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Life and Work with Wendoline Vargas

Today we’d like to introduce you to Wendoline Vargas.

Wendoline, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
Hi y’all! I’m the creator of Her VAGA Bound Roots. I’m a 26-year-old first-generation Mexican-American living in New York City and currently working as a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) providing psychotherapy in English and Spanish in a primary care clinic. In order to understand what has brought me here today, I feel compelled to share my back story and what has shaped me along the way.

My parents immigrated from Guadalajara, Jalisco, MX and settled down in Los Angeles along with the rest of my extended family. I was born and raised in Sylmar, California, a small city in the San Fernando Valley made up primarily of Latinos. In my nuclear family, I am the youngest and only female of three children and often described as a feisty woman unafraid to go against the grain. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a HUGE, traditional and tight-knit Mexican family and was raised to proudly embrace my culture and roots at a very young age. I am also so grateful to still be surrounded by relatives who have each served as exemplary role models throughout my life in unique ways.

I attended the University Of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) where I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a minor in English. After taking a year off, I decided to pursue higher education and obtain a Masters in Social Work. Moving to NYC had always been a dream and I promised myself that one day I’d make it a reality. After applying and being accepted into New York University – Silver School of Social Work, I moved to NYC, against my family’s support (initially). Coming from a traditional, patriarchal, conservative Mexican family, unity, family ties and gender roles are held in high regard. I understood that being the youngest, a female, and moving away from home, across the country (alone & especially before marriage) was something frowned upon or often never done. I love and respect my culture and all traditional values instilled in me, but I’ve never been afraid to question it and push the envelope in hopes of opening a whole new world.

For the purpose of laying down the foundation for Her VAGA Bound Roots, it’s important to note that I was the first in my nuclear family and my father’s side of the family to have accomplished graduating from college. While there were graduates on my mother’s side of the family, I was the first (woman) in her family to receive a Masters.

“Her VAGA Bound Roots” (the meaning which I thoroughly explain and delve deeper into at a later point) was created during my first year of graduate school. Upon moving to NYC, I realized I had a whole team back home rooting for my success and looking to me to be that shining example for my family and community. One often hears about success stories but doesn’t always hear about the struggles endured and barriers overcome- essentially the journey lived, which is, in my opinion where all of the magic and growth happens. I wanted to utilize my blog, Her VAGA Bound Roots, specifically to highlight that journey, to be as transparent as possible and give others a real and raw perspective on my life. I wanted to show them what being a VAGA out in the streets actually looked like and what that meant. Unknowingly at the time, I was helping change the narrative for other women and what it meant to leave your comfort zone in pursuit of your dreams.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
It has definitely not been a smooth road. I think from the outside looking in, it can be interpreted as having accomplished it all so effortlessly, however, as that old saying goes: nothing worth having comes easy. As a first-generation Latina, the journey towards college was long and difficult. Because I was the first in my immediate family to attend college, the concept was foreign and I needed to teach myself everything. I created that path because there wasn’t one already paved within my community for me to follow. I remember spending countless hours in my room working on my personal statement and college applications praying that I was filling them out correctly, researching FAFSA and securing financial resources to make sure this would be something my family could afford. As a junior in high school, I had no idea that it marked the beginning of what would be 6 long and challenging years (where many times I found myself lost and on the verge of giving up). But knowing I was representing my family and my community, I was determined to rise. In the end, lacking that mentorship at an important stage of my life was a struggle but it also allowed for so much growth. I became independent, fearless, strong and resilient… I became a VAGA.

Some of biggest struggles came after being accepted into the very academic institutions I yearned to be a part of. I attended a high school in an underserved community that was predominantly of color, and during my undergraduate career at UCSB, a predominantly white institution, I found myself in a world I had never experienced. I wish someone had prepared me for such culture shock. More often than not, I found myself being one of the few students of color in the classroom and feeling uncomfortable, even going as far as questioning my belonging in those spaces on multiple occasions. I quickly learned the unfortunate reality that these institutions were not created for minorities when I began to see friends dropping out and less multicultural students as the semesters passed and course sizes got smaller.

When I decided to pursue a Masters and attended NYU, a prestigious, elite and yes, predominantly white institution, I quickly realized I was yet again in the same situation. I recently read an article that stated only 4% of Latinx achieve a Masters degree and while that is shocking, I found it to be true. I could count the students of color in my class on one hand, but I was not going to let the underrepresentation of my own people in the classroom discourage my studies. In fact, that very underrepresentation invigorated something in me that to this day makes me strive for greatness. To break barriers and open doors of opportunities for my younger cousins and others in my community. I may have been the first in my family but I definitely won’t be the last.

I myself am still learning, but some advice I can give other women is no matter what road you’ve chosen or what your journey you’re about to embark on, always, stay true to yourself. Stand up for what you believe in and do not be afraid to speak up and/or ask for help. Find others who you confide in and build a strong support system. They will help you navigate college, you will lean on them during trying times and they will push you to be the best version of yourself. Lastly, do your research and seek out others who you aspire to be and ask them to be your mentor, or even out on a coffee date! I’m a firm believer that a closed mouth does not get fed. Be confident in your ideas and plans. Be assertive, determined, and resilient when achieving your dreams. This is something I am still learning to embrace and I wish someone had told me early on.

Please tell us about Her VAGA Bound Roots.
Her VAGA Bound Roots is a women empowerment movement whose mission is to inspire women of color to leave their comfort zones and pursue their dreams. It is a movement that is reclaiming the Spanish word: VAGA, a word that has a negative connotation in the Latinx community, and I am transforming into a word and identity of empowerment! A VAGA woman is fearless, strong, and resilient. She runs free, dreams big and most importantly does not care about social standards, she breaks every barrier set to keep her confined. The VAGA Movement is rewriting the narrative on what it means to be a woman in the streets and changing it into something positive, encouraging woman to be bold and pursue their dreams.

I am a social worker by profession and I have applied the ethics, values and core beliefs we hold in high regard in our profession to my everyday life. Such as respecting others’ differences in opinions, advocating for those in need, promoting social justice and fighting for equality and equity is what drives Her VAGA Bound Roots to continue making a difference in communities of color.

Because this was something created out of my personal experience, Her VAGA Bound Roots is a passionate advocate for higher education. I do want to acknowledge my understanding of the pursuit of education not being for everyone, and while there are so many individuals who are extremely successful without having gone to school, they are outliers and do not give an accurate depiction and representation of the majority of the population. I can only speak solely on MY experience. Attending college and obtaining an education has changed my life and opened so many doors of opportunities for me. I am positive I wouldn’t be where I am today had it not been for my education. I see education as a personal investment that when used correctly, can yield so many opportunities and help get you admission into places and spaces you’ve never dreamed of.

In 2017, I created VAGAS With Degrees, a series that features trailblazers and highlights/celebrates the success stories of women of color earning degrees. This platform empowers women with the opportunity to have their voice be heard and share their untold story with the world. Their stories are beautiful, heartwarming and very relatable, which is what makes this project even more special. Visibility and representation are extremely important. Shining a spotlight on successful women of color allows other women to know that no dream is too big to achieve! I want children and younger folks to say, “I want to be a (insert profession) just like (insert name)” and know that it’s real, and it’s achievable because they’ve seen it be done with their own eyes. If you’re interested in submitting a story for this years VAGAS With Degrees Class of 2018, or simply want to join the movement make sure to check them out on www.hervagaboundroots.com or on Instagram at @hervagaboundroots.

In connection with VAGAS With Degrees, ever since attending undergraduate school and seeing first hand the limited financial resources out there for students of color, I was inspired to one day create my very own scholarship foundation. I am excited to announce that it has finally become a reality and am currently working on establishing The Vagas With Degrees Scholarship Foundation. This scholarship foundation will aim to provide financial resources to women attending or planning to attend an educational institution. VAGAS with Degrees are fierce women trailblazing and illuminating the academic path for others in their family and community to follow in their footsteps. Empowering women, women of color and minority women to be fearless, strong, and resilient when leaving their comfort zones to attend college in pursuit of fulfilling their academic dreams!

Most proud of as a brand:
That it’s unique, authentic and genuine. What I speak about and promote is something I truly believe, stand by and most importantly have really lived. I believe that with the growing popularity of social media, it’s easy to get lost in a façade of lifestyles that may not be real. I am not here to pretend, or live a fictitious lifestyle to gain likes and follows. But rather, here to tell my real story in hopes that it resonates and inspire others to share theirs too. Creating something that empowers other women of color and helps them have a voice and say “I am here, this is my story. I have something of substance to contribute to the conversation and I’m here to stay!”.

Do you think there are structural or other barriers impeding the emergence of more female leaders?
Her VAGA Bound Roots’ mission along with the entire VAGA Movement was created and intended precisely to break those very barriers set to keep women confined. For centuries, women have been treated less than, discriminated against, and while women throughout the years have made tremendous strides in demanding to be treated more fairly and equally, there are still barriers set out today in modern day society to keep us stagnant. There are also barriers already embedded in our culture and traditions where women are expected to be docile, obedient and submissive with their partner. They are subjected to sacrifice their own dreams to build and grow a family.

It is also very important to address that yes, being a woman means you’re automatically met with systemic oppression, but when compounded by intersectionalities such as: race, age, sexuality, socio-economic status, religion, able-bodiedness, and education level it makes it a thousand times more complex. It’s as if the world is flipped upside down. For example, I am a 26-year-old, first-generation, Hispanic/Latinx, cis-gender female, and my experience would be greatly different from that of a 45-year-old, Black, Gay, female or a 21-year-old, white heterosexual, Christian female. Intersectionalities play a part in women having distinct experiences. I think being consciously aware and acknowledging those identities and the struggles that come with them is a part of the solution in helping dismantle these barriers.

It’s no secret that women and more so women of color have had to work twice if not three times as hard to make the same amount as their male counterpart in the same profession/role. It is also no secret that women have had to work much more, to prove themselves “worthy or competent” to be in a leadership role in any industry.

I also believe that women, unfortunately, are barriers to each other. It’s this internalized sexism that sometimes is difficult to not fall a victim of. It isn’t until recent times that women are making a conscious effort to stand up, speak out and most importantly empower other women… and it’s beautiful!!! We are starting to realize that we do not need to pin ourselves against each other but rather look out for one another and help each other succeed. Helping other women shine brightly will never dull our own light. I hope this movement of women empowerment doesn’t ever slow down because women are capable of greatness and we’ll get there even sooner if we go together!

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Image Credit:

George Zacalteco, @ishootraw__

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