Editor's Note: The Thomas J. Watson Foundation is working with this year's fellows to delay or adjust travel as needed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Growing up with a sister with severe congenital malformations, Gretel Cuevas Verdin '20 spent much of her childhood in hospital waiting rooms in her home country of Mexico.
She recalls doing elementary school homework in a nurses station, getting ready for a dance recital in an intensive care unit's restroom, and writing her early stories while sitting in sterilized chairs.
"Many things happened in the hospital waiting room, however the most meaningful experience was that I came to know the stories of many other people who, just like me, waited for the recovery of their loved ones," says Gretel. "We were all different from each other, but we were all experiencing illness which, similar to death, does not distinguish between socioeconomic class, race, age, or nationality."
As a 2020 Watson Fellow, Gretel plans to travel to Colombia, Ireland, India, South Africa, and Fiji to explore the influence of social and personal narratives on the process of healing collective traumas and creating understanding between opposing groups that share the common characteristic of having violent conflict which emerged along ethnic or religious lines.
"When literature is used as an open space for sharing all the parts of a story, it has the ability to empower individuals and societies," says Gretel. "Literature has the potential to empower the silenced, to visibilize the stories of the oppressed, and create common grounds for communication that allows people to understand each other despite their differences."
Gretel is a political science major concentrating in public policy and comparative politics, and minoring in Latin American, Iberian, and Latina/o Studies. After the Watson Project, she will do a master's in conflict studies at the London School of Economics. After finishing her studies she plan's to pursue a career in Mexican politics and as a writer.
In 2016, Gretel published her first novel, El Siglo de las Esperanzas Perdidas (The Century of Lost Hopes). The book explores the evolution of the role of women in 20th-century Mexico and their historical involvement in the country's political processes. She has a forthcoming poetry collection, The Systems of Silence, in which she explores economic inequality, international power dynamics, migration and femicides, among other global struggles that tend to be silenced by the media in Latin America and beyond.
"All my writing (poetry, long forms of fiction, theater, and nonfiction) are characterized by exploring contemporary social-political conflicts. I firmly believe that my experience as a poet and novelist has contributed to my understanding of social and political conflict. I believe that literature is a latent ideological force with the power to carry powerful messages to raise consciousness, promote dialogue, and even instigate resistance which is a vital part of political life."
The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the U.S., awarded to graduating seniors nominated by one of 41 partner institutions.