Good morning, class.
Welcome to a new year, a new semester, and to my Race, Nation, and Borders in American Literature course. I hope you enjoyed much peace and rest over the holiday break. Now it is time to get to work.
You might have chosen to take this class because the course description sounded easy: We’ll be reading and telling stories. Let me be clear: This is not easy work. I don’t wish to further disappoint you, but I am also not an “easy” instructor. I take stories seriously, both the ones I expect you to read and those I require you to write. Throughout our work together this semester, you will see that stories matter. On this, our first day, I’ll begin by sharing a story.
When I was a little girl, I was foolish.
As a first grader, I dreamed of playing Little Orphan Annie on the Broadway stage. I wanted it so badly that I wrote a letter to Gloria Rojas, one of the few Latino news reporters in the 1970s, and asked, “Dear Ms. Rojas, Could you tell me please how I can audition for ‘Annie’?” She didn’t know, but I was so proud of the handwritten response she sent me that I showed it to my classmates in the schoolyard. Though they were impressed, they pointed out that a little Puerto Rican girl would never be picked to play such an all-American role. I was so foolish.
In the fourth grade, I had to do a presentation on a U.S. president. I picked Abraham Lincoln and was so inspired by his story that I concluded my presentation by saying that I wanted to be president one day, too. When the teacher asked if anyone had questions, one boy raised his hand, but he didn’t have a question. He wanted to let me know there were no stories of girls or Latinos becoming president. I was so foolish.
Growing up, I had a lot of dreams; however, there weren’t a lot of stories—in books or in the world—that showed someone who looked like me living those dreams. The limited stories about Latinos emphasized that we were different. Those differences were a liability; they were separate from the American story. I learned to believe there was no place for me and I believed that I really was foolish for having ever dreamed in the first place.
The first story that recognized me was “How to Date a Brown Girl” by Junot Diaz. I wasn’t a hormone-driven adolescent Dominican boy trying to get with a girl from outside the ‘hood, but the other details in Diaz’s story—the primos in el campo, the government cheese, and being called malcriada—those were part of my story, too. I had thought stories like mine were ugly and had to be hidden just like the government cheese, but I was reading all about it in a critically acclaimed book that was assigned in my college English course in the United States. A book that was written by a Latino and who became a prize-winning, respected author, and a professor at MIT by telling those kinds of stories. Imagine what a little brown woman like me might be able to achieve? That story helped me dream again.
In the decades since the day I was told that a little brown girl couldn’t be a star on Broadway, the wealth of visible Latino stories has increased. Sonia Sotomayor, another little Puerto Rican girl from New York City with humble origins just like me, grew up to become a Supreme Court Justice. Juan Felipe Herrera, the Poet Laureate of the United States, is the son of migrant farmers and produces work that explores identity and the price and prizes of labor—all essential elements of the American story.
I hope this course will reveal many things to you, most importantly that each of us, Latino and otherwise, is a storyteller. Our individual stories contribute to and expand what it means to be American and to be human. The stories we see in the world shape how we see ourselves and how others see us. The more stories we see about ourselves, the more we believe that we have a place and a voice in the larger narrative of our communities and our nation. And the stories we see about ourselves show us what is possible and that we are not stupid for dreaming. Dreams are not a privilege exclusive to any one group. Stories give all of us the courage to dare, live bigger, and achieve.
The next sixteen weeks will challenge you. My greatest hope is for you to see that stories are power. I want you to have that power. I want you to use it to fulfill all the possibility that I see in each of you in my classroom today.
Dear President Trump,
Your first weeks in office have illustrated to me that anything is possible in the United States of America. You sent your goal of becoming president out into the universe years ago, and you made it. It is truly the land of opportunity where dreams can come true. To all those who did not take you seriously, thought it was a joke, and considered you not qualified, well, you showed them. There you are—sometimes the White House, other times Trump Tower, but always on Twitter—demonstrating confidence in your ability to be tough and fix things. If you achieved your dream of becoming president, what’s my excuse for not dreaming big?
I am not proud to admit that I have lacked confidence throughout my life. Since I can remember, I have been told there are things that cannot be done by girls or women or Puerto Ricans or first-generation children of immigrants or people from public housing. Girls can’t be leaders. Puerto Ricans are foolish. Immigrants are backwards and dirty. People from public housing are lazy. I believed all the “cannot do’s” so much that no one else had to tell me what I couldn’t do because I told it to myself. I believed that a Puerto Rican woman raised in public housing would remain trapped, deprived, and unrealized in the inner city of the bleak American landscape of your inaugural speech. As a result, I lost the ability to dream. What was the use of dreaming about the future if by definition I was already flawed and faulty? I not only believed I was not good enough. I believed I was not good at all.
I have made my living largely through my writing and often worry that a misplaced comma will cost me my job. That and other worries diminished that November morning when I woke up and saw that you won the presidential election. Since that day, I have been freed from baseless anxieties about myself. Your rise to the highest office in our land made me reassess my own qualifications with a new confidence. I’m an intelligent woman. It was not family money or connections that got me out of the projects, into Amherst College, through two graduate programs, and into positions at top-ranked companies, organizations, and universities. It was me. I set goals, I learned what needed to be done to achieve them, and I busted my ass to surpass them. Please pardon the informal language, but you have also inspired me to be a straight talker. We’re both from Queens, right? We tell it like it is and call it like we see it. And I’m seeing things more clearly now.
Since November 9, I have also felt the freedom to dream. Your example makes me believe I can do anything. Just like you, I’m going to put my ambitions out there into the universe and pursue them until they come true. I’m going to write like I can win the Pulitzer. I’m going to announce to everyone that I’m developing a one-woman show and complete that project without thinking it’s just a mid-life crisis. You have been such an inspiration that I want to motivate and lift others up, too. That’s right. It’s not just going to be me moving onward and upward. I’m going to make sure that with every step I take forward and for every door I open, I’m taking as many women of color with me as possible.
My first official act toward that goal was to channel the intense emotion I felt on November 9 into the recommendation letters I needed to provide for students applying to graduate programs. I saw myself in those young women: Latina, like me, motivated, brilliant, dynamic, and they were looking to me to support their dreams. It was a wake-up call to the responsibility I have because if I fail to believe in my ability and right to pursue my dreams, I don’t just fail myself. I fail every young woman of color who looks up to me. My failure to believe and act confirms that “cannot do” is the default setting for a woman or anyone brown or who somehow otherwise deviates from the valued norm.
I wrote those recommendation letters as if I could win a Pulitzer for letter writing. And when those young women get into the graduate programs of their choice and see the paths toward their dreams open, I will celebrate their admission. They will thank me, but I will insist that the thanks are due to you for opening my eyes. After all, anything is really and truly possible in these United States. It’s my country, and I have the right, ability, and responsibility to work toward my dreams. From this moment forward, beyond the next four years even, I am going to realize my dreams because I matter, and so does everyone moving onward and upward with me.
Nancy Méndez-Booth is a fiction writer and teaches writing and Latina/o literature and culture at colleges and universities in New York and New Jersey. Nancy’s work has appeared in print and online, including Latina, Poets & Writers, Salon, OZY, KGB Bar Literary Magazine, Philadelphia Stories, and Wordrunner eBooks. Nancy has read and performed at various Northeast venues including Cornelia Street Cafe, The Moth, and The Midtown International Theatre Festival. She posts regularly on her blog. Currently, Nancy is seeking representation for and publication of her fiction and nonfiction manuscripts, and is developing a one-person show.