LAWRENCE — Mayda de Valle has been on Broadway, HBO and performed for the Obamas at the White House. But yesterday, before 500 students at Lawrence High School, the nationally-acclaimed poet and live performance artist said she felt “at home.”
“I love coming to schools where there is a ton of Latino people in the audience. Because I don’t have to explain it. I feel at home now,” said de Valle, 34, a south side Chicago native who now lives in Los Angeles. She said she started writing poetry at 14.
A first-generation American born to Puerto Rican immigrants, de Valle told the students about her journey; how she defied conventional job logic and decided to pursue a career as poet and artist. She recalled breaking the news to her mother, who wanted her to go to law school, “have insurance and a 401K,” she said.
“All the white hair she has, I gave it to her,” de Valle said of her mother, drawing laughter from the students.
But she loved art, writing and poetry and knew that was her calling. After graduating from Williams College, de Valle left for New York City to pursue her dream as an artist.
“Artists are the visionaries. Artists create a picture of where we can be,” she said. She encouraged the students, who hailed from St. John’s Preparatory School, Haverhill High School and Lawrence High, to follow their hearts and dreams. “We are not often encouraged to pursue the things we love because we have to pay the bills,” she said.
However, “if there is something that moves you to the point of being obsessed with it, than do it,” she urged.
She pointed to renowned leaders Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa. None of them were “practical people,” she noted.
“All the visionaries in the world were never practical people. The people who change the world are crazy. Do what you love. We need more poeple in the world who do what they love,” she said. “Happiness is a daily decision, not a hidden treasure.”
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, de Valle said her family were among the first Latinos to settle in a neighborhood of Polish and Lithuanian descendants. “It was a little United Nations,” she explained, noting you could buy falafel, visit a Polish sausage stand or hang out at the crazy laundromat. She attended Catholic elementary school, where she was told not to speak Spanish. Then in high school, teachers told her she needed four years proficiency in a “foreign language.”
As a student at Williams College, in Williamstown, de Valle said she struggled socially and academically. It was also introduction to privelege as she met students whose parents and grandparents had gone to college. She was the first in her family, she said.
To graduate from college, de Valle said she had to complete a senior project. She incorporated her poetry into a performance and realized this was her future. “I felt a sense of responsibility almost in that moment,” de Valle said.
“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been blessed,” she said.
During her career, de Valle has appeared on six episodes of Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on HBO. She was also a contributing writer and original cast member of the Tony Award winning Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. Smithsonian Magazine chose her as one of “America’s Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences” and Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine named her as one of the 20 women for the first ever “O Power List.”
After her event yesterday morning, de Valle worked with advanced ESL students at Lawrence High School and performed at El Taller Cafe on Essex Street. Her visit to the Merrimack Valley yesterday was sponsored by the White Fund lecture series. All White Fund lectures are free and open to the public.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.