Arts Memory and history 

At Latina Letters, the past, present, and future converge

"The same story becomes a different story," Sandra Cisneros writes in her novel Caramelo, "depending on who is telling it." During last weekend's Latina Letters Conference at St. Mary's University, participants and presenters shared stories with similar themes about memory and recovery, gender and sexuality, place and space, themselves and their communities.

"I wanted to return to the community from which I was a part of," Carolina Monsivais explained, speaking as part of a panel on Latina autobiography. Poet, academic, and El Paso native, she discussed how writing, particularly Latina literature, can recover memory and history, however messy they may be. "You can't just bring me; I come with my community," added Irma Mayorga, literary program manager of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. "That's where the literature emerges."

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Unlike many academic conferences that are solely university-run, Latina Letters reflects a community philosophy. The Guadalupe has collaborated with St. Mary's University in organizing panels and recruiting feature readers. Furthermore, feature readers such as Lorna Dee Cervantes, associate professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of such poetry collections as From the Cables of Genocide and Alicia Gaspar de Alba, an associate professor of Chicana and Chicano studies and English at University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Desert Blood, a mystery about the Juárez murders, hold mera mera positions in the ivory tower but are also activists who use their positions as writers and researchers to raise awareness, create consciousness, and demand justice.

"It is important to bring these ideas to everyone," says Gwendolyn Díaz, conference director and professor of literature at St. Mary's. "The cross-pollination bridges intellectuals with everyday life."

Since the publication 25 years ago of Cisneros' The House on Mango Street - acknowledged by everyone involved with the conference as the book that opened the door for Latina literature - Latina Letters remains, Mayorga said, a nexus of critical analysis about a still-emerging artform. In contrast to the hype about Latinos being the majority-minority and the implication that this has lead to educational and economic equality, Mayorga notes that than only 10 percent of Latinas receive a college degree. "We don't see ourselves in the academy," she said.

Conferences such as Latina Letters play an essential role toward remedying this absence by encouraging scholars and students to network and exchange emerging research while providing a place for cross-generational conversations to happen. June Pedraza, assistant coordinator of Latina Letters, said that young Latinas face "a very big disconnect" with Movimiento-era Chicanas and Latinas who came of age during the 1960s and '70s. Yet, at these conferences, today's students can hear their stories of challenging the barriers that blocked their access to the university.

When Latina Letters began, it was an anomaly. Now there's a body of scholarly publications that have grown exponentially in tandem with the literary and creative work. The old guard of academic conferences has started to recognize Latina literature as a topic worth addressing. This doesn't mean that Latina Letters has outgrown its usefulness. Instead, as Mayorga said, looking toward the next 10 years, the Latina Letters conference needs to continue to grow, "because as our population becomes bigger we get bigger problems."

By Alejandro Pérez



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