Semester 1 – Week 4

Like most important decisions of my life I did it on a whim. What if? One weekend day I completed an application to go back to college and then returned to my life of cooking, cleaning, doing work from home, taking care of my 11 year old kid. I kind of forgot about the application until they called me to interview me and then accepted me.

Mural in Austin Texas. Background paint is deep blue with a zebra skin pattern border and the text of the Violeta Parra song "Gracias a la Vida"

Oh shit.

So on a sort of whim I accepted. It was such a whim that I didn’t even tell anyone. I have to admit that part of me was ashamed. I wasn’t ashamed that I didn’t finish college when I was supposed to. People who have been following my writing online in its various forms know that as I have gotten older, struggled with raising one then two kids as a mostly single mother, worked my ass off as a writer, stripper, furniture and men’s clothing salesperson, organizer and now executive director of a nonprofit – I have often stressed how not having a degree doesn’t make me (or anyone else) less smart, less valuable. I’ve done, accomplished enough, in fact a lot. Maybe from dumb luck but more than likely it’s because I’m kind of smart (my sister says my intelligence makes her sick).

So what was I ashamed of?

I bought my books and jumped into classes (I’m doing a 100 percent online format- once again the internet comes to my rescue) and two weeks and four papers into classes I still hadn’t told anyone.

I was ashamed that I dared to do something that was just for me. I don’t need the degree to get a promotion. I’m not looking for a job. I’m not applying to grad school (yet?). I don’t have a grand plan of eventually getting such and such title. I was doing it because it was something I wanted to do. I want to read and write and discuss things and analyze. I’ve always liked that about school and since I’ve been out of school I still like it. Deep down I’m kind of a nerd.

I was ashamed because I was being selfish and didn’t feel like I deserved it.

It felt like an indulgence. I am working at a job that requires long hours and honestly I’m a little bit of a workaholic so I never really am “off”, despite the admonishments of my family and even my work team. I, like many women, carry the bulk of the household duties and the planning behind that from cooking, cleaning, kid school shit, kid life shit. Plus, something that I have alluded to but haven’t gone into explicitly here or other online spaces where I share pieces of my life, is that my personal/romantic life is in somewhat of a crisis.

So who the fuck do I think I am that I should, that I can, that I would dare to do this thing that I don’t really have to do but kind of want to do? Who says I can or should make the time from my already heavy, busy life that requires and uses so much of my brain, heart and spirit energy.

I slowly started to tell people. Casually. I posted a few things on social media and I recieved so much support. I didn’t (don’t) think I deserve that most of the time so that was nice and affirming.

I’m now deep in week four. Yesterday after a grueling day that started at 4 am so I could take an early flight to Oakland for a meeting and then come back to LA to cook dinner for my kid I stayed up past midnight working on a draft paper I needed to submit. I’m definitely not getting enough sleep. My body, heart and head are tired but my spirit is pushing me. Plus I’m getting all A’s.

No shame in that.

The Day After…..

 

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A brightly colored mural in Austin, Texas showing a cart with la Virgen de Guadalupe, water, and a candle. 

…is really just another day. Although this morning, I did observe that the buses and trains were emptier. Was everyone out organizing like they said they were going to do the day after elections? Was it because the mass transit wasn’t free? What wasn’t emptier this morning after was the street where I change from one bus to another. Los Angeles residents were packing their tents along Spring Street, along where a huge new development is being built that according to the banners “ was now leasing”. What wasn’t empty was a conference hall where a white woman challenged the daughter of a domestic worker saying that a housecleaner could lessen her exposure to toxics by using gloves instead of asking the employer to not use toxic chemicals. The disconnect between what is promised and what is real grows wider.

 

On the near empty bus, my 11 year old child asked me about the election results. Who won? What propositions lost? I went through the list. There were more women of color in certain offices including the youngest woman – a Boricua-like my child- in Congress. We still won’t have rent control. The mastermind of state turned national anti-immigrant policies was out of office. White women voted a Texas Republican Senator to serve another term. One racist Sheriff was replaced by another who will probably be just as racist but under the cover of a Latinx last name.

I sat at a table with house cleaners, moms, immigrants and not a one asked me about the election. They were too busy telling other women how they organize and educate, educate as organizing.

In so many ways today is just like another day because our lives don’t revolve around election and other spin cycles. In so many ways it’s a day where people wait and see if the promises made, the ones they bought into in exchange for a sticker they can post on Instagram , will be kept. It’s a day where the organizing that never paused continues, at least for some.

My daughter asked me if people would be talking about the election today then she asked me for money for ice cream. It’s another day for us to continue to move forward and redefine what power looks and feels like beyond pushing a button, pressing a pen into a little circle.

10 Year Cycles

Nostalgia has always been a haunting presence in my life. Too often let my mind wander into the what ifs and I hone in on key moments, key people. At age 41 you’d think I get over this nasty little habit, stop feeding the bad spirits so that they recognize they can’t have a home in me but then again at age 41 you see the cycles so much more clearly.

Tragedies, history, trauma – I have come to believe are all cyclical and I wish that all the therapy and self care in the world would wipe that truth away – allow for clean endings and even neater beginnings pero la vida no es asi.

10 years ago I was writing about politics from a somewhat safe distance. My (measly) paycheck depended on it but in a different way than now. I could write about who was running for president, family separations at the borders and within, the politicians on both sides of the aisle talking out of both sides of their mouths and the nonprofits that propped them and their policies up – the same nonprofits that were once in lust with the likes of media makers (ahem bloggers, err journalists) like me with little repercussion except for counter posts, canceled contracts, blocked access to alleged insider information.

10 years ago I was equally as careless (or carefree?) about writing about my romances, my motherhood, my lack, my want, my desires. It was the the death knell for relationships but also the opening of other realizations about what (for better or for worse) I was capable of.

10 years later I have become capable of things I only dreamed of – I fantasized about moving west with/for a chain of lovers and here I am, in a house in Los Angeles . 10 years ago, the same non-profits ,whose practices I disparaged , are now part of my day to day.  10 years ago I imagined what it would be like to not fund raise (now crowdfund) for basic needs. I don’t have to imagine but there are still basic needs unmet.

I still haven’t written that damn book(s) -although I’m working on it. I still haven’t finished school – although I’m working on it. I still haven’t found that safety that romantic/sexual love was supposed to bring. That I think I’ve given up on. I’ve provided a decent life for my daughters but have also put them at great risk and now I seek a different type of safety. A different kind of security that can only come through deep heartache and learning from that heartache.

I’ve always given few fucks about certain things like rules, expectations but now from a place of precarious comfort and privilege I give even less fucks. I still have deep desires, deep hopes, and deep expectations of what I am capable of. I have proven to myself that jumping in the pool ( to steal a baby daddy’s quote) , holding my breath and hoping I will surface yields some progress but also costs so so much.

So 10 years later- the first day of a new month, when the veil between this world and others is transparent I don’t just ask the spirits, what they would do, but I ask my past self. And the answer is clear – as Audre Lorde said – it is better to speak. We were never meant to survive and yet here we still are. IMG_20181027_170314715_HDR

Compassion & Accountability

The last couple of days have felt overwhelming.

 

If I were being honest I would actually frame the mix of sadness, shame, anger, frustration and stuckness within the timeline of when #metoo ceased to feel kind of far away and stood screaming at me in my living room through the body of my adult daughter.

 

If I were being really real I would move the timeline back to an ex who was so angry at me that what should have been a simple return of a Yankees cap and some other things left in my bedroom at my mother’s apartment turned into something that I only called rape inside my head.

 

But I don’t know if I have the capacity to be that honest or real right now. So I’ll just focus on the last couple of days.

 

I don’t know Junot Diaz personally. We have never hung out except for that one time in the mid 1990s when I danced with him at a fundraiser for Puerto Rican political prisoners at Clemente Soto Velez and he was not (contrary to his recollection) part of the Justice Committee of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. But as his star rose and as I hung on the periphery of the Latino lit scene and the not so periphery of the rising (and then falling) Latino blogosphere, I heard a lot of/about him besides all of his writing credits and accolades.

 

I heard about infidelities that on the real,  I shrugged off, based on my experience with Latino men who couldn’t keep it in their pants or talk/be outside monogamy starting with my father who left my mom and married and had kids with la otra to the times I was hurt by la otra, especially when I was la otra.

 

Then I heard other things that made me more uncomfortable and downright angry as he was getting more and more praise for being a brilliant star as a Latino writer and a Latino man. He was being so real about how awkward he was, about how he was a perro, and he was building a reputation as someone who wanted to share his experience of moving through the literary world as a person of color through mentorship. I had heard about him taking advantage of women who would go to him for mentorship, this included the kind of creepy piropo that made people uncomfortable and more. I also heard from other Latino men within the Latino lit scene that they too knew of this.

 

These weren’t my stories. These weren’t my experiences to share. So instead, using the small but kind of critical platform and reputation I had as a media maker (blogger/writer/social media influencer/whatever the fuck you want to call me) to warn people to pull back all the praise a little and be critical. I did this on social media, on blogs, in comments and in person.

 

Para variar (sarcasm), I was called a hater, una cangreja guilty of quitate tu pa ponerme yo syndrome, and jealous.

Cool.

 

Except not.

 

Over the last few days I have received sincere communications from people I respect (and love) apologizing for defending him so hard. And right before that messages from fellow Latina writers/media makers/journalists sharing their reaction to Diaz’s sharing his own sexual abuse story.

 

My response/sense/feeling is the same. It’s a question and it’s something I’ve been grappling with actively for almost a year to answer : how do we hold compassion for those men (especially Latino men) who were harmed as children while at the same time holding them accountable and responsible for the harm they have caused women (especially women of color)? How do we move through and eliminate a culture of silence that felt like it was too hard to have a  talented dique golden (male) child and be critical to how they behaved towards others who were especially vulnerable because they too wanted to be seen as writers of color? How do we challenge what is essentially a white supremacist literary scene that only allows for one poc writer to take the spotlight and others hold them up at any cost, at any sacrifice.

 

Accountability is beyond acknowledgement. Junot as more people are coming forward has publicly stated that he accepts responsibility.

 

Cool.

 

Except that’s not enough.

 

Where is the atonement and repair work that he will do with himself and the communities he is a part of?Acknowledgement is not an apology. It is not a commitment to do that hard work of healing trauma that caused other trauma.

 

How many of us are part of other communities (ie the non-profit world, the academic world, media, organizing ) where there are charismatic men of color who are known to some as abusers and because of a real fear of being locked out/called out we don’t say anything and even worse, award them (I can think of some off the top of my head which means that I too am complicit).

 

How do hold compassion for those that have caused harm while making sure there is accountability when they call harm to others/ourselves? Is this even possible?

Workshopping

Never ever have I ever shared my writing for the express purpose of being critiqued and judged by others. School papers and submissions to be edited for the magazines and blogs I have written for over the course of my life don’t count to me for some reason.

 

This year I enrolled in a memoir writing class especially because I would be workshopped. The class is all online and run by a writer whom I have followed on social media for a while so the process seems trustworthy. The plan is like this. I would utilize the class and workshopping to polish some pages to submit to a writing workshop I want to attend in the summer. Then I hopefully will have more pages and maybe even may have something semi-publishable – even if just a chapter as an essay by 2019.

 

For the class, I was in the first group to be workshopped so naturally I procrastinated in turning over what to me felt like a draft of a first chapter of a memoir. I was nervous submitting something not just for the instructors but also to my fellow students who didn’t know shit about me save what I wrote in the class intro.

 

The biggest thing was of course my fear of being found out as a horrible shitty writer and having to give up as a 40 year old woman on my lifelong dream of being a “real” writer (never mind that I’ve been published before – fears can be irrational).

 

Spoiler alert – I’m not a shitty writer. At least not in the opinion of other people who are probably just as scared to be found out as shitty writers (I’m not saying they are). The feedback I received from my fellow students and instructor was actually (mostly) really helpful and seemed to follow common threads in terms of areas I need to work on.

 

This means now more writing, more polishing and then more submitting for judgement.

How Long Until

I worried over my outfit, my makeup. I didn’t want to look like I was trying too hard. I didn’t want to be too dressed up but I didn’t want to look too casual. A red lip would have been too much. The occasion in my mind called for a certain level of respect but I wanted to be me. I only lined my upper lid, I would cry for sure. I texted my mother about how nervous I was. She texted back for me to tell her all about it when it was over.

I did the math in my head and then on paper to double check.

How long had it been since I had first learned about him?

24 years.

He had been gone for longer. He had been gone since I was five years old.

I asked questions to the spirit because the person I wanted to ask had been gone physically for 14 years.

What did it feel like when you wrapped the flag that hung from the statue of liberty around her?

What did you say to her?

Thank you seemed appropriate but not enough. It certainly didn’t feel like enough for the 36 years.

On the drive over I promised myself I would try not to cry too much. Falling at his feet would be too dramatic. I needed to be as composed as he had seemed since he was released. Why the fuck would I cry? I hadn’t endured solitary confinement. I hadn’t been taken from my family. I had written letters, read, marched, chanted but I came and went about my life as freely as I could.

 

When I walked into the living room of the gracious hosts he was sitting on the sofa, dressed casually, speaking casually. I didn’t cry, not immediately. He stood up, gave me a warm hug and put a fist to his chest, over his heart. I sat next to him and we chatted, about his trip here, about his dislike when people fell asleep when he spoke, about how other former political prisoners were doing. As other people entered I cried as we greeted each other. We were all mostly strangers but we shared respect, dare I say reverence. One person told me he too had met Richie as a teenager. Richie, had helped bring us to this moment. I put my hand on the shoulder of this now no longer stranger. We were connected even though we hadn’t met before yesterday.

 

Yesterday I met Oscar Lopez Rivera, Puerto Rican former political prisoner, at an intimate lunch that jumped off a week long tour of Southern California.

 

It was hard to eat the delicious fresh food prepared for us as we sat around a table and he placed his imprisonment and release in a larger historical context. I wasn’t reading his analysis as I had in books and letters. He was looking across the table at me. I got to tell him who I was. I got to share my own concern, reflecting back his concern about how the independence movement for Puerto Rico had become elite. We talked about what needs to come next after he shared his vision of the work post Maria on the island. We got to talk about the role of the diaspora, of what solidarity looks like and how to make entry points accessible and real. He smiled, nodded. He is a small man in stature but such a presence. He reminded us how critical the current moment is. What is at stake and how if we love Puerto Rico and all it is how we have to fight.

 

After lunch we all drank coffee and posed for pictures. In the pictures you can’t tell how I cried a little. I am beaming. What is Richie thinking as he watches this scene.

 

When he hugged goodbye I tell him I will see him again. There are a few more speaking events I will be at. There will be more people so this one on one time is gold. I soak it up. All I can think about is what a gift this moment is. It’s like when I met Dylcia Pagan in 2008. I was speaking at LaGuardia Community College and she is in the audience. When I came off the stage and hugged her and thanked her, I also didn’t cry. Even though I wanted to – thinking about the sacrifice, not being able to raise your child. Would I ever be that brave if it came down to it? If I was called in the same way? La Patria really is valor and sacrificio and there are real, living examples.

 

Tomorrow evening my younger daughter will meet Oscar. She begrudgingly reads up on him at my insistence. She doesn’t get how important, how special this is. I didn’t either at 11 so while I want to be mad at her, I control it. How long did it take me? 16 years. That’s not so far away but I don’t want her to feel the same anger I did when I learned that Puerto Ricans were killed and imprisoned for believing in and acting on behalf of their sovereignty. Why hadn’t my parents told me? Why did they raise me to believe I could be anything, including free? I know it was well-meaning. I know it was a parental act of protection but especially now I wonder how long until my own children will realize how much more we have to do – until we are free. 

The Wormhole of Memory

Image by David Samuel

I have not been good at blogging. It’s not for a lack of things I want to say/write about. It’s a lack of wanting to share them. Which is strange because I didn’t used to have a problem with sharing and when I decided to start blogging again this year I wanted to share more. But I have found that as I’m working on my first memoir project, the writing work of going inward and backward, there is a conflict between that and and blogging writing.

 

I’m grateful for all the digital footprints I have left. They are useful as I reflect, remember and one day my manuscript will be a book and it will be public and people can dissect and disagree and digest. But this process of going back has me being more cautious : fact checking and memory checking, because yes the memory does need to be checked.

 

Before there were blogs, before there were bulletin boards, before there was livejournal there were regular journals and I have kept these for as long as I can remember. They are lined with images cut out from magazines and newspapers reflecting my interests and curiosities (as well as maturity). Some of them are lined with hearts and arrows and whoever was the object of my desire at the moment and whatever nickname they gave me and the names I gave them or what I called them : Nene, Stupid Married Boy, la Lengua, el Chileno, El Cubano, El Colombiano, etc etc etc. As I got older I began to put an index in the front inside covers : No more hearts around names but there were names, significant events, important places, and the date the journal was opened and closed.

 

But these handwritten musings, recollections, reflections are one sided. I’m grateful for processes that the memoir class I enrolled in have me engaged in. I’m questioning my recollections and writing notes as to who I need to ask to verify. My feelings aren’t up for debate but other things could be. But then there are people I will never ask. People I don’t ever want to speak to again or if I did speak to them could unleash a regression or worse – an obsession with nostalgia that I am prone to.

 

Cue the internet. My father never told me much about his childhood so I don’t know much about what La Trocha, Vega Baja is like. This led me to googling that then to googling his former jobs to confirm memories and scandals. Then I googled his wife and then found my half siblings – one who lives in Los Angeles. I found weddings and babies and whole life without me, my sister, my children.

 

I expected to be sadder or angrier than I was. I was both those things but in a very matter of fact way that 20 some years gives you.

 

But  there were also happier wormholes, like finding pictures of my piano and ballet teachers (yes, I took ballet and piano) and the studios where I went every Saturday Morning for much of my childhood. Despite the trite joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall (practice, practice, practice), those studios aren’t there anymore. My piano and ballet teachers have long died and my father and his kids, my half-siblings went on with their lives without me. It’s not something to be sad or angry about. It just is or rather it just was.