Faculty, students and friends of the Department of English at Fresno State held a dedication ceremony Dec. 9 for a memorial tree and bench on campus in honor of the late poet and alumna Mireyda “Mia” Barraza Martinez.
Barraza Martinez died Nov. 20, 2016, at age 29, in an auto accident. A gifted poet and educator, she was a teaching associate in the English Department and a graduate assistant in the Laureate Lab Visual Words Studio inside the Henry Madden Library.
The University posthumously awarded her Master of Fine Arts degree this past May to her family. She previously earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Fresno State in 2014.
The idea to plant a tree on campus in memory of Barraza Martinez originated with her friends and colleagues in the University’s Writing Center, where she once worked as a tutor. Dr. Magda Gilewicz, an English professor, led the project, which was made possible by gifts from nearly 50 campus and community donors, from students to administrators.
The tree variety is a valley oak, or quercus lobata, which is native to California and can grow to be one of the largest-sized oaks in North America. The dedication plaque at the tree’s base honors Barraza Martinez as a Xicana, a campesina, an activist and a poet.
The tree project grew to include a bench, which features custom ceramic tiles inspired by Barraza Martinez’s drawings of her mother’s cross-stitch flowers. The tiles were hand-made by faculty Una Mjurka, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Design. The bench also includes a plaque with an excerpt from Barraza Martinez’s poem “I Am Suddenly Myself Again”:
I am suddenly myself again. The weight
of realization is sending me floating
into the clouds like Remedios the Beauty.
I am at once up there waving and down
here again. The inside of my skull
opening up for itself, a dahlia.
The space kaleidoscoping into more
spaces. Doors are opening.
Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, said at the dedication that Barraza Martinez herself was like the valley oak. “It’s a tree that is a native to our Central Valley,” he said. “It’s a tree that in spite of a lot of barriers and ceilings, wind, cold and harsh heat, flourishes before us. That’s who Mia is.”
The tree is “a living memory of Mia,” Jiménez-Sandoval said, a lasting testament to the power of language, art and nature.
The memorial tree and bench, which are located on the west lawn outside the Conley Art auditorium (Room 101), now serve the English Department’s wish to physically root the University’s affection for Barraza Martinez to the earth on the campus.
In another mark of Barraza Martinez’s legacy, faculty from the Creative Writing Program have also established a prize in her name that recognizes writing about social justice, a subject close to the late poet’s heart. The Porterville native and daughter of farmworkers was politically active in her poetry and in the community, particularly for the rights of immigrants and undocumented students.
Two prizes were awarded for the first time this past spring to graduate student Erica Hughes and undergraduate student Rebeca Flores.
To make a gift to the Mireyda Barraza Martinez prize for social justice writing, visit the Fresno State giving website, select “other,” and write in “Creative Writing – MB Martinez,” or call 559.278.1877.