The Transformative Power of Words by Willy Ramirez

Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar…
Antonio Machado

Traveler, this is no path…
The path is created by walking…
Antonio Machado

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Machado’s poem teaches us that there is no path in life but the one we create for ourselves. In my own experience, creating that path was not a choice but a reality. Overcoming cultural alienation, prejudice, low expectations and the doubt of ever becoming anything but a stereotype were some of the challenges getting in my way as the son of Dominican immigrants who themselves were also trying to assimilate a new society that was strange for them. However, those challenges became opportunities through which I was able to create myself. The barrio, as my friends used to call Bridge Street in Lowell and where immigrant kids from many cultures gathered to play, was my experience in understanding that the world was much more fascinating and diverse than what I had imagined.

I spent my teenage years finding myself, as though my true self was waiting to be found in some obscure corner of that world that like in the barrio of my childhood was waiting to let me in and be a part of it. In the sad and lonely years of high school, however, my discovery of poetry reconciled my body and soul with the world I inhabited. On an unimportant and careless Saturday morning, walking through the narrow hallways of the Lowell Public Library, I stumbled upon a book that besieged me with cosmic attraction. I encountered in the old pages of an edition of Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair an enchanting force, dark illumination and pain, the perfect0003_Middlesex CC 2017.10_0029 medicine for a young mind yearning to find consolation in a world that felt cold and distant. I became an avid reader, devouring books for the sake of curiosity and a sudden necessity of the spirit. The writings of Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Borges, Cortázar, Lorca and Paz ignited my mind. A few years later, with the guidance of Middlesex professor Donna Cady the works of Hemingway, Frost, Faulkner and Shakespeare became the catalyst of more terrifying questions about God, reality, death, time and immortality. Who was Aristotle, Dante, Nietzsche, Sartre? Why did the pain of Artaud, Kierkegaard and Beckett spoke to me? Growing up in the barrio, I knew about El Chapulin Colorado, El Chavo del Ocho y La Chilindrina, Cantinflas, novelas mexicanas and Thalia, whose name I often heard kids whisper as if hundreds of voices and languages merged into one single language of innocence and community. But who prepared me for the monstrous discovery of ideas? I was unable to retreat, for knowledge was now a necessity, a kind of disease for my spirit.

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Driven by an intense passion for knowledge and adventure, I took on a new path after graduating from Middlesex. I became a student at Pace University, where I completed a double major in philosophy and computer science with a minor in theater. In the wild and agonizing paste of Manhattan, theater, philosophy, literature and writing filled most of my days. During these years, I slowly began to develop an interest in education. Through America Reads, I taught a group of adults at a shelter and in after school programs tutoring children to improve their reading, writing and math skills. Soon after, during my unforgettable years in the enchanting and penetrating city of Madrid as a graduate student at New York University, my passion for teaching became central to my process of becoming, of creating myself, as I taught two years at Instituto Ciudad de Jaen. During my time in these cities engaging with students from different nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds, I was greatly impacted by the harsh realities of inequality in education.

Throughout this process of creating my own path in life, my conceptions of life and existence and my ideas about people, culture, race and love found themselves among constant flux and conflict. Contrary to the patriotic doctrines imposed from childhood in the Dominican Republic to love and to defend one’s country and people above all, my nationalistic pride slowly began to diminish as I began to encounter people from all over the world. Classmates, co-workers, professors, lovers and friends started to teach me that that world was much bigger than my nonetheless beloved Dominican island. My experience with people taught me that human beings pertained to a long and unavoidably connected chain in history

Being first-generation was not an obstacle but the path that made my journey possible.

I now realize how each step in that difficult yet edifying ladder of self-discovery served as a way to forge in me a new identity for which I was responsible. Being first-generation was not an obstacle but the path that made my journey possible. In this journey, which was and still undoubtedly difficult and many times filled with fear and trembling, there is one unchanging truth: I did not and could not have traveled the path alone. At Middlesex, mentors like Darcy Orellana, Ivette Caletz, Jean Trounstine and Donna Cady, and programs like TRIO were indispensable for my formation as a student. Later, Thomas O’sullivan, Yunus Tuncel, Francisco Layna Ranz and Marcos Rocca were some of my role models in my formation as an educator.

Now teaching at Middlesex, I strive to give students what these extraordinary people once gave me: guidance, patience, trust, and the tools to create my own path. In essence, the creation of the reading group La Guagua[1] and its poetry festival[2] was an effort to empower students the same way I was once empowered. With this group, students are encouraged to climb that ladder of discovery for themselves, to understand that future and success are so much more than simple words, but an extension of self and commitment.

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[1] La Guagua—a school bus—is a reading club that promotes Spanish literature and cultures, world literature, and reading in general. Created in March 2015, La Guagua has grown to over 30 members, including college students, graduates, professionals and people from the community.

[2] MCC’s La Guagua Poetry Festival is an annual one-credit Interdisciplinary Studies Weekend course (IDS 105) examining themes of cultural diversity and social inequality through literary work. The festival features over 20 local, regional and international poets and translators presenting their work in the original language and in English. An anthology is published including the poems presented in the festival.

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