Feminist theologians have long affirmed the fact that who we are and where we stand, as human communities and as individuals, affects what we see and how we see it, and in turn affects the theology we produce.
Sometimes I think I am being birthed to myself over and over again. That somehow in the process and action of living I become fragmented and compartmentalized into disparate pieces without even knowing it. Then comes that moment when one of the pieces comes back to full view and realization, and I feel the unexpected and overwhelming joy of being birthed anew all over again – and it is a beautiful thing. This is what happened to me recently as I participated in the summer dissertation workshop of the Hispanic Theological Initiative. The Latina part of me came back to full view and was integrated into the whole.
The Hispanic Theological Initiative, or HTI, is a project that exists to nurture and support Ph.D. Latina and Latino students (‘Latino/a’, as is now commonly said) through their doctoral program. As HTI scholars these students are assigned a senior Latino/a scholar as a mentor, are provided with networking funds to support their professional development, are assigned a dissertation editor, and attend the annual gathering to participate in a variety of workshops, lectures, and seminars. This past June I was able to participate in their summer dissertation workshop. It was a one-time opportunity for me, but getting the chance to participate even for just those three days was an amazing gift. The gift came in the form of a journey back to myself that included the overcoming of fears along the way.
The workshop took place at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, and even before I headed that way from Boston I began to have identity crisis. What if I am not Latina enough? What if I don’t fit in? What if people there think of me as a fraud? As I thought about my academic work and writing, I realized that no one reading my work would have any idea that I was Mexican-American. It felt embarrassing and disconcerting. How is it that I’ve kept that part of myself from my academic work all this time? Had I suppressed it, or was it that somehow I wasn’t truly Latina? Maybe I have so assimilated to the largely white academic world that I lost that part of myself in the process and I no longer qualify as Latina.
It turns out I was not the only one with those fears. On the train ride over, as another scholar and I began chatting, we discovered we were both having similar fears and emotions. However, our fears were not realized. Quite the opposite, I had never felt more at home in an academic setting than I did that weekend surrounded by 40 – 50 other Latino/a scholars. I felt as if I was ‘coming home’ to the academy for the first time ever, welcomed with the warmest of embraces by a family that was eager to have me there. And embraced I was, literally – we all were. Forty or more Latino/a scholars meeting and greeting one another in the same familial way that my Latina family, relatives, and friends greet one another, con un abrazo y un beso.* For the first time I had a place in academentia (Mary Daly’s clever name for the academy) were I felt I actually belonged. And also for the first time that weekend, I dared to refer to myself as a scholar and felt perfectly comfortable doing so.
I don’t know what it was – or at least I cannot explain it. I just had never imagined that being in a room full of scholars with whom I shared ethnic, cultural, and bilingual commonalities could be so existentially different and meaningful. I also had no category for it. In general the academic settings I find myself in tend to be primarily white – there is often at least some ethnic diversity, of course – but a primarily white context is something I am quite used to and am perfectly comfortable with. But I had never been in a room full of Latino/a scholars, and more precisely, I had never imagined that it would be such a different experience. And maybe it’s not so much that I belonged for the first time, for perhaps I belong in academentia just as much as the next person, but maybe it was that I felt welcomed and appreciated in a way I had not experienced before in the academy, and maybe that difference came from being in a room that welcomed me as a Latina woman, something that has never before felt relevant in my academic world.
As it turns out – I am Latina. It feels a bit ridiculous to have to write that sentence, I know. However, it seems that somewhere along the way that part of my being was fragmented and compartmentalized, put away until further notice. Now I realize that my being Latina is part of who I am as a scholar and a valuable part of what I bring to my scholarship and to my theological work. My cultural and ethnic identity makes a difference – a difference that up to now I have not appreciated well or allowed to be explicit in my work.
Feminist theologians have long affirmed the fact that who we are and where we stand, as human communities and as individuals, affects what we see and how we see it, and in turn affects the theology we produce. Each one of us is so many different things, and we are often participants in both overlapping and disparate communities. All these pieces bring richness to the whole. And although all of our ‘pieces’ are not always explicitly brought to bear on the whole, sometimes because they are not allowed or encouraged to play their part, I think all our ‘pieces’ are always within us nonetheless. This fragmentation or suppression of difference is unfortunate though, for much richness and beauty is lost when diversity and difference are missing.
Somewhere along the way, probably due to forces that I was not consciously aware of, I must have decided that the Latina part of my person had to be repressed from my theological work. I am sure it was a mostly subconscious decision – a way to not have to be ‘other’ in my academic world (that’s a whole other post). I am happy though to now welcome that ‘other’ piece of myself back into the whole. May it be a resource to my theological work and may it help me continue to move forward in my own be-coming. For now, I want to express my gratitude to the community of Latino/a scholars at HTI, and to the supportive faculty and Center for Practical Theology from my own institution, for helping me to be renewed and to come home to myself one more time. Gracias!*
*with a hug and a kiss
Xochitl Alvizo is a feminist Christian-identified woman and theologian currently completing her Ph.D. at Boston University School of Theology in practical theology with a focus on ecclesiology. Finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably interconnected and the good one can do in any one area inevitably and positively impacts all others.