On Finding the Courage to Use my Voiceby Tony Diaz on 06/26/14
Finding the Courage to Use my Voice
When I found my very young self confronting some rather difficult childhood issues, reading and writing became my refuge. I really cannot remember a time I was not lugging books around and filling notebooks with my thoughts. That voice, the writer’s voice, came early and carried me across the decades. Reading and sharing my work aloud, however, was an entirely different matter. Although I did pursue an undergraduate degree in writing, I really did not plan to do much else but write-perhaps amass notebooks to fill closets and collect folded stacks of dot matrix printed poems, without or without the side edges. It was the late 1990s after all and my dot matrix still worked. My writing would have remained put away if not for teachers, professors, and friends that pushed me to do something, anything with my poems and stories.
One professor in particular, Dr. Maria González at the University of Houston pushed me the furthest. For those who know me now, it might be difficult to imagine that I used to have an extremely debilitating fear of public speaking. Maria believed in my writing, more than I did, and found a way to help me face this fear, one she had witnessed. She handed me a flier for the next Nuestra Palabra event, the third I believe, scheduled for June 1998, and told me she would not give me my final grade, for the absolute last class I needed to finally complete my B.A. that Summer unless I read at Nuestra Palabra. Extra credit is how we would refer to it. “Extortion” is how I remember it. I strongly considered calling her on her bluff, but then thought it might be time to get over this fear. She called Tony Diaz as soon as I agreed. In the days that followed I hoped that Tony would forget about me and Maria’s request. But then I received a call from Alvaro Saar Rios who was completing the line-up and I knew that short of a typical Houston monsoon, which I prayed for, there would be no getting out of it.
I remember clearly how my legs trembled and my hands shook especially when I realized how packed the restaurant was that night. When my name was called, I took a deep breath and forced myself to push the words out. Nuestra Palabra is not where I found my voice it was where I found the courage to use it. Tony provided a stage for us and a safe environment for many Chicana/os and Latina/os to find, cultivate, and learn to use their writing in very transformative ways. This was important to my writing since I tend to tackle issues most would rather forget. Lasting connections, friendships, and collaborations were forged that night and in the many years that followed. Perhaps none of us imagined then all that would come from NP, the readings, the radio show, and the activism. None of us are surprised. NP was and remains a significant force on of behalf our literary community mainly due to Tony’s vision and the many volunteers who have worked to bring it forth. I remain in awe of the work NP has done and in how we have all developed our own lives as writers, artists, and activists. Challengers to Mexican American Studies do not have a chance.
That night my life was changed dramatically. More readings and even publications followed. Including my first book of poetry published in 2000. Pushing myself on stage, even gave me the courage at that time to take on the job of the schools’ educator at the Houston Area Women’s Center that included giving speeches on domestic violence and sexual assault often to large audiences. Whenever I feel my courage falter I think back on that moment, how difficult it was for me to step on that stage, and it helps me take on whatever I feel is the next challenge. It has certainly helped me as I complete a doctorate in Borderlands History at the University of Texas at El Paso, almost an entirely new field for me that required a different way of thinking and writing. It is also what propelled me to finally complete my third collection of poetry Descent (Mouthfeel Press), which will be out this coming fall. Whenever I feel my courage falter I think of Tony who took a chance on a political Chicana poet, and all who have since. Whenever I feel my courage falter, I remember all the friends who came with me, Maria included, and everyone who became my friend after. I am not alone. Our literary family has expanded. Whenever I feel my courage falter, I take a deep breath, steady my hands, and step out on stage.
Carolina Monsiváis is the author of Somewhere Between Houston and El Paso and Elisa’s Hunger. Her work is anthologized in Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry, Literary El Paso, A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, and U.S. Latino Literature Today. A dedicated advocate/activist in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault, she has worked with survivors in Texas, New Mexico and Juárez. She earned degrees from the University of Houston (B.A) and New Mexico State University (M.F.A.). Monsiváis has taught Literature and Creative Writing at New Mexico State University and at El Paso Community College. She is currently in the Doctoral program in Borderlands History at the University of Texas at El Paso, located in her hometown where she is raising her son.