Growing up in a small town in Texas, Dr. Larissa Mercado-López and her family had to drive to the next town to go to a public library. The distance did not keep her from seeking out the fictional worlds that reflected her own.
“Even early on, I had this desire to see myself in literature, so I would actually choose books by the authors’ last names,” she says. “I think I must have read every book by a Latino or Latina author in that library by the time I graduated.”
Decades later, she is an associate professor of women’s studies at California State University, Fresno, where she teaches students how to critically engage with culture. As a researcher, she is helping cultivate the interdisciplinary field of feminist fitness studies, blending cultural studies, literary criticism and her personal experiences to deconstruct popular notions of what it means to be fit, whether it is physical fitness or broader applications of the term “fitness,” such as what it means to be fit for citizenship or fit for a college education.
Mercado-López’s path to her current scholarly stature was not an easy one.
As a young student, she chose to attend the University of Texas at San Antonio for its Mexican American studies program.
“It just blew my mind that I could major in myself,” she says. Mercado-López’s personal identity would soon come to play an even greater role in her academic pursuits.
Near the end of her time at San Antonio, she learned she was pregnant. Initially, she believed that having a family would only disrupt her career trajectory.
“I had totally rejected the idea of motherhood,” she says. Mercado-López adds that she did not have any role models who had been able to balance work and a family. “I didn’t see that as a viable option if I wanted to have a career.”
As she began to encounter pregnancy shaming and a campus environment that was unfriendly toward pregnant students, she became more aware of the inequities facing student-mothers. Upon entering graduate school, Mercado-López embraced her motherhood as an act of resistance.
“I really wanted to use my body to inform my research,” she says.
Through her research, she sought to contest negative representations of Mexican mothers that can be weaponized in different contexts, such as anti-immigrant narratives. She says her own pregnancy and motherhood enlivened her academic work. “In Chicano studies, we return to the body as valuable sites of knowledge.”
Outside the classroom, Mercado-López is addressing the struggles of student-parents at Cal State Fresno. She conducted a survey of student-parents on the campus and found that many were unaware of their rights under Title IX, which protects pregnant and parenting students from discrimination.
“To me, that was troubling because this is a basic right that they should have known about prior to enrolling at Fresno State,” she says. But the survey also encouraged Mercado-López.
“It also strongly conveyed their motivation, their ambition, their willingness and their deep desire to be here at Fresno State to get a college education,” she says. Mercado-López’s pregnancy was an empowering experience, despite the obstacles. “Being a student-parent gave me much more of a sense of urgency. I knew that I couldn’t afford to procrastinate on assignments,” she says. “I also learned to accept more straightforward approaches to mentoring.”
“For one, she was a leader inventing new things for her doctoral student peers to do. She was a dynamo on campus,” says Dr. Norma Cantú, professor emerita at San Antonio. Specifically, Cantú recalls a conference Mercado-López organized for faculty and graduate students to share their work. Cantú says she is impressed by her former student’s productivity, in particular, her ability to find time to write children’s books that highlight the Chicana experience. “I think she has an incredible path ahead of her. She’s going to be one of our leaders,” she says.
Looking to the future, Mercado-López says she will continue to find inspiration in all types of literature.
“I always say literature is a crystal ball,” she says. “I think for me, literature always showed me a possibility of who I could be and what I could do.”
Dr. Larissa M. Mercado-López
Title: Associate Professor, California State University, Fresno
Education: B.A., University of Texas at San Antonio; M.A., University of Texas at San Antonio; Ph.D., University of Texas at San Antonio
Career mentors: Dr. Norma Cantú, University of Texas at San Antonio; Dr. Sonia Saldívar-Hull, University of Texas at San Antonio; Dr. Ben Olguín, University of California, Santa Barbara; Dr. Marie “Keta” Miranda, University of Texas at San Antonio; and Dr. Cristina Herrera, California State University, Fresno.
Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: Follow your whim. There will always be expectations to do what you “need” to do, but don’t forget to pursue what satisfies your creative and spiritual selves, because it’s when you work (and play!) from a place of courage and authenticity that you can truly produce work that matters.