The Power of Storytelling and the Right to Write
By Karina Muñiz
Who gets the right to write? To share stories with the world in written form? To create fictional characters or a poem, to take us back to a memory, once buried, through a scene that awakens the senses? I often ask myself that question as an MFA student in creative writing at Mills College. Maybe I ask this because I’m also the political director at Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a Latina immigrant and worker rights base-building organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. My worlds seem far apart from each other as I drive from our office in the Fruitvale district filled with people involved in participatory workshops and campaign organizing to the gates of Mills with its quiet walkways and manicured lawns.
I’m learning a lot about prose, sharpening my craft and developing as a writer. As a Community Engagement Fellow, I have not only been given the opportunity to attend school, but also the ability to share the power of la palabra (the word) and storytelling with women with so many moving stories to tell who may not get the same access and privilege of a formal writing program.
For six weeks, I taught a creative writing class to friends and colleagues at MUA, mostly women leaders of the immigrant rights movement. We began each class with ceremony, bringing a gift for the altar that reflected our intention for writing. On the first day of class we read Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers” from This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. This letter, written 36 years ago and not long after I was born, contains all the reasons why I write.
“Who gave us permission to perform the act of writing? Why does writing seem so unnatural for me?” Anzaldúa asks. “How hard it is for us to think we can choose to become writers, much less feel and believe we can. What have we to contribute, to give? Our own expectations condition us.” Anzaldúa reminds us—radical women of color—of our right to write what has been miswritten about us, our right to make ourselves. Her call is clear: “Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers… Write with your tongues of fire.”
In the creative writing class, we let our tongues of fire unleash and we laughed, cried, and surprised ourselves. The stories ranged from childhood games with a neighborhood burro, to the painful passing of that friend who saw and understood, to the teacher whose shaming left indelible scars. Other times the stories were about life in the maquilas, bodies on the side of the road during the war you prayed were not family, the grandmother who rocked you to sleep at night, or how you held your child close while the helicopters flashed bright lights from above.
“There are things that have happened in our lives that we are learning how to tell,” said class participant Lulu Reboyoso. “This workshop has allowed me to look inside myself to give birth to my own creativity. Through the writing exercises we wrote out our memories of happiness, pain, frustration, and learned to take in our surroundings. The writing released things that were painful for me and we finished the workshop knowing that we as women, immigrants and Latinas can write. We are artists filled with creativity and much to say. And instead of others writing our stories about what happened to us, we are writing with our own voices.”
Maria Hernandez said, “I came to the workshop feeling insecure that I wouldn’t be able to write my own story. But being in this space, it was easier for me to be able to express myself… it allowed our writing to come from our hearts. I didn’t believe that an immigrant woman without a formal education could call herself a writer or a poet. I was impressed with myself and this discovery of my own ability to express myself. I can tell my own story and did so in front of a group of people who didn’t really know us. We showed the audience, while our stories are not easy to hear sometimes, you can learn a lot more about us.”
On our final evening last summer we showcased our work at Laurel Bookstore in downtown Oakland and we closed the class the same way we opened it, by reading in Spanish excerpts from the letter Gloria Anzaldúa wrote to all of us. In unison we declared: “I write to record what others erase when I speak… mujer mágica, empty yourself. Shock yourself into new ways of perceiving the world, shock your readers into the same.”
To Live in the U.S. You Need...
By Mujeres Unidas’ Writing Workshop
Self-worth, strength, power, reasons, circumstances, necessities, assimilation,
Balls to blindly try and achieve, and imagination to mask the solitude
Hope, desire to better the conditions of our community
To breathe, dream, have a voice, worthiness, courage, work, love, papers
Desire for a better life
Courage, desire to get ahead in life
Solidarity with other communities so we can unify and fight together
Strong lungs, a sea of tears, sweat and strength, and a heart that can break and
resuscitate in one deep breath
To be around family, have pictures of my loved ones,
and have no fear of the police when passing a checkpoint
Strength to leave your home
Desire to give your family a better life
To live in the US you need...
To leave children, to cross three borders
To hug your dreams, practice acceptance, and have an open mind
To know why and for what you are here
To believe in the worth and strength of principles
To live in the US you need...
To have a car so everything can be done faster and easier
A job to pay the rent
To pronounce your name in a Gringo way
To communicate your feelings and value the feelings of others
To not feel the pain of not belonging
To hold onto the stories of your ancestors
To speak Spanish at home
To integrate yourself and to understand the convictions of others
To feel safe, and be able to support your people,
for an American dream
Karina Muñiz is the political director at Mujeres Unidas y Activas. She has worked for over 15 years as an organizer and activist for racial and gender justice, household worker rights and immigrant rights, as a Xicana ally.
Thanks to Cherrie Moraga, Patricia Powell, Carolina de Robertis, D’lo, Claire Calderón, and Amanda Muñiz, and to the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) network (Elmaz Abinader, Sara Campos, David Maduli, Susan Ito, and Tara Dorabji) for sharing curriculum ideas and support for the project, and to Luan at Laurel Books.