By Suzanne Buzek
Teresa Tolentino loves open windows—especially those that allow her to more clearly see and understand individuals of different races, ethnicities, cultures or economic backgrounds. This desire for better understanding diversity has guided Toletino’s life since adolescence, and it permeates everything she does, from her work as a visiting professor in the Department of Modern Languages to her community service activities and even the artwork she creates.
“After taking classes in painting and ceramic design at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, I took the mosaic tile design and just went with it,” she says. “Over the past two summers I’ve turned my patio into a piece of mosaic tile art, and I made about five mosaic tile furniture pieces. But I’m painting a lot right now. I’d actually rather spend a Friday night painting than going out; it feels good to be creative.”
Raised in an all-white, middle-class community, Tolentino attended an all-Catholic school. “I had no exposure to other races or religions or economic groups,” she says. “I went through my early years and high school not understanding that I was deprived of the experiences that I should’ve had.”
Tolentino’s worldview has expanded since her early years through her life experiences. She pursued her undergraduate degree at Xavier and worked full-time at a local LaRosa’s—an experience she points to as providing her first contact with those different from her.
“Even though I had always been told that everybody was equal, I had experienced the world differently,” recalls Tolentino. “What I experienced was ‘I’m more equal than those who aren’t white,’ and I didn’t know how to interpret or change those prejudices. Working at LaRosa’s melted away all of these stereotypes I had. I started to evolve as a person, and I made it a goal in my life to become a better person by learning more about others,” she says.
By her mid-20s, Tolentino was as vice president of an international publishing company. When she was laid off, she started teaching. It was the perfect mix: Teaching provided her the opportunity to learn more about others through her diverse students, while encouraging her local and work communities to be more plugged into cultural diversity.
“I found my calling in teaching,” she says. “It’s difficult to sell something that I don’t believe has value to people, so I am more comfortable teaching because of what I’m ‘selling.’”
Tolentino’s pitch for a more accepting world goes beyond the classroom. Her community service—she was co-founder of Hub Central in Cincinnati in the 1990s and is founder and faculty moderator of Miami University’s MUvement, a group that attempts to break down stereotypical barriers—has also enriched and sharpened her focus as an artist. One of the clearest examples of this is the mosaic on her patio.
“In the center is an oval mirror and there’s mirror pieces throughout the porch,” she says. “There’s a specific pattern, and then there’s freestyle. But in the end, it all flows together. It speaks to what I believe about human beings. Humans are complementary to each other. We may be of a certain mold, but that doesn’t mean that mixing all of these colors and all of these shapes doesn’t make life more beautiful.”
“As white people, we have many mirrors that tell us we will be successful,” she continues. “We look at positions of power and credibility and those people look like us—our 43 presidents to date, before Obama, for example—and yet we don’t have a lot of windows looking out onto the lives and experiences of other people. Minorities have many windows and few mirrors, while white people have very few windows. We need more windows.”