You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you’ve got something to say.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
Writing is a struggle against silence.
Prior to moving to the Rio Grande Valley, Emmy Perez, assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Texas-Pan American, conducted writing workshops in detention centers in El Paso and New Mexico. Since accepting a position in the Master of Fine Arts Program at UTPA, she and her students have led similar workshops at the former Adult Boot Camp in Edinburg and at the Juvenile Detention Center in Edinburg.
Shortly after starting the workshops, Perez met Stanley Gonzales, who helped her coordinate the workshops. (Gonzales worked as a probation officer when they first met, but he has since retired and now teaches criminal justice at UTPA.)
During the 2010 spring semester, Perez decided to try something new. Rather than have her students participate in the program completely outside of their coursework at the university, Perez turned the writing project into a service learning course, Creative Writing and Social Action, allowing students to spend half of their course time in the classroom and half outside serving their community.
“I believe it’s important for us to connect with community organizations,” Perez said. “We have a lot to learn from our elders, our peers, and the youth of the community.”
For this new project, Perez and Gonzales teamed up again. This time they focused their attention on the Juvenile Court Conference Committee (JCCC) at the Judge Mario E. Ramirez Jr. Juvenile Justice Center in Edinburg. Eleven of Perez’s 16 students signed on for the writing project while the remaining five chose other community projects. Three of Perez’s former students who volunteered in her previous writing projects, Isaac Chavarria, Sergio Cuevas and Nayelly Barrios, joined the group. Now the preparation could begin.
Perez and her 14 mentors prepared by completing creative writing exercises and reading and discussing social action writing literature and theory.
“I often say it is more difficult to develop and lead others in creative writing exercises if you are disconnected from the practice yourself,” Perez said.
The mentors wrote poems, short stories, and testimonies and shared their work. After each mentor read, others in the group provided feedback. In March, after completing their extensive preparation, they were ready to meet their students.
Their students were first-time offenders of Class A, B or C misdemeanors or “status offenses,” such as truancy or curfew violations. The writing project was voluntary, and approximately 15 JCCC juveniles signed on. The mentors and their students would meet once a week for five weeks, each session lasting one hour.
Perez taught the first session, and her three former students taught the second. Perez’s Creative Writing and Social Action students taught the three remaining sessions in small groups.
“Youth participants were encouraged to write about their lives, their experiences and their communities,” Perez said. “What resulted is a powerful glimpse into the lives, concerns and creativity of the youth participants.”
Amanda de la Fuente, a junior at UTPA majoring in sociology with minors in art and English, first learned of Perez’s class from a flier on a campus bulletin board.
“I immediately set forth to enroll,” de la Fuente said. “This type of community partnership is in line with the ideals of a connected and equal society, which is the root of sociology.”
According to de la Fuente, the students were not the only ones who benefitted from the writing project. Perez agrees.
“I hope my UTPA students learned to be active and empathetic listeners,” she said. “The JCCC participants teach us what they have experienced, witnessed and imagined, and I hope we shared our enjoyment of the artistic practice of creative writing and imparted, if only a little bit, its value in our community and world.”
Chavarria first participated in one of Perez’s writing projects during the 2007 fall semeser. He saw her latest endeavor as an opportunity to serve youth in our community.
“In many of the participants, I see their confidence about their writing and ideas improve…those who were shy at first begin to share their work voluntarily” Chavarria said.
Gonzales has continued collaborating with Perez on the writing projects for the same reason.
“A sense of accomplishment begins to take place gradually,” he said, “like a plant growing. You feel your efforts are making a difference.”
After the final session, the mentors held a ceremony to recognize the 11 young writers who stuck with the program from start to finish and to allow their family members to hear what they had written. She told the audience that the writers’ work would be published in a chapbook and recognized two writers for creating the chapbook’s title, Life, A Story Without an End: Underestimated Writers.
At the ceremony, Perez thanked the writers.
“It wasn’t easy for you to come each day and share your feelings with strangers,” she said. “Thank you for teaching us so much about yourselves.”
The mentors introduced the young writers to the audience, encouraging them to “keep writing” and to “keep going to school,” reminding them that they “have a lot to say and need to be heard.”
One-by-one, the writers stood at the podium, shoulders back, eyes looking first at their written words and then at the audience as they allowed their written voices to be heard.