Josefina López: Reclaiming Humanity Through Storytelling

Josefina LópezMultitalented playwright, novelist, and activist Josefina López dazzled an eager crowd at Hagerty Lounge on Wednesday, Oct. 16. López was chosen as the keynote speaker to end the celebration for the Women’s and Gender Studies Program’s (WaGS) 25th Anniversary, a milestone event for both WaGS and the College. History Professor Myrna Santiago, director of the WaGS Program, coordinated the event and views López as a tremendous role model for Saint Mary’s students.

“All her plays and her novel address themes that resonate with the mission of Women’s and Gender Studies, including female empowerment, perseverance in the face of adversity, and the power of community to make a difference in the world,” she said. Indeed, in López’s most well-known play, Real Women Have Curves, the central character is a Chicana woman striving to make college possible, which mirrors the trajectory of many in our own SMC community.

López’s wide-ranging talk navigated her journey as a writer, Chicana woman, and teacher, using electrifying language that stirred the audience. “Being a writer is difficult because it’s hard to deal with your own demons,” she said. “It means that you have to be the most courageous person in the room. You have to be the person that asks the very difficult questions that society isn’t always ready to ask.” She described how negotiating her own trauma through writing has been a startlingly vulnerable process, but the result is that her work is especially affirming and impactful—not just for herself, but for innumerable members of the Latinx community. She gives voice to a group that has largely been taught to see themselves as “aliens.” López, through her work, has helped others to reaffirm their humanity.

“I teach writing as a form of healing because anytime you try to recreate something, you’re trying to heal it,” López said. “I wrote Real Women Have Curves when I was 20 years old, and I still feel like there’s no way I could have written that play at 20 years old. I really feel like something divine used me as a vessel to write it.”

There’s no denying that López’s landmark play was prescient. It was written in 1987 and adapted into an award-wining film in 2002, but the play reads as if it could have been written today. When asked about the genesis of  Real Women Have Curves, López described how her initial career aspiration was to be an actress, and while her teachers recognized her incredible talent and range as a performer, they warned her about the lack of roles available for what López called “nontraditional beautiful chunky Chicana women like me—women with curves.”

This conversation stoked a fire in her belly. “Maybe I’m not going to be an actress. Maybe I’m going to become a writer,” she recalled of her epiphany. “Maybe in my stories, the chunky Chicana woman will get laid and get the guy. I don’t want to be the supporting character in a white man’s story. I want to write my own.”

The play was born out of López’s time working with her mother and sister in a sewing factory, and of the stories they and the other women would share about their lives. The experience helped López, who recalled feeling isolated during her childhood, gain respect for her mother. “I saw that my mother was really an extraordinary woman, that she was a third world feminist and that she was someone that others admired because she was a great storyteller, a great chismosa.”

López said her experience at the sewing factory was life-changing for her craft because it opened her eyes to the power of women coming together, a theme that would come to be prominent in all of her work. “I thought, you know, this beautiful intimacy that women have is really what I should be writing about,” she said.

López’s talk offered the Saint Mary’s community a window into the mind and heart of a dedicated artist who has used her writing as a vehicle to reclaim her humanity and exercise what she calls the “inalienable right” to tell stories. In hearing her speak, many SMC students and scholars alike felt inspired to go forward and pick up a pen—or a mic—to share their own stories.