We are 60 million strong in the U.S. but we are still celebrating Latinas making history in all industries, like when Colombian-American educator Juliana Urtubey became the first Latina since 2005 to be named National Teacher of the Year. Now Mojave and Latinx poet Natalie Diaz is the first Latina poet to win a Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Diaz was awarded the coveted Pulitzer for her poetry collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, centered on her identity and the injustices her communities face.
“I was very emotional with this award and I think part of it is because when I set out to put the book together, I knew I wanted to be at stake,” Diaz told The Arizona Republic after the announcement. “And when I say that, I mean, I knew that I wanted my body, the places I’ve come from, the people I come from, to be of consequence to the world and to kind of bring our perspectives and conversations to bear in our larger national conversations.”
Diaz teaches creative writing at Arizona State University and she’s an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Her debut poetry collection was entitled When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012) and it explored the culture clash experienced by Native Americans intertwined with her brother’s battle with an addiction to crystal meth. This latest collection is just as personal, uplifting the indigenous community in the face of erasure. “I am doing my best to not become a museum / of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out. // I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.”
She is only the second Latinx poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry following William Carlos Williams, whose mother was Puerto Rican, according to Latino Stories writer Jose B. Gonzalez. Diaz, 42, was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California and identifies as Mojave, Akimel O’odham and Latinx, as well as queer. Her father was Mexican and her mother is Native, and Diaz speaks Mojave, English, and Spanish.
“Poetry was an unlikely place for me to land … I mean, who says: ‘I’m going to be a poet when I grow up’? I grew up on a reservation and we had a boarding school where language was taken,” Diaz told The Guardian.
“What is knowledge for an indigenous person? The things that I know are only considered knowledge if someone outside finds value in it. A large part of my work in the university is to teach my Native students that the things they know and are part of their practice of living – caretaking the land, caretaking their family, the ways we know weather – those things are research. And not just because a white academic studies us and declares there’s value in it.”
Through her success she’s carving a place for herself in a space dominated by white men and in the process she’s elevating the indigenous community and fighting against the erasure she wrote about in the award-winning book.