Lehman College Professor Wins New $25K Letras Boricuas-Mellon Fellowship

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Mariposa María Teresa Fernández

Mariposa María Teresa Fernández, a Lehman adjunct professor in Africana Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies and an award-winning poet, is one of 20 writers to be selected for the inaugural cohort of the Letras Boricuas-Mellon Fellows. The program supports Puerto Rican writers on the island and across the United States with a $25,000 grant.

Created this spring by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Flamboyan Foundation’s Arts Fund, the fellowship aims to promote Puerto Rico’s rich literary lineage, amplify Puerto Rican literary voices, and showcase the diversity of Puerto Rican writers and their work. Winners include established and emerging poets and fiction, creative nonfiction, and children’s literature writers.

Fernández said she was grateful for the award, which would help her work reach new heights. 

“The Letras Boricua Mellon Fellowship will help me complete and publish a long-overdue collection of poems and allow me to publish in a way that I hope will make my work widely available—and available to students,” she said. She also hopes it will help support the translation of her work into other languages.

Fernández’s poetry has been taught in colleges and universities in the U.S., Puerto Rico and abroad and included in major anthologies, including African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song and the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Her work has also been featured on TV shows such as HBO Latino’s “Habla Ya!” and “Americanos: Latino Life if the U.S.” In addition to a poetry collection, she is currently working on “Hunts Point Stories of Strength,” a multimedia project documenting stories of community resilience in the South Bronx, funded by a CUNY Adjunct Incubator grant that she received from the Center for the Humanities in 2020.

The Letras Boricua Mellon Fellowship is part of a larger Mellon Foundation initiative established in 2018 to build a sustainable cultural and educational infrastructure in Puerto Rico while redressing past underfunding of the island’s cultural sector. As of 2021, the foundation has made over $13 million in grants toward this goal.

For Fernández, the fellowship comes to Puerto Rican writers at a crucial time, with many reeling from the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people of color. Those on the island are also living amid an extended economic crisis compounded by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Category 5 storms that hit in September 2017; a series of earthquakes in 2019 and 2020; and austerity measures imposed by a fiscal control board, she said. 

“Grants like this are important because they provide economic stability that makes the arts and scholarship possible, especially for marginalized and oppressed people,” she said. “I hope that the Mellon Foundation can continue to work with the Flamboyan Foundation towards opening up more opportunities for Puerto Ricans to tell our own stories.”

Growing up as a second-generation Puerto Rican Afro-Latina in the Bronx, Fernández said she had little knowledge of Latino or Black literature until she was a teenager. Reading the work of poets and writers like Ntozake Shange, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, and Gwendolyn Brooks opened up a new world of creative practice to her. Then, as an undergraduate at New York University, she discovered the Nuyorican Poetry movement and began reading and performing her own work in public. “It wasn’t until then that I began to call myself a poet,” she said.

Today, she continues to draw from and honor the literary traditions that shaped her. “My work is grounded in an AfroLatinidad worldview by way of the New York City Black Arts Movement, Puerto Rican literary traditions, and a Nuyorican feminist aesthetic,” she said.

At Lehman, she weaves poetry, art, and performance into her pedagogy and encourages her students to bring their personal experiences into dialogue with course material.

“What I see as my role as an artist in the classroom is to create a space that validates that my students’ lives matter, their stories matter, and their voices matter,” she said. “Now more than ever.”

Bertrade Ngo-Ngijol Banoum, chair of the Department of Africana Studies, recruited Fernández in 2016 after hearing her recite her poem “Bronx Cicadas” at the College’s Convocation Ceremony. (Watch it here, at the 51:10 mark.)

“I knew then that we had to have her as part of our faculty, educating, empowering, and inspiring our students,” Banoum said. “She has exceeded expectations in every way. I and my colleagues are so very proud of her.” 

Indeed, James Mahon, dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, said Fernández’s deep-rooted artistic practice has been an asset to the campus community. 

“She is a writer and educator who illuminates the multiplicity of the Puerto Rican experience, including her own; who both celebrates the strengths of Puerto Ricans and denounces the injustices and human rights abuses they have endured. Our students are incredibly fortunate to have her as their teacher," he said. “We are absolutely delighted that she has been selected for this prestigious new award.”