Jessica Lopez Lyman: Identity Found

Jessica Lopex Lyman (right) with three of the six young women at the “ritual retreat”. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Once a summer Jessica Lopez Lyman returns home to St. Paul from California to use poetry and art to help young people find spirituality, peace and self. 

In her California life, Lopez Lyman is working on her Ph.D. in Chicana and Chicano Studies at UC Santa Barbara, with a focus on how Chicana/o spoken-word artists in the Midwest navigate identity. But once back in Minnesota she sets aside her scholarly and theoretical research, rolls up her sleeves and gets practical. 

Finding a place

Lopez Lyman has spent the last few summers coordinating Peace Camp for Wisdom Ways, a ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph-it’s an interfaith, spiritual, day camp for 8- to 12-year-olds. This is not your typical day camp. Meditation, yoga and work with artists in residence complement more traditional and playful camp activities, plus the kids explore conflict resolution. 

“It’s amazing that even though they’re 8- to 12-year-olds they have so much stress in their lives,” said Lopez Lyman, convinced that this is why the participants respond so well to reflection activities. “It centers them, and once you harness that type of energy you can teach them how to make change in their own lives.” 

Her mentor and supervisor at Wisdom Ways, Barb Lund, encouraged Lopez Lyman to develop programming for teenage girls. Last summer they launched a “Ritual Retreat” for a group of six local young women. According to Lopez Lyman the participants were not alike on the surface but were unified by their sense of being different. Dealing with issues like having queer parents, being part of a trans-racial adoption or being from an unhealthy or abusive family made them able to relate to each other despite geographic, racial and class differences. In the retreat they worked with art and reflective activities to help the teens map out their goals and dreams, both for themselves and for our greater society. 

“We were asking the girls to answer the question, ‘what’s our place in the world?'” 

Identity driven

This question inevitably wanders into Lopez Lyman’s conversations about her own life, whether it be her teenage years, her college experience at St. Catherine University, her youth work with Wisdom Ways or her graduate studies. 

Lopez Lyman credits her conflicted adolescence with helping her to relate to the girls in the Ritual Retreat. “Being mixed, I had a really hard time struggling with my identity so I wanted to work with teenage women to help them sort through theirs.” 

Her own struggles with “being mixed” reflect a lifelong preoccupation with racial, class and gender identity issues. Lopez Lyman was raised in a middle-class family but was surrounded by more affluent peers in high school. Her father, a native Minnesotan of German/Bohemian descent, was the first of his family to go to college. Her mother-who is of Mexican descent and grew up in a Spanish-speaking household but never learned Spanish-was also among the first of her family to attend college. With degrees in hand, they settled down in the Midway area of St. Paul, where Lopez Lyman felt isolated from the Chicano community on St. Paul’s West Side. This might not have been so difficult for her had she not gone to a primarily white high school whose curriculum at the time included little more than a nod to minority literature and history. 

“My parents had a colorblind ideology,” she said. “But for me that wasn’t the way the world worked.” 

Lopez Lyman speaks with a mixture of sincerity and amusement about her high school years, during which she describes herself as having been “militant” and “anxious.” She became obsessed with her own identity and began devouring literature, poetry, essays and anything she could get her hands on that would help her sort out her place in the world. She began questioning family traditions that were different from those of her peers. “Like, we had tamales at Christmas and I started asking, ‘now, what’s that all about?'” She became angry with her mother for not having learned Spanish and passing it on to her children. She lobbied her teachers to include Chicano and feminist writers in the curriculum at her high school. 

As a first year student at St. Kate’s she still felt a sense of anger and isolation until, she said perhaps a smidge hyperbolically, the Office of Multicultural and International Programs and Services “literally saved” her life. “There were all these women of color wandering around the campus and they made us a home, created a space for us. I don’t know that I would have stayed at St. Kate’s without it.” 

Now she is helping other teenage women come into their own, facilitating a transition to self-assuredness and comfort with their own little corner of the world that, for her, was years in the making. 

For further information on next year’s “Ritual Retreat” and other Wisdom Ways programming, contact: 651-696-2788 or