American Dreams

Freeing the voice of incarcerated women and troubled youth

Freeing the voice of incarcerated women and troubled youth

By Angela Villanueva
College instructor Emmy Pérez taps into her lifelong passion of helping others to share her love of creative writing with troubled youth and incarcerated women.
Emmy Pérez is a writer. She's also a college instructor, a life motivator and an inspiration to all her pupils -- from inside the classroom to behind the wall at detention centers.

Emmy Pérez graduated with a bachelor's degree in English literature with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Southern California. She then went on to get her master's in fine arts, a terminal degree in creative writing at Columbia University.


After all that schooling, she had to get a real job to start making her education pay. Pérez's first job consisted of tutoring for GED courses and she soon found herself assigned to women prison inmates in New Mexico.

Emmy Pérez

"I didn't know that this was what I was signing up for, but since I was teaching them how to pass the writing exam of the GED I learned a lot about their lives and I ended up really liking it." said Pérez. "So when I moved from there to teach at the University of Texas at El Paso to start teaching college classes I realized I really missed working with incarcerated people."

Having grown a passion for helping incarcerated people with literature, she decided to continue teaching creative writing, but this time around with juvenile offenders sent to boot camps.

She invited her friend Lee Rhyanes, a DJ, to help her out. The partnership and program were a success but a year later she was offered a full-time position to teach at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) in Texas' Rio Grande Valley. Though it was a difficult decision to leave behind a program she had grown, she knew it was in good hands. Rhymes stayed with the organization and later changed the name to Voices behind Walls.

"When I moved down to the Valley to teach at UTPA, I missed that work again as I was teaching college students and I thought, 'Hey, why don't I bring my students with me to help me out with this.'" said Pérez.

So Pérez created a for-credit class in which the goal of it was to take students to juvenile detention centers/boot camps to help young people with creative writing and GED preparation who are caught up in the South Texas judicial system.

As an added bonus to her other students not enrolled in the class, Perez offered extra credit to them if they showed up to help for a night. The night student tutors mostly helped the youth with poetry, because, according to Pérez, it's easier and faster for them to learn.

"I think this is an ongoing goal, I really believe in service work and never want it to end but it depends on the funding and we have none at the moment." said Pérez. "When I was assigned to teach women in jail, I guess I just had the stereotypical fear of prison. But I noticed there's good people there too who want to better themselves, and I like being one of the ones helping them do it. So for now, I'm helping them through my classes."


Angela Villanueva is a journalism student and Latina Lista intern from the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas.

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