In spite of life’s struggles and the adversity she’s overcome, the lyrical has remained a constant and crucial part of LaToya Fernandez’s life. Fernandez’s love of writing dates back to when she was a young girl: at just eight years old she wrote her first book of poetry. She decided early on she wanted her life to revolve around writing and rapping. However, her plans to pursue those dreams took a backseat when she began college and wound up homeless. Fernandez spent her years in school couch surfing and on the cold streets of the East Coast. With no permanent roof over her head, she learned to be strategic in her relationships with people. She got a membership at the YMCA to shower at the facilities the gym provided and spoke to university officials to get free meal passes.
Her time as a homeless student overlapped with her time as a Marine and with an internship with Disney, a time Fernandez describes as “adversity city.” Fernandez was interning at Disney when her identity crisis as a young black woman was reinforced. Fernandez was told she couldn’t be photographed for her ID unless she straightened her hair or wore a wig. Fernandez’s small afro was budding dreadlocks, a look she took pride in and refused to change. Consequently, her time at Disney was cut short, and she went back to Boston where she was studying.
Fernandez also continued on with the Marine Corps, and it was there that she was sexually assaulted by a gunnery sergeant. When she reported the assault, she was questioned and ridiculed. “I was told, ‘You are nothing. You are a young little girl in a man’s world.’ ”
After being sexually assaulted, discriminated against for her hair, and struggling to overcome homelessness, Fernandez decided she needed a clean slate. She found her fresh start in 2009 when she moved to the Bay Area, bringing along the resilience she had gained from past experiences. “I remember when I left, I got out thinking that I’m never going to let anyone silence me again or make me feel like I deserve to be violated or that if I speak up, my voice doesn’t matter,” Fernandez said.
Her love for writing was renewed, and Fernandez found comfort and empowerment in her words—words drawn from the pain she experienced and rose above. That renewal of her love for writing and rap led Fernandez to the dream she once had as a young child. At 21 years old, Fernandez made her way into the music industry with the hip-hop group Ten Worlds. The group was inspired by the Buddhist concept of overcoming or being present in the 10 different states of mind: Hell, hunger, animality, anger, humanity, etc. The group was dedicated to spreading messages of peace and love through hip-hop. “As hip-hop artists, we were making sure we were saying really conscious things and speaking about justice and peace and trying to permeate that into the universe,” Fernandez said.
“A student’s voice is the most important voice in the room. As a young person you can never allow your voice to be silent. Stand up, raise your fist, and protest if you need to.”
Fernandez’s new start in California and with Ten Worlds became a literal rebirth when she and a group member had a daughter together in 2009. Her daughter, now 10 years old, is aptly named “Lyric.” In college, Fernandez wrote a short story titled “Lyric,” the first time she received feedback for her creative writing and received admiration from a professor who encouraged her to share her writing with the world. The story illustrated her love for friends and family as though they were songs in the album of her life. She vowed to name her first child after her story, so that she or he might carry on the legacy of sharing the message of love.
After traveling and performing with Ten Worlds, it dawned on Fernandez that her gift as a lyricist was limited by the music industry. What she really wanted to do with her musical abilities was to empower the next generation. Fernandez began working as a tutor at the YMCA after school and during recess, and when she wasn’t in the classroom, she was working as a crossing guard, working her way up as a tutor until she eventually became a teacher. Fernandez has taught at Rocketship Discovery Prep and Downtown College Prep El Camino where she exposed her students to the history that is often left out of typical school lessons and taught about the harmful effects of systematic racism.
She took her pain, hardships, and lessons learned and turned them into what she calls her gems. Fernandez’s gems are the rap or spoken-word lyrics she shared with her students, spreading empowering messages of self-love. She shared her experiences as a woman of color and connected with them in ways they were familiar with. She took her student’s background into account as she developed her restorative justice approach to teaching. The majority of her students were Latino, specifically Mexican. To connect with them, Fernandez taught what she says is their true history, using Aztec drumming, for example, to bring out their excitement and curiosity.
Her teaching reached a new level when she began Queen Hype, a school club that provided the environment young girls need to develop self-love and empowerment. There, Fernandez emphasized the significance of women in leadership positions, building pride around what others might perceive as a hindrance. An effective exercise Fernandez used to teach this consisted in having participants list the reasons they think they are not powerful. The format starts out as “I’m powerful but…” and is changed to “I’m powerful because…” Fernandez taught students that rather than looking at their hair, skin color, and their cultural background as something that hinders them, they must embrace these features and use them as assets. Queen Hype became Youth Hype, to include both boys and girls. Youth Hype has spread across the country, reaching places like Chicago, and offering students the opportunity to participate in workshops and lead protests.
Fernandez is no longer a teacher but serves as the dean at Downtown College Prep El Camino Middle School and remains active with Youth Hype. As for the future, she has big plans. In the years to come, Fernandez plans to run as the council member for District 3. “I think it’s time to change who’s at the table,” Fernandez said. Her roots in rap remain intact. “It’d be cool to have an education-activist rapper that’s in charge of policy,” she laughed.
On a plane ride back from Connecticut last year, Fernandez wondered to herself, “If I could impart any wisdom on the youth, what are some gems that I could drop on them?” In the span of a seven-hour plane ride, Fernandez wrote out her gems, carving them out with care and realized she had written a book with her rap lyrics serving as the foundation. Fernandez’s gems are woven within her book titled Truth, in which she provides both students and teachers with an interactive way to understand complicated concepts like relationships and systemic racism.
After struggling as a college student to find the power in her voice, Fernandez has grown to understand the journey required to find it and never lose it to silence—a prominent theme in her lyrics and teaching lessons. “A student’s voice is the most important voice in the room,” Fernandez said. “As a young person you can never allow your voice to be silent. Stand up, raise your fist, and protest if you need to.”