The first encounter with her voice
When I received my Ph.D. acceptance letters, I was excited and undecided. Should I go to a public university or a private Catholic one? I had done my undergraduate studies at a Jesuit university; therefore, pursuing doctoral studies at a Catholic university seemed logical. One late afternoon, I was in my home parish, Sacred Heart of Jesus in San Jose, CA, with Professor Ana Maria Pineda, R.S.M. and her students. We were rehearsing el Via Crucis play. I told her that I needed her advice because I was not sure which graduate school to choose. She asked me a few questions and then looked at me with a winsome but firm look and told me, “While it would make a lot of sense for you to do your graduate studies at another Catholic university, it will not challenge your way of thinking about religion and your research projects as would a public university.” Her answer surprised me; I thought she would advise me to continue my studies at a Catholic university. I took her advice, and wow, was she right! I was one of four Latina graduate students in the department and the only graduate student studying Sociology of Religion. My department is one of the most progressive and Marxist intellectual spaces in the country, and anything that had to do with religion is frowned upon. From the beginning, my interest in religion was questioned, and some of the graduate students called me a nun, which to them was no embrace but a joke. As a first-gen working class female graduate student of color, I was already an anomaly, and my interest in the sociology of religion just alienated me even more.
The second encounter with her voice
When I was conducting my ethnographic research for my master’s thesis at the Mexican American Cultural Center, I met Anita De Luna, MCDP. I walked into her office to interview her for my thesis. After our interview, she asked me if I was getting any support for my research. I told her that I had received a small grant from my university to conduct my master’s thesis. She then said, “What I am asking is if, in addition to the financial support, you have mentors apart from your research committee?” Her question took me by surprise; no one had ever cared to ask me this before. It had never occurred to me to seek mentorship beyond my committee. I told her that I did not have any other type of mentorship. She then told me about the Hispanic Theological Initiative and how it benefited her academic training and encouraged me to apply.
I looked up the Hispanic Theological Initiative right away and applied to their Doctoral fellowship in 2001 and the Dissertation fellowship in 2003. From the beginning, my research interests found not only a home, but I gained a community of scholars who became my intellectual family. HTI had gifted me a community of conversation partners that I did not have in my doctoral program, making a significant difference in my graduate school experience. I felt supported, I felt heard, and I felt at home. Had it not been for the Hispanic Theological Initiative, I would have had a challenging graduate school experience. Ana Maria Pineda was right; I needed to be in a secular academic space to develop a more complex understanding of my research. Anita de Luna spoke truth to me; I needed the mentorship of a community of scholars open and willing to nourish my research interests.
When I graduated with a Ph.D. in Sociology, I not only had a tenure-track job offer at my alma mater waiting for me, but I was also going back to my hometown. Four years into teaching, I was offered a book contract by Oxford University Press, my academic life couldn’t get any better, and unfortunately, it didn’t. Fast forward a couple of years, and Santa Clara University denied me tenure.
The third encounter with her voice
The summer I left academia, I was invited to do a book talk by my colleague and HTI scholar, Santiago Piñon at Texas Christian University. After I accepted, the common ask came in an email, “Please send us a short bio”—a no brainer for any professor, we all have a short bio filed away for when we need it. Wait, “we”? I am not part of the “we” anymore. It took me a few minutes to realize that I did not know how to refer to myself professionally outside academia. I went through a culture shock, an identity crisis, and yes, a state of depression and anxiety. I had placed my profession in the driver’s seat and let it define who I was.
The following Fall, my daughter began 6th grade, and with it, so many changes started to take place among the students, particularly girls. Girls who were friends in elementary school began to separate into small clicks. They measured their perception of teen-hood by the size of their developing breasts, who started their menstrual cycle first, and (according to them) the ultimate teenage signifier—the use of tampons. Those who had Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok, were perceived as the most popular, not to mention the number of followers they had or the number of likes to their photos, videos, and posts. In my generation, peer disagreements and tensions among friends stayed at school. Among Generation Z (Gen Zs), such tensions follow students into the privacy of their homes. For this reason, her father and I decided that she would not have social media, but this was not enough to prevent her from being bullied.
My daughter experienced social exclusion and body shaming in middle school from girls who were once her friends. Like most parents, my immediate reaction was anger and frustration. I worked as a college professor for many years, where I lectured, researched, read, and wrote about feminism and Latina cultural expectations. Here I was sitting with my daughter, feeling heartbroken as I watched her cry and listened to how she felt rejected by her peers.
The more she opened up, the more my heart broke into million-and-one pieces. I immediately researched sources for Latina teens and their mothers. I wanted a resource that provided a nuanced explanation of the influence of race, class, gender, and sexuality on the social construction of Latina teen identities and offered strategies to caregivers to help girls develop a healthy self-concept. I also looked into sources for Catholic Latina teens and mental health, and again to my disappointment, I did not find any. At this point, I decided that I needed to be proactive about this matter and turn inward to my academic training for answers. At this precise moment, I heard the Holy Spirit’s voice a third time, but in this occasion it was different and more direct. I heard her speak to me through my voice. How can I put to service my academic training as a sociologist of religion to help female caregivers and girls come to a greater understanding of the social roots of peer pressure and social expectations?
Reflecting on the life and work of mentors who were central early on in my academic training, I circled back to the two voices in which the Holy Spirit spoke to me at critical points in my academic training—Ana Maria Pineda and Anita De Luna. I reflected on their life and work and on the ways that their vocation to serve through teaching transformed my own life. The Holy Spirit had gifted me the opportunity to ask myself, “How can I put to service my academic training and my commitment to our Latina/o/x communities to teach and serve beyond the walls of academia?” Her answer came to me in my fourth encounter with her through the voice of my daughter, Guadalupe Tonantzin (Lupita).
The fourth encounter with her voice
Sobbing and with her voice breaking, Lupita said to me, “Mami, I don’t want other girls to go through what I am going through.” At this moment, I was able to see the ways the Holy Spirit had been preparing me for this moment. When I heard her voice through my daughter, my response was, “You are right. You are not the only girl going through this experience; unfortunately, there are many more teens.” Then I asked Lupita, “How about you and I do something to help girls who are going through similar experiences?” Her eyes lit up as she said, “Sí mamí, I can share my experience, and you can teach what you taught in college.” And it was in this way that we both gave birth to Becoming Mujeres, an organization that provides workshops and seminars to Latina teens and their female caregivers. Lupita and I co-facilitate the workshops. I bring my training as a sociologist focusing on women, feminism, Latina/o/x cultural expectations, and religion. Lupita shares her experiences and the strategies she uses to overcome the common challenges in teen girls’ lives.
Reflection: I have learned that teaching and serving outside academia has brought me closer to my calling. Outside the walls of academia, people are not interested in how well we engage with other thinkers or how eloquently we engage with high theory in our writing. While this is important and expected of every academic, when one teaches outside the walls of academia, people need our expertise in ways that speak to their lived reality. Most of us earn PhDs with the intention to secure a life of academic publishing and teaching in the college classroom. While some do, the Holy Spirit has a different plan for others. What does remain the same is the call to serve through teaching. May we open our hearts to the ways the Holy Spirit calls us to serve. She spoke to me four times in the voice of two HTI mentors central to my academic training, Ana Maria Pineda, Anita de Luna, my own voice, and in the voice of my daughter.
I invite you to be open to how the Holy Spirit speaks to you. Her voice may come in moments of incertitude when you think she has forgotten about you as it happened to me. What at first may seem a failure can be her way of guiding your vocation as she did mine. As I reflect on my professional journey, I can clearly see how the Holy Spirit came to me in the personal experience of my Guadalupe Tonantzin gifting me roses in my life’s December.