She loved the words.
“I was kind of obsessed with the idea of who was making the books I read, the people behind the words. That’s what compelled me to read as a young kid,” said Alvarez, a teaching assistant professor in WVU’s Department of English. “I remember when I was 13 or 14, I read a book by Puerto Rican writer Nicholosa Mohr and realized that people who look like me are doing it. Also, seeing other women, especially women of color, who were writers was really exciting to me.”
Now, Alvarez is one of the people behind the words – she writes poetry about her life, family and experiences as a woman of color with Puerto Rican and Jamaican roots. Her work has been published in national and international literary journals and is included in the 2022 anthology of “Best New Poets.”
“I think people tend to write what they know,” she said. “Even if you're writing in the imaginary, you're still writing from a place of what you understand to be true or what you're trying to understand about the world. I write to understand other people, to understand myself, to figure out what it is that I'm thinking or feeling. It's one way I approach the world.”
When Alvarez moved to West Virginia, she wanted to connect with other Black poets and learn from their work. She was familiar with some Black Appalachian writers – Nikki Giovanni, Nikkey Finney, Kelly Norman Ellis and a few others – but she wanted to know more.
In 2017, she began writing and presenting research on Affrilachian poets.
“I needed their stories to make sense of my own as a woman of color living and working in West Virginia,” she said. "As I learned more about these poets, I also wanted to celebrate and share their work, ensuring it was being taught to young people who needed to know their stories as well.”
The term “Affrilachia” was coined in 1991 by Kentucky poet and activist Frank X Walker to challenge the stereotypical assumption of Appalachia’s primarily white, poor, rural identity. It more accurately portrays Appalachia as a culturally diverse region inhabited by many types of people.
Originally referring to a group of Black Appalachian poets, the term “Affrilachian” highlighted the cultural contributions and history of people of color throughout Appalachia. The word recognizes the lived experiences of non-white Appalachians and pushed back against their historic invisibility in the region’s narrative.
As a teaching assistant professor, Alvarez encourages students to explore their own identity through writing and reading. In her Black Appalachian poetry and poetics course, students read work by Affrilachian writers to broaden their understanding of Appalachian history, food and culture.
Her students write their own narratives about the region and the time they’ve spent in it. These writing assignments, according to Alvarez, encourage students to think about how and why their stories matter and how they help shape the narrative of their hometowns and states. They engage students from Appalachia in discussions about their past and help them envision how they can be a part of the region’s future. They also help students from outside Appalachia understand and appreciate their experience coming to the region from elsewhere.
“I show my students all the things that make Affrilachian poetry what it is, which are unique to this place. It gives them permission to write the story of their identity and the place they came from, as well, even though they may not think it's very important, even though they might think, ‘I'm from a really small town that nobody cares about,’” she said. “I want to help my students understand that their personal story matters and is compelling. Sure, they could write about their vacation in Rome, but I am way more interested in that pie their grandmother made.”
Students share their stories through research, as well. One student wrote a paper exploring the history of mining and labor rights in Appalachia that was inspired by her grandfather who suffered from black lung after working in the coal mines. She found documents that referenced legal action her grandfather took against the mines, and she used them to connect her personal history with the history of the region.
In sharing experiences and backgrounds, and reading stories from Affrilachian poets and authors, Alvarez aims to help students broaden their horizons and increase their understanding of the world around them.
“Learning through the experiences of other people creates openness and it creates compassion, and it creates change. I think ultimately, when people are willing to listen to and try to understand and empathize with other people’s stories, it starts to build a better world.”