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 patterned design 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. Mami and Papi spoke them out loud to each other, as if only 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 dragged me to remember.

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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 Mexican 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 oneself, 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.

 

 

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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.