Please introduce yourself, the year you graduated, and what was your major when you graduated?
My name is Xenia Zayas and I graduated Syracuse University in 2011. I was dually enrolled in Newhouse and Art Sciences and earned my degree in African American Studies and TV/Radio/Film.
What was your Syracuse University experience like when you attended?
My experience at Syracuse University was one that changed over the years. A lot of it had to do with the fact that I just didn’t know myself. I started Syracuse right after I finished boarding school where there were only 230 students in my class. Sure race and culture were a topic of discussion, but there were only 5 females students of color in my class, two of which were Hispanic. The five of us were like sisters as you can imagine, and we spoke amongst ourselves about race and ethnicity issues, but that was about it. Our environment didn’t look like us, didn’t yearn for the same foods as us, and we coped as we could.
When I got to Syracuse, I was thrust into a diverse campus where everyone was proud and loud about where they were from. I was definitely proud, without a doubt but I just wasn’t loud. I didn’t wear my heritage like a badge of honor like some of my freshman classmates. It ostracized me a bit. And by a bit, I mean a lot. My “home girl” from the Heights couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to be in Raices, or why on the first day of orientation I didn’t include in my mini bio that I was Dominican. But you see there was the problem—I am half Dominican. I’m also half Cuban. But more importantly, I am an Afro-Latina. Yes, I am Black and yes, I am Hispanic. This fact was lost to my peers my first year because they hadn’t yet come to terms with the nuances that is an Afro-Latina. Needless to say, first year college kinks work themselves out and the rest of my college experience was one where I was intellectually stimulated. It was one where I actively leaned about my heritage and formed an identity I was comfortable with.
The creative artist in me wrote screenplays, short stories, & learned about production in Newhouse. The academic in me analyzed the Black experience in Arts & Sciences. In both arenas I concentrated on writing. I compartmentalized my two selves—the academic and the creative with my dual degree but in the end it completed me as a whole person. Helped me with my identity. You see the thing about being an Afro-Latina is that Hispanics never want to talk about the Black blood that lives within. I needed to understand this and express this creatively. One hand washes the other—one half completes the other.
What did you do post-SU?
Post SU I did a lot of writing. I wanted to continue the momentum I had gained my last two years at SU by writing screenplays and TV series. I concentrated on my personal projects while I looked for jobs in media. Then I got the opportunity of a lifetime and I traveled abroad to the Dominican Republic to do research in my grandmother’s village. (I was writing a script on her life). Then I got to travel and live in France for a few months where I began writing a TV series that I eventually turned into a novel. Sad to say, my grandmother passed away and it halted all of my creative juices. Everything stopped.
In fact, my last year at SU I struggled personally because she was sick with cancer. Everyday, I walked around campus to and from class fearful that the matriarch, the actual rock of my family would pass away. I hated getting calls from home because my heart would die a little each time since I feared the worst. Students in Syracuse go through so much outside of the classroom; it’s a miracle sometimes that we even make it across that stage! She made it through, saw me graduate and I dedicated all my writing to her that year. Every project, essay, or short story I wrote related to her in some way. I had to remind myself to stay focused and in school. Post SU the unthinkable happened and she passed.
When I say that everything stopped, I mean all my creativity stopped flowing. When you have a creative over active mind, you don’t know what to do with the hollowness. My blog was born out of this pain. What started off as a coping mechanism spiraled into something bigger.
I’ve always cooked. And I love to do it. It was my grandmother’s tradition and my obsession. I would sit in the kitchen for hours watching her kneed dough, grind spices. She always cooked with a cigarette and Heineken in hand. (To this day I swear that it was secret ingredient to her cooking) She never wrote any of her recipes down because she couldn’t read or write. Whenever I tried to write them down for her, she’d scold me and tell me to just watch. For years I was frustrated watching her itching to write recipes down and eager to get my hands dirty, but Mama insisted—just watch. When she passed away, I panicked. Yes, I mourned her but I mourned all the dishes I would never taste again. All the lost recipes. Little did I know, that I was her apprentice. She taught me everything she knew and the best schooling she gave me was watching. In her last year, I stepped in and helped her cook because she was too weak. She talked me through some dishes and when I asked how much salt or pepper I should add her response without fail was always, “Échale sin miedo.” (Just add it without fear). Nothing was ever measured—ever.
I realized the week after her funeral that she had given me the best gift I would ever get in my life, which was her cooking gift and her legacy. I missed her and the fact that I could cook like her made me miss her more. My pain and emotions were pent up inside me and eventually it became too much. I had to write them down, expel them to make room for new emotions. My Tumblr blog Truth and Good Food was born out of my need to cope. I’m a private person, but exposing my experiences and myself was therapeutic. Once I began sharing my blog with friends and my social media accounts, my content grew and diversified.
That was a year ago. Since then, my Tumblr has grown and I’ve transferred it over to a website. I bought the Truth and Good Food domain taking the first steps towards legitimizing my brand. Aside from my blog, I work on independent projects. I was working on a novel I had started in France about four women of color coming of age in New York City. I’m also editing the screenplay I wrote based on my grandmother’s life. My friend and I started a creative circle where we write short stories and edit each other’s work with hopes of it landing in the right hands. As an aspiring writer, it’s important to never disconnect with the craft. I use my blog and website as exercises where I toy with voice, tone, and style. It’s my own free for all open to the public—my virtual dinner table. I also work for a publishing company—NewBay Media as an executive assistant and trade show coordinator. Lastly, I am the community outreach intern for La Casa Azul Bookstore servicing Spanish Harlem. I market the bookstore by reaching out to several communities in Spanish Harlem. I strategize and create events that that promote our mission and goals.
(Madelyn’s side note: In conversation with Xenia, it is also worth mentioning that she has just secured a third internship with Sandra Guzman, the former editor-in-chief of Latina Magazine and author of The New Latina’s Bible.)
What’s the best advice you would give to current students?
The best advice I can give to current students is to enjoy their college years and really pay attention to what you learn in the classroom. So much of what you say in the real world is judged by the substance behind it. The last thing you want is to have a degree (and an expensive one at that because let’s face it, Syracuse does cost a pretty penny) and not have anything valid to say.
Build your networks! I heard this all the time during my undergraduate years, but I never understood just how important this really was. Networks open doors. You have to put yourself out there to get something. No one is going to come knocking on your door with an opportunity on a silver platter. You have to create your opportunity and success. You have to carve your own little niche and make it work in this world. Living in New York City will nurture a “grind now, grind hard” mentality.
Lastly, do not lose sight of what you want to do. I spent over a year unemployed after college. Was I stress? Of course! Did I grow restless? Everyday! However, I made sure to use this time creatively and productively. I started my own projects and blogs. These are things that I now put in my resume and become selling points for me in interviews. It shows that you are resourceful, a self-starter, and that you do not waste time!
What do you think about LANSU Scholarship?
I think that the LANSU scholarship and initiative is a brilliant idea. It connects the Alumni network with current undergrads. Paying it forward is an essential part to building and maintaining community. Many students can identify with each others experiences and it’s comforting to know that there is a larger community of Latino Syracuse grads that are supporting their cause. I mentioned earlier that building your network is key and LANSU does just that. As a Syracuse student if you see the larger community giving back you feel more inclined to keep in touch and give back yourself. In the end, it creates a positive cycle and it is one that I support.