Navigating Identity Through Activism and Art
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2018 - 10:51
Photo courtesy of Irisdelia Garcia '18
Garcia’s path to campus activism began at Amherst Uprising, when she gained the “language for my anger.”

I first heard Irisdelia Garcia speak on the first floor of Frost Library, on Nov. 12, 2015 — the start of Amherst Uprising. Addressing the large crowd of students, faculty and staff that had poured into the library, she spoke passionately and forcefully about the experience of being a low-income woman of color on campus. Now, over 2 1/2 years later, Garcia no longer remembers exactly what she said — “it felt like a spirit took hold of me” — but continues to carry on the legacy of that experience in her work, community and understanding of her identity.

She is an award-winning poet and theater performer. She is an activist. She is a summa cum laude-nominated thesis writer. She is a staff member at the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) and a part of several campus cultural organizations, including Black Student Union (BSU), La Causa and African-Caribbean Student Union. In fact, she’s involved in so much that it’s often hard to keep track. But there’s a singular focus — a commitment to community — that guides all of Garcia’s passions, whether in voicing the experiences of people of color or honoring her family heritage.

Coming to Amherst
Although originally from the Bronx, Garcia attended boarding school at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut for high school, which she said was a difficult experience. As a senior, her college adviser told her that all of the colleges she had applied to were reaches, so when she ended up getting into 11 of 13 schools, Garcia printed out her acceptance letters and laid them on her adviser’s desk.

“That’s a great example of my experience in high school,” she said. “I always felt like I needed to prove myself to others because of where I came from and how I looked and my identity as a whole.”

These difficult moments, ironically enough, made the adjustment to Amherst smoother, as the elite nature of Hotchkiss is similar to that of Amherst. “There were transitional moments, but … it never felt like a culture shock,” she said.

Nevertheless, Garcia’s first few semesters in Western Massachusetts weren’t smooth sailing. Although she wouldn’t fully come to realize it until the end of her sophomore fall semester, Garcia’s time at Amherst had been marked by “racially charged” incidents in both her academic and personal life. Like many students, Garcia’s churning emotions came to a head at Amherst Uprising in November 2015.

Identity through Activism
Garcia clearly remembers the moment that Mercedes MacAlpine ’16 got up during the Frost sit-in, which had been originally organized in solidarity with students of color protesting racism on other college campuses, and said to the crowd, “Why are we sitting in for other schools when s*** happens here too?” This remark deeply impacted Garcia. “I didn’t realize how much I was hurting until someone said it,” she explained. “I was really angry that semester, and Amherst Uprising made me feel like I was okay to be angry.”

Garcia came to understand Amherst, and her place within it, differently after the movement. Whereas before she had known that the college — a historically white, male and wealthy institution — was not originally “built” for people like her, through listening to other students’ stories, she saw that there still remained “structures in place that make sure that the over 50 percent [students of color] feel like they are small.” Garcia said she realized that simply being a student of color on campus was significant and “an act of protest within itself — to breathe in a space like this.”

But Garcia’s acts of protest soon extended far beyond breathing. She joined the Amherst Uprising committee that continued to meet for several months after the sit-in, became involved in various walk-outs and sit-ins that were held on campus throughout the 2016 election cycle and after President Donald Trump’s election and started working for the MRC. When a noose was found on Pratt Field in the fall of her senior year, she and other students organized a community gathering on Valentine Quad that brought together over 100 students. Community, Garcia said, can be “a radical act of protest” in divisive times.

Family: A Guiding Force
Community and family, whether they’re home in New York or at Amherst, have always been crucial to Garcia. “I come from a very close-knit family, so it’s always hard being [away],” she said. “I’m raised by a single mom, but I lived in very much of a four-parent household. I lived with my grandparents and my uncle as well.” Garcia’s grandparents immigrated from Puerto Rico and raised her mother and uncle in New York — and eventually Garcia and her younger sister too.

During Amherst Uprising, Garcia addressed Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein at one point and told her that “if I told my grandparents everything that has been told to me, everything that has been shouted at me, everything that has been put against me, I would not have enough hands to hold all their tears.”

“I think about that moment up to this day,” Garcia said. In every aspect of her life, she tries to “make sure I’m honoring the people who have come before me, in their journey in order to bring me into this life.”

Remembering and missing her family, Garcia has worked to create “chosen families” on campus. She met some of her closest friends at Amherst Uprising and formed new support systems, which she speaks about with clear affection and admiration. “I have the most loving and beautiful and amazing, talented, compassionate people in my life,” she said.

Garcia’s devotion to her friends and family is obvious for anyone who knows her. Bualong Ramiz-Hall, director of the MRC and Garcia’s supervisor, said she “is the most empathetic, emotionally-connected and passionate person you will ever meet. She has an amazing ability to connect with people in such an authentic way.”

Finding Her Way to Radical Art
Garcia entered Amherst thinking she would major in theater and dance, but soon switched to English with a Five-College Multicultural Theater Certificate. She found that she wasn’t able to do the art that she wanted — “art that really pushed boundaries, and [was] radical and very much centering people of color” — under the purview of Amherst’s major. In 2017, Garcia created a personal performance art piece, “Bonita,” which she performed at both UMass and Amherst.

“‘Bonita’ was an exploration of Puerto Rican trauma, and particularly trauma of a femme body,” Garcia explained. It was a way of “cataloging my own personal s*** while also having that in conversation with historical institutions.” The wordless show, accompanied by a soundtrack featuring music by Puerto Rican artists, was the opportunity and type of art that Garcia had been looking for all along.

Digital Humanities
Ultimately, however, Garcia’s greatest academic passion lay in English and digital humanities. As a first year, she initially thought her time as an English major would be devoted to creative writing, but when she took “Videogames and the Boundaries of Narrative” with Professor of English Marisa Parham, she immediately knew that digital humanities was for her. “Digital humanities allows me more avenues to explore text. I don’t have to just write an essay; I can turn in a whole digital project,” Garcia explained. Parham, who eventually became Garcia’s thesis adviser, said that Garcia has grown enormously as a scholar over her years at Amherst. For Garcia, this includes “having found found the center of her own work, particularly her practice as a poet and … combining that with electronic technologies, but in ways that actually enhance poetic experiences,” said Parham.

Since that first class, Garcia has taken a class with Parham every semester and just completed a digital humanities thesis: “Digital Vaivén: Atlas was a Puerto Rican.” Her thesis is a digital project comprised of of critical analysis, poetry and 360-degree film that “explore[s] Puerto Rican identity through virtual reality and poetry” and “showcases the digital identity of colonial bodies.” The project, which was nominated for summa cum laude Latin honors, is structured like a grid with 64 tiles, each of which contains a body of work — a poem, a piece of critical analysis or photo.

Over the summer, Garcia was able to go to Puerto Rico for the first time with the MacArthur-Leithauser Travel Award. There, Garcia met extended family for the first time, researched and took photos for her project. Only a few weeks after she left, however, Hurricane Maria hit. The trip, Garcia said, was “beautiful and so cathartic, and it was also incredibly hard.” Upon landing in Puerto Rico, she felt she had “received something that I didn’t know I was missing,” and when she left, “I had to give it back.”

The project grapples with the question of “what does it mean to know that everything you know as your identity, as something to be proud of, was constructed by larger structures?”

The emotional toll of the process did not discourage her however; her thesis experience has only further cemented Garcia’s plans for the future. After spending some time at home with her family, she plans to enter a Ph.D. program and eventually become an English professor. “It’s really important to have people of color in higher [education] and in academia, because they’re the experts in what they’re doing,” she said. And, of course, “Dr. Garcia has a really nice ring to it.”

Starting A New Book
Like a true English major, Garcia explained the end of her time at Amherst with an apt metaphor. “I feel like I’m ending a book in a series,” she said. Although she feels ready to leave, and has felt ready for a while, as graduation approaches she said that she’s realized how much she will soon have to say goodbye to. “I know it’s an ending that I’m satisfied with and I’m going to be excited for, but I can’t re-read it again because it’s not going to have that same feeling,” she explained.

“I love this place because it has blessed me with so many amazing people … my god have I been reminded time and time again that this system is not built for me, but I have been blessed with such an amazing circle of people that I know that will be with me for the rest of my life.”