As we celebrate Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month amid a global pandemic, I think about the burdens that beset my students at UCLA. I never would have imagined that the skills teaching and learning requires today are the same skills I called upon as a newly arrived Cuban girl in the United States: imagination, compassion, tenacity, and surrender—habits I had no choice but to dream up when throwing myself into the task of traversing American life and culture. Now, when I (virtually) sit down with my students and stare at their young, beautiful faces, marked by anxiety and the many challenges of our murky new world, this is the power I harness, and these are the skills I call upon.
Observing the trauma they deal with each day, watching their ongoing uncertainty takes me back to my own story—one of a young girl who leaves her home on the island of Cuba in 1981 to escape poverty, repression, and censorship. At first glance, she seems traumatized by the journey and everything she’s experienced at such an early age: public acts of humiliation, scarcity, government-sponsored violence, separation from family and friends, and fear. She stutters a bit, grinds her teeth, and talks in her sleep. In America, she mistakes T-shirt for teacher, and says things like “I lie peashes un sheeken.” She wears her cousin’s old Izod polo from the JC Penney down the street, and she’s called spic at the park. At school, her mom shilly-shallies against a wobbly wooden counter and hands out Ramona’s beef and potato burritos to hungry mouths, while her dad mops her high school hallways and bathrooms with a lethal combination of Lysol and bleach.
As a newly arrived immigrant in 1980s California, and over the past 30-some years, she has mastered purpose and, I hope, also grit and integrity. She’s not sure if she’s a person of color, Latinx, Latina, or Hispanic. At some point, surely, she’s benefitted from at least one of those identifiers and fit into more than one category, but perhaps not enough. As a first-generation college student, she could have used some help with college admission essays, completing financial aid applications, applying for scholarships, and navigating college life. She knows she’s Cuban and, after so many years away from home, perhaps even Cuban American. She also knows that as a light-skinned Latina, she’s been rewarded for being white enough on one side, demoted for not being brown enough on the other.
Just like my present-day students, my confidence was shattered, and I, too, blamed myself for failures I did not create, for wounds that were not my own. I had no idea what the next day would bring. I invented my own voice, studied my character; I stepped out of my narrative to pull life down from some unreachable height.
I see my students wanting to do that today. They’re scared, but they’re picking themselves up and rising. They show up. They hop on Zoom, and whether their cameras are on or off, they are there—breathing, giving themselves permission to simply be, to exhale a united sigh of relief.
Now, so many years later, I am comfortable in my own skin, though this moment in American history has yet to be fully formed, fully absorbed, and fully resolved. How we identify should matter less than how we respond to our circumstances. I hope to teach my students that these same practices I learned—imagination, compassion, tenacity, and surrender—will get them through. It would seem that if there was ever a time to join a collective to do away with labels it would be now. After all, many of us tread in that fluid, interstitial place between one thing and the other, a nameless site of critical perspective where, standing at the center, we look both ways before we cross.
At a time when we’re most in need of direction, we are living with no plot. We don’t know where we’re going and must hang on the immediacy of every moment, and on strength of character. You, they, them, we are enough. For all of us caught in the chasm, we must be kind to ourselves and to each other, and even kinder with the process of becoming in a moment that asks us to walk that emotional but also cultural and political tightrope daily. Now, when my students ask me how I identify, I always tell them that—because power’s born from our greatest weakness—we lie peashes un sheeken more than ever.
Susannah Rodríguez Drissi is a writer, poet, playwright, translator, and scholar. Her novel Until We’re Fish (Propertius) published in early October.