Agape Latte: Natalia Imperatori-Lee Speaks About Uncomfortable Life Fits

by ALEXA SCHMIDT & MARIA THOMASFeatures Editor & Asst. News Editor

On Wednesday, Feb. 27, students at Manhattan College learned why professor Imperatori-Lee, Ph.D., has trouble fitting into certain “pairs of pants.” Imperatori-Lee is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at MC, and is a board member of the Catholic Theological Society of America, a member of the American Academy of Religion, and of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States.

This was Agape Latte’s first event of the semester as a part of the Peace Week events. Imperatori-Lee spoke to a packed room of students, faculty and clergy members about navigating life’s most constricting or uncomfortable situations in her talk entitled, “My Pants Are Too Tight (and Other Uncomfortable Fits).”

For the first half hour of the event, Senior Alex Constantine strummed guitar and sang several relaxing songs, some being original pieces, as audience members chatted, ate Lloyd’s Carrot Cake and swayed to the music.

At 8:00 p.m., Freshman Class President Sydney Collins rattled off trivia questions about Imperatori-Lee, and students who answered questions correctly were gifted t-shirts.

Imperatori-Lee began the talk by explaining the amusing and somewhat ambiguous title. “So what the talk is really about is a series of uncomfortable fits, right? I feel like all of us have at one point or another… fit uncomfortably or felt uncomfortable in situations. And there’s a lot of different ways in which you can feel uncomfortable in a situation. So I’m going to talk about three kinds of discomfort and what those discomforts have taught me.”

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The first Agape Latte of the semester took place in Jasper Lounge Feb. 27. ALEXA SCHMIDT/ COURTESY

The first type of discomfort Imperatori-Lee referenced was outgrowing a pair of pants. A person can either physically outgrow the pants, making them too tight or loose, or a person can outgrow the style of the pants.

“So in my life, outgrowing who I was and sort of embracing whatever was coming next, even if that was scary, happened when I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago.”

Imperatori-Lee recounted how she was used to being the smartest kid in the classroom, and when she got to University of Chicago, that changed drastically. “I felt every day that I went to class that I had read the wrong thing. I had not read the wrong thing. I just had completely misunderstood it. That’s how lost I was.”

She continued.

“I don’t regret it. It also really opened my mind, like it was super uncomfortable and I was very unhappy, but it really opened my mind to how big religious studies is and how not that smart I was. And that’s a really, you know, all academics walk around with an I’m not smart enough. And that’s a really important thing. You know,you have to sort of live into your authority,” she said.

Furthermore, Imperatori-Lee outgrew a long-term relationship with a man who had already bought her an engagement ring. “With time at the UC, I was exposed to different kinds of people, different kinds of learning and different kinds of things. And I started to feel a little bit constrained — not by being in a relationship, but it was more like, I remember one time he told me how to brush my teeth. I’ve thought back on that a lot and I thought, like, was it just that that’s something they covered in med school that day?”

She continued.

“And so I decided to go a little pantsless for awhile … But to just sort of embrace whatever I didn’t know. Right? I didn’t know what was coming next. I didn’t know. Like maybe I would never meet anybody. Maybe that was what was going to happen. I knew that outfit was the wrong outfit. And if I stayed in that outfit, I didn’t know what was gonna happen, but I know it was going to be really bad for me,” Imperatori-Lee said.

Imperatori-Lee moved on to her second kind of uncomfortable fit: the dig or the chafe. She explained that this is a sign that something is wrong and you have the choice on what to about it.

“You can dump the pants, right? Obviously many people would, or if they’re really nice pants, if you’ve invested a lot in the pants, or maybe you’re emotionally invested in them. You can try to have them altered, right? So that you can continue to have the pants, but they at least won’t hurt you anymore. This is sort of the relationship that I have with the church,” she said.

Imperatori-Lee explained that the church can be harmful to women, to people of color, to gender nonconforming people, to gay, lesbian people and other marginalized communities. Sometimes it is harmful with malice, and sometimes without.

This allowed her to realize her identity and how that can affect other parts of her life. Growing up in Miami in a Cuban family, Imperatori-Lee was “part of the majority.” She never understood herself to be part of a minority.

“Everyone that I knew, spoke Spanish and looked like me. So this idea that I was somehow marginalized did not occur to me until college and really well into college and graduate school,” she said.

She recalled one instance when she attended a talk at the Catholic Theological Society of America. She was a grad student, and was introduced to someone as a “young Latino scholar.” She recounts how the man “glossed over completely, and walked away.”

“How can one word just totally like turn off your interest completely? But it was like I became invisible and it happened to me and it happened to Michael, my husband has also who’s Puerto Rican. It was like we became immediately irrelevant. Right. And there’s nothing that we could have had to say or ideas or anything. No common ground, nothing, no investment there at all,” Imperatori-Lee said.

That experience changed her perspective on life, and led her to the conviction that things don’t change from the outside. Imperatori-Lee explained that she has an investment in the church, and acknowledges the “super flawed, huge mess disaster that is the Roman Catholic church”.

Although she realizes all the flaws, she compares it to her favorite pantsuit.

“It’s the one that I wore the most. It makes up my mental furniture. It’s how I understand the world. I could try and understand the world a different way, but it wouldn’t feel right. Like just like you could leave your family. Right. But at the same time, they’re part of you and you’re a part of them and you cannot extricate yourself from that web of relationships without losing an integral part of who you are,” she said.

Imperatori-Lee moved on to the last uncomfortable fit, which is the breaking-in fit. She explained it as the pair of pants that may be too tight, causing you to walk weirdly, but you still want to keep the pants. But it’s that little voice questioning everything you do.

“I am trying actively and in fact for length, this is one of my practices to shut up the voice inside me that is beating myself up all of the time. Talk to yourself like you would to a friend, your best girlfriend. Can I stop inhibiting myself from filling out whatever the role is that I’m called to be in, in the moment, knowing that I’m not going to say everything perfectly,” she questioned.

“And I have learned that, ‘hey, nobody’s paying that much attention.’ Nobody cares that much. Nobody’s hanging on my every word … a thousand mistakes opens up space for the next generation of people to not make those mistakes. So just kind of live in the pants … and inhabit the space that you create for yourself without kind of apology for it,” Imperatori-Lee said.

As a woman, she feels like we’re taught and socialized to make sure everyone feels okay. To make sure everyone is happy and making sure everyone is comfortable before we “throw a grenade and make everybody feel super uncomfortable.”

But Imperatori-Lee explained that instead of getting lost in what everyone else is feeling, just live as if those quiet voices don’t exist and aren’t telling you to throw those pants away.

At the end of her lecture, Imperatori-Lee answered student’s questions about he dissertation, the importance of religion classes, systematic oppression and how to deal with hopeless institutions.

Meggie Osorio, a sophomore art history and English major, was one of many students who helped organize the event through the Campus Ministry and Social Action organization. “I help to kind of talk to the speakers in a preliminary meeting to help gage what the talk is going to be about and what students would want to hear,” Osorio said.

A group of students who often come to Agape Latte meet with whoever is chosen to speak, and give them an overview of what people have done in the past, and then show examples from favorite talks that they’ve been to, so they can get an idea of what students like to hear. Then they can pull from their own story and personal experience and work it into what the students would like.

“I really love the title that she chose. I thought it was really catchy and cool. She has an interesting perspective on being a woman and dealing with feminism and religion and her relationships,” Osorio said.

Imperatori-Lee finished Agape Latte with a piece of advice.

“The only way I could get to decipher during which are the good pants and which of the bad pants for me is because I have really good friends. You need a community, right? Whether the community comes from your church or it comes from your dorm … So get a community. Right. And encourage your community. Let your community light you up, but also light them up as much as you can. That has really been something that has saved my life and it has improved my wardrobe.”