El Rey of My Heart and La Hermana of my Mind

Borrowing a phrase from my colleague, Dr. Taura Taylor, two important people in my emotional life became ancestors this week. First, Vicente Fernández and then bell hooks. I HAVE to write a quick tribute to both. While my heart is breaking, two memories are revealed in the cracks.

Vicente’s music poured through our home anytime Papi would make his salsa. He would almost always start with “El Rey.” It is a song about a man who is invisible, relatively powerless but still sees himself as a king. El Rey, in this song, is not a King who signals an overbearing aristocracy of wealth and opulence in the face of poverty. It also isn’t the machismo I’m-King-of-this-house variety. No, El Rey, is the king who understands your pain. El Rey is the king who gives you shoes because he remembers when he walked barefoot.

I loved that song because it reminds me of the duality of my father. He was a factory man for most of his life before he retired. He was also a janitor with Costco wholesale. This was a man who was familiar with heat and dirt from the factory. He knew what it meant to clean up after people who didn’t clean up after themselves. But he was also an artist in the kitchen….specifically when he makes his salsa.

So, here is my father, this factory man with calloused hands, delicately cutting and mixing cilantro, cebolla, tomate, jalapeños, garlic, salt, and lemon pepper seasoning in just the right proportions to make an elixir that enhanced the flavor of any meal. His salsa did not burn. It invited your tongue to experience the way food is supposed to taste! He was a worker in the factory, but, to me, he was always El Rey de mi corazon! The king of my heart!

When he and my mother divorced, the song became even more meaningful. The lyrics say, “No tengo trono ni reina. Ni nadien que me comprenda. Pero sigo siendo el rey.” (Translation: “I have no throne nor queen and nobody understands me, but I am still the king.”) After the divorce, he lived with me for several years. He was a broken man, but in those moments when he would pull out the blender and the cutting board, he became El Rey that I remembered. Greg and David knew we’d be coughing and crying from the peppers and onions, but the result was always worth it. I often wondered if the onion tears masked the real ones from my Papi’s broken heart.

Vicente provided the soundtrack for my papi’s life. He is “El Rey” who helped raise three “Mujeres Divinas” and had his heart broken in ways that all the ballads sung by Luther Vandross, Boyz II Men, and New Edition put together still could not measure. Not a contest, but for some perspective, “A House is Not a Home” has 16.4 million views (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WPJcEluBT0) and “Aca Entre Nos” has 155.2 million views (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkIstlkAxdw)! I grew up knowing what it meant to have my heart broken in two languages ya’ll!

I was introduced to bell hooks while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. Unfortunately, I don’t remember which class or which professor, but I do remember what it felt like to be seen and to see glimpses of myself in the brilliant books I read as an African American Studies major. Teaching to Transgress was the first bell hooks book I read.

Here I am this Chicana from small-town Battle Creek, Michigan who knew I was smart. Smart meant trying to win all the awards and accomplish all the accomplishments. In the intro she mentions earning tenure. I was too embarrassed to ask what tenure meant. Until very recently even, I thought tenure meant it took “ten years” to get tenure.

bell hooks writes that she fell into a “deep life-threatening depression” when she earned tenure. She thought she would be happy but she wasn’t because she was not doing what her heart really wanted which was to write. She explained:

“In the apartheid South, black girls from working-class backgrounds had three career choices. We could marry. We could work as maids. We could become school teachers. And since, according to the sexist thinking of the time, men did not really desire “smart” women, it was assumed that signs of intelligence sealed one’s fate. From grade school on, I was destined to become a teacher (2).”

As a Chicana, my choices were limited as well, I could get pregnant or drop out of high school. But, because I was smart, my options also meant maybe becoming a doctor, lawyer, or work in “an office.” The bottom line: I was supposed to grow up and make money to help my family. But I wanted to be a teacher…a profession that did not “make money.”

But I loved school. I was that kid that always wanted to “play school” as a kid. As bell hooks put it, “Attending school was sheer joy…Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself (3).”

School also provided me a creative outlet. In high school, I loved theater and forensics. For a few months out of the year, I could embody a particular character. I was a ghost in And They Danced Real Slow in Jackson, or Sonia in Godspell dancing around the audience with a feather boa. I could make people cry when I performed Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales’ Yo Soy Joaquin and make them laugh when I played Jan in Grease. I felt free on stage and experienced that same freedom whenever I was teaching in a classroom or giving a speech.

It took me a long time to realize it. I often tell people that I went to Michigan to represent my Latiné community. I went to law school to represent my family. Yet, even with these accomplishments, I was not happy. I never quite felt like I finally made it. I was trying to make other people in my life happy. So, when I decided to go after a Ph.D., I realized that decision was all mine. In 2018, at the tender age of 44, I graduated with a Ph.D. and now, I am finally doing what I wanted to do the entire time…teach and write. I tell my students that I am basically a professional nerd and I love it. bell hooks insightful, soul stirring words of liberation help me make that declaration without hesitation.

While my heart breaks for this world’s loss, I realized three things. First, Vicente taught me love is worth living for. Second, bell hooks taught me that teaching is worth fighting for. Third, they both taught my scholarly soul to sing!

Now…I’m off to pour myself a shot of tequila and feel all my feelings very deeply as I read all about love: new visions with Vicente playing in the background.

MiChicana’s Mother…


Martha Rodriguez was born in the small border town of Reynosa, Mexico.  She was one of eleven children who was forced to grow up at a  very young age.  She dropped out of school in the second grade to help her family make money by washing clothes and selling palomitas (popcorn) in the local market.  She was always very entrepreneurial which makes her story that much more remarkable.  There is so much I could write about my mother but the story of how she finally made her dreams come true is the best.

I jokingly tell people that tacos helped pay for my college education. My mother used to make tacos for my Papi to take to work.  At first it was 10-20 tacos but demand quickly increased that number to 100 tacos.  It was our ritual when I was in high school.  I would sit at the dining room table with my homework while my mother would make tacos. I can still smell the frijoles (beans) and ground beef mixture caressing my senses.  To this day, the smell of cumino immediately relaxes me.

She would wrap two tacos in aluminum foil and then, at the end, she would count them.  I can still hear the sound of her nails clicking against the foil as she counted the tacos under her breath.  Two…four…six…twenty…forty…click…click…click. At the end of her count she would always ask the same question.  “Mi’ja, if I opened up a restaurant, do you think people would like my food?” “Yes mom,” I’d respond, “People would LOVE your food.”

This was in early 90s. She would make tacos. My Papi would sell them to his co-workers.  Every evening it was the same routine.  I would often ask if I could help.  “No…no..no,” she would say. “You’re job is to do well in school. That’s your only job.” Needless to say, I took my job seriously which is why I’m not that great a cook despite my culinary heritage.

Years passed. My mother continued to work in the laundry department of the local V.A. Hospital and my father worked at a local factory.  I went off to college and, through scholarships and jobs, paid for approximately 3/4 of my college costs. The remaining balance was paid from those tacos my mother labored over every night.

In 1999, my mother and father traveled through the rinky dink town of Augusta, Michigan. It is a nothing little town you would miss if you sneezed.  She noticed a tiny little hole-in the-wall sub shop on the main drag.  My mother encouraged my father to stop in and look around.  It was right around dinner time and there were no patrons in the building.  I don’t even think ghosts hung out there.

Fortunately for my parents the owner was in the building.  My mother made inquiries. How much is rent? What are utilities, etc…? The owner cautiously said, “I don’t think people around here would like…Mexican…food that much.” My mother heard, “People don’t like Mexicans around here.” She was ready to raise holy hell. My father, the level-headed, light-hearted fellow that he is said, “Well…they are gonna love us!” He proceeded to tell the owner about our family and his successful daughters. By the end of the conversation, the owner and my father were best buds and my mother was calculating what she would need to transform the place from a sub shop to an authentic Mexican restaurant.

She purchased equipment wherever she could find it: auctions, restaurant closings, liquidation sales, etc…My sisters and I made up the initial staff. We were like the three stooges in those early days trying to learn to be waitresses, cooks, and bookkeepers.  It was all in the service of my mother’s dream. She had spent her entire life taking care of others. Now it was her time.  She still worked in the V.A. laundry during the day and the restaurant at night.  I remember I’d work in a law firm during the day and change out of my suit to wash dishes at night. It was all worth it because my mother had sacrificed so much for us…this was the least we could do for her.

She named the restaurant Nina’s Taqueria after my youngest sister. I am always asked if that makes me jealous. Frankly, it would have become “that Mexican restaurant” if she had named it after me or Marthalicia. Nina’s was the perfect name. Short. Simple. Sweet.

The restaurant opened in April 1999.  Word soon spread about Nina’s and the business grew bigger than any of us had imagined.  Today, my mother owns two restaurants, one market, and a car wash.  She is phenomenal in every way and one of the smartest people I know. Her commitment to excellence, to her customers, to her employees is bar none.  She is one of the most focused, ambitious, and innovative people I have ever known. I am so incredibly proud of her accomplishments.

My singular favorite moment with my mother was an evening after we had just finished cleaning the new building. She was preparing it to open and wanted everything to be perfect. We had just finished sweeping and mopping.  We were tired. We sat in the 70s style, orange, vinyl booths and looked around at her newest acquisition.  “Mi’ja,” she asked earnestly, “Do you think people really like my food?”

“Yes, mami,” I said. “People LOVE your food!”

Happy Mothers Day!

Mil gracias for reading,

Marisela Martinez-Cola

My First Post…

Greetings my peeps…

Venturing into this cyber-world is scary…yet strangely liberating. I am choosing to share my innermost thoughts, joys, struggles, and ideas on what it means to inhabit this being called Marisela. I am a mother. I am a partner in life. I am a scholar.  I am one of a handful. I am often “the only” but never quite feel like “the one.” I am a MiChicana who is trying to get her PhD in Sociology at Emory University.

So…what will I share?

My PhD Journey

I am the first in my family to go to college which means I understand both the pride and burn of being a trailblazer.  While my family would encourage me to sigue adelante*, they could never truly understand how lonely, frustrating, but rewarding it feels to blaze that trail. On one hand, I love being a role model to my students and sharing what I have learned on this journey to a PhD. On the other, it is very frustrating being asked if I am my son’s nanny.  (I will write more about this later.)

Still, I love my research. I love talking about race and difference. I love seeing connections. I encourage you to visit My Research page and view the video relating to my teaching philosophy to get an idea of how this weird brain of mine thinks.

My Weight Loss Journey

I am also an individual who has struggled with my weight my entire life.  My earliest memory is at the age of five when my pediatrician poked my pudgy little belly and declared that I was, “Too fat!” From then on, my mother (whom I love very much) would call me Fatso-rella, Shamu, Gorda, etc…all to shame me into losing weight. As a result, I can’t remember a time in my life when I was not struggling. I even “won” the battle at least three times by losing over 100 pounds each time but it always managed to come back.  My fourth and last time, however, came as a result of the life-saving gastric sleeve surgery. I will share about this journey and call it “musings of the formerly fluffy” in homage to Garfield the Cat.

My Personal Journey

Finally, and this is the most challenging, I will share about the things “we” are not supposed to talk about in mixed company.  Still…the silence is killing me.  I am a woman who is living with, surviving, fighting clinical Depression.  I call it “the cloud” and it has been kicking my boo-tay as my doctor and I are trying to find the right combination of treatment.  I am in therapy. I meditate. I pray. I exercise. I am even looking into clinical trials. It’s challenging. It’s embarrassing but it is my reality.

I was always told that therapy and depression was something weak, white women experienced. As a woman of color, I’m not supposed to have time for “that mess.” I’m too busy being too strong for too many.  Well, folks, depression is real…even when you “have it all.” I have a beautiful marriage, an incredible child, and I am finally pursuing my dream of getting a PhD. I have every reason in the world to be happy…and I am. But…that…stinkin’…cloud.  I hope sharing about this experience can help someone else stop feeling guilty for not being able to “pray” it away and maybe get some help.

I don’t know what else I will share. This journey is as new to me as it is to you. I sincerely thank you for taking time from your schedule to read my blog.


*Sigue adelante=a phrase of encouragement meaning keep moving or move ahead.