Susana Herrera is a 52-year-old accomplished author and teacher, who has faced tremendous amounts of adversity throughout her lifetime. Susana’s ancestors came from Spain and the Navajo Nation, with her grandmother being Lakota and Spanish, and her grandfather being Navajo. Susana published her first novel, Mango Elephants in the Sun, in 1999, which is about her experiences in the Peace Corps, as well as coping with experiences in her past and childhood. Susana grew up in Santa Cruz and attended UCSC. She is currently an English and Positive Psychology teacher and spearheaded the integration of mindfulness into Los Altos High School’s freshman English curriculum. Her positive perspective on life, along with mindfulness and meditation, Qigong, and exercise has grounded her through the many testing experiences she has had in her lifetime.
There have been a few people that have inspired Susana throughout her life: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, and Cesar Chavez. When Susana was about 9 years old, she marched with Cesar Chavez to protest the inadequate wages and conditions of agricultural workers.
“Yeah, my grandfather, who was the president of the Union, at GM and Fremont. Now it’s Tesla. It’s the same factory there. He was working with Cesar Chavez, to create a movement of United farmworkers with United Auto Workers. And that’s how I got involved in that. We marched part of the way to Sacramento…and I was just a second-grader, I think? No, it was third grade. And it just made me feel so powerful to be able to stand up and walk with pride in this movement and being a part of a community that is trying to make it better for other people.”
On Susana’s 16th birthday, her father committed suicide. In her years as an undergrad at UCSC, she was in a physically abusive marriage for four years. Susana mentioned that her father had a history of abuse and alcoholism towards her mother before he passed away, much like her first marriage. As mentioned in the article, Why People Stay, by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, Susana’s experience closely aligns with the normalization of abuse. Growing up in an environment in which abuse is common is a typical reason why people find themselves trapped in abusive relationships. In this case, the partner’s behaviors may not be considered unhealthy or abusive. Despite the physical and emotional abuse Susana endured, she found herself lying for her partner. Eventually, she decided that she needed to escape. Susana saw joining the Peace Corps as a fresh start, and as a way to process and forget the copious amounts of the trauma she had experienced in her early adult years. Susana stated, “It was a lot… a lot of running away, but like running away to something good, you know, running towards the light and leaving the dark night behind.” However, she found that the trauma came with her. Feeling alienated in Northern Cameroon, Susana learned that she had to give herself permission to care for herself. Susana stated, “the feeling of being totally alienated is really a diving board into finding your own best friend.” She learned to process the events that she had experienced in her past by allowing herself to feel them.
“You know, and, and really, the only thing we can do is allow ourselves to feel it, breathe through it, maybe cry, maybe tell the story, and just get it out, we can write it down..and understand that’s enough and to let it go”
The Peace Corps
Initially, Susana was not fully accepted into the community in Northern Cameroon. Though she had some neighbors that cared for her, the town was skeptical of her presence. The villagers gave her the name of “Nasaura,” which translates to “white man.”
“So Nasaura is translated as white man…and I remember telling the villagers, you know, I pulled down my shirt to show like, look, I got boobs, okay. I’m a woman. I’m not a man, like, find another word for me. So it was really hard to also be thought of as rich and be thought of as white. And we had some deep conversations about how I am not white, and my, my people, were forced to walk off their land for 450 miles, you know, and so just telling them those stories and for them to stay like, oh, so there’s this thing called mixed race and Native Americans have a very different American experience.”
Susana felt a sense of alienation as she adjusted to living in Northern Cameroon. The Peace Corps has been accused of perpetuating a white savior complex, as the organization inserts Americans into developing countries with the intention of educating its inhabitants about “American excellence.” Her presence was questioned by the villagers, and Susana felt conflicted over whether her presence was going to truly benefit the villagers, or simply perpetuate “American arrogance.” bell hooks discusses the intersection of feminism, imperialism, and colonialism in her book, Feminism Is For Everybody. hooks expresses that the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal western culture that our country still has ingrained in its laws, government, and society defines many cultural practices. The Peace Corps and its initial mission fall under this practice. Hooks states that this thinking “focuses on who has conquered a territory, who has ownership, who has the right to rule…white “power feminists” continued to project an image of feminists that linked and links women’s equality with imperialism (hooks, 46). Susana said that initially, she did not realize how she was playing a part in the colonialism that is perpetuated by the Peace Corps. However, after having discussions with colleagues who lived in the village, she began to notice the underlying theme of the Peace Corps, and how at times, it simply demonstrated “American excellence” to those who in the Peace Corps’s point of view, lacked it, and therefore needed it. In regards to global feminism, bell hooks states that its goal is “to reach out and join global struggles to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression (Hooks, 46). In regards to the work that Susana did in Northern Cameroon, she believes that though she took part in an organization that perpetuates white supremacist capitalist patriarchal colonialism, the work she did, the relationships she built, and the cultures she learned from were worth it. Though the Peace Corps organization perpetuates colonialism, Susana herself did her best to separate herself from this way of thinking during her time in Northern Cameroon.
“My colleague, posed, just asking, you know, why are you coming to help us? And I really had to think about that, like, am I just really perpetuating, you know, American arrogance…and there was no cultural relativism. We were taught as Americans at that time, we are going in there to teach the villagers how to be and how to be better. Even the way I was telling them, information is a very egocentric, you know, American, the American kind of way of thinking and being in the world that I was not prepared to…I was not prepared for that, I did not wake up to the colonization that we perpetuated by being in the Peace Corps. I can’t say like, I, you know, did a lot more harm than good…I don’t believe that. But I’m a part of a system that is showing other countries, you need to be like Americans. We’re better.”
Working in a Male Dominated Workplace
Susanna has been a teacher for 28 years. Before she started working at Los Altos High School, she worked at a school in which the administration was all male, and the teachers were all female. I asked her if she had any advice for young women who are working in a male-dominated workplace.
“Well, it’s, um, I think just so important to understand how powerful our voices are. And to be able to speak out in ways that are necessary and important. Um, to do the work of understanding how women fit into the world. You know, it’s a very different reflection that a woman has to go through, about being a human being the world than a man has to go through…and understanding that things aren’t fair.“
In her paper, Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, Audre Lorde similarly discusses how it is imperative that women identify their own power in order to alter the structures of oppression that we have been confined to. According to Lorde, no matter how the old structures of oppression are rearranged, they will always cater to the original patriarchy that our society and government have depended upon since its creation to oppress women. Lorde states, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde, 1984). It is up to women to completely dismantle the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, as bell hooks puts it. Susana states that it is essential to stay authentic and to prioritize the fights that are worth fighting for when challenging male authority.
“And for all of that, it’s just it’s hard to stay strong…and to stay focused on what is important in the workplace, you know, what kind of relationships do you want to have with people, but I think the most important thing is to be authentic…and Shakespeare said “to thine own self be true” and like that is the most important thing that we can just like, write on a post-it and put it wherever we can see it every day, like being truly authentic. So staying authentic, and fighting for the fights that are worth it. And not backing down, even if that means I had to find a job somewhere else.“
Susana mentioned a specific circumstance in which she angered some of the male staff at Los Altos High School. She made a film about how students feel at the high school and highlighted the experiences of Black and Latina girls, and the treatment they had received from students and staff on campus. Susana stated that she had to cut certain clips from the film because the male staff felt threatened by the representation of the thoughts and emotions of the students.
“Some people are really uncomfortable with a woman’s emotions, some men in our department, and they really, they really don’t like, thinking about students feelings…and I had a bunch of white men in their 50s work hard to shut me down. And it was hard to stand strong. And then, you know, I had to do some negotiation and some compromising…I had to take things out of the video that made people feel uncomfortable. I didn’t back down. We did finish the film, but the film was only half as powerful as it was in the beginning, because I had to make sure a bunch of men could handle it. Oh, it was hard.”
2020 has certainly been a stressful year. The election stress and a pandemic that has disrupted everyone’s lives in one way or another has without a doubt impacted the stability of our mental health. Given that Susana has practiced mindfulness, gratitude, and meditation all throughout her life, she decided to spread these practices to her high school students through a new class: Positive Psychology. I asked her a few questions regarding maintaining optimism and a stable mental state during times of high stress.
So how have you stayed optimistic especially in the past six months?
“Yeah, just being grateful. Like, a gratitude practice is one of the most important things to have. So you just have to keep, I just have to keep talking to myself out of the projection of the future and out of looking at the past, and just be as much as I can right here, right now, with what I have.”
Do you have any advice on how to keep a stable mental state during times of high stress and uncertainty like these past 6 months?
“I really feel that we all need to find that part of us that knows that it’s going to be okay…and however we need to do it. I just feel like if there is one thing to do every single day, it’s to take that time to do what you love. Because that will feed your soul. That will feed your heart. That will always lead you to the right place.”
Susana has experienced many lifetimes of trauma and adverse experiences that I cannot begin to comprehend. Her ability to persevere is a superpower. As a white woman, I benefit from the white privilege that our society and government perpetuate. While I am a woman and have experienced sexism, discrimination, and harassment in my school as well as my workplace, there are experiences that I will never have to worry about. There are certain circumstances that Susana deals with, such as fearing for her safety while visiting the South for simply being non-white. Because of my skin color, I do not have to live in fear when I visit areas of our country in which racism is widely accepted. After speaking with Susana, I was reminded of the vastly different mindset that women of color in our country have to hold in order to simply protect themselves from being persecuted for their skin color. While I will never understand what this feels like as a white woman, I have the ability to use my privilege as a tool to help dismantle the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
Susana is the embodiment of perseverance. From experiencing the death of her father, two abusive relationships, and other personal crises, she has managed to persevere. Susana describes her experience in the Peace Corps to more extent in her novel, Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin. This includes some of the personal relationships she formed in Northern Cameroon and how she managed to accept the trauma she experienced in her childhood and early adulthood.
I am so grateful that I was able to get to know Susana as a teacher and as a friend during my high school years. Though she has a full and often stressful life, she manages to make her classroom feel like a home. Her ability to make her students feel as though they are the only person in the world when listening to them speak is a skill that is a treasure to experience as a student, especially in a school in which there are some teachers who do not prioritize student wellbeing. We discussed quite a few more topics including some of the current events in the country during our conversation, and I encourage you to listen to the entire interview.
Listen to the entire interview with Susana Herrera here:
Hooks, Gloria. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Pluto Press, 2000.
Lorde, Audre. Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. Sister Outsider Crossing Press, 1984.
Why People Stay. (2020, September 28). https://www.thehotline.org/support-others/why-people-stay/