#52Essays2017 Week 13: Guerrilla Tits

“Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.” –  Anaïs Nin

*

I was eating dinner when I received the text.

“Why are your tits online?”

It was my homegirl, hitting me up. I thought she was joking, so I said so in my response. Stop fucking around. She assured me that this was no joke. She sent me a link and I got on my laptop, dinner forgotten.

There they were, round, brown, and THERE. Smuts R Us. That’s what they called the blog they had posted them on. The description on the blog indicated that the blog was created to “expose” women for their “smutty” ways, which, in this case, included sending intimate photos of themselves to someone. Actually there were two pictures of me on that site. One of me topless, close up, baring my nipples to the camera, and the other of me posing topless in white cotton panties in front of my bedroom mirror.

I immediately began to cry. I was humiliated. I felt made fun of. I felt violated, invaded. My mind raced to figure out who could have sent them. It was a scorned lover, an ex maybe, or a woman in their life who found my pictures somehow and sent them to this blog in sheer anger. I couldn’t understand why someone would want to do something like that to me. I was sobbing, heaving with my humiliation, my shock, my utter helplessness when my mother came into the bedroom. She looked concerned, sat next to me on my bed and held me as I shook with each wracking sob. I couldn’t breathe through my tears. When I finally told her what this person had done to me, she gasped and looked at me with shock etched into the corners of her mouth, her eyebrows.

“How could you do something like that, Imani? How could you?”

*

The word “smut,” is derived from the German word “schmutzen,” which means, “to make dirty.” The first use of the word “smut” used to describe something offensive was in the 1660s. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the term was used to describe offensive material that was sexual in nature. Think pin up magazines and pulp fiction.  The term “smut,” is now a word akin to the likes of “slut,” “ho,” or “whore.” It is meant to derogatorily describe a woman that is considered promiscuous.

The origins of the word began with a way to describe  a “black mark or stain.”

To be called a smut then, meant that I  was a marked woman, a woman with the stain of dirt. I was offensive. I was not to be taken seriously.  I was for sexual entertainment only.

*

I don’t know how or why I ended up on the phone with a dude who had liked me in the past, but there I was, distraught and crying and telling him the sordid details of my humiliation. I just wanted comfort. I wanted someone to tell me that I had done nothing wrong, that they were on my side, that I was not smutty, or disgusting, or unworthy of respect.

He asked me why I had sent the pictures. He asked me why I felt I had to do that.

I didn’t have an explanation. I didn’t think I needed one. I was an adult, wasn’t I? I was a sexually active woman in her mid-20s in the 2000’s. I didn’t see anything wrong with sharing my sensuality with someone I was already intimate with or was planning on being intimate with. But those pictures posted on that site were telling me I was nothing, I was less than nothing. I was blindsided by this violation. I was crushed and my confidence was shattered. I sobbed into my cell phone and he remained silent for a few moments.

“Can I see them? The pictures I mean?”

“What?”

“I mean, you have ’em, right? I know you have more. I know you don’t care to send ’em out. So send me some.”

“Why would you ask me that? How dare you ask me that!” I choked through tears, anger singing the edges of my humiliation.

“Are you kidding me? Whatchu expect? You think you’re so fucking hot, well this is why your shit got exposed. Shit’s good for you. If I had pictures, I would send them, too, just to remind you that you’re not all that, ma. Get over yourself.”

He hung up on me. I don’t know why he mattered. I know that his words were the nails in a coffin that was already suffocating me.

It’s crazy what you hold on to.

*

In catechism classes, you are taught that in Exodus of the Bible, Adam and Eve cover themselves out of shame. You are a child and have no idea why they cover themselves because you have no idea that to be naked is to have shame. Adam and Eve had the bliss of no misfortune, no judgment. They were perfect creatures that God created. You are told that it was not until Eve shamed them both by taking the fruit from the tree of knowledge and seducing Adam into eating it with her, that they were banished from the Garden of Eden.

As child, you think knowledge is everything in the world. Every topic you can conjure in your young brain.  The fruit Eve had taken meant she knew what God knew, she knew everything, she was suddenly a genius who knew every line of every book and every math problem ever. It is not until you are older that you are told that the knowledge people are mentioning is about their bodies and realizing they were naked. All of a sudden, you have questions. Was being naked a bad thing? Was the knowledge that they feasted on, the knowledge of sex? The knowledge of sensuality? Of pleasure?

You ask yourself why Eve is blamed for Adam’s actions. You ask why it is said she seduced him into sin. And then you realize the Bible, as sacred as it is, was written by men. That even back then, men needed to blame women when they couldn’t control themselves, they needed to blame women for their sexual urges, and they wanted to be excused for not controlling them. And what better way to do this then to label the mother of all women, Eve, as the Biblical reason? Eve was the real sinner here, poor Adam was “seduced” to eat the damn apple. He was “seduced” into recognizing his own sexuality. It was her fault.

Essentially, slut-shaming is of Biblical proportions.

*

I am at my homegirl’s house. I am using her computer and try as I might to avoid it, I go to the stupid blog. I report the blog, over and over and over, hoping with each report that it will suddenly delete itself from the ether. I find my pictures and begin to read the comments.

“Oh shit, isn’t that the little poet chick? Ha ha.”

“She has gorilla tits.”

“That’s what she gets for sending out pics like this. Dumb bitch.”

I close the browser. I cry into my hands. I ask a friend, a computer-techy kind of dude, what my options are. I have none. There is no law against it. There is no way I can legally track the anonymous blog creator. I have to swallow my pride and wear this shame like a a tattoo.

That night, in my bedroom, I finish work for school and line up my books on the folding table I worked on. I sit on the edge of my bed, holding a box cutter my brother gave me for protection in my hand, staring at the veins in my wrists. I run a fingertip over one, green under my untanned skin. I breathe deeply. I have done nothing but create chaos for myself. I have done nothing but set in stone that I will never be “good.” My mother says, “Men don’t like girls who are too much.”  I am too much and too much means I am not “good” enough. I cry. I cry. I cry.

I put the razor down because I imagine that if I go through it, my spirit will float to the ceiling and I will watch myself bleed rubies onto my sabana. I imagine my spirit floating there as Mami finds me and I imagine how much pain I will feel watching her cry. I open my journal. I write that down. I rip out the page. I put the razor back in my schoolbag. I am angry. I am angry because I could feel shame for my body, feel shame for being flirtatious and sexy. I am angry because no one ever “exposed” men.

I cry alone. No one comes to tell me I will be okay. I don’t expect anyone to. Why should they?

*

Over brunch at IHOP, a friend I hadn’t seen since before the pictures were posted, looks at me over our stacks of buttermilk pancakes. We haven’t spoken about it. It’s almost as if we’re both avoiding the topic. When it finally comes up, I busy myself with eating pancakes as she speaks.

“When I saw the pictures, Angie, I wanted to kill you! You should’ve known better!”

*

“Guilt is feeling bad about what you have done; shame is feeling bad about who you are – all it is, is muddling up things you have done with who you are.” – Marcus Brigstocke

*

In 2015, I attended my second VONA. Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation is a week-long multi-genre workshop for writers of color specifically. It is the only one of its kind in the entire nation. I call it safety. I call it healing. I call it family.

We started the day with a prompt, “Write about the thing you cannot say.”  I decided to write about this experience. Part of what I wrote:

“I’ll never forget the words ‘gorilla tits.’ I’d like to thank that person though, tell them that the story I could only say once to my family…the story that wasn’t about me but really about what they thought I had done and how it humiliated them…that story is just a seam in my skin. I own it…hold it out. It’s there. My gorilla titties are quite fucking perky thank you very much. And if that person were here now, I’d flash them, blind them with my rich gorilla rounds and tell them a word. A word that takes it all back, takes it back from family and judgment and shame. Takes it back from them all. MINE. I can say that word if I can’t say anything else.” 

When I read the piece aloud, one of my fellow workshoppers spoke up:

“I am not sure if you meant ‘gorilla’ like the animal or ‘guerrilla’ like in warfare, ya know? I think if I were you, I’d leave it as the warfare ‘guerrilla’ though. You’re fighting a battle, you know.”

I was fighting a battle. I was struggling. I dug the change of word…. guerrilla tits.

I never looked at it quite that way.

*

“Growing up is, at heart, the process of learning to take responsibility for whatever happens in your life. To choose growth is to embrace a love that heals.”
― bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions

*

Shame was rooted in how I defined myself long before Smuts-R-Us. By the time these photos were posted, shame was a shadow that followed me everywhere. When I was 19 years old, an ex-boyfriend showed up at my building asking for my attention again. Our relationship had been one fraught with volatility. When I told him I was no longer interested, he called me a “dumb bitch” and a “ho.”

“I don’t know who told you thatchu hot shit, but I know you better than anyone, Angie, remember? You ain’t shit. You just a ho, bitch. Watch. You gonna die alone.”

It’s funny the kind of shit your psyche chooses to remember.

I’ve talked about shame before and about it’s long lingering effects. It infects you and soon, it’s so braided into how you view yourself that you don’t remember life without it. You create ways to avoid it. You run from it. You feed it like Seymour feeds Audrey II, the carnivorous plant in Little Shop of Horrors. Nothing ever satisfies its hunger.

Feed me, Seymour. Feed me.

But you never, ever face it.

My mother clutches her pearls when I tell her that I feel no guilt about  what happened. Like I said, there’s nothing wrong in my eyes with a sexually active adult woman doing something that is sexual. Por favor. I did nothing wrong.

But, I was ashamed because I felt no guilt. I was ashamed because I was told my actions reflected on everyone around me. I was ashamed because no one could love someone who feels no guilt about sending sexy photos of herself. I wasn’t a “good” woman because I should’ve known better.

Guilt is feeling bad about an error made and shame is feeling bad about yourself. The thread in carrying shame is always contempt, the feeling that you are beneath consideration and that you deserve scorn, that you deserve bad.

I treated myself with contempt for years.

And years.

I did do something wrong though. What I did wrong was share myself with someone unworthy of ME. But that in and of itself, is proof that I have so often let my shame dictate my life.

Because I felt unworthy I remained with the unworthy.

 

I can’t say that I sucked it up and honored myself after this happened. I can’t say I made the best choices. I didn’t. I wanted so badly to not “die alone” that I chose not to be alone and in my invitation to people unworthy of me, I fed the carnivorous shame over and over.  I am known in my circles for being bubbly, sociable, confident, sassy even. But admittedly,  I have always been unsure of myself, of what I had to offer and the fleeting relationships I held were proof of it. I prolonged relationships with men who were emotionally unavailable, who gaslighted and manipulated me. And when honest and loving dudes came my way, I self-sabotaged the situation. Yes, people hurt me, things happened to me. But I kept blaming people for the residues of their actions. I kept them as the villain in my mind’s eye. I heard their words, I felt their judgment, I wore the humiliations for years after. I fed Audrey II for years.

I kept that toxicity in my body and soul. I kept it without knowing its name. I became the villain in my story. I became my own adversary in my battle.

I am only now recognizing it for what it is.

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#52Essays2017 Week 12: You Are STILL Gold

“We all have history. You can think you’re over your history. You can think the past is the past. And then something happens, often innocuous, that shows you how far you are from over it. The past is always with you. ” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays

*

The other day, I saw someone from high school on a dating app that I’ve been on and off of for a couple of years. I didn’t even recognize him at first, until I saw his picture while scrolling on my social media timeline. There he was. I thought to myself, “Oh shit! Welp, why not?” and I hit dude up to make fun of the fact that we found each other on this dating app and admittedly, to flirt. At first, we had a few giggles about it and I mentioned we should hang out. But it soon became clear to me that homeboy was just not interested.

Now, don’t get it twisted, this is not what the issue was. In fact, I was a-okay with homey not wanting to hang out, or get to know me or what not. In fact, I am currently in a space where I am enjoying and savoring my alone time, enjoying my singledom without the desire to be with anyone, be it romantic or sexual. I’m good, b. It occurred to me the other day that I am doing so much work on myself , emotionally, spiritually, creatively, that it is probably for the best that I didn’t capture his attention as I first intended to when I found him on the app.

What stuck out to me about our interaction was his reasoning for why he couldn’t or rather, why he wouldn’t, attempt to get to know me. He admitted he was just out of a relationship and wasn’t looking to be with anyone and because we knew mutual people from high school, he didn’t want it to end up with me thinking he was an asshole and letting those mutual people know that he was, in fact, an asshole.

The issue for me is that, though a lot of these people are on my Facebook or Instagram friends and followers lists, we don’t break bread and we don’t share intimate moments. The people he knows and I know, of course, I show love to and I always will, but in the same way that they are different people, we are different people. I am a different person. I’ll keep it real with you, homeboy didn’t really know me in high school. We never hung out and I would bet money homeboy didn’t even know my name back then. But social media does what social media does.

So, at this point, my gut is all, “Why does the opinions of people that now know me only through social media matter? Is it….ME?” And then I started to create a narrative, or rather, my 14 year old self created a narrative, that this man was only shitting on me because he would be ashamed to admit to these mutual friends that he could possibly be attracted to me.

Now, this man never said those things. In fact, I highly respect his honesty about where his heart is and his not wanting to do me dirty. I appreciate him for that, because that kind of honesty is rare in the dating world.

So, to be clear, he ISN’T an asshole. Or at least in that moment with me he wasn’t.

But isn’t it fucked up that at 32 years old, I went back to that frame of mind?

That shamed teenage girl who felt not good enough was continuing to be shamed and by no one but me.

That’s some heavy ass shit to see in yourself, ain’t it?

*

“We teach girls shame. Close your legs. Cover yourself. We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something. And so girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. Who silence themselves. Who cannot say what they truly think. Who have turned pretense into an art form. ” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

*

When I was a young adolescent girl and the necessary conversations about sex happened, my mother would tell me that my virginity was my “gold.” In my young mind, I thought if I lost it, I would never be the same again.

When my mother found out I was no longer a virgin, I mistook her pain that I had not confided in her about it as disappointment in me. I had lost the one thing that meant I was valuable, the one thing that kept me “good.”

I had given away this “gold” of mine without a care and now I had nothing.

*

I am a senior in high school. I have recently developed a friendship with a girl in one of my classes, an Albanian girl from Brooklyn. She is kind to me and we laugh a lot. I value our growing friendship a great deal. So much so, in fact, that when she invites me to hang out with her and her homegirls from school at her house, I am quick to say yes.

These are not girls I usually hang with. I wasn’t friendless, of course, but these girls were just not my crowd. As we lounge in her living room, shooting the shit, the conversation of sex comes up. I am unafraid to talk about it. I feel no shame in saying I am not a virgin.

I quickly realize I am the only non-virgin in the room.

One of the girl’s friends, an Asian girl who had always been polite to me even though she smiled at me with pursed lips and had been shocked to see me hanging out there that day, sits up straight on the couch. She is staring at me with eyes narrowed as I am answering the other girls’ questions about sex.

Does it hurt the first time? Hell yes.

Did you bleed? No, but you might.

Did you use protection? Yes. I did, of course.

Her voice is a judge’s gavel when she speaks.

“I don’t know how you could’ve done that. You’re so young.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said, I don’t know how you don’t feel gross about it. I mean, you can’t lose it again, you know. Sex is going to lose all meaning for you now.”

Her words hang in the air like a thick fog. I sit there, stunned to silence. The rest of the girls are quiet as well, staring at me, half-expecting me to curse her out, I suppose. But I don’t. I swallow hard and ask my friend for some water, shrugging it off a bit. This isn’t the first time that I have been slut-shamed as a teen.

I follow my friend into her kitchen and gulp the water down as soon as she gives it to me. She puts a hand on my arm and looks at me with concerned eyes. I feel the heat of tears rising to the wells of my eyes and ask for the bathroom. She points and I damn near run to the bathroom and close the door behind me.

And I cry. I cry hard, stuffing a hand into my mouth to keep from making noise.

I cry out of embarrassment. Out of being spotlighted as the “whore” of the crew. Out of being told that I was now worthless and had no real value. That I was now never going to be loved because I wasn’t as clean, as much of a “good” girl, as they were.

I never hang out with them again.

*

Contrary to belief, shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is feeling remorseful for your actions, it is an individual emotion. Shame, though, is a cloak cast on you by others, by society, by people, by words. You didn’t disgrace yourself, no. You are just not what they tell you that you should be. You have deviated from their idea of “good.”

Shame is a clingy son of a bitch. It sticks to you. Shame is an ink stain on the psyche.  It’s thick and heavy and it simmers long before you notice it’s about to boil over. You carry it so long that you forget it’s there. You carry it so long that you begin to believe it is a part of you.

By the time I was 16 years old, I had been sexually assaulted by a boyfriend. It happened at a time of intense grief in my life. I didn’t define it as sexual assault at that time. He was a boyfriend. I told myself it was nothing. I told no one but my best friend. I began to drink alcohol in excess, even went to school drunk sometimes.  I went to after school parties and hooky parties, too. I had friends but I certainly didn’t have their respect. I was losing control. Often, I would jimmy the lock of a locked girls bathroom of the 6th floor of my school and pass out until I was sober enough to go back to class.

Sometimes, I couldn’t get to class.

And then, I would go home and do my homework. I would go home to my mother, still in the throes of her own grief, her own heartaches. I would go home to my brothers, who I thought I could never tell. I told myself that I couldn’t say anything. How could I add to their distress? How could I possibly make my grieving mother think it was her fault?  I told myself they would hate me for shaming them, for disgracing myself, and call me a slut.

Because that’s what I was.

*

A few years out of high school, I am hanging out with a homegirl, venting to her about the men in my life as we ride the train together. I am in the middle of lamenting about how I am alone and all is terrible in my love life when she puts up her hand.

“Well, maybe if you didn’t sleep with them right away, they’d stick around. You ever think about that, Angie?”

It is a thunderclap statement, silencing me. I stop talking  or we change the subject, I am not sure. I am unclear as to why that assumption is made on me.

A few years later, she tells me that I am just “too sexual.”

*

“Forgiveness is about giving up all hope of having had a better past.” -Anne Lammott

*

I wish that I could say that there was some lesson to be learned or that after high school I grew from that trauma. The reality is that I had to go through a lot more bullshit first.

A great majority of my 20’s is spent partying and pretending the lack of emotional stability and direction in my life is okay. I have been laid off from a cushy well-paying job right when I begin college again. I have pushed away every man with honest intentions because I am so afraid they will see just how terrible of a woman I am. I want to detox my life,to clean myself up. I just don’t know how. I think getting my degree is the answer. At the time, I am in a relationship that is shaky at best, a relationship that still revolves around me trying to prove that I am good enough for him to love, that I am worthy of love. He plays me like a fucking fiddle.

I feel like a joke most of the time.

My heart and spirit are in constant disarray. I keep loving the same man in different bodies.  I am called a “slut” more times than I would like to count during my 20s, behind my back by the very man who says he loves me.  I imagine jumping off of a bridge and drowning in cold water. I imagine it so often, that when I fantasize about it, I can feel the air in my curls before I hit the water.

I don’t do it because I don’t want my mother to kill herself when she realizes I am dead.

By 2011, I am still drinking too much, still not taking care of myself, but functioning. I have a 3.9 GPA and a hangover every weekend. Late that year, I am too drunk to fight off a man I trusted to take me home safely after a night of partying. I go home that night, more ashamed at myself than ever.

Didn’t this happen already?

I tell myself what I have been telling myself since I was a young girl: You should be ashamed of yourself. You did this to yourself. How can anyone love someone who has done such damage to herself? How can love come to someone who lets shit like this happen to her? I cry alone mostly. To the world, I am okay. I am confident. I am unashamed. I am fun and fantastic. I am sunshine.

To my reflection, I am the ugliest I’ve ever been.

*

“She was a mess. So what? We are all stinking messes, every last one of us, or we once were messes and found our way out, or we are trying to find our way out of a mess, scratching, reaching.”
― Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays

*

I won’t say that during my life I was ashamed of my sensuality because I wasn’t and I am still unashamed to say that I value it. I have never been one to shy away from sex talk or feel like being open about sexuality was something a woman should be shamed for.

I fucking hate slut-shaming. Sex is fucking awesome and people, women and men, should be able to enjoy it and explore their sensuality as they see fit. Sadly, our patriarchal society runs on the virgin-whore binary. Slut, ho, thot, whore, skank, smut. You break the rules, ladies, and that’s what you are. There are no gray areas. It is saint or sinner. It is good girl or bad girl. There is no humanity, no complexity in you if you’re a woman that likes to fuck. You’re just damaged goods.

I don’t hate myself and I guess I should make that clear. I am very tender with myself nowadays, knowing that I am unloading these burdens to the Universe. I am big on self-love and self-care nowadays. Celebrate yourselves! Love yourselves! But I am still learning what shame and trauma have done to the young girl I was. I am still forgiving her for not “knowing better.”

I am 32 going on 33 and I am realizing only now, that the one person I have been shamed by the most, is myself.

In my entire life, I have told myself that I was unworthy of love more often than I have told myself that I am deserving of it.

Ain’t that some shit?

I’ll say this though: Fuck slut-shamers. Yo soy una fucking sinvergüenza and proud of it. I have had my share of lovers, had a brief poly-amorous chapter in my life, even a few one-night stands.  I have, for lack of a better way of saying it, sowed my wild oats and had fucking fun doing it.

But the reality was, that while I was unashamed to be sensual or to be a sexual being, I still carried the weight of judgment for years. I carried it. I wrote it down. My journals speak volumes about what I truly wanted. I wanted to be loved despite what had happened to me, despite what I thought I had done to myself.

Someone told me I should write a letter to my younger self. But this letter would be the shortest thing I have ever written:

“Dear Sunshine,

No one should love you “despite” your past, they should love you…period. You ARE worthy of the grand love you want.

You are not and will never be what was done to you or said to you.

You are STILL gold. “

 

#52Essays2017 Week 10: South Bronx by way of Brooklyn and Naranjito

My name was supposed to be Imani Angelique, not Angelique Imani.

The story my parents tell me is that my father begged my mother after she gave birth to me, tears in his eyes, to give him the honor of having his daughter named Angelique.

And so she did. She gave him the honor and kept Imani for herself.

Imani was always my mother’s name for me. She is still the only one who calls me Imani and nothing else. And when someone does actually call me Imani, it often comes as a surprise to me, almost a “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” surprise.

They have no idea what a privilege it is to call me by the name my mother gave me on the day I came into the world.

*

It is August 29, 1954 in Barrio Anones. The barrio of Anones is one of eight barrios in the town of Naranjito, Puerto Rico. Naranjito is located in the mountainous interior region of the island, named for a small orange tree that travelers once used as a reference point on their way to the bigger town of Toa Alto.

My paternal grandmother is pregnant with her third child, my father. At the time of her pregnancy, she has been staying with the family of her children’s father, while he has gone to New York City, presumably for a better life than the difficult and poverty-stricken life they have been living in Naranjito. Today, she is in labor and there is no one to help her to the hospital, so she begins the long trek herself.

Dressed in a simple bata, slippers, and burlap panties, my grandmother slowly makes her way down a mountain, stopping to rest on rocks when the labor pains overwhelm her.I imagine, that at the moments the pain is searing through her, she is pissed off that she is alone, that the father of her children is in New York City while she traipses down a mountainside to give birth to his third child. I imagine her as a young, beautiful woman, legs streaked with amniotic fluid, worried and in pain, surrounded by the lush green of the mountain side of Naranjito, her stomach curling into itself with hunger, her womb stretching with her son.  I imagine she is scared for her life and that of her soon-to-be-born child, scared for the two children she has left back at her in-laws, scared that if she dies, they will be left without her.

I imagine it is the thought of her children that compels her to continue this trek.

When she reaches the bottom of the mountain and walks into the valley town, she catches the hour-long bus ride to the sole hospital in town. She makes it, I imagine in tears and sweat and fluid, the August heat of the island like a shroud around her. She arrives at the hospital and gives birth to my father, Angel Ruben Rodriguez,the first of his name. They allow her to stay in the hospital overnight and then discharge her in the morning because the need for a bed is so high.

Unable to go back up the mountain, my grandmother reaches the valley town and asks for help. Someone in the town uses a horse to go back up the mountain to get Don Chago, my great grandfather. Hours later, Don Chago arrives on a horse of his own. My poor grandmother, exhausted and hungry and clinging  to her crying child, asks how she will be able to get on the horse after just giving birth. Don Chago and some of the men of the town create a makeshift bed with two branches and a sheet, lining it with leaves. They attach the makeshift bed to the horse and the trek up the mountain begins, my grandmother and father in the bed, dragged along slowly over land.

While my grandmother waits for Don Chago, she tries to breastfeed her newborn son, who is shrieking in hunger. She is so malnourished, she cannot produce milk for him. His shrieks pierce the air, oppressive in the heat. She walks into a colmado and begs the owner to give her something for her child. She has no money, so he turns her away. She continues to beg and my father continues to cry. The screams of hunger finally get to the colmado owner and he thrusts a can of pear juice towards my grandmother.

My father’s first meal was a can of pear juice on the side of a road in a valley town in Naranjito, Puerto Rico.

When he tells me the story, my father laughs and says, “And you want to know what, Angie? I fucking HATE pear juice.”

*

“The rhythm is in your blood.”
-African Proverb

*

On the night of my birth, my father threw a jam session in the house. He tells me there was a full orchestra in their Sedgwick Avenue apartment in the Bronx. They jammed for hours, music celebrating my birth, drums and horns and piano welcoming me, his only daughter, into the world. My father prepared a grand meal for all the men that came that night, some of whom included both my father’s best friend and my godfather, William Everich and Baba Femi, my father’s mentor and spiritual father, two pillars of his existence in this world.

He tells me that Lucy, my mother’s best friend and our next door neighbor, would always say of that night, “It sounded like the Palladium in there!”referring to a famed Manhattan mambo club.

“It did though, Angie! It was a beautiful time. We sounded great!”

In African tradition, the drum is not mere entertainment. It is conversation. It is the sound that marks all stepping stones of life and one that represents unity and heartbeat. Drums are played at births, at weddings, at funerals, etc. The drum in African tradition is one of the most important tools of community and love.

I know how important the drum is to my father, his life, and his destiny. His playing that night was to tell the Universe how joyful he was, fulfilled by his three children and the woman he loved, the friends closest to him there that night.

There is a cassette tape somewhere in my mother’s house of the night of my birth. I have yet to hear it, but I imagine it being redolent with joy, exuberance, love. I imagine that there are men’s voices singing, talking, laughing.

I kind of love the idea that the sound of drums and horns welcomed my birth. What a proper introduction for my life.

*

Greenpoint Hospital was opened in 1914, a beautiful brick and limestone building bearing the strong Neo-classical architectural design of the time, clean lines, archways and grand entrances. The hospital, which still stands, although no longer a medical facility, sits at the intersection of three Brooklyn neighborhoods: Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick. Used as a medical facility in North Brooklyn for nearly seven decades, Greenpoint Hospital was shuttered in 1982 and replaced with Bushwick’s Woodhall Hospital.

It is the first day of spring in 1955. My grandmother is pregnant with her fourth child, my mother. She has carried the baby for the full term of nine months and yet her belly is small. This worries her. She lives with her first three children and her husband, who works as an EMT at Greenpoint Hospital a mere few blocks away.

My mother is born in Brooklyn on March 21st, 1955, the first and only of her mother’s children to be born in New York City. It is the first time my grandmother has given birth in New York City, but more importantly, it is the first time she has ever given birth in a hospital. Her other three children have all been birthed in a house in Puerto Rico under the guidance of a midwife known to the family.

I can imagine her apprehension. There is no midwife, just a doctor, lab coats, sterile walls, the smell of alcohol, men. I imagine her not knowing whose hands are reaching in for her child and being disgusted at the thought. I imagine her gritting her teeth in her pain. Life in New York City is not easy for her or her family and she relies solely on my grandfather’s income because as el hombre de la casa, he refuses to let her contribute. Their marriage, though one of love, is also tense and controlled and at times, volatile. I imagine my grandmother feels alone, feels lost, feels trapped in a city that doesn’t want to help her or her children.

I don’t know if my grandfather is with my grandmother when my mother is born. I do know, though a full-term pregnancy, my mother weighs a wee 4 pounds at birth and is kept in the hospital for a month. Knowing that my grandmother had never given birth to any of her children in a hospital before, let alone with strangers, let alone with males, I can imagine how frightening that must have been to leave her youngest child in the hospital frail and helpless with strangers.

When I ask my mother if my grandmother had ever told her about her birth, my mother says all she knew was that my grandmother was frantic about leaving her child behind. When I ask her more, my mother hums that “Hmm” sound she makes when she is slightly amused and I imagine a hint of a smirk fluttering over her lips.

“I wouldn’t know a lot of details, Imani. I was being born.”

*

My mother has two sons, both born before me. Growing up, she always told me that she dreamed about having a little girl, about being a mother. She brags that she gave birth to all three of her children naturally with no epidural, brags that she never had any stretch marks from any of her pregnancies.

She tells me that my father lied to her when I was born and said it was a boy. Her heart dropped because she had been praying for a girl. She loved her sons, of course, but a little girl was a dream for her, so her disappointment was real.

“When he saw my face, he gave up the joke, probably out of guilt and told me the truth. That moment that I found out it was a girl….when they told me it was a girl, that was the ultimate happiness for me. I was overjoyed for all three of my childrens’ births, but to know that I had a girl, that was the happiest moment of my life.”

*

“Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

-James Baldwin

*

On June 20, 1984, I was born in the “new building” of Lincoln Hospital. My mother likes to call me and my brothers “true Bronxites,” as we were all born in Lincoln, a central and well-known health facility in the Bronx. Lincoln Hospital, or officially Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, founded in 1839 as the “Home for the Colored Aged,”was originally in midtown Manhattan and was meant to support aged Black people, many of whom had been slaves prior to the abolition of slavery in New York.  In 1882, it’s name was changed to the “Colored Home and Hospital.” In 1902, it’s name was officially changed to Lincoln Hospital after finding a home on 141st Street and Concord Avenue in the South Bronx. In 1976, the “new” building was built at a cost of $220 million dollars. In 1970, the Young Lords Organization took over the hospital in protest of the neglectful treatment of it’s patients, who were primarily Black and Latino. The facility takes up five full city blocks, continues to serve and support the health needs of its community and is the third busiest emergency room site in the nation.

My mother says she felt labor pains and me being her third child, knew to go to the hospital, where her water broke. She tells me that Dr. Jafari, the doctor who helped her through birth, was a “George Clooney looking motherfucker,” who had the pregnant women requesting him and giggling like teenagers. My father says that the “funnest” part of becoming a father was witnessing our births, though I am sure that my mother would disagree. He tells me I shot out like a football and he caught me.

Both of my parents tell me it was a joyous time in their lives, their children all young and growing, having their last child be a girl was the icing on their cake. I arrived in Kingsbridge in swaddling in the Blue Monster, a huge 2-door Blue Maverick.

There is something to be said about knowing your birth story, knowing where you born, who was there, who celebrated with your parents. It gives you an anchor to your story. This is point A. I think it’s so interesting to know how my parents came into the world, to know the start of their journeys in relation to my own. Their birth stories in many ways, though different share so many similarities, and it is because of them that I am here.

How life can twist and turn is the story. How life can start. How life can be joyous and difficult and scary and full of hope or despair. That’s the story.

But to know where the story is going, you should always know where it began.

My story begins in the South Bronx, by way of Brooklyn and Naranjito, Puerto Rico.

#52Essays2017: Week 9: Not Your Problem

Having an anxiety attack in front of someone is probably the most annoying and frustrating experiences I can have. Not only do I have to navigate my own emotions and ground myself, I aggravate my anxiety by dwelling on how the person is reacting. I create narratives about what they are “really” thinking despite them reassuring me that all is cool and we’re chilling, etc. I’ve mentioned this in some of my previous writing on the topic.

Anxiety is like my shadow. I am always aware of it. I am always conscious of it because it can just happen. There is never a warning or anything. It’s not like my anxiety steps into my brain and says with Kanye West-swagger, “I’ma let you finish this day, but I’m the boss now, bitch.” Anxiety is not polite and it is certainly not patient. It will bumrush the fuck out of you and leave you breathless and angry with yourself or worse, it will make you feel like a turd. And no one wants to feel like a turd, man. No one.

*

I am at the house of a former paramour. I am reading a book of short stories sprawled out on his bed, while he showers. I am fine. I am enjoying the read and comfortable and ready for a nice night. Everything is okay.

He comes out of the shower and asks me if I’m ready to eat dinner. I nod, closing my book and follow him to the kitchen. I stand next to him as he is serving me a plate of rice and beans and a chuleta. I peel the banana I bought from the bodega and place it on the plate he’s holding and serving my food on. It’s yummy to me but not common, so he smirks at me and I open my eyes wide at him.

“What?” I giggle.

“Nothing. Just never seen that.” He smiles.

“I like it. My mom likes it. It reminds me of family.” I’m not lying. Mami always served me steaming plates of arroz con habichuelas with a regular ass unpeeled banana growing up. It’s delicious and it saves the trouble of having to peel a plantain and fry it in oil, even though that shit is just as delicious, if not more.

He nods, smiling with me, and drops a spoonful of beans on top of my rice. He hands my plate over and I walk out of the kitchen to sit at the table.

And that’s when I feel the heat tingling at my toes. The wave of it washes over me like sauna heat and I can’t breathe. I don’t know why it’s happening. It’s just a feeling. Maybe it’s because I had taken a swig of vodka before he went in the shower. Maybe it was because I was reading a short story about fear right before dinner.

Or maybe my anxiety was just being an asshole again.

I stare at my plate and think to myself, Oh shit, he’s never seen me have an anxiety attack. Please stop. Please stop. 

Of course, that shit only makes it worse.

*

“To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.”

-Charles Dickens

*

How do you tell someone that you have anxiety? Or depression? Do you have a long conversation with them? Do you write them a letter? Do you send them links to articles about it with the hopes that they can connect the dots?

There is a huge reason why people so often hide their emotional struggles and mental issues. It is because of fear. The fear of being shunned, ridiculed, laughed at. I mean, let’s be real here, who the fuck wants the negativity and the stigma? And let’s not front like there is no stigma to it. Because there is. Especially in communities of color. For generations, we have been dealing with the “blues,” with “los ataques de nervios,” etc every day. Hardship and adversity is part of our regularly scheduled programming. Who wants to admit that they are overwhelmed by what everyone else is trudging through and dealing with? The reality is this: Not everyone knows they are dealing with it. Not everybody wants to admit it.

How do you tell someone you have a problem when you don’t how to define the problem? When no one has ever talked about it? Today, in the information age, we have access to resources that help us understand these issues. Ask yourself what our parents and grandparents had. Probably nothing but some Agua Florida and alcolado. Probably nothing more than a nap. And then they went back to work, back to surviving. No one talks about it because they couldn’t. Survival mode was more important.

I think about my maternal grandmother, single mother to four children, busting her ass working in factories and ensuring that her kids were safe and fed. My grandmother had to deal with that, with the constant stress and uncertainty of survival, but also the hardships of  being a dark-skinned primarily Spanish speaking Puerto Rican woman in a city that essentially didn’t give a fuck about her or her kids.

I wondered if she was scared sometimes. I wonder if,  like me, she would try to cry as much as she could in the shower because there she could pretend her tears was just the water she was bathing in. If like me, she tried her best to hold it all together. I never saw my grandmother lose it but I imagine there must have been moments where she felt overwhelmed. She was human after all. She had emotions. She wasn’t made of stone. Not the way she loved.

I think about her every time I acknowledge my anxiety. She’s a big reason why I am so open about my struggles.

She’s no longer with us, but I still hope she sees it as a strength.

*

My anxiety attack that night at homeboy’s house was a big one. One I couldn’t control. I felt like my entire body was on vibrate. Like the tears would never stop. Like I could take the wrinkles out of his sheets with how hot I felt. I wnet to his bedroom, afraid his roommates would walk by and think I was some sort of raging loca crying over her arroz . I ended up eating that meal slowly, cold rice and dry chuleta, banana mushy. I grounded myself lying on my back on his bed, listening to ocean sounds and imagining being anywhere but having an anxiety attack in front of him. It helped that he was willing to help, that he was patient.

When I spoke to my mother about it later, she told me that it was probably best if I walked away, excused myself.

“Try to excuse yourself and go to the bathroom if you are feeling that way, Imani. That kind of thing can be too much for someone to handle, especially a guy you’ve only been seeing for a few weeks.”

“But Mami, I have done that in the past and it doesn’t help. I’ll stay in that bathroom for a million years. Then whoever I am with either thinks I am a wack-job or that I was shitting…on a date. No, no, forget going to the bathroom. If he wants to date me, then he needs to know that anxiety is something I have to deal with.”

“But that’s not his problem. It’s yours. That’s too much to have someone you’re just dating be responsible for. That’s too much to have them deal with.”

I ended that conversation with a quickness.

*

I didn’t end that conversation with my mother because my mother was wrong. On the contrary, she’s right. It is no one’s fault, responsibility, or problem that I have to deal with anxiety. I am completely and one hundred percent aware of that.

But, here’s the shit. My anxiety attacks are always, and I mean always, exacerbated by worries of how whoever I am with deals with me having an anxiety attack in front of them. I literally make it worse by worrying about it being “too much” for them. I drive myself crazy worrying if I am a burden, or if I am making a fool of myself, or if this will dictate our future.

And I’ve come to this conclusion. I am open about it because the shit happens. It happens and I won’t excuse myself to cry in a germ-infested public bathroom because I am more concerned about how they’re taking it. Fuck that. Not when I need to focus on grounding myself. I have enough to deal with when I’m having an anxiety attack.

Not to mention, if someone can pass judgment on me for it, if they can choose to leave or dismiss me because of it, if they feel it’s “too much” for them, then they aren’t meant for me anyway.  Boy, bye.

I’m trying the best that I can. I am managing this rollercoaster ride as best I can. I didn’t ask for this. This is all a learning process for me. But I can’t be silent about it. I can’t hide something that is now a part of my life. How would that be building anything with anyone? What if, like that night at homey’s house, I just can’t control it? I can’t excuse myself?

No, it’s not his or anyone else’s problem. No, they shouldn’t feel obligated to do shit for me other than show some damn compassion. They shouldn’t be burdened with this, I know.

But trust me, if anyone feels the burden of it, it’s me.

 

#52Essays2017 – Week 3: “Did You Tell Her That Your Kids Are Black?”

*The first section of this essay appears on www.blackdiaries.org*

When my mother was pregnant with my oldest brother, the apartment she shared with my father on 181st Street and Valentine Avenue was broken into. Someone who robbed the apartment next door had knocked down the thin wall in their closet to get into my parents’ apartment, knocking over my father’s stereo system and robbing my mother of all kinds of things she had owned for years. Real jade pieces that my uncle brought back for her from his tour in Vietnam, money, records. When I asked my father who lived next door, he said, “One of the last Mohicans, Angie. All the white people were running from the South Bronx and had been for years. But she was one of the last white people living in the Bronx at the time who was a tenant and not a landlord.”

Despite most of their own possessions being stolen, the neighbor accused my father and mother of being behind the robbery of her apartment and the situation was beginning to get nasty.  With my mother’s belly swelling every day, my father went out looking for an apartment with $600 in his pocket. He found what he was looking for in the Kingsbridge section in the Bronx. The apartment where I grew up. Where my mother still lives.

At the time, the landlords of the building were two white women who lived on the top floor in an apartment that were two apartments in one. They literally lived on top of their tenants who were becoming increasingly brown and this, apparently, was a problem. So, when they met my father, with his light skin, green eyes and straight thick black hair, who spoke of a lovely pregnant wife, they were, of course, delighted to offer an apartment to the happy couple.

The first week in their new building, my father and mother were in the elevator. One of the white lady landlords came on to the elevator and smiled wide at my father. She didn’t acknowledge my dark-skinned mother, did not look in her direction. White Lady Landlord smiled her white lady smile at my olive-skinned father who she assumed was Italian.

“Oh, hi! How’s the apartment? How’s your wife?”

“She’s standing right here.”

White Lady landlord’s eyes widened and her smile froze.  She finally acknowledged my mother, belly full with my brother, brown skin glowing with Africa. Her lip curled with a sneer and she scoffed as the elevator door opened.

My mother smiled and spoke as White Lady landlord left the elevator.

“Nice to meet you!”

*

I asked my mother how she felt when White Lady Landlord looked at her like that.

“She did what she did, Imani. I was still going to be there even if she didn’t want me there.”

Mami was the prettiest woman I knew and I wanted to be her color, that warm rich brown that only deepened in the sun. She was unafraid of her Blackness, unafraid of her Boricua-ness. Since I was old enough to understand, she’d tell me that in her youth, she was, “Too Black for the Puerto Ricans and too Puerto Rican for the Blacks.” She tells me how difficult it was to fit in but stresses that she wouldn’t drop one for the other.

“I’m Puerto Rican, Imani. Boricua. That’s who I am. But I’m Black. Can’t change that. I’m a Black woman but no one can take Puerto Rico away from me.”

*

My father is an African drummer, a congero, an amazing percussionist and I do not say that because he is my father. The man has skills. He is also a light skinned Puerto Rican man with a mane of thick black hair that has thinned somewhat as he’s gotten older and green eyes that always change color from green to hazel to gray to even blue sometimes. He often tells me stories about having to prove himself to other drummers who had more African features, tells me how they doubted him because he was just a “white boy” trying to play the congas.

And then he’d show them.

He’d show them that Africa lived in his hands hitting them skins.

And they’d believe him.

He told me once that when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, he ran home from school, hiding when he could because as light as he was, he just knew he would be a target for the Black kids in the neighborhood. And he was, indeed, a target. What saved him? Speaking Spanish.

“If I didn’t know Spanish, Ang, they would’ve beat my ass that day.”

When I asked Dad how he felt about White Lady Landlord not acknowledging Mami, he paused for a breath and said, “You kids have no idea what  your Mami had to go through.”

*

When I am five or six years old, I draw a picture of my mother and color in her face using a Black crayon. I am proud of the picture, had taken care to color in the lines and draw Mami’s silver bangles on her right hand and the three silver studs, one for each of her children, in her ears. The picture shows Mami as beautiful and I am proud to show it off. My brothers giggle, tell me that’s not what Mami looks like, that she’s Brown not actually Black. Mami just smiles, takes the picture from my hands, stares at it with an amused glint in her eyes. I don’t think she sees anything wrong with my picture.

When I ask her why people call her Negra all the time, she says it’s a nickname that people she loves call her. When I ask her what it means, she beams, the gap in her front teeth showing, when she says, “It means Black Woman.”

My mother is unflinching and clear about who she is, what her blood and her skin and her spirit represent. She is Black, spending most of her life in the United States navigating the racial binary of Black and White. And she is Puerto Rican, a woman from a colonized island, a woman from an island rich with history, rich with African blood, language, music, and religion. Where my father taught me Africa is in the drumming of bomba y plena and religious practices, Mami is the first one to teach me that some of the inflections and words used in the Puerto Rican dialect of Spanish are pure Africa. Ñame, mofongo, mondongo, bochinche, gandinga, chevere.

As I get older, my mother raves about how beautiful I look when I’m tanned a beautiful brown by the sun and when the color fades with the sun-depleted winter, she tells me I look almost as white-skinned as my father. It’s her way of reminding me that people could never mistake me for anything but Latina the way they so often think she is not Puerto Rican.

There is a moment in my life that I have written about in story before. A moment that feels so tangible even now as I type it. Mami and I were going home on the subway and it was crowded. I don’t know where we were coming from but it was packed on that train. I mean that New York City subway tight crowded where you can’t help but bump into others and hit people with your bag. Mami made sure I was holding on and knocked her bags into the knees of a bottle blonde woman who turned to her friend sitting next to her and said, “Brujas negras nunca tienen modales.” I remember their giggles. I remember Mami’s hand over mine on the subway pole. As we were leaving the train, Mami turned to the woman, smiled, and said, “Mira lo que dices porque nunca sabes quién habla español en estas calles.”

I’ll never forget those women’s faces when they realized that my mother was a Latina like them.

It made me want to be my mother even more.

I tell her now that a lot of people never think I’m Puerto Rican. I’ve been asked if I am Yemenese, Ethiopian, Brazilian, Pakistani, Egyptian,etc. and I tell her I just smile and say, “No. I’m Puerto Rican but thank you for the compliment because (fill-in-the-blank) women are so gorgeous.”

She laughs and says, “Esos personas no saben na’…All I see is a little light skinned Puerto Rican girl.”

*

In 2015, I attended the VONA writing workshops in Miami, Florida. VONA is a safe space for writers of color, the only multi-genre week-long writing workshop for writers of color in the nation. I was insulated by the warmth of being surrounded by people who fully understood me, people of color whose passion for writing was the same as my own. I felt at home.  When I went to VONA in 2014 in California, I experienced a period of mourning after VONA ended. It was why I stayed an extra week in California before returning to reality. I did the same for the 2015 VONA. My father lives in Florida, a short half hour car ride from where VONA was being held so it was an easy choice. I was able to spend time with my dad and decompress from VONA, emotionally and mentally preparing myself for the reality of a world that didn’t feel as safe, didn’t feel as good.

One day during that week I spent with him, he took me to the house of his girlfriend’s brother, let’s call him, Hugh. Hugh had just hooked up his pool and my father and I were both invited to spend some time there, drinking beer and swimming. The three of us were enjoying ourselves, sipping at cold Budweisers and shooting the shit. Dad and I did some flips in the water and joked around. It was actually a nice day. Hugh was a decent enough person from what I can remember. Not someone I would hang out with on the regular but he was generous with beers and reminded me of one of those stereotypical New York Eye-talians, thin gold chain on over-tanned skin, Brooklyn accent, gesticulations and all. We were laughing when his wife came home from her nursing job.

“Hugh!” We all looked in the direction of her voice. She stood there in pink scrubs, a petite woman with too-tanned skin, long white blonde hair cut in a tacky outdated style, too long platinum bangs fringing eyes rimmed in cheap black eyeliner. She stared at me, saying nothing. She didn’t smile back when I smiled at her and greeted her. She stood there and acknowledged only my father and her husband when they said hello. My father introduced me and she nodded, turning to walk back to the glass enclosed patio, grabbing a beer from the cooler.

I felt awkward, unsure if I was bugging out. Did she not even care to meet me?

I thought to myself that it was only because I was a much younger woman in her home and then scolded myself for thinking that about another woman. But why couldn’t I place this discomfort that crept up my toes and flushed my face, making me want to cover myself, making me feel so unwanted? I realized it like a punch in the gut. Looked at my now-deep bronze tanned skin compared to my father and to her husband and to herself. I swam to my father, who was finishing the last of his beer and leaned in to his ear.

“Dad? Did you tell her that your kids are Black?”

“Of course I did, Angie. I know, she acted so weird, right?”

My father and Hugh both got out of the pool to dry off and sit with Hugh’s wife in the patio to talk and drink more beers. I stayed in the pool a little bit longer, knowing she was watching me swim, knowing that she was watching my big brown beautiful self and my big brown boobs floating in her beautiful brand spanking new chlorine pool. I knew she didn’t want me there. I stayed in that pool and relished that water as if it were life-giving. I walked out of the pool only when the edges of the sky turned lavender and my father motioned for me to come have a beer before the mosquitoes ate me up.

I sat across from her at the glass patio table and she stared at me, her cheap black eyeliner bleeding into the corners of her eyes. There was small talk, very awkward small talk that grated my nerves. She smiled politely at my father and mostly just smirked at me, responding with boasts about what her husband had fixed up in the house and asked me if I had a house where I was. Where was I coming from again?

“The Bronx.”

“I had a feeling.”

Now how the fuck do I respond to that? I smiled and sipped at a can of quickly warming Budweiser.

When we left their house, I told my father that I was sure she would have her pool cleaned.

*

My dad later told me that he had to say something to them about the language they used in front of him when they first met. They called Black people “coons” and “tar babies” and referred to the predominately Black neighborhood in their area as “Boogietown.” My father responded immediately to their nonchalant way of using the words and spazzed one day, telling them they were disrespectful to say those things.

“The mother of my children is a Black Puerto Rican. I don’t like that language. When you say shit like that you’re talking about her, you’re talking about my kids. You’re disrespecting the people I love. I don’t want to hear that shit anymore. Stop fucking saying it.”

“We didn’t know you’d take it like that, Angel. We didn’t mean it like that.”

I have always resented that ludicrous response. How else could it have been meant? Also, how was he supposed to take it? Did they assume that because my father is a light-skinned Puerto Rican that he’d be okay with that kind of ignorant language?

I wonder how many times my father has had to have this conversation with people who assume he is okay with hatred because he is a white-skinned Puerto Rican. I wonder sometimes if he was always as vocal as he was with them.

My father tells me they have never used those words in front of him again. During the 2016 elections, he tells me that they are avid Trump supporters and talk about the Obamas as if they were both dirtying up the country. As if they took a big shit on the lawn of the White House and smeared it over the country.

I told him that I was sure they never stopped calling it “Boogietown.”

I don’t doubt it at all.

*

Though the experience of Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean compared to that of the American South were different, the fact remains that no one, not even Latinos themselves can deny that Africa is a part of Latinidad. Out of the 10 to 16 million Africans kidnapped and forced into slavery, a large percentage of those Africans were sent to Brazil or the Caribbean. While American slavery determined race in a two-category system, Latin American countries developed complex racial categories, that included terms like mestizo, mulatto, octoroon, etc. With this being said, it is important to note that African was still deemed the lowest of these racial categories. This set the very foundation for the colorism which is apparent in many Latin American countries.  In his 1967 memoir Down These Mean Streets, one of the first texts I ever came across  that discussed Afro-Latinidad, Piri Thomas, contemplates his racial identity as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican man and how it has impacted his life in the larger society of the United States where he is seen as Black and within his family, where their African roots are mostly rejected. Rafael Trujillo, one of the most infamous, vile, and cruel dictators of the Dominican Republic, told Black Dominicans to call themselves “Indio,” or “Indian,” to distance themselves from Blackness. One last example is in a recent episode of the popular reality show “Love and Hip Hop: Miami,” where DJ Young Hollywood, a light skinned Latino producer, calls Amara La Negra, a dark-skinned Dominican musical artist, “Nutella queen,” implies that her natural hair is not “elegant,” igniting social media with conversations about the Afro-Latino identity and what that means.

Despite her jokes on us about needing more sun,  my mother never let my brothers and I forget who we were. Essence magazine was the only magazine subscription Mami made a point to keep since it’s first issue in 1970, paying that annual bill so that images of Black excellence and beauty would come in our mailbox every month. In the midst of the popularity of white Blonde Barbie dolls, Mami bought me a Kenya doll and told me that I was beautiful and smart  just like her and I believed her. My parents spoke to us about what we were to face as we became adults, spoke to us about our history, our blood, our ancestry. I was shown pictures of my mother’s uncles, their dark skin like ink in the black and white photos and was told to never forget that along with Taino and Spanish, that I have African in my blood, in my ancestry. I was never deprived of representations of Blackness in my life because of my parents. I was surrounded by it. And I can’t thank them enough for providing me with those tools, that pride, that history.

I won’t defend my Blackness or feed into divisive conversations about how dark someone has to be to be considered Black. That’s ludicrous. We all need to stop doing that. That’s just the residues of  the divisive history of racism in this country and in the Caribbean. To talk about who is Black enough, who is allowed to claim Blackness all while ignoring the African presence in the Latin American and Caribbean Latino diaspora and culture, denies us the right to speak on our ancestors and on our history. What I will do is acknowledge that my experiences as lighter skinned Afro-Latina can and will never match those of darker-skinned women, of the history of African American women in the United States and of darker-complected women in the Caribbean.

But I can’t change that I am a woman of color. I can’t deny or erase my Blackness because that would mean denying my mother, denying my very real and very Black family, deny my ancestors who died in slavery. I refuse to do that. For anyone.

I can’t change that I am a Puerto Rican woman of color and quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to.

I suppose what is infuriating about Hugh’s wife is that she made me feel as if I had done something to her, that me being me was an affront to her. What is infuriating about that memory is that I was polite when I could have been true to myself and asked her what her damn problem was. I am angry at myself for not standing up to her. I am angry at myself for believing that my kindness, my manners, my niceness would eliminate or outweigh her obvious distaste for me, would change her lack of kindness, would erase her racist and prejudiced perspective. But would a show of my anger have changed her either?

How do you navigate that kind of shit knowing how fucking unnecessary it all is?

If me existing pisses racist people off, well, mi gente, I’ma just keep doing that. I’m just going to be here, existing and shit and watching those asshats stare at me with disdain. Just like that bottle blonde pendeja in pink scrubs.

This time I will stare back and finally be just like my mother. Just like I’ve always wanted.

Completely unafraid of my Boricuaness. Of my Blackness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Crappy State of Awareness

“You know, being aware of your crap and actually overcoming your crap are two very different things.” 

-Dr. Cristina Yang as played by Sandra Oh on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy”

*

I don’t write about my anxiety. I never have. I have posted Facebook statuses about it, I have shared articles and memes about it, and I have been open about coping with it. But I have never written about it. It was only until one day, on the phone with sister-friend Vanessa, sobbing about it that she said softly, “Mama, maybe that’s what you should be writing about.”

I started a piece recently that is now on its fifth or so draft that has me reeling, spinning like a top. Writing about the roots of my anxiety have caused anxiety. How fucked is that? I didn’t really think as I wrote the first draft of it. I just told and didn’t show a damn thing. I had to tell it before I showed it. I tried my best not to focus on anyone that I was writing about, tried my best not to worry about what may happen after the piece was written. I tried not to think about who would be angry or hurt, who’d drill me with guilt and ridicule. I didn’t want to wrap my head around what people would say.

As it’s been workshopped and edited, I began to struggle with the idea of writing it. I remember being told that one part of it, a part that to this day when I read it I get shaky, didn’t express my terror enough. Admittedly, I was aghast that someone could not feel what I felt as I wrote/read it. I mean, this was the scariest moment of my life! But, I had to step away from my emotions again and think like a writer. This wasn’t about me. And perhaps, that’s hard to understand. But, writing makes you see that emotion sparks it, but craft is what molds it. Can you dig that?

No matter what I have to do as a writer, this is my emotional truth. This is what I need to do. Write from the wound, right from the wound, as the Jedi Masters have so often told me.

That same sister-friend tells me all the time how guilt-ridden I am. How I apologize too often and worry about things that need not be worried about. I cringe when she says it, mostly because I know she is kind of right. I don’t know where this guilt came from. The constant and nagging feeling that I am failing the people around me, that I am a burden on the people around me, that I am not the granddaughter-daughter-sister-cousin-niece-friend-lover-writer-woman I should be.

Damn that word “should.” That word alone can send me into a trembling, stomach-flipping mess.
*
A few tips on how to react if I have an anxiety attack in front of you:

I am not over-reacting. I am not pretending I am a star in a novela. I am not acting crazy. I am not a loca. I am not wilding out. This is a real and physical thing and it is excruciating and hard. The dismissal is insulting and deeply hurtful. Stop that shit. Please.

I can not relax or chill or be easy. That implies I can control what is happening, which I cannot. Do not say those things to me. I will only get worse. I will only believe that I am getting you upset, mad, sad, or worried and I will spiral into a deeper attack. Stop that shit. Please.

I am ashamed and embarrassed when they happen. I have had them on girls night out, during workouts, on dates, in the middle of class, in the middle of teaching. People have asked me why I get attacks, what triggers them. I don’t know most times. Sometimes, it just fucking happens. It is nothing you did. It is nothing that I am doing. It is nothing that is happening.

Please try to understand. If I could control what was happening, I wouldn’t have them. Offer me kindness. Your presence is far more than enough of a comfort than you think. Most times, if I feel it coming, I try to excuse myself. Sometimes, I won’t be able to do that. Offer me a glass of water. Tell me everything will be okay, that I am alright, that we are alright, that my mother is alright. JUST TELL ME EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT.

*

Every day during the week-long workshops at VONA, participants are asked to write on a huge sheet of paper that has a daily question. One day, I believe was “What is your biggest fear?”

I wrote when no one was watching.

“That my anxiety will kill me.”

VONA changed my life. I knew from the moment I was able to write those words that I am never going to be the same woman again. Not just in my writing life, though that has changed as well in ways that I am still working through. But VONA gave me a community that nurtured me, spiritual kin from all corners and all places.

Case in point. As I finished my Bachelor’s degree, I found out I was accepted into VONA. I was over the moon about it. Anxiety stretched me thin in the days before I finished my last set of final papers and exams. I decided to be open about it on Facebook. This was probably one of the first times I ever shared that I was coping with anxiety. Sharline, a VONA veteran, responded to my Facebook status with a simple “You are not alone.” On different coasts, Sharline and I had never met. We had never broken bread together or shared secrets. She sent me a link to her own work. That exchange shaped how I approached talking about my anxiety.

I went to VONA with the belief that now that my degree was finished, I was chilling. I landed in the Bay after a very drunken thirtieth birthday thinking that I was finally saved from the incessant attacks. I was wrong in a big way. I balanced giving myself with isolating myself. I was asked a number of times if I was okay, asked why I was always alone. While others participated in a poetry salon one night, I was sitting alone in my room staring at the screen of my laptop urging myself to write something, when I felt the floor light up with heat under my soles. I was surprised by it. I tried to stop it. I paced. I did jumping jacks. I did breathing exercises. I imagined soft oceans and palm trees. I hummed “Three Little Birds.” Nothing was helping.

I walked out and towards the poetry salon, hoping that hearing people reading their work could help me come back down. I avoided everyone’s eyes as I tried to situate myself in the lounge. I was shaking, pale. Sister-friend Vanessa catches eyes with me, motions for me to join her where she is sitting. I ignore her at first. She’s persistent enough that I walk over to her and sit on the floor. I immediately begin to cry silent tears. She doesn’t say anything, just pats my hand and offers me Kleenex. On the way out, I see brother-friend Miguel who gives my hand a squeeze at the sight of my puffy eyes. I was relieved that no one said anything, no one made me feel awkward and uncomfortable. They offered me kindness and patience.

Every single time I post something about my anxiety, it is these sisters and brothers that reach out and read it. That tell me to go ahead and feel them feelings. To own my truth. I am grateful. And now I’m writing.

It changed my life, I tell ya’.

I was accepted into VONA for a second time and am about to embark on a brand new journey there. I feel like a completely different person. I won’t lie and say that I have overcome anxiety. In fact, I had a really bad night the other night. I will say that I will walk into VONA proud of the steps I have taken. Proud that I haven’t let it kill me. Trip me up, maybe. Kill me? Naaaaaah.

I am going to finish that piece and when I am ready, I will share it with the world. I can only ask that if someone reads it, and they don’t have the words, that what they read is: You are not alone.

Time to overcome the crap.