SPOTLIGHT OF THE MONTH: Q & A with Afro-Latina Poet Jasminne Mendez

PHOTO COURTESY OF JASMINNE MENDEZ

It is Black History Month, a time to commerate outstanding individuals of the African Diaspora!  Black Girl, Latin World will be posting content weekly that celebrates Our History.

Our first interview is with the fantastic poet, actress, teacher and published writer Jasminne Mendez. Mendez has performed in venues all around Houston, including the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Rice University and the Alley Theatre. She has graced the stage with amazing writers like Sandra Cisneros and Taylor Mali. Mendez’s memoir Island of Dreams was published and released in November of 2013.   Check out our interview with this fantastic Afrolatina artist from Houston, Texas!


PHOTO COURTESY OF: Jasminne Mendez

PHOTO COURTESY OF: JASMINNE MENDEZ

What events, people and things inspire you? Why?

I always find this to be such a difficult question. I am inspired by everything really. There is so much beauty in this world, and any of it can be inspiration for writing or for living. But, I’m probably most inspired by children, their innocence and unbiased creativity is a beautiful thing. I am also inspired by strong women who follow their dreams and work to build up other women- (Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Oprah, Esmeralda Santiago). And, not to sound shallow, but I’m inspired by my own life. I have lived through a lot in these short 30 years, and knowing that I have quite literally survived near death experiences, helps keep me going. I am inspired by being an inspiration to others, if that makes sense. I know people are moved by my work and my life story and that keeps me motivated and excited to keep doing it.

How has your Afrolatina background influenced your work?

A lot of my earlier writing- both memoir and poetry- focused on my identity as an AfroLatina in society. What it meant. How I fit in. I used writing to come to terms with my Dominicanness and my Americanness. In my first memoir Island of Dreams, I explore with poetry and short stories what it means to be an Afrolatina living in America, how I want to honor my parent’s culture and heritage while still being able to fit in and feel at home in the U.S. I was also blessed to learn Spanish as a child, so you will often see Spanish words in my poetry and stories, I don’t think I could write and be true to myself without it.

 

Jasminne Mendez performing poetry. PHOTO COURTESY OF: Jasminne Mendez

Jasminne Mendez performing poetry.
PHOTO COURTESY OF: JASMINNE MENDEZ

You are also a teacher, how does that play into your work?

Surprisingly, I have never written any poems about teaching. I have written only one short story memoir piece and that was published in the book Littlest Blessings by Whispering Angel Books. Although I don’t write about it, I definitely always write with my students in mind. I write for them, because growing up I never saw “myself” in books or in the authors I read and to me that is a disservice we are doing to our youth. We need more writers of color in our schools, in the curriculum. We need picture books that depict minorities as strong, fun and real people. I write so that hopefully my books can end up in the classroom and students won’t feel so alone.

What advice would you give to women wanting to write?

Write. Just write. Even when you don’t want to. Even when it’s hard. Even when everyone around you asks you why. Write. You don’t just become a writer over night, it takes practice, patience and perseverance. You will write things that are good. You will write things that are never meant to be read by anyone else. Doesn’t matter, just keep writing. And, find your voice and your audience. If you want to write just for yourself, that’s fine, but don’t expect to sell any books that way. Publishing and writing is a business like any other. You and your work is the product and you have to have someone to sell it to. If you have a strong voice and a strong purpose then it will lead you to the right audience.

Jasminne Mendez performing poetry. PHOTO COURTESY OF: JASMINNE MENDEZ PHOTO COURTESY OF: Jasminne Mendez

Jasminne Mendez performing poetry.
PHOTO COURTESY OF: JASMINNE MENDEZ

What has been the most challenging thing about writing and performing?

The most challenging thing about writing for me has always been the revision and editing process. I hate rereading my work because I always feel so self-conscious about it and I always second guess and doubt its worth. I wonder “who will want to read this?” I am constantly having to give myself pep talks to stay motivated and keep writing. With regards to performing, well to be honest that’s the easy part for me. I’ve been on stage since the age of 11, although I do get occasional stage fright, it passes quickly once I say the first few lines of a poem. My poetry and my words come alive on the stage, I feed off the audience’s energy and that fuels and excites me. But, if I had to choose ONE thing that’s hard about it….it’s demanding to get paid what I’m worth. And by demanding I don’t mean being rude about it, I just mean being sure that I get compensated for my time and talent. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that I deserve that, this is not just a hobby, this is work, it takes time not just talent. And, time is money.

Is there an Afrolatin@ community in Houston like New York and Miami?

Yes, there is an Afrolatino community here, but it’s not as prevalent. We don’t really like have “afrolatino” meetings or hangouts or anything. Most Latinos in Houston group themselves by country of origin, Afrolatino Hondurans hangout with other Hondurans regardless of skin color, same goes with Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans. Sure, we’ll see each other at salsa clubs or the hair salon, but it’s not like in Miami where you get off the plane and all these “black” people are speaking Spanish at you. And because Houston is so big and so spread out, we don’t come together often and there are pockets of Afrolatinos across the city. Houston is just diverse overall that you can never really tell what ethnicity someone is just by looking at them.

What challenges have you faced in your career?

I think my biggest challenge has been my health. I live with several auto-immune diseases that often leave me debilitated for months at a time. I suffer from chronic fatigue and pain and spent over a year without the full use of my right hand (my writing hand), not being able to feed, clothe, and dress myself was hard…trying to write became near impossible without a lot of work and effort that was just draining. I also got really ill when my book Island of Dreams first came out and so that halted a lot of the publicity, readings and events that I had planned to do in order to promote the book. I feel really behind as a writer in my career because my health problems have forced me to slow down, but I’ve learned to just take it one day and one page at a time.

What has been the most rewarding part of your writing and poetry career?

The MOST rewarding part of my writing career can be summed up by one experience that I had over 8 years ago at a poetry reading. I was asked along with 29 other poets to perform a poem at the Holocaust Museum of Houston. The event was held in attempt to bring the Latino, African American and Jewish community together. To show the city just how much in common we all had. It was a wonderful and awe inspiring event, the thought that poetry, our words could unite us was powerful. Then, at the end of the night, a young girl who couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15 years old came up to me. She seemed very shy, but her teacher and her friends encouraged her. She smiled at me, shook my hand and said very quietly “Wow, what you did up there, wow, that was awesome. When I grow up, I want to do that. When I grow up, I want to be like you, I want to do with my words what you did.” I hugged her and have never forgotten that moment. It’s the reason I do what I do, so more young black and Latina females can be inspired. I am a role model for young girls and I take that responsibility very seriously, and it’s also the most rewarding part of what I do.

Thank you Jasminne for your beautiful words of inspiration! We look forward to your success on all of your future projects.

More more information on the amazing poet Jasminne Mendez and her work check out her website.


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