(This story originally appeared in Vivala)
There’s a spoken word performance that’s been widely circulating the web in recent weeks. In it, Janel Pineda shares her poem, “To Be a Latina Woman on a College Campus.” The powerful poem breaks down the many struggles of being a Latina college student.
“It is being slut shamed, hate crimed, assaulted, attacked, and abused. It is all these things, and no one taking me seriously when I try to fight back,” Pineda recites, her voice booming. “To be a Latina woman is my culture glorifying the government out of fear. It is living everyday terrified that a family member will be deported.”
Pineda, a sophomore majoring in English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, says her poem was born after she heard about an “Around the World” party last fall at her college.
“One of the stops was Mexico and a lot of people dressed up as Mexicans, in sombreros and plaid shirts and bandanas, that kind of thing, and people were posting pictures of themselves with captions that were insensitive to immigration issues,” the 19-year-old recalls. “A lot of my poem directly responds to that. Some of the captions were like, ‘We promise we have our green cards.’”
The party was difficult to stomach for Pineda, who experienced culture shock after moving across the country from her native hometown of Los Angeles to attend college.
“It was very upsetting, particularly as a child of immigrants and just someone who cares a lot about these issues, to see people not taking these very real issues seriously and acting like they don’t impact students on this campus.”
Before the video of Pineda’s performance at Dickinson’s Exiled Poetry Society Fall 2015 show began making its rounds on the Internet, the poet says she performed it once before, but felt as though the poem wasn’t complete.
“I think particularly that performance of the poem that’s online was one of the most empowering performances I think I’ve ever had,” says Pineda, “just because it allowed me to stand up not only for myself, but for a lot of the other Latina women that I know both on this campus and across the country.”
Pineda says her poem was partly influenced by other Latinas on her college campus, including friend Yareli Jimenez.
For Jimenez, the poem is very specific to Dickinson.
“The campus atmosphere, personally, has always felt very uncomfortable and hostile, which is why this poem is so special and important to me,” she says. “Janel, myself, and other Latinxs on campus constantly fight to create a space where we can talk about our struggles and our identities and show that to our community, but like Janel explains throughout her poem, it’s a constant battle of having our voices being heard and taken seriously by different communities on campus, by college administration and faculty so it’s very tiresome and easy to feel like our struggles and our voices are just noise.”
Pineda’s poem also touches on issues within the Latino culture.
“I think that Latinos are always taught to be grateful; that we should feel grateful to be in the United States, that I should be grateful that I’m even in college and, I am, but that doesn’t mean that my experience here does not require change.”
Pineda says many non-Latinos have come up to her after hearing her perform and acknowledge how uncomfortable the Spanish language makes them, something she doesn’t shy away from in her poem.
“In general, it’s forced them to consider an experience outside of their own,” she says. “Some people are shocked. There’s a wide range of reactions… I think I’m most proud of my poem when I know that people have been moved by it and changed by it.”