
I simply would not know
what to do
but I am sure
that my life
would be over
this much I know to be true

to have a fag for a son,
I simply would not be able to
carry on
cursing the day
that he was conceived,
cursing the very day
he was born

to have a fag for a son,
would mark tragedy
upon us all
the family lineage
shortened,
having no offspring
truly of our own

to have a fag for a son,
I would rather die
knowing well
that I have failed
as a woman,
as a mother

to have a fag for a son
would simply be the worst
solely because
I’ve been taught
that is wrong
the reasons why,
I am still unsure”
(José Alfredo Menjivar, A Fag for A Son, Age 13)

“Every time that you–hetero, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, etc. folks alike–tell a boy, man, or a male-bodied/identified person to “man up” it is an act of violence. Telling a person to “man up” you (un)knowingly construct, define, shape, measure, calibrate, assess, and penalize that individual on very narrowly defined scales that are maleness and masculinity. You intrude on the right for that individual to exercise their own agency to define themselves for their own selves. And what good does that serve? Telling a person to “man up” measures that person against a patriarchal, sexist, gendered, heteronormative, homophobic scale that historically, and continues to, marginalize and oppress entire communities. And what good has that done us? How far have we come? How good have those scales worked? Telling a person to “man up” means that that individual’s man-ness is not good enough. That there is something inherently wrong. That there is something inherently flawed with that person because that they cannot perform that which has already been–unconsensually–defined for them. As a person who has, and continues to be, gendered; whose maleness and masculinity continues to be architected and prescribed, scaled and assessed, telling me to “man up” means that you do not care or love me. Means that you do not believe me intelligent or capable enough to define me for my own self. Then, I ask, what purpose, does your “man-ing” up serve?” (José Alfredo Menjivar, Facebook Reflection, Age 28)

Residues of oppression and trauma exist, reside, and seep out of our bodies long after the injuries have occurred.

I remember that summer night, age 21, walking out of a bar on West 4th Street, and being approached by a young, white, blond hair and blue-eyed woman and asked for directions to a locale I had never heard or frequented before. Remember trying to help navigate her. Remember her frustration at my not knowing. Remember her spitting on my face, annoyed that I could not help her. Remember her stating, as though posing in the form of a question, “What good are you for?” Suggesting that my life had no meaning, no depth, unless possessing and performing serviceability to and for her. To and for white people. Remember the accumulated familiar bile that rose within me. Remember having to fight every inch and urge not to smash her face against the concrete.

“Somewhere between retina and object, between vision and view, his eyes drawback, hesitate, and hover. At some fixed point in time and space he senses that he need not waste the effort of a glance. He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see…She looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity ought to lodge. And something more. The total absence of human recognition–the glazed separateness. She does not know what keeps his glance suspended. Perhaps because he is grown, or a man, and she a little girl. But she has seen interest, disgust, even anger in grown male eyes. Yet this vacuum is not new to her. It has an edge; somewhere in the bottom lid is the distaste. She has seen it lurking in the eyes of all white people. So. The distaste must be for her, her blackness. All things in her are flux and anticipation. But her blackness is static and dread. And it is the blackness that accounts for, that creates, the vacuum edged with distaste in white eyes.” (Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye)

The effects of a lifetime of having experienced and lived through simultaneous interlocking oppressions layered one upon the other desensitizes you. Robs you of your humanity. Tight clusters of hurt and pain occupy your core, where joy and zestfulness once resided.

The effects are insidious and relentless. They breathe, fester, await and feast on resitumulation.

So often, we unknowingly indulge their needs and wants by circling back, redoing and reperforming that which has already been done time and time again. The same patterns. The same fuckups. The same mistakes. The same shit that did not work before. Yet we do them time and time again. We become numb and accustomed to their performance. There’s an odd comfort in its familiarity. A knowingness to the orchestrated, choreographed dance.

Pathologies are difficult to identify, even harder to break.

Those of us who navigate and straddle the borderlands and along the margins of society are more acutely aware and perceptive to how interlocking oppressions work and manifest themselves–in overt and subtle ways.

“La facultad is the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface. It is an instant “sensing,” a quick perception arrived at without conscious reasoning. It is an acute awareness mediated by the part of the psyche that does not speak, that communicates in images and symbols which are the faces of feelings, that is, behind which feelings reside/hide. The one possessing this sensitivity is excruciatingly alive to the world.

Those who are pushed out of the tribe for being different are likely to become more sensitized (when not brutalized into insensitivity). Those who do not feel psychologically or physically safe in the world are more apt to develop this sense. Those who are pounced on the most have it the strongest – the females, the homosexuals of all races, the darkskinned, the outcast, the persecuted, the marginalized, the foreign.

When we’re up against the wall, when we have all sorts of oppressions coming at us, we are forced to develop this faculty so that we’ll know when the next person is going to slap us or lock us away. We’ll sense the rapist when he’s five blocks down the street. Pain makes us acutely anxious to avoid more of it, so we hone that radar. It’s a kind of survival tactic that people, caught between worlds, unknowingly cultivate. It is latent in all of us.

I walk into a house and I know whether it is empty or occupied. I feel the lingering charge in the air of a recent fight or love-making or depression. I sense the emotions someone near is emitting – whether friendly or threatening. Hate and fear – the more intense the emotion, the greater my reception of it. I feel a tingling on my skin when someone is staring at me or thinking about me. I can tell how others feel by the way they smell, where others are by the air pressure on my skin. I can spot the love or greed or generosity lodged in the tissues of another. Often I sense the direction of and my distance from people or objects – in the dark, or with my eyes closed, without looking. It must be a vestige of a proximity sense, a sixth sense that’s lain dormant from long-ago times.” (Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera)

We can perceive it. Sense it. Feel its coming and arrival. Know it’s familiar presence long after it transpired.

Residues of oppression and trauma exist, reside, and seep out of our bodies long after the injuries have occurred.

It feels crazy. It is crazy.

“…people who do this thing, who practice racism, are bereft. There is something distorted about the psyche. It’s a huge waste and a corruption and a distortion. It’s like it’s a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is. It feels crazy. It is crazy…If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is white people have a very, very serious problem. And they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.” (Toni Morrison, Interview with Charlie Rose)

I keep the framed photograph and framed mantra on top of my writing desk, positioned side by side for two reasons. One, I want to remind myself of that once zestful and joyous ME (via Reevaluation Counseling). To encourage myself to daily pause, reflect, challenge, and ask myself: did you smile today? Did you laugh? Are you living the life that 3 year-old boy would have wanted to live? Two, I want these themes to remain in dialogue. For me, it is important to have a visual reminder that my productivity, or better yet, creativity (Advisor #1, Conversation)–specifically with writing–should strive to remain unaffected by the residues of oppression and trauma that exist in my body. While lived and real, these experience cannot consume or author my totality.

“You should not have to rip yourself into pieces to keep others whole” (Author Unknown).

So I turn inward. And do the internal heart-work.

“There are moments in my life when I feel as though a part of me is missing. There are days when I feel so invisible that I can’t remember what day of the week, when I feel so manipulated that I can’t remember my own name, when I feel so lost and angry that I can’t speak a civil word to the people who love me best. There are times when I catch sight of my own reflection in store windows and am surprised to see a whole person looking back… I have to close my eyes at such times and remember myself, draw an internal pattern that is smooth and whole; when all else fails, I reach for a mirror and stare myself down until the features reassemble themselves like lost sheep.” (Patricia J. Williams, “On Being the Object of Property,” The Alchemy of Race and Rights)

So I turn inward. Attempt to fix my insides up.

I close myself off when I need help and support the most.
I close myself off from the ones who love and believe in me most.
I close myself because I do not believe I deserve more than the bare minimum.
I close myself off because I do not know how to accept and receive that love, help and support.
I close myself because I’ve yet learned how to self-care and self-preserve otherwise.

For the majority of my life, I’ve had to figure it out on my own
Navigate my double-languaged tongued at school and at home.
Navigate my relationship to my body in a female sex and gendered home.
Navigate my same-gender attraction in a world that did not represent or reflect what I felt on my insides.
Navigate my relationship to faith and God, whose presence could not be felt no matter how hard I tried.

“I want to tell you about me.
about the desolate nights these driven knees have spent ardently bent
aching to understand
scrapping forgiveness in fist and mouthfuls
from tear soaked splintered floorboards
skinning and pulping the flesh off kneecaps while performing repentance
mouthing words ‘cross lips whose depths a forming mind had yet to make sense with
and yet
praying to be changed
praying to be delivered
praying to wake up dead
praying to a god
that just would not answer me” (José Alfredo Menjivar, “Poem at Twenty-Five,” Truth Magazine, Age 25)

How does one learn to love one’s self when every facet of their lived experiences suggests and affirms otherwise?

My pathology is layered and complex.
Insidious yet consistent.
Cumbersome yet reliable.
My patterns and pathological tendencies are in response to a pathological society.

I withdraw when I become overwhelmed.
I withdraw when my load gets too heavy to hold.
I withdraw and close myself off from the world, and attempt to figure it all out on my own.
Withdrawing is my defense mechanism.
My go-to coping strategy.
My attempt at self care and self-preservation.
My attempt to fix my broken self up.
I walk away and leave when it hurts too much to stay.
It’s how I’ve been able made it this far.
I’ve yet learned otherwise.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” (Audre Lorde)

Residues of oppression and trauma exist, reside, and seep out of our bodies long after the injuries have occurred.

“The psychological and physiological effects of poverty run bone deep.

Even at this age and stage of the game in my life, I still have moments–particularly when frequenting supermarkets, wine shops, department stores, or shopping in general–where I am viscerally and emotionally transported back to times in my life where I did not have access to financial resources to make (or not make) the same decisions that I can today.

Transported back to my 9 year-old self, having to watch the childhood friend I walked to school with buy chips, juice and candy for his afternoon snack, without a quarter to my name because my mom did not believe in giving an allowance (Allowance? Que allowance? No me vengas con esas constumbres Americanas); transported to my 11 year-old self and embarrassingly having to gather soda bottles in my building and cash them in at supermarkets–similar to this one–in order to make my own allowance, although barely enough to buy a slice of pizza with friends after school; transported to my 22 year-old and recent college graduate-self on food stamps, and spending all of my unemployment benefits to rent a room because I could no longer live in the oppressive environment that which was with my (sadly confused) religious homophobic momma–having a college degree in hand but no job on deck cause higher education places are so good at “preparing you academically” but really shitty at helping you secure employment, you know in the “real world” you hear about throughout k-12 grades once you leave their institutions and finish cutting out dem tuition checks; transported to my 26 year-old self, possessing a masters degree, yet living check-to-check off a 4 hours a week teaching gig, scrapping exactly enough to pay rent in an illegal basement apartment while surviving the summer of the devil without air-conditioning, and waiting for the Universe to throw you a lifeline.

Enter Ph.D. acceptance letter.

The psychological and physiological effects of poverty run bone deep.
It fundamentally shapes and informs my impulse at splurging and buying $2000 worth of furniture in a single day/click (i.e. this morning) yet foregrounds the reasons why I still can only buy items on sale, cook at home and can’t bring myself to paying for an expensive meal at a restaurant. Foregrounds my uneasiness in financially oriented events or engaging with financially well off folks/social circles. Foregrounds my inability to calculate tips, perform or understand simple arithmetic math. Foregrounds my inability to save money. Numbers just don’t register in my brain. They don’t teach you this shit in school.

The psychological and physiological effects of poverty run bone deep” (José Alfredo Menjivar, Facebook Reflection, Age 28)

Enter Ph.D. program.

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” (Zora Neale Hurston)

So often I am asked by friends and family members: Why are you back in school? Aren’t you tired? Why do you put yourself through all the stress you’re often seen in? When will you find a real job? When will you make real money? When will you find love, and focus on marriage and have babies?

I returned to academia because I was hurting.
Having completed a bachelors and masters degree, I still remained wondering, where are the texts that narrate and document the lives of Latino male youth across gender and sexuality spectrums? Those of us who navigate and straddle the borderlands and along the margins of society? That detail our existence? Our lived experiences? Our counter-narratives? Our survival? Where are we in the literature?

“I want to tell you about me.
about the incessant search for self
this relentless heart has spent
an existence embarking on.
moving towards.
a constant search for completion
possessing
no origin
no master
no beginning or end
or actual destination.
only arrival.
satisfied if and only until I am found.
me. and only me. whole and complete.
perhaps then I shall be made useful.
traveling. I am always traveling.” (José Alfredo Menjivar, “Poem At Twenty-Five,” Truth Magazine, Age 25)

“I describe a recurring dream I’ve had as a youth: of myself in a bookstore, (I believe it to have been Strand Bookstore, only better organized) with many arms outstretched and pulling at books from multiple genres and sections. I argued that Latino males across the gender and sexuality spectrum often have to pull from multiple directions and theories–including borderland theory, intersectionality theory, feminist theories, critical race theories, etc.–in order to describe and make sense of their lives and experiences, however, that there is no singular theory that speaks directly to and about Latino males across the gender and sexuality spectrum. And while building off and upon theories is important, and how theory is often created, how beautiful would it be for there to be a singular name to that theory that we can reference. Name. Oh–the power of naming!” (“Entre-Nous”: Jean Anyon, Anyon’s Scholarship and Me, Graduate Center)

I remain in relentless pursuit of self and this dream. This dreamer keeps dreaming.

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” (Zora Neale Hurston)

Returning to academia is visceral and painful. Throughout my life schools, schooling and education have served as sites of both liberation and oppression. Spaces were my identities were both affirmed and validated, as well as broken down and deconstructed.

I remember that crisp fall afternoon, age 11. It was after-school, steps away from my middle in Woodside, Queens school’s main entrance. My body and face was pressed against the concrete floor. Remember being surrounded by a crowd of my peers. Remember the kicks. Remember hearing the words and hurlings of faggot, maricon, sissy, bitch, cunt. Remember the chanting of standby-ers cheering the attackers on. Remember thinking about God and wonder why wasn’t “he” saving me?

“It was not the fear of God that my mom instilled in me. But rather what would happen if I did not believe.” (José Alfredo Menjivar, Untitled Poem, Age 14)

Residues of oppression and trauma exist, reside, and seep out of our bodies long after the injuries have occurred.

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” (Zora Neale Hurston)

“I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am.” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom)

I often describe my coming into teaching as accidental; the role and identity of teacher never feeling quite natural. Who am I to be in front of the classroom? What do I have to offer? To contribute?

“Because white eyes do not want to know us, they do not bother to learn our language, the language which reflects us, our culture, our spirit. The schools we attended or didn’t attend did not give us the skills for writing nor the confidence that we were correct in using our class and ethnic languages. I, for one, became adept at, and majored in English to spite, to show up, the arrogant racist teachers who thought all Chicano children were dumb and dirty.” (Gloria Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back, “An Open Letter to Women Writers of Color”)

Teaching for me is a political act; a purposeful and intentional reconceptualizing and remapping of what gets taught in the classroom–what constitutes as knowledge and intellectual production–while simultaneously interrogating, challenging and reenvisioning who gets to do the teaching.

I remember that time in history class, age 15, when the history and law teacher, Mr. Broutzas, confused my name. “Jose and Juan–you say potato and I say potahto. Same difference.” Remember his daily anecdotes, jokes and ridicules of the “illegal” “Mexicans” he would pass on his way to “work,” standing in Home Depot’s parking lot, waiting for someone to “pick them up” and “give them work.” Remember his anger of the “illegal immigrants” were taking his hard-earned tax dollars and “robbing” Americans of work.” Remember looking for myself in the literature, and instead, seeing a sea of dead, white and male faces staring back. Remember my wandering mind often daydreaming and looking out of the classroom window, onto the front yard, and wondering what life post-high school would be like. Remember his suggestion that if I continued to daydream and be “lazy” in school, that I should join “them.”

Residues of oppression and trauma exist, reside, and seep out of our bodies long after the injuries have occurred.

Teaching, on the macro, is a political act, but on the micro–the nitty-gritty, everyday, on-the-ground praxis–is fundamentally humanizing work. Vulnerable. Scary as fuck. Having to navigate the dual roles of being both a student and teacher often feels contradictory and schizophrenic.

It feels crazy. It is crazy.

On one hand, supporting young people’s thinking and writing with compassion, flexibility and radical love, and on the other hand, knowing internally, and often suffering in silence, my own struggles in academia. The mess that I currently find myself in; the web of accumulated intellectual debt that I owe, and am attempting to crawl and claw myself out of and from under.

I returned to academia to prove that I do, in fact, have something of worth to contribute, to offer. That my backdrop and landscape mattered. That my life and experiences are not accidental. That my existence has meaning and purpose. That there is reason to all this madness.

I returned to academia because I still had questions necessitating answers. An inquiry that begun in my undergraduate still nudging to be pursued.

I returned to academia knowing well that academia never intended for folks like me, for folks like us–those of us who navigate and straddle the borderlands and along the margins of society–to survive. Not only survive, but to thrive and succeed.

“It’s not designed for us, masters house an all, but if you want to interrupt the house you gotta know its tools.” (Edwin Mayorga, Facebook Chat)

“i have been a
way so long
once after college
i returned tourist
style to watch all
the niggers killing
themselves with
three-for-oners
with
needles
that cd
not support
their stutters.
now woman
i have returned
leaving behind me
all those hide and
seek faces peeling
with freudian dreams.
this is for real.
black
niggers
my beauty.
i have learned it
ain’t like they say
in the newspapers.” (Sonia Sanchez, “Homecoming”)

But academia is fundamentally isolating and lonely. Although there is beauty in building community and being in dialogue with like-minded thinkers, the work itself–the thinking, writing, and creating–intellectual production–the finished outcomes that are expected to come out of us–is fundamentally solitary work.

The having to sit with our thoughts and ideas.
The having to place our ideas in dialogue and break bread with texts, ideas and writers.
The having to commit down words to papers.
The having to know to that our words will be read by others.

The fear can be terrorizing.
Gripping.
Paralyzing.
Can, at times, cause one to feel immobilized.
Rendered useless and inoperable.

It is hard work and heart-work. Doubled work for those of us who are prone to turn inwards. Having to do both internal and external works simultaneously becomes overwhelming.

It feels crazy. It is crazy.

I remember that summer, age 25, that I spent in the dormitories of Bard College in Red Hook, NY, while working on a master’s degree to teach literature. “I, for one, became adept at, and majored in English to spite, to show up, the arrogant racist teachers who thought all Chicano children were dumb and dirty.” Remember the trees. The vast green grass that stretched, what seemed, for miles and miles. Remember the cultural shock–my first long term displacement out of New York City’s concrete jungle. Remember being surrounded by white folks. Remember feeling like a grain of sand, a particle, a speck of dust in sea of whiteness. Remember the feeling of drowning, feeling lost and slowly losing sight of myself. Remember the paranoia: “Am I crazy? Have I gone insane?” Remember feeling the voyeuristic white gaze. Remembering feeling my brown body on constant display. Self-regulating and self-editing my movements and speech. Every word measured. Remember the loneliness. The despair. The feeling of unworthiness. Un-intelligent. Remembering contemplating suicide–not knowing how or when, or even really having a plan in place. Only the deep desire to take myself out of the world. To pluck and remove myself out of the isolation and misery. Remember calling my friend Brandon Lacy Campos. Remember his talking me out and through my feelings, affirming that my feeling crazy was not of my own construction. That there was actual real shit happening, key players and events in place. Remember us co-constructing a self-care plan. Remember escaping the trees, grass, woods and sea of whiteness for a weekend Brandon–pampering. A few months later, Brandon was found dead. The world could not hold his greatness.

My struggles in and with academia are not isolated, do not exist in a vacuum, but rather, are part of a larger narrative and collection of experiences.

“In a recent conversation with a close friend, I shared personal and painful accounts of hidden and overt manifestations of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, sense of entitlement and privilege I witnessed and experienced as both a learner and educator in graduate school this past year. I recounted for him the jarring loneliness– isolation and desperation I felt. The silences I was asked and forced to endure. There I was–the only queer, bilingual, Latino and male teacher in a sea of white, mostly female, bodies–teachers positioned to teach students of color exclusively while refusing to insert themselves and their histories into the center of analysis. When I challenged and tried to share I was asked not to. My lived experiences were regarded as irrelevant and unusable because I was not like them. I had made it. I had overcome my struggles.

 Similarly, my friend suggested that I ought to be proud, even boastful of my accomplishments and ability to navigate higher education “successfully.” That I ought to feel fulfilled as the first and only college–and now graduate school–graduate in my family. And even though I had struggled throughout my life, I had made it this far without breaking or falling apart. Implicit in this analysis there was an assumption–intended or otherwise–that somehow achieving and attaining “success” as a Latino, bilingual, first-generation American, male was somewhat peculiar. The ability to navigate education and various educational systems was somehow different–an oddity if you will.” (José Alfredo Menjivar, “Theorizing Survival,” Truth Magazine, Age 25)

Being a person of color in academia often feels similar to that voyeuristic element and participation that occurs in museums; the sense of always being on display. Of having to perform. An open field to be looked at, critiqued, picked and pulled apart. Hunting season for the white gaze.

As a result, we often self-regulate and self-edit our language, our diction, our speech, our movements, our thinking, our writing.

We self-edit and self-regulate our selves.

Brown folks are acknowledged and cherished in academia when they can smile and perform. Play the part, and play it well. Are valued and loved in academia when they can offer a serviceability. When there’s an outcome, a finished product.

It’s not about the journey. It’s about the product.

But who loves us when we’re hurting? In our highs and in our lows? In our silence? In our most intimate vulnerabilities? In our brokenness and disrepair. Who’s gonna love us when we can’t even love our own selves?

“You are a mystery to me. So smart, so critical, so well-read, so informed, such a powerful writer. It’s OK to have questions, but it’s time to move on. You have lots to contribute. You are perceptive and you write elegantly. You have to ask yourself why you delay? Why you postpone doing the academic work that is required?” (Advisor #2, Email)

Cue the waterworks.

Receiving this email was emotionally gut-wrenching and visceral primarily for two reasons. First, I recognized the reemergence of my patterns and pathology; my old habits slowly crawling out from the rock they had been placed under. Second, because someone else had identified it. Someone I deeply respect, admire and care for. I felt exposed. Left out naked in the rain without an umbrella or a penny to my name.

For weeks I did not respond. Too embarrassed, too hurt. But an agitation sat in my heart. Slowly I began crafting a response, first in my heart, spreading to my head, and finally reaching my fingers. I then turned to paper, computer and keyboard to respond. The result is this which lays before you.

In order for me to break my own patterns and pathology I need to understand it. Give the nuances form and handles so I can better grasp, navigate and master it.

I delay writing and postpone doing the academic work because it hurts.
I delay and postpone because I feel unworthy; a lifetime of experiences not being shown or taught otherwise.
I delay and postpone performing academically in a way that demonstrates my deserving to be in a doctoral program and engage in doctoral work because, historically, I have no evidence or proof that I actually do.
I delay and postpone because sitting in and with silence, sitting with my own thoughts, scares the shit out of me.

I hear that recurring voice that asks, “Who do you think you are? What, of worth, do you have to contribute, to give?” I hear that recurring voice that says, “Your thinking and writing is shit.” I hear that recurring voice that affirms, “You are not good enough.”

“Who gave us permission to perform the act of writing? Why does it seem so unnatural for me? I’ll do anything to postpone it- empty the trash, answer the telephone… How hard it is for us to think we can choose to become writers, much less feel and believe that we can. What have we to contribute, to give? Our own expectations condition us. (Gloria Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back, “Speaking In Tongues”)

“The reality is that up until my years in college, I have never been asked by anyone what I think. Rather, I have been told what to think, how to think, how to process information. I have been instructed to cultivate a body (the only body) of esthetically rich information worth processing. Teachers have never taken the time to cultivate my thoughts (perhaps they deemed no thoughts worth cultivated), have never asked what I wanted to learn (perhaps they thought I was uninterested or unable to learn). In short, no teacher or adult for that matter has ever taken the time or shown interest in getting to know me. I have been but a number, a product on the assembly line, and after four years of schooling, I was told, “You are officially done. You can move on.” And in the background, a chorus announcing, “Next!”” (José Alfredo Menjivar, Critical and Creative Reflections: “On Urgency and Considerations,” Eugene Lang College)

But what do “serious and dedicated” academics, doctoral students and scholars look like? How do they act, talk and perform? What does their work look like? Whose timeline are they on?

We are not explicitly taught how to be academics, yet the academy has a particular way of shaming us when we do not/cannot/do not know how to rise to the task, or perform the roles well.

We need to be critical and vigilant of colonialist notions, ideas and representations of intellectual production. Of academic success. Of academics. White supremacy has a funny way of lurking, lingering, crawling and making its way inside even the most critical and conscious spaces.

“I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am.” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom)

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” (Zora Neale Hurston)

Residues of oppression and trauma exist, reside, and seep out of our bodies long after the injuries have occurred. So often we have yet learned/mastered the tools and processes that can empower and enable us to dig ourselves out from the very holes we’ve been placed/dug ourselves into.

How does one learn to love one’s self when every facet of their lived experiences suggests and affirms otherwise?

Our own pathologies render us useless and inoperable. Immobilize us with gripping, terrorizing fear. Paralyzes, limits and stifles us from living truly free lives journeying into greatness.

Our own pathologies condition us.

Holding our wounds, triggers, patterns and pathologies to the light of truth is like peeling our skins back and shaking our insides out.

Facing ourselves–and all that which limits and stifles us from living truly free lives journeying into greatness–is jarring.
Visceral.
Taxing.
Draining.
Depleting.

It just hurts too much. First, the experiencing, and then the revisiting.

But the more time I spend facing myself, the more I realize that I cannot face myself alone.

“Cause nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.” (Maya Angelou, “Alone”)

“When your friends love you enough to look for you
Seek you when you become lost
Look for you without your asking
Or knowing that you need to be found

When your friends love you enough to come rescue you
Love you enough to help you pick your/self from the floor
Love you enough to look beyond the brokenness and disrepair
Love you enough to see you whole

When your friends love you enough to help you stand
Love you enough to hold your hand
Until your legs are strong again
Able to walk on their own accord

When your friends love you enough to offer you an invitation
Invite you to lay it down, lay it all down
Armor, sheath and sword

When your friends love you enough to face you
Love you enough to look beyond the guise, the hurt, the pride
Love you enough to face you as you face yourself
Love you so much that they will not allow you to face yourself alone” (José Alfredo Menjivar, Untitled Poem, 6/4/14, Age 28)

The more time I spend reflecting on my struggles in academia, revisiting these questions on why I delay and postpone the work that is required of me, the closer I inch towards the truth.

Facing myself requires both an individual and collective effort; an intentional collaboration with the folks and communities who love, believe and support me most. It is the only way I’ll be able to thrive and succeed in academia.

“The academy needs people like you, so try to pay attention and do the work when it’s required. The academy is full of hurdles that one has to pass. You are too valuable to lose. You must meet the hurdles so that you can then be free to teach others how to think in the ways that only you can.” (Advisor #2, Email)

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” (Toni Morrison, Beloved)

Dear José Alfredo Menjivar:
You ARE good enough.

But you have to start believing that for your/self. In your/self.

Baby, how you gonna expect others to love you when you have yet learned to love your own self?

You can have every person on the face of this planet validate you, your worth, your voice, your thinking, your very existence. But what good does that do, what purpose does that serve, if you don’t believe it yourself? Believe in yourself for your/self. Then, and only then, will you find yourself useful.

The journey to loving one’s self–truly, fully, freely and unconditionally–is long and arduous. It’s a lifelong journey.

There is no fucking blueprint. We make that road by walking.

Loving one’s self in spite of every facet of your lived experiences suggesting and affirming otherwise is a radical act; a revolutionary act of the highest order. It’s speaking truth to power.

Loving your/self–not in bit and pieces, parceling yourself out in fractured crumbs–but rather in your totality: poet, writer, thinker, student, teacher, emerging academic and scholar, activist, friend, comrade, lover and dreamer. In the conglomerate of you.

Believe, own, possess and affirm all of your identities simultaneously and unapologetically. Be YOU in every room you walk in, every space you occupy. And when those spaces do not exist, agitate, create and make those spaces available.

Remember the fire and passion that foregrounds your interests and return to academia. Remember that supporting Latino males across gender and sexuality spectrums in academia is critical and crucial. It is not just hard work, it’s heart-work. Inextricably linked to your existence. Your survival.

Remember that your voice, your body, your presence in academia is needed. Live that truth openly and visibly.

If: “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” (Toni Morrison, The Song of Solomon)

Lay it down, baby. Lay it all down.
Armor, sheath and sword.

Lovingly, and loving YOU for YOU,
Your 3 year-old wearing light blue overalls, a striped white and blue polo with similarly matched socks, smiling a full-set-of-teeth-smile self.

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