Monday, October 15, 2018

Interview of Linda Garcia Merchant

Interview of Linda Garcia Merchant by Xánath Caraza

Linda Garcia Merchant is a founding member of the Chicana Por Mi Raza Digital Memory Collective (University of Michigan), and a Digital Media Partner of the Somos Latinas Oral History Project (University of Wisconsin Madison). Garcia Merchant is a doctoral student of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) specializing in Chicana/Latina Literary and Cultural Studies, and Digital Humanities. In 2016 Garcia Merchant was a Humanities Without Walls Pre-Doctoral Summer Fellow. An award-winning Chicana filmmaker, her films, Las Mujeres de La Caucus Chicana (The Women of the Chicana Caucus), Palabras Dulces, Palabras Amargas (Sweet Words, Bitter Words), Yo Soy Eva, and Thresholds are shown in courses on women of color feminism, global feminisms, queer and social movement both nationally and internationally.  In 2014, Palabras was featured in Dr. Bill Johnson González’s article, "The Limits of Desire: On the Downlow and Queer Chicago Film" for GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.
In 2017 Garcia Merchant, as a Digital Scholar Incubator Fellow, through the UNL Center for Research in the Digital Humanities, created the Scalar research site, Chicana Diasporic: A Nomadic Journey of the Activist Exiled. A media rich, literary exploration of the political-ideological journey of the women of the Chicana Caucus of the National Women’s Political Caucus, 1973-1979 that has been selected for publication in the Fall 2018 American Quarterly special edition on Digital Humanities.
Linda is currently working on An Evening with La Tess, an experimental documentary on the life of award winning Chicana poet, activist and scholar Andrea "Tess" Arenas. In 2017 Garcia Merchant's essay on life in her hometown of Chicago, "The Urban Rural," was featured in the anthology Rust Belt Chicago.  Garcia Merchant continues to write, guest lecture, and present on Chicana Feminism, Chicana Filmmaking, community archiving, visual historiography, and short form filmmaking. She has written articles and blogposts for Dialogo, Mujeres Talk, The Chicago Reporter, Viva La Feminista and La Bloga

1.     Who is Linda? 

I remember being with Felicitas Nuñez, one of the founders of Teatro Chicana, looking at a series of beautiful paintings she had produced. I exclaimed, “you’re an artist!” Felicitas looked at me with this puzzled look and responded that she didn’t really think of herself as a fine artist.  At the time I was puzzled at her response—the art was as wonderful as any gallery work. It wasn’t until I was on the plane ride home that it occurred to me what she might have meant.  I don’t really think of myself as a poet/writer/filmmaker/photographer—I do work very hard to be a good storyteller. I am sure that in those moments of production, where I have worn all these creative hats—I could own those definitions in those moments.  I often wonder if this is what Felicitas meant by not being a fine artist.

I write because I don’t know a better way to tell a story to more than one person at a time.  I write because writing is a conversation and all the great things in the world have happened because of simple conversation.  Mi abuelita always said todos temenos historia – we all have a story and it is up to each of us to listen, and learn and share—in that order.  Writing is what we all do, in every engagement and interaction—the difference is that some of us put all that conversation on paper, maybe as memory, mostly as necessity.  So I’m a poet/writer out of necessity, because I come from a long line of really good storytellers.  Mi mamá y abuelita both excelled at engaging an audience through stories that were always parables of some kind—all their stories had some moral outcome.

2.     As a child, who first introduced you to reading? 

I come from a family of readers of everything—mi abuelito read both Chicago daily newspapers, cover to cover. I took up the habit at three when he would bring the newspapers home. Mi abuelita home schooled me, as she had home schooled her own children, until we all began elementary school.  We always ate dinner together and that is when you better be ready to talk about what you learned in school that day.  I have distinct memories of sitting at the table at 10 and having to explain the Alamo from my fourth grade teachers lesson to mi abuelito.  He didn’t look up from the meat he was cutting and quietly said, “that’s not what happened,’ and proceeded to tell me the version he knew, as a Mexican Texan from the valley.  I learned a valuable lesson that day—that history has more than one author and that my instructor was not the absolute authority on that history. That foundation of reading and discourse has instilled in me a lifelong love of both traditional and organic learning.

3.     How did you first become a writer?  

I have written since I was little, but I didn’t share much of anything until high school. The first time my work went public, I wrote a holiday story about an evergreen that made the ultimate sacrifice to be a family Christmas tree for a little boy who got sick and stopped visiting the tree—my English teacher suggested I turn the story into a scripted performance that would be our class entry for the school’s holiday event.

I grew up an only child, losing mi abuelita very young. My mom was a single mother and had to work, so I was left alone to cultivate an active imagination—every fly or bug I met had a history, a family story. I also read a lot and had favorite stories that I still read frequently—the Arabian Nights is still one of my favorite books.

I was more of an essayist than a poet—okay so maybe I was a very private poet, never thinking my stuff was good enough to share with the world.  I never thought of writing as a profession—as a first gen college student I was supposed to get a good education to then have a solid foundation as a middle class, gainfully employed, Chicana.

I didn’t really get back to writing until I started a blogsite with three other women called Two Tight Shoes.  If I had to give the exact time I began to write seriously or credibly, it was during this time, with these women, as we weekly opined about the world. The idea behind Two Tight Shoes came from the old southern saying, “Life’s too short to wear tight shoes.”  Our logo included a pair of ballet shoes because of the strength they represent.  I have always felt the strongest, most resilient feet were those of a highly disciplined ballerina—especially since the softness of the material of toe shoes, hides the strength of the feet inside.  I certainly found my strength to become a writer, working regularly on the craft; workshopping with my co-authors; and ultimately taking chances to give more creative work, like poetry to an audience on the blog site.

4.     What is a day of creative work like for you? 

A day of creative work really is 24 hours long. It is not that I work at some maniacal pace until I drop, but that work simmers in the back of my mind until it is ready to come to the front.  Walking is one half of the creative process—it is the time when I am using all of my senses to exist. I can hear birds and cars, watch what fascinates my dog in the grass. Being in those quiet moments is when I all the words in my head are fighting to get out. If there is too much going on in my head, I will stop and write it down.

Dreaming is the other half, especially those dreams that happen right before you are fully awake and are somewhat aware of what is going on behind the curtain of your conscious self. 

Finally, I’m a nugget writer—the nuggets are seeds. I have books and notes with single sentences I return to when they’re ready to be more than a single thought.  I love writing when the words come to fast, fight with each other to get on the page first.  I love following the breadcrumbs I’ve left myself and just seeing where they lead—often they lead to other rooms that I’ve already built.  It sounds like my head is filled with random often interrupted thoughts.  I think it was Isabel Allende that said she lives with the spirits that accompany her writing process.  I sometimes think all those words fighting to get out when I am writing, are all those spirits pushing and shoving me and the work.  Maybe that’s why I don’t think I’m a poet/writer—because I’m not alone in the process of writing!

5.     When do you know when a poem is ready to be read? 
I think poems let you know when they’re ready for the reveal.  The universe asks us very specific questions that can only be answered by the creative output.  I wrote a piece that became a visual historiography, that became a research site—each of those products occurred as they were ready for to answer the universe’s question about them.

Like all creative types I still struggle once a poem/film/essay has left the nest. I find myself still stressing over word order or choices, but I also have to remember that today is a different day from the day I wrote that work and I am a little different which means I would want to make changes that reflect that.

6.     Could you comment on your life as a cultural activist? 

Jeez, you mean how do I live my very loud life in every moment of every day?  Living loud means being true to yourself—my faith makes that possible.  My friends keep me honest about who I am being in any given moment.  I believe that we cannot build community in the world if we cannot build it at home.  Chicana feminist, Martha Cotera once said successful relationships like marriage always follow the rules of social justice—for me these include a foundation of respect and trust; a patience for being present; a generosity to listening; and an ability to always live grounded in kindness and through love.  I have had an amazing life up to this point—I am sad that so much of our history has been neglected for so long, but I am thrilled to see how many young Latinx scholars are recovering, reclaiming and discovering those histories as part of a new generation of identity formation.

7.     What project/s are you working on at the moment that you would like to share?

My most recent work Chicana Diasporic (link:> is a multi modal scalar site that explores the Chicana Caucus of the National Women’s Political Caucus and features Chicana Feminist activists from the 1970’s including my mom, Ruth “Rhea” Mojica Hammer. 

Chicana Diasporic would not be possible without materials acquired through eight years of working with the visionary Dr. Maria Cotera on the Chicana Por Mi Raza Digital Memory Collective (link:, a digital repository that recovers the work and voices of second wave Chicana feminists. CPMR isn’t just a project of recovery—it is a way of “decolonizing the archive” that preserves and presents our history within the larger movements of both second wave feminism and chicano ideology.  Our work allows students to engage with both the material and its authors through filmed interviews and material curation—then they have to write about it!

8.     What else would you like to share?

For a long time I thought I wrote because I was angry or in response to something that got me on a rant.  Eventually I realized it wasn’t so much anger, but passion that cared enough to want to say something about what I saw.  I just read a poem I wrote about the Chicago Public School system called “The Truth of August Heat” and thought, “hey that’s pretty good.”  Then I got sad because not much has changed.
I love being a grad student and instructor in Nebraska at this moment where I am learning about aspects of my research I hadn’t considered. Teaching undergraduate composition and rhetoric requires you to model a social justice process to create a community of learning for fifteen weeks.  Teaching Digital Humanities to help students understand how to research; how to follow a trail that fine tunes a research question; and that results in some visually rhetorical articulation of voice helps me to apply those same exercises to my own work.
I am now very interested in how students can better experience history that is not lived history—how do we remove the abstract nature of dates, events, people, and places and create a robust experience of history that incorporates some sensory connection to it. For example, we are aware of the numerous student demonstrations that occur during 1968, but what does it mean to be in an active space of demonstration? How is the body situated—what does it hear, see, feel?  I’m curious because I have discovered when students have some point of relatedness to history—like what they were doing when 9/11 happened, it becomes tangible, connected and interesting.

Photo credit: 

Kathryn Haviland
Adrienne Christian
Linda Garcia
Jessica Thomas
Steve Lemieux-Jordan

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