Valentina (left) had dessert with her mother Marisella (right). Photo by Scott Ball.
Valentina (left) shares dessert with her mother Marisela (right) at Luby's. Photo by Scott Ball.

I lost my home, but I found my conciencia in graduate school.

I am a single parent. College educated. I could not keep up with the falling roof, fallen trees, tall grass, broken AC, cockroaches, clogged drains, and ghosts. Lots of ghosts. After six years of patchwork home repairs and chingos of spiritual limpias at that ranch-style home in Northwest San Antonio, I became a statistic in the U.S. mortgage crisis that overcame the country a few years ago.

I lost my home.

The loss impacted my work, my relationships, and my dreams for the future. My daughter, an 11-year-old with a financial plan, wants to buy back the home after she finishes graduate school. Que linda, and so smart. Like so many of our neighbors across San Antonio and beyond, I live paycheck to paycheck and have inadequate insurance, even though I look like I don’t. Artists, in particular, can pull this off very well.

I decided to go to graduate school and rediscover my chingona onda.

Valentina at Our Lady of the Lake University's library.  Photo by Marisela Barerra.
Valentina at Our Lady of the Lake University’s library. Photo by Marisela Barrera.

I found it by redefining my own American Dream. Home is where I choose to wash my own chones. The American Dream – a husband, 2.5 kids, and a suburban home– has always stabbed my conciencia as a generalization I do not relate to. As such, my theater work – my primary career focus for the past 18 years – frequently questions U.S. conventions. I am a theater maker who has consistently investigated the Other onstage.

Over the past two years of graduate school, I have transformed my theater work into writing short stories and creative nonfiction, then using my own writing as source material for performative texts. An example of this approach is my recent staging of three original short stories: Cuero, La Ruby Red, y El Big Bird.

Losing my home was like a choque, a crash, a traumatic event. I was split, but my pursuit of a graduate degree has made me whole again.

I am entering my third and final year in Our Lady of the Lake University‘s MA/MFA program in creative writing, literature, and social justice. This is my second year as a graduate fellow. I teach Millennials how to write complete sentences; I also encourage them to write from their gut. It is important to teach these young people, most first generation college students from the South Texas region, that their voice is not only valid, it is necessary.

OLLU’s MA/MFA program is special, not just for San Antonio, but globally. It is one of only a handful of writing for social justice programs in the Americas. And it is right here en el mero hueso – San Antonio’s Westside.

Social justice is radical hospitality towards our neighbors. I study it. Breath it and perform it. Our classwork is a balance of scholarship and creative writing viewed through the lens of conciencia. In preparation for my creative thesis, the reading list includes Anzaldúa, Borges, Chekhov, Castillo, Poniatowska and many others who have been on my “to read” list for years.

My professors include Nan Cuba, novelist and founder of Gemini Ink, and Yvette Benavides, radio commentator, book critic, and writer. Class visitors have included Denise Chavez, Ellen Meeropol, Joan Cheever, and Robert Rivard.

Rivard entered our creative nonfiction workshop, led by Benavides, with a stack of books and an encouraging ear. I was already an avid Rivard Report reader, so I was anxious to hear what he had to say. Rivard read briefly from his book, Trail of Feathers, then turned his attention to the class: “Come write for the Rivard Report,” he said. “You have a platform in San Antonio. We need your voice. I want to hear what you have to say.”

One of my nonfiction stories was up for workshop the night Rivard joined us in the classroom. A creative writing workshop typically consists of a writer reading an excerpt out loud, followed by a critique by participants who are familiar with the work. My true story was about my car breaking down in downtown San Antonio. But really, it was about the untold stories from local everyday heroes. Downtown Breakdown became my first essay published in the Rivard Report.

I will write more stories about local everyday heroes as part of my field study work with the Rivard Report this summer. The graduate field study is a required component of OLLU’s MA/MFA program; the aim is to connect students to community writing opportunities through the work of a local nonprofit organization.

I am particularly interested in capturing stories of gente who are the soul of San Antonio. Gente whose stories have had historical exclusion from mainstream media. Look out for this series of buena gente over the coming weeks. I hope readers consider the power of conciencia and radical hospitality.

Top image: Valentina (left) shares dessert with her mother Marisela at Luby’s.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Marisela Barrera is a Chicana creating Tex-Mex stories on stage and in print. She has a BFA in acting from Southern Methodist University and MA/MFA degrees from in creative writing, literature, and social...