“I credit literature, theater and visual art for saving my life.”
Tiffany Ana López tries to start each morning with the ritual of a cup of tea in hand, watching the light shift around her. “I think that moment of pause allows room to let in any insights that might emerge during the day,” she says.
These moments of reflection help López, a professor of theatre, film and digital production, appreciate the twists and turns of her career — from even before she came to UCR in 1995 as the first faculty specialist in U.S. Latina/o literature. An acclaimed writer, scholar, and educator, she was appointed the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in the College of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences in 2012.
But her academic journey hasn’t always been easy.
She left an abusive home at 15 and while working full time in fast food, began taking classes at a community college with the goal of becoming a Burger King franchise owner. She struggled to overcome various challenges as a first-generation college student; in fact, when she was advised to transfer to a Cal State to get her bachelor’s degree, she said, “I thought only doctors and scientists had such advanced education. I didn’t know I could continue my studies majoring in the humanities and arts.” In this interview, she talks about her inspiring mentors and what drove her to succeed.
How did you end up pursing a doctorate in the humanities and becoming a writer?
I was fortunate to be educated during a time of programming devoted to fostering first-generation college students from underrepresented backgrounds through higher education. At CSU Sacramento, I had an incredible mentor, Professor Olivia Castellano. She was among the first Chicanas in her generation to complete a graduate degree and was a published poet. After several classes, she looked at me and said, “M’ija, I’m not going to live forever and need to know there will be another Chicana professor carrying forward this work.” I felt knighted and charged with a deep sense of purpose. I credit literature, theater and visual art for saving my life by showing me that the abusive and toxic story of my growing up years was just one story in my life and that there were other stories I could make for myself and share with others as my mentors had with me.
How did you end up at UC Riverside?
At the time I was hired, Raymond Orbach was chancellor, and he came to the job interview to support what he felt was a historic hire. He commented on how my journey mirrored that of so many UCR students he had met and affirmed this would position me as a strong role model. It was another moment where I felt charged with a special sense of responsibility about my career. When you are the first in your family or community to step through certain doors, you remain sensitive to the influences you might have. Diversity – of ideas, methods, people – is a central dynamic in my work because it fuels innovation by challenging perspective. It is one of the strengths that drew me to UCR.
How has the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair, which was created to honor the life and legacy of the late UCR Chancellor, helped you to further your research and creative projects?
Support from the endowment has enabled me to travel more extensively to visit archives and other institutional spaces, including conferences, to expand the groundwork for new creative and scholarly projects. I’ve been able to travel to spaces that don’t have adequate resources, bring to UCR leading voices in the field, organize special events, and host an annual conference that includes master class workshops.
What do you hope to leave as your legacy?
My life’s work has been devoted to thinking about issues of violence and trauma and how our personal experiences shape the work we pursue from our studies to our careers. Over the 20 years of my time at UCR, my teaching has focused on empowering students to gain a sense of clarity about why they hold the interests that they do. While it is not always easy, I share my story of fleeing a violent home and how that shaped my journey through higher education into my present work because I want people to see that the story of violence is not always personal devastation. I hope my legacy will have been to provide a model for how to talk about things that are difficult to navigate and might otherwise be left unspeakable. I also hope the work I have done in the humanities will influence the next generation of scholars, the questions they pursue and the methodology they employ.