Latinas With “Impossibly” Large Vocabularies: An Open Letter to Tiffany Martínez

For me, it happened freshman year in high school.

I can’t even remember what the assignment was. All I remember was when my (white) history teacher handed back our essays and the words “SEE ME” were circled in blue at the end of the last page.

“He probably thought it was awesome,” I thought. I was a top student and would eventually graduate third in my class, and then graduate from Brown University, with a nearly full scholarship. But at the time, I was just a freshman, a smart, working-class Latina from New Jersey and child of immigrants from Latin America who didn’t even know that you were “supposed” to go to college after high school. Eventually, I’d be the first college graduate in my family.

But, alas, my teacher didn’t think the paper I produced was “awesome.” In fact, he accused me of plagiarizing because, apparently, I used too many “big words.”

And there it was — the unthinkable act. That a working-class kid, child of immigrants from Latin America who didn’t even know that you were “supposed” to go to university after high school, was ‘somehow’ capable of using “big words.”

My stomach sank. I fumed with anger. At the time, I was not armed with a systemic critique of racism and patriarchy, of white supremacy and sexism. Instead, I showed my history teacher, an older white man, that in fact I was implementing vocabulary words that I had learned from my English classes into my essays. I even showed him which ones I used. And the case was closed.

Then it happened again. When I spoke to a guidance counselor about not receiving a scholarship for students of color, she said she thought I was “white” (despite being dark-skinned) because I got “good grades.” And then it happened again, and again, the constant questioning.

For years, I quietly held onto these painful stories. And then I saw your story, Tiffany Martínez, that your professor had the audacity to question your brilliance by accusing you of plagiarism for writing the simple transitory word “Hence” and shamed you in front of your colleagues. My stomach sank. And I fumed with anger, again.

Tiffany, I want you to know that you are not alone. That you are brave and brilliant. And that your brilliance is an act of rebellion. Despite the many struggles and victories of social movements past and present, the brilliance of folks of color — and women of color like us — is constantly questioned. Our brilliance is unthinkable and that’s what makes it dangerous.

Tiffany, I want you to know that I eventually graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Philosophy and History, Magna Cum Laude, with Honors. I want you to know that I was often one of two people of color in a class of twenty white students in some of my classes. I want you to know that I eventually graduated with a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University, and even wrote a book while getting my degree. I want you to know that I’m now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College, one of the top positions in academia in the country. I want you to know that I’m doing this for you and so many sisters and brothers who are dangerous in their brilliance.

Tiffany, I want you to know that I’m so proud of you. I want you to know that we, an army of brilliant, beautiful intellectuals of color, women of color, are here with you. That, despite how many times they try to rip us down with their blue pens and shame, they will never break us down. Tiffany, with love and rage, we love you and got your back.

Dr. Yesenia Barragan is a historian of Latin America and the Caribbean. She received her Ph.D. in History from Columbia University and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College. Her book, Selling Our Death Masks: Cash-for-Gold in the Age of Austerity, was published in 2014 by Zero Books. She is proudly using the hashtag #BitchIGotMyPhDNowWhat in solidarity with Tiffany Martínez.