By Edén Torres
‘Shameless outlaw’ Edén Torres reflects on the view from a campus window.
Sitting at my computer in my fourth-floor office, I gaze above the artificially lit screen and see bright blue sky. I am lucky to have a window. Outside, barren black treetops sway, allowing me to see the wind. It races out of the northwest and down the institutional brick canyon between Ford and Murphy halls.
The sun is strong. But it is January in Minnesota and I know that it is cold out there. My building—where the windows are sealed shut and some central location controls the temperature—is warm and silent. I cannot hear the wind.
I often think this mirrors my life as a professor. I see the beautiful contradictions of the world, understand the meaning and intensity of even the simplest of signs, and know that there are real consequences to being on the outside. But in here, in the University, comfort often disguises what might otherwise be obvious dangers. The difference between what I know from my previous existence as a minimum-wage worker and what I experience as a Chicana at the bottom of a new ladder is gargantuan and at the same time, slight.
I could say that I learned to think critically about such things as a Ph.D. student in American studies. But the truth is that I was born this way. Always observing behaviors and interrogating rituals that have kept some close and pushed others away, always listening to people’s rhetorical passions and then teasing out the lies, always keeping track of history and then uncovering the patterns of hypocrisy and arrogance.
When I think back on my time in American studies, I remember the first year of graduate school most vividly. That is when the competition was most fierce, the fear and insecurity palpable. We were reading each other, sizing up the professors, and putting ourselves on display or covering up what we wanted kept secret. “We were innocents,” as the song says, but already cynical and eager to deconstruct whatever we read. Old hands at being students by then, but often theoretical novices—sure that everyone else knew more than we did, or convinced that no one knew as much.
I met many of my lovers in the field of American studies— intellectual and otherwise. Still get goose bumps when I recall first reading Gramsci, Bhaba, Lipsitz, Said, and even Foucault— the men who joined the exciting women in my life, Anzaldúa, Sandoval, Barbara Smith, hooks, and Emma Pérez, among others. Certainly all of these theorists have shaped my writing.
When I published my first book in 2003, Chicana Without Apology: The New Chicana Cultural Studies, I was embarrassed by the title. My editor chose it after explaining to me that “Spanish was not an option” if I wanted to publish with Routledge. She asked for a translation of the Spanish title I had proposed, but I could not make her understand the cultural significance of the phrase Chicana sin vergüenza, and what it meant to be claiming such an identity. In frustration, I said, “It means that I don’t care what others think of me, I am not apologizing for being a shameless outlaw.”
When I meet with Spanish-speaking audiences, I have to explain that I know “Chicana without apology,” is not the correct translation. But I also explain that I actually like both meanings. What embarrasses me more about the title is having my work branded “the new Chicana cultural studies.”
In reality, there is nothing new about the book. It is the product of my interdisciplinary training in American studies, the innovative writers and theorists who broke scholarly molds and insisted on new ways of producing theoretical writing, as well as the teachers who took the time to read and comment on my work (even when I didn’t always agree with them).
Now that I am a professor myself, I cannot keep up with all the new texts, inventive theories, and divergent methods. I envy the current American studies students the array of materials and the exciting new faculty that have joined the program since I graduated. But I still understand the significance of having had the opportunity to take classes with mentors like David Noble, and value their wisdom.
I cannot help but stare out my window sometimes and look back on my years in the department with a shameful amount of sentimentality and nostalgia. For the most part, I have set aside the anger of feeling silenced, or of always being expected to represent a certain perspective—as well as my frustration with the institutional process that in many ways impedes sustained political engagement. And, at least for today I choose to believe that I can hear the wind that I so clearly see outside my window. I just have to listen with different ears.
Edén E. Torres, a Ph.D. graduate of our American studies program, is an associate professor in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. She also teaches in Chicano studies and is an adjunct faculty member in American studies.