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A natural progression

Junior Rosemarie Ayala-Soto a leader on campus and in the community

By Loretta Waldman

In her three years at CCSU, Rosemarie Ayala-Soto ’19 has been busy — very busy.    

The East Hartford resident and Latin American Studies major has a long list of accomplishments and leadership roles to her credit. They include Legislative Intern with the state Commission for Equity and Opportunity, Leadership Intern at The Center for Africana Studies, and past president of the African Studies Club.

Last year, she won a $500 Faculty Student Research Grant and her research was selected to be presented at the National Undergraduate Research Conference in Memphis, Tennessee. In April, she was one of four students from Central scheduled set to present research at a national meeting in Philadelphia. Ayala-Soto also is editor-in-chief of a national college blog, an activist for Puerto Rican rights, and in November she traveled to the island to help victims of Hurricane Maria.

Equally impressive is how Ayala-Soto used her experience growing up, first in Puerto Rico and later in Hartford, as a springboard for her research on Latina identity.

It all started with her hair, she says.

From the time she was a child, Ayala-Soto remembers being told she had “bad hair” or “pelo malo” in Spanish. She struggled to get a comb through her tight curls and resorted to treatments with relaxers to get the straight, flowing look everyone in middle and high school seemed to want.  

Then she came to CCSU.

“One of the first things I saw was a Latina with really big, curly hair,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is she doing?’

The encounter was an awakening for Ayala-Soto and got her thinking about her own hair and notions about beauty. She was working at the time on an African-American Oral History Project with Dr. Evelyn Phillips, a professor of Anthropology who had encouraged her and other students to be looking for research topics to pursue.

“Hair was something I was interested in and it’s a big thing in the Puerto Rican community,” she says. “I thought ‘let me look at my own experiences with hair.’”

To recruit participants in the study, Ayala-Soto put up posters around campus. Almost immediately, emails from interested young women started pouring in.

“People were like, ‘I want to talk about this,’” she says. “It was crazy to see so many women who had already made the transition to go from straight hair to curly hair.”

Not Ayala-Soto. Not yet anyway.

She had thought about ending the treatments many times, going back to her high school schools. The study emboldened her to finally take the leap, she says. A lot of the young women she was interviewing had undergone what she calls the “Big Chop,” cutting off all or most of their straightened hair and letting their natural curls grow back. “I started thinking, ‘I’m not being true to myself and I’m not being true to what I want to get across with my research; that you don’t have to fall into these ideals and Eurocentric perspectives. I wanted it to be, ‘Embrace your own natural.”

Since then Ayala-Soto has embraced her “natural” with a vengeance, emerging in her time at Central as a leader both on campus and in her community. Outgoing and infectiously upbeat, she loves to explore, travel and “nerd out” on history. Her academic interests lie at the intersection of human rights and politics, she says. Her compassion and commitment to helping others is as much a part of who she is as her crown of curly, copper-colored hair.

In 2014, Ayala-Soto went to Guatemala as part of a church mission trip, where she and other volunteers spent two weeks distributing food and clothing to local families. During her recent trip to Puerto Rico, she helped her grandparents and other family members deal with the devastation of the storm, traversing the ravaged terrain to help them find water, food, and other necessities. On her last day there, she signed up to help a team of international health care professionals providing medical services out of a church in her hometown, Guayama. While there, she made a short documentary of her experiences to show her professors and classmates back at CCSU. 

In her work with the legislative commissions, Ayala-Soto supports minority lawmakers as they advocate on issues of importance to their communities.  The role has given her an opportunity to advocate for her community, as well. In February, for example, she rallied in support of Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria when FEMA cut off funding for their temporary housing at a Hartford hotel. Ayala-Soto is also passionate about immigration issues, she says, even though, as a Puerto Rican, she is considered an American citizen.

“I want to be a voice for that issue,” she explains. “I understand what it is to learn a new language, be in a new environment, move from one country to another, and work hard to make dreams become a reality.”

Ayala-Soto has been deeply moved by the plight of her friends living under DACA.

“I know they are really scared. They are trying to graduate as well and they are not sure whether they will be able to stay or not. No one should have that type of insecurity, especially related to their education or their way of life … It’s really rough to see people in that situation. No one should have to go through that.”

She feels fortunate to have so many powerful female mentors at CCSU. Besides Philips, she has worked with Professor of Political Science Walton Brown-Foster; professor and chair of the Anthropology Department Abigail Adams; and Sylvia Jalil-Gutierrez, an adjunct professor of Anthropology.

Then there are her parents, whose support has been a key to her success. Her mother is a role model, she says.

After moving to the mainland as an adult, her mom learned English, worked full time, and went back to school to earn a master’s degree.

“She is a very strong woman. I look up to her a lot,” says Ayala-Soto. “I saw her pull through many trials, many things, to help me and my little brother — to raise us both and push us forward.” 

Ayala-Soto hopes to eventually publish her research and pursue a doctorate degree. She is currently exploring graduate schools and plans to study sociology.

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