By Cecilia Caballero.
Bio: Based in LA, Cecilia Caballero is a single mother, creative nonfiction writer, poet, teaching artist, and lecturer of Ethnic Studies. As a teaching artist, Cecilia facilitates generative poetry workshops for BIPOC folks to cultivate more spaces of healing, storytelling, and justice. Cecilia is co-editor of the bestselling book, The Chicana Motherwork Anthology, and she is an alum of Tin House, Macondo, and the Women’s National Book Association. Her prose and poetry has been published in Dryland, Raising Mothers, The Acentos Review, and elsewhere, and she has been nominated for a 2021 Pushcart prize and 2022 Rhysling award. Find her on Twitter @la_sangre_llama and subscribe to her newsletter to learn more about her poetry workshops, her creative writing publications and readings, and her creativity coaching.
*Disclaimer: Information provided in this blog does not constitute financial advice.
Although I am in my 30s, I never learned about personal finance at any point in my higher education journey. As an undergraduate, I was tracked into academic programs where I was encouraged to pursue “a life of the mind.” However, as a first generation student from generational poverty, I simply lacked financial literacy. Throughout years of academic seminars, panels, and conferences, no one ever spoke to me about retirement, planning for inflation and the rising cost of living, the importance of investing early to maximize compound interest, and more. Rather, academic culture taught me to prioritize research above all else in order to secure a coveted job as a tenure-track professor.
However, upon learning more about personal finance from friends, books, podcasts, and a fellowship program for first-generation Latina investors, I reacted with anger. Why is financial literacy ignored in academia, especially in the context of the racial and gender wealth gaps? I strongly believe that we are doing first-generation BIPOC students an immense disservice when we encourage them to pursue academia at the expense of their financial security, especially when over 60% of all instructional faculty in the United States are contingent. Moreover, as I learned from friends who become tenure-track and tenured professors, the salary is often still not enough. Other issues, such as pandemic austerity measures (like budget cuts, furloughs, and slashed employee retirement contributions), declining enrollment, rigid administrative policies, and ever-increasing amounts of teaching and service has led to faculty burnout, poor mental health, and more. First-generation faculty also often struggle with paying off student loan debt while continuing to financially support their parents, especially if they lack retirement accounts and need assistance with living and medical expenses.
For many years, I was unaware about the true nature of the corporate university. Coupled with my lack of financial literacy, I naively believed that my passion for teaching Ethnic Studies to BIPOC students was enough compensation for my work and that, someday, it would pay off. However, my passion meant that I accepted adjunct positions even though there is often little to no job security or benefits, a lack of equitable wages when compared to tenure-line faculty, and no possibility for promotion. One semester, the hypocrisy became painfully clear to me when I taught my students about the disparities of the Latinx educational pipeline. Many students commented that they felt inspired by having me as a professor because they felt that they, too, could earn advanced degrees and succeed in their careers. And yet, I recall feeling a deep sense of despair. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that adjuncts often earn poverty wages; that my degrees have not guaranteed me any upward mobility. I want my BIPOC students to dream bigger than this because they deserve more. I deserve more, too.
During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I began to question my values and goals. What else was there for me beyond underpaid and undervalued adjuncting positions? As a lifelong creative writer, I found myself longing to teach in ways that did not depend upon student learning outcomes, evaluations, and grading. I took a leap of courage and began to offer online poetry workshops for BIPOC folks, and eventually, I was invited to facilitate these workshops at colleges and universities. As a teaching artist, I feel fulfilled because my values and my work are aligned. Unlike adjuncting, I have learned that I can be authentic to myself, serve my community, and command a high rate. And now, rather than depending upon academic institutions to validate me, I validate myself. Becoming a teaching artist has shown me that my skills and expertise are highly valued, and this is reflected in my industry rates.
However, it remains challenging for me to fully reconcile my social justice values with my goal to build generational wealth and achieve financial independence. Yet, like my friend Dr. Ester Trujillo says, personal finance is a social justice issue. As first-generation BIPOC students and faculty, we simply cannot afford to continue paying these immense financial and emotional costs. Through financial literacy, we can empower ourselves, our students, and our communities. And lastly, as a single mother, I want to teach my son that building wealth means that he will be much better positioned to prioritize his leisure and rest, the ability to pursue his wildest joys and passions, and the freedom to refuse anything that would compromise his values and sense of self-worth. To me, this is freedom dreaming, and freedom dreaming is an act of social justice too. In fact, our liberation depends upon it.