by Elizabeth Toy
From the outside, Casandra Hernández Ríos is youthful and good-natured with comfortable style. But beneath her glowing exterior is a young woman who has endured her share of cross-cultural and financial hardships, and is still discovering more about herself.
Hernández Ríos sits attentively across from me on a cool, autumn afternoon, her bright eyes and kind expression patiently awaiting my questions. In her yellow and red plaid button-up, nursing her soy latte, she looks like any other student hanging out in front of a coffee shop.
However, Hernández Ríos isn’t a student. Actually, she’s a professor at East Los Angeles College and Golden West College where she teaches Journalism and English composition, respectively. As confident and put-together as Hernández Ríos appears to be, she wasn’t always certain of her path in life.
She doesn’t consider herself particularly interesting, but those who have experienced working with her disagree. English Professor Lisa Glatt of Cal-State University Long Beach describes her as “smart, inquisitive, charming, and full of special talent. As a person, she’s fun to talk to and her face lights up when she’s engaged in a conversation,” which I would soon find out.
With beginnings as an undocumented Mexican immigrant, Hernández Ríos and her family came to America illegally when she was three years old.
The eldest of three, Hernández Ríos was raised by her mother, aunt, and grandmother. She lived with her family in Riverside, speaking only Spanish.
“In elementary school, I felt ashamed that I had to translate for the sales reps on the phone for my mom. It was embarrassing. I just wanted to be average so no one would ask me any questions,” Hernández Ríos said.
Despite her reservations about her mother tongue, Hernández Ríos always loved writing in English. “Writing was my comfort. Whenever I needed to get away or feel good, I would read or write,” Hernández Ríos said.
An excellent student in school, Hernández Ríos always loved school. She knew in elementary school that she would go to college. However, because her mother regularly emphasized getting a well-paying job, she didn’t consider writing as a career option.
“My mom pushed us to pick something practical; she engrained the idea that you need to have a job that makes money. I didn’t want to struggle and count pennies as we did when we grew up,” Hernández Ríos said.
As much as she loved words, she also excelled with numbers and planned to pursue math for her career.
Growing up, Hernández Ríos never felt restricted and was raised believing that hard work always pays off. “I never really thought about race or gender,” she says, “I never saw myself as a girl or Mexican. I never felt like I had any limits. I think that’s why it became harder when I got older.”
During high school, Hernández Ríos began to notice differences as she compared herself to her peers. “I think in high school, you become more aware of yourself. I was always a good student so I felt like I was privileged,” she said, but she couldn’t help but notice that some people had more than others, both in terms of material things and privilege.
On a deeper level, she also began to piece together the puzzle of her background, which was never clearly explained to her.
“I didn’t know fully my legal status until the beginning of high school, but then it all started to make sense. (My mom) never wanted us to go on field trips or do anything exciting. We never traveled,” Hernández Ríos explains, referring to an out-of-state student field trip.
She soon realized her status as an illegal immigrant, the biggest reason for her newfound awareness. “I was still trying to reconcile and it was the beginning of a new life for me and also trying to figure out where to go from there,” she said.
During high school, her mother experienced health problems and could no longer support their family, so Hernández Ríos and her brothers moved in with their aunt. Though she excelled in her studies and graduated high school, her dreams of college were put on hold for two years while she worked at the local Swap Meet and a beauty supply shop to support their family.
“It was a low point in my life. I didn’t even think about college. I didn’t think I could do it at the time,” she recalls.
As she matured and saved money, her dreams of college resurfaced, though she anticipated financial hardships especially because she was still contributing to her family. “I was responsible for my siblings (but) I started going to ELAC and (taking) things one day at a time,” she said.
Hernández Ríos studied Journalism at ELAC. She tried to focus on sciences, but continued to take English courses as electives for fun. She soon realized, “You can’t get away from what you’re meant to be.”
She transferred to Cal-State University Long Beach, where she double-majored in English and Creative Writing. Meanwhile, she became her brother’s legal guardian, balancing a full-time school career, part-time job and more responsibilities in her family.
Although she enjoyed her studies, she was secretly depressed, knowing she would graduate but not knowing what would follow. She wondered, “Why am I investing in myself and doing this if, in the end, I don’t have a work permit or Social Security Number to do anything with it?”
Following Hernández Ríos’ graduation, she wanted to further pursue creative writing and applied to two MFA programs. She was accepted into CSULB, but didn’t qualify for in-state tuition, despite the fact that she had paid in-state tuition for her undergraduate studies.
“It crushed my soul that I knew I couldn’t go because of financial reasons. I was undocumented and didn’t have a SSN,” she said.
Disheartened, she wrote her letter of declination.
Two days later, she received a call from Suzanne Greenberg, a CSULB creative writing professor.
“She asked me, ‘if you could pay in-state tuition, would you join the program?’ I told her, yes, that was the only reason I wouldn’t go,” Hernández Ríos recalled.
The university accordingly funded her out-of-state tuition fees. During her two-year master’s program, Hernández Ríos attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ (AWP) workshop in Seattle, where she discovered she wanted to become a teacher.
“I never wanted to be a teacher because I knew it didn’t make money and I didn’t think I could do it, but this workshop changed everything,” she said.
“Besides the ‘aha’ moment, it’s really important that my students see themselves, a person of color, in their teachers. That’s why I want to teach. I wish I’d seen myself in my professors,” she said.
Hernández Ríos obtained her work permit and applied for Deferred Action, an American immigration policy that allows certain undocumented immigrants to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation.
Hernández Ríos feels her time in grad school was a pivotal point in her life because she learned a lot about herself and began to see herself as a writer. Through writing, she shared herself and consequently, rekindled her love affair with Spanish.
“I think a lot of people feel shame when they struggle with a language. I always felt embarrassed that Spanish was my first language,” she says. “Imagine living your life being embarrassed of something that is beautiful.”
But all her negative feelings dissipated as she developed more confidence during graduate school.
Today, Hernández Ríos takes pride in her native language. “I’m proud that I speak Spanish. I’m suddenly rediscovering words. I’ll hear a word that I haven’t heard in a long time, like ‘Owl,’ and I just love the way it sounds. I wrote a whole story about that. I wanted the reader to hear about it in their head,” she said.
“It was a pleasure watching her fiction grow more complicated and compelling as she was finding her material and developing as a writer,” Glatt recalls.
Hernández Ríos initially wrote stories about the various relationships people have, intrigued by their complexities and relevance to all. Soon, she began to integrate layers, “religion, things that influence a person and (their perception), locations, financial (situations),” she said.
In retrospect, Hernández Ríos believes it is through writing that she began to find out who she is. “I didn’t choose to come to America, but I’m here now,” she reflects, “Maybe that’s the reason why I didn’t want to be seen. I used to lie and say I’m from here (the US) to avoid questions. I felt like, if I was neutral, I could go unnoticed. But I’m not afraid to show who I am now.”
Currently, she is still not “100% legal,” but feels more secure in her status. “Now I feel braver to say I’m Mexican, born in Mexico, I speak Spanish, I write about my culture and what I’m curious about and I want to expose (people) to that,” she said, her eyes wide with enthusiasm.
“I know people say this a lot, but it’s true: if I can do it, you can do it. Look at me. I had nothing. But now, I’m living the life I’d dreamt about. I’m writing stories, teaching, and I’m finally contributing to society the way I wanted to. I say this from the humblest of places,” she said.
Hernández Ríos has ambitious goals in the near future as she looks forward to traveling and plans to continue teaching.
Meanwhile, she is managing editor at “The Offing,” an online literary magazine focusing on creative writing. Earlier this year, she was recognized as an emerging writer at the Literary Women’s Festival of Authors in Long Beach.
Currently, she is collaborating with her graduate school cohort to launch another literary magazine for which she will be the fiction editor.
With that, Hernández Ríos leaves me with wisdom developed from her experience, “It’s your life. Do the thing you love, because you don’t want to regret not doing it.”