“Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico’s in America!” — or so go the lyrics in the famous song from West Side Story. After growing up in Puerto Rico, 2009–10 AAUW American Fellow Vanessa Perez understands that sentiment. The cultural and linguistic divide between Puerto Rico and the mainland United States is wide enough to make a Puerto Rican U.S. citizen feel like an immigrant. As a contributor to the Huffington Post, Perez has written about the challenges of language and the media’s portrayal of non-native English speakers.
Perez is a scholar of early 20th century Latino literature in the United States. She has written extensively on the Caribbean diaspora with a focus on Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. De Burgos was born in 1914 in Puerto Rico and first published her poetry when she was only 19 years old. In 1940 she moved to New York City, where she continued to write until her death in 1953. In an article for Ms. Magazine, Perez writes, “We can remember [de Burgos] as part of the tradition of resistance on the island of Puerto Rico as well as a champion for civil rights in the United States.” With her AAUW American Fellowship, Perez was able to take a semester off from teaching in 2010 to work exclusively on developing her dissertation on de Burgos into a book. Her goal was to write about de Burgos from a transnational feminist perspective. The hard work paid off — her book is set to be published next year.
While de Burgos and other writers have been Perez’s passions in academia, she has found new inspiration in the stories and struggles of undocumented high school and college students. She says that all immigrants share feelings of being out of place, of trying to negotiate two cultures, and of separation from extended family, but undocumented students have additional feelings of secrecy and fear of deportation.
Perez wants to take this issue and explore it in a more academic realm. She has already written about students with amazing determination and about her support for the DREAM Act. When she’s not teaching at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College, writing op-ed pieces, volunteering with immigration groups, and working as a board member of the National Latino/a Educational Research and Policy Project, Perez has another project in the works that examines the role of cultural production on the experience of undocumented immigrants. Not willing to accept the current national discussion, she is creating dialogue about important issues and fascinating people.
In her Ms. Magazine piece, Perez describes de Burgos as a “Latina feminist to remember.” Well, Perez is one to know today.
Perez’s fellowship was sponsored by the Margaret Maltby American Fellowship, which was established in 1936.
This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Emily McGranachan.