Our MFA Experiences


So many of the advantages workshop offers break down when a writer is in the workshop minority. Especially when this minority status matches the status in the outside world. And most especially when this fact goes unacknowledged—that the typical workshop actively disempowers the singular voice. — Matthew Salesses

This special issue of The Acentos Review celebrates the powerful voices of women, men, gender non-conforming and trans people who identify as Latinx in M.F.A. programs across the nation. In recent years, various writers have shared experiences of exclusion in M.F.A. Programs in Creative Writing. Despite a national discourse heralding inclusive excellence in universities, these institutions have yet to address such problems directly. Instead, Latinx students often experience verbal assaults, microaggressions and a general feeling of isolation and lack of culturally responsive support.

As an M.F.A. graduate, it has been my personal experience that peers and faculty fail to acknowledge such outcries too. It’s important to speak publicly of such outcomes, specifically because these types of biases are hurled at us from all directions in society. In some cases they lead us to rage, depression, and retreat from our dreams.

We wanted to hear from these marginalized voices. We do not wish to shame M.F.A. programs; we hope to create visibility, inspire change and perseverance. With these ideas in mind, we provided anonymity to empower those who fear retaliation from their institution or the industry.

As the guest editor, I was privileged to read and curate the following submissions. I advise you to linger between the lines, it’s then you’ll hear silent cries of healing (I), tormented wisdom (II), war chants (III) and even hymns of triumph (IV) from these Latinx writers (who wrote in 300 words or less). Listen, process, share with those who need it, especially the powers that be…



MFA: One Month In

You get the call from the director of the program
that you have been admitted,
that amongst the hundreds of applicants
you are one of the four accepted,
but before the excitement courses through your blood
into an inflection in your voice she says,
don’t quit your day job.

They couldn’t secure funding
There are no TA positions
And you feel as if you’ve won the lottery
But when you go to cash out, they say the treasury is broke.

You don’t start by thinking it’s you—yet
when you are introduced to your cohort
you start to see how colored you are
contrasted against this background.
You don’t ask them about funding
your folks always told you asking
about people’s money is impolite, but you do ask
if they are teaching, and it sounds like it’s everyone but you.

 When school starts you realize you have to take more time off work than you can afford, but the program found funding, opened fellowships, created jobs—for you. They say your job as a graduate assistant will be creative work, that this will make your CV stronger, that there aren’t many teaching positions after graduation anyway (for you).

You are told on the first day that there isn’t any office space—for you
but they found a cubicle in the library, a glorified cage with a sliver of a window facing a brick wall—for you.

Now it’s the first week of workshop and your feedback is crickets, was it the Spanish? Was it that the poem was about heroin? Was it you?

You read the syllabus and there’s no book by an author with a Spanish last name—like you.
And you can’t help but wonder—must be you.


—A student in a MFA program in Arizona


We are not starving

We are charged not to “bite the hand that feeds us.” You don’t feed us. To suggest that would mean that we were starving and needed you to survive. Your greatest fear is to break this illusion, take a pin to the festering bubble of your ignorance and pop open the stinking, infected wound, yet this is the only way to heal, to peel back the skin and cleanse the space you have allowed to grow. I wish for a salve for your indifference, an ointment to spread over the stink of your cruelty, but it is not for me to make if you cannot hear my truths spoken aloud because you fear your implication in our pain, and so you deny it exists, and divorce your responsibility because to do so is easiest. Your fingers grope and grasp for the essence of me, because not knowing is hard for you. Your entitlement is a forward thrust to my belly, blood meeting oxygen, turning red and seeping out, different now from what it was when it was inside me, a part of me, and so you will never know me, because you took instead of asked, and as I lay bleeding, you will assess me and form your own conclusions, the weapon in your hand now separate from the clipboard analysis of my bloody body, my life pouring out of a wound in dark globules of memory but

I will still live.       

  Xicana writer in an MFA program in Texas


October 17, 2012

As I continue to read and write I wonder: Who is my audience? I want it to be Young Adults, but after reading Judy Blume’s God Are You There it’s Me, Margaret, I wonder about the social class of my writing and readers. There were so many things that I couldn’t relate to that were dead giveaways to her class and social background. I even felt like quitting the book, but then the plot arch turned to the climax right in the nick of time.

I wonder if that is another hurtle that I will have to jump besides being an unknown and person of color—if I write like someone who only knows “poverty”

how will that fly?

November 12, 2012 (twelve days after Hurricane Sandy)

I heard that this gay kid who I used to hang out with in Minneapolis in the late 90’s died of a drug overdose here in NYC. His name is Brandon Campos, he went out with my roommate and we all partied together a couple of times. After reading about Brandon online sounds like he was on top of his game.

And all for what?

Why as writers of color—can we NOT hold on to fame, or to our lives very well?

We are tormented with identity issues, personal demons, which all make for fine writing and drama action, but it takes a toll on our souls and bodies.

What does it mean that my best friend slept with a famous writer who is now dead?

Nothing maybe, maybe something… 

Either way it’s crazy…and that is life…all I know that it’s because of these crazy unfortunate instances that push me to write to continue the circle…


  From a Student in Englewood, NJ in a Low-Residency MFA


Picking the one Latinx on faculty,
advisor letters in English, Spanish, and Spanglish.

Heart quickening on spotting the table of color at the cafeteria, the security of
knowing feedback in advisory group would be protected because I was not the only
person of color. 

Linking eyes with Kristina in airport, ranting when taxi driver dropped us off and
bashed other drivers “with bad English from other countries”.
Furiously knitting through colloquiums and faculty readings, posing in revolutionary
stances just outside campus grounds.

Facilitating gathering of faculty and students of color with white administration,
asked to do more pro bono even as I pay $11,000 a year to be a student.
No without gracias.

Educating allies on options to the “it’s hard to find POC faculty as they are heavily
Basking in visiting writers for my last two low rez residencies: Claudia Rankine,
Patricia Powell, Nilo Cruz, Walter Mosley. Not so hard, eh?

Cautiously picking workshops to minimize micro-aggressions,
Insisting POC limit rant time about comments by other student or faculty so we can
talk about our craft.

Fighting to keep advisor when she takes what will be a permanent leave because she
has been overburdened, insisting on another WOC advisor for second year, on first
advisor as second reader, knowing my work is held, valued, my differences respected
amid a whirl of exoticism.

Designing study plan flush with people in all colors,
learning from writers who know the double and triple invisibilities like breathing pure

Choosing not to fly back for graduation, creating ceremonia de graduación at 49th
birthday fiesta, making required public reading a fundraiser for Mujeres Unidas y

Making, creating, advocating, challenging, seething, laughing, resting, ignoring,
celebrating. Still connecting with people of color who blessed this journey and made 
the effort worth the trials.

Life coach/writer & Vermont MFA graduate


Scenes from an MFA


A fellow MFA student, a white guy with a hipster-bored expression, seemed to be casting about for a topic of conversation with me. Finally, he told me that he’s part Polish.

         “So that’s something we have in common. You know, polkas? Accordions?”

         “Puerto Rican music doesn’t use accordions,” I said.

         He looked blank.

         “You’re thinking of Mexicans.”

         Still blank.


One assigned reading was a short story by Borges; I’ve forgotten which one. In the class discussion, a white woman student commented approvingly that the story ended with a particularly appropriate word—“time,” it might have been, or “death.”

         “That’s in the English translation,” I said. “It’s not how he actually wrote it.”  

         First reaction: blank stare.

         Then indignation: “He would have known his work would be translated into English.”

         “Then why didn’t he end it that way in Spanish?” I said.

         The professor cut me off and changed the subject.


I needed no privacy when I spoke on the phone to my partner or my mother. All I had to do was switch to Spanish and I might as well have been in a cone of silence.


The program had a high-profile literary journal, which was about to accept an essay by a big-name white male writer. The essay included a grossly stereotyped description of some Latinas the narrator was ogling, with particular detail lavished on their crotches. One professor, a Black man, showed me the essay and asked what I thought. I said it was horrifying. The professor put his foot down with the editorial staff and insisted they not publish it. He and I were deeply resented for our political correctness. We were being swayed by our petty personal issues. We were rabid dogs, ripping great art to pieces.


— Graduate of a midwestern MFA program


My MFA doesn’t have a writer of color on faculty.

Mamá says that shouldn’t matter.

1.    My MFA has said my stories make you work for them. Mira estos coiled images y rattling syntax; mis cuentos must be scary cosas to critique. I write Spanglish con @ signs and X’s, a nueva hybrid of oral and written; claro, my stories are laborious, heavy creaturas. Like the story about my resistance to assimilation. Or the one where I work through the racial trauma of losing my mother tongue. Everyone liked the story about the queer women, but didn’t comment on their brown skin. These stories, my MFA says, are not for everyone.

2.    Situation: You are an artist. You create from life. Life is spoken in English, Spanish, and Spanglish. You cannot stop thinking in stories, seeing the paletero’s life-story as he rings his bell on Flores Street.  You still ask your mamá to tell her stories from el campo, from her college days, from raising you & your wild sister. You don’t want to forget.

3.    Situacíon: You are an artist. You create from la vida. Life is being Chican@, a poly-identity; you write to make sense of this & heal & heal others, hopefully. You cannot stop thinking in stories, meanwhile seeing the master story give praise to the white artists. You still ask yourself why these artists rally against diversity like you’re taking away their favorite toy. You ask your mamá, why does history repeat itself? You don’t want to forget.

My MFA says they can’t wait until I write stories for non-Latinos.

And mamá says, you keep writing.

  Nopal Proudly en la Frente


Jarabe de Arte

Había un profe, and that profe used to be a bouncer, while attending law school; so, te imaginas what a ball buster he was, and how much los peones wanted to take classes with that particular profe.

I mean that profe is a great poet, a judicious profe, an enciclopedia de poesia con patas but it was more than that: it was that el profe did not need nor care to easily please el graduate faculty.

El graduate faculty daban miedo estética, daban espasmos involutarios, daban musica de organo de telenovelas. The graduate faculty was not to be trifled with.

Ya, casi hace quince años, a petition was circulated demanding the writer factory allow peones take graduate Master of Fine Arts credit with a particular undergraduate English department profe. Most of the peones belonging to the writer factory signed.

Vez, that profe was not on the approved profe-lista and so los peones of the writer fábrica were not allowed to acquire credits with that profe. Then one night, agentes del graduate faculty called certain peones that had signed the petition and asked them to kindly rescindir their names from the petition, which many peones did because they were not tontos.

Sabian, certain agentes had the power to flagelar your carera, or relegate you to the Adjunct Calabozo por vida, mijo, begging for your ration of sections like some pinche huérfano de la

Época Victoriana.

Other peones sintieron that the petition crafters had surreptitiously commandeered the gusanos on the page to form other phrases that were not there in the original petition texto. Sabemos como termina esto. We know how this ends, folks:

los agentes select peones, those peones that get selected write most como los agentes, those agentes get to teach the fine art of being a peon.

— MFA graduate from Massachusetts




Advice for White Writers


Being a white writer is so easy,
just write about something that isn’t you:
about how it tastes to lick a coco paleta on a hot day
at la pulga after your madre doesn’t
buy you that luchador mask
no matter how hard you cried
because she can’t afford it
even after working 50 hours
and can’t ask for a raise
or else they’ll fire her
and she’ll lose the apartment
and you, your sister, and the will to live
so she gets you the paleta
because they won’t lower the price
of luchador masks
and nothing about the world will change soon.
Just write about that,
white artist, and let them soak you
in praise. 

by a Texan with an MFA



On “Allies”

As a chair of a Latinx student organization, I constantly found myself trying to make sense of the institutionalized racism in my program. In class, I was surrounded by white students who identified as progressive and as allies, yet most of them did little to actually support their peers of color in the program. Over and over again, I found myself at readings and other events organized by students of color, and there were very little white students or even white department faculty in attendance. The only time I saw a significant number of white students turn out to an event, was when one of our white professors encouraged them to go to readings he had sponsored for his white writer friends. Over and over again, I saw that these white students needed things to be filtered through a white voice. They needed to pray at the alter of whiteness. They needed a white voice to endorse art before they could appreciate it. This is the kind of racism that really disturbs me, and now I know, the writing community is infested in it.

Until white students in MFA programs recognize their privilege, they can’t call themselves allies.

Until white students in MFA programs stop saying they’re color blind, they can’t call themselves allies

Until white students in MFA programs stop being so defensive when we call them out, they can’t call themselves allies.

Until white students in MFA programs listen to what we have to say, they can’t call themselves allies. 


— A Chicana, MFA in California



Given a Chance


Tino: A forty-five year old man
arrives in my writing class 

he has never had a computer
doesn’t own a cell phone 

there is a tightening in my chest
I am his professor 

and he just got out of jail. I know
his type.  He reminds me of my 

cousins, neighbors, friends
whose mother’s sent them to the 

juvenile detention center because
she was alone 

a single parent with several other kids
and no father present 

the boy might learn something
with men around: 

structure, discipline, maybe even get an
education in a controlled environment 

he will never forget his education in

Tino: who works from six in the morning
to six in the evening 

asks for more time on his assignment
a student who would have been 

dropped from the class
at midterm time 

by a  professor who
spends her time in a summer home 

who could not recognize
how Tino’s life mirrored the life of her father 

my father
an immigrant, a factory worker 

who never finished high school
because he had to work to eat. 

Now I am the professor
the gatekeeper 

and I give Tino more time
for his assignment 

and I tell him he has to
“up his game” to finish the class 

and he comes in for extra help
while I breathe hard hoping 

that he can write that final
paper that shows he understood 

the academic way of doing things
and I am happy when he 

turns in his final essay and he
compares himself to an old 

Cadillac that has a hard time
turning on but 

once it gets going it is
hard to stop. 

I read his essay
he passes the class 

but I learn more from him
than he does from me. 

A writing professor at a college, Chicago, Illinois


Life is a text that requires a daily reparative read.

I have been an artist for the last twenty years. I first went to grad school in a field that I thought would be where I made a life as an academic and artist. I had that fantasy about being an “Artist-Scholar.” I met a lot of great artists who turned to the institution with the simple desire to find support and stability. However, many of the hot-shot, tenured queer studies scholars I encountered over the next decade were the kind that encouraged their students to bare their fangs at everything they read, tear down arguments and start rather unproductively basic beefs with one another. I resisted these cues and felt like if I wasn’t going to be an alpha wolf I wasn’t going to make it anywhere in the wilderness of academia as a beta wolf either.

But that’s just one small world and I realized that as artists we have the burden and blessing to forge new worlds through our creative acts of resistance. There is more than one way to have a graduate school experience. And while I appreciate the ways that the relationships that emerged organically in my first foray into grad school continue to animate my critical inquiries towards becoming a capital-P poet, I’m not invested in “career-making.” I still care about risk and I will put myself in the cross-hairs always if the possibility for paradigm shifting is present. Others before me did that so that I can have the positive MFA experience I am having today.

And I am here now with three other people of color in my poetry cohort producing critical work that situates Spanish alongside English in an expression that reflects a diehard desire for integrity.


  An MFA Candidate in Poetry studying in Arizona


© The Acentos Review 2016