Your Words Are Your Weapon: Barrio Writers in a Changing America

Photo By Richard Gonzalez

Photo By Richard Gonzalez

By Christina Miranda

Just a few weeks ago, the Barrio Writers Austin chapter held a reading of their anthology at Resistencia Bookstore on East Cesar Chavez Street. These readers, however, are not the typical guests that most book events host. The presenters are actually middle and high school students, whose work is equally remarkable as that of any older writer.

As the event begins, Barrio Writers Austin’s director, Leticia Urieta, notes it is more than an ordinary reading—it is a space for young writers to express their thoughts and talent, and fully embrace their identity through the forms of poetry and fiction.

She is responding to feelings in her own childhood about the way that Mexican-American artists are often excluded from the artistic conversation of writing.

Founded in 2009 by Sarah Rafael Garcia in Santa Ana, California, the non-profit organization offers college-level writing workshops in partnership with local universities to students between the ages of 13 and 19, as well as some college students up to age 21. With programs established in seven Texas cities, along with Santa Ana, Urieta explains in an interview that, “Barrio Writers is a safe space to empower youth to develop their voices, and for them to find the paths to higher education.”

Ranging from fiction writers, to poets, to zine writers, students within the Austin chapter are invited to take part in a writing workshop at The University of Texas at Austin. During the week-long program, writers are pushed to strengthen their ability to tackle personal and social issues that most Latinx writers face, including identity, immigration, sexual orientation, and exclusion.

Photo by Richard Gonzalez

Photo by Richard Gonzalez

The model is structured around Garcia’s response to her own experience as a writer in high school and college. “She is responding to feelings in her own childhood about the way that Mexican-American artists are often excluded from the artistic conversation of writing,” says Urieta. “And the reason it’s called Barrio Writers is because often we are threatened by stereotypes--specifically of the barrio—and that it’s a dangerous place, and that people aren’t educated.” One way that the program puts an end to this stereotype is through addressing their writers as youths rather than students. “This is an alternative to the traditional classroom setting, because many of them have been held back and threatened by the stereotypes that mainstream teachers put upon them. This is a space to combat that.”

Considering the additional issue of the imposing of new immigration laws and implementation of ICE raids nationwide, when asked if there was a change in content or work morale, Urieta states, “I don’t think that things have changed so much as increased our awareness and ability to say ‘this is not acceptable.’ They’re always aware of this—there’s nothing new to them, so a lot of them are writing about rebellion, writing about racism. They’re writing about poverty, they’re writing about oppression, and in all forms.”

One of the nice things too is that it’s just the admitting that you’re a writer… and the wonderful thing is that they can start to call themselves writers even though they never thought that they really were.

Following the structure of a college writing workshop, writers are encouraged to share their own work, even if they are reluctant to read due to shyness. “At the end of every session, we encourage them to share. The workshop is about empowering them, [including] those who might be more resistant to read.”

The reluctance to share at the reading was apparent, but there was constant encouragement from Urieta as well as San Marcos Barrio Writers director, Marilyse Figueroa. As soon as the hesitant few were broken down and stood up before the crowd of friends and parents, there was a presence of pride displayed in the deliverance of their personal work. And at the end, there was a strong sense of accomplishment and confidence. “One of the nice things too is that it’s just the admitting that you’re a writer… and the wonderful thing is that they can start to call themselves writers even though they never thought that they really were.”

Through the publication of anthologies showcasing the stories and poems of each participant, a validity is built. Listening to each reader present their prized pieces, there is strength in their voices. The shyness sheds away as soon as they begin to speak, and they immediately become the strong, accomplished, and highly respectable writers that they dream of being. Urieta continues, “There’s that hope coming in that we need to be unified. That we need to fight back. I think if anything, it’s more clear for us now.”

Barrio Writers was featured on Arts in Context: