From LAUSD to Academia Always A Writer And Artist

Arts and Media June 2021 PREMIUM
Written by Eddy Francisco Alvarez Jr., PhD Assistant Professor, Chicana and Chicano Studies California State University, Fullerton

As part of my research presentation at the 2020 AHHEE conference I shared a poem I wrote based on my research and life experiences. I was grateful to be in a space that supported and celebrated my interdisciplinary scholarly and creative work. During the presentation, which was well-received by my colleagues, feeling able to share was important to me, given that academia can be very compartmentalizing. In academia, scholarly and creative work are often perceived as mutually exclusive. Chicana and women of color feminisms, and my training in Chicanx Studies and Jotería Studies, have shown me that I do not have to splinter the artist and scholar within me.   I was fortunate that in graduate school, I was able to not only incorporate the arts as part of my research and areas of study, but also engage in it as a personal practice. I sought out performance avenues at UCSB, which helped me not only to enrich my soul and to navigate graduate school but also textured my ways of knowing and what I considered as valid forms of knowledge and knowledge-making. Before even thinking about these epistemological connections, in the mid-1990s, I was reading angsty poems at open mic nights in cafés across Los Angeles like Espresso Mi Cultura in Hollywood, or at Flor y canto events at CSUN where I went to college. The rush of reciting a poem was terrifying but also so energizing. At that time, I never thought I would be sharing poems in academic settings, let alone publish any in journals as I’ve had the opportunity to do.

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Tracing My Path

I trace my path as a creative writer and scholar back to my queer childhood, always eager to learn and interested in things glittery and nerdy from an early age. As early as second grade, I was drawing fashion designs and showing them to my mom, whose approval encouraged my imagination even further. I loved music class and auditioned for choir, always excited for holiday recitals, which my immigrant parents from Cuba and Mexico never missed, cheering me on from the front row if possible. My love and dedication to writing started early, too, first with my grandfather teaching me cursive, showing me how to stay within the lines and the differences between the curly tails of a “q” versus the dangling loop of a “g.” In third grade, I competed in what was then the LAUSD Young Author’s Program, a writing competition in which we got to write original works, illustrations and do our own bookbinding. I was lucky enough to win the contest two years in a row (1988 and 1989), first for a fairy tale and a short storybook. Writing was a way for me to grapple with all the stuff going on at home, with my father’s severely unstable mental health, and to explore alternate worlds through creativity. The program allowed kids like me to be writers and use creativity as a tool for learning and creating new knowledge. Recognizing the privilege I had to access arts education opportunities, it is also true that for many students arts education has been slashed or truncated by No Child Left Behind policies, standardized testing, budget cuts, and most recently by the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time I was a teacher at one of the same schools I had attended as a child, arts and performance opportunities were dwindling for students. Focusing on teaching to standardized tests was sucking the creativity out of us—teachers and students.

In middle school, I took theatre as an elective almost every semester. Although I was often one of the only Latinos in the class, I loved being around other “drama” kids, weirdos, and creative people. Encouraged by my teacher, a petite short-haired blond woman, I auditioned for the musical “Anything Goes” by Cole Porter. This was an exciting opportunity that required many, many hours of rehearsal. Despite having a minor role, being part of the cast showed me how much I loved performing and working collectively with other creative people. Feeling applause after the finale on our last night is unforgettable. Awkward experiences of middle school aside, being part of this musical helped shape me.

Seeking Arts-Based Experiences

These are only a few of the arts-based experiences I had in my K-12 schooling, but upon reflection for this essay, I realize they have been instrumental in my life as a writer, artist, and a queer Latinx person. If my public school had not offered these opportunities, I would not have had the resources through other avenues. I also share these stories because my journey as a storyteller, collector, and creator of knowledge did not begin in graduate school. The feeling of connectedness, experimentation, self-expression, and joy that I experienced as a child, I sought again in college when as a Spanish major, I became the editor for the online literary journal InVerso at CSUN, and organized tertulias - literary gatherings where my classmates, professors, and community members shared poetry, music and stories, and where we danced! In graduate school I channeled my baby queer creativity as part of a collective called WORD, Women of Color Revolutionary Dialogues, and later in Yolotl de Papalotl, a queer men of color writing collective, and through my short involvement as a singer in the UCSB Mariachi. As I tell my students today, I believe my research interests and training, as well as the blurring of disciplines, started way back when I was a kid, when I used writing and creative expression as ways to understand myself, know the world, belong and make connections with other people. Unbeknown to myself, I was carving the path to my scholar-activist-artist life.

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