Mujeres Talk: My Experience with Institutional Violence

From Used with permission.
From Used with permission.

When I applied for admission to the doctoral program of the Department of Drama at Stanford University ten years ago, I included a clearly written statement about my politics as a self-identified working class Xicana lesbian theatre artist. (I also had stated as much in my application to the UCLA MFA in Directing. I cite UCLA because institutional violence is endemic and I had experienced a similar situation there three years prior to attending Stanford.) It mattered to me to acknowledge what kind of graduate student the department might be accepting, because my artistic/ intellectual/ activist pursuits root themselves in this self-same Xicana body.

For two years—while I successfully completed required courses in the department and maintained a 4.0 G.P.A.—I was mentored by Cherríe Moraga which resulted in my exposure to a rich and emerging area of study: Xicana-Indigeneity. Under Moraga’s guidance I examined assumptive notions around hybridity, nation, mestizaje, Native American diaspora, and performance. But much transpired, including my mother’s death, before I found myself sitting in a Shakespearean class I took to appease my department. For the first time my GPA dropped down to a 3.9 (gasp!), because I was contending with real life issues, including the antagonisms Moraga and I were facing. We might have thought ourselves “crazy,” if she hadn’t confirmed our suspicions with the Chair at the time.  She asked him point-blank if colleagues in the Department were talking about us.

To make a long story short, eventually I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life and wrote a twenty-page letter documenting my choice to leave Stanford. Here is an amended excerpt:

“On the afternoon of Oct. 5, 2005, the administrator of the department informed me about an upcoming meeting with the Graduate Studies Committee (GSC) in which we would discuss the deadline for completing the last two of my second year exams. To my shock this administrator nonchalantly relayed the GSC’s concern around my mentorship with Moraga. Holding a copy of my transcript in hand, it was stated I should discontinue taking courses with her. My classes with Moraga were framed as something negative on my transcript, a characterization to which I object. To be fair, the administrator did say I could continue to have a mentorship with her on my own free time. Underlying this dismissive statement comes the mandate most students of color deal with perennially when working within the confines of historically Eurocentric departments like Drama or Literature.  

To achieve what we need, we are expected to work double-time, over-extend ourselves, and create “unofficial” relationships with mentors of color. If I had known such objections would be made to working with Moraga, I would not have applied to the Department of Drama. In hindsight, I realize now I might have been better off in a department where my ethnic identity and the interests related to this identity would not be viewed as a hindrance to my scholarship, but rather valued as a part of what I bring to these studies.

While I was taken aback by the administrator’s message from the GSC, it made perfect sense in light of the blatant antagonism and tactical aggression displayed toward Moraga and me during the 2005 Spring quarter when we co-directed the production of her play, The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea.  I could easily fill chapters with issues ranging from the historical lack of access to means of production; to willful ignorance and insensitivity toward Xicana-Indígena aesthetics; to the paternalistic, patronizing, “tactless” patterns of whiteness in academia. Suffice it to say the resentment towards us during and after this process—because we confronted the department on these very real issues—was palpable. Moraga and I were perceived as threats to the department. This is why I believe my mentorship with her was attacked. What else to call it?

For all intended purposes, the GSC (on some level) acted out of a genuine interest in my growth as an emergent scholar. It was not always awful at Stanford, or I would have left much sooner. On the contrary, most members of the GSC are very kind and polite. Yet the unexamined politics and the sheer resistance to hearing us respectfully as Xicanas, obscures fundamental change and paradigmatic shift away from the privileging of Eurocentric scholarship and methodologies. It means going beyond niceties.

What makes all of this writing complex, aside from the themes already touched upon, is the fact that the department did accept a working class Xicana lesbian, which implies the following: You cannot separate me from my personal and communal struggles. Unlike other kinds of students, I do not have the privilege to study race/ethnicity and perhaps, someday, theorize it away. I don’t have that choice (unless I turn my back on the people I love). I live the effects of discrimination. My family does, too. And so do my overwhelmingly disenfranchised communities. So, yes, while I can enjoy the linguistic Olympics of theorists such as Blau, Frye, Barthes, etc., when it comes to my own intellectual pursuits—I’m looking for a theory, an ideological position—that saves my life. My family’s life.  And that of my communities.

For now, I refuse to put my Xicana body in such an embattled position. I refuse to be one more Xicana who has to suffer the racism and eurocentrism of any department of higher education. The costs are too high. I choose to walk away, and in this act of agency and this letter, put the responsibility back onto a department that advertises diversity.”

When I am asked, “What happened at Stanford?” this letter, either in its entirety or amended, is always part of my response. I made the grave mistake of assuming it would be different at Stanford University, precisely because they house Moraga as an artist-in-residence. During my time there I witnessed many interactions that demonstrated lack of respect for Moraga’s academic contributions. Often as students we assume that the one person of color supporting us in our departments can come to our rescue. Often we learn they are trying to survive the institutional violence lobbied at them, especially if they are truly the only person of color, mujer and/or queer there. If they do not have tenure, they risk everything—which puts both of you on precarious ground. This is part of the power of institutions and those who benefit from it.

Ironically, almost two years ago, I felt it was time to return; not to Stanford, but somewhere where I could pursue my academic leanings. Every department has its issues, but this time around I researched interdisciplinary departments with diverse faculty of color, womyn and queers. But if in 2003 the best thing Moraga did was recruit me to Stanford, the second best thing she did in 2011 was to passionately dissuade me from returning to the academy. I do not write this to invalidate the value of a higher education or the sheer tenacity and survivorhood of my academic comadres. I too was first taken aback by Moraga’s position. But I understood it.

     Please keep making art.  I’m afraid we will lose you.

I knew what she was afraid of—that I would be academically “trained” away from my artist voice. Ultimately, the decision was mine to make. After much pondering, I realized returning to the academy was related to my desire to teach there. Yet teaching at the university level, if it ever presented itself, would have to come into my life because I honored the art first. I don’t elude myself since my own academic friends of color are hard-pressed to find jobs within the academy, let alone tenure track positions.

Institutional violence will try to take away your mind, your spirit, your body… your artistic voice. I do have my art. It’s something UCLA or Stanford could never take or claim as theirs, because it is my Xicana lesbian arte. If it makes one academic comadre or student feel less crazy, then I have done my job to help heal what institutions and their players inflict upon us. Yes, we are “angry” mujeres, pero locas… no creo yo.

Adelina Anthony is an award winning queer Xicana lesbian multi-genre cultural activist, teacher, artist, director and producer. Her work addresses colonization, feminism, trauma, ancestral memory, gender, health, race & ethnicity, immigration, sexuality, land & environment, institutional violence and issues generally affecting the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/two-spirited communities. She is the creator of La Angry Xicana?! which is part of her triptych La Hocicona Series.

1 thought on “Mujeres Talk: My Experience with Institutional Violence”

  1. I’m not a working class Xicana but as a Chapina-Gringa jota I still identify so much. I have always been a seeker (and creator) of knowledge but was never a “good” student in the graduate school setting, so I thought I had no reason to complain because I should just be grateful for the opportunity (to loose my mind). I eventually made it through an MFA program, barely, by reaching outside to family, community and just continuing to do art in the most painful times. I am so grateful to those that fed me, loved me, played with me, rehearsed with me, reflected my truth back to me, read my work in the middle of the night, invited me to read and perform, and helped me in my darkest. I am no picture of perfection or superwoman, nor do I want to be. Mis respetos a la Adelina for continuing to do art and write her truth. Me inspira.

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