My Define American Fellowship has been a great experience. When I received the email that I had been selected for the 2020 cohort, I was unsure of how to take the good news amongst the many events that have unfolded this year. As the fellowship has gone on, I have slowly allowed myself to celebrate this accomplishment, mostly because I am so grateful for the people that I have met through it and because it has allowed me to focus on my work.
I wasn’t sure how the fellowship would work to have all the events virtually. Sometimes it is hard to feel a closeness with people only through the screen, but the program manager, the other great members of the Define American team, workshop speakers, and my peers have all been so wonderful that sometimes I forget we have not met in person. While I still hope we can gather in person in the future, having the fellowship framework during this particularly uncertain time, has helped to provide motivation and structure for my work and my life in general.
The most important aspect of my work was my community project — a workshop for undocumented high school students on how to tell their own stories and not to fall into the immigrant trauma trap. My idea for this workshop paired perfectly with the plans of Adelante, a nonprofit that provides educational and legal resources for undocumented students in rural and Upstate New York, to host a virtual summer camp for the students. I shared an essay with the students by Ross Gay, one of my favorite writers, so they could see what it sounds like to write about themselves in a way that includes joy. I also shared some poems with them so they could see how to write about themselves by using other people or places as conduits to tell their own story. The students enjoyed being introduced to new writers and poets and relished the chance to share part of their story — something they are not often asked explicitly.
I felt like the students learned a lot and I was happy to share with them my own experience growing up as an undocumented student in the U.S. A lot of them were looking forward to one day being able to apply for DACA, but that opportunity has not been open to them. I told to them about my own college experience and that when I went to college, DACA did not exist, but so many other undocumented students, like me, pursued their interests and passions. This experience made me want to speak with more students as I didn’t have many mentors in my own educational experience to learn from. I would not have taken this leap to design a high school student workshop if it had not been for the community collaboration focus of the fellowship.
This fellowship also encouraged me to take advantage of my creative momentum and to launch other projects, like my monthly Writers Talks through Latinx Writers Co. I had my first talk back in June and I have two coming up later this month. Besides having something else to add to my resume, I will take with me a lot of the knowledge that has been given to us through the workshops. I appreciate the care that has been placed in developing us into artists that know how to manage our careers. So often we want to live in a world where we can just “focus on the work,” but we don’t. The reality is that we have to put in a lot of effort to get our work out into the world and to the people. More than anything, Define American’s willingness and enthusiasm to invest in me and my work has been a great encouragement for how I need to continue to invest in myself.