Category: On being a female law student–and Puerto Rican

On Being A Female Law Student—and Puerto Rican #2 Gender and Race

Gender and Race

There’s a method to my madness as a teacher, especially of 1Ls. Like I said, when I taught at Iowa I intentionally avoided meeting my Contracts students until the first day of class, and I didn’t want to know their  life narratives, their subtexts, on that day.

But that was the first day of class. Little by little, as the semester progressed, I would introduce aspects of gender, race, class, and other identities that informed the cases we studied.

This probably surprised and confused most, if not all, of the students, at least initially. They came to my course expecting they would learn how contracts are made and enforced, coming to know and understand the technical stuff such as “consideration,” “unconscionability,” or the “parol evidence” rule. I did teach them that stuff so they would be awesome technicians.

But if that’s all I taught, the course would be exceedingly narrow and dry. Students could easily skip all of the classes and pick up on the technical content through commercial outlines. I would die out of sheer boredom. I would even use PowerPoint. God no! Somebody kill me now!

To stay alive, I began engaging the students in uncovering the life narratives of the parties to the contract, and how those narratives collided with each other in litigation. I started pointing out how the life narratives developed within broader social narratives that prevailed at the time. I also threw into the mix the life narratives of the judges in the cases.

What made the classes even more complex and compelling was how the students’ life narratives informed how they interpreted the cases, and how, given their narratives, they interacted with each other as we discussed the cases.

Here I begin a series of excerpts from Kristymarie’s article as they relate to the life narrative she brought to the classroom. This post deals with the complexity of race and gender.

“In Spanish, gendered adjectives are obligatory; the descriptor and the object’s gender are inseparable. My gender and my racial identity are similarly intertwined and cannot be separated for dissection or analysis without one taking a chunk off of the other on its way out. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw was the first to formally introduce the theory of intersectionality to address this juxtaposition. Intersectionality is “the predicament of women of color and others who sit at the intersection of two or more categories.” This theory exposes how analyzing a woman of color’s experience, either through the gender looking glass or the race looking glass without joint consideration, invariably leads to an incomplete analysis, leaving women of color unprotected when legally determining whether there has been discrimination.

For individuals at the intersection, like myself, a discussion of race will automatically be gendered, and any discussion of gender will automatically be racialized. There is no such thing as a “monolithic ‘women’s experience’ that can be described independently of other facets of experience like race, class, and sexual orientation.” Essentialism, or assuming there is a uniform racialized or gendered experience, strips members of that group from the expression of other facets of their identity.

More specifically, as Berta Esperanza Hernández-Truyol explains, the intersectionality of Latinas’ ethnicity and sex may lead to a sense of otherness within and outside the majority community. For example, when a Latina fails to conform to an ethnic stereotype within the majority community, she may face the same isolation she would face if she were to fail to adhere to the gender stereotype within her own Latino community.

Because of these intertwined identities, many racialized and gendered law candidates may struggle to identify which facet of their identity is creating the sense of otherness in any given interaction. It may also further complicate decisions as to how to portray, downplay, or exploit these different facets to achieve the law candidate’s ultimate goal: employment.”


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.”