The Gender Equity Center put on its third annual Original Women’s Narrative (OWN) March 10 and 11 in Chumash Auditorium. The student-run show empowered women to share stories encompassing intersectional womanhood. Ultimately, OWN strived to build a supportive and inclusive community while educating the public on the obstacles and inequalities society imposes on anyone who identifies as a woman.
The monologues performed in OWN are either original pieces written by the cast members or anonymous submissions that are then performed by women who feel comfortable identifying with the piece.
This group of performers felt it was important to share these narratives on Cal Poly’s campus. Mustang News spoke with three of these women to understand their perspective.
Zahnae Aquino is a computer science sophomore from Seattle who was cast in OWN for the second year in a row. As a woman of color in STEM, Aquino felt compelled to join the team to give a voice to other women like her on Cal Poly’s campus.
“OWN is so important because on this campus, if you look at the people, you look at the demographics, you look at the representation — you see that there are a lot of people that are excluded,” Aquino said.
Aquino was introduced to OWN last year when another member of the Pilipino Cultural Exchange asked her if performing in the event would be something she would be interested in.
“I did debate in high school which dealt with a lot of social discourse and I also worked for Planned Parenthood and got really involved with that,” Aquino said. “Those two things always resonated with me, and I wanted to be able to participate in anything that dealt with women’s narratives in any way that I could.”
A year after her initial contributions to OWN, these messages continued to resonate with her. Aquino’s immense support for womanhood and OWN carried over to this year’s performance.
Aquino performed two monologues for this show. Although both performances were anonymous submissions, these pieces were assigned to her because they were both issues that are important to her.
“On the audition questionnaire, we have to check off what different identities you feel like you identify with,” Aquino said. “We checked off which ones we feel comfortable identifying with and then they give us our monologues based on that.”
Her first performance was a sexual assault piece called “Don’t Touch My Neck.” Although the topic is never easy, Aquino felt comfortable performing it since this was her second year being given a piece on this topic.
“I always get a sexual assault piece because that topic resonates really heavily with me,” Aquino said. “I know that survivors have a really hard time conveying their voice, so when there is a medium to be able to express that story or being able to speak on anyone’s behalf, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”
Her second performance, “Pretzel Legs,” took a funnier, light-hearted turn, highlighting masturbation.
“It’s called ‘Pretzel Legs,’ so I thought it would be about having weak knees, but no, it’s literally about masturbation,” Aquino said. “It’s a really taboo topic, but I try to make it more of a casual thing. I’m a really weird person so I feel like I can execute that well.”
Because these words come from someone else, Aquino said she made sure to rehearse each piece thoroughly so she could convey the message as authentically as possible.
As for her personal narrative, Aquino says being a woman in a male-dominated field has impacted her experience with womanhood.
“Womanhood means a lot to me because being a woman of color and being a woman in STEM were always identities that I feel like were almost used against me throughout my life,” Aquino said.
She reflects on her life growing up and remembers how difficult it was to have a voice.
“I was quiet, I didn’t really know how to express myself and I felt like I was just wrong all the time,” Aquino said. “There’s this thing called imposter syndrome where you feel like even though you have the skills, you never feel like you’ll be able to make the cut. That plagues a lot of women in my field because we are so outnumbered.”
Although there are prejudices and limitations society continues to impose on women like Aquino, she said coming to Cal Poly made her realize her voice and her abilities were valuable.
“Coming to college and being a part of OWN has allowed me to own those identities and use them to my benefit and be proud of that,” Aquino said.
Aquino uses the keyword “own” to describe how she goes about her day-to-day life as a woman in the midst of a male-dominated field. Instead of masking her identity, she has learned to embrace her personal style as well as her intellectual abilities.
She smiles as she explains what it is like when her acrylic nails hit the keyboard as she sits and codes in a room full of her male peers.
“Instead of being afraid of that, I’m proud of it and I want to own it,” Aquino said.
Because she has learned to embrace her womanhood, she hopes OWN influences other women to do the same. Ultimately, she hopes those who saw the performance left with new perspectives on the experiences women face.
“Whatever you’re going through, whatever it may be, even if you feel like you’re alone, you’re not,” Aquino said. “There are people that care for you and support you and whatever your story is, it’s valid.”
Erika Cospin is a business administration sophomore with minors in comparative ethnic studies and theatre who said joining OWN during her second year at Cal Poly was a decision that came naturally to her.
“After watching last year’s show, I promised myself that I would do it no matter what,” Cospin said. “Watching all of those girls doing it and seeing the stories that were displayed, I knew that I could contribute something to the show since I have experience performing on stage.”
Because this year’s show was Cospin’s first experience, she emphasized the support she felt by all of the women in the production. She explained that OWN is unlike any show she has ever been a part of because it gives the actresses a chance to create their own piece or make a given piece their own.
Cospin described the audition process as she recalls how she added her own twist to the piece she was given.
“I had chosen a funnier piece, but in my head I had interpreted it to be a little bit more serious,” Cospin said. “I was able to test out how I do ‘serious’ and whether or not it would come off as authentic.”
Sticking to the more serious side of acting was carried over to the monologue she was given for this year’s OWN.
Cospin’s monologue, “You Think I Want You,” took a stance against white supremacy and the patriarchy as it embraced women empowerment.
Although this piece was submitted anonymously, Cospin said, “Of course I identify with the piece, so I’m going to put myself in the position and I’m going to say it with my heart in it.”
As a woman of color, Cospin’s personal experience with womanhood has been influenced by diversity and lack thereof.
“I feel like I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to figure out how womanhood was a part of my identity,” Cospin said. “I guess I had to try to understand that there was a box that women get put in and then how I fit in it and then later understanding that I don’t fit in that box.”
Because she grew up in the San Francisco area where she was surrounded by racial diversity, she said that shock was the initial feeling she felt when she came to Cal Poly last year.
“It was shocking coming here during [Week of Welcome] and being like, ‘Oh, I’m the different one,’” Cospin said. “It was almost a feeling of sadness coming here and asking myself, ‘Do I belong here? Do I have any worth here?’”
Eventually, Cospin said she learned to embrace who she is rather than trying to conform to societal standards.
This realization enhances OWN’s significance in Cospin’s mind as it opens up discussion and tells narratives that are oftentimes repressed by society.
“Putting women of color on stage and showing the diversity and representation was my reason for doing it because I wanted to make sure that there would be women of color on that stage,” Cospin said. “OWN allows the public to access certain feelings and opinions of women whose opinions do matter.”
When asked why OWN is necessary, Cospin expressed hope for more open-mindedness and inspiration.
“I hope more people come back inspired, people who look like me will want to join OWN, and that more women of color will want to share their stories on the stage,” Cospin said. “I also hope that anyone in the audience who just feels like they’re not strong enough to share their stories or anyone who feels like their stories aren’t valid will understand that OWN can be that for them.”
Mersadyz Morales is a chemistry sophomore from Fresno, California. After watching last year’s production, she realized she was not alone in the adversities she had gone through and decided she had to share her story.
“A lot of the times on a college campus that is so big, it’s hard to find that, because you feel lonely a lot of the times and ask yourself if you’re the only one that feels this way,” Morales said. “Once you realize that other girls are going through it too, it makes you feel a lot better because you realize that you’re not the only one.”
Morales submitted her personal story, “One in Four,” for the show. Her narrative is far too common for women everywhere.
“My piece is a sexual assault piece. I always held myself back from letting those emotions come out and saying anything about it,” Morales said. “I guess I never really knew the definition of sexual assault, but I knew that something did happen to me and it did affect me.”
Morales recalls the night where things took a turn for the worse.
“I was at a party and I had just met him that night,” she said. “I would not wish that on anybody, but it happens and a lot of girls blame themselves, but that’s not the way it is. He did that to you and he took advantage of you, so it’s him to blame, not you.”
Although it was difficult for Morales to get on stage and share her story in front of a large audience, she felt it was necessary to convey a message of support to other girls who have gone through similar experiences.
“I feel like the message is that you’re not alone and it’s not your fault. What you should do is just take from it, learn from it and make yourself a better person because of it,” Morales said. “Don’t let it hold you back, don’t let it diminish you as a person. Build on that and say, ‘I went through this, but I’m stronger because of it.’”
Morales explains that her sexual assault narrative along with her experience as an intellectual woman have shaped her personal meaning of womanhood.
Morales takes pride in being a first-generation college student and recalls being independent and smart from a young age.
“I think that my experience as a woman with those qualities allowed people to be demeaning and degrading,” Morales said. “It was not okay.”
She remembers the preconceived notions people had about her in school when it came to her academic achievements.
“Because I was smart, there would always be a shock on peoples’ faces when I would get the highest score on the test,” Morales said. “They would be like, ‘What? But you’re a girl, I thought you were cheating off of people.’ Why would I be cheating? I literally set the curve.”
Morales also remembers how people took more interest in what she looked like, rather than what she had to offer intellectually.
“Growing up, people would always be like, ‘You’re pretty, you’ll be fine in life,’ but what about my brain, what about my wit, what about my passions, what about other factors?” Morales said.
Even after coming to Cal Poly, Morales feels she is still not seen as an equal by her male peers, especially in the STEM field.
“They tend to mansplain a lot,” Morales said. “They try to dumb things down for me, but I understand. I got into this major the same way they did.”
Through OWN, she hopes to convey the message that women are smart to those outside of the community.
“I hope that men that come to the performance have an epiphany and realize that they should be an ally and that they make sure they’re not doing something that can hurt women,” Morales said. “You learn a lot from these pieces and I hope that men realize that maybe they shouldn’t be saying or doing certain things.”
OWN is extremely significant to Morales because it allows a community of women to come together and share stories of different experiences on Cal Poly’s campus.
“OWN is amazing because I feel like a lot of the time, women’s voices are pushed to the side and deemed as insignificant,” Morales said. “OWN is women on your campus telling their story of things that they’ve been through, and I think that it’s important to realize that and take it into consideration before judging someone.”