To: My Teacher Self…

I read the first drafts of the letters my students wrote last week. A teacher now for sixteen years, technically sixteen and a half. I began in the winter and not the fall.  After I read every one of them I smiled. Content. I was a teacher. It mattered. And I did not buckle under the weight of what it means to be a teacher. Perhaps it was part of some great design, one I’m not privy to. Until now, as I sifted through more than their drafts, but my own years of teaching. A timeline of events, big and small, significant. Markers to post the distance between the years I have taught.

In June my fifth graders work on a personal letter as their last writing assignment before they leave to middle school. They can write to a former teacher, current teacher, either classroom or out of classroom. Guidance counselors, assistant principals, principal, as well as office or lunch room staff. The person they choose to write to should be someone who has meant a lot to them throughout the years at the school. Someone that’s made an impact in their lives.

And while I taught the structure and conventions of how to write a letter, the way you felt when you wrote it, well that matters most. Instructed my ten and eleven year olds to put in their letter above anything– emotion. This letter, a gift. Leave a dent I told them, in shape of your heart.

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I told them to not write to me. That I wouldn’t catch feelings in any way if they wrote to another teacher or staff member. Please write to your former teachers I said, listed their names. But. Some wrote to me. And I caught feelings indeed.

These are some of the sentences that struck me as I read their drafts. Their handwriting large or small, uneven or even, messy or neat, but all pierced the paper. And in turn my heart.

I want to thank you for inspiring me to be a writer too. You are my role model. You are Latina like me, and I never had a Spanish teacher before. I love that you speak Spanish to us even to your students that don’t understand. You work hard and expect us to do the same. No one has catch phrases like you. Ms. Meza you are strict, but when you are being tough I know it’s for my own good because you care. You make it fun to learn, maybe because you are funny or smart, could it be because you are both? You love all of us. I will never forget our conversation in the library. I hope you don’t.

I can’t front. Those words made and make me feel a whole mess of things. But, what echoes most, I don’t deserve them. I’m not that good of a teacher. I could do more. I should do so much more. I never set off to be a teacher. Teaching chose me. I did not choose it. And because of this I have felt like a fraud. Sixteen years, sixteen and a half to be exact,  I have felt this. Until this past year. Where my classroom and student became the teacher. The one that held the lessons. Maybe it always was. But it took me the teacher, to write it and read it, and only then could I recognize it.

My classroom and students have appeared in a handful of my essays. The act of writing my classroom anecdotes and re reading them back to myself  was when it dawned on me. That writing and teaching could exist in my heart without fear of loving one more than the other. Afraid to betray writing I told myself that teaching was a mere stop, as I waited for another train. Sixteen years I have waited for that train. I waited married, then with my daughter at my side too, and later my son. But always in that state of wait. So, I taught with my heart on pause. I was wrong. Teaching and writing, blend and swirl around each other, like the hues of a sunset. But there is more than my fear of infidelity against writing. There is always more.

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I don’t think you could teach without heartbreak. And if your heart is soft to the touch you will live in perpetual heartache. It was how I taught at the very beginning. But that changed after a while. I’ve never known how to deal with pain. Hid it, ignored it, numbed it, but never dealt with it. I do not like pain. Neither emotional or physical. I’m the first to run for Advil, menthol for my achy ankles, and airborne for any sign of a cold. But, teachers teach a classroom of students. Humans. So, it’s inevitable, you catch feelings.

*

Last summer on the last day of school I made a beeline to my friend, Zoraida’s apartment. My daughter waited for me there, after a long day in a summer program for high school readiness. My son in tow with me. He spent the last day of school in my classroom. He sat among my students, lifted his head a few times, his eyes locked with mine. The novelty of coming to school with me rested across his smile.

Exhausted by a tough year and the marathon madness of June. I flung myself on her Lazy Boy. I closed my eyes. “This was one of the hardest year,” I said. It’s what I said about every year, but this time I meant it.

“Think about the difference you made in your students lives,” my friend said.

And I thought of all the times I placed my hand over my heart. Fearful it would fall from chest like a slippery dish and shatter. I pressed the back of my head back against the recliner as far as I could possibly go. I wondered if I could mute the memories and make them go away.

“Do you know what they tell us as teachers to not smile, at least not to December. And for a long time I believed that,” I closed my eyes. “Do you know the third time I was a sub ever was when I ditched the smile?” I shook my head, the bullshit of it all. “And the kids paid attention and listened and I got through the lesson plans.” I thought about how scared I was before that class of third graders. And how badass I felt when they listened.  “So, for the longest that is what I did. I didn’t smile.”

“Do you know at the Academy they have us practice how we stand? You gotta stand with one leg pivoted to the side. Your strongest,” Zoraida’s said.

I opened my eyes and looked up. My friend, now a retired cop, two years since she gave in her shield. But forever in cop mode, her eyes always fixed, as if on a perpetual stake out. Don’t think you can do a job for that long and it not change you. Not in a molecular level, but deeper in a way, a cast on your soul. Shaped in a cop for her, and a teacher for me.  “Really?”

“Gotta protect your weapon,” she stood up and modeled the stance.

Maybe her guarded stance was my lack of smile those first few years as a teacher. But what did I protect? My bright chart markers? My extra sticky post its? Or myself?

I thought of my first summer school class I taught. The kids already held over once or twice, some meant for sixth or seventh grade, but would enter fifth grade, maybe. But only if they passed. I rooted for them to pass, but more than just to the next grade. I wanted them to learn. So, I taught my ass off, my weapon of choice, bribery in the form of snacks. I brought iced cold lemonade in one of those cooler jugs, made it from the powdered mix at home. I promised them the lemonade along with cheese doodles and salt and vinegar chips only after their work was done. Afterwards I watched them laugh and take long sips of lemonade from cheap plastic cups and eat chips. Bounty towels, served as dishes. They walked around and mingled like adults in a cocktail hour, except they were in n public school classroom with a brand new teacher, still years from her certification and masters. No arsenal of great teaching skills. It was just me.

“Ms. Meza, how come you never have chips with us?”  Roberta asked me. (Name changed). She wore tight ripped jeans, Air Jordans on her feet, second and even third hole pierced along her ear, and her natural dark hair dyed a brassy orange. The boys loved to watch her figure sashay across the classroom, and she knew it. She was sweet. Math her nemesis.

On the first day of summer school she told the class that she didn’t mind reading if it was a juicy book. The boys snickered and the rest of the girls looked her way with gaped mouths.

“I rather watch you guys eat them,” I smiled at Roberta. It was true I loved to see them worry free and snack with abandon. Happy they were too young to know so much was stacked against them. When they looked away, I blinked fast, to keep the tears from the corner of my eyes.

Most nights my first year of teaching I laid on my bed, hands rested on my stomach in prayer. I would let the sadness wash over me from that day of teaching and could hear the echo of my Mami telling me, “no lo tomes a pecho”. And I willed my heart not to feel.

“It’s not easy our jobs,” my friend interrupted my thoughts. “I know chica…”

“I use to not be so tough you know…” I took a long breath, which came out all shaky. “I use to care so much. Get chest pains all around my heart. It would hurt.” I closed my eyes just as they clouded with tears. “There was this boy. He was in my first class ever. They were not mine for a full year. I got them early April, but they were my first real class you know.” I waited.

“I’m listening,” she said.

“We stayed late for after school one day, and he never got picked up. I waited with him by the main office and still nothing. The sun was starting to set and I got a hold of his mom. She was angry and seemed bothered.” I thought back to how she slammed the phone on me. Sadness wove through my heart, and I waited for it to recede. And when it didn’t, well I hunched my shoulders and strapped on rage over my shoulders and back. My backpack of rage. “Told me to tell him he could walk home. I couldn’t believe it. It was a few blocks and two big avenues down. I offered to walk home with him when I gave him the message.”

“Dito,” my friend said, her voice gripped by sadness.

“So, I walked him. We didn’t even talk much the whole time. There was even an ice cream truck parked on one of the blocks.  Got him a cone with sprinkles. I walked into his building with him. While we waited for him to be buzzed in I hugged him. Damn even kissed the top of his little dirty head.”

I ended my story there. If I spoke further I was afraid I’d start to cry. And at the time I told myself there was no time for that. But it wasn’t true. I had built a dam to force my emotions back, but overtime the levees weakened. And I have since cried. Cried for my students. The ones that have been dealt a hard hand in life. That are labeled discipline problems and who teachers pray they don’t get. And then the ones that are quiet and withdrawn, who carry a burden of pain over their shoulders, but go unnoticed.

And that’s me. That’s who I am. I take todo a pecho because I have always felt everything ten folds. Nothing ever rolls off my back. It gets nestled there. And my writing is my attempt to unearth it, to bring it to light.

It was at a family friend’s baby shower that I was told that while I was in-between jobs to consider teaching. I nodded my head as if I was suggested a new entrée on a menu to try. Her words burrowed in mind with each nod. And while I waited to land a job in publishing and write my epic novel I could substitute teach. I would be like Ms. Honey in Matilda. Cool. And I could be that young and make a difference teacher, like in Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase. https://Up_the_Down_Staircase. 

And while I have made a difference for some students. It’s only some. I’m haunted, by those that I have not reached. This has come at a price, teaching. I’d be a liar if I said it hadn’t. I’m different from when I began to teach at twenty-three. And for the longest time I complied a list of negatives about being a teacher, and what it had cost me. But I will not write that list, everyone has encountered teachers before. It’s true what they say about us teachers, we are love to rage against the machine, complain. We are great cheerleaders. But not our own. We can close a bar down the Friday before a break. All true.

But there is more. There always is.

If I could tell my twenty-three year old self one thing. It would be this: Hang in there! I know it’s bone tiring. And yes it hurts. Your heart fuck’n hurts. But one day it will all make sense. And you know you have arrived as a teacher when you start to see life as the classroom. You are after all a student.

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Daughter of Inmigrantes.

I wasn’t always proud to be daughter of immigrants. Now, I can say, I’m proud of my immigrant parents and to be their daughter. But that wasn’t always the case. I lied to myself. Or kept the truth hidden so it wouldn’t sneak up on me.

I day-dreamed of prompt dinners at six. Where dishes like meat loaf, casserole, and pot pie were the main course, instead of sopa de cabeza de pescado, carne frita con arroz de lentijas, and arepa or bollo limpio. A pitcher of chilled water with lemon slices at the center of the table, cloth napkins, and pretty plates that matched. Instead Joann and I ate at the front of the television on folded up dinner tables, and the aluminum cups from Colombia filled high with Hawaiian Punch. Papi home late at night. Mami often ate apart from us. Sometimes at the foot of the stove or in her bedroom. Clothes strewn aside, after long days as a cleaning lady, dressed in her full length lace slip. Her legs spread apart at the foot of the bed, hunched over a bowl of rice. Eyes fixed on the novella at the time. Univision or Telemundo, not sure which of the two, showed the latest drama with Adela Noreiga. Mami prefered a spoon over a fork. And in my one-act of resistance, I always reached for a fork. It seemed un-American, to eat with a spoon all your meals. And I wanted distance, far from Chalan, Colombia, where Mami was born.

Being the daughter of immigrants was something I dealt with. Saw it as another burden. Weighed down by first generation woes. Coupled by having old parents and growing up poor, more reasons my shame felt justified. They were immigrants, and in turn, I was seen through the same lens they were.  That same lens magnified, took in their lack of English, and my bilingualism. Amplified it. I understood that this was the hand I was dealt. No different from my bad eyes and flat feet, I drew from the wrong treasure chest.

Later, only much later, would I begin to understand. I was shaped by growing up poor and to two old parents who were immigrants. What I thought to be a burden wasn’t. But were the weights I lifted. Benched. The partner I spared with. Shadow boxed. It made me strong. But it also forced me into a perpetual stance. At attention. Ready to fight.

But to understand, layers must be folded back. And then the excavation.

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I realized early too, being the daughter of immigrants came with its own set of rules. Different than those with parents born here. Parents that were born here did not start every sentence with, pero en Colombia… finished by, puede ser que nacistes aca pero no eres Americana.  Mami was horrified by American ideas such as: sleepovers, block parties, trips to the mall, and viruses allowed to run its course. She’d shake her head in disgust and stamp her foot as if to emphasis the shock.

But there was more to being the child of immigrants than all things you could not do. There was a list of duties needed to be done. But, centered around one-act.

On demand translation.

My first recollection of being a translator for Mami was at the Polish diner, Eve’s, around the block from church. Some Saturdays after the evening mass Mami treated Joann and I to cheeseburgers and fries, and fountain sodas. It was there that I first caught a glimpse of Mami’s struggle to be understood. Her English shards, unable to be strung together. She gestured and spoke bits of Spanish, all the while her face, pained with frustration. Young and shy, I watched in agony as she tried to order a fried chicken platter. Greater, my urgency to come to Mami’s rescue, than my dislike to talk to strangers. I jumped in and became Mami’s voice. And never quite stopped. I thought myself her superhero.

I always treated English with great care. If the vowels were not stretched long like chewing gum and my endings were not gripped with my teeth, I worried it would all fall apart. I spent much of my life combing English straight, any tangles pulled taut. A list of every word I have been corrected on gets tucked somewhere between my tongue and the space in my brain that holds language. It stands guard so my error will never repeat. It is: sandwich not sangwich, it’s buffet not bufe, it’s passport not passaport, it’s almond not allmend, and on and on. And like all lists that haunt, it weighs heavy and is so long.

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In effort to pay for my crime. Mis pronunciation. I was accused of talking white by my own gente, as if being well spoken could only be entitled to one race. But in my efforts to speak the King’s English and sound as far removed from Mami’s stalled English. Coupled with the vocabulary of an avid reader and the tenderness and precision of a writer’s obsession with words. I boxed myself into a corner, separate from my parents. I was no longer the daughter of immigrants. No, I was just a Latina homegirl with good English. (Yup I know that’s not grammatically correct).

But even all my great care with English was not good enough. Stopped by many, told that I sounded a lot like Rosie Perez or Jennifer Lopez. I glared. They looked down. And I smiled. Who was uncomfortable now?

And with every academic milestone I pulled myself further from being the daughter of immigrants. High school graduation, college graduation with honors, Cum Laude, and masters graduation. There is the sixteen complete years of teaching. And every book I read, my entrance tickets to the world of English.  Assimilated. Proud. Bilingual. Shame of being the child of an immigrant no longer one that I carried in my back pack.

But.

It was there. Underneath. Buried under things unsaid.

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*

“He called me Mexican,” my son sat at the round kitchen table at the far end of my living room, which made up our dining room. Ruben’s school work was spread across the table. Fidget spinner in his hand, his voice matter of fact.

I was in the kitchen seasoning ground beef for the night’s dinner. “What was that,” I walked over to where he sat.

He looked up. Fidget spinner balanced on the tip of his index finger. “The other day at school, *Sam called me Mexican.” (*name changed)

My hands bent outwards on my waist to avoid the seasoning on my clothes. “What do you mean he called you a Mexican,” my voice louder. Heat crept across my chest, my jaw tensed.

Ruben eyes took me in before he spoke again, “But I didn’t care, because I’m not Mexican. I told him I’m Colombian,” he smiled. He flashed his dimples, deep pockets on his face, air kisses blown my way. This was his way.

I ignored the dimples, “Let me tell you something,” my voice boomed through the apartment. “The next time he calls you Mexican you better shut him down,” I growled.

“What happened?” My daughter snuck up behind me.

“Sam called me a Mexican and now Mama’s mad,” Ruben said. His turned to his sister as if she held an explanation.

I took a step back. My children were second generation immigrants through me. Unlike me.

“Maybe because of Papi’s accent,” Ruben offered.

“What’s that suppose to mean?” I narrowed my eyes. At twenty-six with limited English my husband came from Colombia to New York. Determined. He rode English like a mechanical bull, held on with a death grip. And when his grasp loosened and he slipped, he swung himself back up on the saddle. After a full year of ESL classes he could write and read English in enough to enroll in a trade school. He spoke English as well as anybody else. How dare they!

“He’s a jerk,” Ruben screamed. His own anger pulled by my own. “He didn’t say anything about Papi, but if he ever does,” he raised his fist.

I took a long breath. I never wanted my children to deal with the shit I dealt with. They did not have to go to clinics that accepted Medicaid, or get imitation LA Gears, have to translate on command at every doctor office, government agency, and utility company.

My children were not immigrants.

“I told you that kid was a racist,” Holden moved her head back and forth, proud that her thirteen year old self spotted something before I did.

“First of all what’s wrong with being a Mexican? What that was an insult,” I gestured my hands in disgust. “Huh? Is it? Because nothing wrong in being a Mexican carajo!” My voice louder. “Some of my good friends are Mexican. So, what’s the problem. Lesslie is Mexican, Lorena and Kari are Mexican. Colleen is Mexican!”

“Colleen’s Mexican?” My son’s eyebrow shot up. “She doesn’t look Mexican.”

“I told you Latinos come in many shades!” I paced. “Next time someone calls you Mexican. Tell them this: Cool, I love Mexicans, thanks. But I’m Colombian.” I stamped my foot. “Do you understand?” Furious. I stared at both Holden and Ruben until they both nodded their heads.

“It’s ok Mama,” Ruben’s fidget spinner abandoned at the table.

“That is not ok, what the hell is wrong with everybody,” I said. “I can name ten great Mexican writers. I should march myself to your school.”

“I’ve been called Mexican too, you know,” Holden cut me off. “It’s the stupid things kids say when they don’t know any better.”

“But I speak English. I’m not an immigrant!” I roared.

Silence.

Ruben and Holden’s transfixed.

And I was once again ten, at Lutheran Hospital. Mami’s translator. The doctor wore a smile, lips pressed tight, as his eyes glanced over Mami and me. His hair combed with a perfect part to the side and teeth that could be in a toothpaste commercial. Mami in her signature long skirts, her round cashew colored face without a trace of makeup, and her always-present rosary beads clutched in her hands. Then there was me, with frizzy hair, cheap welfare glasses, a discount T-shirt, and worn out jeans. His eyes rested on my face. Pity.

No, I’ve never been called Mexican.

But I’ve been made to feel wrong. Not right. Someone that should be pitied.

I thought that was no longer part of me. The daughter of immigrants. I worked hard to exile her, remove her existence. So, I thought. But she is part of me. The one that comes to Latinos rescue when they are stuck. Wordless. She is the one that counts how many brown faces are in the room with her. That worries about her English, must be smooth and sounds smart.

Alongside the daughter of immigrants, is the woman of parents of immigrants. The wife of an immigrant. She’s fierce and sassy. And she resides in me too. Unafraid to make bold statements about race and diversity. She knows the power of words. The power of owning your story.

So, here is my story. I’m the daughter of Colombian immigrants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

They Killed My Cousin…

I’ve never gotten over my cousin’s death. His murder. October 2, 1998. A giant shadow since then. This, my attempt to let go. But in order to let go, I must go in.

I’ve always been stunned that you could lose someone and be unaware. Something about that never settled right in my bones. That the world would deceive you and not offer a clue. A hint. That your world exploded and you, oblivious to it. No, flicker of the lights, or alarm bell, or shrill whistle to grab your attention. Just life as it is. This bit about how life works, like Halloween mask terrified me. It would take years for me to understand this is the ebb and flow of nature.

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He was thirty-three and I was twenty-one. Separated by two continents, North America and South America. The Atlantic Ocean in between. News of his murder reached us early the next morning. The phone wailed, much like a siren. I sat on the edge of my bed. Papi screamed, como va ser. His words echoed throughout the apartment. I gripped the bottom corner of the mattress until my fingers felt raw. Silence. Then. Mami and Papi wept in the kitchen.

Francisco was Papi’s nephew. Mami’s nephew through marriage. But their pain was equal. Mami knew Francisco since he was a toddler, and favored him the most. Unmothered himself, their bond was great. I dared not disturb them in their grief. I remained alone. Unaware that my pain needed permission to be felt. As the details of his death came in I stared out the window of my bedroom, transfixed. Behind the glass, early signs of fall.  A rabbit hole of memories dragged me to Colombia. Grief, no faster vessel for memories to sail.

*

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For someone who did not know how to swim and feared the ocean, Mami loved the beach. Every trip to Colombia was marked by excursions to Santa Marta, El Rodadero. An hour drive from Barranquilla. As a child, Francisco was my cool older male cousin. The one I idolized. So, great was my love for him, at five I hoped to marry him.

On one particular beach day in El Rodadero Joann and I screamed as our feet touched the sand. Hot coals were cooler. My primo sprung to action. He grabbed Joann up in his arms, and ran her to the shoreline. I watched, and worried Francisco would not be able to do the same for me.  Though two and a half years younger, I outweighed Joann by a good thirty pounds most of my childhood. She was the thin one. I was la gordita. Once back, Francisco reached out for me. I hesitated.

“No la levantes,” Mami warned, she was next to me. “She weighs too much,” she pulled at my hand to walk.

“Yo puedo Tia,” Francisco grabbed me and swooped me in his arms.

My legs dangled over his arms. My head tilted back, blinded by the sun.

“Your not heavy at all,” my cousin huffed. Gordito himself, this beach workout made him breathless.

I wrapped my arms tighter around his neck. Safe in his arms. I beamed.

Once placed down in the damp sand. He ran to the water. His t-shirt tossed on the sand without a care. I watched him submerge into the ocean for what seemed a long time. Panic rose and I stepped closer to the water afraid he was swallowed by the waves. But his head bobbed up and his arms struck up in the air. The ocean was no match for Francisco. And there, my superhero was born.

*

As I faded in and out of memories, I listened to Mami and Papi on the phone to Colombia. Facts of his death came from my cousin Clara, they would speak them out loud to each other. As if only spoken a loud did they make sense. That was how I came to know what transpired minutes leading to his death. I sat in my bedroom and pieced it all together.

*

He was on the corner. Around the bend from Abuelo’s house. It was in the afternoon. Daylight and witnesses did not deter murderers in Colombia, sicarios. He was shot point-blank range in the chest. The impact of the gunfire knocked him to the ground. His friends watched in horror. Adrenaline and badassness forced him to his knees. Then up. He stumbled towards his murderer. Unable to fight. He was shot again. This time the gun aimed in the direction of his head. As the shot rang out his assailant ran towards a motorcycle, and sped away.

Mayhem followed. As if some force pressed the play button, the thumb off pause. Motion. Men cursed and pounded their fists. Some even began to hatch revenge plans. Women screamed. Babies wailed. My cousin Clara ran out of the house. She knew Francisco always hung out in that corner. Circled by a group of friends.

Unconscious. Blood pooled around him, a faint pulse was detected. Afraid to wait for medical help, Clara took action. She dragged his body, his friends helped, and another friend’s yellow Renault served as the makeshift ambulance. They drove him to the hospital. Pronounced dead minutes after his arrival. Nothing to be done. Only arrangements to be made.

His murder was not investigated. Not guerilla related. Not a victim from a secuestro gone wrong. Not a political leader targeted. Not a corrupt policia caught in a crossfire. Francisco, now a statistic of Colombia’s violence. Violence, part of Colombia’s setting as much as the palm trees, starry nights, and arepa stands.

Witnesses disappeared or denied any knowledge of the details of his death. Afraid to cause trouble and bring more harm. The focus became his burial. The repose of his soul. Masses were said in his honor, a month of daily rosaries prayed in his name.

Closure evaded. The mystery of his death became wrapped tight with the grief itself. It lingered. Questions and what ifs flooded my mind the days, weeks, and months after his death. Still do.

  • Why did he get up? If he had not gotten up, would he not have been shot again. Was that the fatal blow?
  • Why did his friends not try to stop it? Warn him? Did they know?
  • Why was he killed? Did we know all the pieces of the puzzle?
  • Was he set up? Did he have a sense that someone wanted him dead?

*

These questions have plagued me for over nineteen years since his death. Murder. But a few weeks ago I added another question to the list. Something I had not thought about. Tucked away like so many things. I kept it to the side. But an image on the smart board in my classroom, and a student’s question forced me to recall.

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At the start of our new unit on immigration my students studied the image of immigrants on top of a freight train from Central America and Mexico. Then a turn and talk with their partners, followed by a quick write, based on what they noticed and wondered.

One of my students who makes up the new gentrified Brooklyn, said “I didn’t know people had to do that.” His eyes filled with compassion beyond his years.

I nodded my head.

He shook his head back and forth, “did you ever know anyone that tried to come into America like that?” The purple thick stripe in his hair bounced with his every move.

The class turned towards me.

“Yeah, of course. My friend Lesslie crossed the border when she was four. There was my friend from highschool. He flew from Peru to Mexico and then crossed the border.” I recounted.

“Did any members of your family?” He pressed.

“Yes,” I answered. “My cousin. But he was caught.” And right there I was pulled into another time. Details recounted through phone calls to and from Colombia. Lost in a memory. I stood silent in front of my students.

A few years before he was killed Francisco had flown from Barranquilla to Curacao. Once in Curacao he flew to Atlanta Georgia. A city and state not known for high traffic of immigrants it was a safe bet to travel from there to the North East. But it was not to be. He was flagged. And under further investigation his paper work did not check out. Falsified. He was denied access into America. Francisco spent two weeks in a detention center in Atlanta. Sent back to Barranquilla, he arrived exhausted and hopeless. His dream to join his family in the United States squashed.

“Ms. Meza?” My student called out.

“Yes,” absent-minded I answered.

“So, what happened to your cousin?” He stared.

“Huh?”

“What happened to him? Did he try to come back?”

“No,” I said. My throat thick. I swallowed.

“He’s still in Colombia?”

“No, he’s dead,” I looked away. My eyes on the picture of the men as they scrambled towards the freight train. “Maybe… if he had made it…” I trailed off unable to finish the sentence.

Silence followed. My students followed my gaze and stared at the picture with me. And I waited for the wave of pain to subside.

 

*

Last week as we laid beside each other in the dark, I whispered to my husband.

The question I kept close to my chest since that day in my classroom stumbled out of my mouth. “Do you think if Francisco had not been detained, that time he tried to come to America, he would still be alive?” I held my breath.

He reached for my hand. His fingers interlaced mine. This was our custom for as long as we’ve been married. I’d ask about my cousin. He’d answer. They grew up together. Neighbors at first, friendly, later close friends. “Yes, he would be alive,” sadness crept into his voice.

“Tell me, why do you think they killed him?” I turned to my side. The sheet under my chin. I licked the tears that spilled down my face and into the corner of my mouth.

“Pacho was a good guy.” He called him by his nickname. The one everyone called him.

Mami, Papi, Joann and I, we called him Franciscito.

“He was friends with everyone.” He turned on his side too. “But in Colombia you can’t be friends with everyone…”

I didn’t press and insist. The rules of Colombia were ones that I did not understand. Not in full. Resignation to hardship, violence, and pain was the rule in which Francisco’s murder fell under. And in order to resign on self you didn’t wallow in the past. And for the longest time I followed suit with everyone else. But Francisco would creep into my thoughts when I least expected it. Like the way we would sneak into the kitchen and eat the fried torticas de arena, my Tia Delia made for dinner. As soon as her back was turned we would grab the oily flour cakes. Our mouths full, we smiled at our food burglar ways. I can’t help but think that Francisco nudged me now. Nudges me. Not to grab the torticas, but to grab the stories of my family. My story. His story. Our stories.

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My eyes heavy with sleep I spoke into the night air. “Do you think he’s happy we are together?” I asked. He was his friend and I was his baby cousin. We both carried an altar in our hearts. For him. When we found out our second child was a boy. We knew his middle name would be Francisco, his first name would have to work around it.

“Yes, he’s happy.”

And I thought about how I arrived to Colombia eight months after his death. Twenty days after my college graduation. Both of us, my husband and I, cloaked by our grief. Broken hearted. Me, rocked by the breakup of first love. Him, left alone without the mother of his first child. Never to meet his son. And Francisco’s death wound tight over our pain.

 

*

This August I will be forty. I will enter the decade my primo never got to enter. And I know two things to be true. My cousin would love to read my stories now. He’d be proud of me, his primita. And that in order to get over his death. His murder. I must tell his story too.

 

 

His Son…

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It was never a secret. Not at first. But later it became one. His son was born six weeks before our first kiss. We were in a nightclub called Palm Tree. I was drunk on Club Colombia cervezas. And lost count on how many shots of aguardiente I had downed. Heartbroken still from my breakup months prior, I wanted to feel loved again. I wanted to be wanted. And a terrible break up with his son’s mother during her second trimester, left my husband without a girlfriend or son. Lonesome. Wrapped tight with hurt. Now, I can see that. Then, I just saw someone who could love me. And in turn he saw the same.

*

Late in the winter and throughout the spring last year, life gifted me with a series of lessons. So fast and furious were the lessons, they threatened to knock me down on my face. It’s never the moment of the incident that causes the greatest impact. But the subsequent days that leave you reeling. Like those dreams when you fall into some dark abyss, I found myself falling. But as I fell, I smiled. Nodded my head. Acted as if nothing was wrong. Until finally an angry outburst forced me to face what lurked underneath. My fury, was a  lot of hurt.

Incident #1:  

“What would you say if I told you that you had a brother,” My husband blurted out as soon as Holden walked into our bedroom. She held two bottles of water in her hands, her arms extended towards us. The reason why she came into the room.

My head whipped in his direction. I glared. Minutes before we agreed to tell them soon, but not tonight.

“Funny,” she laughed.

“It’s not a joke,” my husband looked up at her. His tone serious, pleaded with her. To believe him. He was on his stomach on the bed. His hands buried in the dark forest of his hair.

“Is it true?” My daughter wide-eyed. Her eyebrows knit and a smile on her face all at once. Derailed emotions across her face.

Unable to met her eyes I turned to my husband. He hung his head and held it in his hands, as if the weight of a son he never spoke to or spoken of, no longer allowed him to hold his head.

Then, my eyes traveled to the neat piles of folded laundry on the floor by the bed. Pressed against the wall. The neater, the more in control I felt. It was not just my laundry, but my calendar, my apartment, the inbox of my email, closet, classroom, and my dresser drawers. Neatness required. Everything. A scam. No true control. And to think such thing was possible. Well that was foolish.

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“It’s true. You have a brother in Colombia,” my husband spoke.

My daughter turned towards me. Her eyes suspicious slits. But the smile still plastered on her face.

“I’ve always known about your father’s other son.” I said, frozen on the bed.

It was mid March of last year. Sunday late evening. My husband just off the phone with his son. This, their first conversation. I sat crossed legged as he spoke. An hour conversation with the mother of his first child, after seventeen years, followed by a thirty minutes with his sixteen year old son. My husband rigid. His hair high. Chest, shirtless, was splotched with red. Both Holden and Ruben watched television in the living room. And in between their laughter at the comedy show on the screen I mouthed questions to my husband to ask his son. Both unsure how to talk to one another, after a lifetime of never speaking. The silence grew loud.

But now as I faced my daughter I wished someone could mouth the words to me like I did, for father and son.

“What do you mean you’ve always known?” Holden’s fists on her hips. Water bottles tossed on my bed. Her hair in a high pony-tail, she somehow looked older than her twelve years, right then.

“I’ve never not known,” I closed my eyes. This was not the way we were suppose to tell her. I needed time to sift through the details, outline the characters, place my plot points. I needed time, to write this story. This was my way. Never told anyone anything right away. A keeper of: half bits, diluted truths, and hazy certainties. If I could rewrite anything and make my truth less, and more of a story. Well then, pain could be avoided.

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“So, let me get this straight. You knew I had a brother and never told me?” The smile across Holden’s face became stained with sadness.

“It was not my story to tell,” unable to own my story I looked towards my husband. Lifted the blame my daughter sought and placed it on him.

“Wow! What else have you kept from me?” She lashed out.

“What kind of question is that? Nothing!”

“How many kids do you have?” She fired at me. “Why did you decide to tell me now? Is he coming to New York? Who else knows?” Her voice loud.

“Let me show you a picture,” my husband pulled out his phone. After he swiped a few times, a picture of his son appeared on the screen.

Holden’s anger like an amusement park ride began to take momentum. She grabbed at the phone.

We watched her peer at the screen. Eyes became wide and wider. Her face slid from anger to shock. She dropped the phone on the bed. My mind wandered to when she was young and would go to Music Together classes. They would sit the kids in a circle and play hot potato with an egg shaker. Holden would clap her chubby hands in rhythm to the song. And if hot potato was called, and Holden found herself with the shaker. She would drop it in horror. I’d whisper in her ear, it’s not really hot. Don’t be scared. Was I suppose to tell her then among the toy instruments? That she had a brother in Colombia four years older. A brother, her father never met.

“He looks like you and your brother, right?” I wanted to whisper in her ear like I did long ago. Don’t be scared.

“How old is he?” Holden bit her lip.

“Sixteen, he will be seventeen in August.” My husband looked up. The phone once again in his hand.

“You were married?” She asked. As soon as she spoke the words laughter trailed behind.

“No, not married. We dated,” he pulled at his hair, as if the memories needed to be forced out.

“Haaaa Haha” Holden howled. Her hands on her knees as she bent over hysterical with laughter.

I stared. And watched my daughter have her first laugh attack. An affliction, though humorous, has plagued me since I was a young child. It’s as simple as this, whenever I feel overwhelmed, usually brought by lots of stress I’m prone to laugh attacks. It’s not just a few seconds of a hearty laugh. No, my laugh attacks can last as short as a handful of minutes and as long as thirty minutes. So, great are my laugh attacks that I’m left gasping for breath. Streams of tears down my face. And those around me who join me with laughter of their own, at first, but soon grow bored. Since the joke, which dropped me to my knees and forced my fist to pound the ground, is no longer funny.

After a few intense acupuncture sessions, which left me with my hands over my mouth as I drowned my laughter. My acupuncturist, Brittany, told me they were an indicator that the body was overwhelmed with emotions. Desperate to release this someway, it chose laughing. Laughter, a menu choice, which I favored second to rage.

Holden unable to gather her wits, continued to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” My son, Ruben, walked into our bedroom.

“We…. we… ha… haaaa…ha!” Holden laughed, unable to catch her breath, unable to string together a few words at a time.

“You have a brother, Ruben,” my husband lifted his head in the direction of our son.

“Look… ha…. haha… his… haaaaaa…. picture,” fat tears rolled down Holden’s face.

My son grabbed the phone and stared at the screen for a long time. He looked at us, as if he searched for a clue, unsure what to make of our stressed face. Ruben then turned towards his sister. And like often done, the youngest copy the older. Laughter erupted.

It was awhile before they both grew weak from laughter. Once quiet, we filled them on the details of their half brother’s existence. And why before tonight their was no contact. How his single mom refused to share her son with his father, unless he married her. And the man, his father, your father, wanted to wait to get married. But still be part of his son’s life. All or nothing, she banished him from their lives. Angry, my husband refused to make peace, even at the cost of his son. Both wrong. Unable to provide for her son after a long recovery from the Zika virus. She was left no choice, but to reach out for help. Contacted my husband’s youngest brother still in Colombia. He called. And a phone conversation was set up.

I doled out these details as if I read them from a short story. Removed. A narrator and not an accomplice.

My husband elaborated with his eyes closed. Shut by shame.

And once we were done. My daughter looked at me for the longest time. Her eyes filled with disappointment, “you went out with a guy who had just broken up with his pregnant girlfriend?”

Silent. I bowed my head down like a repentant. After she left the bedroom, my son behind her, I wanted to shout out. They were broken up before we got together. I didn’t break them up. He never wanted to talk about it. Like always. I remained silent.

*

The last couple of weeks I have said words and complete sentences, and sometimes full paragraphs I thought I would never say, let a lone say them aloud. But over course of three weeks I have taken note of the words which have spilled out of my mouth. Spoken to my friends, colleagues, and family. Some even to my social media writing friends through messenger.

  • I’m ashamed…
  • I’m filled with rage…
  • It no longer makes me happy when I hear that people are afraid of me. It did. But it no longer does.
  • Tired of keeping secrets.
  • Done with doling out excuses for myself. Unable to do the same for my friends.
  • I no longer bury my nose in a book and pretend shit isn’t happening.
  • I’m starting to believe that the universe wants me to tell these stories. The ones I’ve buried alongside my emotions. But like my emotions, my stories have surfaced. Have they both waited for my revolution?

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This is essay number twenty. 40,000. That’s the rough estimate of words I’ve written in just the #52essays2017challenge.  If you include the chapters of my novel or my short stories, other nonfiction creative proses I’ve written and not shared, as well as my mini short essays on http://hispanecdotes.com. It would be another 40,000. Maybe more. Since January I’ve written a whole fucking lot!

And you can’t do that much of something without a change.

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There is power in that. I didn’t know when I began this essay challenge that changed was summoned. To be honest, I began the essay challenge because I loved https://vanessamartir.wordpress.com. The entire year of 2016 I read her essays, one a week. On the rare occasion I didn’t read her essays, I made sure to double up the next week. Her essays, a rope tossed to me week after week. I clung to her essays, certain that her words were meant for me. They must be, spoke what my heart dared not feel. And when she posted her challenge for writers to join her in 2017. I sent a timid: I’d like to do this.. but not sure… Lean in she replied. And I did.

The other day I came across my daughter’s text with a school friend. He asked her if she only had her little brother as a sibling. She texted, No, I have a half-brother in Colombia. Seventeen.

I smiled to myself.

And just yesterday I bought a shirt for my son for an event we would attend the next day. He turned to me and pointed to a cool t-shirt with a sports logo. “We should get that and send that to Colombia, you know for my brother.”

I smiled to myself again.

My children have not stuffed their words and emotions like forbidden secrets. They accepted their half brother. They want to meet him. And wander a loud what they have in common. My son wants to teach him English and play soccer with him. My daughter wants to know how tall he is and if he has snap chat.

No longer a keeper of secrets. I say this: I have a stepson. One I’ve never met. And hope to meet. I was twenty-two when I knew of his existence, and dated his dad. And that’s fucked up. I see that now. Didn’t then. But I know better now. And I’m sorry. But, yea I have a stepson. And no it’s not a secret.

The Rage Underneath

Mami once threw a woman down a flight of stairs. I was five. The details of it are blurry. I’ve gathered this much from Mami, Joann, and my own wisps of memories. It was an upstairs neighbor, who was relentless with her racket for weeks, and later months on end. Mami spoke to her, begged her to lower the music and control her teenage boys, and to consider that she had two young girls. Fed up Mami complained. A fight ensued. She called Mami a puta. Mami grew blind in her rage, grabbed, shoved, and pushed. It was the pivot at the end of the flight of stairs that broke the fall. Stunned, but not snitches the neighbors closed their doors. However, the memory has lived in my consciousness since then, unable to be shut closed. And after that I was aware of two things. One, Mami was to be feared. Two, that rage was part of me too.

With every essay I write, I uncover another layer behind the armor I have worn for almost four decades. Realized that what I searched for existed within. Worth. Love. Acceptance. Aware now that my gaze faced the wrong direction, outward. The laptop keys have been like one of those medical cameras that look inward. A new perspective gained. So, I must carve myself out from beneath the layers. The risk to own my story,  is that first I must tell it.

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Brene Brown says: When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending. I know this is true. I may have learned it as a researcher but I live this truth as a daughter, a partner, a leader, a sister, a mother, and a friend. When we push down hurt or pretend that struggle doesn’t exist, the hurt and struggle own us. 

So, this is my story on my rage. How it has accompanied me throughout life. A shadow that I once feared, but now expect to cast alongside me. Part of me. But does not define  me.

I have different names for myself when I’m angry. When I have blacked out with rage. I label this side of myself: Connie from Sunset, Gettin Sunset, and also personified my anger. As if this rage is not part of me, but a secret side to me. An alter ego to be feared, to not be provoked, or taunted.  Named Concha. She takes over when I feel scared. Threatened. Protection, her sole purpose. She’s loud, her words like the stones in a slingshot meant to pelt. Hurt. And like a boxer in a ring pushed out with the intent to knock out the opponent, Concha comes out ready to swing. Lips set to the side, neck twisted, tongue positioned at attention.  Jabs and upper cuts powered by intimidation. Once the moment has passed, Concha resides, like huge deflated parade balloon. Until the next time. Because there always is. And I’m left tired and exhausted. Haunted by my actions and the look across everyone’s eyes. A montage of my words on an endless loop. Rage subsides and shame remains.

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*

This week I told one of my girlfriends over the phone after I wrote My Shame Back Pack essay a shift occurred. A release. The universe took note.  I received bits of good news throughout the week. Parked in front of my daughter’s dance studio I looked up at the swirl of colors, and marveled at the beauty of the sky. Sunsets stopped me in my tracks as a child, and still do. A bright post-it scribbled with a reminder.  Despite what the day brings, the day itself is a gift.

“Maybe because I let go of something that I hid, even to myself… my shame. Did that make room?” I wondered aloud over blue tooth in the car. “If I hadn’t, there would be no room for the good.” I answered myself.

“I think so,” my friend answered after a pause.

I closed my eyes and wondered what else remained to be released.

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*

I’ve always taken pride that I’m a good student. Loved to learn. I started therapy in my mid twenties after a series of full blown panic attacks. Rolled up my sleeves and dug through my memories. In those silent pauses as my therapist waited for the memories or words that I’d spoken to settle. I studied them. No different from the notes for a social studies or the outline of a research paper. I became lost in my quest for comprehension. He complimented me at the start and end of each session about how much I’ve grown. My effort noticed. So, I studied harder. And I did this once a week for four years, only a six-week hiatus after my daughter was born. My approach the same during my one year of marriage counseling. Recognition fueled my therapy. Forever in search of the accolades that being a good student yielded.

I could now discuss my emotions, articulate what I felt, and look through my memories like a photo album. But I could not feel my them. I could think through them, but was numb to what I felt.  My heart no different from a hand across a wall in the dark, blind in the search. The absence of light made illumination impossible.

In my mid thirties I searched for relief from my bouts of PMS and seasonal depression in acupuncture. Committed to once a week for eighteen months of hour-long sessions on an acupuncture table.

“We can work on physical symptoms or do emotional work?” Brittany, my acupuncturist asked in one of my early sessions with her.

“Can’t we do both?”

“We can…”she started.

“Then let’s do it,” I insisted.

And as I laid still on the table I counted the needles off. The more needles, the more improvement I hoped to gain. I smiled at all the improvements I could mark on my checklist. Points for depression, anxiety, PMS, worry, tense shoulders, sinus congestion, achy shoulder, and focus were ones that I welcomed. Only one that I shied away from. Anger.

My first session on anger left me chest filled with pain. So, much so that my hands mid session came up to my chest, and felt about. The image of cement poured heavy and thick over a hole took hold of my mind. I worried that the pain would seal itself, and my chest would turn to concrete.

“How are you?” Brittany asked once my time was up. She walked around me and plucked the needles off of me.

“I thought we would work on anger?” I asked propped on my elbows.

“We did,” Brittany pointed to above my ribs, and to the space between my throat and heart. “These are the points I used for anger.”

“Oh,” I said.

“What did you feel?” Brittney’s eyes rested on my face.

“It hurt so much,” I looked up at her. And was moved by how kind her eyes were.

Her eyes wide with compassion. “So, we hit the right points then,” she said.

“But it’s never hurt like that before,” I rubbed my chest.

“Underneath all that anger…” Brittany motioned with her hands, sifted layers in the air.

My heart hunched over, “hurt”.

*

I was one of those kids that was always quick to cry. If I got reprimanded by any adult I’d sob. Unable to be comforted for hours. If I fell and got hurt I cried so much so my body shook from the force of my tears. Mami saw my sensitivity as weakness, blind to the fact that it mirrored her own. She began the task to make me tough. The first lesson on Mami’s syllabus was, no tears. No llores tanto. No vayas a ser boba. El mundo es cruel. Que no dejes que te la monten. And her words became ones that I etched deep inside, beside where I held my feelings. And with every repetition her words erased the part of me that collected them. Feelings. Don’t cry. Don’t be a fool. This is a cruel world. Don’t let anyone make a bitch out of you. Her words like bleach washed what I felt. Soon, I felt nothing. Except in the absence of all my emotions, one grew. Rage.

And comfortable with my anger I tended to it like a pet. Gave it attention, fed it, and grew to love it. My mind hustled to seek justification. So, I collected reasons why I should be angry. Why my rage was necessary, even beautiful.

  • Well my mother was a rageholic, so I inherited it. No different from her high cheekbones. DNA complicit.
  • I’m Latina. Our ancestors were pissed, and I was given no choice in the matter.
  • You gotta act tough even when your scared shitless. To do anything but puff out your chest, would label you a punk. An act deemed punishable in Sunset Park.
  •  I have reasons why I should be angry. You too would be angry. My childhood while not the worst was far from the best. So, there.

But another list formulated as I wrote this, how my anger has betrayed me. Lied to me. Tricked me to think I was in control. Despite that I was often left with a sour stomach, tense shoulders, jet fueled mind, and infinite sadness.

  • The time I mouthed to the cop after I was pulled over for cell phone use. I ended up with a ticket for Disorderly Conduct, and the one for being on my phone while driving.
  • When I invited my first landlord to a fist fight,  in a parking lot, while my husband watched horrified. My husband shoved me in the car before my fist struck out.
  • How I ranted and stomped around in my Abuelo’s house in Colombia. After my Aunt’s husband insisted I adhere to the 9:00pm curfew. But only after he muttered that only a whore stayed past that time. Unafraid to create a scene and wake everyone up. I welcomed the audience. My rage grew as more eyes watched. Hypnotized by my fury I dared them to stop me.
  • That rainy Friday afternoon my neighbor from downstairs complained that my two children were being too loud. I opened the door and roared. My words a round from a semiautomatic, meant to destroy. And like a frightened kid in the midst of a nightmare I kicked and screamed until I could open my eyes. And once opened, I saw the shock on her face. But greater was the look in my seven-year old daughter and three-year old son’s faces, at the time. Fear.

That list is bullets long. I refuse to add more. A voice in me fears disconnection, and begins to whisper. Now you went too far. You will be judged. They will look at you different. Shame a deterrent. My eyes closed, head bowed. Anger once something I bragged about, and a billy club I swung to warn others. Don’t fuck with me. Leave me alone.  Perhaps underneath those words was another set of words. Don’t hurt me. 

I have these scaffolds set in my life in order to battle my enemies: anxiety, depression, stress, and obsessive thoughts. I pray, I go to the gym often and work up a sweat, read self-help books, go to yoga classes at the gym, go to acupuncture now every couple of weeks, listen to Buddhist teacher Burgs audio clips while I drive. http://theartofmeditation.org And now I have these essays that both give me the words to feel and allow me to feel too. I work all these scaffolds like I did therapy and acupuncture.

But.

My anger remains, like a wild horse. Difficult to tame. I have been unable to saddle my anger and hold tight the reigns. Worry creeps across my shoulders and I wonder if I will ever be able to. So, I write to understand. I write to own my story.

And the other day Concha was beckoned. She’s a sneaky bitch. Waits on the sides ready to jump in, like in a double dutch game. She can’t wait to show off her rage. But I only let her jump in for a while. I was not blind in my rage, there was an awareness. Still unable to harness the horse, but my hand reached out and grabbed it, however brief. And for the first time ever I didn’t fear the hurt. I just felt.

 

Unstitching My Heart

Somewhere early on I learned not to cry. Though Papi cried at sad scenes in a movie or a telenovella for that matter, but never real life. Mami cried at the sad glimpses of the world. Tragedies such as earthquake victims, starved and poor children around the world, parents of dead, those born disabled and disfigured, rape victims, and other horrors. As they flashed across El Noticero I knew by Mami’s face crumpled with sadness that only some pain warranted tears. Tears were granted only then. But exception for anything else was not given. Skinned knees, well get up. Hurt feelings you got up too. Tears were for the weak. Sensitivity, an affliction, not a brighter lens to see life. The world. So, my tears never have made much of an appearance. They have remained hidden like so many parts of me.

But this week was different. This week my heart was forced opened by acts of kindness.

In his TED Talk on Humanity Chris Abani  quotes his mother after she encounters a kind stranger in the airport. In the mist of incredible hardship his otherwise stoic mother is brought to tears. https://www.ted.com/talks/chris_abani

You can steel your heart against any kind of trouble, any kind of horror. But the simple act of kindness from a complete stranger can unstitch your heart.

Chris Abani

And like Chris Abani’s mother this past week I have been brought to tears. Family and friends have lit their lights. My shame recoiled in the brightness of their love.

In his Tin House podcast the Mexican writer Luis Alberto Urrea speaks about how we are taught to be ashamed about things we cannot control. Words delivered from the pulpit of his soul. Meant to inspire, to get writers to write words they’ve buried and hidden. I suppose I listened to him over and over in an attempt to hypnotize myself to do just that. Write what scares me. Write what makes me hang my head low. Write for those that live buried in their shame. http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/hymns-to-the-broken.

Luis Alberto Alberto Urrea podcast made its way into my life about three weeks. While I drive to work or home, I listen. As I clean the kitchen and the bathroom, I listen. And while I fold clothes, I listen. My brain and my soul woven by his words. Like the back of the mesedores de Colombia, a sturdy back of braided palmeras. I have sat with his words. Lulled by the rhythm of his words. Passion. Truth. Strength. Infected by the power of his words. My own now are seeped with: passion, truth, and strength.
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*

After I wrote my last essay the world reflected back to me just that. Passion. Truth. Strength. My Shame Back Pack. An essay that I wrote in response to Vanessa’s Martir’s essay https://vanessamartir.wordpress.com. But one that my circumstances dictated too. My intention only one. Free myself from the weight of shame that I carried in my backpack. That though I didn’t grow up third world poor, money struggles were daily in my life. A shame that I didn’t know weighed so much on me. A back pack that I have carried with me since childhood. The very same shame I’ve tried to out run. Shoved a credit card at in an act of defiance. In an act to erase my truth.  In order to buy myself out of inadequacy. A shame that has left me with outstanding debt. Fearful and aware that this might have led me to almost have sabotaged my writing dreams. I took to the computer keys in order to loosen the grasp. My back pack of shame, a week ago, left the keys and pierced the universe. But what came forth was the opposite of shame. Compassion.

May 1st, Monday: Who: My writing teacher, Colleen Cruz. What: Read my essay 17, and searched for the gofundme. The one not made public. She found it. She donated and I received an email. Me: I was shocked that she acted so fast. I stared at the email and pressed my phone to my heart. “Thank you,” I whispered. And after a few back and forth texts she offered to make my gofundme public on her page. Only after I told her I could not bring myself to do it on my own. My shame too great. She tagged me on the post. I was moved by her words, generosity, but more her belief in me. Donations trickled through. I felt relief. But it was quick to be replaced with shame. Those words, Who do you think you are, crowded my mind.

May 2nd, Tuesday: Who: My para professional, Arsenio. We’ve worked together part of last year and all of this year so far. A young man with artistic sensibility wrapped in an old soul. I have come to enjoy his presence as I teach. He’s popular with many staff members and all the students. This, a combination of his easy-going nature and not to mention his sharp sense for fashion. What: I held my phone out to him and asked him to read my essay. Already a reader of my essays and latest chapters of my novel, this was not an odd request. Me: I hesitated to hand my phone over to him. My WordPress on the screen.

Scene: “This was hard to write. I don’t want anyone to read it. It’s ok you can read it. Others have read it.” The words spilled out of my mouth. My emotions an express train, no local stops to gather my wits. His smile kind. His eyes kinder. His hand outstretched. I handed over my shame.  

Once he read the essay he walked over to me. His gait sure. One Air Jordan in front of the other. “I got you. I know. The way you grew up, well I grew up like that.”

I smiled. Glad to be seen.

“You inspire me. You inspire the students. You got to do this.”

“Your right!” I nodded my head. I blinked fast. My eyes teared up, his words that I inspired him and my students, danced across my brain. The volume of shame was now turned low by the joy that filled my heart. My lack of currency was hidden behind my abundance at the moment.

May 3rd, Wednesday:  Who: Yesenia, my VONA and Las Comadres sis. What: On our group thread with another lifeline and VONA sis Elizabeth. I told them both of the shame and vulnerability hangover I still felt after my latest essay. I mentioned my writing teacher’s post from Monday. That she made it public on her page because I was too much of a coward to put on mine. No not a coward. Ashamed. Yesenia offered to post it on her page. And before I talked myself out of it. I agreed. Once again donations trickled. My shame while still rested on my shoulders, no longer threatened to buckle my knees, the weight was less.

May 4th, Thursday (Afternoon): Who: Sandra, My Union Rep at school, colleague, friend, and classroom neighbor for over a decade. She has followed my essays throughout the last five months. What: On my lunch break I bumped into her.

Scene: She cornered me in the lobby of the school and asked me: “How much?”

I ignored.

She insisted.

“I want to help,” she continued.

I tried to walk away. Shame now behind my quick steps.

“Look at me,” she called out.

I turned.

“Listen to me you have to go. I read your essays. You’re a fantastic writer.” She stood in front of me. Her eyes filled with pride.

“It’s ok,” I offered. I looked around the hallway, happy they were empty of teachers and students, for however brief. “My sister offered to help,” I turned to walk away.

“Connie, put your pride aside for a second. I want you to consider this. I want to help you. Don’t you know that I see you. And think you are holding the torch for all of us women of color that want our stories told. If you tell your story, don’t you see you are telling all our stories.” Her eyes fixed on me.

I locked eyes with her. And saw her. Felt her heart beat in every word. My eyes fill with tears. And as I walked away from her I turned back. I stared at the spot where we stood. And part of my shame was left there.

May 4th Thursday (Evening): Who: Nia Ita, fellow Latina writer, part of the 52 essays challenge for 2017. She sent me a message through my WordPress after she read my essay 17. Her feedback positive and filled with pride at my bravery. She asked for my gofundme information. I insisted that it was not necessary. She pressed. I relented and private messaged her the information. Another donation. Me: Overwhelmed by the love. The support of the sisterhood of women in my life. Women. Mothers, Writers, Teachers, and even my former student Aisha. Who has read every essay and sent me texts with her thoughts and comments, layered with admiration and love. Shame still upon my shoulders, but my head held high. The weight no longer my neck hunch forward.

May 5th Friday (Morning): Who: Nia Ita, What: Inspired by my essay on shame writes her own. https://niaita.net/2017/05/05/  Me: I read it early in the morning. Tears once again filled my eyes. I begin to suspect something greater is at work. A plan set in motion. The universe a designer of the great possibilities before me. And I begin to wonder if this is the magic that Vanessa Martir talked about when she first proposed this essay challenge? The mystery of writing, she called it. Write and see what happens where the words lead you. These were her instructions. I believed her. So I wrote. And now see mystery in every bit of word. The power behind them.

May 5th Friday (Early Afternoon): Who: Sandra, again. What: She presents me with a cash donation in a beautiful card. Her and another teacher have given towards my dream. I hug them both. Their eyes filled with pride. My shame shrinks under their gaze. Me: I thank God for all the blessings in my life. My heart swollen with love, I wondered if that’s the antidote for shame. Love.

May 6th Saturday (Early Afternoon): Who: Zoraida, mother, friend, cop, and soul sista. What: I recount all the blessings of the week.

Scene: “Connie, do you believe it now?” She asked.

I’m silent on the phone.

She went ahead, “that people believe in you. They don’t pity you, but they see your passion and strength,” her voice strong and sure over the phone.

“I’m starting to see that,” I whisper.

https://www.gofundme.com/help-connie-go-to-vona-2017

My Shame Back Pack.

This essay right here does not want to be written. This is my second attempt. I was 1,600 words in. When a wrong click of the finger erased my almost done essay. Blank screen. I allowed myself to wave my fists in the air for a solid two minutes before I told myself I would start again. I tried to do most from memory. But after a few sentences I knew it would be a different essay from the deleted one. Traces of the first would be laced throughout the second, but not the same. Similar to the two stories told here. I know that once I re write this essay, well there will be one less thing hidden. One less thing tucked away, in the back pack I carry. And that is my intention.

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Two weeks ago Monday this essay was set in motion by two events. One, early in the afternoon I read Vanessa’s Martir’s essay with one hand pressed against my chest and my eyes clouded with tears. Moved by her words on shame, and the relationship it takes around the socioeconomic structures in this country. Money. And what that means to us, that grew up where money struggles were daily. How the world reflected back the lack. How that reflection became seared, and after a while the only lens. To see yourself and the world. I closed my eyes after I was done with her essay. Less to savor her last words and more to turn off my own words. A weak attempt to shut off the memories that crept up alongside her words. https://vanessamartir.wordpress.com

Second, later that afternoon I found out that I was accepted into VONA 2017. Second time alum, I would be headed to Penn State. Over the next few days I told family, friends, and my writing community. Each time I told someone I held my breath. Afraid to release the words into the atmosphere, to loosen my grip. Threatened. That something that I earned and belonged to me would be snatched. And in order to tighten my grasp, I paid my deposit soon after I was accepted. But a few days later I received another email, the scholarship I applied for was not granted. The email went on to discuss that many other writers without a scholarship like me, in the past, found great success in social media fundraising. I read the email twice, my eyes wide and unable to blink. My head flooded with endless bills that needed to be paid and upcoming expenses.

Panicked. I reached out to my VONA sisters Yesenia and Elizabeth. Glad for our group thread on messenger. I sat on the edge of my sofa  with my head in my hands. My pride unkempt. Left messy and exposed to be seen by others. Scared to be judged. Comforted in Brooklyn, by their words, from Maryland and North Carolina. They understood. But. I was happy our interaction was faceless. Shame.

Talk of money and lack of was considered a crime by Mami. No different than a beggar on the street. No one needed to know our money troubles. Even now, I’m shocked by how people talk about their money issues so freely. I much rather talk about my weight struggles than my finances. I remain quiet and press a smile across my face when the issue of money comes up.

I told a select few my predicament. Willed the truth to stay hidden especially from myself. Wondered how this would alleviate, but each day brought more worry. And a constant unease. Finally, I spoke to my friend Zoraida and told her I was stuck. Should I set a gofundme? I tossed the question at her, like a dirty rag that I didn’t want touch. She encouraged me to set it up and see how I felt. I told her I couldn’t. She insisted I could. I yelled a silent scream. My head buried. My stomach coiled in disgust. My face buried in my hands. Shame.

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This essay began to brew soon after I read Vanessa’s essay. And began to gain momentum every moment since. Again design of circumstances. A lesson placed in front of me. No coincidence that within days of reading an essay about growing up without money. I’m denied the scholarship that I desperately need to attend a writing conference. A conference I know as a writer I need. Both incidents caused a mud slide of memories. And despite all this. I am an unwilling student. Even now as I write, I’m hesitant. A voice whispers over my shoulder. How could you… why are you telling this… speaking this… Don’t! But at essay 17 in this challenge, a third in, I have learned a few things:

  • What I don’t want to write about because of the way it makes me feel. Well, that usually means there is a lot to write about. And that I need to write about it.
  • That I have a handful of topics that I circle around in my writing. Mami, Motherhood, Colombia, Teaching, and Writing. But a layer of something unsaid exists underneath. A sense of being less than. Worth.
  • Discomfort in writing is necessary. And without it, there is no discovery. Isn’t that why I started this journey?
  • I have images and ideas as a writer that I’m obsessed with. They stand for the emotion I cannot describe. So things, become these great portals that lead to revelations. And my back pack is one of them. It contains all that I want to be kept hidden. Buried in the pockets or in the far dark corners.

Before I began to actually write this essay I reached out to Joann. I sent her a text: Hey my next essay is about the way we grew up. You know without money. Because Mami and Papi were immigrants. The last sentence meant to absolve us all. Unable to write the word poor. The word immigrant less painful.

Even now as I stare at the word poor my finger hovers over the delete key. It does not fit. Or maybe I don’t want it to fit. In my mind I create a list of reasons why I cannot have grown up poor. And I recite it to myself in an attempt to erase my past.

  • We didn’t live in the projects.
  • I never lived in a shelter.
  • I didn’t have to drop out of highschool to work.

I asked Joann to confirm my memories. She called minutes after I sent the text. Part of me wanted her to deny my memories. Tell me that I was being dramatic. That I confused something I read in one of my books for real life. But she didn’t. Her voice while distant was very matter of fact. “Yup, that happened.”

*

I think the first time I knew for sure that Mami and Papi struggled for money I was eight or nine.

“Me tienen que ayudar,” Mami called out to Joann and I. She walked frantic through the apartment. Her chancletas slapped the ground behind her.

I watched her walk over to the television and unhook the VCR. “She’s going to be here soon,” Mami tucked the VCR under her arm. The cord swung behind her as she walked to her bedroom. The VCR was a gift from one of Papi’s compadres. He was generous and showed up with all sorts of presents. An armful of clothes for the pelas, as he called Joann and I, price tags still on. Once, Menudo concert tickets, and the plastic rain jackets too. He even handed Papi a pair of keys to a used car. Though neither Papi nor Mami drove. It was later that I learned how El Paisa made his money. He refused to have his children grow poor like he had in Medellin, Colombia.

“Que haces que no ayudas?” Mami asked. She was on her knees as she shoved the VCR under her bed.

“Why?” I asked. And before the question was out of my mouth I clamped my lips shut. I could feel the heat rise off of Mami.

“What do you mean why?” Mami placed her hands on her hips. Her legs apart. “La mujer del welfare is coming. They have to check to see if we still qualify for the help they give us. “Both of you help me with the stereo.”

I walked over to la repisa where the stereo was. An old turn table and tuner receiver.  I looked around the apartment, shabby red sofas, an old dark brown carpet, and a television in the center of the living room encased in a wooden stand. Were we poor? And I thought about how Mami always talked about growing poor in Chalan, Colombia. Where she went hungry for days and walked barefoot. How she was given coffee as a toddler to stop her hunger pangs. I never had lice like Mami or a belly full of worms. How could we be poor?

“If she asks either of you about your school. Listen you tell them your Tia pays for your school. I don’t think they will ask, but just in case.” The words raced out of Mami’s mouth.

Joann unhooked the stereo and walked it over to Mami. Who ran to hide it in the back of the living room closet, behind the winter coats and umbrellas.

I don’t remember much of the visit. I only remember the way the woman from the welfare agency walked around. Her steps small and her eyes narrowed behind her glasses. She opened our cupboards and refrigerator and peered at what was inside. A clip board in her hand. Her eyes never met mine. And I was glad. I did not want to be seen. I sat on the sofa the whole time she was there. Afraid to move. My arms wrapped around me. One across my waist and the other over my shoulder. Tucked inside myself. Shame.

*

I have always written about myself and those around me. Afraid of what I saw crammed in a sentence. Paragraphs mirrors that reflected me back to me. I flung a cloak of invisibility around my words. Myself. I hid behind fiction. These essays have forced the invisibility cloak off my shoulders. And with every essay more slips off my back. I suspect I will be left bare. Exposed.

Last week my sister came over to visit. She followed me to my bedroom and sat on my side of the bed. As I sat on the floor across from her and folded clothes. We caught up. Spoke about our kids and my trip to Iowa to visit my best friend. And as the conversation wound down I told her I was not given the scholarship. She knew about VONA already. I told her the day after I was accepted. I explained that I set up a gofundme, but not made it public. That I sent it out to only three girlfriends.

“No,” Joann said, her face twisted in disgust. “You can’t do that!”

Heat rose off my body. Shame. “I didn’t put it on social media. I just sent it to three of my friends.” I hurried to explain.

“If you are worried that you can’t get the money together by the deadline. You can put it on my card. Then you can pay me back.” She offered. Her face softer.

“Ok,” I let out a sigh of relief. Glad to not have to ask for help. I’d text my three friends later and tell them that I was going to take down the gofundme page.

But caught up with my writing. It was too late to text my friends after I was done. I went to bed. I’d reach out to them the next day. As I walked to my school building, after I parked my car, I checked my email and saw that my three friends donated to my gofundme. I clutched the phone to my heart and smiled. But soon, overcome by shame. Why are you happy? Your friends feel sorry for. My sister who has no extra money to lend out, offered to help, but only because she felt sorry for me. These words volleyed in my brain.  This was wrong. No different from the food stamps, medicad, and the supplementary check, we received when I was a kid. I walked into my classroom with my head hung in shame.

This essay has no neat resolution. No beautiful last ending line. Where worlds collide and everything makes sense. All I have is this: I have not made my gofundme public. My shame has kept me from that. I’m not certain when it will dissipate. One thing that I know, this essay is my attempt to cast a light on this shame. My shame. And just maybe I can unwrap the tight bind it has on me.

 

 

 

Sunset Park In Da House

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If you ask me where I’m from the first thing out of my mouth is, Brooklyn. I say the word more with my body, than with my tongue and lips. It’s as if every part of my body reacts, memories are triggered, images evoked, and emotions are unleashed. So, when I say Brooklyn those eight letters are flavored with sazon and adobo, pulled to dance by Frankie Ruiz, and asked to rep by Biggie. And when asked what part of Brooklyn, I say: Sunset. Only after my street cred is affirmed do I explain. Explain that I live in Bayridge now, but born and raised in Sunset. Moved over to Bayridge at twenty-four. I joke and say, wanted to move on up like the Jeffersons. I laugh and say I’m George and Weezie, wanted a piece of the pie.

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When I hear the words Sunset Park, a parade stomps up and down my body. I puff out my chest and slide my hands up my hips. Yeah, I’m from Sunset, I say all slow and badass. Not always though. My love for Sunset came after the world reflected back to me what they thought about my neighborhood. And me. Comments stuck to my brain long after the words no longer vibrated through the air. Words shaped my thoughts, I take the shape of my thoughts, and I believed it all.

  • You can take the girl out of Sunset, but you can’t take the Sunset out of her.
  • Damn isn’t like bad over there?
  • Why are all the door bells ripped off?
  • You know you sound just like Rosie Perez, right?
  • Aren’t they gangs over there?
  • Don’t they call it Gunset?

I didn’t realize that there were neighborhoods that didn’t look like mine. Where my Mami and Papi’s friends lived in Jamaica Queens and Jackson Heights, resembled my own. My Tio, in Patterson, New Jersey, could be added to the list. It wasn’t until I was in third grade, that I saw what existed beside these neighborhoods. An appointment in Bayridge for my terrible sinuses was my first glimpse. It was minutes away from Sunset Park, but it could be another country. Foreign. Graffiti, broken glass, signs for WIC and Food Stamps, and red and yellow bodegas were absent on these streets. Brownstone houses, streets lined with trees, fancy store signs, and delis were in place. People walked at ease. This was something I had no name for. Later I would learn it was a class and race thing. And the right set of class and race bought you safety.

*

A few weeks ago I took Holden and Ruben to La Gran Villa Bakery, in Sunset Park. Located in the heart of Sunset, La Quinta. Fifth Avenue. A few blocks from the park itself. We were in search for flan. My mother in law’s birthday that day. The kids and I wanted to surprise her. Flan, a favorite among all of us.

“Why don’t we live here?” My daughter asked as we crossed the street. Parked on the opposite side of the bakery.

It was mid day. One of those warmer than usual days. Where the whole world lives outside. Gaits are slowed down. No one seems in a rush when the sun is out. As if the sun a giant stop watch, clicked to stop time.

“What do you mean?” I asked over the reggaeton music that blared off of a car driving by. “We leave in Bayridge.” I lifted my palms, as if that was explanation enough.

“You grew up here,” she walked ahead. “My grandparents live here, we come here all the time, and you even taught here.” She listed off.

In front of the store. Cakes for quinceaneras, bautizos, cuempleanos, and bodas displayed behind the large glass window. A sign in block letters, open 24 hours above the door.

“Yeah,” My son pushed the door open. “You are always saying Sunset Park this and that…” He trailed off.

Once inside we were greeted by Gran Combo’s Me Libere. The smell of fresh-baked biscocho, fresh brewed cafe con steamed leche, and pressed sandwich Cubano. All in competition to reach my nose first. I watched my daughter order a flan, and a sandwich Cubano with an order of fries, to spilt between her and Ruben. My son walked up to the counter. He ordered a small red jello cup. Both at ease. And I thought of all the times I joked and called Fifth Avenue. Filth Avenue.

I walked over to Holden and Ruben at the counter. My hand over my chest, in some feeble patriotic attempt. I ordered a loaf of pan de manteca, a cup of arroz de leche, and two guava con queso turnovers. My children wide-eyed. Impulsive buys were something I was not known for. But overcome by shame. I wished to atone.

*

This past Friday I sat on the fringe of the class circle. My students sat crossed legged on the blue rug at the front of the classroom. I watched my students show case objects from their cultural background. One by one, they stood in front. The smart board behind them. Some held their object in front of them. Others slide them under the document camera. They were those that spoke in low whispers and with bent heads. Others spoke loud, and held their heads high. All marched to the front of the room with their object nestled in their hands.

Coins from Palestine, a Turkish decorative dish, a tostonera from Haiti, a glass tumbler in shape of a skull to represent el dia de los muertos, and a Bengali string instrument, a Jewish mezuzah. Five minutes alloted for Q. A. after each presentation. How long is the plane ride to Kosovo? Where in Italy have you visited? If your mom is Peruvian and dad Cuban, do you feel one more than the other? I watched each and everyone one of my students faces flush with pride. Smiles wide, each question received like flowers tossed on stage at the end of a concert.

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And my mind drifted to the very start of our social studies immigration unit. I brought a balcon de Colombia to show my class. I held it up like a trophy. As I spoke about my summers in Colombia, the meaning behind the balcones, and accents that decorated the miniature porch under the Spanish styled roof. My balcon was passed around my students. My chest a helium ballon inflated with Colombian pride. I thought of my parents, and their love ballads to Colombia in their everyday. Colombian news on RCN transmitter radio, the smell of arepas de juevo on weekend mornings, the statue of El Divino Nino on my dresser, and the bottle of menticol by Mami’s nightstand. No shame. Celebration for all things Colombian.

But. I only spent most of my summers in Colombia. I lived in Brooklyn. Sunset Park, Brooklyn. And if Colombia was a love song, well Sunset Park was as hostile as head banger metal. Mami made her discomfort of Sunset Park clear. Her discomfort made me grow uneasy. Sunset Park was held at arms legnth. If I was the Cuban DA from Law and Order SVU I would enter the following list as exhibit 1 thru 5.

  1. Sunset Park Pool off-limits. “Aya te violan,” Mami insisted rapist congregated at the pool ready to pounce on women and young girls. “Y esa picina sucia hasta aye SIDA,” Mami wrinkled her face in horror at the thought of the AIDS virus on the surface of the pool, like a deadly inflatable float.
  2. Open Johnny Pumps in the summer off-limits. “No.” Mami held up her hand every time we saw an open water hydrant on hot days. “Estas calles estan llena de peligro. Y eso no se usa en Colombia.” And if it wasn’t custom in Colombia it was not to be done.
  3. Stoops off-limits. Porque se van a sentar afuera? Ojo con malas amistades. Eso es lo unico que un encuentra en la calle. Stoops a snare trap for friendships that would lead to bad influences.
  4.   Walks to La Quinta off-limits. Forbidden. “Hacer que? Buscar novio? Malaclase en cada esquina. Corners crowded with thugs was deterrent alone to be kept home. Walks around the neighborhood, an invitation for a disgrace to spill into our lives.  So, great was Mami’s fears of the street she walked us everywhere. Seldom was her shadow not beside my own. Even walked beside Joann and I on our way to highschool, and on real cold days took the car service ride with us.
  5. Sunset Park off-limits. En ese parque matan la gente. And Mami would list off all the deaths that occurred in the park in the last twenty years like some seasoned detective.

Mami’s list while comical and exaggerated was based on truth. The Sunset Park of my childhood in the 1980’s and most of the 1990’s is not the Sunset Park that it is now. A Sunset Park that battles gentrification. A battle that it will lose.

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But if I narrow my eyes, look close at Sunset Park. I can see traces of what it was. And I can remember how Mami would walk fast once the sky darkened. Each hand wrapped tight around mine and Joann’s hand.

On holidays when we spent late nights in our godmother’s building. Mami would ask my madrina for one of those long forks used to turn the pernil in the oven.

“If anyone comes at me I will stab them,” Mami walked with the fork under her arm. Concealed, but accessible.

“Ring the bell in case anything.” My madrina instructed. “Call me when you get home,” she dead bolted the door behind us.

Mami walked with her head twisted back. A meat fork under her arm. Corners filled with thugs. Sneakers dangled from the metal arm of the street lights. Drunks zig-zagged down the streets. The smell of weed perfumed the night air. Merengue poured loud out of open windows, mixed with the rap that spilled out of cars. Tagged up buildings completed the scene. And that was the Sunset Park I remembered. The one I feared. A clichéd obstacle course of the hood.

In a New York Times article written by Marcia Chambers Sunset Park 80’s gang activities is discussed. Sunset Park gangs during that decade are compared to the epidemic of gang activity in the South Bronx.

With the devastation of the South Bronx over the last decade, gang activity in New York City has shifted from the Bronx to Brooklyn. That borough has 82 of the 109 city gangs that the police have identified, and gang rivalries over the last seven years in Brooklyn have left dozens of gang members, their girlfriends and innocent bystanders maimed or dead.

In Brooklyn, residents of Sunset Park were enraged over gang activity for nearly two years before Edgar Gonzales, 8 years old, was fatally hit last May by a stray bullet during a battle between La Familia and a group believed to be the Filthy Mad Dogs. The police in Brooklyn say La Familia members have been responsible for four shootings since 1980. The victims were a girl who is now paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, two girls who were wounded in a gun battle, and an 18-year-old who was killed as he was leaving a birthday party.

*

When I walk in Sunset Park now, it’s slow. And absent of Mami’s shadow. I want to savor all the things that I ran past. I notice the piragua cart. The discount stores where security is a shelf that holds your other shopping bags. Your claim ticket a torn playing card. Clothes stores have mannequins with ample hips and butts. Vendors on the street sell sliced mangoes in plastic containers. Tables with Avon products, Latin American flags and bracelets, and knock off perfumes are set up every few blocks. A preacher with an amplifier on the corner. His message of God’s word belt out into the air. Bacahata interrupt his words. An undesired duet. Teen girls with carriages push through the street. Teen boys on the corner. Jordans on everyone’s feet. And I smile. Because this is my Sunset. And I think of my own list about Sunset Park. The one that makes me every bit a part of this neighborhood.

  • I rock Tims. I leave the lace lose and the small tag still on.
  • I bounce to Freestyle music and dance at the first sound.
  • I crave helado de coco every spring and summer.
  •  And when I get pissed off I call it getting Sunset.

Sunset is every bit a part of me. I think there is beauty in it. The name suggests it. I have learned to walk slow through the streets of Sunset. Claim it as my own. And only when I do that does my soul scream: SUNSET PARK IN DA HOUSE!

Road trip

 

imgres-3A road trip can be defined as a long trip in the car. It can also be seen as a journey. That latter definition appeals to me. It suggests the possibility of something greater and deeper, beside having to sit for long hours in a car, as the world passes by.  My writer self, a road trip becomes blank note-book page, hopeful for metaphors. The vast road, bends, curves, a sky personified by color, long shadows, and nature within reach; all become psychedelic, as you travel your mind.  No, road trip the same. With every mile gained, the traveler grows distant from who they were when they embarked. I came to this conclusion, a day after I arrived home. I suspect more will be revealed as the days go by. That every subsequent road trip like a sorcerer will hold a revelation.

I began this road trip like most things in my life, guilt ridden. Guilty and conflicted by all the roles I am. I carry this guilt the way a Senora de la iglesias carries crumpled tissues and judgement. I hold it close against my skin, a part of me. Motherhood, wife, daughter, friend, teacher, writer, and self, all roles that fight to play lead. Not one of them, willing to play understudy. Then there is, Self. Banished to the wings. Bullied to the side.

The teacher role receded last Friday afternoon, at dismissal. I waved to my students at the school yard. Wished them a safe and fun spring break. The time blinked 3:00pm, once I slipped inside my car. I let out a long drawn out sigh. As I sped through Fourth Avenue, I shrugged off Ms. Meza. The teacher. Biggie blasted from the radio. I bounced my shoulders excited to be off from work for a little more than a week. But, I’m more than a teacher, and the other roles clamored up my chest, and elbowed for space.

When we decided to drive across to the Midwest to visit my best friend. My daughter and son were excited. They had not seen their godmother and her two children for a long time, almost nine months. I longed to sit side by side with my best friend, and talk in circles, about little and enormous things. I’d make her laugh. She’d laugh. And we would be fourteen again. My husband thrilled to have a few more states to add to his list. A collection, like his old model cars, which he could point to and talk about with pride. But underneath more was to be said.

“What states will we visit on our way to Iowa?” My son asked days before.

“Let’s google it,” I pointed to the iPad.

“Will there be a lot of cows?” My daughter teased, “I want to ride one.”

I laughed happy to have my thirteen year old act silly.

Excitement for the road trip was like their overstuffed duffel. It stretched over the fabric, ready to burst. Armed with pillows and blankets, iPads and headphones, sketch pads, books, and plenty of snacks my children marched into the car early Tuesday morning. Lost to them was that they were not headed somewhere fun or exciting. Found was adventure.

But. I saw what it wasn’t: not a cruise, or getaway to the Caribbean, and no jaunt to Europe. And though I am genuine with my well wishes for my friends that can check off the above list. Well, it would be lie if I didn’t mention that a part of me says, good for them, but behind those three words is a train of questions. What about me? When will it be my turn? When will I be able to afford something greater than a road trip. And like a toddler that needs to be soothed by words, I calmed my fears. Whispered: your time will come! Later I realized my soul ached for something more than just to be pacified. It desired gratitude. And I almost made the entire trip unable to find what my soul marked off as a destination. But a podcast and another perspective lead me to a different route. And it was there that I found gratitude.

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I have nicknamed my family, Road Trip Warriors. We have steadily checked off a list of states that includes, from New York all the way down to, Florida’s Key West. We have made this trip a handful of times. And stopped in each state as if permission must be granted by one state to enter the next. While others we lingered for days, South Florida, we have occupied. Two full weeks. Our beloved, our adopted state.

This would be a new collection of states that were to be explored, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. (After New York, there are, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but these neighbor states we’ve frequented often.) As we sped along route 80 we busied ourselves with the things you do during road trips. We listened to endless hours of music, played an app version of truth or dare my daughter downloaded on her phone, munched on flavored popcorn, looked at the scenery, and filled time with chatter. And when our bodies tired from being folded upright, we pulled over to rest areas. We stretched our legs and wandered shops that sold key chains, neck pillows, candy bars, and sweatshirts with the name of the state written in script.

And sometimes we rode in silence. Our heads turned to the scenic images like special effects in blockbusters, unable to take our eyes off of. Other times I checked Facebook and scrolled through twitter, my elbow perched on the window. I wrote in my writer’s notebook, listened to podcasts of short stories read by Junot Diaz, or others that talked about writing craft. But often I looked straight ahead and marveled at the beauty of the open road.

Once night closed in, both Holden and Ruben pressed their pillows to the side of the window and slept. Their deep breaths filled the car. From navy sky to black, the car rolled across the interstate. The miles between New York and Iowa bridged, the distance of a family of four with hectic schedules and active lives, now wedged tighter. And for a moment it appeared we were the only four humans on the earth. The road is an oxymoron. It makes you feel significant and insignificant all at once.

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It was the car ride back to New York that I wished for this trip to slow down. I was overcome by the need to settle into the moment. Time and distance seemed so elusive, I longed to grab both by end of the hair.  And when I grabbed the last hours of this road trip with both arms, the sorcerer held both palms open. Rations of truths. Mini revelations. The world did not shift. But I did. This sorcerer does not live behind mile markers or in the thicket of trees and brush. It lives in the simple everyday things. A spring breeze, a short story, and a shared moment.

The writer Ann Hood, reads the short story Alone at The Movies by Jonathon Lethem  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/06/17/alone-at-the-movies in the Tin House podcast, How to Write a Kick Ass Essay http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/44174/how-to-write-a-kick-ass-essay. Ann Hood delivers the Ten Commandments on personal essay and reads Jonathon Lethem’s essay, an example of a Kick Ass Essay. The essay takes you on Jonathon’s journey, who lost his mother at thirteen. Later as an adult he understands that his mother’s love of movies was a connection. One he’d have with her for the rest of his life.  And that his own devotional love for movies made him closer with himself, and not just his mom. This essay not only served as a great mentor text, in which I studied the craft. It held a greater purpose for me on the road Saturday afternoon. Jonathon Letham words were like the cords of blinds, intent to pull the shade up. I guess that is what all great pieces of writing do. They pull the shade up. Allow for light to come in.

These roads trips that I thought were bootleg versions of real vacations were not that at all. I was being salty, unable see what they really were. At every road trip my husband and I left bits of memories for Holden and Ruben along the road. This was no different. And while we busied ourselves with the GPS and planned the next bathroom break, Holden and Ruben stooped down to gather these bits. Strung together, their memories would turn to rope. Bound and sturdy. All the miles spent on the road would tether us four. A few days a year, a road trip, would turn into a lifetime of connection.

My second revelation came later that night. A simple conversation uncovered something profound.

As we entered New Jersey, Holden and Ruben slept. My husband took a long breath, the kind you take when you feel at ease. Both his hands on the wheel, his dark hair made darker by the night, his eyes fixed on the road. Musica de Grupo Niche and Joe Arroyo played for the last half of Pennsylvania. Shakira, Juanes, Cabas, and Carlos Vives was the soundtrack of New Jersey.

“People can say what they say about America,” he said.

I nodded.

“But look at what we did. We drove for a little over 900 miles and nada,” he took one hand off the wheel and opened his palm, to gesture his amazement.

I watched his face lit by the lights of the cars on the road.

His jaw clenched, “there were no retenes.” Resentment crept up his throat as he clutched the wheel tighter. “No worry about la guerilla, coked up narcos, cross fire…” He trailed off.

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My mind wandered to my time spent in Colombia where every few miles on the road you were stopped. Cops searched your car, your person, no reason given. Being pulled off the bus, no different than to board and hop off. La guerilla a constant threat for Colombians. Crazed Narcos and sicarios, as real in Colombia, as American FBI and CIA. Powerful. Trained to maintain order, just on the opposite side of the law.

“When you ask me if I miss Colombia. I don’t. I have no good memories.” His eyes brimmed with anger.

“I know,” I offered.

He reached for my hand.

“I know both our versions are so different,” I wrapped my fingers around his hand. It was rough and calloused and strong.

In an interview Colombian born writer, Juan Gabriel Vasquez describes what growing up in Colombia was like in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

SIMON: Can we, living today in North America, understand what life was like in Colombia under the Escobar reign of terror?

VASQUEZ: Well, those years were very long years, I must say, more than a decade of bombings and shootings in the streets.

I understood now what these road trips were for him. A departure, of the part of him that grew dark and rough, as he watched his country destroy itself in front of his eyes. That with every road trip more distance between him and Colombia is gained. He collected memories alongside the road too. An attempt to bound himself to America and loosen himself from the stained parts of Colombia.

And as we crossed the Verrazano and came into Brooklyn. I thought of myself and all the parts of me that awaited me in Brooklyn. That all the twist and turns that my many roles takes, it leads to one road. And with every word I write I get closer to my journey. Mine alone. A journey of self.

 

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VONA: Where I learned lessons on writing and self…

 

images-5VONA is four letters. But it could easily be the five letters of the word magic. So magical I spoke about it several times throughout the day at yesterday’s Kweli The Color Of Literature Conference.  I looked at my new writing friend and told her to apply next year and if she didn’t get in apply again. And when she got in she’d know the magic too. Really, VONA stands for Voices of Our Nations Arts, a multi genre writing workshop for writers of color. I applied for VONA not knowing what it was. All I knew was it involved Junot Diaz. It was on his unofficial twitter feed where I saw the post about the week writing conference. I was in search of something to make me feel sexy as a writer. What I got was so much more.

But like an untold story I was unaware of the arch plotting its points before me. I took the information to my writing group and worked up the nerve to show them the post. I hoped they’d talk me out of it. Instead they asked to see the application and began to talk me into it. They insisted I submit my first twenty pages of my novel as a writing sample. I was plagued by doubt and offered excuses, like pigs in a blanket at a cocktail hour. My kids are to be little to be left alone, my husband can’t deal with everything like I do, and it’s expensive. What about my parents, they are old and need me. A week is a long time and a lot can happen. I’m so selfish.

“Are you done?” my writing teacher looked at me from her recliner. She touched the side of her glasses and waited.

I took a long breath.

“Your kids are not babies, your husband will manage, and you will sacrifice and budget yourself to make it work.” She held her fingers up as she listed. “What else was there?” she rolled her eyes. “And your parents will be just fine. Your sister will be here.” She peered at me through her glasses. Her eyes fixed on me, dared me to offer another excuse.

“I’ll do it,” I sighed. My words weak, like overcooked pasta hung limp in my mouth. But I said them a loud and I would go ahead, and apply. Nothing was a greater insult than to be called out for being a punk. And to back out after I said that I would do it, well that was a punk move. So, I blackmailed myself.

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I applied certain to not get excited. My heart protected by a make shift bullet proof vest, stitched by I don’t cares. If I wasn’t picked my lack of excitement would hold back the disappointment. I have spent most of my existence lukewarm to joy. Joy’s sharp edges have pricked and poked like those of hurt. And have both left me exposed. Life was made easier if I anticipated the pain and braced myself.

When I was accepted to VONA I told my husband. I sent him a screenshot of the acceptance email. I told no one for a few days after, afraid it would be snatched out of my hands, once I claimed it. And days before I left to VONA I toyed with the idea of not going. Again I pulled excuses like the cocktail franks ready to serve them to anyone that walked by. June is a hectic time for teachers and the weeks leading up to VONA would be stressful. I can’t read all that writing by all those other writers, who has time for that? And there is other reading too?  What if I don’t like my roommate? This was a dumb idea I’m not a kid anymore to chase my writing dreams all the way to Miami. And who the fuck did I think I was going to a writing retreat? images-4

It was my first time away on my own ever. I was thirty-eight. A mother of two, married 15 years, and a teacher for fourteen. It was the first time I was anywhere by myself.

My whole life I talked myself out of doing and being. Both the protagonist and the antagonist in my own story. A list of what I should’ve and could’ve done, long and heavy. Regret is both an endless loop and morbidly obese, an unforgiving weight.

My list of things I talked myself out of doing, but regretted that I did:

  1. The week-long trip to Europe junior year of high school offered to the AP humanities students. (I didn’t want to go if my boyfriend at the time could not go).
  2. The internship at a publishing house I wanted and knew I was perfect for. And when asked at the interview if I was willing to work long hours and on weekends if need be. I shook my head and walked out.
  3. The Peace Corps application that I filled out and had ready to send after Hunter College, but ended going to Colombia instead.
  4. The trip to Argentina my husband and I wanted to take early in our marriage, but put off. We wanted to save more and spend less, the trip could wait, and it still waits.
  5. The trapeze lessons I asked for as a gift and never used.

There is more to this list, but these were the ones that bubbled up to the surface. The ones that have clung tight around my neck. I did not want more to add to the list. So, I read all the manuscripts, typed up response letters, borrowed a fancy laptop to take with me, and packed a small suitcase.

*

The first time I heard the words: learned helpless, was at VONA.  They came out of Rich’s mouth. And like a rubber band pulled all the way back his words snapped in my direction.  They stung. Words meant to call my attention like the clap of a pair of hands or the shrill of a whistle. Not meant to hurt.  And the sting subsided soon after. The words like a snap chat filter removed off a selfie, left me feeling bare. Rich’s words echoed long after he spoke them. And in the aftermath I stared at the world as if it was a full length mirror, and watched myself reflected back. It was hard to find myself. Tucked and hidden. I was lost to myself.

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It was my first full day when Rich spoke the words learned helplessness. I was desperate for mosquito repellant and anti-itch cream for bug bites and followed behind Rich to the closest CVS. We were part of the fiction crew, twelve novelist and Mama Evelina made thirteen. We were carless and traveled on foot. It was what I would call a few blocks away, but in the sticky humidity of Miami it felt like miles.

“Thank God I could trail after you,” I followed Rich. His gait sturdy and confident. I on the other hand, walked unsure of myself.

Rich turned back and studied me. He wiped his sweaty brow and walked ahead.

“I suck at directions,” I offered matter of fact.

He walked into the CVS, “Well you got to unsuck at directions,” Rich said. He pulled at his t-shirt that stuck to his chest. Glued by sweat.

“Nah, I will be thirty-eight in August and I’m never going to be good with directions.” I shrugged my shoulders as if this was explanation enough.”It took me over forty minutes to find the cafeteria for breakfast today,” I laughed at my poor navigational skills.

“That is just sad,” Rich moved his head back and forth.

I lifted up my palms up in mock surrender. Looked at the signs above the aisles in search for the words: repellant or bug spray. I scratched at the mosquito bite on my arm.

“You know what you have?” Rich stared at me. His sunglasses now on top of his head.

I looked at my reflection through the lenses. My shoulders slumped and back bent, as I clawed at my skin. “Yeah?” I smiled ready for a joke.

“You have learned helplessness,” Rich nodded his head with conviction.

I was silent. As I tried to make sense of what the words meant. They seemed to not compliment each other, like polk-a-dots and stripes. How do you learn to be helpless? It was not like dividing fractions which you learn to operate with the formula, keep, change, and flip.  I looked at Rich and said I never heard of that before. His words sunk into my brain and settled there. They took occupancy and refused to be put out.

After a quick google search I found the following definition for learned helplessness: a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression. Written words have been my secret passages that led to other passages or have provided a nook to hide. But these words were different and yanked me out of those dark hallways altogether. I was left with a flimsy curtain to hide behind.

*

It was the first time we sat down for dinner in the college cafeteria that I realized I found my tribe. It was most of the fiction crew together, crowded around in a large booth. Our trays in front of us our conversations colorful and animated. We spoke in long narratives, peppered with images and metaphors. All word junkies, book lovers, all highly sensitive, and everyone filled to the brim with story. I looked at all the faces around me and knew I had found a family. Later that night asleep and underneath the glow of the campus lights I thought about the day’s event. “Where have you been my whole life?” I whispered to the night air.

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On the very last full day at VONA two things happened to me. One, I cried in front of the group. Something I swore I would not do. We sat in Evelina’s living room. Some of us crossed legged and others on chairs or the sofa. We would read our last writing pieces to each other in the comfort of Evelina’s casaita. The day before she gave us the prompt: Write the scene your afraid to write. The one that you don’t want to write. And I did. But I did not want to read a loud to myself, let alone a group. Yes, even if they were my tribe. I readied myself to read my one page scene about my character’s need to be seen and noticed by her Papi. My voice calm and steady I read. Then like the car accident I thought I avoided, a few sentences short of being done with the piece, I collided. My voice choked. My head bent down, laptop on top of my thighs, legs tucked under me, I wept. Ashamed by my tears. My weakness and lack of resolve I shrunk into myself. It was Stephanie who wrapped her arms around me until I could look up. And through eyes filmed with tears I saw others faces streaked with tears. I finished reading what I wrote. I looked at every one of those faces and thought, my tribe was here now.

The second thing that happened was that I got a few minutes alone with Evelina on the car ride to the ocean. We spoke about my novel and what made it work, and what needed to be tweaked and added. As we both walked to the beach I was left with the need to be reassured. Validated. I wanted to be told I was a good enough writer. Evelina, a generous soul, turned towards me, the sun a bright blaze in front of us. The ocean waves a soundtrack.  “You have to believe it first Connie,” she spoke. Her words weighed and measured, “until you believe that you are a writer there is nothing I or anyone can tell you that will make you feel like it’s enough. You have to believe in yourself, it’s as simple as that.”

Once in the ocean I told Marcus about my conversation with Evelina.

He smiled not shocked by Evelina’s words to me. “She’s right,” he whispered.

Again my tribe.

I think like all pivotal moments in your life you get a sense that they are just that— life changing. But the depth of Evelina’s words have taken a long time to seep into my bones. I think they have burrowed between the epidermis and the lymph nodes as of now. And the days that I feel brave I act like they have made their way to my bones. But until then I will show up for myself as if the words: I’m writer are etched into my bones.