By Keely Sexton
Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodríguez is the keynote speaker for Latinx Heritage Month.
Rodríguez, a Nicaraguan storyteller, will discuss her book “For Brown Girls with Sharp Edges and Tender Hearts: A Love Letter to Women of Color,” released by Seal Press in September 2021. Rodríguez wrote the book as a paeon to her community, its challenges and its joys. In the book, she details her own story and the struggles she encountered in the world of higher education — and how she began to understand her part in it through connecting with her community and hearing and telling their stories.
“I wanted to write the kind of book that I needed to read,” she said.
Seeing that her own liberation was contingent on access to knowledge, which she won at the cost of her own mental health in the predominantly white world of higher education, Rodríguez set out to disseminate that knowledge freely for the community that she loves. In 2013, she started Latina Rebels, an Instagram channel dedicated to “unveiling the complexities of Latinidad.”
In her book, Rodríguez expands her focus on personal narrative, storytelling and connection as a means to uncover strength and identity. She will give her keynote lecture at 7 p.m. ET over Zoom. The event is free and open to the public. Pre-registration is required.
Above all, her message to her community is to find your people, tell your stories and listen. Rodríguez sat down with Mount Holyoke to discuss her book.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
First things first: What compelled you to write your book? What did you want to achieve with it?
The same thing that I wanted to do with Latina Rebels when I started it, which was I just found myself learning a lot in my academic space at the time. I kept thinking, “Why did it take me getting a master’s degree for me to have access to concepts like colorism?”
So much of the information in academic spaces stays in academic spaces. I wanted a book that you can find in an airport bookstore, with this information explained in ways that are loving, that give a lot of grace.
I wanted this book to explain all those “-isms” to normal people who might not have the opportunity to go to an elite institution to learn all these things, and I want to present it in ways that they can feel like they’re not being talked down to.
In your writings, you describe a lot of difficulties that you experienced at predominantly white institutions. Why go back to the places that caused you such pain?
I usually get invited to give these talks by diversity and inclusion departments or student clubs. I want to serve as their magnifying glass. I will say the things that they probably don't feel comfortable saying. I don’t have anything to lose in ways that they might. I will poke the bear. I will tell the white professor that they haven’t done enough.
I go to the places that have caused me the most harm to say the things that I wish I had heard.
What is your advice to students who might come to academia and feel out of place, out of touch with their community?
I’ll be honest, I don’t say you should continue when it hurts, especially when your mental health is in pieces.
What I do say is if you’re going to stay, don’t do it alone.
We are fed this ideal of, “Put your head down and sweat it out, do it, turn it out. If you work hard, you could get that ‘A.’”
I bought into that. I internalized that. And then I started having the experiences that students of color often have at these predominantly white institutions and found I had no one to talk to.
It felt like my insides were on fire.
I remember being in class and a student stood up and spoke in Puerto Rican–accented English, and after class I just ran up to her, and I was like, “Can we be friends?”
That’s who I became, and it saved me. It really did take me out of dark spaces.
I want to encourage people to know it’s not about individualism. It’s not about meritocracy. That’s not the way you’re going to make it in this space. You have to find your people to survive this.
How do you manage imposter syndrome?
I think that it’s disingenuous to tell people that you can beat imposter syndrome.
It isn’t something that we can just pray away, think-positively-enough away, work-hard-enough away. It just exists, and our systems reinforce it.
In my book, I end my chapter on imposter syndrome by saying, “I will speak even when my lips are shaking. I will stand up high; I will stand with my shoulders rolled back and with pride even when I want to be in a corner crying.”
You can’t let imposter syndrome win. It wins when we allow it to stop us. But to say that it’s going to go away feels like a lie that we’re feeding people. It’s here all around us and every space that we’re in. We have to learn to live with it and work past it.
Where do you find the strength to stand up and write in the face of such ongoing pain and injustice?
I think, for me personally, my strength came from a lot of pain and having experienced a lot of “-isms” that I didn’t know were “-isms” at the time. I know personally what it was like to have to live in the car called my life. I was in the car, and it was “my” life, but I was a passenger until I was 28 years old.
And then I decided, “Why the fuck am I not driving this car?”
But that took understanding things like colorism, white supremacy and racism. It took getting all that knowledge for me to say, “No one’s ever going to drive this car ever again.”
It was like a real personal awakening moment for me — I think it is such a disservice that other people don’t have access to it. It’s my mission in life to get it in as many hands, to get it in as many resistant ears, to sneak it into homes that normally wouldn’t accept a book like this.
What is one thing you hope your audience will do after this talk?
I want to challenge non-Latino readers to read a book that doesn’t have anything to do with you and find the things that might relate to you, like a lot of us are tasked to do when we are the “others.”
I wrote a book that centers on me, and that was important for me. When I was growing up, I read Judy Blume like it was my Bible. I was a card-holding member of The Baby-Sitters Club, and none of those experiences are mine. Those are books written for and by white women, but I did the work that it takes to find what was relatable to me.