Alumni mark 5th anniversary of social justice writing prize

Now a graduate student, Hermelinda Hernandez Monjaras won the Mireyda Barraza Martinez Prize for Social Justice Writing twice as an undergraduate, in 2020 and 2021.

By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, English Department
Photo: Now a graduate student, Hermelinda Hernandez Monjaras won the Mireyda Barraza Martinez Prize for Social Justice Writing twice as an undergraduate in 2020 and 2021.

The English Department marks a bittersweet milestone this academic year: the fifth anniversary of its social justice writing prize, named after the late poet and Fresno State alumna Mireyda “Mia” Barraza Martinez.

A gifted writer, educator, and campesina from East Porterville in rural Tulare County, Barraza Martinez passed away in a November 2016 car accident. The university posthumously awarded her Master of Fine Arts degree in May 2017 to her family; she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Fresno State in 2014.

“A student in the last year of her graduate studies, Mia was an inaugural graduate fellow in Poet Laureate of the United States Juan Felipe Herrera’s Laureate Lab Visual Wordlist Studio in Fresno State’s library, helping to introduce the campus and community to joyful creative expression,” said Dr. Honora Chapman, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. 

Thanks to gifts big and small from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members, the English Department has honored Barraza Martinez with a memorial tree and bench on campus, as well as an annual writing prize in her name that recognizes outstanding poetry and prose on themes of social justice, a subject close to the late poet’s heart.

Dr. Melanie Hernandez, chair of the English Department, said Barraza Martinez was a beloved student not only because of her dynamic poetry and rigorous academic writing, but because she often opened up opportunities for others like her to follow. In this way, the social justice writing prize continues her legacy.

In addition to awarding the social justice writing prize, Hernandez said the department plans to add a scholarship in Barraza Martinez’s name. When established, the Mireyda Barraza Martinez Memorial Scholarship will annually support a creative writing graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts program.

“Mia was so active politically in her communities, particularly for the rights of women and the rights of the undocumented,” Hernandez said. “To expand her fund to include a scholarship for an MFA student would not only honor the hopes of her parents and her sisters, it would recognize and inspire more student writers doing important social justice work.”

Since its creation, eight writers have been awarded the Mireyda Barraza Martinez Prize for Social Justice Writing. They are:

  • 2021 — Aidan Castro (graduate) and Hermelinda Hernandez Monjaras (undergraduate)
  • 2020 — Delaney R. Whitebird Olmo (graduate) and Hermelinda Hernandez Monjaras (undergraduate)
  • 2019 — Rodolfo Avelar (undergraduate)
  • 2018 — Esmeralda Gamez (graduate) and Christina Tran (undergraduate)
  • 2017 — E. Hughes (graduate) and Rebeca Abidail Flores (undergraduate)

Castro, Olmo, and Hernandez Monjaras are all current students in Fresno State’s MFA program. The 2022 awardees will be announced in May.

The first five awardees have all garnered significant writing and professional success after they moved on from Fresno State, and each cites winning the prize named after Barraza Martinez as a key moment early in their careers.

Rodolfo Avelar in the Creative Writing Program office in 2019.
Rodolfo Avelar in the Creative Writing Program office in 2019.

Rodolfo Avelar

After winning the prize, Rodolfo Avelar graduated from Fresno State in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in English and then was accepted into the MFA program at the University of California, Riverside. They will complete their MFA degree in 2023.

“At UC Riverside, I’ve been able to expand my craft and the world of my poetics,” Avelar said. “I’m also about to teach my first workshop of undergraduate writers, so that’s exciting.”

Avelar completed a first draft of their debut poetry collection — a big highlight and a life-long goal — within their first year of the Riverside program. They’ve since published several poems in literary magazines and won Counterclock journal’s Emerging Writers’ Award.

Avelar feels deep gratitude for the encouragement and validation that came with winning the Barraza Martinez prize. Their poem was called “I Had a Dream My Dad Died Before I Could Tell Him I’m Gay,” and it feels like the kind of poem they find themselves still writing — or, at least, still writing in different shades.

“What I was concerned with in that poem, I am still concerned with,” Avelar said. “I wish I wasn’t concerned with that stuff anymore. But winning [the prize] meant so much to me. I was so self-conscious about my writing, and my entire existence felt halted because of my queerness. To have this poem win felt affirming, like I knew I was heading in the right direction.”

In addition to spending the next year polishing and fine-tuning their MFA manuscript, Avelar plans to continue to write poetry, experiment with science fiction stories, and maybe one day work in video game development.

“The work of writing has led me to a much fuller and expansive understanding of myself,” Avelar said. “In many ways, doing an MFA has been a catalyst for my unraveling a life’s worth of pushing down my trans experience. This has led to my life being above and beyond what it was before.”

Christina Tran and Esmeralda Gamez with their awards certificates in 2018.
Christina Tran and Esmeralda Gamez with their awards certificates in 2018.

Esmeralda Gamez

After winning the prize, Esmeralda Gamez graduated from Fresno State in 2020 with a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing, with an emphasis in publishing and editing. She currently holds two jobs: as a library aide at the Woodward Park regional branch of the Fresno County Public Library, and as a laboratory technician for IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group.

For various reasons, Gamez left a promotion at her previous retail gig to take both the library and laboratory jobs. While carving out time for writing and creativity has been hard while holding down two jobs, she has continued publishing new poems and photography — in Quince Magazine, Taco Bell Quarterly, the Wild Blue Zine, and the Spanish-language magazine Azahares, among others.

For Gamez, who previously earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Fresno State in 2016, winning the social justice prize made her feel like she had instantly become part of the history of Fresno writers — “everyone who came before and would come after me,” she said.

“Though I never met Mireyda in person,” Gamez said, “her influence and the love everyone in the writing community has for her is still going, still mentoring and helping students.”

Winning the Barraza Martinez prize was also a great motivator, Gamez said — reassurance that she belonged in Fresno State’s MFA program. “I felt like I was doing something right and my voice was being heard, and I was saying something of value,” she said.

Gamez plans to make more time in the future for creative pursuits, and to keep honing her poetic voice. She would like to publish zines and restart her blog.

“Right now I’m aiming for baby steps,” she said. “But the goal is always to keep reading and writing. Just being able to write is enough.”

Christina Tran

After winning the prize, Christina Tran graduated from Fresno State in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in English, including a minor in creative writing. She is currently a CalFresh outreach coordinator at the Central California Food Bank, working to increase community food security through state and local food assistance programs.

“Winning the award really taught me to have more self-confidence in my capabilities as a writer,” Tran said.

The social justice writing award gave Tran an instant boost: The following semester she applied and was hired for the opinion editor position at The Collegian, Fresno State’s campus newspaper. She immediately found herself writing and coaching other writers about hot-button topics, mostly regarding what’s deemed socially acceptable in media and society.

Tran enjoyed writing most about the importance of pronouns in the queer community, and reckoning with the effects of toxic masculinity on young women in the Me Too era. “Branching out of my comfort zone, I could make my voice heard by both friends and strangers,” she said.

Looking back on winning the Barraza Martinez prize, Tran said the same issues that led her to write her 2018 poem about aggression and violence against the Black community have resurfaced in the past two years, with escalating racism toward Asian Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic, and 2020’s nationwide protests and civil unrest against police brutality and racism toward Black Americans.

“Coming from a background of Asian descent, it has given me an intimate understanding of where I stand in society,” she said. “Generational trauma and years and years of dealing with systemic oppression are finally coming to a head right before my eyes, and at least one thing I’ve done has helped change that. These issues aren’t something that you forget about or that go away.”

Now, working daily at a nonprofit food bank, Tran uses writing to speak directly to community members in a strategic way — providing food resources to those in need. She aims to destigmatize the process of asking for help, becoming people’s trusted source when there are often barriers of discomfort between individuals and government entities.

“If I can contribute to increasing community resources in the areas I’ve grown up in, then I feel like I’ve already accomplished great things,” Tran said. “I foresee even more change that I can make through my work.”

E. Hughes and Rebeca Abidail Flores at the Rogue Festival in 2017.
E. Hughes and Rebeca Abidail Flores at the Rogue Festival in 2017.

E. Hughes

After winning the prize, E. Hughes (they/them) left Fresno State’s MFA program after their first year. Their development as a writer and scholar, though, has continued to grow at an extraordinary pace.

Hughes went on to earn an MFA+MA graduate degree from the Litowitz Creative Writing Program at Northwestern University. They’ve received admission into multiple Tin House workshops, the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, and the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundations Writers’ Week. They’ve published poems in magazines and journals such as Guernica, Poet Lore, and The Offing, among others.

The novelist Charles Johnson selected four of Hughes’s poems for the Chicago Quarterly Review’s special edition, “An Anthology of Black American Literature.” They were long-listed for a Granum Foundation Fellowship Prize and named a finalist for the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize.

And in the near future, Hughes will begin a Ph.D. program in philosophy at Emory University in Georgia, where they hope to develop theories regarding Black poetics and aesthetics.

Hughes is currently looking for a publisher for their debut poetry collection, “Black Women Standing Ankle-Deep in Pacific Water.” They are also at work on a second collection, which deals with Black Sapphic desire and the precarity of Black gender.

With all those accomplishments, Hughes still holds the Barraza Martinez prize close to theirheart. It was the first poetry honor they won, and it provided much-needed validation at a crucial moment.

“I was new to poetry and bewildered by how little I knew of my own poetics and of the tradition of the Western lyric,” Hughes said. “I was young and alone. I was young and overwhelmed by what I carried in my body.”

Hughes said it often felt like what they needed to say in poetry was too much for it.

“But the Mireyda social justice prize reminded me that I was meant for this work and this work was meant for me,” they said. “It gave me my first home in the literary world.”

Rebeca Abidail Flores

After winning the prize, Rebeca Abidail Flores graduated from Fresno State in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in English. She went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing from the University of San Francisco.

“Winning the Mireyda prize gave me the courage to keep writing,” said Flores, a Salvadoreña and Mexican American artist who continues to thrive at the intersection of writing fiction and making art.

Flores received a coveted postgraduate teaching fellowship from USF, where she taught an intro to creative writing course to undergrads. She served on the editorial team for Invisible City literary journal, and she has published stories and interviews in the Acentos Review, Your Impossible Voice, and the bilingual newspaper El Tecolote, among others.

The story from Your Impossible Voice, “Interrupting a Roadside Memorial,” was nominated by the journal’s editors for a Pushcart Prize.

She has been a curatorial partner at SOMArts in San Francisco and a fellow in Juan Felipe Herrera’s Laureate Lab Visual Wordist Studio at Fresno State. She has shown her artworks at SOMArts, Juan R. Fuentes Gallery, Noisebridge SF, Broadway Studios, Root Division, and 1418 Fulton.

Flores currently works on the events and publicity team for Nomadic Press in Oakland.

“Trying to keep that creating life going!” she said.

In addition to trying to find a publisher for her debut story collection, Flores is writing a second collection of stories about living in the Central Valley. She is creating a series of accompanying real-life sculptures that will also appear as artworks in the book.

Reflecting on what winning the Barraza Martinez prize means to her now, five years later, Flores thought back to her young-artist self more than a decade ago.

“I wrote a lot as a high school student, and then as an undergrad I took creative writing courses at Fresno State,” Flores said. “I couldn’t tell if I was growing. Or rather, I couldn’t tell if I was landing. I had questions like, ‘Will anyone read my stories?’ ‘Am I losing my head?’ You know, the questions writers have.”

Winning the prize, Flores said, gave her immediate artistic clarity.

“Mireyda was a poet,” she said. “Winning a prize named after a great poet was very humbling, because it made me feel like the work I was doing had value. I learned not to be afraid. To keep creating the work I need to see.”

To continue Mireyda Barraza Martinez’s legacy and support social justice, visit the Fresno State Giving website form, select “other,” and write in “Creative Writing—MB Martinez,” or call 559.278.1569.

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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