For a young writer from a remote region, the lure of a big city—with its economic opportunities and active cultural and social scenes—can be very tempting. But for Marisa Mata, who received her MFA in Creative Writing from CalArts in May and who was born and raised in Fresno, the Central Valley is where she wants to be.
Mata moved back to Fresno when the CalArts campus closed in March 2020 because of COVID, but says she “was planning to come back regardless. I had decided when I enrolled at CalArts that whatever I learned, I wanted to reinvest it in the community here.”
Now Mata is publishing Wild Blue Zine, a small-circulation journal featuring Fresno writers and artists, especially those who are BIPOC, women, non-binary, disabled, and/or part of the LGBTQIA+ community. She is also working on an anthology of work by women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ writers from the area. “The writing community in Fresno had already given me so much before I entered CalArts,” Mata says. “I wanted to find a way to help other young writers, especially, and people like myself—who didn’t always have a lot of money or resources, who grew up thinking writing was a luxury rather than a necessity.”
Earlier this year, Mata was named the inaugural recipient of The Irene Borger Endowed Scholarship in Creative Writing at CalArts. The scholarship is awarded to students who demonstrate both enormous creative potential and financial need. The Borger Scholarship is named after the director of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts and was established by the Herb Alpert Foundation, which has generously supported CalArts for years. It is fitting that the scholarship was awarded to a writer who is interested in serving a community of artists, since Borger, an established writer, founded the Writing Workshop at AIDS Project Los Angeles, and through the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, has supported the work of dozens of daring mid-career artists over the past 27 years.
“It is an honor to have Irene Borger’s name associated with my work,” Mata says. “Having people in the arts community, like the Herb Albert Foundation, believe in me and my work and vision has made me fully realize the importance of my work and the value of the things I want to continue to do. And that’s given me a confidence I didn’t have when I first began my MFA program. Irene is an inspiration. I hope to bring an energy and dynamism like Irene Borger’s into my own life as an artist.”
For its part, the Herb Alpert Foundation saw an opportunity through the scholarship to support emerging writers while also paying tribute to Borger, who has spent much of her career dedicated to advancing the work of artists. “Two years ago, the Herb Alpert Foundation launched the Irene Borger Endowed Scholarship in Creative Writing at CalArts to acknowledge the significant role Irene Borger has played in supporting artists through her long leadership of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts (now 27 years!), and of her decades of mentoring, nurturing, and inspiring writers,” says Rona Sebastian, President of the Herb Alpert Foundation. “It seemed to be a perfect way to both honor Irene and to simultaneously invest in the potential of young writers for whom this recognition and support in Irene’s name could be transformative. We are very gratified to see and feel the positive impact that this scholarship is already having on the inaugural recipient, Marisa Mata.”
“When you’ve been given a gift, how fine—and necessary—it is to pass it on,” says Borger, Director of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. “We’re thrilled that the gifted and generous Marisa Mata is the first recipient of the prize. Here’s to great unfolding!”
Mata has been writing since she was seven years old, encouraged by her abuelita—her great grandmother—who bought her journals when she showed an interest in writing. She became serious about writing in a high school English class, when she read Esmeralda Santiago’s autobiography, When I was Puerto Rican. Until then, she didn’t know that writing about oneself could be a legitimate literary avenue, and she continued writing in that genre while attending Fresno State and then at CalArts, when her memoir in progress became her thesis project.
Much of her manuscript is about her relationship with her mother and all the mother-daughter relationships on the maternal side of her family, which over several generations moved from Mexico to Texas to Fresno. Mata also incorporates her dreams in her writing along with ghosts that appear in those dreams. “I also talk about writers who are no longer living and writing itself as a kind of a ghost as it exists beyond a writer’s lifespan, and ghosts around Fresno and how landscape changes over time.”
At CalArts, Mata explored experimental forms of writing and also enjoyed taking classes in other disciplines, including film and graphic design. The interdisciplinary environment at CalArts may have at least partly informed her thesis, as she plans on incorporating in her memoir photographs that she has taken. “At CalArts, I got to experiment and grow in a lot of different ways, and I’m not sure if that would have happened in other programs,” she says.
In the fall, Mata will be teaching a writing class at Fresno State focusing on literature about older women. She hopes to organize writing workshops in the community, including at her high school, continue to promote Fresno writers, and work on her own writing. “The writing history in Fresno is amazing, but it doesn’t get the full attention it deserves,” she says. “So I want to uplift all of the good work that’s going on here and make space for other artists. I could focus on my own work—and I have other writing projects that I’m doing—but it’s not enough to only be concerned about myself. I want to uplift the community as much as possible.”