Interview by Jeremy McEvoy, BFA in Photography
with Isabella Rios, Junior, Double Major in Photography and Latin American and Caribbean Studies
What is your name and pronouns?
My name is Isabella Rios, and my pronouns are she, her, hers.
What is your age and major, and your role?
I am a double major. I am a photography BFA with a double major in Latin American and Caribbean studies. And I’m a junior.
Where are you from?
Ethnicity wise, I’m Brazilian and Mexican and I live in Westchester, NY.
What types of hobbies or activities are you interested in?
Well, I like art. I am more into digital stuff, I can’t draw for the life of me. I’m a musician, so I like to sing. On campus, I’m part of one of the acappella groups. I’m part of photo club and I’m part of a community-based sorority called New Item Sorority.
Has campus made you feel welcome as a Latina?
In the beginning it did. I didn’t really grow up with a very accepting school community.
Coming to New Paltz was like “oh shit they care.” Everybody seemed really nice, everybody was very smiley. It slowly began to change. After a while, something as simple as going into certain rooms or halls around campus became very uncomfortable. The color of your skin looks and stands out in ways that you didn’t necessarily expect it to in a place that you would think is super accepting. But overall, yes, it recently has been harder to feel comfortable.
How does the community here at New Paltz differ from your home?
Where I grew up was a very unsafe place. It was very divided between a very Italian heritage and a minority Latin and Black. And on top of that, the district didn’t care about everybody in it, so it was a very difficult way to grow up and you were never comfortable. You were just doing anything you could to keep yourself alive. And I experienced a lot of those stereotypes of drug dealing for money or fighting, or it getting aggressive aoround me. We played into that to keep ourselves safe. We played into these stereotypes of being loud, the long nails, the hoops to get people to stay away from us so that we were safe to go about our day.
Here I don’t need to have that guard up, which is very different, but recently I find myself switching into that [past state] sometimes. It’s very much: Ok, you act a certain way, you know it’s ok, and then you turn around and say, “I don’t know about you. Are you just being nice because you have to be nice?” I think in terms of Community, here’s a little bit more calm. I don’t have to have that part up all the time, but in a way I felt safer having my guard up at hom than I do when I’m here, where I need to have it up and down constantly.
What personal journey brought you to your current role?
My journey as a student was very rough. Growing up, I was in a place that was very toxic. It was not a safe place for people to be growing up no matter what skin tone because there was always a reason for you to get hurt. And because of that, my mental health got so bad that I totally gave up on everything and I just ended up doing a lot of very unsafe things to myself. I was thinking “Screw school, screw life I don’t want to do anything anymore.” I pretty much didn’t go to freshman or sophomore year of high school. They transferred me out far away, you know, gave me a chance for a break. From there I went and built my life up again. In two years, I got all four years of high school credits down. Extra-curriculars included. At that point, college was still not on my radar at all. One of my teachers said I should really give it a shot. I didn’t even know what I wanted to study, I didn’t even know what college means, the money, any of that. I barely got through high school. How am I going to get through another four plus years of school? And then I just applied for shits and giggles. Just to see where it goes. Where it led me was FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) and then New Paltz. My experience with FIT was that it felt very racist. So I settled on New Paltz because I just didn’t know where else to go. I’m still here, three years later. I really like it, it’s just learning how to get around certain obstacles.
What issues or challenges are you confronted with?
On campus, it depends. When, you get to New Paltz, well, everyone is so nice and everyone so accepting. What I realized is that a lot of my friends and people around me and my peers are of color or minority like Spanish, Latin, and so on and so forth. They are accepting if you are part of the LGBTQ community. The second its shifts to POC, the conversation is over. You know to speak different languages, OK, but they think you’re an international student. They think you’re this, they think you’re that. You can’t just be a student here. There’s always something else going on that makes you different beyond just your skin tone. It comes along with challenges and issues of where I fit in. Do they even want me here? There are many resources, luckily. But they’re not all open to us, it’s very hard to find. I found the SMP (Scholar’s Mentorship) program by chance on a whim. We have a lot of similar situations. We’re here, but we feel like we’re not supposed to be here.
The easiest thing to use as an example was my first orientation at school. I got accepted. I came for orientation. My mom is Brazilian but very white Brazilian with red hair. And my dad is Mexican, so he’s very… not dark skin, but dark for a Mexican, with very indigenous coloring. And we looked very out of place during orientation. Then they said, OK, now we’re just waiting for the EOP students to come in. And then you see this flood of people of color come in. And my dad asked jokingly, but in a way in all seriousness, “Are we in the wrong group?” Were we supposed to be over there because we didn’t look like we were a part of this group, you know. And it started before I was even a student with an orientation. That idea is already put in your head, of separating people. I don’t think they meant it like that. But it is very frustrating when they’re coming into a place where you feel, oh, this is my new start and you alredy feel that you don’t fit in. You don’t look the way they want you to. And firstly, I had to grow up with that you know, my Brazilian family is very white, but in a very racist way. So having a Mexican granddaughter was not something that they wanted. So having these ideas that I grew up with continue in a place where I thought this was going to be my new start, right off the bat. Where do I go from here?
What are your most important sources of success and change?
It’s as simple as communicating how you are feeling. Through art, through writing, music or anything. You feel so alone when you’re thinking, “Am I the only one who has to deal with this?” I know I’m not the only person of color on this campus, but if we talk about it, it easily becomes aggressive, which we’re trying to avoid. We’re just trying to get our rights out there. We shouldn’t have to be treated differently. We shouldn’t have to grow up being scared. I remember all this stuff in the world that was happening. I was thinking, “Are my kids gonna have to deal with?” I already have to deal with so much. I’m mixed in a sense that I have a lot of white family. They’re Latin, but it’s still a lot of white family and even they aren’t accepting of me or my siblings because of our skin tone. How are my kids going to feel? How is that in terms of the world progressing. Even just on campus. My sister is a junior high school, she is looking at New Paltz to come study. I will never forget when she called me and said “I don’t think I’m going to have as many struggles in New Paltz as you because I’m white passing so people don’t think that I’m Hispanic.” And that hurt my heart, I wish that wasn’t the first thing that came to mind, you know? She’s very open about her speaking Spanish, very open about her heritage and her culture. But she already knows that she’s OK because she doesn’t look like me. It’s crazy, little words like that, feeling out of place, feeling not accepting, telling kids who live in Chamber of color what that history is. Because a lot of kids say “I don’t feel comfortable here, and they won’t let me move.” They don’t tell you what’s going on, they mask it. Little things like that, things that need to be talked about. You can’t just stick a bunch of murals on the wall and say that everything fixed, that’s not how that works, you know? We need to talk about it and it being pictured is going to start a conversation. It’s not going to end after that, you know. If anything, that might start a whole other thing about well, why do they get to share their story? Why do this, why do that? There’s a lot of fixing that needs to be done. But it can’t just come from the students, it has to come from the faculty. You know there’s only so much that a bunch of freshmenm sophomores, juniors and seniors can do when there’s a lot of professors who say one thing and teach a totally other thing. Something as simple as American history. We learned one way, but some of us know the history, the real history, and realize something is wrong here.
There needs to be an understanding between everybody that we’re not different. We shouldn’t be treated differently. We’re all spending a lot of money to get a degree, and we shouldn’t have to be or feel like our skin tone is holding us back from achieving that. Because in a lot of ways, our skin tone held us back a lot to even get to this point. I know when I was applying to schools I thought, oh, they probably accepted me because they needed to hit a diversity quota. We grow up thinking, do they really want me or did they say, “Oh she’s Mexican, better let her in.” So, I think talking is the best way to get it across, but it needs to be a safe space. Not a place where it’s going to turn very aggressive all of a sudden. It can’t come from an attacking point of view. We need to be able to share what we’ve experienced in a way that is not going to turn around and bite us in the a** if you talk about it. That’s the struggle, facilitating the safe space for that to happen. It’s hard to put yourself out there in that way, and we already stick out. We’re not going to put ourselves out there more in a place like New Paltz. In a way it can get us in trouble and you could bite us in the a** in a way that we don’t expect it to. We think that it’s a good thing and then suddenly it’s not good. Yeah, so there’s a lot of change that needs to happen, but the way of doing it safely is the real struggle.
What are changes that you would like to see and be part of?
Like I said, we need a safe space so we can communicate. But it needs to be an effort from everybody. It can’t just be one or two professors, that’s all like we really want, to make our room more inclusive and our teaching style. It can’t be just that you know? It needs to be an understanding between everybody that we’re all here doing the same thing. We’re all trying to learn. What we look like, our experiences, our culture shouldn’t keep us from doing that. And so, until that happens, there’s not much change that could really happen.
Who else needs to be pulled into the conversation?
It’s literally anyone. Everyone, everyone who’s willing to talk about it.
Interview by Jeremy McEvoy,
BFA in Photography