Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Natalia Reyes’s college diploma hangs in her family’s living room.

The 25-year-old from Indio, California, says the reason her diploma from the University of California, Berkeley is back home and not with her in Iowa City is in recognition of the fact that she shares the achievement with her family, especially her parents, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico before she was born.

“It didn’t feel like it was an option for me not to finish college or not to go to college because of the fact that my family had not been able to do it,” she says. “When your parents immigrate to a different country, you do feel kind of a responsibility to make their effort worth it, to have all that sacrifice not be in vain. I do feel like I owed it to my family to do the best I could.”

For Reyes, doing the best she could meant attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she is pursuing an MFA in creative writing. Much of her work has been short stories about Mexicans and Mexican Americans, often set in California.

“I’m definitely inspired by growing up in a majority Latino community in California,” she says. “I’m also inspired by the complexities of being from two different countries and feeling both at home and not at home in both countries, having to navigate those dual identities and finding one’s place in the world.”

As a first-generation American pursuing a graduate degree, Reyes was a candidate for the prestigious Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. Despite reservations about her chances of being awarded a fellowship, Reyes applied. Out of more than 1,700 applicants for 2018, Reyes was named one of 30 fellows in April. The honor, she says, initially was overwhelming.

“I just cried for like an hour,” she says. “For a long time, I struggled with feeling like I didn’t belong in a university and that I didn’t deserve the many things that I’ve earned.”

Reyes’s parents came to the U.S. from Michoacán, Mexico, in the late 1980s. Her mother, Sandra, immigrated when Sandra was 12 after her brother advocated for the opportunities the U.S. provided.

Reyes says her father, Cesar, was admitted to a university in Mexico, but things fell apart when her grandfather never came through with money for tuition. Cesar worked, but made only enough money to live on, not enough to put him through college. Faced with dwindling options, Cesar applied for and received a student visa to the United States, selling his refrigerator in order to pay for passage.

Cesar and Sandra met in the U.S. and had Natalia. She also has a brother at the University of California, San Diego and a 14-year-old sister at home in California, where her parents own and operate a carpet- and upholstery-cleaning business.

After graduating high school in 2011, Reyes attended UC Berkeley, where she earned a BA in rhetoric and a minor in creative writing. Reyes says it was during a writing workshop that she discovered she wanted to be a writer.

“I had this very physical feeling of electricity in my body when I left class,” she says. “I was in awe of how much work it would take to get that piece of writing to what I wanted it to be, and I had this sense that I could spend the rest of my life working on, honing that skill. And I think that’s when I felt I wanted to be a writer and would be.”

After graduating from Berkeley in 2016, Reyes took time off from school to teach English in Spain and travel. But her love for writing led her to apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was in Cuba when she learned she had been accepted.

“I knew that the caliber of writers this program attracts is what I wanted,” she says. “I wanted to be around serious writers and have the benefits of a research university in addition to the writing community that the Workshop could give me. I liked that Iowa City is a UNESCO City of Literature and that there are so many writing opportunities here on campus. It really feels like a place that nurtures writers and writing, and readers too.”

Reyes credits her instructors at the Writers’ Workshop and the UI for challenging and supporting her. She says one professor, Rossina Zamora Liu in the College of Education, inspired her to “test the boundaries of what writing can be” and reinforced Reyes’s belief in writing as an agent for social change.

“That is deeply important to me, to believe my writing can effect change in the world,” Reyes says. “To have someone validate that just opens the door for me to do what I do.”

Writers’ Workshop director Lan Samantha Chang praises Reyes’s writing for featuring characters “whose narratives aren’t always reflected in our current literary industry.”

“They are beautifully crafted, sincere explorations of a world we don’t see frequently enough in the work that’s being published today,” Chang says. “Her work is very deeply felt, with strong characters. But, it is also work that has a higher purpose in mind, which is to tell human stories.”

Reyes is the second Soros fellow in the Writers’ Workshop in the past two years, joining 2017 fellow Sanjena Sathian.

“Joining the Soros community is a significant achievement for Natalia and a strong endorsement of the intellectual and creative communities that drew her to the University of Iowa,” says Kelly Thornburg, director of scholar development for the UI Honors Program and institutional representative for the Soros fellowship. “The bar for the Soros fellowship is a particularly high one, but (Reyes’s) success in the competition should not surprise anyone. During selection, reviewers are asked to prioritize creativity, originality, initiative, and sustained commitment. Natalia’s journey to our institution and to the Soros demanded that she employ each of these traits in pursuit of her dreams and in service of those held by the women and workers whose stories she carries with her through the world.  She is already helping us understand what it means to be a ‘New American.’”

The fellowship includes a stipend and covers tuition—up to $90,000 in total—which Reyes says means that for the first time in her college career, she will be able to focus entirely on her studies and not have to worry about living expenses. During her time in Iowa City, Reyes has worked as a production assistant at Iowa Public Radio.

“More than the money or the community, it’s like permission to dream,” she says of the fellowship. “Permission to pursue my passions without feeling like I have to make excuses for what I want to do.”

With a year left in her studies, Reyes says she’s still figuring out what comes next. She hopes to publish some of her writing and also is pursuing a certificate in college teaching.

“Part of the reason I’m here is because I have had a lot of teachers and mentors who believed in me and believed in my work enough to encourage me,” Reyes says. “I would like to do that for other people—help them write their stories.”