BY CRISTINA C. SANTAMARÍA GRAFF
On the night of the presidential election, after I had put my two young girls to bed, I sat with my husband in front of our television watching the electoral map of the United States spread red through the center and reach outward north, south, east, and partly west. It reminded me of a deep wound bleeding, uncontained, through heavy bandages. Though I have weathered other elections, particularly the one in 2000, where "red" meant an overthrow of the previous "blue," this time, "seeing red," literally caused heart palpitations and panic. These emotions were thwarted by deep breathing, visualization techniques, and repeated affirmations, but the overall national palette of red felt oddly personal.
As a woman and mother who self-identifies as a multiracial Mexicana and who is a special education professor, I see our new president as the antithesis of all I have ever believed in and strived for. His views on women, immigrants, Mexicans, and those with disabilities have begun to impact federal, state, and local policies that aim to protect – though not always well – the rights and liberties of "minorities" or all those who are not "privileged" by their gender, status, or background in our country. I have watched in horror and unabashed astonishment as constitutional rights, such as the right to assemblage and freedom of speech, have been narrowly interpreted and have limited, to varying degrees, freedoms to which we have had access.
I am also a cancer survivor, though I prefer the term "cancer thriver." A cancer thriver means that I am not defined by my illness and, therefore, can live fully present even if cancerous cells are swimming in my bloodstream. In this present moment I am, with gratitude, cancer-free. Though the night of the election as I tried to sleep, I was reminded of the anxiety and sense of loss I felt on the sleepless nights before my mastectomy surgery.
On those nights, there was a feeling of dread and deep sadness. I knew that, literally, I would be losing my left breast and, symbolically, a part of my woman- and motherhood was also being released. I was particularly devastated because I had to stop breastfeeding my baby who was ten months-old at the time of the diagnosis. These nights were long and challenging as I reflected on how my life and body would change drastically. I considered who I was in relation to my body and how my life had been shaped by ideas of blissful motherhood, happiness, and overall well-being. During the dark hours of the night, I questioned my entire identity. I doubted my role as a good mother and wife, my ability to experience happiness (again), and my potentiality for healing and recovery. I feared being really sick and how my condition might impact my husband’s and children’s quality of life. These nights leading up to the surgery, were fitful and feverish. There were so many unknowns.
Yet, somewhere deep inside of myself I knew that I had strength. I bore down within my soul and established the mantra, "All is well." I found this statement in my heart and began to repeat it in my head. With each thought of "all is well" came a feeling of peace. As these thoughts materialized into words, a wash of relief and well-being became palpable. By the day of my surgery, I was firmly grounded in my knowing that all was well and that, no matter the outcome, I was whole, beautiful, and strong.
On the morning of the surgery, my husband sat with me on my hospital bed waiting for the nurses to take me to the operating room. We held hands and looked deeply into each other’s eyes. In some ways, I saw him for the first time. His eyes reflected to me the same mantra I was affirming with every breath, all is well. The nurses would walk by the room, peek in from time to time, and tiptoe around us. One female nurse said, "It’s so peaceful in here. I don’t want to interrupt." Her words validated my understanding that the internal strength gathered during a potentially terrifying moment was far more powerful than any incision, scrape, suture, or scar. Externally, the peace felt by the nurses and staff was an outward manifestation of the internal knowing all is well.
Going into the surgery with steady hope and a focused frame of mind, I believe, shaped the outcome. After four hours of a mastectomy and sentinel node biopsy surgery to determine if my lymph nodes had been impacted by the cancer, the doctors declared the surgery’s success. Each procedure had gone exceptionally well and the main surgeon was able to extract the cancerous tumors and tissue. My healing and recovery from the surgery was relatively fast and the doctors were pleased to tell me that the pathology report showed no lymph node involvement. Though I followed this surgery with radiation, reconstruction, and hormone therapy – all of which posed different challenges – my overall path to healing was remarkable, miraculous even. I claim miraculous because something fierce within me – like a phoenix rising above the ashes – emerged in spite of the fact that reoccurrence of my cancer was "probable."
I share my story because there is hope for us who feel that the election of Trump as president of the United States is a devastating blow to our evolution as a country toward real economic progress and social change. As an assistant professor of undergraduate students, I realize hope is not something that can be taught. It’s not something that I can hold up in the air, analyze, and examine, but it is something that can develop over time. But critical hope, originating with Paulo Freire’s (1994) work Pedagogy of Hope in which hope is conceptualized through the radical transformation of systems – social, political, educational – is a timely conceptual framework to use when speaking with others who feel disempowered by the current administration’s abuse of power and privilege on multiple levels and scales.
Teaching "hope" through a critical lens means guiding others in ways of knowing "all is well" by acknowledging their strengths and empowering them to understand self even in the most desperate of moments. Knowing all is well is to experience confidence in the tools we possess that lead to critical self-reflection, a strong understanding of our values and beliefs, and a willingness to be open to other perspectives even if they contradict our own or lead us into uncomfortable conversations or spaces. One of these tools is our ability to interpret documents, facts, and events on our own without the filter of another’s viewpoint and to use a critical eye to understand the information that is presented to us.
Since the Trump election, I have assigned my students the task of reading the U.S. Constitution, particularly Amendments 1 – 10, better known as The Bill of Rights. Many students have expressed consternation and confusion about how their beliefs are being challenged by issues erupting daily around statements made by Trump and his administration. For example, students are torn about whether or not to support the notion of universities as sanctuary campuses. Is it constitutional for a university to protect students whose legal status in our country is unauthorized? Though I know where I stand on the issue of immigration, many of my students either are unclear about their perspectives or confess, usually in private to me after class, that they were raised to believe that "illegal" immigrants should be deported. When I press them for further explanation, they say things like: "It’s just what I was taught" or "I’m an American and they’re not. So why should they have the same rights?"
As a response to these remarks and to others that reflect, to me, little reflection of one’s own internal understanding of the complexity of the issues surfacing, I find it imperative – now more than ever – to not take our rights and liberties for granted. Assisting others to think for themselves by asking critical questions based in factual data or in pertinent legislation that impacts our daily lives is a first step in regaining our personal knowing – our sovereignty – free from political rhetoric and social media bantering. Knowing all is well and having authentic hope is predicated on feeling firmly grounded in our own understandings of the world around us. These understandings, if honestly and critically assessed, are a doorway to self-empowerment that leads not to self-righteousness and narrow interpretations, but rather to more expansive and compassionate acceptance of self and of others.
It may take weeks, months, or years to understand why we find ourselves face-to-face with a president who symbolizes everything we feel we are not. For many of us, there is loss and pain. For some, it may feel like the core of who we are has been silenced, cut off, or pushed away. But instead of dwelling on the negative emotions that his presence may evoke within, we must choose a higher path and prepare for what is to come. We now must bear down and do the hard work which is to love ourselves and others as we confront the divisions and wounds that have bled us individually and collectively. It is our time of reckoning, of facing our darkest fears. Most likely, we will have many murky, fitful nights of the soul in which we confront our deepest apprehensions about the unknown. We may question who we are and what we believe in. We may feel trepidation when grappling with belief systems that, upon reflection, no longer seem to serve us. But it is now, especially now, that we should breathe and gather our strength. In these quiet moments, hope will ignite as our own internal flame discerns real truth from the lies. And between breaths, we will hear our own empowering mantras signaling all is well.
Cristina C. Santamaría Graff is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). She is a wife and mother of three girls. She is also a breast cancer thriver (just past the five-year mark!). She has been an educator for over twenty years and has worked as a bilingual and bilingual special education teacher. Her work is focused on Latinx families of children with dis/abilities. You may follow her work and writing on: http://eduspirit.org which will be debuting soon.