HUNTINGTON - For anyone living in the United States today, navigating the shifting tectonic social and political plates with family, friends and colleagues can be nerve-wracking at best.
Now imagine you are equal parts Mexican and American living in a state with a 1.5 percent Latino population.
That you are a feminist from a traditional family.
That you are a bicyclist in an auto-centric city, a vegetarian in a hot dog town, and that you have become - hold your breath, and say a Hail Mary for her bank account - a poet and a professor.
It has not always been this way, but Sarah Chavez has found her voice and her footing, and she has found it in, of all places, right here.
As an academic, Chavez is in her fourth year as a visiting associate professor at Marshall University and as the coordinator of the A.E. Stringer Visiting Writers Series. As a writer, Chavez also has flourished, having just released this fall a new full-length poetry collection, "Hands That Break and Scar" (on the Knoxville-Tennessee-based Sundress Publications), that chronicles her life growing up a Mestiza (part Mexican, part Anglo) in California's Central Valley.
Chavez, who has a Ph.D. in English with a focus in Creative Writing (poetry) and an interdisciplinary specialization in Ethnic Studies, with a focus on Chican@/Latin@ and Native American literature and culture, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said becoming a writer wasn't initially in her career plans.
"I think if I would have ever framed it to my family, 'Like, hey guys I am going to be a poet' - they would have been like that is not a thing. You can't actually do that," Chavez said. "So when I started college I was a psychology major because it was like I needed to get a job and make money, and I know this is a needed profession. I had been taking writing classes on a whim. I liked reading and had always been good at English. I took an intro to creative writing and intro to poetry workshop and people acted like, 'Yeah, this is something you should do,' and it blew my mind. I thought, 'Well that's ridiculous. There's nothing you can do with this.'"
Her father, a second-generation Mexican-American, came from a family of farm workers who flourished in the heart of California's fertile Central Valley, the primary source in the U.S. for tomatoes, almonds, grapes, cotton, apricots and asparagus, among other crops.
Her father is a case worker who works with the homeless in a program helping the mentally ill, while her mother, whose Michigan family moved to California when her grandfather was transferred with the FBI, was a office worker first at the Catholic school where she attended and then for Fresno County.
Chavez worked every job from farm laborer to janitor and maintenance, to barista, waitress, house-sitter, web editor, tutor, and finally administrative assistant for a Native American drug and alcohol recovery home before going back to school to pursue writing and teaching.
"I am a first-generation college student on my dad's side, and on my mom's side there was always this sense of, 'You need to be practical, and you need to take care of yourself. That is what you do. You don't follow your dreams or something,'" Chavez said. "As a writer I got a really late start. Even though I was encouraged as an undergraduate I still didn't conceptualize being a writer - that couldn't be my life. So I had these jobs where I could use my writing and people skills, but it wasn't until my partner (Daniel Lewis, who is also a Marshall visiting assistant professor), was like, 'Hey, I think I want to get a Ph.D.' that I wanted to go back to school too. I had been writing but didn't have an idea of what I wanted to do with it."
Chavez, who went through the master's program in creative writing at Ball State University in Indiana, said that it was moving away from home and into the Midwest that gave her perspective to look through a clearer lens at her own life and to write about it.
"One of the good things about moving away from California and, in essence, moving away from my family, is that I actually had space to think about it," Chavez said. "There was always this cultural tension, and because I didn't have any perspective, I just chalked it up to, 'Well, this is just my family.'"
She found the work of Gloria E. Anzaldua, whose 1987 book "Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza" used poems and prose to detail the invisible "borders" that exist between Latinas/os and non-Latinas/os, men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals and other groups.
"Without her book, I don't know if I ever would have had my voice as a writer or found my subject matter," Chavez said. "I didn't think anyone would care about those things. I thought that it was maybe just my problem, but here is a woman who writes a book all about bicultural issues, and she wrote about it both in poetry and in prose, and so I was like, 'Oh you can come at this in a creative way and an academic way which is really exciting.'"
Her new book, "Hands That Break and Scar," which was her dissertation for her Ph.D., came from in part moving to the Midwest and becoming more self aware of her identity living in places with few Latinos/Latinas.
"I talk about it in the introduction of being able to identify as Chicana even though it was always there, having the language for that can be really difficult, especially when the culture isn't exactly encouraging the acceptance of duality even though it is everywhere," Chavez said. "I was already having an identity crisis, because I am not really white and not really Mexican, but then when I moved to the Midwest, people treated me like I was Mexican."
Chavez said it was then, too, that she did not make the easier avenue of passing as Anglo since she is proud of her family's Mexican heritage.
"One of the things I talk about with people is this issue of passing. If you can pass as an Anglo person, it is easier to do that, but what is your responsibility? One of the things that I address in my creative nonfiction work is that I am kind of ambiguously ethnic, and people will ask me if I am Native American or Indian or Armenian. Or they are like, 'Something is not really Anglo about you, and we are not sure what it is,' and so to me it is particularly important to claim that because I have a privilege, in having more Euro features and privileged in the level of education I have been able to receive and the job that I have, so I want to be as open and up front about what really fuels all of that. My Mexican culture as much as my mom's Anglo culture really drives the way I interact in the world, so I am uncomfortable saying I am one or the other, so that is why I choose the term Mestiza or Chicana. Those both imply a sort of politics and also imply more than just a ethnic culture that this is the kind of food I grew up eating or this is what I look like. They are more complicated terms, so because of the privileges I have I think it is extra important for me to have these conversations with people and to be up front about it."
For Chavez those conversations take place in a myriad of ways on and off campus. As part of the Writers Series, she facilitated two days of programs that included visiting authors Carmen Gimenez Smith and Dan Vera as well as a panel discussion - "Building Comunidad Through Activism and the Arts" - with the visiting writers along with Monica Brooks, Marshall's assistant vice president for information technology, online learning and libraries, and Gretel Toloza Alvarez, president of the International Hispanic Organization.
"It is really exciting as a person and a writer to see how things are spreading. The Hispanic culture group last year had almost no members, and they are up to like 35 members. It is international, so it is not just people from the U.S., but it is also open to international students whether they are from Spain or Uruguay, and they are such a cool group that is really active and trying to find new ways to engage with the community."
In the classroom, she has utilized the format of the NPR show "This I Believe" to help her first-year writing class to objectively research and write about the difference between their truths and beliefs when it comes to contemporary topics.
Outside of class, Chavez, with her new book, has been doing a flurry of signings and readings from California and Tennessee to regionally at such spots as Taylor Books in Charleston and Empire Books and News at Pullman Square.
Chavez held the actual launch party of her book at Mak, a new art studio in Barboursville started by Sassa Wilkes, with whom she taught this summer for the Governor's School For the Arts at Marshall University.
Her poetry reading at the gallery during the inaugural Barboursville Art Walk a few weeks ago went well beyond what Chavez expected.
"I knew it would be fun, but I thought there would be like six people there," Chavez said with a laugh. "I kind of thought, 'This is the first art walk, and nobody is going to come to this, but that is cool because you have to start somewhere.' A lot of colleagues and friends from Marshall were sick and couldn't come, but the room was packed and it was just people wandering in off of the street, and a lot of people bought my book and were saying, 'I have never been to a poetry reading before and this is great.' I couldn't ask for a better compliment."
Chavez, who is in her fourth year at Marshall and just signed a new three-year contract, said she loves getting to do readings and to explore more of West Virginia and the region.
"I love readings because I get to meet people and travel," Chavez said. "It is awesome if someone wants to buy my book, but the best thing is getting to read with someone else and getting to meet new writers and new people. In West Virginia, because the state seems smallish, people think there is one kind of monoculture, but that is so not the case. It is so different from north to south and east to west."
And Chavez said it is not so different than the culture with which she was raised.
"Not only is there the working class and blue-collar similarities, but also there are the historical forces of assimilation in terms of people trying to change your language, and then the issues with land and mistrust," Chavez said. "West Virginia has been ravaged by these big companies taking land, which is what happened to Mexicans and Native Americans. It is not the same, but I see the connection."
Although it isn't always easy making those connections, Chavez said she feels like she is upholding her grandfather's advice by putting herself out there on a regular basis not knowing the outcome.
"It's kind of funny that mom's father - he had a law degree and he was the FBI agent, and he was incredibly smart - but he was also very anti-establishment, which is very interesting, and also anti-organized religion. My family is very Catholic, so he is the one outlier. He is the one who always said, 'You have got to go to college, but you better not go hide in an ivory tower,' and that always stuck with me because they do hide in the ivory tower and they do disconnect. It is hard to think about a lot of these really difficult things while you are engaging with people who complicate those ideas. But if you don't, then what good are you? I think academics and education and art should do something. It should create spaces for people; it should create empathy; it should literally help someone in some way."
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