Who is Tanya Melendez?
My name is Tanya Melendez Escalante and I am Senior Curator of Education and Public Programs at the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). My job consists of interpreting our exhibitions and collections for the general public to make them more understandable for people who might not necessarily be acquainted with fashion. I am originally from Mexico and I moved to the United States approximately 10 years ago. I am very happy living here but I also retain my connections with Mexico.
Tell us more about your background.
How would I describe myself? I was born in Mexico City – a few years ago – and I moved to the United States almost 10 years ago when I married my husband, Joe. I love both Mexico and the United States. I have been very happy here and I was very happy in Mexico. Over the years I've learned that my feelings about countries are very similar to my feelings about families. You know you have that uncle that sometimes drives you crazy but you love them – I think countries are like that. You see how important they are to you, but you also see that sometimes they have things that you would like to be different or better. I have two children. They live here in New York with my husband and I, and they both are also Mexican and American. And I see that as something really important for me bringing them up.
Tell us about your career journey.
I have always worked in art and education. Growing up in Mexico, many people in my family where educators. My parents were teachers, my sister is a teacher, aunts and uncles were teachers. My grandmother would tell her eight daughters to pursue a career in education because she thought this was the most respectable job for women. In general, in Mexico, teachers are very respected and they're considered very important people.
On the other hand, as a child, I was very interested in fashion very early on. I realized that dress is a central part in culture. And I loved museums. I thought they were beautiful, I thought they were places where you could encounter other people, and where you could learn. So now I bring all of these things together. I am an educator in a museum that specializes in fashion. And my bringing in Mexico is central to the job that I do here, where I have to open doors and understanding to a discipline that's very misunderstood - that is fashion.
What are your Top Accomplishments?
My most important accomplishment is having a career and being a mother…and being involved in every aspect of my children’s lives. I am far away from my family – I don't have a support system here. So it becomes twice as difficult to organize things, to be able to have a personal life on top of a career, and on top of being a parent. It is very important having boundaries, so I will not fail at the work or fail my family. I need to be in certain places at certain times whether it’s a meeting at work or a PTA meeting. And that requires a lot of organizing. Over the years, when I've lived in different countries, I've learned that you have to be very flexible… that you have to understand other people's needs, and that has helped me be a better mother. I understand and listen to my children; I see that sometimes they need a little bit more space, but that also applies to me. I am not always going to be the best employee. I am not always going to be the perfect mother. But I think that striving to have a balance between the two is really an accomplishment, and I do not feel frustrated by it.
How has your background influenced your career?
How has my background influenced my career? Well, growing up in Mexico, my parents always told me that I had to find a job that I really enjoyed because I was going to be spending long hours working there. To contextualize this, different studies have found that Mexicans work the longest hours a year in the whole world. So I grew up seeing people working a lot, and working really hard. Also, they all felt very privileged to have a job because jobs were scarce. Those formative years in Mexico shaped my views on work. So today, I have a job that I enjoy, I work really hard and I feel privileged to have it. And that has allowed me to thrive in my career and my employers really appreciate my attitude towards work.
When I first came to the United States, there was this period when I did not yet have a green card and I could not apply for jobs. And I started volunteering in an organization that focused on Mexican culture. That was a really good career choice, because I started working with the people who would later become my colleagues; when I was applying for jobs, even though people wouldn’t know where I was coming from – like the schools that I attended, or the places I had worked when I was in Mexico – I already had worked events here and I met colleagues who could be references in the United States. And I have continued working with some of the colleagues that I met volunteering many years ago in New York. So networking has been really crucial in the developments in my career.
What challenges have you faced because of your background?
I am an immigrant. And I think there are certain sets of issues that are very specific to immigrants. When a person moves to a new country, it is very isolating. You don't have the people you grew up with, you do not have your family, and you do not have the places and traditions that you're used to. I think that has been a central issue for me, and the way that I learned to overcome it was by connecting with other people…was by creating new traditions. I have made friends. I have built networks at work. And my isolation is no longer there.
However, there has continued to be challenges from being an immigrant. There is an ongoing rhetoric of immigration and a demonizing of immigrants that is very personal. My children come to me with questions about things that they hear on the television, and it's very difficult and sometimes painful to explain that not everybody feels the same way, about having different people with different backgrounds around them, and to keep instilling in them the value of difference, and how we can all contribute to make society richer with what we bring from other places.
Who has influenced you?
Talking about the people who have influenced me – I have been very fortunate to have many mentors. I've had mentors in the United States, I’ve had mentors in Mexico, who have taught me how to be a better a professional, who have supported me by sending letters of recommendation from one country to the other. In my career, I have been able to do bilateral projects where I was the point of contact between Mexican cultural organizations and museums in the United States. Today, in my work at the museum at FIT, I am able to lecture in different countries about the work that I do here, but I also found that my background in Mexico and in Mexican fashion is something that people want to learn about. And so I have been able to write about Mexican fashion and I've been able to lecture both in the United States and in my home country of Mexico. Some of these projects that I've done both involving Mexico and the United States have themselves become the subject matter of lectures that I've done around the world.
What advice would you give your younger self?
What should I say to my younger self? I would say that liabilities are sometimes advantages. I am bilingual, but early on when I was a graduate student, I had a really hard time writing papers. Because my sentences were strange, I did not have a lot of vocabulary and that was very frustrating back then. But as I've grown older, and I have advanced in my career, having the ability to understand two cultures is precious and that is what language learning is. In the end, it is to learn to communicate and to understand what people from a different background have to offer. So, my younger self would be more proud of having slightly inaccurate sentences but being able to understand other people better.
What does community mean to you?
Community to me is people working together. It is inspiring each other. I think communities are built up from different people and different experiences; diversity enriches all of us. We have much to learn from people who come from different places, who speak different languages. They make life more interesting. I think a place like Inspiring Diversity really underlines the richness in this experience and personally, I don't think there are communities that aren’t diverse. We all come from different places, or our parents did, whether it is different places in the world or different locations within one single country. And we all bring all this difference to make everybody's life better.