I lovingly look at my daughter and her best friend. They've known each other since they were 5 years old and they've been through stops and starts throughout that time. But at 23 years old, they are in a solid friendship that will undoubtedly last for decades. I felt that way about my best friend, too. That this easygoing-know-everything-about-each other-you're-the-most-important-person-to-me-in-my-life friendship would never end. But that's not how this story goes...
Let me start with the happy part. I met Cecilia Vaisman on my very first day arriving in New York City to go to Barnard college. She was my suitemate, and, from the outside, we couldn't have appeared to be more opposite.
I was a budding radical, ready to own all of my identities as a feminist, as a Mexicana, as a rebel, and now as a budding New Yorker. Ceclia dressed in tennis shorts, with long tan legs that reminded me of Raquel Welch. I was a Chicagoan from Mexico City. Cecilia was from New Jersey via Buenos Aires, Argentina. And now both of us were in this new strange city for our first day of college.
That was in 1979. We had that beautiful, intense friendship that women can have, and it wasn't always easy. We too had our stops and starts. At one point in time, we didn't speak for close to two years. When I was just married, it was one of the periods when we were distant from each other, but that didn't matter. We were always in each other's hearts: two Latinas, trying to make their way in the world.
Cecilia and I lived parallel lives in many ways. We both ended up studying Latin American studies. We both became radio journalists. We both got married and had two kids. She moved to the city where I was raised, Chicago. I moved to the east coast, where she was raised.
In 2011, Cecilia called and told me that I should apply for a teaching position at DePaul University in Chicago. There was a lot on my plate already. I had just launched my own nonprofit media company. I had two teenagers living at home. I was working out some bumps in my marriage. And most importantly: I had never been a professor before.
I told Cecilia it was a little bit out of my league and I was surprised she would even ask me to consider it. To me, it seemed basically impossible to teach in Chicago while simultaneously living in New York, launching a company, and raising a family.
But what Cecilia said next made me say yes: it would be a full salary position with benefits, they'd pay for your child’s tuition if they go to DePaul, and it was a highly competitive offer.
By then, Cecilia was a professor. She received a masters in education, and she kindly gave me a crash course on teaching over the course of a few weekends. The most structural advice she gave was to write your syllabus and stick to it. She also told me that many of the students have a very high “bullshit” detector. So you're not going to be able to get away with just telling stories about being a journalist.
She asked me to remember what was the best and most enjoyable class that she and I took together at Barnard college. It was one of our smallest classes with about eight students. The professor, a Chilean refugee, would lead us into deep dialogue about Latin American literature and history, and always couch it within his own experience, encouraging us to bring our personal stories into the classroom. A close second was the contemporary civilization class I took at Columbia, taught by an existential Marxist who was battling cancer. I was the only woman in the class.
Both courses were based on having deep dialogues and revelations as well as creating a space where we could let down our guard and forget about the pressures of being a student. It was critical to prioritize confidentially when we were bringing such personal topics into the classroom.
I started teaching at DePaul in 2012 and stayed there for seven years. I was also named the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz scholar, a very prestigious position as a Latina public thinker. Most of my students were first-generation Latina/o/x, but students or any identity were welcome into my classes. Everyone was always encouraged to express what they wanted and expected in class. Now I am entering my third year of teaching as the first distinguished journalist in residence at my alma mater, Barnard college. Every Thursday, I teach two classes back to back. The first one on writing and trauma. The second one on immigration, reporting, and personal history.
After I teach on Thursdays, my hopefulness increases by 500%. I look at all of the students and their critical questioning, deep awareness and high bullshit detectors, and I feel comforted. Many of them are first-generation children of immigrants or undocumented themselves, these are the students who say that their biggest dream is to buy their parents a house. They're studying to become lawyers to take on the immigration system. Most of the students are also facing some kind of intense trauma, whether it be immigration status, racism, or sexual violence.
I don't hide my own experiences of deep trauma. In fact, I'm the first one in the class to cry. Last year, I taught classes via zoom. Even though it was so alienating, it was one of the most profound teaching experiences that I had.
I'm not your typical professora. I'm old enough now to really believe in myself and what my intuition is telling me to do. So I teach with my own style because I'm not a PhD, even though I hold six honorary degrees. I start class with meditation, spending time in mini one on one interviews with the students and asking them what their craziest wildest dreams are. Sometimes, it’s the first time anyone has asked them that. I tell the students that they are excellent from the start and encourage them to own their power. I especially encourage the Latina/o/x students to understand how powerful they are within the higher education system.
I'll tell you, apart from seeing the Aurora Borealis, my craziest wildest dream would be to have Cecilia alive and with me, by my side, holding me, hugging me, smiling at me and telling me: I love you, Malu. I love you.
It's not by chance that I ended up writing this essay on September 26th. In 2015, this was the last day Celia was on earth. At 2:28 in the morning, I held her hand along with her daughter when she took her last breath.
If there's anything I hope you takeaway, please cherish your friendships and let your best friends know that you love them, because life really is short, and these last few years have been a time when that message feels true, more than ever. I recently sent cards to my best friends, letting them know how much I love them. It's a seemingly small gesture, but you never know when it could make the biggest impact.
There's one final little twist of beauty to this all. Today, my daughter and Cecilia's daughter are....you guessed it...best friends.