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Story Telling as Self Definition

Joanne Caceres, HLS ’13

I have always been an avid reader and believe that we can discover truths about ourselves through storytelling. These stories I will share help explain who I am today—a women of color who is deeply committed to social justice, but also deeply invested in the existing hierarchical structures—trying to find happiness somewhere in between.

***

玉不琢不成器 

(Jade must be chiseled before it can be considered a gem)

- Chinese Proverb

***

Every time I tell a story about my life, I start at the same place: I am a first generation Hispanic American, whose parents came to America with the dream of completing their college education. In the Dominican Republic, both had been academic stars in their high schools, especially my father, who taught a course on calculus at the college level when he was in high school. Upon their arrival in the States, both of my parents quickly learned English well enough to get their GEDs (a feat that, even after 6 years of formal training in French, I still highly admire). For financial reasons, it was impossible for both of them to go to school at the same time, so my mother continued her education while my dad worked. As the years went by, my father was never able to finish college, something that for many years I considered a moral failing on his part—after all, my mom had had a hard time, but she had forged through, doing all her reading with the help of a Spanish/English dictionary, constantly misunderstood and undervalued because of her accent, even dealing with overtly unfriendly professors, who looked towards her pregnant belly (me!) with palpable derision. Every obstacle only made her more determined to succeed. As I have matured I have developed a more nuanced view of my father, who always follows his own path. His own ambitions may have been deferred, but he did so at least partially so that his children could have a better future.

Education has always been the cornerstone of my family’s values. Both of my parents sacrificed many of their own dreams so that my sister, brother and I could always get the best education. Through our hard work and a combination of financial aid and scholarships, we have all been able to attend top schools most of our lives.

Given recent media attention on heroes such as Sotomayor, this may not sound like an uncommon success story for the children of immigrants, in fact, it sounds like a perfect example of the American Dream, but in my experience, we are still definitely not the norm. As a result, I have spent much of my life feeling like an “outsider”; my Latino culture alienated me from my classmates while my level of education set me apart from most of my extended family. At school the differences were seemingly trivial. For example, I did not know who the Beatles were, had never watched Star Wars, and had never been skiing, yet all these little things all reminded me of my ineptitude in a certain cultural understanding. Even as I have become more fluent in American culture, I remember the original rift and have never felt that it is a legacy I truly own. With my extended family, my eroded Spanish language skills created an actual language barrier, but it mostly hid the even bigger gap between us caused by divergent experiences. For example, out of ten granchildren over eighteen on my mother’s side, only three of us have completed  college, my sister, my brother, and I.

I often imagine myself as standing precariously on a thin fence—some days, each side is pulling at me, other days, neither side cares if I stay or go. It’s a very lonely place. I have come to accept that I will always feel isolated, and have even come to view it as a positive aspect of myself. This sense of isolation has made me the person I am today—someone who is open-minded, empathetic, and a little unconventional. On good days I reason that I can put this understanding of not belonging to better represent others that are, as a group, considered outsiders—be it the LGBT community advancing marriage equality, or undocumented teenagers searching for a path to education and citizenship. I want to help address some of the major social issues that confront our times and make an impact on legal institutions that influence our society’s future. I may be balancing precariously on a fence, but that means I can see what is going on on both sides.

On bad days, the struggle for justice seems impossible, and I often find myself feeling frustrated or hopeless. To combat self-doubt and moral exhaustion, throughout my life I have memorized quotations that inspire me, and these quotations have become like prayers or mantras that I reach for when I am frustrated and cannot imagine how things will get better. Through them, I feel connected to the countless others who have struggled to forge a path to a better society, and I find the strength to keep going. For example, when I feel inadequate or ill-equipped to handle a new challenge, I imagine myself as a lump of jade, and I remember that each new challenge is an opportunity to smooth out some of my rougher edges.

***

“Dripping water carves a stone”

-Latin Proverb[1]

***

From my perspective, the greatest privilege afforded to a straight white man in this country is the privilege to be himself, act in his own interests, and succeed or fail for himself. As a Hispanic woman, I feel that I have to represent women of color in an elite profession, and therefore need to follow a path that most people will think demonstrates success.

Sometimes I feel that, because I am a member of a minority group, even when I win, I still lose. For example, when I was accepted to Princeton University, I was elated and incredibly proud of myself. This began to change as news spread around school – I gradually detected a sense that my accomplishment was undermined by the implicit assumption that my acceptance was due to the color of my skin.[2] Regardless of their true intentions, I couldn’t help but notice a sense of resentment on the part of friends and classmates and felt degraded by the way my peers “congratulated” me: “Congratulations! Of course you got into Princeton.” All this time I thought my peers saw me as an equal, as an individual, but all of a sudden, it didn’t matter that I had demonstrated my abilities year after year. Everyone believed they knew how I had gotten in to Princeton—I was offered a spot because I was a woman of color, and of course all great colleges need “those people.” It only took the insinuations of a few misguided people to make me feel like I was not actually seen as a person; I was a token, a trophy.[3]

I too came to think of myself in this way, and, throughout my 1L year, I often found myself doubting whether I deserved to be at Harvard Law School. I did not live up to my expectations at Princeton, because I did not prioritize doing my best. At the time, I thought, what did it matter if I did the best? Regardless of my accomplishments people would assume yet again that my race was the deciding factor in my success. I bought into this in the worst way, feeling I didn’t have to meet high expectations because anything I accomplished would already be seen as “surprising” and “amazing”; whatever level of success I did achieve would be “ratcheted up” by the fact that I am a minority woman. As I go through these hallowed Harvard halls, I shouldn’t feel the need to scream at the top of my lungs “I could get in without being Hispanic!” and yet sometimes I still do feel that need. Even when I feel more confident, I wonder how others feel about my presence here—sometimes I have to beat back the urge to blurt out my credentials, as if that will clear the air of the unasked, lingering question of just how much of my acceptance is due to my brains, and how much is due to my race.

Consequently, I feel the need to succeed “because of” and “in spite of” my minority status.[4] I don’t have the chance or the privilege to succeed purely for myself, because as a stand-in for my gender and race I feel that I have to prove that I belong here. I am just a piece of cheese, walking backwards up a cheese grater.[5]

***

I put on my masks, my
costumes and posed for each
occasion. I conducted myself
well, I think, but
an emptiness
grew
that no thing
could fill. I think
I hungered for myself.[6]

***

Can the mask ever become the self? I have a stronger accent in Spanish than I do in English, and my own identity is inextricably tied to the American experience. Sometimes it is at home, with my family, that I feel masked, as I censor myself, overly conscious of the privilege of my education and the great distance between my own perspective and theirs. Although it is less constant, however, I definitely am not unmasked here either—partially because I don’t want to be. To be unmasked before my peers is to be fully upfront about my race, my history, and my class, and it’s just so much easier to act as if my experiences are the same. And in many ways, thanks to my education, it is the same. I realized, at the end of the day—I don’t know what an unmasked me looks like.

I first read Montoya’s article, Máscaras, Trenzas, y Greñas: Un/masking the Self While Un/braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse,[7] last spring as my 2L year was wrapping up. As many others have testified, I found myself tearing through its pages. My heart beat against my chest and the lump in my throat made it painful to breathe. It was hard to pinpoint exactly what I felt: anger at her experiences of alienation, anger for my own experiences, discomfort, and pure and honest elation. It felt good, for once, to read something that I could relate to so strongly. It put into stark contrast how distant and removed I often am to the things that I read—and how much of my law school curriculum has consisted of sanitized stories and removed, intellectual arguments. I, too, was once saddened and appalled by the cases I read, and sometimes I still am, but the feeling has become flatter. I’d been desensitized to the power of a true story, but Montoya’s narrative was like being dropped into a bath of ice water, as I remembered, it doesn’t have to be this way. We have control, if real or imagined, of our own stories. We have the power to look beyond our assumptions, question our beliefs, and redirect our lives. This is my story.

Thank you, Professor Montoya, for reminding me that it is my right to tell my story, even if, especially if, it is not a story others have heard before. Thank you for reminding me that to be a lawyer, I don’t have to excise all the compassion from my being. Thank you for being a Latina that has gone before me.


[1] Although I have decided to mostly let these phrases be interpreted by the reader, I feel the need to share that this mantra serves both as a ray of hope and a cautionary warning. On the one hand, I can do the big things I think are important by progressing little by little. On the other hand, being hit with the same barriers again and again can, and will, leave a mark on me that I cannot hope to completely avoid.

[2] Although speaking in the law school context, the readings that described the challenges face by women and minorities really put into words my experiences in both an elite college and law school.  See, e.g., Lani Guinier, Lessons and Challenges of Becoming Gentlemen, 24 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 1 (1998) (Describing the portraits of old white men on the walls of a classroom and the message that seems to communicate to students who are minorities).

[3] My sister has related a similar experience on her acceptance to Harvard college, this despite the fact that both of us were in the top 5% of our classes, accomplished in extra-curriculars and regarded as leaders at top high schools in the country.

[4] I am co-opting an idea from Personnel Administrators of Massachusetts v. Feeney, 442 U.S. 256 (1979). Women sued the state of Massachusetts because of a policy that gave an absolute advantage to veterans over civilians in government jobs, where 98% of veterans were male. The Supreme Court held that this was permissible under the 14th amendment:  “’Discriminatory purpose,’…implies more than intent as volition or intent as awareness of consequences. It implies that the decisionmaker, in this case a state legislature, selected or reaffirmed a particular course of action at least in part “because of,” not merely “in spite of,” its adverse effects upon an identifiable group. Id. at 279 (citations omitted). I use it both to reference this unjust result but also in a literal sense: I have to do well “because of” the fact that I am a Hispanic and am thus going to be viewed as a success or failure for my race, but also I am playing a game where the odds are stacked against me, so I also need to succeed “in spite of” my race.

[5] Thanks to Prof. Lani Guinier for this metaphor. Just as pieces of cheese are shaved away when moved backwards up a cheese grater, minorities in this country are forced to leave pieces of themselves at each progression in their ascent to power.

[6] Alma Villanueva, Mother, May I?, in Contemporary Chicana Poetry 303, 324 (Marta Ester Sánchez ed., 1985) (quoted in Margaret E. Montoya, Máscaras, Trenzas, y Greñas: Un/Masking the Self While Un/Braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse, 17 Harv. Women’s L.J. 185, 185 (1994)).

[7] Margaret E. Montoya, Máscaras, Trenzas, y Greñas: Un/Masking the Self While Un/Braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse, 17 Harv. Women’s L.J. 185 (1994).

2 Responses to “Story Telling as Self Definition”

  1. Kim
    June 1, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    I stumbled upon this site and I more than loved this article. Thank you for literalizing what I have felt uncomfortable about myself.

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