A Letter to my “Academic Mama”

Dear Academic Mama,

I am here. I am still here. I said this today after thinking about how hard life has been after finishing the Ph.D. I emailed you to ask you for a letter of recommendation again today and remembered how many times for many years, I would come to your office for a meeting and how I wish you were here.

I came to you like many who walk through your door carrying more than books and my laptop. You reminded me that This Bridge Called My Back isn’t just a catchy title, but a lived reality. And I thought about how when I met you, you helped me set down my worries, my pain, and gave me a safe place as a Xicana in academia, a survivor, a single mama and so many things I was or became in the six years I spent with you in person.  Although you aren’t Xicana, I remembered how you felt familiar, how your voice was soothing even though it was in a faster Puerto Rican Spanish, I soon caught on just like with a lot of things I had to quickly learn. With your guidance, I found strength even when I was scared. What I remember the most though is how after five minutes sitting with you things became clearer. I would enter your office often on the verge of tears and I would leave feeling like I can do this. I really can do this and this feeling would last until the next time because there was always a next time I would be on the verge of dropping out or bursting into tears. You made me feel like I could do this every time.

And I did.

I remember how you would ask “how are you” every time I saw you since I met you in 2009 after sitting in your Women of Color in Academia class that saved me and many others. You would ask this question to all of us, you asked us something about ourselves that seems so common and basic, but it’s a question no one seems to care about asking or concerned with in a place where they teach you that the personal has no place in academia. But for us the personal is political, it is everything and it is the reason why we struggle so hard to be there to begin with. “Como estas?”  I thought about how I would respond each time and why I responded this way.

I am here.

As you know this became the first line of my dissertation and led to own testimonio in Chapter 1 about how I came to be in Seattle and studying at this place I never imagined I would be in. I know you remember because that last year before I finished my Ph.D. you made sure that no matter what the committee wanted to change or the ways in which they attempted to make me conform, that I stayed true to myself and my vision for my work. That even when they told me that they didn’t get “womens studies” or “testimonios” or when I didn’t use traditional academic language, you went in to fight for me and explained that as a student of Education, I was also a Woman of Color and a student in Feminist Studies and none of that could be separated from the work I did in the academy. You knew since I met you, because I said it all the time in my writing, I refuse to leave who I was outside the gates of the ivory tower and I still live by that belief even though it is a constant battle even now.

The work meant something more to me and it still does. As a Xicana and former community college student who was kicked out on academic probation, my research validated to myself that I am here. They are here. We are here. I made it to this place after everyone told me I couldn’t. After moving out of my parents home at 18 knowing I wouldn’t have their support in school, after getting kicked out of community college, after marriage and later after divorce so I could go to grad school, after deciding to move a couple states away to pursue this far-fetched dream I could get a Ph.D. when the numbers and people told me I couldn’t every single day.

You saw something in me and reminded me on the days I couldn’t see it in myself anymore. This hunger for a place to be safe where there is no safety-to create something new and stay rooted at the same time. I was reminded in this process of my own grandmother who told me in the first and only conversation I had alone with her after learning Spanish as an adult and two weeks before she passed, don’t forget where you come from and I promised her I never would. I didn’t.

You understood because you knew what it was like to leave home. I came to learn how your home was further. Your home is an island that can’t be forgotten no matter how far it is on a map. I see now how you created this new home for not only me, but many people who walked through the doors of your office, for the people who sat in your classroom because as Women of Color in academia we are often surrounded by turbulent seas and choppy waters and sharks that wish to do nothing but devour us. You protected though. You gave strength. You welcomed us home to your island. You built us up to believe in our own voice and words when so many diminish and silence us every single day. And as we sat in my favorite cafe a week after I successfully defended my dissertation and a couple days before I left town to move back to CA with my toddler son as a single mama, you said no goodbye, but you caught me off guard when you held my shoulders, looked at me and said “We built this ship strong and not to sink and Irene you will not sink” and you turned and left and walked out the door. I paused for what seemed like an hour, a little shocked by it.

I will not sink.

I will not sink. You made sure of that. So no matter how tough these times are now and turbulent these waters have been post Ph.D. (because they have been much more turbulent) I make sure I remember I can’t sink because I need to carry on the work as long as I am here. You are here. We are here. And there are other Women who need us to ask the important questions about why we are here that the academy wants us to forget.

Feliz Dia De Las Madres.


6 thoughts on “A Letter to my “Academic Mama”

  1. Thank you tears in my eyes so lost right in this world of a doctoral program. You made me want to rise mil gracias from a homegirl in Colorado.


  2. Wow, our stories and timeline so very similar. I’m going to send your piece to my own Academic Mama. Thanks for sharing!


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