Ileana Jiménez is a high school teacher at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City, where she teaches classes on feminism, Latina/o literature and LGBT literature, among others. She has been teaching for more than a decade, and was recently awarded the Distinguished Fulbright Award in Teaching. She will use the award to study gender equity and educational access in Mexico. Jimenez sits on the board of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and is an alumnus of the Women’s Media Center’s prestigious Progressive Women’s Voices program. The WMC also named her one of their 30 Women Making History earlier this year.
I met Ileana a few weeks ago when Miriam and I taught workshop for a small group of her students to teach them the basics of feminist blogging. I was so impressed by Ileana’s ability to push her students to think and, and by the way she addressed the young adults in her class as just that – young adults, with real ideas and contributions to make. If you want to see what those ideas and contributions look like, I suggest you check out their new class blog, F to the Third Power. And if you want to follow Ileana’s adventures in feminist teaching – and her Fulbright adventures in researching gender equity in Mexico next year – you can read her blog, too.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Ileana Jiménez.
Chloe Angyal: What made you want to start teaching, and what made you want to teach feminism to young people?
Ileana Jiménez: I came to my feminism at the end of my senior year in high school. The way that that happened was by reading James Joyce’s novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. When I read that, I realized that I connected to him a great deal. Here was a character who was kicked around on the playground, and I connected to that personally because I was bullied on the playground. I was pushed around, I was called names. I was called “nigger,” I was called “spic.” My family had moved from the Bronx to Long Island in the early eighties and we were really the only Puerto Rican family in our town at that time. It was really quite obvious that there were no other Latino families in our town at that time. When I read Portrait of the Artist, I immediately connected to him because I’d never read anything that had to do with a kid being pushed around, especially a sensitive kid – a kid who writes poetry under the covers, who reads, who loves literature and really soaks up language for meaning and symbolism and metaphor. And I saw myself in him. It was at that moment that I realized that I hadn’t read about a girl with this same exact story. And that led me to write a long research paper in my AP English class about the female Künstlerroman, the artist’s novel. I did this whole analysis comparing Portrait of the Artist to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Judy Chicago’s autobiography Through the Flower. And through that research, I found feminist theory. I read for the first time people like Simone de Beauvoir, Sexual Politics by Kate Millett and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic. I discovered all those classic feminist literary criticisms, and it was through reading those classic works that I came to the realization that I was a feminist.
But even at the end of that process, I realized that based on everything I had read, all of the writers in the feminist movement were white. I still wasn’t finding that direct mirror to what it means to be a twentieth century Latina girl growing up on Long Island with parents who had come from Puerto Rico. What does it mean to grow up in predominately white neighborhoods on Long Island and find your feminism, but not see in the feminist literature somebody who reflects your feminism back to you?
So that brought me to the realization that I wanted to go to a women’s college, and that was a turning point. Reading all the literature, the theory, the classic feminist works, confirmed for me that I wanted to go to a women’s college and be surrounded by fierce women, by smart women, I wanted to be supported by an environment that identified explicitly as feminist. And so I went to Smith College, and through my English major there, through all the literature classes I took, there was not one class where I didn’t think I was not going to give it back to young people. I always thought, every time I signed up for a class, “some day you may teach this.” It was always in the back of my head that some day I would teach the very literature I was learning. And I was very intentional about what I took, what I was learning, so that I could give it back. So that I could give some young person an epiphany that was just as powerful as the one I had when I was a senior in high school. And that still drives me in many ways: I really want my work as a feminist educator to bring moments of epiphany, moments of realization, moments of consciousness, moments of awareness to young people.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroines, and who are your heroines in real life?
IJ: First it was Stephen from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a hero, but then I realized I needed to find heroines who reflect me back to me. I would say Jess, in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. It’s three or four hundred pages long, but it reads so quickly and you become so engrossed in it right away. You follow Jess through this trajectory of time, space and history. It starts in the 1940s in this butch-femme bar culture of upstate New York and ends in the late seventies and early eighties in New York, and the advent of the HIV/AIDS crisis. We follow her through moments of history, when she first identifies as a lesbian and particularly as a butch lesbian. And then she transitions and she identifies as transgender, and then she returns to this other space of androgyny. By the end, she claims herself, regardless of her gender. And when I read that, it was really powerful, because when you’re reading Jess’ story, you’re seeing so much of what it means to navigate the day to day experience of being a queer person. And there are moments of history in the novel: Kennedy dies, the Civil Rights movement happens, Second Wave feminism happens. That character comes upon every single major turning point of the last fifty or sixty years, but it’s about how those historical moments apply to her. Feinberg’s novel allows me to ask what the moments are in history that I can point to when I was awakened, just as Jess came to moments of awakening throughout that novel. For me it was clearly the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas debacle and the Ruth Bader Ginsburg confirmation hearings. I can remember exactly what I was feeling during those moments, and it’s important for me to see that literature reflects how we can connect ourselves to larger movements and larger moments in history, that mean something to us.
My heroine in real life is Ruth Simmons. She was the president of Smith when I was there. She came in my junior year and I’ll never forget her inauguration. She brought in all of the African American intelligentsia that she could, and it was so powerful to see Toni Morrison on campus, to see Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates. Because of her connections to Princeton and to Harvard and the other institutions she was associated with before she came to Smith, she was able to bring all those people to campus and it was really powerful for those of us who were students of color who really needed the conversation about race, about gender, about class and ethnicity to be reignited. Ruth was able to do that during her tenure at Smith. She taught me a great deal about leadership and diplomacy, and she taught me a great deal about vision. I was junior class president, and because of that I was able to sit on a number of committees, and one of them was the college planning and resources committee, a trustee committee, and I remember watching her lead the room through decision making. And I had never really seen that before. I had never really seen that kind of mastery of making people understand and agree with and vote for your decision. That was really powerful for me, especially as a first generation college student, to be seated at a table with a woman of color who was also the leader of a major college.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
IJ: There are many, but I’ll name just a couple. The recent chants by the Yale DKE boys really have disgusted me. They have led me to think a lot about what we are doing in our schools, and what we are not doing. When I read a story like that, I think, “this is why we need a different kind of education.” We as educators need to address this, not just in high school, but as early as elementary school. When I was in elementary school, I was the target of verbal assault. I know for sure that children do this to each other, because I myself went through it. If we could teach children how to really talk about race and class and gender and sexuality in meaningful ways, we would not be having these situations at Yale fraternities. If we actually looked at our schools and asked how we could address this systemically, we could cause a revolution and really change our culture. The recent suicides by young people – that attitude, that same discrimination and hatred that allow something like that to happen is the same attitude that’s coming out of those young men at Yale. It’s the same culture. If we can address this in schools, we would not be sending anyone off to college to do something so disgusting and bitter and hateful toward women, toward queer people and toward people of color. There’s a reason why this happens, and it’s because as a culture and a society, we condone it. And we could leverage education, not blame it, but leverage it, and use the space to make this kind of hateful situation stop.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
IJ: I think the biggest challenge facing feminism is that it is not taken seriously by education. When I think about what various curricula offer, we always study the Civil Rights movement. We always study the Holocaust. We always study those really important historical moments. But we never give the attention to feminisms that we should. When students take my classes, they always give me their reasons for taking the class – that they don’t know much about feminism. They see it as a kind of footnote in their textbooks, but not the focus of a chapter. And I think we’re doing our students, our young people, a disservice, in not teaching them what feminisms have done for their betterment. I’m not just talking about equal pay, I’m talking about real, deep analysis of how feminism looks at structural inequalities, and really tries to address how we live in the world, and how was can live a better life.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
IJ: I would bring my mother’s rice and beans, avocado and platanas dish, a traditional Puerto Rican dish that I grew up with, Bulleit bourbon, and Cherrie Moraga, who wrote Loving in the War Years and is my favorite Chicana lesbian feminist theorist. She was the one who finally gave me back to me. When I was 19, I took a Latina and Latin American Writers class at Smith and it was reading her work that finally gave me the language to reclaim myself through my Latina identity, my queer identity and my feminist identity and merge all those things together.