Yo Soy Una Nepantlera
I remember the day when I realized that the Academy was not going to be a safe space for me. I was a graduate student and still painfully naïve. I had spent several years working in the corporate world where I had been truly miserable for a number of reasons and I had envisioned that academia would be this wonderful place where people understand racial and gender inequality. Where queerness was not othered and where I would find a home.
The day I learned how wrong I was, I was at the annual American Sociological Association Meetings which were held in New York City that year. The meetings were being held at the Hilton hotel in midtown (a minor detail that I hadn’t yet paid attention to). I was staying at a much cheaper hotel in the area and hadn’t recognized until that day that this ASA meeting would be happening at the Hilton hotel where my father and many other members of his family worked. I called him that morning to inform him that I was in town for work and I would like to see him. My father and I don’t have much of a relationship but at that point in my life we were still trying. He agreed to meet me outside of the hotel. Upon arriving, I was overwhelmed by the huge crowds of Sociologists: all wearing their name tags, typing on their laptops and meeting in the lobby for coffee. These huge crowds of people were my “colleagues” but I knew none of them. They were all strangers to me. I looked around for my dad and spotted him walking out of the hotel restaurant. He waved and asked if I had eaten. I explained that I had not and he invited me in the restaurant where he worked for breakfast.
The events of that day play much like a movie in my head, one that I re-watch often even though I don’t want to. My father introduced me to his coworkers, most of whom did not know I existed. They said as much “I didn’t know you had an adult daughter,” they remarked in Spanish. I was given a seat and told to help myself to whatever I wanted from the buffet. As I sat down to eat I looked around the very crowded restaurant. Like the lobby, it was full of Sociologists wearing their name tags, deep in conversation or looking through their meeting programs. And, then I watched my father and his brother bring plates, silverware, coffee and tea to my colleagues. My uncle who I had not seen in years came over to me to make small talk. He asked what I was doing here. I tried to explain that I was at an academic conference. “Are all these people here for that too?” he asked. “Yes.” I responded. “So these people work with you?” he asked, “Sort of,” I said. “Oh” he said and looked at me quizzically. It was the first of countless instances where I have felt how much distance being an academic has placed between the communities I come from and those to which I now belong. But do I belong?
I attended sessions that day with predominately white audiences, rarely ever seeing other Latinx faces, feeling deeply alone in an academic world that I voluntarily joined but didn’t at all feel like I belonged in. Overwhelmed by the crowds and the constant feeling of isolation, I stepped outside for air later that afternoon and stumbled upon a Dominican parade passing by the hotel. Traffic had been blocked in both directions and I could hear the familiar sounds of Dominican music blasting from speakers on the back of people’s cars. I saw many beautiful brown people carrying Dominican flags. I saw people who looked like me wearing emblems of the flag on their t-shirts and jeans, happily parading down the street. And then I saw my “colleagues” in their work clothes and name tags standing in front of the hotel watching and chattering with one another as the parade went by. I stood on the sidewalk in between the hotel and the parade and tried to make sense of the empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. Where did I belong?
I revisit this day often in my head. It symbolizes the borderland in which I reside. I have attended many, many ASA meetings since that day. I know lots of colleagues in those crowds now. I’m no longer intimidated by the crowds, but I still don’t feel like I belong. I was recently promoted to Associate professor and I continue to feel like I don’t belong, like I’m invading someone else’s territory, like the academy belongs to that sea of college professors crowding the hotel lobby. The academy still feels like it’s theirs, like I am only a visitor. The difference is that I no longer care, no longer ask for permission to exist in academic spaces. I no longer apologize for the disruption that my presence causes. On the contrary, I see my presence in the academy as a form of resistance. I’m here to do queer, race and family work whether or not you welcome me. I’m here.
I’m indebted to Gloria Anzaldúa for giving me words to articulate what I experience. The borderlands is my home, not the academy and not the parade. That contradictory space on the sidewalk in between two worlds that rarely ever cross paths, that’s home for me. It’s not a safe space, nor do I believe that a safe space exists. But it is home nonetheless. And for me, surviving the academy has been about embracing the contradictions within it, that contradictory empty feel I felt watching my father wait on my colleagues… that feeling will always be my reality.