Xoxi Mendez is using her voice to break down barriers.
A classically-trained professional soprano and PhD candidate in Lesley’s Educational Studies program, Xoxi’s (pronounced Zoshee) singing career was taking off when she was suddenly afflicted with an immobilizing medical condition.
Originally from Mexico, Xoxi was poised for a life on the stage after falling in love with opera at a young age.
“I wanted to become an opera singer when I heard ‘La Traviata’ on the radio,” she recalls. “I was enchanted. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
So she pursued her passion, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in music in vocal performance. She began recording and singing solo concerts, participated at Songfest, an annual music festival at Pepperdine University, and joined the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
Then out of nowhere, she confronted a medical problem that turned gravely serious. She ended up hospitalized for a month and was left with chronic symptoms that include hyperalgesia, which results in severe pain when sitting or standing.
“I soon discovered the world we live in is not equipped at all for people with difficulty sitting. It’s almost impossible to participate in anything without sitting,” she explains.
Subsequent treatments and a challenging recovery forced her to rethink her path.
“I thought everything was over,” she recalls. “In that moment, I didn’t know who I was. I wasn’t a singer anymore. I did my best but I wasn’t a professional singer anymore.”
This involuntary, radical change in her life prompted Xoxi to explore the meaning of identity and eventually inspired her to embrace this cause as her life’s work.
“People who lose their mobility then realize that you don’t really know who you are when you can’t move,” Xoxi reflects.
This exploration prompted her to become a scholar and enroll in a doctoral program at Lesley in 2012.
“I learned and I realized that I had so much to say. I wanted to raise awareness for people like me because there are a lot of people who have mobility difficulties that are in between,” she explains, referring to how her state and ability to move isn’t fixed in one defined category.
Her research in disability advocacy, in the meaning of disability, and what enacting leadership is, stems from a desire to educate and make the world better for all people. She uses her own story as inspiration.
“In terms of disability and people in vulnerable situations, we are in friction with how the world is and what we can do,” she says. “It’s very difficult to be in the world as it is, but if you’re a person with a disability in a world where everyone else is living their lives and you’re separated from it, it feels like a different world.”
Xoxi hopes to lead by example as someone who is in the process of overcoming a profound and unexpected life change. She’s still singing and she employs music in her academic presentations to help inform and explore difficult topics in fields other than music and to forge a deeper connection with her audience.
“Music is something that transcends language, and it really unites us all. We connect when we hear music. We connect to the performer, we connect to the audience,” she says. “I feel so lucky that I have this background in music because music is universal in explaining these academic concepts.”
Although she’s slowly recovering, at this point the pain requires her to use a reclining wheelchair or at times a massage table. Yet she persists. This is no impediment to her successfully speaking and singing at university conferences across the U.S., both in person and online.
“It could happen to anybody – you never know,” Xoxi says. “I’d really like to think that I’m bringing awareness to what the real human condition is. Live an ordinary life, despite what you have to do, even if it means challenging societally-imposed conventions so that you can be who you are.”
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