Listening to the way Elvira Prieto ’96 laughs, easily and fully, you’d never guess the things she’s been through.
You’d never guess that Prieto, now a Casa Naranja Resident Fellow and associate director of El Centro Chicano y Latino at Stanford, grew up picking grapes in the San Joaquin Valley from the age of 6, toiling in the fields and packing sheds to provide essential income for her Mexican-American family of six. Or that she still suffers physical pain from the hard labor she did back then. Or that she, her siblings and her mother lived for years under the tyranny of a violent alcoholic father who abused them physically and emotionally.
But none of those stories are secrets. Prieto will tell you about them if you ask. And now, with the publication just last month of her first collection of poetry and prose, “An (Im)possible Life: Poesía y Testimonio in the Borderlands,” they’re out in the open for anyone to read.
The book itself is relatively slim — 143 pages in a mixture of English and Spanish — but it represents over a decade of work on Prieto’s part, work she said was as much about healing old wounds as it was about the writing.
“I just realized, ‘I have to get this out of my body or it’s going to poison me,’” Prieto said of her stories on Oct. 23, at her first public reading after the book’s publication.
The immediate impetus to start writing autobiographical pieces might have come from a mentor, former Stanford faculty member Renato Rosaldo, but Prieto’s relationship with reading, writing and education started many, many years before.
In fact, it started years before Prieto herself was born, with her mother’s family in Chihuahua, Mexico and a strong woman who worked tirelessly to make sure all of her nine children received a solid education: Prieto’s grandmother, Lolita. Two of her children, Prieto’s aunt and uncle, went on to be teachers and school directors.
And Prieto’s mother, Guadalupe, took her own mother’s faith in education to heart: Living and working in Fresno County and married to a man from Zacatecas she met north of the border, she taught Prieto and her siblings to read and write in Spanish before they even went to kindergarten, using Bible stories, magazines, newspapers — anything that was available.
She convinced her husband that it was more important for their children to receive an uninterrupted education than it was for the family to relocate seasonally, following the work like other families did. Prieto’s father had himself been taken out of formal schooling after the second grade to work, but remembered enjoying school. So although Prieto and her siblings had to work, too, their first priority was their education.
“There was always a dream that because we were doing well in school and we were supported in that, that somehow that was going to help us get out of having to do the same kind of work,” Prieto said. “And my parents were very honest about it with us. It was either you go to school and you do well, or you continue to break your back in the fields like we do. And so we went to school.”
Growing up in Reedley, Calif., the Prieto children never had to work during school hours like some of their peers. But that didn’t mean their life wasn’t hard.
They and their mother suffered under the control of a strict, domineering father. And they could never take anything for granted — not having a mobile home to live in, or having clothes to wear to school, or having enough to eat.
Everyone had to work to help the family survive. The children pruned and tied grapes in winter, thinned and shaped the bunches in the spring and picked grapes and rolled raisins in the summer. In middle school, Prieto started cleaning house, cooking and gardening for a neighbor couple. She also tutored the husband, a retired in attorney, in Spanish. By the time she and her siblings were in high school, they were also working in fruit-packing sheds in the spring and summer.
As children, they would play make-believe, imagining a time when they wouldn’t have to work so hard, when they could do things like eat at a restaurant or buy new shoes. They would use the backs of old homework assignments or whatever other paper they had for writing, drawing and painting, using their imagination.
“We just knew there had to be something better out there,” Prieto said.
In high school, Prieto and two of her siblings would go to cross-country practice after school, running up to 13 miles in the hot sun. Afterwards, they would go “scrounge” for something to eat, then do their homework in the school parking lot while they waited to get picked up. Once the school parking lot closed, they moved out to the street, sitting hunched over on the curb doing more homework. By the time their parents arrived from work, sometimes as late as 10 p.m., the homework would be done.
“Sometimes I wonder [how we did it],” Prieto said with a laugh. “I think it was a lot of heart, and just trying to fit everything into the day that we could.”
It was perseverance, combined with the support of several teachers who took a special interest in helping underprivileged students, that got Prieto to Stanford. She was the first woman in her family to go to college.
But college was no cakewalk. Prieto worried about how her family would do without her income. Although she lived in Ujamaa her freshman year and found a caring community where she felt safe, that first year was hard. She questioned whether she belonged at Stanford. It didn’t help that even before she arrived, some peers from home had wondered aloud how it was possible she got into Stanford without a perfect 4.0 GPA.
“For me [coming to Stanford] was almost like an out-of-body experience because I honestly just didn’t know how much privilege and wealth people could have, since I wasn’t exposed to that much of it growing up,” Prieto said. “For me, a student coming to school and having a car was huge. And then later I come to find out it’s a certain kind of car, and that certain kind of car means a certain thing. Those are all things I didn’t learn until I was here. It was mind-blowing.”
When Prieto found El Centro, still a fairly small and new organization, she knew she had found a home base on campus. But the center didn’t have many resources, and its future wasn’t certain.
“I remember feeling more of a sense of urgency as to fundraising as students that were part of the community — we were literally selling burritos or selling sodas, feeling that we had to hustle to make our events and programs happen, in a way that is a little bit different now,” Prieto said. “But for me [El Centro] was just as rich culturally, just as rich historically and as diverse as it is now, in different ways.”
It was a time when many Latino and Chicano students at Stanford felt marginalized, though. Not only did they feel their community spaces and programs were in danger of being cut, but some other students were comfortable using racial slurs publicly and defacing their posters. And they didn’t see themselves reflected in educational offerings — Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies was nonexistent.
In an effort to change that, along with a number of other things, Prieto took part in a hunger strike in 1994 that helped lead to the creation of the current program in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.
“It was a time when we felt under attack, and we felt like we wanted folks at the University to really see us as a community and as a people that were important to Stanford,” Prieto said.
Prieto said she actually thought, as an undergraduate, about what it would be like to work at El Centro after graduation and serve as an RF. Her own RFs and the El Centro staff had influenced her so much, as had her experience living in different dorms around campus and serving as an RA.
“That’s really important to me in the work that I do now, both here [at El Centro] and in Casa Naranja,” Prieto said. “I am around so many different students that come from all different experiences, but what I do know for sure is that everyone wants to belong. Everybody wants to feel a sense of family, and everyone wants to feel like they’re cared for.”
However, it took a little while for Prieto to arrive in her eventual roles at El Centro and Casa Naranja. After graduating in 1996, she worked for two years as a Stanford financial aid advisor, then went to Harvard for a master’s in education. She worked briefly as an advisor to student groups at the Stanford Graduate School of Business before moving to New York City shortly before 9/11 to run after-school programs in East Harlem and the Lower East Side.
Working with underserved children there, many of whom were living in circumstances of poverty, violence and abuse beyond their control, Prieto was forcefully reminded of her own childhood in rural California, despite the many differences between her story and the stories of the mostly African-American and Puerto Rican kids she worked with.
“I was just finding myself really sad all the time,” Prieto said.
That was when Rosaldo talked her into giving writing a try.
She continued writing even after she moved to Texas in 2004 to be near her sister, Linda, who was starting a Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin. And she continued writing when she finally returned to Stanford in 2010, to serve as the associate director at El Centro, the community space that had meant so much to her as an undergraduate.
Past and present members of the Centro community converged the night of Prieto’s recent reading — some former classmates came from as far away as Texas to attend. Many former and current students who knew Prieto were in the audience, as well as some friends from Reedley.
In the front rows were most of Prieto’s immediate family members: her mother, her sister and her two brothers. Although Prieto’s siblings had read her writing before and helped with editing, her mom read it for the first time right around the time the book came out. She read everything she could in one night and then cried for the rest of the night, she told Prieto.
“She told me, ‘You know, I thought I had already buried a lot of these things, but my reaction was so strong that I knew I had to face them again and then process them and try to heal,’” Prieto said. “She told me after the reading that she felt like a weight had been lifted off of her.”
“An (Im)possible Life” has been a process of healing and liberation both for herself and for her family, Prieto said — a sentiment her brother echoed when he stood up to answer an audience question at the reading.
The only family member who hasn’t read the book yet is Prieto’s father, now retired and separated from her mother. He’s afraid, Prieto thinks. But she hopes he’ll read the book someday.
And she hopes other people will read it too — even people who aren’t Chicano or Latino and don’t share other biographical facts of her life. Although those things are important to her, she said there are other things in her story that people from all backgrounds can identify with — other traumas, other experiences, other joys.
Maybe that’s why the audience gave her a standing ovation.
Or maybe it’s because she’s worked so hard over the years to help make students feel welcome at El Centro and the other communities she’s worked in — to create “a space of familia” for the young people she works with, no matter their backgrounds.
Or maybe it’s because of everything it took for her to face her own life experiences, write her stories down and then read them out loud, in front of both friends and strangers.
“It can be scary, but also extremely liberating and extremely exciting, because it’s truth-telling,” Prieto said. “I think that truth-telling is really important, especially when it’s about things that are really challenging and sometimes difficult life experiences. It’s important to show that here I am, I’m still here, and I’m still able to give the best I can of myself.”
Contact Emma Johanningsmeier at ejmeier ‘at’ stanford.edu.