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Lessons in Braiding, Mothering, and Living in/with the Shadows

After finishing my last semester of coursework in my PhD program this past spring, I was moved to express my journey in identifying as a Chicana scholar, but more importantly as a Chicana mother. The knowledge and connections to these identities start at home for many of us. For me, this wisdom has been shared through hair braiding where the implicit lessons of navigating roles as women in our family has been passed down to me from my grandmother. For example, with my daughter Raquel (who is pictured in the drawing below), her braids serve a functional purpose; they keep her hair out of her eyes while she’s doing her schoolwork or chores. When she gets out of the shower, I typically always braid her hair to keep it from knotting up, and to make things easier for the morning rush to work or school. This was the unspoken understanding that I had with my grandma growing up, a shadow of my past that I have verbally explained to Raquel as I start to braid her hair. Whether it be braiding, cutting, dying, brushing, or growing out our hair, we share stories (and sometimes expectations) through this practice. Gloria Anzaldúa states in La Frontera/Borderlands, “before male dominance, Coatlicue, Lady of the Serpent Skirt, contained and balanced the qualities of male and female, light and dark, life and death” (p. 54). Nothing looks more like a serpent to me than a braid and a trenza is a good representation of how women navigate –weave in and out of– certain spaces within our homes. My drawing shows my soon to be six-year-old Raquelita with a thick braid meant to represent her power. The shadow below shows the shadows that I refer to in my poem which is an interpretation of the “third space” that Anzaldúa speaks of. As I try to understand my own experiences of braiding and navigating my role as a Chicana mother and scholar, I offer a poem and a visual depiction of my thoughts, feelings and experiences. I hope that they can serve as a reminder that the shadows we see may just be the space that we need to embrace.

Living in/with the Shadows

I have been stalked by shadows in my peripheral view.

They NEVER are in front of me.

Something that I think stems from the lived experiences of a third space.

Not being American


to be just “an American”

not Mexican


for “the Mexicans”

Functioning in the “they” space

Use “they” wrong and you seem too white

use “they” too much and you are not in your lane

As a mother, how do I teach this navigation?

How do I prepare my kids?

Especially the girls

To navigate this space?





Gender roles


How to mix them all and feel “ok” with it?

I feel uncomfortable cooking without precise measurements

I cannot just “feel” the masa

to know what is missing

To add more water

More aceite

Less heat

Flip it

Flip it

I’ve been scolded, at breakfast

after telling my husband’s 98-year-old Tata:

“soy chingona”

It was because I had been honored with an award

it was difficult for me to explain

I didn’t have the words

He smiled at me


my husband scowled

The disrespect!

You should know better!

With my eyes welling up with tears

I looked down and ate

The irony.

Weeks later as Tata was sitting in the hospital bed for a lack of oxygen

his reply to the cardiologist when asked how he was doing:

“soy chingon”

my husband laughed and cheered him on

Looking down I smiled

I told myself that Tata didn’t feel


when I said it.

But I was not sure

This is just one of those shadows

So how do I navigate these shadows?

Do I acknowledge them?

Do I tuck the imperfections away?

Like I do a strand of hair in a braid?

Do I brush everything out first?

Divide the pieces equally

And weave in and out?

Or do I start to braid

Pulling at the knots

Combing them out with my fingers

Gather the loose, broken hair and ball it up before throwing it away?

Hold your head straight

Hold your head up

Look down, don’t look down

Silently pull on the hair like reigns of a horse

Making deep shadows

Making a clear lane

With each motion

Hold this.

Turn around, let me see…

Ok great


A Strong Braid (Raquelita) (image and drawing by author)

Alexei M. Marquez obtained her Bachelor's Degree in Secondary Education (English) and her Master's in Language, Reading and Culture from the University of Arizona. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student in the Educational Leadership and Policy program at the College of Education,focusing on scholarly identities of Chicana/Latina students in Higher Education. She is the Manager of Persistence & Completion (Financial Wellness Initiatives) at the Thrive center at the University of Arizona, where she works directly with students from marginalized and underrepresented communities. She is a native Tucsonan and a proud graduate of Tucson Magnet High School. She is currently the President-Elect of the UA Hispanic Alumni. She is a member of Sigma Lambda Gamma National Sorority Inc. and a former MAS/Raza studies student. She and her husband, Leonel, have three children, Dominic, Raquel, and Maya Elena.

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