A Proper Education
Growing up, I wanted to be a lawyer, like my dad. He loves the adrenaline of a litigating court and so do I. Or at least I thought I did. Sometimes he'd take me and my sister to court when he didn't have anyone else to look after us. He loves the research and the construction of arguments. I love watching my dad immersed in a case, occasionally looking up from one of his law or policy books and smiling at me. Even when we don't agree on a political or a legal issue, I still feel reassured that he is 100% confident in what he is doing: no dithering and no fear. He is whip-smart and he has trained me to be whip-smart too.
To be fair, I also wanted to be a professional gymnast because I once saw some girls do the most breathtaking flips and jumps on the TV and, quite naturally, I thought I needed to do them too.
When I would say to my parents that I wanted to study rhythmic gymnastics and be a lawyer, they'd look at me the same way I now look at my 10-year-old nephew who is determined that when he grows up he will be a brain surgeon by day and a firefighter by night: "Of course, why wouldn't you?" He should keep his options open and explore. Eventually, he will decide a career path that is appropriate for his skills and his aptitude. Why should we put barriers on his imagination? Why should anyone interfere with his education?
Odd Girl Out
When I was about 11 years old, my parents moved me to a different school. We had just moved across town and they said it would be closer to our new home. As could be expected, I hated both the move and the new school. I had many friends in my previous school and nobody had consulted with me or even warned me this would happen in advance. But, my parents had faith that everything would be alright and I’d end up loving it. They were right; about five years later, I did end up loving high school.
But those intermediate years were difficult. Aside from a selected few, most of my cohort thought that I was “different” and rejected me. In turn, I rejected them. I remember one time, early on, when I was hanging out with the popular girls and a particularly hairy one said she’d started shaving the little hairs on her fingers. To my surprise, the other girls said they’ve been doing it for a while too. I said aloud something like “we’re 12 years old” and after that we didn’t hang out that much. I was the type of girl who would wear pigtails at 13 years old. I’m almost 30 and I still wear pigtails, but I just wasn’t picking up the cues that girls did their hair different in this school.
Every day, I’d get called mean names, and for a couple of years, I had a thing for flipping the bird at all my classmates while telling them to “grow up.” Tired of being around them, I spent most of my morning breaks at the Library reading the newspaper. I was in the Director’s office a lot, too. Mostly for being late all the time but also for talking back when the other students would pick on me. My teachers recognised that I was bright and they’d see me in and out the office all the time, so I got along well with all of them. They would advice me on how this was all just a phase that my classmates were going through.
I don't know if it is correct to call it “a phase” but the truth of the matter was that we all ended up warming up to each other. We had camping trips and dances and futbol classes together. There were compromising pictures of frenemies, besties and sworn adversaries together, and yes, we did upload them to social media because, why wouldn’t we? Also, it all got pretty awkward when the quinceañeras arrived and we all started developing crushes on our arch enemies, whom we swore to loathe forever and ever, but who also happened to be the deciding factor in which dress you decided to wear for each party.
My last years in high school were an absolute blast! Upon Graduation, the teachers awarded me a diploma for “Personal Growth”, which was really sweet. Come to think about it, it’s a bit on the nose that I was the one recognised for “growing” but no matter: we were all hugging and kissing and crying, so it’s the detail that counts.
These past few weeks, several of my classmates from high school, whom I hadn’t spoken with in years, have reached out to ask how I was doing and send their well wishes. They’ve read in a local newspaper that things were difficult, at the moment. I feel moved that they’d reach out to show the same love we showed each other those last few years in high school, about fifteen years ago.
In my Santo Domingo school, every year we used to have these Model United Nations; educational opportunities to get high schoolers interested in world affairs, where children pretend to be diplomats as a way to develop critical thinking, leadership and debating skills. You could be a Delegate representing your State or a Justice sitting at the International Court of Justice, grappling with ongoing or historical complex global political conflicts.
At the International Court of Justice, you’d see 16-year-olds trying their best to find an amicable resolution to Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro. It was beyond bonkers but equally riveting!
As a teenager, this was my thing. I was always a Justice and my opinions were, on occasion, dissident. During those weeks, these cases would become my life. Nothing else mattered: no quinceañera crap, no chemistry test, nothing. I lived for those mornings when I'd put my gown on. While I wore it, I truly believed that I had the capability to resolve these decades-old high level human rights conflicts instead of realising that I was just an overexcited girl.
Being a wholesome (and therefore unrealistic) version of diplomatic world affairs, carefully presented to wide-eyed teenagers like me, the Model UN taught us all about the sacredness of democracy and consensus-driven policy making. Personally, it taught me the power of persuasion. Policy-making, just like democracy, is about persuasion through argumentation - not through bullying, threatening and abusing opponents.
I couldn’t beat sense into a fellow Justice, no matter how maddening their arguments were. In part, because although passions rose very high (we were, after all, hormonal teenagers) it was hard to stay angry at a classmate you’d see the next day during beisbol practice or who’d seen you cheat in maths, at least once ("Way to screw things up for the Bosnians, you dumbass. Are you going to Niurky's on Saturday? We're gonna get pizza and watch Pride and Prejudice").
You didn’t “win” the case, either in the simulation nor in real life, you just won people over and hoped for the best.
After high school, I went straight into Law School in Santo Domingo, to the State university where both my mum and dad had graduated. My plan going in was as specific as it could get for a 17-year-old: I would go to Law School, then I’d specialise in International Relations and I’d make a career as a human rights barrister, focusing on women’s rights and the dispossessed.
I made it halfway through the five-year program but realised I was losing sight of the global politics that had been my initial passion. I moved to a tiny town in Utah, United States to start a Bachelor’s in International Studies, minoring in Latin American Studies and crucially, Women and Gender Studies.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I remember my first Women’s Studies class, about 10 years ago, called ‘Sociology of Gender’. Just like I can remember the face on the Graduate Teaching Assistant when she asked the class to analyse beauty pageants (a massive industry in Utah), from a feminist perspective. My classmates made the case that these were educational opportunities for young women, as beauty pageants usually cover university tuition fees as part of the prize. I raised my hand, my face had a furrowed brow and all, and set off on a rant about how I didn’t understand why women have to parade in a bikini to get a scholarship. After that, I was off to the races.
While in Utah, the professors at the Centre for Women's Studies noticed that some of my classmates and I had trouble containing all our excitement within the classroom and invited us to create a Feminist Club. My friends from class and I were the leadership. At one point, I was the Vice President and later the Social Media manager, curating content and sharing articles, including numerous articles from an up and coming platform named Feminist Current. Years later, I'd become one of its featured contributors.
As Social Media manager of our Club page, I once got in trouble for posting "There will be pizza!" on a Facebook invite for an event, even though I hadn't really checked. I was being silly, messing around, but I was told, in no uncertain terms, by (my bestie) our President that you cannot say that type of stuff to a college audience, even if I was only joking. There’s nothing more terrifying than hungry students, with no cash, who turn up expecting pizza and find out they’ll only get a lecture on menstruation…My position was on the line over a pizza joke!
Still, our overexcitement could not be contained to campus either so we created something called 'Feminight!' every Friday, ostensibly to watch a movie or documentary and analyse it from a feminist perspective. One time, we watched Transformers, a movie about action figure cars that can talk. Another time we watched a documentary about the diversity of vulvas. The leadership of our Feminist Club would be the regulars but we'd always had big turnouts of classmates, boyfriends and girlfriends, their friends and a very cool mum who kindly hosted us in her house. Everyone would chip in with tortillas, popcorn and bags of crisps. Together we'd prepare a large meal of enchiladas or rice dishes, while listening to rap songs or those folksy bands US millennials were into at the time.
Alcohol would be abundant. Utah being Utah, where the law requires reduced alcohol percentages, the boys would oftentimes make the trip to neighboring Idaho "to get real beer." We did too many shots analysing the feminism of Jurassic Park (verdict was that it’s about the female species rebelling against man's abuse of nature) and Titanic (it’s about a wealthy 16-year-old white girl rejecting the constraints of her sex: a lifetime of rape and submission to a violent man) (and the boat thing).
I'd often bring a cheap bottle of this pink watermelon-flavoured vodka that I loved to mix with Sprite. I drank plenty of that while baking, as I was the designated brownie-maker for all our meetings. I've always been, and always will be, the girliest feminist on the block.
Debate was heated. We all came from different backgrounds and perspectives. One of our friends, who rejected the label 'feminist', preferring 'womanist' instead, would often utter phrases like: "The male of the species is a visual creature wired for procreation. They seek fertile women; it’s why we have ample hips!" and engage in monologues about evolutionary biology that would make the quaintest of us roll our eyes and the rest of us hit the bottle harder. Nevertheless, we unreservedly adored her.
Sometimes, the movie would be upsetting and one of us would storm out of the room, crying. On those occasions, we'd rally around, support one another and talk it through.
We didn’t really know what we were doing, but in our clumsy way, we were in constant learning. There was never any conflict among the women but too much of our time was wasted on boys who wouldn’t text back and others who texted too much. I wish we had focused more on each other, as women, and the transformative education we were giving ourselves, from our own volition, not some mandated curricula.
One time, in one of our Women's Studies classes, we had a man come in and deliver a lecture about how he liked to wear women’s clothing. He was married, with children, acknowledged himself as a man and he emphasised that he was very happy with his life as it was. He said he wasn’t a drag queen and he wasn’t a transvestite either. He said dressing up as "as a woman" was just something he liked to do and as long as it didn’t harm anyone, there was no problem with that. I agreed at the time and I agree today.
The class was so impactful that I remember the moment vividly. He was wearing a green tweed power suit: the type businesswomen wear to important meetings when they want to make an impression. The skirt was just above the knee and the heels were what older women would call ‘prudent.’ He wore heavy makeup with false lashes and a short, blond wig with highlights. I had never seen a university lecture like this, or met anyone like him in the Dominican Republic, but I was very glad we met him because this what we are meant to be studying: the flexibility that some people are able to carve for themselves out of the trappings of gender. I thought that it was very brave for this middle-aged man to practice what he enjoys in Bible-belt Utah and I asked if he faced any harassment or violence when he wore womenswear. To my surprise, he said he didn't because most people respected him. And I respected him too.
In 2009, it would have been unthinkable for this man to argue that he was a woman, more oppressed in fact that the female classroom staring up at him. In 2019, he would be the one deemed transphobic and condemned to the wrong side of history, along with the rest of us.
Whereas 10 years ago, our female classroom showed respect because we were decent human beings, today a similar female classroom would feel coerced to show subservience out of fear of ostracisation.
For better or worse, these past 10 years I have been able to witness firsthand the neckbreaking speed with which a legitimate field of studies (Women and Gender Studies) has gone from sensitive scholarship which focuses on centring women's voices and experiences in academia to an irony-free excercise in female subjugation when taken over by postmodernist and queer theory programmes.
The academic programmes which have yet to comply with this drastic coup, like the last one I enrolled in, learn the hard way the price of their insubordination.
Separate from my Women’s Studies education, I was still learning International Politics in Utah. To say I struggled in those classes would be an understatement. At 19, thousands of miles away from my home country for the first time, the culture shock was overwhelming and Utah tested the diplomatic skills I had acquired in those Model UN exercises.
Aside from being a crimson-red conservative state, the Mormon religion is a looming role in most people's lives.
Half my family is Jehovah’s Witness and the other half is Roman Catholic. That being said, my parents were flexible: they didn't indoctrinate me into a certain set of beliefs, even after we went through all the cultural rituals of Catholicism, but they advised me to keep an open heart to the power of faith. At the time, as a young woman who would wear Obama T-shirts to parties, being “not religious” was a big part of my developing identity. Ever precocious, I was a ‘woke’ millennial 10 years before it became a thing. I felt a sense of pride and smug superiority to my religious peers, like I was better than them for “seeing through” the trap that religion is. Now I see that I was wrong. Of course, religion and faith can play a positive role in the lives of billions of people.
Why I struggled to understand that, at that time, is unclear to me. Growing up, my Jehovah’s Witness family used to take me to their congregations, and every time I visit my grandma, she hands me several copies of The Watchtower, which I always read because I'm keen to understand the points of view that are so fundamental to half of my family.
A couple of weeks ago, I was home alone and a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses knocked on the front door. I opened the door and the older men asked me, very politely, if I wanted to hear about their God. For some reason, they were wearing heavy coats even though it was warm and as I watched them knock on the neighbours’ door (I told them "No, thank you. My grandma's been teaching me since I was a kid", which was kinda rude), I felt sad that they must have been sweating. I thought: "Look at these two older men. They could be home reading their Watchtowers and putting their feet up." Instead, they were going house to house to preach in an effort to persuade people to agree with their beliefs and join their religion, peacefully and respectfully.
Many of my feminist friends have a dim view of religion, based on personal experience or the role it has largely played in women’s subjugation, but I don’t wholeheartedly agree with them anymore. Nobody has ever condemned me to hell or called me nasty scum for refusing to believe in their religion. Nobody has threatened me with violence or abused me for having "unacceptable beliefs". Even though we have different views on a multitude of issues, abortion rights being the most significant, both sides of my family have been hugely supportive of me, encouraging my feminist activism and writing.
I am truly blessed that, through it all, I have a large family who loves me unconditionally and who want to see me thrive, even when we don't agree.
Politically, Utah was a brutal education. The vast majority of my classmates had a jingoistic view of world politics. “American” (as, in U.S.) superiority to the Global South was probably written in law. It certainly was written in the Mormon bible books!
The first Economics class I took at a college level was part of my Law School degree in Santo Domingo, and I got a 93 on the vaguely socialist syllabus. The first Economics class I took in ultra-capitalist Utah, I failed it spectacularly. Probably, less than a 60. As I explained to my dad at the time: "The correct answers were all this Adam Smith ridiculousness about the invisible hand of the market and some neocon nonsense. I'm not gonna write that! These people are insane!" The student activist in my dad felt proud of me, but when I talked with him on the brink of failing the second class he went: "Right, I get your point but you will have to just suck it up and write down whatever the book says you need to write so you can get on with things."
He wasn't surprised, though. In high school, my Religion grades were often abysmal. I would fight the teachers there and in Social Science class too. But Utah was different.
Oftentimes during class, you would hear classmates talk about how for example, the concept of “hard work” originated in the United States, with the rest of us being too lazy to succeed at their level. When I heard that, I thought of my grandparents. One of my grandpas, a journalist, would tell me tales about climbing trees to get scoops during the deadly days of Dominican dictatorship. The other, an immigrant in Boston who is blind, set up a community programme to encourage formal education among marginalised youth in his neighborhood. One of my grandmas brought up five children in poverty, on her own, while working as a maths teacher. The other one felt embarrassed that she had five grown children yet she didn't know how to sign her own name, so she taught herself to read and write as an adult.
Sitting in those classrooms, always by the door so I could make a quick escape as soon as the bell rang, my blood would boil.
At the time one of my grandmas, herself an immigrant in the Dominican neighborhoods of New York, knew I was struggling and would regularly use her pension money to buy me calling cards so I could stay in touch with my family back home.
When I complained about whatever classmate enraged me the most that week over some particularly stupid remark, my mum would say: "Aw honey! Why don’t you invite them out for ice cream so you can understand each other’s point of view?" Bewildered and unable to comprehend that this was the voice of my own mother, I would then call my dad. He would patiently listen to my entire rants without interrupting but when I paused, I could hear him giggling. Infuriated, I'd complain and he'd reply: "You've had this one coming for years!", and carried on laughing at me.
Eventually, he would pause and give me the same advice time and time again: "I understand that this feels difficult. But it is very important that you go to every class and listen to your classmates’ arguments because that's going to teach you how to think."
Coming from my parents, this advice was rich. They both understand the fire and rage that accompanies political awakening, especially as a student. Both of them have been student activists; in fact, they met at a student protest against state repression in the 1980s. Protesters would be unmasked and overwhelmingly peaceful, even though these were highly dangerous times in the Dominican Republic. Not the "words are violence" type of danger, but the very real possibility that political activism could cost your life. Dissidents, journalists and intellectuals would "disappear" often.
Both my parents knew the importance of standing by your principles regardless of the price. And they meant it; they both did stints in jail for their political beliefs. My dad, a student activist since he was in high school, more often than my mum who was detained only once, for singing songs against the government. It's why they've never reprimanded me for getting in trouble. My parents know that it’s always been "good trouble." Periodically, my mum reminds me that I'm not alone ("We are with you every step of the way") and my dad, that I should never bow down to pressure ("Don't let them get to you. Keep going.")
Sex and Gender
After graduation, I went home and did a very long internship in the Violence Against Women department at the Ministry of Women, where dozens of state lawyers and psychologists support abused women, free of charge. Technically, the bulk of my experience there was visiting rural offices and writing reports about them but mainly I just gawked at this team 8am-4pm, everyday. It was massively inspiring to watch a superb team of lawyers and psychologists sit around every morning, little cups of coffee in hand, analysing cases and using the (still deficient) law to help women and their families.
It was devastating every time a grandmother and her grandchildren, or a lone father, would come through the door. It meant the woman had already been murdered and they were seeking "justice" on her behalf. I spent a lot of time crying in the bathroom stalls of that Ministry but I wouldn't trade that education for anything else.
I decided I needed to learn more about this Women's Studies business.
My parents’ advice paid off and I made a conscious decision to get myself into the most challenging program I could find. Whichever disrupted my ideas the most and would be most diametrically opposed to me politically. Theoretically speaking (with room for problematising), if I subscribe myself to a radical or socialist feminist perspective, then it was obvious that I needed to study on a liberal or postmodernist programme… because, as my dad had said to me, that would teach me how to think. I needed to understand whatever ideas bothered me the most inside out and I needed to understand how people get drawn to these perspectives.
After obtaining a Graduate Teaching Assistantship, which would cover my tuition, I set off to the mecca of liberal feminism: Oregon, USA. If Utah was the beauty pageant state, then these were the granola people.
To my own surprise at the time, I loved that Women, Gender and Sexuality Master's Degree programme. The people were warm and caring. The state is full of luscious mountains for hiking: you could see all four seasons without finding yourself buried in snow!
My problem, if we can call it that, was that just like during my undergrad and my high school experience prior to that, I didn't fit in with my cohort. We were generally cordial and professional to each other but it became clear that we had different points of views on our scholarly field. They found postmodernist ideas fascinating and liberating, I found them superficial and incoherent.
They would say that my arguments represented an archaic feminism which had to give way to exciting new interpretations of gender. I would say that the 'gender revolution' was enabling groupthink to develop in the field and would delegitimise it, undermining feminism sooner or later.
This was years before I set my eyes on public policy or legislation. Back then, I was interested in putting together a puzzle: the unravelling of Women's Studies and the takeover of a more generic sub-field, in the form of Gender Studies.
My peers were particularly unimpressed when I'd sabotage their insurgency plans, informed by these questionable postmodern theories, against the department. We had the option of taking the same classes, as they were listed in the syllabus, or taking electives as we pleased. Whereas all my cohort would try to take most classes together and within our field, I felt exhilarated by the opportunity to branch out. I'd take Public Opinion classes with the Political Science department and Leadership classes with the Business department. I'd choose Moral Philosophy in the Philosophy department and try to audit Social Movements with the Sociology people. I made friends in the Zoology department who let me hang out with their snakes and little anemones. And I’d throw futbol and modern dance classes in the mix, just for the kick of it. I thought the University was insane for letting us take all these classes, because it's so different from the Dominican system of higher education.
Postmodernism would argue that all these departments are deeply problematic and rooted in oppression, being founded by western, white man and all. Although, I admit that troubled histories need problematising, I found the idea that only through the enactment of Queer Theory can people, fields and institutions become fully liberated from their oppressive roots, jarring. If you think about it, these ideas are not dissimilar from the way a cult or a religion operates. Which is why in classes, I would always listen respectfully and challenge occasionally, but deep down, I never bought it and everyone could tell.
There is a problem in my academic field and we're not allowed to name the problem. Polite disagreement on scholarly issues, a staple of academia, is not sufficiently repentant. Could it be that this climate of abuse, threats and intimidation has been allowed to fester because Women's and Gender Studies centres women and is overwhelmingly composed of female professors and students? Like when neighbours say: "oh, it's just a domestic" because the person being beaten is a woman or how the first to identify paedophiles are usually older women but nobody listens because the concerns were coming from "just the women".
Could it be that universities across the world have allowed this issue to become unhinged because the people mostly affected are women?
When you work in the study of men’s violence and abuse against women, you realise early on that perpetrators don't have to ship women off to huts to send the message that there will be hell to pay if they step out of line. To become normalised, abusers just have to make an example of selected few to instill coercive control on the rest of the women, through self-censorship, censorship, intimidation and fear of violence. This is what's happening in Women and Gender Studies: professors and students having to whisper and bond over how afraid the are "to speak out" about a subject within their own academic field, in which they are the experts.
As expected, there were moments when my little Machiavellian wish of going to the epicenter of the school of thought that would intellectually challenge me the most turned out to be painful. Oftentimes, a classmate would say things like "I'm interested in researching why there aren't more potrayals of fisting in feminist porn" and the class you react as if this was the next frontier of women's human rights. Meanwhile, when I would say I wanted to explore the link between prostitution and human trafficking across legal frameworks, they'd look at me as if I was setting the movement back by 50 years. Several times, I was told "we're just so tired of talking about violence, we'd rather focus on empowerment." The fact that these conversations were happening in a Women's Studies department was maddening and I sometimes felt like my sense of reality was being destabilised.
While in Oregon, I joined an activist student group mainly concerned with tuition tees and institutional racism. My contribution to the group was not related to feminism but to the abolition of the death penalty. I was already a campaigner on this issue and as a member of this student group, I felt immensely proud of organising a panel with leading lights of the Oregon abolitionist movement on campus.
Before I graduated, I was with my activist student group protesting a meeting of the University Board of Trustees. They were there to officialise new degrees, we were there to protest the raises they've recently given to the senior team at a time when so many students were struggling with their already stratospheric tuition fees. Before the meeting started, they told us we would be welcomed to come in as long as we remained polite. About 15 of us stood around the room, protest signs and all, while the meeting took place. We were unmasked, peaceful and quite proud of what we were doing. The Board of Trustees set up a list of speakers and asked however many of us wanted to address the room and explain our demands. Afterwards, we hung around outside the meeting room, drinking orange juice and exchanging contact details… which was wonderful PR on the University’s part!
I didn't know this would be part of the agenda but towards the end of the meeting, the Board of Trustees said they would deliberate on whether my programme could become a PhD programme, as well as a Bachelors and a Masters Degree. Unanimously, they all voted ‘yes’ and I felt a beam of pride light up my chest, knowing that this was a result of over 30 years of struggle by women like my supervisor and so many others.
Afterwards I ran to her office as I always did, not knowing if she would be there, burst through her open door and said what I'd always said: "Oh my god. Are you busy right now? I have to tell you something. Guess what?!" She would always look at me with the same puzzled look that all my academic supervisors have displayed when I showed up "to say hi".
A Bright Future
The professors at my Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies department encouraged me to apply for the PhD. They argued that throughout my time in Oregon, I had hit every requirement out of the park, including a thesis defense, which was accepted without revisions, and a final year in which I was teaching my own classes. The emphasis of this PhD, they had decided, would be the concept of 'public scholarship', which demanded that our work must go beyond academia and reach out to our communities. As I’d been a campaigner, a writer, a volunteer and student activist during the two years I did my MA program, they assured me that I met those requirements too.
They would accept four PhD students: two who were a part of our MA programme and two who were external. It was a competitive programme but I am a competitive student, so I liked my chances.
I started to get excited about the prospect of doing a PhD. You don't really need one to be a lawyer (or a rhythmic gymnast, either) so this all felt very new to me and I felt grateful that so many of my professors saw my potential.
Most of all, I felt excited about being able to teach my own classes for four years, which would be included in the PhD offer. The teaching bug had bitten me and I’d fallen madly in love with giving classes. I got to assist a Professor in three of their classes and later on, I got to teach three more which I developed on my own. My classes were an 'Introduction to Women's Studies' and 'Women's Rights Activism' for undergraduate students.
During my 'Women's Rights Activism' class, we'd start with an exercise asking around what students thought when they’d hear of feminist activism. "Marches. Massive marches on the street", they would respond. During those 10 weeks, I taught them how to think of activism as something more tangible, less daunting, that they could do. They got to decide little projects they could do each week, relating to a women's rights topic they cared about. Soon enough, the initial hesitation of "Oh no, I can't possibly be an activist" would be replaced with "Oh my god, I wrote to my congresswoman this week" or "I did that two weeks ago. This week I teamed up with Jane and we did a bake sale outside the gym to raise money for the rape crisis centre."
It is impossible to describe what it felt like to enter a classroom where I would be teaching. An electric buzz would surround it all. Crucially, I felt the same way when I started doing shifts as a shelter advocate. A voice in my head said: "This is what I am meant to be doing with my life."
Perhaps it was inappropriate for my professors to have encouraged me so much about the PhD programme. We had even started talking about what I could teach when I came back - but it wasn’t to be. For whatever reason, the Application Process that year had landed in the hands of a particular professor: the director of the Queer Theory minor. He, a male who occasionally identifies as a woman, decided to change the rules of the application at the last minute. Instead of two PhD positions for students in the MA program, there would only be one. And he awarded the position to the student whose MA he had been supervising; a trans man who had already started a PhD programme somewhere else but had decided to come back. Although a brilliant young scholar, he had none of the 'public scholarship' qualifications the PhD was supposed to be based on. His MA thesis, heavily focused on Queer Theory, was an autobiography… written at 26.
Forgive me if I come across as bitter. I'm still a little raw about it.
That was a blow I had not seen coming. Like someone had hit me in the belly with a bat. The exact same reaction I feel when I now open emails from the University of Bristol. But I can see now how important this moment was.
I felt destabilised but crucially, having internalised what my parents had taught me while I was studying in Utah, I felt a childish naivete. Like this was a betrayal of everything I had learnt. "Why can't we both have a place? Why couldn't two students with different opinions co-exist, politely and professionally, as we had for the duration of our Master's Degree programme?" Academically, I was a strong voice for Women's Studies within the department. The other candidate was an equally strong voice for Queer Theory. I went above and beyond everything that was expected of me and a white, U.S. man had shut me out of a Women's Studies program where I excelled. Instead, he favoured a protegee who wants to be a man.
Even though I had zero problem studying and teaching my ideas alongside his (as a matter of fact, I personally liked them both a lot), this feeling was not reciprocated by the male decision-maker and his student. It was me who had to be shown the way out; there could only be one.
During my time studying and teaching, I had noticed that Queer Theory classes drew huge interest, whereas boring old Women's Studies sometimes had to scramble to fill attendance requirements. You had to borrow chairs from other classrooms to fit all the students into these exciting new classes.
Taking aside the novelty factor, postmodernism offers students an immediate sense of empowerment and liberation that feminism never will. In women’s rights, you know that you will die and, at best, you will contribute a tiny bit to the cause. Whereas those students packing Queer Theory classrooms where hearing a gospel that promised them the system could be transformed through language and performance. "Something is happening in my academic field", I would say to myself but I had yet to piece the puzzle together.
A Brighter Future
I'm all grown up now. My life's in limbo at the moment but, one day, I may want to be a university professor, like my mum. Apart from being the best mum in the whole wide world, she is also the undisputed best professor ever. Don't fight me on this.
An unruly kid with unruly hair, I always managed to sit still for my mum’s classes. She teaches Pedagogy. The way it was explained to me when I was little was "she teaches people how to teach" so to this day, I use the exact same explanation. She'd take me with my sister when she didn't have anyone to look after us, so a lot of my memories growing up have been sitting in the back of my mum’s classrooms.
I loved watching her master her craft. To this day, everytime I'm back home, I like to go with her to class. She addresses her overwhelmingly female class not as "Student Last Name" but by calling them all "Teacher Last Name". She says she does it because this is the role they are training for and you can tell her students feel encouraged and incentivised by the mark of respect. Academically, my mum sets a high bar for her class so she is strict and a bit scary, but somehow her students leave the class with an affection for her.
I know we're a tiny island but I swear, I can't go out with my mum without her bumping into one of her students and witnessing a hugfest!
My mum has been with me throughout this whole process, always supportive and encouraging me. She shares the despair and frustration with me so I feel like half of this heavy load has been with her on our Caribbean island. Today, when I dwell on what's happening in my life, my mum always repeats with bitterness: "I respect what they did to you in Oregon because at least they saw you were good and they let you finish. In Bristol, they didn't even let you start."
These conversations feel a thousand years apart from that moment almost two years ago when I was about to leave to start a PhD with the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol.
When I found the Centre, it felt like the end of a painful chapter and the start of something beautiful, brand new and meant for me. I printed the Admissions letter and pasted it in my room. I'd downloaded it to look at it on my phone. Once here, I'd walk past Wills Memorial and I couldn't believe that this was my life. One of the very kind assistants told me I could get cards that said my name on it so I could put them in my wallet and network. I wasn't handing them out to many people but I felt giddy looking at them. They would fill me with an intense feeling, which is quite different from the feeling that occupies that space now.
It is also very different from what I felt when I was about to come to England. As an immigrant, to enter the country I had to get vaccinated, and I remember sitting with my mum, in the waiting room of this clinic, waiting to hear my name so we could go in. I was filled with a mix of adrenaline and anxiety… not about the shot, but about the trip.
Everything felt like a rush, so I put my head on my mum's shoulder and we held hands. I closed my eyes and felt like, through her hand, my mum was passing on to me all the well wishes and expectations of my whole family, past and present. And that I would be carrying them with me within my heart. "Raquel is very smart. We're so excited she is going to England, to do a PhD. Isn't that amazing? She is going to get a proper education", all my family would say, beaming with pride.
And I did.