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Marta A. Mercado-Sierra, Ph.D. Department of Social Work, University of Texas A∓M-Commerce

My Journey to Self-Discovery: From Nowhere and Everywhere


I have invested four decades trying to figure out where I belong. It was not until recently I discovered who I am and where I belong. Several months ago, I found the answer reading one of Maya Angelou's inspiring quotes, "You are only free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great." (Angelou, Maya, 1973). I was born in a colonized nation, Puerto Rico (PR), and live in the colonizer's country, the United States of America (USA). This geopolitical condition sparked a burning search for my sense of belonging at an early age. This pursuit lead me to a more complex arena, my identity. I knew I had to discover who I was before deciding where to belong. This labored journey not only introduced me to social work; it is the foundation of lifelong learner attitude and the educative pedagogy I adopted. The profession of social work and the pursuit of equity, inclusion, social and economic justice facilitated my self-discovery and where I belong. I will share several transformative life episodes from a Black feminist thought combined with a post-colonial approach that shaped who I am and where I belong. I will then present how these experiences, and the knowledge, tools, and skills guide my social work teaching.

Social Work Education

I was born into a working low-income family in Puerto Rico in the early 1970s. The day after my eighth birthday, my mother, two younger sisters, and I moved to Texas. I can still feel the excruciating pain of that day, looking back at my grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Now I know that at that moment, I lost my sense of belonging. Have you felt this pain? It was a persistent feeling of melancholy, which I live with until recently. I defined this feeling when I moved back to Texas in 2011 as an adult--- I felt the same pain and emptiness again for several years. Re-membering, I started my Bachelors in Social Work in 1990 at the University of Puerto Rico. Then and there, I discovered that another world existed; the possibilities were endless, and the imagined reality was possible. I thought living in my Patria, Puerto Rico, I would regain my cultural, political, and social identity and the sense of belonging. I did not emerge automatically; I had some serious internal self-searching to do. Social work gifted me with the opportunity, knowledge, tools, and skills to start this arduous journey. Specifically, my sociology, theory and research professors and the specializations in Community Practice, Supervision and Administration of Social Services, Social Policy Analysis exposed me to feminist politics, Black feminist thought and intersectionality, post-colonial and liberation paradigm, critical and culturally grounded theory, and transformative perspectives. Coupled with my experience as a brown, Latinx, woman born and educated in a colonized land and raised and living in the colonizer's country; these approaches highlighted my conditions of oppression and privilege and enlightened my self-discovery and my social work teaching pedagogy.

During my social work undergraduate and graduate studies, I was exposed to alternate historical information, diverse cultural, social, political, and economic structures, schools of knowledge, paradigms, approaches, and perspectives from the USA, Latin America and the Caribbean, Canada, Central and Northern Europe, Africa, and Asia. The exposure to diverse cultural, social, political, and economic frameworks, practice models, and historical events, beyond what is imposed by the dominant groups, provided the opportunity to understand social phenomenon, self-reflect better and adopt teaching philosophies based on inclusion, equity, and justice. My particular contexts moved me to adopt a black feminist and post-colonial lens to understand, critically analyzing my realities having the colonizer upfront and from afar and the process of oppression based on the intersections of race, color, gender, economic status, and colonization. The teacher/student relationships, many of the social work professors, not only fostered self-discovery; they inspired me to become a professor and mentor. Many of the professors' shared their experiences and expected the same from the students. The students were active participants in the learning process the professors facilitated. Nevertheless, some professors portrayed the function of control and exercise of power as colluders of the dominant culture's interest, the colonizer. The traditional and non-traditional knowledge in the social work programs, my life experiences, and my continuous search to discover who I was, what I then thought it was a single identity, and where I belong, influenced my professional practice experiences, but most important of all, I discovered the person I decided to be and where I decided to belong.

My Identities and Sense of Belonging

When I finally felt a sense of belonging, thought I had figured out who I was, and was actively advocating for justice, equality, inclusion, and equity, life played a trick on me. My life journey was just about to intensify. Though, this time around I valued this move differently. Of course, this time, it was my decision, and I had the knowledge, tools, skills I did not have when I was eight, and my own family with me. I decided to see this existential event to re-live and heal the dormant oppression. I would also have the opportunity and test I thought I was and where I belonged; nevertheless, this experience resulted in discovering who I was in a different land and where I belong.

The pain of not belonging snuck up on me again, with a sense of insecurity—however, this time, I knew how to define and describe the feelings' origin. I spent 2012 and several more years navigating between grief, insecurities, and loss, which took me to adopt a continuous self-reflection state again. The interactions with diverse colleagues and students came into play in my most recent phase of re-constructing myself and developing a sense of belonging through self-reflection, which enhanced my positive self-definitions and self-valuation and put at ease my sense of belonging.

Although I had a firm grasp of intersectionality and thought I was aware of my different identities and how the perceived identities put me in different privileged and oppressed conditions, I had not experienced how identities could shift based on the context. While living in PR, the identity that took the forefront was the feminist social worker, due to my years of activism and public service. My professional and activist roles and the social, cultural, and political context defined my principal identity. My other identities were dormant as the context did not make any noise. When I moved to Texas in 2011, the identity that took center stage was my ethnicity and skin color, brown Latinx Puerto Rican. The socially defined category of race is present daily, and being a feminist is mostly frowned upon in Texas.

In PR I did not feel the need to out my color or race identity because I was part of these dominant social categories and felt mostly safe to defy the machismo and marianismo. This does not mean that I receive pushback from groups who protect the status quo. It still seems so startling how the cultural and social context defines the perceived identity and influences the shifting of identities to self-preserve from oppression or resist the dominant culture characterization.

The most challenging situations teaching social work in Texas was overcoming the feeling of insecurity and the need to demonstrate my competence. Coming from Spanish speaking country, colonized by the USA since 1898, we are instilled that our education system is inferior to the ones in the USA. When I arrived, some institutions asked for my credentials to verify if they were equivalent to the USA education. I also experienced offensive verbal and written expressions from students based on what they defined as language barriers. A male, white student personally verbalized I did not have the competence to correct his paper and wrote in the course evaluation, "The instructor has a language barrier since English is not her firsts language. She does not have a full grasp of the English language .Fire her, please. PLEASE!!!!!!". My colonized mindset and experiences like these made me feel insecure for several years. Writing a simple email took more time and energy than needed because I was afraid of being judged incompetent for the slightest error. After all, it would not be judged as a typo because English was not my first language. Using analytical tools to identify internalized oppression or colonized mindset learned in my social work courses and after obtaining a tenure-track line, reading some journal articles, and receiving feedback from students on my competence and teaching abilities, I soon overcame the feelings of insecurity. However, I still strive extend my vocabulary and improving grammar. I also experienced hostility from students and colleagues when I assumed leadership roles, presented alternate perspectives on race, nationality, citizenship, spirituality, gender, and sexual identities. How students addressed me was also an issue. Since I have the right and the power to self-definition and self-determination, I resisted some ideologies and practices, reaffirmed and ignored others to keep my integrity, my leadership, scholarship, and research philosophy. This requires transforming my own internalized oppression and colonized mindset, thus embracing feelings of not belonging at times. My pathway to empowerment and liberation by resisting and occasionally transgressing the dominant values is my social work education.

Moving Towards a Liberating Social Work Pedagogy

Given that social work is a practice profession with the primary goal of contributing to a just and equitable society, we need to know where we stand. Thus, before going out to transform our communities, we need to focus on ourselves first. We have to use the right to self-determination, self-definition, and self-valuation to determine who you decide to be and self-actualize. How can we empower if we have not empowered ourselves? How can we influence others to engage with inclusion, equity, and social and economic justice if you are not working towards reclaiming your own identity by rejecting, resisting, and transgressing the dominant beliefs, values, and practices that sustain all intersecting faces of oppression?

I am convinced education is the practice and tactic to freedom, and social work provides the knowledge, tools, and skills to obtain your freedom and facilitate others. The paradigms that assist me, and which I try to teach social work students are: Feminist politics, Black feminist Thought, Anti-colonialism perspective, Culturally Grounded Theory, Intersectionality, and Human Rights through liberating and transformative pedagogy. By applying the principles of these approaches, I attempt to stimulate the development of learning communities.

The goal is to engage students on self-reflection to feel free to adopt an identity of their own, adopt an approach based on respect and value to diversity, equity, and inclusion and actively participate in the advocacy in favor of social, economic, and cultural justice. We are not always successful at this collaborative attempt. Nevertheless, the experience is always rewarding.

Final Reflections

Living in a colonized nation and relocating to the colonizer's world is a defining and, at the same time, threatening human experience. Nevertheless, it gifted the commitment to a life journey to explore and re-actualize who I am and where I belong. Although it is painful to continuously and consciously to re-discover who I am and where I belong, I have the opportunity to be who I decide to be and where I belong. I recognize that my experiences with oppression guided the profession I chose, the social work professor and human being I am today. I acknowledge that I am still dismantling the colonizing mindset, questioning my biases, and promote a more inclusive and liberating learning community. I continue rejecting the ideas that dominant groups get to determine my identity, the power I have, and resist those who understand they are entitled to interpret my reality and decide if I belong or not. I continue to move from a colonized brown woman to a free complex human being, with all my identities and contradictions. I am an afro-native-white Puerto Rican woman, mother, wife, sister, daughter, niece, granddaughter, friend, colleague, feminist, social worker, educator, and activist (not always in that order) living in Texas. However, a citizen of the world, belonging nowhere and everywhere.


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