This young Latina is in high school and she's a national ambassador for poetry

"I started exploring that tension in my poetry — the fact that I felt like I had to hide some Mexican part of myself," Alexandra Contreras-Montesano said.
Image: Alex Contreras-Montesano developed a passion for poetry after writing a poem about nature in the fourth grade
Alex Contreras-Montesano developed a passion for poetry after writing a poem about nature in the fourth grade.Shannon Finney

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By Gwen Aviles

Toggling between two languages is not easy, but a young Latina in the national spotlight has a message: It can be an enriching vehicle for writing and poetry.

Alexandra Contreras-Montesano, 18, is one of five high school students nationwide selected as a literary ambassador for the National Student Poets Program, which was started by first lady Michelle Obama and the Presidential Arts Committee in 2011.

Each of the five students represents a different geographical region, and their role is to promote literacy and the arts throughout the country during their “year of service.” The selection is “the nation’s highest honor for youth poets,” according to the program’sdescription.

As the ambassador for the Northeast, she has led poetry workshops at schools in her own state of Vermont, as well as in New York, New Jersey and Maine.

Contreras-Montesano's trajectory is an inspiration for children who grow up speaking other languages at home. She was born in Eugene, Oregon, but moved to Mexico, where her father lived, when she was two months old. A few years later, she moved a third time to Vermont, where she's a senior at Burlington High School.

Contreras-Montesano told NBC News it wasn't easy switching back and forth between English and Spanish when she was little. But that changed when she got a simple fourth grade language arts assignment: to write a poem about nature.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, no rules? I can just write however I want to and don’t have to worry about being grammatically correct?” Contreras-Montesano said. “It was a very freeing experience for me.”

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After reading her poem, Contreras-Montesano’s teacher signed her up for the Young Writers Project, a Vermont-based educational organization that fosters a community of young writers and mentors through events and workshops. YWP also publishes an annual anthology called The Voice and hosts a website where writers can share their work with others.

As a literary ambassador for the National Students Poet Program, Contreras-Montesano has led poetry workshops at schools in Vermont, New York, New Jersey and Maine.Shannon Finney

The high school senior credits this initial encouragement from her teacher and her involvement with YWP with inspiring her to continue to write.

Contreras-Montesano's first lesson for students is to break all their self-imposed rules of what poetry is.

“I try to introduce different poetic forms to get the kids excited about writing, so they don’t feel like they’re limited by it or forced to do it by school,” she said. “They’re not scared to share their writing, which I think is amazing at such a young age, to be able to fearlessly share your writing in front of the whole class and get excited about doing so … I think it’s a gift they should never lose.”

She's also determined to highlight diverse, younger poets in her workshops. When she first started writing poetry, she wasn’t sure whether her own experiences as a Mexican-American poet were “legitimate” subject matter. Instead, she tried to emulate the voices of Emily Dickinson and Robert Shaw.

“I always felt torn: am I Mexican or am I American?” she said. “So I started exploring that tension in my poetry — the fact that I felt like I had to hide some Mexican part of myself when I was in the U.S. or that I couldn’t speak Spanish in my school because I didn’t want my friends to know I was Latina.”

Growing up in Vermont — one of the least diverse states in the union — also left the young poet unsure about whose stories merited telling.

Now, Mexican-American identity is a major theme in Contreras-Montesano’s work, in addition to loss, family, education and stirring current events.

She recalled a recent workshop at a high school with a majority Latino population and how rewarding it was to be able to expose them to poetry with Spanish in it because they understood and could relate to the language.

Contreras-Montesano is determined to highlight diverse, younger poets in her workshops, especially because when she first started writing poetry she wasn't sure whether her own experiences as a Mexican-American poet were "legitimate" subject matter.Shannon Finney

Contreras-Montesano is also working on an initiative with the YWP, designing writing prompts for students and leading other workshops that revolve around penning poetry as a form of activism.

After her year of service ends, she plans to continue writing and to pursue a career in educational policy, with a focus on employing education to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

“It’s amazing to have a huge platform like this and to be able to turn something that I absolutely love into something meaningful for someone other than me,” she said.

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