Written by Guadalupe Rodriguez
This is how it all starts: it’s the first time that you see yourself. And it’s not just like seeing yourself in the mirror when you wake up in the mornings or when you take a shower in the evenings. It’s not like when you notice you have your mother’s hair one day as you stare at her. Or when you realize that the nose you want to go under the knife is actually a treasure your dad gave you. It’s more than that. It’s not reading Judy Blume, and ending it to the thought of “oh I wish I could be like this.” Or fantasizing about living in a nice house. No, this is better than Judy Blume. This is seeing yourself in San Antonio, “growing up in a poor household,” with “a young narrator, but [who] was also very smart.” It’s something “familiar and recognizable.” And when you read this piece “it made [you] feel that [you] didn’t need to be somebody else.”
This is Yvette.
From a young age, Dr. Yvette DeChavez discovered her love of literature through a self-image: in the sixth grade she read Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros and saw herself in a book for the first time. Her love for Cisneros bloomed into a passion as she described how “it was the first time a book meant something for [her].” And it was her first step into a literary career that allows ethnically diverse pieces to thrive.
“I went on to read House on Mango Street, and then dabbled in her poetry,” DeChavez said. “It gave me an appreciation for literature by women of color. It started me off on that.”
DeChavez then passed through middle and high school, with her and her mother working to pay for tuition at a “low income” private school in San Antonio. Eventually she found herself at UT Austin for her undergraduate education, and it was the first time she was immersed a vast wave of whiteness.
“My high school was 99% Latino. I got to Austin and I remember people talking shit about San Antonio, and it made me ashamed from where I was from,” she said. “I just felt a lot of shame, I felt stupid, I felt that my opinions and contributions weren’t valuable. I was listening to all these people and they’d sound so much smarter.”
Despite the overwhelming culture shock that UT threw at her, DeChavez knew herself from the beginning; she knew she “was going to be English major.” She even wrote herself a letter in the eighth grade where she promised herself she would be a teacher and a writer. After getting her bachelor’s, her brother, Phillip, pushed her to start her journey as a teacher. So she completed a PhD in English at UT.
“It was hard. It was like undergrad all over again. When I came in, I was one of like two or three Latinos accepted into the program. It’s hard. It’s really hard when you’re a person of color, and you’re not raised in an environment where I could go home and say ‘mom, dad, let me tell you about what’s going on in grad school,’” she said. “I felt like a token a lot. Most of the time, I just felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t write like them.”
DeChavez’s struggles in graduate school peaked when she was 27, after her champion, her brother Phillip, committed suicide.
“That was a moment for me… we didn’t know he was depressed. He was very secretive. When that happened, I was depressed as well.”
DeChavez took the pain that came with this even in her life and learned about herself and how to connect literature to the outside world. “And that became a moment where I was like ‘well are you gonna continue down this path that leads to either slow suicide or actual suicide or are you going to figure out how to live?’”
After healing herself though therapy, DeChavez turned her craft of writing into a way of coping as well.
“I started turning more to art. I’d always been writing, but I never thought about it as a healing thing. It allows me to take a piece of me that hurting, and get it out,” she said. “It’s like poison that comes out of me. Instead of it being something that’s unhealthy, it can be something beautiful that someone can look at.”
Eventually, Phillip’s death taught her about being herself during her time in the PhD program. And with the help of her childhood idol, she found a way to make her PhD even more meaningful.
“When my brother died, I became aware I was playing a role,” she said. “I ended up going to Mexico and spending some time with Sandra Cisneros. That was life changing. I thought ‘I don’t have to be this person.’ There was all of these people who lived and died so that I could exist. I have this opportunity, and I remembered that I have a support system. I’m gonna take this PhD and do something with this.”
DeChavez graduated in the spring of 2017 with a PhD in Latino and African American Literature. She quickly dove into her dream of being a teacher, and is currently teaching a section of “American Novel After 1960.” All her novels are ethnically and culturally diverse: from Toni Morrison, to Junot Díaz, to her childhood idol, Sandra Cisneros. Although DeChavez has found positive reception in her selection of books, she has “chosen not to pursue the job market.” Instead, she will use her talents to be the medicine for other people to heal.
“I don’t feel like doing that route race. Maybe later, for right now, I don’t like the work of academic writing,” she said. “I don’t think it’s my work. Literary criticism…that was not the job I was put on this Earth to do. My job is to heal people.”
One thing’s for sure: literature and books are a big source of healing for DeChavez, and will more likely than not serve as one of her greatest tool in her journey towards helping her community heal.
“The older I got, and the more I turned to books that I could recognize myself in them. It sort of showed me the importance of sharing stories. I feel that so many books that have entered my life have been medicine that have changed me.”