Jamilah King

February 14, 2007

Gina Lopez is an ordinary woman with a superhero fetish. On this day, the 22-year-old sits at a table in a cafe at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California wearing a black and silver superman T-shirt. Gina comes from a family of collectors and owns at least half a dozen similar T-shirts, her favorites being the ones where the Superman insignia is altered slightly to be Superwoman. “I guess I’ve always been a proud feminist,” she jokes.

Gina just starting the second semester of a master’s program in Applied Women’s Studies and, judging from the piles of scholarly articles, books and planners spread out on the table before her, she’s certainly had better days. Her soft brown eyes look worried, but her smile remains reassured.

Today’s nemesis is a course in Feminist and Queer Theory. The battle involves taking abstract theoretical concepts and turning them into practical, real-life applications.

“I wanted to combine theory and practice,” she says. But, right now, the budding professor is caught in a seemingly endless cycle of theory without action.

It’s a familiar challenge, one she’s confronted often over the years. It centers around the paradox posed by many (especially private) institutions of higher learning, where students of color from working class backgrounds are working on solutions to race, class and gender equality. On the one hand, these students are told that their mere presence is a sign of social equality. On the other hand, they are made to face the very tangible effects of what is still a very white, upper-middle class system.

And, while many of the faculty and students at colleges and universities around the nation may seem to be getting progressively liberal, recent attacks on affirmative action and federal loan programs have created a climate for working class students of color that is increasingly tense.

For many students of color already on college campuses–like Gina–frustration and isolation play a significant role in their college experiences. In many cases, the real challenge lies in negotiating the space between their privileged college lives and the communities from which they came.

A family matter

Family has always been at the center of Gina’s life, so when it came time to decide on a college, the Pacoima, Calif., native decided to stay close to home and attend Occidental College, just a 20-minute drive from home. She has already broken tradition and dodged expectations with her family. As the youngest daughter of five children, she chose to live on campus and not to stay at home with her parents as they entered old age.

When Gina walked onto the campus of Occidental College, otherwise known as Oxy, in Eagle Rock, Calif., in the fall of 2002, she felt oddly out of place. The plush green Southern Californian lawns and sea of white faces (almost 50 percent) were in direct contrast with the working-class life she had left behind in Pacoima, a predominately Latino city in the San Fernando valley.

“It was culture shock,” Lopez remembers, adding, “It was really hard to find a group of people I could relate to culturally and economically.”

And so for those first couple years at Oxy, Gina took on a role similar to the X-Men character Mystique. In the Marvel comic, the female superhero who can alter her biological cells at will and take on the appearance of other human beings. For Gina, this meant transitioning between the role of diligent daughter of traditional Mexican parents to campus activist and hardworking student. It was a balancing act that had its own dangerous implications, with no clearly defined enemy territory.

First, there was the school’s cost, which took some getting used to and required Gina to seek out a combination of loans and on-campus jobs. Then there were the salient differences between her predominately Spanish-speaking hometown community and the English of her American college experience. Yet there was an even more profound difference in the practical application of the concepts she was learning in her women’s studies courses and the battles being waged at home with her family. There were arguments with her older brother over a woman’s right to choose, then frustration when her mother failed to pick up a picket sign to protest doing domestic work. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find comfort in both worlds.

“For me, there [was] a huge gap in language, and it [became] hard to reconcile two different ways of speaking to find a common ground” she explains.

For working class women of color, it’s a challenge to balance the communal concerns of the family and greater community with academia’s focus on individualism. And then there’s the sheer fact that they often feel drastically outnumbered. Gilda Ochoa, assistant professor of sociology at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., says, “Some Latinas/os describe feeling disconnected or disengaged when they are absent in the curriculum or when course materials assume that you come from homogeneous middle-class life and/or white culture. ” Ochoa also points to the often gendered expectations many of these women must deal with, such as contributing financially to their family incomes as well as maintaining decent grades.

Arturo Madrid, a leading scholar in the experiences of Latinos in higher education at Tulane University, describes the dilemma faced by many people of color in higher education as twofold: on the one hand, they are invisible from the curriculum and the classroom, but on the other, their presence in a predominantly white space makes them stand out like a sore thumb.

A community of her own

Studies suggest that many young women of color form what are called “intentional communities,” or social networks formed strictly along ethnic and socioeconomic lines. According to Ana Martinez Aleman, a researcher at Boston College, intentional communities among women of color serve a multitude of purposes including strengthening academic self-confidence. At small liberal arts schools like Occidental, where terms like “diversity” are thrown around as cultural capital rather than concrete objectives, these communities become support networks and activist resources for students of color who have to deal with the competing, and often divergent, demands of school and family life.

So, Gina spent hours cultivating a supportive network of friends, professors and advisors on campus.

“I definitely grabbed hold of my culture and expressed it a lot more. That’s where a community of close friends came in. We bonded over language and food, and the fact that we came from public schools, low-income communities.”

With a newfound appreciation for her culture, Gina began finding the new ways of blending her two previously disparate worlds. And it was a class assignment that really helped solidify the change.

During her junior year, Gina took a women’s studies course wherein the final assignment involved interviewing three generations of women to examine continuities and differences in the struggle for women’s liberation. For her, the choice was simple: she chose to do a generational analysis of her own family, including her grandmother, her mother and herself. In doing so, she placed her own family at the center of a discussion traditionally based on white women’s experiences. She noted her grandmother’s sacrifices as a Mexican immigrant and her mother’s subtle refusals to do domestic work and realized that they were working toward their own feminist agendas for equality.

Now, years later, while pursuing a master’s degree, Gina focuses on how to open doors for other working class women of color who want to create change inside the halls of academia as well as within their communities. She has begun to notice the important things: her mother’s patience in the face of hardship and her friends’ support in times of frustration; she’s found that there might just be a little superhero in all of us.

Jamilah King, 21, is assistant editor of WireTap. She is currently a senior at Pitzer College, majoring in English and Black Studies.