One of graduate student Dailihana Alfonseca’s only memories with her father include the feeling of how small her hands felt in his. As a young girl in Puerto Rico, her father’s murder decades ago—fraught with complexities of drug and identity issues—led to an adolescence of wandering, migration, and instability.
“I write about it, and I work on healing because this is the reality of my life,” she said. “I can’t be ashamed of where I come from. … We need to destigmatize the trauma from our homelands.”
As a teenager, she joined the U.S. Army and served in South Korea for two years before moving to Fort Carson in Colorado. She considers her pregnancy with her daughter, now 11, toward the end of her time in the military, as a safeguard for her mental health and wellbeing.
“The military gave me discipline every day that I needed to apply to my life,” she said. “I’m so grateful for my time in the military—and—I needed a therapist. … The military was the parent I needed when I was an early adult.”
From the military to merchandizing
Following her time in the military, Alfonseca worked for several years in the fashion industry in merchandizing and management in New York City. While in the city, she realized her contribution to the complex issue of understanding identity.
“I dove deep into the ideas of capitalism and materialism and what it really meant to be participatory,” she said. “I started to think more critically.”
So, she began to write.
Alfonseca is pursuing her master’s degree in the Department of English and Comparative Literature with concentration in literature, medicine and culture. One of her recent published works is nominated for a prestigious Pushcart Prize. The department is part of the College of Arts and Sciences.
“As an immigrant, as a woman in our culture … everything is political,” she said. “My stories talk about systemic imperialism that affects us today, because we’re all stuck in a cycle.”
While studying at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina, Alfonseca encountered the master’s degree program—and she now travels weekly back and forth between her family and Chapel Hill to attend class. She credits faculty Kym Weed and Jane Thrailkill with spurring her to pursue her master’s degree.
“I came to the open house, and it was the first time I was around groups of people where I didn’t feel like I was talking too much,” she recalled. “I was around a group of people who thought like I did and expressed themselves in a way to me that was like a call to action. … Carolina students, by trying to learn new things, create a difference.”
Creative literature and community
She hopes that her writing about Latina women will help against the tide of feeling like race and gender are, or should be, erased by politics and society.
“I want to help the world,” she said. “The words depression and anxiety in my culture are not seen as a mental health issue. We call it an attack of the nerves.” … “This is the first time in my entire life where I really am around people who want to see me learn and who want to hear my ideas.”
In a media-saturated world, Alfonseca said assimilation into Western identities can cause trauma among migrants and Latina women—a topic that she tackles in her creative literature.
“Identities that we learn through media sometimes curse us,” she said. “Sometimes those are the only people we relate to—those who are on tv are the only ones being offered to us on American television.”
At Carolina she counts on her department and The Graduate School’s Diversity and Student Success program to be part of her support system.
“If the system isn’t working—the people at Carolina are trying,” she said. “It’s the only place where I feel like I’ve found my people.”