On Being A Female Law student–and Puerto Rican #1 “¡Yo soy Boricua, pa’ que tú lo sepas!”

I taught Contracts to first-year students, 1Ls, virtually every year during my tenure at the University of Iowa College of Law.  Every year I intentionally avoided orientation activities , such as ice cream socials, intended to have 1Ls mix with their professors before the first day of classes. The idea of serving ice cream to adult law students repulsed me, frankly.

The temptation to plant a scoop of ice cream atop a clueless student’s head wasn’t the real reason I avoided those kind of things. The real reason was that I wanted our first meeting to be in the classroom. I wanted them to realize that at least for that first class I didn’t care about their backgrounds, their narratives, their subtexts. I didn’t care that one of them might have graduated first in her class while raising a two-year old on her own, or that another initiated a fundraiser for combating AIDS in Africa by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

No one was more special or more accomplished than the other. They were all 1Ls. They were all clueless. They were all frozen in their seats, their hearts pounding like sledgehammers on concrete, beads of cold sweat forming on their foreheads, all wanting to make a beeline for the bathroom and never come out, all about to throw up the ice cream they thought they enjoyed during orientation when professors seemed nice and human.

But they all did have compelling life narratives, subtexts that would inform how they would interpret the cases they would read for class, how they would participate in class discussion, how they would interact with me and their fellow students.

With this post, I begin a series of excerpts from a compelling article a former student of mine, Kristymarie Shipley, recently published in the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice. Titled “Should I Be ‘Shipley’ or ‘Flores Collazo’ Today? The Racialization of the Law Student and Legal Workplace Candidate,” the article uses Critical Race Theory (CRT) to explore how Kristymarie’s life narrative, her subtext, informed her experience as a law student. I’m not going to get into the intricacies of CRT here. In a nutshell, CRT arose because prior to its advent in the late 1980s the legal academy failed to take into account how race informs everything from scholarship to faculty hiring decisions, to class discussions.

To make the excerpts more accessible to all of my readers, I have stripped out all of the footnotes and avoided much of the discussion of CRT theory without taking anything away from Kristymarie’s recounting of her life narrative.

Here’s the beginning of her subtext.

“Leaving my hometown Caguas, Puerto Rico for the University of Florida was an eye-opening experience. I was not only new to college, but also to the English-speaking United States. Because the college orientation did not include a tour of the dining hall and I was not yet able to string together the necessary words to ask someone in English, my second language, I had no idea how to figure out the cafeteria system. So I sneakily followed a girl from my residence hall into the dining hall. Once there, I swiped my card as she did. I grabbed the same foods that she grabbed because I did not want to lose sight of her. I then followed her out when she finished her meal.

I followed this basic pattern as an undergraduate: find someone who seems to know what she is doing, observe, mimic and adjust efforts as needed. With time, I also learned to ask a lot of questions—lots of questions. At the University of Florida, I was able to simply walk into La Casita, the Institute of Hispanic and Latino Culture, and immediately find individuals willing to help with transitioning into life away from home and gain access to resources that would make the transition smoother.  It provided a forum where many students like myself could feel comfortable asking “silly” questions that may seem second nature to others.

But during my experience at law school and the search for legal employment, I was not able to adhere to the familiar pattern that had worked so well during my undergraduate experience. Everyone else also seemed to be navigating through the complexities of law school and legal employment. As a Puerto Rican female student married to an African American man, it was also difficult for me to find anyone, student or otherwise, who fully understood the transition I was experiencing.

When someone asks me what I am, I always respond, “I am from Puerto Rico.” My goal is to clarify that I am from the actual island of Puerto Rico, as opposed to being from the United States with Puerto Rican ancestry, and to let the person determine what that means. Whether the person wants to consider me Puerto Rican, Latina, Hispanic, American, or an alien is up to them. Peeling back all the layers of those labels is too time consuming to be worthwhile.

One of the most drastic cultural or racial identity recognitions I experienced moving from Puerto Rico to the United States, or “the mainland” as we “Islanders” call it, was realizing that I was now part of a minority. I grew up in Puerto Rico, where a spectral view of race goes well beyond the U.S. black-white binary of racial construction.

I grew up with the “Puerto Rican first, American second” mentality and the “¡Yo soy Boricua, pa’ que tú lo sepas!” on my lips. And so did the majority of the people around me. Thus, the distinguishing factor became my skin tone. Although my husband, who is African American, often teases me that I am pale and white, back home I was trigueña: an identifier based on my “wheat-like” colored skin. My sister, who has fair skin, was the white one. In contrast, my father, who was darker than me and whose Taíno features were more prominent, would have been referred to as “indio” or Native American.

When I left Puerto Rico for college, however, my racialization changed. My skin tone was no longer the relevant identifier. Although my answer to “what are you?” remained “Puerto Rican,” I was constantly reminded that in the mainland my racial identity was broader, and I was repeatedly labeled as Hispanic, a panethnic group. And so began my panethnic racialization, which I felt failed to completely encompass the national identity that defined my individuality, resulting in a consistent desire to over-explain that I am Puerto Rican… but yes, also Latina, or Hispanic… or whatever.”



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