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Meet Ruben Reyes, the Harvard Grad Who Started the University’s Only Latinx Literary Mag

Photo by Ela Chavez. Courtesy of Ruben Reyes Jr.
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Ruben Reyes Jr. didn’t always think of himself as a writer. Even though he was constantly producing work, he didn’t feel comfortable using the term. It wasn’t until he started sharing his work with his friends that he began to use the title. So by the time he launched Palabritas – Harvard’s only Latinx literary magazine – he realized that just by practicing the craft, he could consider himself a writer. During his last year of Harvard, he used Palabritas to inspire others to believe the same.

“My goal with that [publication], partly, was to help other people consider themselves writers,” he tells Remezcla. “By the time I founded Palabritas, I really had come to believe in the idea that if you write you’re a writer and that’s all it takes. You don’t need any kind of education or publishing experience, necessarily, as long as you’re writing and you spend time working on your craft, you should be able to consider yourself a writer.”

But of course, being published allows writers to build clips and advance their careers, so with Palabritas, the Salvadoran American wanted to ensure that Latinx writers could gain opportunities. While Palabritas was started at Harvard, it is open to Latinxs everywhere, regardless of whether they go to Harvard or not. And even though Reyes recently graduated, the publication continues to grow and nurture Latinx talent.

For the first issue, Reyes worked alongside Jocelyn Vera, currently the publication’s editor-in-chief, Jeannie Regidor, six editors, nine readers and two graphic designers. Now, it’s mostly a different set of students shaping Palabritas for the future.

We recently chatted with Reyes about Palabritas and its continued mission. Learn more below.

How did you get the idea to start Palabritas and why did you think it was so necessary? 

The main kind of motivation for [Palabritas] was based on the fact that, even though I was doing my own creative writing on the side, it was a really like kind of solitary, isolated experience. I saw some kind of creative writing and arts organizations on campus, but I never felt quite comfortable in them. The concerns of my fiction, obviously, have a lot to do with my upbringing, my Salvadorian culture, and the experiences of immigrants, particularly Salvadorian immigrants. That’s what I’m really interested in writing about.

And some of the organizations I looked at on campus did not seem like the most hospitable kind of spaces to explore those narratives. So I felt that there was really a lack of kind of a space for Latinx creators at Harvard. And after talking to a couple of friends who also were kind of writing on the side of their own, I figured that it would probably be a good idea to start this organization that was explicitly about creating a space for Latinx writers.

So initially, it started because I knew that there were a lot of Latinx students who were interested in creative writing at Harvard, but also, we were all kind of doing our work on our own and Palabritas, initially, was a way of getting us to form a community that could support each other. And then from there, we realized making it exclusively for Harvard students was kind of problematic given that the goals of our organization were about inclusivity and creating spaces regardless of experience. So that’s why when we actually start putting together the first issue, we opened up submissions to Latinx writers anywhere in the country and we actually, pretty much every year, publish or every semester that has been published so far, the majority of contributors are non-Harvard affiliates.

Why did you decide to make Palabritas a multilingual publication? 

We very specifically call it a multilingual publication to highlight the diversity of languages that are spoken in Latin America and amongst members of the diaspora.

I think there’s the assumption that Latinos only speak English and Spanish, but there are still currently a lot of Indigenous languages spoken in Latin America… I think that maybe not everyone knows that. I think even Latinos are learning a lot about the diversity of the region they’re from.

So for that reason, we call it multilingual so that any language that someone may speak who identifies as Latinx can be published. Generally, we do have Spanish and English, those are the primary languages. But I think in the spring issue there were some Indigenous languages used in some of those stories.

“We made sure that it was a good diverse group so that there were different racial groups represented, different people of different sexual orientation and of national origins.”

One of your goals was to get as many different perspectives. You wanted to highlight Asian Latinos, Afro-Latinos and more. How did you ensure that you included these voices?

Part of it was we were really intentional with keeping submissions open for long enough so that we had a large enough volume of submissions, so that would be some diversity within them. And then, when it came down to the selection process, that’s actually something we explicitly thought about. So obviously, we were really concerned with quality of the work, but we were also really intentionally thinking about kind of diversity of narratives represented in a really explicit way.

When we were deciding on the final lineup for the first issue, we paused every so often. We thought, “OK, so these are the pieces that you really love. Now, let’s look at the country of origin of these people. Let’s think about the kinds of topics that they discuss, whether those be race, sexuality.” And we made sure that it was a good diverse group so that there were different racial groups represented, different people of different sexual orientation and of national origins.

What would you say was the biggest success you had with Palabritas when you were at the helm? 

I think the kind of overwhelming support from the campus community was much bigger than I had expected. Like I said, I faced a lot of different kinds of isolation at Harvard as the son of immigrants, as someone whose parents didn’t get four-year degrees. When I graduated in May, I was the first in my immediate family to get their bachelor’s. So for that reason, Harvard was a really isolating place. And like I mentioned earlier, the art scene was also isolated in its own strange way for reasons related to my identity and my background. So to publish this publication and really have people celebrate it, both by buying copies, by coming to readings we had, the Harvard Gazette, Harvard’s communication team put together a video and a profile about it, as well. To see this outpouring of support for our project and for our mission was really, really surprising.

But also kind of empowering in a way because I saw that a campus that has so often felt isolating and cold at times was actually really willing to uplift the work that its Latino students were doing. And it shouldn’t have been surprising, but I think it was. But I think it was also, not just for me but I think for everyone involved, it was a good reminder that though the institution has its problems, it really does value its Latinx students and the accomplishments of those students. And I’m glad that Palabritas was one of those things that many members of the Harvard community could celebrate.

You’re no longer the editor-in-chief; how do you feel knowing that Palabritas, something you started, is still going on?

It makes me so happy. I started it during my senior year. So I knew that I’d only be around for one year and would only have any kind of influence directly on the publication in its first and second issue. For that reason, I very intentionally brought some underclassmen, a sophomore [or] junior, to help out with the process. So they really put a lot of work into the first issue. They were helping run meetings with me. They saw how we were scoring the submissions. They were seeing a lot of the logistics and my kind of intention behind what that was so the book publication would continue when I graduated. And that’s something that’s gone on. A lot of that has to do with the incredible work Josie has done.

When I think back on my time at Harvard, I think about whether or not I was able to kind of have an impact on that community, on the Harvard community. And I think that [with] Palabritas I have because now there are Latinx freshman who are entering who may be interested in creative writing and have a place to go on campus.

What’s the most important lesson you learned while launching and running Palabritas?

I think the big takeaway was it taught me that I don’t always have to wait for permission to pursue an artistic vision of mine. What I mean by that was that this was really an idea I had kind of brainstormed with a couple of friends and there were a lot of institutional questions that we had at the beginning having to do with: How do we fund this? How do we actually publish the book? How do we build a team? How do we build a literary organization? Are we going to have any support from anyone on campus? All of these questions were up in the air, but if we had waited around for someone to be like, “Yeah, there’s something you can do,” we probably would have never done it.

I took upon myself to do was to spend a lot of time, knowing the mission, and knowing what I wanted to do, and then taking small steps to make it happen and figuring out the details as I went. It was difficult to do things that way, but I didn’t have to wait for permission to kind of make this passion project happen. And I think that is something that I’m inclined to all of my artistic work now. I’m realizing that just because no one has done it before doesn’t mean I have to wait around waiting for someone to pave the way.