2016 Letras Latinas Writers Initiative gathering: testimonios
Jacqueline Balderrama (Arizona State University)
In coordinating the fourth chapter of the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative gathering, my goal was to share the inclusivity that I experienced last year. Thanks to our wonderful sponsors, we were able to host visiting writers, attend panels, and participate in private discussions with faculty. I think the most meaningful moment during the week was our first round table where we heard from everyone on their graduate programs, areas of interest, and writing. I continue to be amazed at the diversity in the Latina/o community and what a difference it makes to be involved as a writer. At another point, we talked over milk tea about our role in the literary scene as magazine editors with Roy’s, Luis’s, and Kelsey’s insights on seeking out minority writers. While Maria, Ernesto, and Maritsa attend ASU, this initiative allowed us to become closer friends. I am so glad Joel and Marco could be a part of this. Just prior, they were accepted into ASU’s MFA program. With the addition of their voices and their familiarity with the Phoenix area, this new cohort has such variation and enthusiasm. It is a gift to call them my friends.
Joel Salcido (Arizona State University)
The moments that were the most poignant for me during Desert Nights Rising Stars were the moments with the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative group. We gathered as strangers and shared our poetry in a room surrounded by books. Everyone listened and we all saw each other and were seen. It is important to distinguish "looking" and "hearing" from "seeing" and "listening". The former are passive acts detached from interconnections, gestures without substance. The latter are active and engaged, acts of solidarity, full of unbending intention with sincerity. For many of us it felt like we hadn't been seen or listened to in a long while.
We also spoke about silence. The weight of it. The deafening volume of it in our respective workshops. But like all good poets we cast a spell with words and broke the silence, promising each other implicitly not to let the silence quiet our singing. Now it’s time to sing until no one can avoid hearing and seeing us.
Kelsey Castaneda (University of Notre Dame)
I have always had a complicated relationship with my own Latina identity. My mother is Caucasian and my father is Puerto Rican, but, growing up, neither my father nor Puerto Rican culture were a part of my life. So, I have always felt that I could not really identify with that part of my heritage, and that to do so made me, in a way, a fraud. However, because of the encouragement of Francisco Aragón and the generosity of ASU’s MFA Program and Letras Latinas, I was able to attend the incredible Desert Nights, Rising Stars writers conference where I met other young Latino writers, and finally realized that, for all of us, our identity and relationship with latinidad means something quite different. I found myself surrounded by emerging writers and MFA students of Spanish, Guatemalan, Mexican, and Honduran descent, each with their own unique writing aesthetic. I had conversations with inspirational writing mentors such as Alberto Ríos, Cynthia Hogue, and Melissa Pritchard. I attended discussion panels about race and its implications on the writing world. I found myself writing new pieces at night in my hotel room, that, were it not for this conference and gathering, would surely not exist. For me, the four days that I spent at ASU were some of the most exciting and influential days that I have had since beginning my MFA at the University of Notre Dame. I not only made new friends that have become a supportive and encouraging family, but also finally, for the first time, felt like I was a part of latinidad and the entire Latino writing community. I am incredibly thankful to ASU and Letras Latinas for the opportunity to be a part of this conference, as well as the fourth edition of the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative gathering.
Roy Guzman (University of Minnesota)
As a Latino, I am constantly searching to recapture the sounds of my childhood, and the 2016 Letras Latinas Writers Initiative gathering—which met during the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Conference—brought back those echoes of Tegucigalpa and Miami. In an ambit of camaraderie, insightfulness, and sensibility, my new friends and allies empowered me. By writing from an angle of resistance, in spaces traditionally controlled by privilege, power, and patriarchy, I was reminded that my struggle is one I share with others—a sentiment the inaugural poet of Arizona himself, Alberto Ríos, validated.
We heard from one another and we read each other’s work. Our schedule included panels and small gatherings on poetics of witness, bilingualism, immigration, trauma, marginalization, and survival. In our meeting with Cynthia Hogue, I shared information I wouldn’t normally share in an MFA space; Melissa Pritchard reaffirmed us on why we risk our lives as writers. We got a chance to explore Tempe and Phoenix as well, and I was exposed, for the first time, to the dreamlike landscape of Arizona.
This experience has shown me new doors where I didn’t think there were any, and I am profoundly grateful to our sponsors and for Letras Latinas’ vision.
María Isabel Alvarez (Arizona State University)
As a Guatemalan writer, I am constantly striving for communities where I may share my work, where it might not only be appreciated, but also understood. The Letras Latinas Writers Initiative gathering offered me the opportunity to bond with fellow writers of color, writers who shared without hesitation their risk-taking, unapologetic style of writing, writers who spoke of their Latino background with an unwavering sense of pride, not fearing judgment but seeking an opportunity to embrace commonalities, and it is in this space where I have felt the most comfortable throughout the course of my MFA experience. I felt not only comfortable but encouraged to share and discuss my work, something that has rarely been the case in other workshop experiences. The Letras Latinas Writers Initiative gathering offered a safe space to discuss my greatest passions, writing and literature, with a group of people who not only share in this passion, they also share in the greater experience of Latinidad. I walked away from this year’s Letras Latinas initiative feeling reinvigorated about my work, excited about the work of my peers, and comfortable in my place as a Latina writer in contemporary literature. Thank you, Letras Latinas for making me feel en casa!
Ernesto Abeytia (Arizona State University)
It’s been a week since Desert Nights, Rising Stars, and I’m just now sitting down to reflect. A conference geared toward offering invaluable instruction from seasoned writers, DNRS was three days of thought-provoking panels and inspiring readings. It showcased distinguished faculty—local, national, and international—and emerging writers sharing fresh, startling work coming out of Arizona State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. In all, it was a weekend well-spent.
But the moments I keep coming back to, the moments that still resonate, are those I spent with fellow Latino writers from ASU and those visiting from the Universities of Notre Dame and Minnesota. These writers, some just starting their MFAs, some about to finish, were humble, generous people writing from a world outside of privilege, outside of whiteness, using a blend of English, Spanish, and Latin flare. They wrote of otherness, thoughtfulness, life between the seams, life straddling international, artificial, man-made borders; they wrote about art and first grade, being awkward in a bar, fighting in the city, and seeing you, I see you.
They were Puerto Rican, Mexican, Guatemalan, and Honduran. And though I, being Spanish, am not technically Latino, they looked past my geography and into our shared culture. We talked about food and music, boys and girls, and even Walter Mercado. We talked about the best lit journals for Spanish-language writers, those we could see our work in and those we could not. We talked about our favorite writers, the ones whose origin stories didn’t matter, whose names were pronounceable because of their work. And in all of this, I felt like I belonged. For the first time in my MFA career, I belonged.
It’s this feeling, this experience I will never forget. It’s the sonrisas and amistades, abrazos and te entiendos I will never forget. And though the panels I attended may improve my writing, it’s the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative that improved my being.
Luis Lopez-Maldonado (University of Notre Dame)
Under the scorching Arizona sun, this queer brown boi genuinely smiled for the first time since last August. When you are displaced into a place where Mexican/Chicano culture is not embraced, of course you feel like your writing doesn't matter! The Letras Latinas Writers Initiative gathering this year was a breath of fresh, legit and inspirational air. Times one-hundred. Thousand.
During The Desert Nights Rising Stars Conference, I met the inaugural poet laureate of Arizona, Alberto Ríos, among many other distinguished faculty and guest faculty; they inspired me tremendously. But most importantly, I was introduced to my new comrades y amigos, those of who I will continue to bloom with artistically and personally. It was a humbling experience to gather and discuss issues surrounding our journey in the MFA programs we currently attend, dissecting the themes of race, sex, gender, normality, family and personal history, among many others. I shook hands. I embraced shoulders. I opened doors. We gathered in community and comradery. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have met these strong and talented Latino writers; Viván los writers Latinos!
Maritsa Leyva Martinez (Arizona State University)
Having lived in Mexico for four years before deciding to return to Houston it was important for me to find a Latino community within the creative writing program. I am a proud Mexican and staying in touch with my roots is imperative to, not only my personal development, but to my writing career. That being said, when I was invited by Jackie to participate in the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative gathering, although I was a little confused as to what my role in the whole process would be, I felt thrilled. Despite my joining the conference at a later day in the week, everyone welcomed me with open arms; they where warm, happy, and vociferous, and happy, like all good Latinos. What a wonderful feeling it is to share stories with a group of fellow writers and to look around the room and recognize that they know exactly how you are feeling. As many of my peers have iterated, what I most value about the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative gathering is the camaraderie.
Marco A. Piña (Arizona State University)
Before this conference I wanted nothing more than to find a space where my voice could be appreciated, a support system that would encourage me to push my experiences forward, one that would never let me slow down until I waited for people understand.
For me, the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative gathering at ASU became the only place of sanctuary I’ve experienced in a PWI while trekking across the limitation
created by my barrio eccentricity. The loving words and the open ears of my new comrades created a space for healing and personal growth. What was most beneficial for me was obtaining the peace of mind that, although we may struggle separately to find the spaces to release our santas palabras, together our voices have the ability to rouse this sleepy country from its eternal slumber.