Key Note Address - Maiz-Pena





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Inner Geographies and 'Meditations on the Brink': Gender, Proper Names, and Auto/Biographical Signatures

Magdalena Maiz-Peña

As the Latina poet Lucha Corpi states in her Palabras de mediodía/ Noon Words

The book in our hands
stays open
the world stops
not for us
but in what is ours
And for an instant everything turns back
to the first page
for a drop of ink... (Corpi)

a critical gaze,
and a critical passion,
to engage in dialogue with the other
and with others....

I have been devoted to Davidson College and to the high principles it represents for the past eleven years since I was an instructor to my present rank as an associate professor, finding the vigorous space to be a mother and a female scholar, an academic and a teacher, a mentor and an advisor, a listener and a counselor, an active learner in a community of learners, committed to high academic and personal standards, as well as an active volunteer in the Latino community in Charlotte, NC. As a recipient of a Graduate Academic Grant which allowed me to finish my Ph.D. coursework at Arizona State University while my husband started his first job at a liberal arts college in Atlanta, I experienced the possibility to pursue knowledge, to strive for excellence in teaching, and research, and to serve my Latino community as well. This academic award during my last year as a Ph.D. Graduate student to dedicate my entire time to study and to write made such a difference in my life which to this day reminds me forcefully that I do not have only the right, but also the responsibility to make a difference in the life of other women.

The fact that I am a Mexican woman, now a US citizen, born in a family of twelve, who has had the privilege of access to higher education, has taught me that I had to find ways to give back what has been given to me. I knew at that time, as I know now, that I had not done it on my own, that I am certainly a product of those unique individuals who took the time, who shared their knowledge, who cared beyond their teaching duties, who challenged me to explore discomfort zones, who made me confront unknown territories outside my own, and who contested my frames of reference forcing me to unsettle my own premises, and to search beyond familiar borderlines. I do strongly believe that I became an even more committed and passionate female professor as I became actively involved in women's issues, women's concerns, and women's rights, with the conviction that we can make, and that we should make a difference in the lives of other women as we collaborate, share, construct, and build communities to transform realities with integrity, determination, and dedication.

The American Association of University Women Educational Foundation by awarding to me the research fellowship for my project "Gender, Proper Names, and Mexican Auto/Biographical Signatures 1920-1950," to do research at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin this semester, reaffirms once more the implications that such a privilege has for me. This AAUW fellowship has led me to rename, resignify, and to rewrite a research project passionatly constructed throughout the years of teaching in bits and pieces, and has deeply impacted me at the personal level "to return to myself", as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said in his own words:

One returns to the self as if to an old house
with nails and slots, so that
a person tired of himself, [herself]
like a suit full of holes
tries to walk nude in the rain
tries to take a dip in pure water
in elemental wind
and can not
return to the well of oneself. (Pablo Neruda)

The AAUW Educational Foundation fellowship has certainly committed itself to an act of faith, and to the reaffirmation of a vocation, faith in the defense of a woman's right to teach, to learn, to study, and to write, reaffirmation of the significance and meaning of an intellectual vocation to be translated into the form of social commitment, and into a struggle for equality for women in education. In 1691, A Mexican creole nun, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz beseiged by a church hierarchy demanding that she renounced her worldly writing, composed the "Respuesta a Sor Filotea" ("Response to Sor Filotea"), the first document in our hemisphere to defend a woman's right to teach, to study, and to write as Margaret Sayers Peden has stated; through your fellowship program, you certainly honor her call, you certainly reaffirm her statement, you certainly struggle for the same principles and the same women's rights.

The project "Gender, Proper Names, and Mexican Auto/Biographical Signatures 1920 1950," has inspired me to examine the lives and works of an exceptional group of women from the 20s and 30s, including Frida Kahlo, Tina Modotti, Maria Izquierdo, Antonieta Rivas Mercado, Nahui Olin, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Lupe Marin, and Anita Brenner, who coincided in Mexico City. Extraordinary women, who as the cultural critic Carlos Monsivais has said, shared two spaces of freedom: one which was the demographic volume of the metropolis, the second one, an extraordinary cultural environment, cultural territories where women were able to position themselves in alternative sites from which they were able to formulate another way of being, another way of being a Mexican Woman able to dismantle the chains of tradition by exploring new attitudes, behavior, aesthetic trends, literary, and artistic means of creativity beyond tradition, and beyond prescription. The 1910 Revolution itself also contributed to the formation of this unique space bringing down the barriers of traditionalism, and creating a potential territory for this group of women to defend their right to free love, independent thought, untamed creativity, unlimited imagination, political radical commitment, freedom of movement, and even bisexuality.

The AAUW fellowship has allowed me to examine the authobiographical female subjects of my project, intersecting life-writing, a body of artwork, visual and written representation to understand the hegemonic dominant imaginary of the times, and the contesting cultural, political, and engendered propositions coming from this group of women to be different in Post Revolutionary Mexico. Reading, reflecting and relating their auto/biographical signatures has challenged me to re/frame their artistic visions as well, and to see through them Mexican realities well documented, as well as an engendered cultural activism which places them at the center of the cultural paradigm where change, originality, and experimentation originate.

I have also been able to capture the importance of the modern spirit of the times as these women integrated themselves into the public life of an emerging post-revolutionary Nation, in a country still marked by inequality, violence, and authoritarianism, formulating in their lives and in their artwork a new sensibility, and a new culture. During the tenure of this research fellowship at Davidson College during the Fall 2002, and at the Nettie Lee Benson Collection as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz' voice has ressonated within myself along with the voice of another mexican feminist writer and thinker, Rosario Castellanos, an intellectual who voiced loud and clear what you have made a reality for me during these past eight months, " I had forgotten my own space, and now, looking myself in the mirror, I have realized that it is with the other, humanity in dialogue, that poetry begins."

Thanks to the AAUW Educational Foundation, I have been able to hear again the sounds of silence, the voice of solitude and meditation, the whisper of the mistery of the power of the word in a blank page before writing a chapter, inner geographies not seen before.

As the mexican feminist writer from the 50s Rosario Castellanos expressed in her poetic composition entitled Meditation on the Brink:

"No, it's not a solution
to throw oneself under a train like Tolstoy's Anna
or gulp down Madame Bovary's arsenic
or await on the barren heights of Avila the visit
of an angel with a fiery dart
before binding one's veil back over one's head and starting to act.
Nor to deduce geometric laws by counting
the beams of one's solitary confinement cell
like Sor Juana did. It's not a solution
to write, while company arrives
in the Austen family living room,
or to shut oneself up in the attic
of some New England house
and dream, with the Dickinson's family Bible
under a spinster pillow.
There must be another way that's not named Sappho
or Messalina or Mary of Egypt
or Magdalene or Clemence Isaure
Another way to be human and free.
Another way to be. (Rosario Castellanos, "Meditations on the Brink")

This morning, there are not enough words to convey to the members of the American Association of University Women -North Carolina Chapter, the unmeasurable ways in which reading, writing, meditating, exercising critical reflexion, focusing on my research project, and being able to "think," peacefully at a different rhythm, has done for me. Thanks to your generosity and to your belief in me, I have learned to walk at a different pace, I have touched the words in my soul, I have been able to follow an idea, a concept, an intuition, and a theoretical proposition ready to see the answer that emerges beyond intuition, supported by an interdisciplinary theoretical frame as a chapter is completed. This sabbatical has revealed to me again, what I had forgotten without realizing it, the meaning of the secrets and the whispers of reading and writing in contemplation.

I keep being amazed as I read and reflect, read and look beyond the words and thoughts, pose another question behind the walls of the page, or reread a page without having to rush, or without having to stay in the surface of the page not being able to grasp the depth, having to guess or to speculate for the lack of time, the lack of sleep, or the feeling of exhaustion, as many other women in many other situations do every night. This AAUW fellowship has also permeated the corners of my everyday life revealing to me the sounds of a peaceful retreat, the richness of meditation, the profound joy and fullfillment of the intellectual inquiry, and the thirst for insaciable knowledge related to life writing, mexican culture, auto/biographical representation, gender and knowledge. Certainly, an unthinkable possibility for a mother of two, and for an associate professor who does not conceive stepping in and out of the classroom without knowing the inner geographies of the students, their thirst for knowledge, growth, challenge, and provocative questions of a personal and of an intellectual dimension.

As a female professor, I have learned first hand through my involvement in different professional organizations such as the Asociacion Internacional de Literatura Femenina Hispanica, Feministas Unidas, and the Modern Language Association, the harsh realities that women faculty often face, the conflicts and difficulties balancing motherhood and scholarship, the lack of options to speak out as one sees differences and unfair work loads, the stressful pressures to excel, and the determination to embrace the strong demands one has to impose on the partner, the family, the friends, or upon oneself to meet higher expectations. All of these realities have called me to make a difference inside and outside the classroom, in humble ways and within my means. I have learned so much from and about, other women through these Associations and through the Latin American Women Association of Charlotte NC, as we exchange ideas, work, projects, and research, strengthening our belief in the fundamental value of teaching and giving every day with integrity, passion, conmitment, and social responsibility toward women.

"In the pulse of the morning" as the poet Maya Angelou will say, and in the pulse of the second half of this sabbatical year, I have had the privilege and the opportunity to embrace a deep personal experience, knowing that in no single moment have my personal needs, hunger for knowledge, and desire to understand gender and knowledge, gender and proper name, gender and life writing, gender and cultural production have better coincide since I was a graduate student more than fifteen years ago. In the pulse of this solitary journey, I have seen as never before the strong connexion between an intellectual vocation, an inner journey, and a personal dedication translated into serving others, struggling along with others, constructing for others, having present in my heart at all times other women without a room of their own, and without access to education who have defied the odds to risk it all crossing the border, so that their kids could have a different possibility to be.

This sabbatical experience has meant the beginning of a certain end, and the end of a sure beginning, a passionate time to see oneself in the mirror, to hear the voice of others, to contemplate the writings, thoughts, ideas, and concepts which will pose even more difficult and complex questions. This intellectual retreat has meant, having different eyes to see and to reflect, to interrogate, and to frame questions, and to embrace unending and difficult explorations which have opened up new intellectual challenges, a call for bordercrossing disciplines, a revelation of sets of paradigms, concepts, and silogisms, reminding me of the most important components of my life. A time with the only certainty that fulfillment rests beyond solitary achievement, and that our journeys are made thanks to the life of others who have embarked in this search before us. The other certainty has been the presence in my life of a loving husband, daughter, and son who have understood the passion and the hunger of a woman for knowledge.

As a scholar, as a mother, as a professor, as a teacher, as a mentor, and as an active member of my community, inside, and beyond the Davidson College campus, I feel very strongly that to make a difference in undergraduate teaching I need to continue studying, doing research, and rethinking not only academic issues in my discipline, but also about different epistemological avenues to formulate daring analytical and theoretical frames for critical analysis, to intersect disciplines more creatively, and to interrogate surrounding realities to promote change and social transformation as related to women and education.

The AAUW Educational Foundation fellowship has given me the privilege to study, to learn, and to dialogue with diverse ideas in an academic setting as a visiting scholar in the Nettie Lee Benson Collection at the University of Texas, the best Latin American Collection in the world, and to have access to an interdisciplinary deposit of knowledge to deepen my knowledge and understanding about gender issues and about the Hispanic Culture. You have provided for me not only the intellectual space to broaden my horizons, not only the theoretical frame to interrogate my assumptions, but also the personal space to embrace with intensity and passion an ongoing project to culminate in a book contributing in my humble means to make a difference in gender studies and in undergraduate education.

When the book is completed hopefully next year, I will continue studying gender and representation, Gender, Biography and Media Culture, and Gender and Cultural Production through the works of North American writers, journalists and intellectuals who lived in Mexico during the 20s and 30s such as Alma Reed, Frances Toor, Anita Brenner, the Greenwood sisters, Katherine Anne Porter, just to name a few. I have explored and will continue to explore studies on cultural anthropology, media feminist studies, feminist photography, feminism and documentary, gender and latin american cinema, and latino cultural production.

My husband Luis, also a Professor, and my son Gabriel (14 years old), as well as my daughter Paula (12 years old) have been a constant source of support, care, love, encouragement, and faithfull e-mail companions, reminding me that an incredible man, son of a Mexican railroad worker, whose mother only had the chance to go through third grade, was able to come to this country to get a doctorate twenty five years ago thanks to the support of a unique and wonderful person who believed in him, in his incredible endurance, and in his untamed passion for knowledge, as you have believed in me, and in my research project. I can not deny, that his endless passion for learning and for teaching has inspired me to be, to dream, and to believe in what Rosario Castellanos has stated in her poem, the fact that "there has to be another way, another way to be [a woman]."

This morning, not having enough words to convey the meaning of this privilege, and being aware of the limits of language, I would like to express my gratitude to the AAUW Educational Foundation for making this first sabbatical a reality after eleven years of teaching.

At this moment, I can only say to you with my mind and with my heart, that I am aware that privilege, responsibility, and opportunity, bring always along with them commitment, dedication, and the conviction that the passion to understand gender and knowledge needs to be translated into social justice, education, and equality for women.

Used with permission of Magdalena Maiz-Pena, all rights reserved.