The Love Letters I Always Wanted.

Why my year of personal essays are the love letters I always wanted. But, I only stumbled upon this revelation somewhere at the end. As a teacher, I know that learning is cumulative, every lesson builds upon the last. As a writer, I’m aware characters must undergo change in order to build tension and create empathy. As Connie, I always thought love letters were the most beautiful thing a person can give another. I just didn’t know, that one day I would write myself fifty-two of them.  

I’m a fiction writer, not an essayist, and when I first started this challenge I worried an essay a week would steal time from my manuscript. Truth is, before this year I was a writer who didn’t write much. A Creative Writing English major, member of a writing group for over a decade, with an almost complete manuscript. Who wrote in drips and drabs. Stuck. I took on the challenge, and comforted myself with a truth I knew, but didn’t believe. Writers need to write.

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I haven’t sat and crunched the numbers. But, I estimate I’ve written near 280 pages of personal essay for this challenge. The shortest essay I wrote was slightly over seven hundred words, the longest was two thousand and six hundred words, on average I wrote sixteen hundred word essays. I’m a novelist, so length doesn’t scare me. What scared me as a writer, was believing, I was a writer. Because in order to be one, a writer, you must leave everything on the page. And, that is scary as fuck!

But, it was more than just a writing rut I was in. A hollowness resided inside me, one I could not name. And, now a year of essays later, I can name that emptiness. A lonesomeness, really, for myself. 

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 The week of Christmas break last year I read Vanessa Martir’s final essay for the year, completing her personal challenge of writing 52 essays in 2016. I read everyone one of Vanessa’s essays. Often parked in my building’s garage, home from work. The driver seat pressed back, my phone cradled in my hands, Vanessa’s words stormed my mind. Each essay, though personal, rung all the unspoken words inside of me. How could she know what I felt at the moment? How could she know what I thought? Like, ropes tossed over a cliff, I grabbed them and yanked myself up. Words, ideas, lines, and stories, trapped inside of me, whispered: Maybe you can write yourself whole again.  Finally, I sent Vanessa a message, said: oooooo this is calling me. To which, she responded: Lean in, sis.

And I did.

I wrote my first essay, the way I slip into a cold pool in the summer, one part of me at a time, afraid to submerge myself, and be seized. My heart raced as I hit the publish button of my WordPress. I shut my eyes, as I shared the link to my blog over social media. Aware my words would be read by: friends, close family members, distance cousins, and writing friends. Words I buried year after year. Essays spilled out of me, some clawed out, others threatened to drown me as I wept. Unaware that my feelings clung to their own feelings, I exhumed myself from my life sentence of silence. One, self-imposed albeit, but aided and abetted.       

The American Psychology Association the psychological benefits that writing offers are described in an article titled: Writing to Heal. There is emerging agreement, however, that the key to writing’s effectiveness is in the way people use it to interpret their experiences, right down to the words they choose. “You need focused thought as well as emotions,” says Lutgendorf. “An individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”

I wrote about what ached. What kept me up at night. Themes and patterns emerged, the map key of my soul revealed across a screen. I followed the steps, on the path I dug, and walked towards myself.

Throughout this year of essays I have had loyal readers. All who kept me going essay after essay, when I feared judgement or was hung over by vulnerability.  Encouraged I forged ahead, wrote what was hard and what was both big and small in my world, hopeful to meet the Connie who would pen that fifty-second essay.

I often read the many draft versions of my essays aloud to my daughter and son, and at the end asked them, what sung? To which, Holden and Rubencito bit their lips or scratched their foreheads, and quoted a part of the essay which was my hardest to write. I persisted. I translated these essays to Mami, often parked outside of her apartment building, after driving her home on the days she picked up Rubencito from school. Mami listened with her hands on her lap, and eyes ahead in the distance. I love the way you sound when you read, do you know that? Mami told me more than once. Later, I realized that was the start of Mami’s love letter to me? And, in between paragraphs I looked up from my perch in the kitchen, and called out to my husband in the living room. Come listen to this, do you like the way this sounds, I asked. One arm folded over his chest, the other up, his head in his hand, my husband listened. And, I was heard. 

Friends cheered me on. Dear Valerie, read each and every one, as I sent them to her week after week through text. Her long reviews of my essays always ended with the words: You are a deep writer. Great essay. What I read was, keep going Connie. Dear Michael B, read every essay too, his feedbacks like haikus. A reminder, a poet lived in everyone. My former student and friend, Aisha now twenty-three, read every single one, and like she did many years ago, wrote a thoughtful response to each. I texted Aisha: you were always a thoughtful reader. Aisha texted me: you are a thoughtful writer. I paced myself, and refused to give up. 

Then they are the writers I met through this challenge, Tabitha, Nia Ita, and Priscilla. Bonded by this experience, the definition of challenge means: to compete and to prove ability, to complete a feat. Not competitors against each other, but with each other. We read our essays, left comments, liked, and rallied for ourselves.  

I reached out to Vanessa Martir yesterday,  at the start she said this challenge would be hard, magical, and help writers to get out of their own way. Vanessa was right. I told V, how this challenge did me good. No doubt it helped with craft, stamina I never knew existed in me as a writer, but it helped my heart.

Generally everyone wants love letters, as a teenager and a grown ass adult too. But, I never did. I stopped wanting them early on. Closest I ever got to a love letter were the tags on the Christmas gifts that Mami bought from the both her and Papi. Papi’s slanted cursive on the tiny cards taped to the gifts. I didn’t even know I wanted love letters from Papi, not till I heard another little girl referred to as a princess by her father. I stopped. Rooted to the ground. What I  saw was not some fairy tale, but the tenderness between father and daughter. Pierced, I glared at the girl, and rolled my eyes at the father. Stupid. But, what I meant was why not me? Papi, a damn writer, to write me a love letter was something he could have done easily. Compassion has found itself into my heart these days, so perhaps it did not dawn on Papi to write me a love letter. I have forgiven him. Mami, I knew could not write me a love letter, but I would’ve taken a few sweet words. But, I’ve learned Mami worries and criticisms are how she shows me love. I don’t like it, but I’m learning to stop her, when her shards threaten to cut me. I now can identify this pain, as my emotional wound. One that circle and circle around my writing, the wound of not feeling good enough.

But, that’s changed. When you write yourself fifty-two love letters, you can help but feel good about yourself. Dare I say, fall in love with yourself. Like, all real loves you see the beauty, the flaws, well the humanity of yourself. And, you accept all the parts of yourself.

At the end I needed to become the person that I am now. At this moment. In order to write all the stories that reside inside of me. The Connie who will write stories about characters, who they themselves never were never written love letters, but the ones my prose will pen for them.

 

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The Artist Wound

The fall of 2015, after my first time at VONA, I heard about writers and the emotional wound. I sat at a personal essay workshop with Vanessa Martir, as she talked about writing the wound. Emotional Wound, I whispered to myself deep in thought. I surfed the web, ready to learn more about the emotional wound. I gathered this: painful as a physical wound, if not more, emotional wounds originate from childhood. The wound oozes, and if left untreated, infects all the stages of a person’s life.

Emotional wound. Those two words, shaped themselves into a skeleton key, able to open a door from the past. A door I pressed my back against, and slammed shut. Quick to find the culprit behind my wound, I flipped through my past like an old photo album. Mami and Papi, I concluded, and instead of mug shot with serial numbers underneath, the words abandonment and rejection rested at the bottom of their pictures. Annoyed, I thought: isn’t that most everybody? Well, now what? Unable to see beyond, the sift of time necessary, and life to unfurl itself. I busied myself with living. I wrote, and wrote some more. I did not give much thought to my emotional wound, though my wound permeated through all the parts of my life. And, it leaked its pus all over my writing.

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Truth is, I knew I was wounded early on. Tipped off by the fact that I read The Catcher In The Rye five times my freshman year of highschool. I had fallen in love with Holden Caulfield. All while girl’s wrote their names in curled script, underneath the name of their boyfriend or crush, trapped in the shape of a heart, on the top of their binders. I stared at them from behind my book, my heart longed for love too. Only much later, did I realize it was my own love it searched for.

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I have always felt way too much. Deemed dramatica, declared una persona que todo lo toma apecho, and berated for being too sensitive. Told this enough times, shame grew, and I shoved all my feelings down my throat. Silenced, I spoke to the characters that lived in the pages of the books I gobbled up. Waves of fear have threatened to capsize me since my early memories. As a kid I cried when I saw my shadow, refused to look at strangers, threw colossal temper tantrums to have my blood drawn, wept during eye exams, and freaked out during episodes of The Love Bug. Not sure what to do with emotions, I saw them as something to hide from and repress. I fled. But, emotions cannot be outrun, like Olympic track and field stars, they are agile, able to both sprint and go long distance. Compounded, undealt emotions morphed, and revisited me during my unconscious hours. My night terrors began at three, and I have never outgrown them. Though they are far and few now, they still grab hold of me some nights.

Soon emotions haunted me during my waking hours. Anxiety. A shady ass bitch, anxiety snaked an unexplained fear through me, and rendered me captive. For me, anxiety did not come alone. Depression coiled itself tight around me.  I sat terrorized by feelings, certain that they would turn on me one day and leave me a madwoman. I worked harder to numb myself to them. More books, grilled cheese sandwiches, shoplifting, playing with fire, scratching my head till I drew blood.

If anxiety is a shady ass bitch, depression is a con artist, a fuck’n liar. At nineteen I took note that my bouts with depression were becoming more frequent. Desperate to find a culprit, I blamed PMS and the winter blues. I believed this bowl of shit, so much I fed it not just to myself, but others. Anxiety, like I said is crafty, harder to explain it away, especially if it’s a fist pounding at your chest. I mean how the fuck can you ignore that? My first full panic attack at twenty-two left me jolted and mentally disheveled. On a train ride to midtown Manhattan I fixated on hyperdemic needles, worried I’d be stabbed by strangers, unable to catch my breath, I swore my mind had splintered.

Then, one anxiety attack became another, then another, soon a few a week. Afraid of my own mind, I sought the help of a therapist, as soon as I had health insurance. I was young when I started therapy, twenty-three, and for four full years once a week on a Friday I spilled my guts to my therapist. He sat in front of me in a recliner the color of sand, a Vincent Van Gogh print above his head and to the left, and his legs stretched long in front of me. I sat on the far end of the sofa, my hands on my lap, and eyes on Van Gogh’s bandaged ear.

I blamed the chaos of my childhood on Mami’s fits of rages,  Papi’s drinking, growing up in Sunset, being the daughter of immigrants, and old immigrants at that. All complicit in shaping the wound lodged in my center. 

My therapist nodded, his eyes often filled with sadness, he questioned, prodded, and listened. At the end of my sessions he remarked how hard I worked at therapy. Delighted that I was good at this therapy thing, I worked harder, happy to please. And, a voice whispered, why do you need to prove so much to others. Aren’t you in therapy for yourself.  I folded my arms, ignored my inner voice, and searched for the world to love me.

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My friend Awilda, once described me as un pancito de agua, a quien no le gusta el pancito. I smiled. True, who doesn’t like a sweet dinner roll? Years of smiles, careful vetting of others emotions in order to fold myself small, as not to disturb the space of others, and be liked. In spite of all this, I did not like myself. How could I? I wasn’t myself. Underneath my emotional wound of abandonment and rejection grew the need to be loved by everyone. And, I loathed myself for this. Betrayed by self, I hid behind the firey walls of my own rage.

The voice, which whispered to me at my therapist all those years ago, at Vanessa’s personal essay class, and all through my life, is the real me. I no longer shrug the voice away, I make space to hear what it needs to say, and I listen. It was that tiny voice, the one which knew for sure at eleven I wanted to be a writer. And, has since echoed, I’m so happy when I write. Maybe I write because I’m highly sensitive or I’m highly sensitive and therefore, I’m a writer. I don’t care why I write, I just know I have to write. Blessed to know this early in life, but unable to see my whole self, just a mere outline. I wrote myself into a character. Only behind the veil of fiction could I speak my words, tell my stories, and share my heart.

I’m stronger now. My character and I are not the same people. I can tell her story, which is my story in many ways, but I don’t need her to speak for me. My greatest act of self-love was to claim my voice.

These last weeks of the year I have told several of my friends, you cannot write 52 essays in one year, and not come out changed from that experience. There is no way. It changes who you are, I stare at each and every one of them in the eyes, and dare them to say any different. I am a different writer from when I started. I’m a different person. Writing, reading, and re reading my words, I got to pull back my layers, peel them off, get closer to my emotional wound. And, I love myself, despite that sometimes it hurts.

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The record of an immigrant daughter and wife.

First time I heard the question, y porque el? Not just romantic wonderment, but a trial. Why him, a string of accusations tucked into two words. Why an immigrant? Why someone with an accent? Why not an American like you? And from the first person to the last person to ever ask, one thing became clear; they felt an immigrant was beneath me. Though they themselves were immigrants, an irony lost to them. Unable to respond to their indictments, this is my attempt to set the record straight. And, dig through the shame others have casted on me for being married to an immigrant. And why I allowed it.

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Gabriel and Sophia and I were all on extended vacations in Colombia, but for different reasons. Gabriel was in Colombia the longest of the three, neck deep in legal trouble in Nueva York, distance was his acquittal. Then me, already in Colombia a few months, a broken heart run away, but now on the mend. Sophia, in Colombia to visit me for two weeks, extended her stay, and now six weeks had elapsed. It was not just miles we negotiated, but time, as we kept our hurt at length too. Together we stuck out, and ducked the insults of gringos hurled our way, to which my body shrugged off and answered, but I am Colombiana. But, my mind lingered over every gringa heaved my way, and though it was the opposite of spic chucked at me in America, the welt it left was no different.

It had been my idea to go out drinking early that day. Upset by my phone call with Mami that morning, I sought refuge in my friends and in el trago not unlike Papi. We began the day with shots of aguardiente, followed by beer, and whiskey afterwards. Once wrapped in the fuzzy blanket of alcohol, I doled out bits of my conversation with Mami to Gabriel and Sophia. Now several months since I arrived in Colombia, Mami who came with me those first few weeks, was already back in Nueva York. I began to date Ruben soon after Mami left. At the time that fact was insignificant, but I suspect I waited, like always I feared Mami’s disapproval. Colombia was to be the elixir to my recent mental unravel a result of the broken heart I mentioned. I was not there to buscar novio, but to reflect, and come back with a new attitude. A month after her departure, news I was dating Ruben made its way back to Mami.

When I called Mami and told her I was in love. She scoffed, and refused to say his name, referred to him as an enano. As I recounted the conversation to Gabriel and Sophia, I wailed the word enano, and took a swig. Because behind Mami’s insult of Ruben’s five foot and six inch frame, were so many words left unsaid.

Only years later have I pieced together what was underneath the word: enano. Mami often showed my sister, Joann, and I her ropey and dry hands, the effect from years of hard work. House after house cleaned for meager bits of money, heavy bags of clothes carried and sold to friends, their friends, and neighbors, all to pay for years of Catholic school. A sacrifice Mami could bare if Joann and I did not end up with the fate she was allotted. The words ese enano, meant will he protect you, can he provide? But, at the time all I saw was what she didn’t see. Ruben made me laugh and feel safe. Her insinuations rang in my head, and I drank to forget.

Drunk before late afternoon, desperate to sober up, I convinced Gabriel and Sophia to get a cheap motel room in el centro de Barranquilla so I could sleep it off. The room spun as I turned towards Sophia. She was next to Gabriel. Their slack drunk faces looked almost sober to my sloppy and sick.

“I need to lay down,” I whispered. My eyes heavy, I sunk into the cheap plastic mattress.

Sometime after, I felt Gabriel’s hot breath near my face.

“Let’s make out,” Gabriel said. Stretched beside me, Gabriel inched closer, his head propped up in his hand.

“What? No.” I lifted my head to look for Sophia. I noticed the bathroom lights on.

“Why?” Gabriel shook his head.

“I’m with Ruben…” I lifted myself up. Heavy and under the fog of alcohol details clumped my mind as it forced itself to make sense of what unfolded before me. Gabriel messed around with one of my childhood friends from all my summers spent in Colombia, D. She lived next door to Abuelo’s. Of course Gabriel and I were homesick, sat together for hours, filling up the loneliness in our hearts with English words from back home.

“That immigrante,” Gabriel said immigrante the way the real gringos back home spoke Spanish. He sat up. Laughed. “Are you serious, you into that guy?”

I stared at Gabriel for a long time before I spoke. Searched his eyes to see if I could find the exact moment that Gabriel forgot that he himself was immigrant. That Colombia was his place of birth, and permanent residence till he was seven years old and moved to Nueva York.

“Yeah?” Gabriel said.

I took note of his English. Gabriel was the lucky ones, arrived in America right before that corner of the brain, which holds language is wide and open, not closed and arrested by an accent. “I’m with him,” I repeated myself. Despite the layers of drunk that numbed my body, my face grew hot, and my heart constricted.

“Oh, so it’s like that?” Gabriel nodded his head. “A’ ight fuck you bitch and your immigrante.” He stood up knocked on the bathroom, called out to Sophia. “I’m going to get us some sodas. I will be back in a few.”

I watched him walk out. Words clogged my throat, as I said nothing.

That day Mami and Gabriel reflected how others would see me beside the man I fell in love with. Those early months in Colombia, many mirrored glimpses of that first reflection. My oldest male cousin through Papi’s side, tried to rally other cousins to circle Ruben, and remind him with their fists he was not for me. After all, yo tenia un grado y nacie en los Estatodo Unidos. While everyone worried about what was best for me, I remained silent, unable to explain that I was only Americana in their Colombian eyes. But, in America I was just a check mark next to the word Latino. Called American only, when hyphenated to Colombian.

Once in America, certain that los blancos would render the same verdict, I braced myself. I was wrong. Never a word, or a trail of question about why him. No, facial implications to confirm the possible thought. Perhaps they saw me as a diluted version of an immigrant, little difference between the two. Therefore, our union did not cause a crack in the caste system Latinos have erected for themselves in response to how we are seen. And, while los verdaderos gringos are complicit, the anguish to my psyche is not as great, as the one by mi propia gente.

Together for many years now I have grown accustomed to the quizzical eyebrow, the blunt how did you two meet on the brim of lips, and surprised folds of many foreheads. But. If indeed I am to set the record straight, and explain why I never built an arsenal of retorts. The answer is simple, part of me agreed. Not, that my husband is beneath me, but that immigrants are less than. That I, the daughter of Colombian immigrants am less than. The evidence is how I lived my existence once I realized there were Americans, then others, and then foreign others. Desperate to remove myself from that status daughter of foreign other, I read the way people gulp air, to stay alive and atone for my parents’ criminal charge of: immigrant. As if an endless list of books could pardon my life sentence of being the daughter of immigrants.

Forced to see, I too hold the mirror held up by so many, since I fell in love with my husband. My head bowed, as the truth of my own shame crushes me, and I realize how adept I’ve become at watching others to see if they hear my husband’s accented English. How my habit is to switch to Spanish, and how long I lied to myself that this was an act of pride for the language. A ruse created by the part of my consciousness, which held onto the hot shame since the first time I stood next to Mami, and was asked with great disgust if she spoke English.

Unable to undo the past. But, able to forgive Mami, Gabriel, my cousin, and the long list of many that shoved their, porque el, in my face. Hurt, but made strong by their false charges, I not only stand by my husband, but my own self. A daughter of immigrants, not at all diluted, but proud. As I described the self-hate of others, I saw my own self-hate reflected back. And, I remembered laid across my bed late at night, and wondered why my parents couldn’t speak English or have a car, or serve dinner foods like meatloaf and casseroles. How as quick as I created a list, was how fast the guilt for the shame set in.

Brene Brown says, the antidote for shame is compassion. Well, this is more than a record set straight. A love letter written for the little girl I once was that grew up to believe that immigrants were less than. But, now I know, it was never the case.

 

 

Writing Homegirls

Dear Homegirls,

Yo! Didn’t know I needed you all in my life till you became apart of it. Check it, a longing persisted inside of me from way back. Somewhere between almost a teen, and being one. You know, that part of your life when friends and fitting in is mad important.

But, that’s thing. I never been on intimate terms with fitting in. Don’t get it twisted, I know how to fake the funk. Didn’t matter. I was always called out on shit, like talking white, or talking like I was inside a book. As if speaking well, and being down could not coexist. I never went back at people for what they said. Stunned silent by the fear, which crept up my neck, I worried I really wasn’t a homegirl. Surrounded by old school Latina Donas and the new generation, homegirls. I wondered where I could find myself. My place.

It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me

— Excerpt

Phenomenal Woman by: Maya Angelou

You see my definition of a homegirl use to be someone who was mad fly and the illest. And, not just on a fashion sense tip, but the way they carried themselves. You know, as if Maya Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman was inspired by them. It was later that I learned that a homegirl can be defined by more than just by her appearance. That beneath the lacquered nails, hoop earrings, made up face, and latest kicks or Timbs depth existed.

The funny thing, B. I began to believe the shit people fed me. That I couldn’t be both deep and woke, and still be a round way girl. Ha! Shit is absurd once you break it down. So, a yoga practice deletes the fact I was raised in a neighborhood that back in the day was referred to as Gunset? A love for hip hop negates my love for books? Fuck that! All these adjacent parts are what makes me, well me.

The truth is homegirls are vast, unable to be defined. Words like: mad, dope, fam, bet, fly, hustle, yo, got you, and phrases like giving no fucks, clapping back, come correct, and shady as fuck are only a part of the lexicon that makes us who we are. We speak a beautiful and sultry duet of Spanglish. Nah, don’t sleep on us homegirls though, because the same mouths which spilled slang and Spanglish, can recite poetry, shape metaphors, preach self-care, quote lines from books, list titles of books faster than a library computer data system. Our lips tell stories that move and inspire.

Our fierce is often confused with attitude. But, beyond the sass and deep red lipstick are things unseen. Kisses to the foreheads of our children, pecks on the cheek as we greet one another, and against the lips of our lovers. We can snap our heads backs to cackle, to curse someone out, or study someone, before we let them in. Our shoulders are both made to lean and to carry. This is the second sexiest thing about us, only after our hearts.

Homegirls, you know who you are. You have read my writing, cheered me on, kept it one hundred with me despite the scowl on my face. Damn, you’ve challenged me to write a year of weekly essays, questioned why I don’t do more for my writer self, asked to read my manuscript, read and helped me revise my short stories, flash fiction pieces, and essays for submission. Sent me encouraging messages, pointed out the victories of writing, rejoiced in the joys of the process with me, and have allowed me to lean on you. But, your greatest gift, you have inspired me.

Fire yo! It’s what you all are, fire. It burns bright, and radiates despite the trauma, which has threatened to put us out. When I’m scared, and think I’m not at all a guerrera. I think of you, and that blazing fire inside every one of you. I see myself huddled alongside all of you. And, I’m reminded of my own fire. Illuminated by my own flames, I tell myself together we are a bonfire.imgres-2

You see, I believe this, long ago there were these princess warriors.  You know when the Chibchas, Aztecs, Mayans, Tainos, Incas had their empires. When those civilizations died off, the souls of the guerraras drifted for a long time. Until they found the sad and broken hearts of the girls from the hood. That was when homegirls were born. Correction when we were born.

 

 

 

The Gift of Story

At twenty-two, I found a job as an administrative assistant, for a tele communications company two blocks from the World Trade center, soon after my almost year in Colombia. A job I worked in order to have a steady pay check, while I figured what I wanted to do with my life. As I contemplated what to do next, I read several books a week at my desk, wrote in my journal, and looked up writing possibilities on yahoo search engine. I stumbled upon the 92Y creative writing program, and signed up to take a class. It was the first writing class I took outside of college. Delighted with my teacher, and her mild-mannered tone, and the careful notes she jotted in her small script, always in green ink.  I signed up for another fiction writing class with her at the New School through the continuing education program. It was somewhere in between that I came across a spoken word event at a high school in lower Manhattan. I went on my own, sat in the crowd, and marveled at every artist that performed. At the train station on my way home, pressed against a column, my eyes fixed on the dark tunnel, I wondered if I’d ever be brave to share my words in front of a crowd.

And, with every tug and twist of life, I grew distant from my writing dream. Near two decades later, I still wondered if I’d ever follow my dream. Write. Move others with my words. Inspire. Make them believe. Only now, I understand, first I had to believe in myself.

Last year in mid December, my dear friend and VONA sis, Yesenia sent me a message, selected as a finalist for the Brooklyn Nonfiction Award, she asked if I could come and watch her read. Unable to attend because of a parent obligation for my son, I told Yesenia, my money was on her. I believed in her. The next morning, I reached out to Yesenia, she had won. Excited for her, I told her she inspired me. I prayed to El Divino Nino for the courage to live the life of a writer.

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That Wednesday at writing group, Kerri, came with copies of Stephan King’s, On Writing for all the members. A Christmas gift. Later, a blue print. I held the book in my hands, and looked at the new black and white cover. I owned this book. My writing teacher, Colleen Cruz, a huge Stephan King fan recommended it years ago. I purchased it, and never read it, not one page. Determined to be better, I read the book before the start of the new year. I sat on the corner of my sofa underlined the text, jotted notes in the margins, re read sentences a loud, and when finished I typed up two pages of single spaced notes. And, shared them with my writing friends.

At the end of last year, I committed to the 52 essays challenge for 2017 led by VONA Vanessa Martir, fellow VONA alum, staff, and kick ass writing teacher. I worried how I would make time to write these essays with an already tight schedule as a teacher, mother, wife, daughter, friend, and gym devotee. Not to mention, I continued to write my novel, along with these essays. Surprised by how I began to see cracks of time in my everyday to write, and when those cracks were not enough I pulled them further apart, and created space. And, I wrote essay after essay, continued to work on my novel, and was contacted by the founder of hispanedotes.com. Asked if I would like to be a staff writer for the startup Latinx literary online magazine, I agreed.  While I completed applications to writing programs or conferences, which later became my summer of writing. The summer I turned forty, I attended my second VONA, a week at NYPL Cullman Center Institute for Teachers, and five days at Las Dos Brujas. In the fall, I applied to a craft intensive with Tin House, and was accepted, applied to two writing mentorship programs, which I did not get accepted into. Inspired by Yesenia’s post that rejections are affirmations you are doing the work, I followed suit. And, posted one of my rejection letters for the mentorship program on social media, and the next day was contacted by a YA author, Francisco Stork, who had read my blog, and offered to be my mentor.  Thrilled I accepted, and cried with joy. I reached out to Yesenia and Elizabeth, my VONA 2017 fiction crew, and called my husband and Mami to share the news.

Ready now. Creative momentum, of having figured the end of my novel, I sought opportunities to submit my work, essays, short stories, flash fiction. I sent to literary magazines, contests, worked on my writing till late at night or an hour before my family awakened on weekday mornings.  First, I noticed the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize writing contest in Poets and Writers, and then encouraged by both Yesenia and Elizabeth, I submitted. I crossed myself and whispered to God, as has become my custom: let this be Your will. You know the desires of my heart. I want to live the life of a writer.

On this past Wednesday night, choosen as one of the finalist for the Brooklyn Nonfiction 2017 Prize. I read like a boss. Needless to say, I had practiced hella of a lot. And, during all those rehearsals of my reading, I realized something I suspected, but now knew for certain. Story is the most powerful weapon you can arm yourself with. I read an excerpt of my essay to my grade colleagues during our lunch hour, my students, family, neighbor and friend, and then an audience of other writers and their family, the presenter and judges of the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize, including my family, writing teacher and writing group members. And, everytime I looked up, I was greeted by eyes filled with the hues of wonder and awe. A slice of my story growing up in Sunset Park Brooklyn moved others.imgres-2

In order to read my writing I searched for inspiration in the words and the stories of others. I pumped myself up by listening to my favorite poeta, Elisabet Velsaquez, the mornings on my way to work days before the reading. Throughout those days I prayed, asked my ancestors to join me on the stage. I read for my illiterate abuela Repa, for my mother that never went to school a day in her life, my paternal abuela a soft-spoken mulatta I never met, and mi primo Francisco.

I did not win the prize that night. But, I left there a winner. I got a taste of the writing life. Other writers and audience member came up to me to tell me how much they loved my work. The winner came up, told me my essay took him back to when he was a rookie cop, and Sunset Park was where he was sent at times. Yes, long ago it was broken and run down, crime filled, his eyes sad as he said, “they use to call the people from Sunset Park the dirty ones.” We hugged, and encouraged each other to keep on writing. I made two writing friends that night, other writers of color. I told them about VONA, and we have since sent each encouraging messages back and forth.

That night as I laid in bed, I recalled the events of just a few hours before. I saw admiration in my husband, daughter, and son’s eyes. My writing teacher, looked at me like a proud mother, and my heart swelled. Colleen believed in my writing long before I believed in me. My writing group members: Australia, Barbara, Kerri, and Sarah, huddled around me afterwards, their eyes filled with love and pride.

Then last night at my sister’s Christmas Eve get together, I read the same excerpt from my essay. Beside the Christmas tree, my family bunched up in my sister’s sala: Ruben, Holden, Rubencito, Joann, AJ, Gabi, Al, Al’s cousin Carlos, and his two young daughters. And, they held space for me, to reveal my heart. I looked up, saw the connection my words lassosed around them, like ropes used to bound, my words tugged at them, wrapped around them, and held them tight.

The gift of story.

One thing I learned this year, is that writers are chosen souls, the love of story poured first thing, and an essence formed. Later fitted with bodies, given family and friends tethered to, a life journey, which leads to a collection of stories. Writers speak their words, but echo the words of others. That spark, a recognition of self in someone else’s story, behind the words: you inspire me. It’s the greeting of souls set in motion long ago.

My Christmas gift to myself began almost a year ago, the gift of story, and life of a writer.

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Why I love hip-hop and bounce to Cardi B.

Last month at a writing craft intensive I was asked to introduce myself, and mention my favorite lyricist. A name sat on the back of my throat ready to be spit out, Biggie. But, when it came to my turn I hesitated. I left the question unanswered. My mind rushed to silence my tongue, and Biggie’s name was confined behind the wall of my teeth. Silenced by the question, how could you like hip-hop? Underneath was another, how can someone so well read and sensitive, bounce her shoulders, and nod to the rhymes of rap music? My intelligence and judgement questioned, I chose when and who I professed my love for: Biggie, Tupac, Tribe Called Quest, Nas, and Kanye.

I can remember the precise moment I fell in love with hip-hop. I was nine, on the television three men dressed in big puffy winter coats, thick chains, fedoras, and the classic Adidas shell top sneakers broke out into rhyme. RUN-DMC burst onto the screen, determined and confident to win back the gold chain two street hustlers swindled from one of their girlfriends. Drawn by both the story of these tricksters who meet their match with RUN-DMC. Captivated by how the MCs spit out words in a way that reminded me of how the streets of Sunset Park spoke. I sang the words of It’s Tricky and watched the video until I memorized every frame.

I did not know this was the start of my life long love affair with hip hop. Despite that fact that I discovered alternative music junior year of highschool, I remained a loyal hip hop fan. I bounced to Tribe Called Quest and rocked out to Nirvana. Later, I realized my heart could love more than one genre of music. Though the lyrics of rock wailed alongside the angst in my soul, the rhymes of rap pulsated in beat to the anger I chomped onto with my jaw. But, made to feel that my choice of music rendered me dumb and ignorant, I kept quiet. Scared that the barrier of books I created to distance myself would crumble. I feared, I was less than, being the daughter of a Colombian uneducated mother and a drunk father. And, that I grew up in Sunset Park in the 1980’s and 1990’s when it was called Gunset. I never defended my love for hip-hop, just bounced and nodded.

 

 

 

I was fifteen year old, in my bedroom, when I first heard on the radio  Electric Relaxation.  First time I heard a woman’s thick thighs described as sexy and beautiful. Right after Q-tip paid homage to voluptuous women, Phife explained his love for Brown, Yellow, Puerto Rican, and Haitian women. A New York hip-hop group, Tribe Called Quest saw poetry in the streets that resembled my streets. Surely, this meant that despite the graffiti, broken car windows, and dime bags littered on the ground there was beauty in the hood. Words that swirled around me, part of my own lexicon: shady, punk, come correct, on point, were positioned in the lyrics, like parts of speech.  My speech. I felt heard.

Not much later, I discovered the music of Biggie Smalls, taken aback by how his songs felt like a conversation with a friend. Biggie left nothing unsaid, rapped about how he sold drugs on the corner, was considered a fool for dropping out of highschool, dissed by girls, ate sardines for dinner, and all while his neighbors called the cops on him. But, it was Biggie’s confessional song, Suicidal Thoughts, which made me see the other side of him. Despite the fact Biggie romanticized drug dealing, boasted about womanizing, created false idols of his new fancy cars and stacks of money, and all through the haze of weed, there was layers of hurt and pain. That song became a blueprint for personal narrative, told with your words, with raw emotion, and force. I ached to confess my demons too.

Recently, I heard Jason Reynolds discuss how hip-hop gave birth to his writing. Though hip hop has influenced my writing, it was the stories in books that flickered the inspiration behind my own words. But, Jason Reynolds’ response to the critics of rap was what inspired me to consider my own relationship with hip-hop. Reynolds points out that those who wave the finger at rap, and only point out the explicit, misogynistic lyrics, and count all the times the “N” word is dropped, cannot really criticize the genre. Hip hop music is more than just all the things it’s criticized for. It empowers, it calls attention to, and creates community. 

It was this definition that allowed me to come to love Cardi B. But, not at first. I’m not gonna front, first time I heard Bodak Yellow I rolled my eyes, thought the song was dumb. Why rap about red bottom shoes? Some days later, I saw a video of Cardi B on social media defending herself against all the haters. Cardi asked why the hatred, how instead of hating on her, they should see her as someone who chased her dreams to be a rapper. And, well then why not chase your own. I was intrigued. Next time Holden blasted Bodak Yellow I listened to the lyrics. I listened again and again. Cardi B owned her past, embraced her sexuality, and willed herself to succeed. Cardi B is a boss!

I don’t think I will ever not love hip-hop, not just old school rap, but even the new songs by new rappers.  Hip hop lyrics tell the stories of those that often do not get their stories told. That is why I fell in love with hip-hop decades ago. I LOVE HIP HOP!

A letter to my teenaged daughter…

Dear Holden,

Mami, abuela to you, raised Tia Joann and I, as if we were headed to war, not life. Potential danger in every bend and enemies all around. Life not a journey, but an obstacle to survive. And for decades I lived thinking life to be one great burden to bare. Crushed by the weight. I sought to escape, and hid behind books. Wrapped myself tight in anger, certain if I stomped around like I held grenades in my pocket, the world would fear me, and I’d be left alone. Burnt by flames of my own anger time and time again, I ached to let go of the heat around me. Now, I search to understand and discover meaning. But. In the midst of life, I lose sight and forget, life is more wonder than pain.

*

Wednesday, I entered the apartment, greeted by: Prepárate, wait till you hear about my day. Your hands on your hips, your lips bright from chewing on them, a nervous habit inherited from me. I listened to the “she said I said drama” that had unfolded throughout your day. Angry you stomped and insisted that if anyone had anything to say to tell it to your face. The words I often said echoed back to me, but in your voice.

Later that night, I called to you from the threshold of my bedroom door. My voice traveled passed the hallway that separates our rooms. My words hung in the air: I would never want to be a teenager again.

Silence.

I was twenty-five, really three weeks shy of twenty-six when I had you. Some say that is young, I often felt like I was growing up alongside you. I spoke to you often as if you were grown, since you were little. Encouraged you to never talk about anyone behind their back. I told you, if ever in the wrong you must own it. Instructed you to own your mistakes like a boss, necessary to come correct, I repeated myself over and over. And, if someone spoke about you, not to cower, to confront the person. Don’t lose your cool, but let them see you are a guerrera in the making. Not in war, but a warrior.

I resisted the urge to tell you what Mami told me, que un amigo es un peso en el bosillo. But, refused to shield you from the darker hues that make up the world. This is why I have warned you, never allow the world to see you as a punk. Because to do so, is to invite others to mistreat you. Weakness must be avoided at all cost. This is the one rule I have insisted on above all.

But, in my haste to arm you against the world. I forgot life requires balance. That the opposite of warrior is peacemaker. Peace starts within, and compassion leads you there. They say to start with self. Still, like when you were little I’m learning alongside you. Being a teenager is the anthesis of peaceful, everything that happens is its own electrical storm. I got you.

Last parent conference all your teachers mentioned what a happy and funny young lady you are. You did well, better than well. Proud. I let out a sigh. I recalled what your early teachers all echoed when they spoke about you: good-hearted, an old soul, an artist.

Yesterday, Friday, you were angry. Hurt. Still frustrated with the “she said I said” bullshit. And through your tears you told me that sometimes you get sad and angry. I stood in the hallway. The door of your bedroom ajar. I saw you. I did not tell you to be a guerrera. I let you be. My heart grew heavy as you listed your worries, grades, friends, boys, fitting in, and then you spoke from another list. The one you called out from between sobs, worried about abuela and abuelo, and how you never gotten over having a half-brother in Colombia, and worry you will never meet. I crossed over to your bedroom, sat on your bed, and listened.

I watched you get ready for your holiday band concert at school. You styled your hair, pulled a dress over your arms, and slipped into a pair of flats. Your eyes puffy from your tears, you turned to me and smiled, thanked me for being your Mama. In turn, I told you how strong you were.  True guerreras know when to soften and to cry, a lesson I’m still learning.

And, at the concert, I watched you play your saxophone, lost in the notes. And, I realized I was wrong. There is something beautiful about being a teenager. It’s that moment before you leave one room and enter another. A transition between your child self and adult self, where you begin the journey to your true self. And everything seems possible. Well, there is nothing more beautiful than that.

 

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Love,

Mama