Summer of Feminista: On Mentoring: La Luzma, La Pixie and Me

Linda Garcia Merchant founded Voces Primeras, LLC, a production company dedicated to creating and distributing documentary-style features of pioneering Latinas to the educational, political and retail markets in 2006.

It began with a Facebook post asking the two of us to work on putting together some presentations for her in Chicago.

It began with her excitement at connecting with a generation of young people at SUNY Binghampton and their enthusiasm toward what she had known all along—that to fight injustice one needs the passionate songs of the poets. Words sung as wisdom, as fuel, as beacon and lightpost both illuminating the way towards change and as sentry against resistance.

It began with a question. ‘I don’t know if you know each other, but I would like to present at a few venues, sell some books, spend some time in Chicago—it’s been too long’. “She” is Dr. Luzma Umpierre Herrera, iconic second wave profa from Bryn Mawr—veterana of too many battles, too much challenge, and too many wars between the sexes. “We two” included myself and Sandra “La Pixie” Santiago, creator of the Butterfly Poetry Project.

We knew each other, “La Pixie” and I. Sandra is a wonderful example of the large range of talent and ability packaged in equal parts whimsy and beauty that is Latina performance art in Chicago. Sandra belongs to a flourishing community of women writers, poets and performance artists housed in variety of collectives around Chicago. The Butterfly Poetry Project is her ‘arts incubator’ where Latina performers of all types and levels of ability can perform in front of an eager and generous audience.

Sandra and I didn’t know each other well, but in the lifetimes that can pass as seconds in art years, we were almost old friends. I had once performed at the Butterfly Poetry Project, where I was allowed to ‘howl’ with La Dulce Palabra Spoken Word Ensemble. We’d made a film that she appears in called ‘Yo Soy Eva’; that counts as an instantly long history.

Sandra and I worked well together I think. We met all challenges head on, talked a lot, strategized even more and in the end, accomplished a pretty good weekend of events. We were able to count on one another, navigating all that is required of producing not one but three events over one weekend.

We shared something else we would discover in the hurried moments between our introduction and those presentations—that neither had ever met our mentor, Dr. Luzma Umpierre Herrera. I’m sure we both thought the other had some great extensive history with La Luzma. We laughed when we discovered our shared reality. Ah, the power of Facebook—a world filled with the virtual lives of overbooked people.

Luzma had mentored me before we had ever spoken. When I was a teenager, she had taught of my mother’s political campaign for Congress in her courses at Bryn Mawr. The teenage challenge of my life was being presented to young women that only knew of Gloria and Bella and Betty as the architects of feminism. Luzma introduced these young women to the possibilities of Betita, Martha, Anna and Rhea, expanding their understanding to include women of color in the collective construction of the women’s movement. I wonder how many of those students left those courses open to, and seeking out, the possibilities of future collaborations with women of color.

The book she was selling, ‘I’m Still Standing’ was self published. I was in awe of this fact because all my mentors were self published. During the Chicano and Feminist movements, Martha Cotera, Rosemary Roybal, Dorinda Moreno, Felicitas Nunez and Anna Nieto Gomez had self published seminal works. This was at a time when all women of color could do was to self publish and sell their work at conferences.

I suspect that Luzma’s greatest gift as a mentor is in identifying like minded spirits and pointing them in each others direction, giving them some daunting task or moment to complete and then watching them shine. It is the only way I can explain how seamlessly Sandra and I were able to work together in fun and sisterhood. Sisterhood, La Luzma knew it in her teaching and in her living that concept to so many, for so long.

I saw this in Luzma’s face when we finally met at lunch before the first of her three presentations. It was the mischievous twinkle in her eye once we all sat down to eat. For the longest I couldn’t figure out what that meant, that all knowing slight grin she kept as we ate. Momma shared her growing up in Chicago, stories of her mother and grandmother—all foundational feminists. I just watched and wondered how I had gotten so lucky to live the life I’d been given, sitting at a table with three phenomenal Latinas.

Reading her book continues to be a challenge. She had sent a copy of her book to momma, signed with a lovely dedication. That book is still on my mother’s nightstand, read cover to cover, sometimes parked under the Spanish dictionary. “She has such a command of Spanish” momma would say. “I want to make sure I understand this”.

I still haven’t read the book.

I did however get to experience the book, come to life in Luzma’s performance of her work at DePaul. I said as much afterwards, when she and I had a moment alone. I sat down next to her and stumbled through my praise of her performance, not making eye contact. I was still processing what I had just witnessed; still reeling from the dimensions of prose in movement, in sound, pouring from the infinite depths of hurt and joy and triumph and tragic steps along a time line of defiant challenge. A lioness roared, and we all paid attention. I can say all these things now, much removed from the moment—safe in the distant comfort of memory. Then, all I could say was thank you. All I could do was look at my feet.

I was troubled by my inability to articulate in the moment, how thrilled I was to experience La Luzma and her work. This followed me to the MALCS Summer Institute at Ohio State University a few months later where we were both presenting. I was premiering a new film ‘Yo Soy Eva’ at the conference and she was in the audience.

I knew I would see her and wanted to clear that up, more for my own benefit—or so I thought. I didn’t get to go to her panel, but I saw her between sessions the next day where she introduced me to a colleague with a big smile and high praise for my work.

I realized at that moment how fragile the creative spirit can be, because in that simple compliment, I felt complete and nourished. When we acknowledge each others creative efforts, we cultivate the space where the essence of us lives. La Luzma understood and respected that in both Sandra and I in her request for assistance. We understood and accepted the task with the honor of being asked. We worked together and made it happen.

Maybe this is the road all journeys of mentoring should travel. We as women, as Latinas, as artists, as activists, need to find and cultivate the creative spirits in one another. We meet all battles, all challenges, and all wars with the same fearless energy. That energy has to be replenished and that fuel has to come from the cultivation and fulfillment of our creative spirit.

Mentoring, in its structured and unstructured forms, is about being open to shared experiences. It is about recognizing how we are being for one another as women. It is about having a perspective that acknowledges our collective connection to the human condition within each other. It is about reaching out in every moment to say, ‘I am here to tell you that you are great’. To know we live in a world where anyone of us can say to one another ‘I would like to present at a few venues, sell some books, spend some time in Chicago—it’s been too long’ and be honored to be a part of the acknowledgement and cultivation of another creative spirit that is far too often running low from too many battles, and too many wars.

Summer of Feminista 2013 is a project of Viva la Feminista where Latinas are discussing mentoring and what it means to them. Read how you can join Summer of Feminista.  Link and quote, but do not repost without written permission.