Digame: Jessica Esquivel Talks Being a Queer Afro-Latinx in STEM

Afro-Latina Dr

Dr. Jessica Esquivel digame

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jessica Esquivel

Afro-Latina Dr. Jessica Esquivel is an Associate Scientist at Fermilab, a national laboratory specializing in high-energy particle physics. She is one of less than 100 Black women with a PhD in physics in the country, the second Black woman to graduate with a PhD in physics from Syracuse University, and the third Black woman to hold an Associate Scientist position at Fermilab. Dr. Esquivel is also a recognized advocate for creating just and equitable spaces in physics and focuses on the intersections of race, gender and sexuality in her community engagement efforts. Dr. Esquivel was also selected as a AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador, and through her work as an ambassador has appeared on CBS’s Emmy nominated educational program Mission Unstoppable where she discusses the physics behind makeup, and on the Science Channel’s How the Universe Works discussing how neutrinos could be the key to the mysteries of our universe. She’s also been open about discussing what it means to be neurodivergent and working as a queer woman of color in an industry that lacks diversity. She recently did a TedTalk entitled  “The Queer Universe: A quantum explanation”.

Jessica Esquivel STEM statue

Photo: Smithsonia/Jessica Esquivel

Which Latina(s) have had the greatest impact on your life and why?

Definitely my mom. As a single mom, she showed me how to stand on my own two feet and what it’s like to have a dedicated work ethic. She was also the first person to thwart gender roles and always told us “you can do anything a man can, and probably better too!” She also used to say, “sometimes all you have is being a b*tch,” letting us know that it is ok to be assertive, and confident, and to set boundaries when people try to walk over you. She instilled confidence, badassery, and a work ethic early on, and I’m so grateful for that.

If you could meet a Latina icon who is no longer alive, who would it be and why?

Hands down, Sylvia Rivera. She and Marsha P. Johnson led the LGBTQIA+ movement. Her drive and determination, despite all of the obstacles they faced, really speak to me. But also, I’d like to know more about her experience, like all of the hate and disrespect she received from the movement and how she navigated that.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When I was still in grad school and struggling with being the “model minority” and navigating classes as the only Black, Mexican, Queer, Woman, my mom told me, “who made you queen of all of these communities?” That gave me permission to stop being perfect and just be me.

Jessica Esquivel TedTalk

Photo courtesy of TedTalk/Jessica Esquivel

Who was the first person to believe in your dreams/goals?

Dr. Cardenas, my undergraduate physics advisor. He advocated for me at the department level so that I could take more than 18 hours a semester to double major in Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics and I think it was his nonchalantness about my ability to carry a heavy course load. Like he just knew I could do it and that gave me such a confidence boost. He also always made sure to connect me with important opportunities that would later build my career.

How do you stay connected to your cultural roots?

Food and dance parties in the kitchen with my wife! Both of those are healing for us. My wife recently made pozole for the very first time and my god, it warmed my soul!

What do you wish more people understood about what you do?

I wish they understood the amount of creativity and imagination it takes to study the invisible and learn to think outside the current physical constraints to find new physics.

What motivates you?

Depends on the day. But I’m very stubborn so motivation for me is telling me I can’t do something or won’t make it.

How did you end up on the professional path you’re on now?

The movie Contact which highlighted women in STEM, coupled with the support of my family. My family fueled and encouraged my interest in STEM.

What is your greatest professional achievement so far? Personal achievement?

Well, I just signed a book deal with MIT Press, and I never expected that to happen!! A personal achievement has been prioritizing my mental health and working through the shame deeply rooted in the Black and Latine communities related to asking for help, getting therapy, and taking medication.

What is a goal you have that you haven’t accomplished yet and what are you doing to get closer to accomplishing it?

My wife and I are in the process of launching a non-profit in the coming year, which is going to focus on foraging innovative social initiatives through the power of community. We’re going to work to mindfully foster, celebrate and amplify the capacity to thrive as Black and Brown people through competent care, culture, education, growth, and liberation. We’re currently developing our foundation, purpose, mission, and core values, as well as the business plan. We make it a point to work on this with each other each week, no matter how busy we get. We want to do it big, so we’re building a solid foundation to grow into the organization we see in our dreams. Stay tuned for more info!

What pop culture moment made you feel seen?

Rihanna’s “B*tch Betta Have My Money.” Iconic. “Pay me what you owe me”… I mean, can we talk about the wage gap for Black women and Latinas? The wage gap also INCREASES with career advancement and increased education. Plus, in this space where organizations are so interested in diversity initiatives, they call upon Black and Brown people to lead the charge, often with no money, resources, or support, setting us up for failure. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “Black Bluff.” It has become very prevalent in organizations hiring Black and brown candidates into leadership roles for positive press without any systems for these leaders to create transformational change. Anyway, this song became such a rallying cry for me, a come-to-Jesus, if you will. I started saying no to unpaid work and recognized my worth!

How do you practice self care?

This can look a lot of different ways for me. The one I want to highlight now is what we in our household call “survival mode.” I actually just wrote about this on my substack, Our Queer Universe.

 Quick Fire:

Shoutout an Instagram account that could use more love and tell us why you’re a fan:
Black in Physics, shameless plug as I’m the co-founder but it’s an amazing organization doing awesome work highlighting Black physicists across career spectrum and building community internationally!

Shoutout your favorite Latina-owned business and why:
I recently came across Yo Soy Afro-Latina and OMG their vibe is fire! I haven’t ordered anything yet, but I’m a self-proclaimed shopaholic so always looking for my next haul and already have some cute stuff in the cart!

Digame is a monthly series featuring prominent Latinx leaders, activists, entrepreneurs, and public figures uplifting the community and making a difference.

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