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José Cubias

Cal State LA graduate student led writing class at Calipatria State Prison

He found a new purpose helping incarcerated students

Jose Cubias

By Maria Pogosyan | Cal State LA News Service

The first time graduate student José Cubias visited Calipatria State Prison to lead an introductory writing workshop, he was struck by the attentiveness and kindness of the nearly 50 incarcerated men in the room.

Over time, he also witnessed their resilience as they wrestled with language, writing poetry, short stories, and essays drawn from their lives.

“You hear what these men go through, the hardships that they go through, just to be able to say what’s on their mind,” says Cubias, 37, who lives in Glendale. “It’s inspiring to be able to see the power of expressing yourself honestly.”

The experience brought to life the epic journeys in the literature Cubias studied as an English major. The stories of men who went through challenges, but refused to give up and instead achieved great feats, resonated with him. As he engaged with the men in Calipatria whose lives reminded him of that journey, he found a new purpose.

Cubias graduated in December with a Master of Arts in English and a commitment to use his writing skills to give a voice to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

Cubias is the son of immigrants from El Salvador and a first-generation university graduate. His path to higher education was not direct. In high school, the Los Angeles native was incorrectly placed in ESL classes. Unengaged and uninterested, he dropped out of school.

A love for music inspired Cubias to seek a new path to education. He went back to college to continue developing his skills as a guitar player and composer. Once there, he began to explore and transferred to English after taking a class that inspired him to learn to become a better writer. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English from Cal State LA in 2016.

As a graduate student, Cubias learned from a friend in the English department about an opportunity to join a volunteer effort to help incarcerated men with writing. 

For that first trip to Calipatria State Prison, Cubias woke up at 3 a.m. and rode for more than 100 miles on a day that saw temperatures of 119 degrees. At the prison near El Centro, he talked to the men about Words Uncaged, a nonprofit that facilitates art, narrative therapy and new media workshops throughout the California state correctional system. Cubias returned home that evening just before 10 p.m.

But that long hot day was the start of a commitment. Cubias kept returning and months later was promoted from volunteer to an employee at Words Uncaged.

For Professor Bidhan Chandra Roy, Cubias’ personal story and deep commitment are inspiring.

“He did not graduate from high school, and yet now is graduating with a M.A. from Cal State LA,” says Roy, who founded Words Uncaged and teaches English at Cal State LA. “He has… been a tireless worker for Words Uncaged and impacted many lives.”

Through his work overseeing the editing of the Words Uncaged Annual Journal, Cubias helps incarcerated men express themselves through writing. He has also created zines in collaboration with incarcerated writers and artists. The projects were featured at Hauser & Wirth, as a part of L.A. book fair LitLit, presented by the L.A. Review of Books.

And Cubias works with “Sentences,” a podcast that was inspired by Words Uncaged. Through interviews with formerly incarcerated people, the podcast explores writing struggles and the challenge of trying to reintegrate back into society.

Cubias has also served his community in other ways. He volunteered at City Terrace Library, assisting Spanish-speaking families by offering book recommendations for their children.

At Cal State LA, Cubias collaborated with two other students, Erik Vargas and Lizette Toribio, and Professor Hema Chari to create a class on “third world literature and globalization.”

Sitting as a student in a class he helped create was an unforgettable experience, says Cubias, who is considering earning a Ph.D. and becoming a university professor.

As a professor, Cubias would be able to continue to help people find their voices, explore their epic journeys, and transform their lives.

“I really think he embodies our mission at Cal State LA,” Roy says.