A Latinx State of Mind: Q&A with Poet, Author, and Professor, Melissa Castillo Planas

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Photo of Professor Melissa Castillo Planas
Photo of Professor Melissa Castillo Planas

Lehman College kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month on Sept. 15 with a book talk, featuring several female authors, and continued throughout the week with film screenings, poetry readings, and performances. A glance at the calendar reveals a rich lineup of academic talks, art, music, and spoken word performances—all coordinated by Professor Melissa Castillo Planas who, in addition to teaching Latinx literature in the English Department, also serves as faculty advisor to the newly formed Latinx Student Alliance.

Castillo Planas’ current book project, titled A Mexican State of Mind: New York City and the New Borderlands of Cultures,will be published by Rutgers University Press in March. She is also the author of the poetry collection Coatlicue Eats the Apple; editor of the anthology ¡Manteca!: An Anthology of Afro-Latin@ Poets; and co-author of the novel, Pure Bronx. We talked with her recently about her career as an author, poet, and professor, and how she weaves her experiences as a Latina into the classroom.

Q: What made you want to be a writer?
A: English was my least favorite subject in school, but I was always interested in social justice. When I was in high school, I was part of Amnesty International. One day, I went to my school newspaper and told them I wanted to write a column, so they gave me a column. It was through journalism that I got into writing, because I was able to write about things that I really cared about.

From there I went to New York University to study journalism. I worked as a journalist, but overtime I saw that there were more rules in terms of my writing. It was then that I started exploring fiction and poetry, and that led me to academia. I like that I get to dictate my interests and that it is fine if those interests change.

Q: It’s interesting that as a teenager you were already part of an organization like Amnesty International. It seems you had a strong social conscious even then. Who or what were your influences back then?
A: I guess it has to be my parents. They tell me that when I was a little kid, I boycotted cartoons because there weren’t enough strong female roles. When I was in fifth grade, I convinced my class to donate our trip money to children in Bosnia.

My father is a mathematician, but he has always been very concerned with the advancement of Latinos in the STEM fields, and dedicated his career to being a mentor. Watching him put in a lot of long nights and days to help students probably influenced me a lot.

Q: How would you describe your voice as a poet and how you came to it? 
A: I think it comes out of my experience being Mexican in New York and growing up in Ithaca, where there wasn’t a huge history of Mexicans being there. It affected the way that I related to my culture and the way I related to other people.

These are the themes that I explore in my poetry-my identity as Mexican-American, but not being surrounded by Mexicans. So, how do I retain that? How do I celebrate it? How do I maintain it? And, how does it look different from my cousins who are in Mexico? Because it does [look different], because my Spanish isn’t perfect. This totally affects my writing, because the book that I’m working on now is about Mexicans in New York. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

Q. This is your first job as a professor. What were some of your first impressions of the college?

A. When I came here for my interview, I absolutely loved it. I had to do a teaching demo and I had such great rapport with my students. I really loved the faculty that I met, and when I left I thought, “I really hope I get this job.” I’ve never walked onto a campus with this much diversity, and it was jaw-dropping.

Q. How would you describe your style for connecting with students and teaching?
A. I select my text very carefully. I try to select text that is culturally relevant, and that I feel will connect with my students. When I teach American literature, I teach a lot of people of color, because I want my students to see American literature in a way that reflects the classroom and allows them to see themselves as also being part of the United States.

I want literature to be something that students feel that they can own and see themselves in. I want for them to see themselves as writers, because they see themselves in the authors, or as critics and cultural thinkers, because the authors are talking about topics that relate to them.

Also, I think I bring a lot of energy to the class because I absolutely love everything that we’re reading, and they can see that. I always read something new with them that I haven’t read, so that we can experience it together. For example, in American literature, we’re reading Nicole Dennis-Benn Patsy, a story about immigration.

Q. What has surprised you most about Lehman students?
A: How much I like them, how much I learn from them, and how much I enjoy working with them.

My vision for being a professor was always much more about the writing and research. Now, for me, it’s all about teaching the students. I have to remind myself to do the writing and research, because I enjoy the teaching so much.

Q: How did your involvement with the new Latinx Alliance come about? Is this something you wanted to do prior to your professorship here?

A. The Latinx Student Alliance came from conversations with my classes last semester about what it meant for Lehman College to be a Hispanic Serving Institution [HIS]. The students expressed that they wanted more representation of Latinx issues, history, and culture, so I challenged them to be a part of the solution!

This is definitely something I always envisioned myself doing. While at Fordham University as a graduate student, I was an advisor for Academia Hispanic, a Latinx student group. I loved that experience, so this was definitely something I wanted to do at Lehman as well. 

Q: What was your goal for the events for Hispanic Heritage Month?
A: My goal is to bring awareness to the campus about Lehman College's status and responsibility as both a Hispanic Serving Institution and as an institution serving a diverse body of students of color. I really want to see Latinx history and culture further integrated into classrooms, curricula, and campus life as we are an integral part of the fabric of this country.

Q: In addition to panel discussions and film screenings, you’ve scheduled several poetry readings. What story does the poetry of a culture tell that may not be told in other ways, or through other disciplines, even literary ones?

A: I always think of Audre Lorde who expressed how for women of color, "poetry is not a luxury." I think of Gloria Anzaldúa who spoke of the attempts to silence her tongue and forms of expression. Both of these women were not only both poets and scholars, but saw poetry in the lived experience of people of color. I believe poetry is a way to give voice to those who have often been voiceless, but to do so on their own terms. It is a form that can be inhabited in different ways and adapted to fully express an individual experience.

Q: Has your definition of being a professor changed since you began working here, and, if so, how?
A: During my post-doctoral, I remember trying to maintain a very high-level formality in the classroom, but I just felt that it wasn’t me. I felt that I’m not being as good of a teacher, if I’m not being that energetic, open person.

I like having the veil down, because perhaps students can see themselves in me and see themselves as future professors as well.