Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies | College of Liberal Arts
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Pido la Palabra

A Texas Prison Literature Project for Social Justice and the Literary Imagination

New: Expressions from the Chicas in White

We are thrilled to announce the publication of Deep Within: Expressions from the Chicas in White, a collection of poems and short prose pieces by Pido la Palabra students who reside at the Coleman Unit in Lockhart, Texas. The writings were produced in twice-weekly classes during the fall 2023 semester. View the magazine here.

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The Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS) has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for Pido la Palabra: A Texas Prison Literature Project for Social Justice and the Literary Imagination. The project is a collaboration between LLILAS, in partnership with the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection (as LLILAS Benson), and the Texas Prison Education Initiative (TPEI), a volunteer-run organization based at The University of Texas at Austin that offers credit-bearing college courses through UT Extension to incarcerated youth and adults.

The project was conceived by LLILAS Director Adela Pineda Franco, who is also Lozano Long Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and TPEI Director Sarah Brayne, associate professor in the Department of Sociology. Pineda Franco will serve as principal investigator (PI) and Brayne as co-PI.

The impetus for this project is multifaceted. According to Pineda and Brayne, efforts to engage and educate Hispanic incarcerated populations in the United States have remained scant, particularly in the realm literature and the arts. Studies in the U.S. and other countries have demonstrated that creative writing programs have long-lasting benefits. 

The title "Pido la Palabra" evokes the rich connotations inherent in this Spanish idiom. Commonly translated as “I ask for the floor,” pido la palabra entails the request to speak in parliamentary procedure. However, it also alludes to the need for self-expression. Understood as “I ask for the word,” pido la palabra is also a means to reclaim one’s distinctive voice to communicate with others in a unique, affective, and meaningful way.

Writing on the Edge: Literature and Incarceration

As part of the grant's initiation, LLILAS Director Adela Pineda Franco inaugurated a seminar course called Writing on the Edge: Literature and Incarceration in spring 2023. The course was offered to graduate students in LLILAS and the Department of Spanish & Portuguese, as well as upper-level undergrads from the latter. Some of the writings produced by these students are featured in LLILAS Benson's Portal magazine and Voices of Mexico. The course is being taught by Professor Gabriela Polit in fall 2023.

Taking a hemispheric approach, Latin American writers with demonstrated success teaching creative writing programs in prisons serve as guest lecturers in the Writing on the Edge seminar at UT Austin, and teach workshops with Pido la Palabra to incarcerated students. Our first visitors are María José Rubin and Sabrina Charaf of the Prison Extension Program, School of Philosophy and Letters, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Information about their public campus event, "Why Do We Write?", can be found here

Through the analysis of written texts by and about incarcerated people in the U.S., Latin America, and the circum-Caribbean, students explore the critical potential of literature to interrogate mass incarceration and its relationship to systemic inequalities, including access to education, as well as the limits and possibilities of prison writing as a social and restorative endeavor to reimagine society. 

The seminar course introduces students to the Texas Prison Education Initiative (TPEI) teaching philosophy, which calls for flexible and strength-based pedagogical approaches. Throughout, the professor and students survey the process of implementing a creative writing program in Spanish within the multilingual context of U.S. (Texas) prisons, including methodological, ethical, and practical considerations that are rooted in evidence-based pedagogies.

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Pido la Palabra GRAs Yefferson Ospina (l) and Gabriel Noriega at the Coleman Unit of the correctional facility in Lockhart, TX, summer 2023

Summer and Fall 2023: Teaching Incarcerated Students

During the summer of 2023, Pineda Franco and PhD students Gabriel Noriega and Yefferson Ospina (Spanish and Portuguese) initiated visits to the Coleman Unit of the Lockhart Correctional Facility in Lockhart, Texas, to teach a summer writing workshop. Coleman is a state prison for women. Due to summer travel schedules, Noriega led the bulk of the workshops, although all three members of the team spent time with their new students. 

Workshop students received a Spanish-language booklet of diverse readings that had been assembled by the instructors. In addition, the students received handouts explaining stylistic conventions in writing (simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and so forth) and the rules for accent mark use in Spanish. 

Classes at the Coleman Unit recommenced in August. They are led by Pineda Franco; Ospina and Noriega as GRAs, and collaborators Kelsey Bergeson, Celine Norman, and Alex Voisine. The textbook compiled for the fall is titled Creative Writing: A Spanish and Bilingual Approach.