Reclaiming and Redefining

Angelica Matos

December 6, 2017

Recently I went through a job search process that had me really evaluate all of who I am and what I bring to any given space. I’ve been quite aware of some of the identities that I hold for some time: how my accent and mannerisms show I am a New Yorker; how my excitement for pernil con arroz con gandules (roast pork and rice with pigeon peas) at family dinner and strong dialect of Spanglish illustrates my Puerto Rican pride; and how my passion for women’s empowerment and interpersonal violence is derived from my experience as a survivor during college.

So there you have it – I’m a New Yorker, Puerto Rican, and survivor woman. But that’s not everything.

Those were identities I was fully cognizant of coming into graduate school and entering my first professional experience. Those were identities I wore on my sleeve and exclaimed with pride because it spoke to my strength and my resiliency. My pride as a New Yorker became more apparent when navigating living in the South and learning Southern hospitality was just intertwined with professional decorum.

However, in wrapping up my first year, my whole world changed. The puzzle pieces that I had so carefully put together to complete the intersectional puzzle that is “Angelica’s Identity” grew from a 10-piece kid puzzle to one of those 1000 piece week-long puzzles.

I learned that I was going to be a mother.

Not having followed the traditional trajectory of ‘first comes marriage, then comes baby carriage,’ I was more concerned of what my workplace would think, what my parents would think, what my supervisors would think, even though I was with my partner for over 4 years and was a Master’s level professional. My pride in some of my identities became something that I feared would also make it easier to exacerbate stereotypes associated with them. The Nuyorican is now an unwed mother working in the Bible belt. My focal identities became tied to my identities as an employee in Student Affairs, a supervisor of student staff, a daughter of Catholic, Puerto Rican parents, and now a mother. My identities became about my responsibilities to others and the roles that I held.

Maternity leave was full of newborn snuggles, sleepless nights, binge-watching comedy shows on Netflix and finally having a bit of free time to read Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes. As someone that loves all things movies and television shows, namely Shondaland shows, I was excited to read the words of a creative genius. Each chapter of her book describes her journey to redefining herself and the expectations she sets for herself. Her anecdotal and vulnerable sharing of her experiences made me laugh, cry, reflect and feel empowered during a time when I felt so strong and so weak at the same time.

My favorite excerpt from Shonda Rhimes' Year of Yes, which I find to be most critical to share as it encapsulates so much of how I see my identity development is below:

There is no list of rules. There is one rule. The rule is: there are no rules. Happiness comes from living as you need to, as you want to. As your inner voice tells you to. Happiness comes from being who you actually are instead of who you are supposed to be. Being traditional is not traditional anymore. It’s funny that we still think of it that way. Normalize your lives, people. You don’t want a baby? Don’t have one. I don’t want to get married? I won’t. You want to live alone? Enjoy it. You want to love someone? Love someone. Don’t apologize. Don’t explain. Don’t ever feel less than. When you feel the need to apologize or explain who you are, it means the voice in your head is telling you the wrong story. Wipe the slate clean. And rewrite it. No fairy tales. Be your own narrator. And for a happy ending. One foot in front of the other. You will make it.

Reading this allowed me to let go of clinging to the self-imposed expectations that come with some of my identities. I had clung to the “picturesque” version of a two-parent household. Shonda’s words empowered me to gather the confidence to embark on an even more fearful identity as a Puerto Rican woman: a single mother. I let so many societal expectations of the identities I hold to define how I acted, how I made decisions and how I let it dictate my every move. I was forsaking much of what made me, me. So finally I decided to say yes. YES to redefining me. YES to doing things I feared but needed. And YES to reclaiming parts of my identity that I feared would bring me stigmatization, instead of the confidence my identities so deserved.

As a Student Affairs practitioner, I’ve done many an icebreaker or team development activity, where each individual would be asked to circle or list their top 10 values, then eventually cross off until you get your top 5, then your top 3 and oftentimes your number 1 value. In my experience, many of these values have been connected to my identities. My values always included some version of: family, culture, education, trust, loyalty, justice, love, integrity, knowledge, and independence. As a woman, Puerto Rican, first-generation college student, survivor, from a lower-middle class upbringing in New York City, a lot of these values were almost inextricably tied to my identities and the experiences those identities influenced.

Identity development is something many in our field draw upon through our supervisory, advisory or other leadership roles especially when working with our students. It is important to continue these conversations and assist in our students’ development as they blaze a path on our college campuses and in the work force upon matriculation. However, identity development is an endless journey. Just like the values activity, our top 10 values may change with time, while those top 5 or 3 or even 1 may remain consistent. While we may be able to assist in others’ personal or professional development, the identities they bring and the identities we bring, infiltrate a lot of that development. That’s what makes intersectionality so beautiful, yet so complex.

In order to appreciate, recognize and support others through their identity development journeys, we must go through our own.

As we embark on the winter season and the end-of-semester busy time, think of some reflection time you can schedule away for when you get some much deserved free time. During this time do an Identity version of the Values Activity that many of us have participated in or facilitated.

  1. What are your identities? Don’t limit yourself to a number (unless having structure is something you need, like me #typeA #millenial).
  2. Instead of crossing out (because all of these make you who you are) put asterisks next to your top 3 identities. These would be identifies that, if someone were to ask you how do you identify, your mind almost always gravitates to.
  3. Take your favorite highlighter and highlight the one that is most salient to you.

It took me a long time to get to the point where I could list my full name – Angelica – as an identity. But, Angelica is my birth name, you say. Of course that’s how I would identify. But for me, that name captures so much of the complexity of that 1000-piece puzzle.

Angelica has always been mispronounced: Angeleeka, Angela, Angelique, and even Angeliqwa. I have also been described as intimidating, so I figured softening or shortening my name for anyone that would meet me would humanize me. So for much of my professional career, I introduced myself as Angie.

I loved my first professional opportunity in Student Affairs. But I knew after 3 years that there were aspects of my identity I was not able to fully tap into as much as I wanted to. My identity as a Puerto Rican is not something I really felt a need to tap into outside of my family. But seeing Latina women in leadership and using Spanglish colloquialisms made me feel so comfortable. It’s not something I was looking for, but it’s something that made me feel more comfortable in my skin. Being able to do a diversity statement ay my institution, where I can speak about my identities, especially the ones that are more stigmatized, made me feel much more confident.

Now, I refer to myself as Angelica. It’s been challenging to not default to Angie, but it is part of me. If I want my identities to be worn with pride, I have to say YES to wearing my name with pride. So I advise, I empower, and I charge others, namely our WISA sisters, to do an intersectional identity activity.

We’re coming up to a season with so many lights, so many traditions, customs, languages, promotions, and deadlines. But what makes it so much more beautiful is the kaleidoscope that is ‘identity.’ Each of us have our different beads, colors and the like that make up the kaleidoscope. How you turn it for each of us, show different patterns that make beautiful images. Each of us is a different kaleidoscope. We each have our own colors and patterns that come together at different phases in our lives, but the contents remain the same.

I am so many things, and I am so proud of all of them. Some of it comes with responsibilities; some of it is a result of challenging life experiences; some I was just born into. I have learned through and through that I am Angelica and I am comprised of so much. So are my students and staff, my colleagues, my family, and my friends. And so are the strong women paving the path for students and professionals in our field. Take the time to go on a journey to explore your intersectional identity, so you can help others explore their own kaleidoscope.

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