Las Brujas y La Otra; What I learned about Race and Writing.

Days shy of my fortieth birthday, my greatest gift was five days of writing community. Gifted to myself, a class with master writing teacher Laleh Khadivi: The Storyteller and the King, in San Francisco at Las Dos Brujas. Where I learned a new meaning for the oppressor and the oppressed, and the residency both occupy in everyone. Defined now, with razor edges, which sliced my consciousness and leaked into my soul. I thought of my characters. I thought of my family and friends.  I thought of myself.

“Tell every bit of a person’s humanity,” Laleh Khadivi.

Her words, like strong arms shifted and pulled me. My feet tumbled beneath me. And when I looked up, I stood somewhere else, and what I saw before me though it was the same, was not. Life seemed different. I seemed different.

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*

Mami shot racial slurs, like Al Capone sprayed bullets. And all the while she clutched a rosary. No one was above her shot range. Los Gringos, Indios, Chinos, Arabes, Juidos, Los Morenos, and every single country member that made up Latin America. Mami had slogans about every one. Like Nike was: Just Do It, every group had their own personal catch phrase. Boricuas, Domincanos, Mexicanos, Ecuatorianos, Cubanos, Venezuelanos, Aregentinos, Salvadorianos, Peruanos, Chilenos, los Espanoles, but Colombianos were her favorite target. Los Colombianos son mala clase, was the five word slogan for Colombians. We were inherently evil. And as I stared at my face in the bathroom mirror, I searched for evidence of Mami’s words. My eyes traced every feature of my face, and I looked for the oppressor under my eyes and the rise of my cheekbones.

But, as quick as a racial slur stumbled out of Mami’s mouth so did a prayer, regardless of race, or what part of South, Central, or the Caribbean a person came from. And I often found her at the foot of her bed, moved by something on el noticero, her eyes glazed with tears. Punctured by humanity. No longer a checklist of stereotypes, but humans with a story.  But. It would be a long time before I realized this. And longer to acquire the vocabulary to explain what I thought and felt. And as I write and read my own story, I have learned to listen to others. Humanity.

*

Las Brujas was to be the last of my writing conference of this summer. Number three in the nine weeks that made my summer of 2017. And with every writing retreat and conference I understood how much more there was to learn about writing. But, above writing, life. And to do the latter well, a writer must unearth close to the bedrock of what makes us human. A task, with no conclusion or end, just exposed rubble, and from there, a writer erects a narrative.

I expected to be stretched as a writer, to vibe off of the chill energy of writers for five days, to have soul sessions with the home girls, and talk process and craft till my jaw ached. I did not expect that so much of myself would be unearthed, and to stare at my own rubble at my feet. And with nothing left to do I stooped down, let my fingers trace over the rubble, much like how I traced my features over the mirror so long ago. Searched. I sifted, smoothed, some, not all. Tugged the broken bits across my soul, till what I saw made my heart ache. And, this my attempt to make the hurt sing.

“It is the job of the writer, to look at the ugly.”– Laleh Khadivi

Laleh’s word punched the air. And like all master teachers Laleh Khadivi hypnotized me with her prose. Late at night, during those five days, curled on my side, her words haunted me, as the shard of the moonlight cut across my room. I closed my eyes and searched for meaning in the hallways of my mind. Uncovered the lessons she doled out like fruits stolen from the King’s palace, treasures, to garner me rich. At my most silent I can hear the echoes of her words.

*

“Mira el bano,” Mami said. The shine in her voice, matched the gleam across the tiled bathroom.

We were in Robert’s apartment. Robert lived in Sunset Park, but he wasn’t like any man I ever knew. Robert lived alone, had a dog named Vanilla, had a fancy job in the City, and defined meticulous before I even knew it was a word.  But, what I remember the most, Robert was a white man who hired Mami once a week, to clean his spotless and renovated modern apartment. He left her an envelope on the counter with her name on it, five tens for half a day of cleaning.

“Y despues la cocina,” Mami said. She walked through the apartment in chancletas, the slap of every step on the tiled floor of the kitchen. Robert lived on the first floor of a house between Eighth and Seventh Avenues. It was on either 47th or 48th Street. A block from where I grew up. Not the central artery of Sunset Park, la Quinta, but the outskirts.

My eyes wide. This was the prettiest home I ever seen. I noted all the things it lacked: cracked paint, rusty heater which hissed like a dozen coiled snakes, cheap or second-hand furniture, the smell of Raid, a multitude of figurines on a glass coffee table in the center of the sala, and the steam rising from the big pot of arroz. Abundant in its simplicity.

Mami ran a damp cloth across the counter, her glide soft and tender. Not the way her hand ran across my head when I was feverish, but how I wanted it. A hand to caress my cheek, a sweet touch that indeed confirmed a fever.

“Go sit on the sofa, but don’t touch anything.” Mami waved me off. She was more museum guard than cleaning lady.

“I won’t,” I lied. I did touch everything, with the longing of my heart.

*

This longing, unraveled until it could not. And in it’s absence grew the acid taste of bitterness. And I stopped. Stopped wanting what the world could not afford to give me. My eyes always turned side eyed in the direction of those that had more. Whites always seemed to have everything I did not. Pretty houses, safe neighborhoods lined with immaculate homes, dad’s that drove minivans, mom’s that wore dresses from Macy’s or fancy slacks, and English that rested comfortable in their mouth. And when I looked down at my discount clothes, out at my neighborhood that was referred to as Gunset in the 1980’s and the 1990’s, and heard English crumble like ash on my parent’s tongue. I hated what I saw and heard, and spent most of my childhood and adolescence wrapped tight in self hate. And hated those that reminded me of what I was and was not. I cringed at the sound of immigrant broken English. Turned my back and looked away at loud Latinos that refused to quiet down and assimilate.

But, then there was a shift, it was my second year at Hunter College. Locked out of the elective I really wanted to take, I ended up in a course I took for no other reason, than it fit into my schedule.  Latinos in US History, and as the weeks of the semester unfolded so did my Latina pride. I soon stopped using the term Hispanic and referred to myself as Latina. It was around this time that I read Julia Alvarez’s How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent. In an effort to atone for all my years of shame I was quick to correct my ignorance around Latin culture. Unable to name, let alone look at my shame, for being the immigrant daughter of Colombians, and a Latina in America from Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Anger nestled in my heart, and for all of my twenties and thirties I have casted my hate on whiteness.

*

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The first hour of our prose class at Las Dos Brujas a homeless man opened the door to the storefront of La Galeria de La Raza, which doubled as our classroom during those few mornings. Dead center in the Mission District of San Franscisco, gentrification and race pulsed like a heartbeat through the streets, ready to burst. I stopped believing in coincidences long ago. And even at its messiest, life is moved by some great design, the weight and measure of everything thought of long before. And this incident was no different.IMG_3292

 

Motherfucka came in bold and brazen as fuck. And I’m from New York where homeless are part of the landscape of skyscrapers, graffiti, and the steel horses of the MTA. This was another type of homeless. Door swung open, half of his body penetrated la Galeria. His eyes aimed at the eleven writers and one teacher, with rage.

I looked up at him like I knew him, took in his scruffy beard and more salt than pepper hair. His hands stuffed into his pockets, balled into fists, his mouth was what he would use to punch us.

“I’m coming here tomorrow with three million dollars and I am gonna buy this place.”

We stared.

Now, sure I did not know him. I looked closer at the way his skin folded under the eyes like crumpled pants, like the ones that hung loose on his hips.

“Ok,” Laleh said, “that’s enough.”

He glared.

“Close the door,” Laleh spoke from somewhere in her lower back, it made her sit tall in her chair.

“You white?” He jabbed the question in her direction.

Oh so this is what it’s about. I felt so much settle into my chest, weight of years of nothing said. Race. What I kept locked, and afraid of my hate reflected back at me. Shame buried under the hate, my heart a fist. I braced myself.

“What does that matter,” Laleh now faced him, and still tall in her chair.

Bad ass, I noted.

Growing up in Sunset Park, guys and girls rock in every corner, and tried to out bad ass themselves. I learned to check for it in people, just like I do the color of their eyes, or how much the use their hands or not when they talk.

“You a white nigga, bitch.”

Everyone sat up, some in fear and some ready to charge.

I recognized the rage. His. Laleh’s. Every writer in the room. My own. I swallowed and tasted the hurt in my mouth. And swallowed again, my tongue clicked alongside my mouth in search of anger.

“Where are my Latinas? I see you.” Desperation soaked his words.

No one said a word.

He left.

But so much was said. And left unsaid. Laleh told us to write, right then and there, a creative response based on what had just happened. And after the fifteen minutes was up a few of us decided to share what we wrote. I shared what I wrote, more a less a description of what had happened, certain it would be used for a personal essay later on. My writing quoted what the man had said, the N word, with the ending altered by hip hop culture. The only way my mouth ever said the word. A word that I  have bounced to and rhymed with. One that I have heard swirled around me as I’ve walked every block that makes Sunset Park.

The last to read was one of the two white women in the class.  Let’s call her Cindy, read a fictional account of the homeless man and in her narrative dropped the N word a handful of times. The word was no longer part of lines from a hip hop song, or bars being spit. Nor was it home boys and home girls on the street in conversation. It was none of those things, but for every one of those that sat in the long table, it became so much else. My first thought was: no she did not just say that word, sitting alongside three Afro Latinas. My second thought, no she did not just say that in front of me. I looked up and saw my homegirl and VONA sis Rebecca’s eyes, wide-eyed and wild.

I watched Rebecca lift her hand to speak. Glad she had, I knew I would speak next. I had Rebecca’s back. I had my own back.

“I don’t feel comfortable with having you say the N word,” Rebecca said.

Silence blared through the room.

“I didn’t feel comfortable writing it,” Cindy said. Tears streamed down her face.

“But you did, and said it a loud multiple times.” Rebecca voice calm, but stern.

I spoke next. “Do you know when I wrote and read my scene I questioned if I could use that word.” I looked around the table, everyone faced me. “I grew up hearing that word used on the streets. But, I checked myself. As a Latina with fair skin I’m aware that it comes with privilege. And for me to pretend that your words didn’t hurt my hermanas, I can’t sit here and not say anything.” My hands shook. “I grew up my whole life with my father telling my sister and, I that his mother was mulata.” I didn’t say much after that. Didn’t say that my father’s side of the family is from the coast of Colombia, Barranquilla. Colombian African history is still rich even now, hundreds of years later, in Colombian music, food, dialect, clothes, festivals, and features. Features like mine, despite my light skin.

Several other writers spoke up about how they felt. It was unanimous everyone had a reaction. Guards were up. Alliances were made. What was said could not be unsaid.

*

The second to last day Cindy struck up a conversation with me as we walked in the same direction. I took a breath, and became Ms. Meza, the teacher, the one that is trained to listen to both sides. She talked. I listened. Cindy then proceeded to apologize for her action, I nodded. Undeterred, Cindy began to apologize for all the ills done by white people to people of color. I closed my eyes and took a longer breath, and told her I did not need her apology. That at almost forty, I was confident and comfortable being myself, Connie, a Colombian Latina. I told her to apologize to Rebecca. That all I ever wanted to do was have an honest conversation about race, and not be interrupted, or told racism didn’t exist. She listened and nodded. I told her that I did not want to have that conversation with her. My guard was up. My alliance was drawn. And when we got to the conference building, we parted, and I sat with my home girls.

It’s been two weeks today that I got back from Las Dos Brujas. My family picked me up at the airport, my son and daughter ran towards and almost knocked me down. It was my children and husband that I first told about Cindy, how she dropped the N word an hour after meeting everyone, and her writing appropriated Mexican life, in particular crossing the border. Reactions were different. And over the next few days I told my Latina home girls, my sister, my mother, my white friends, and my VONA fiction crew, and witnessed a variety responses, some outright angry and disgusted, others confused, a few sympathetic too, one or two even wrote her off as a nut. But the more I told, the more I understood that race is complicated as fuck, shaped by personal experiences.

Racism is ugly. I can think no better word that fits. But, writers must look at the ugly. And in order to understand myself better, and see my humanity, so I can see other’s. I must examine every last bit of myself, see that within me lives both the oppressed and the oppressor.

 

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Why I Cried Watching The Pig Mom In Sing

I’m one of those people who hates social media. I think it’s vapid and one big social mind fuck. I only got Facebook the summer of 2015,  with a new-found writing community, I wanted to stay connected. My Facebook page is shaped by my writing, but I’m known to post quotes and pictures of my two children on occasion. This summer, plagued by fears of being seen as a selfish mom I forged ahead, and posted my joy for writing with abandon. Hopeful that my breadcrumbs of joy would lead me to great chunks.

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*

During Christmas break I took my kids to watch the animated movie Sing. And as I sat snuggled between my daughter and son I laughed at all the funny moments of the movie, like when the koala music manager used himself as a sponge during a fund-raiser car wash. I smiled at the teen gorilla’s rendition of Elton John’s I’m Still Standing. But it was Rosita, the pig mom, who made me weep.

Rosita came out on stage in her regular mom clothes and an apron, a drier machine behind her and a laundry basket in her hands. Then as she began to belt out the words to Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off, she transformed. Rosita looked at the camera with a steady gaze, which forced me to sit up in my seat. My eyes glued on her, I watched her disappear behind a black screen, and come out dressed in a costume straight out of Iris Chacon’s closet. Rosita strutted with her hand on her wide hips and swayed with effortless movement next to her partner Gunther. Rosita went all out, full beast mode, as she was swung around by Gunther, like some bedazzled hybrid, half mom, half wife, and half artist. Homegirl looked so fly and so sure of herself on that stage. Sexy as hell, Rosita kept to the beat, her voluptuous legs and her eyeliner on point, she commanded to be admired. Then the camera panned to her litter of piggies and her pig husband in the audience, they clapped and cheered for her. Rosita beamed. Then I wept, those thick tears that spring from the soles of your feet, and weave up your legs, only to sit in your chest, and buckled under the weight you cry.

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Rosita was ready to burst when she first appeared on the screen, surrounded by chores and a litter of piggies, Rosita hummed to herself to hear the echoes of who she use to be. But. Scraps are never enough when your hunger is so great. And, Rosita was compelled to sing. Rosita was an artist.  Video

*

On our walk home I cried as I told Holden and Ruben about Rosita.

“Really Mom, a pig?” Holden looked at me, the light of the street lamp lit her face. Sarcasm dressed her voice, but her eyes searched to understand.

“I know how that pig feels.” I hung my head. Tears were foreign to me like starry nights in New York City.

“Rosita?” Holden smirked.

“Mama it’s just a movie.” Ruben slipped his hand into mine, his small fingers laced through.

“But that desire to sing…” I gulped the air, as sobs threatened to leave me breathless. “That doesn’t go away…”

“Like your writing Mama?” Ruben looked up at me and searched my face, to see if he had gotten the right answer.

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Mami,” Holden cried. The smirk she wore minutes before was washed away by tears.

“But you love us, right?” Ruben asked, his voice small.

“Holeeeey! Of course she does Ruben!” Holden wiped her tears with the back of her hand. But, at almost fourteen, Holden embraced adolescence impatience, like an Instagram Star does likes.

“You are my Queenie and my Angel Dust,” I said. Pulled close to me, we walked linked, like a three bodied person.

“You should do what Rosita did,” Ruben said.

“Yeah, Ma go be a writer,” Holden said. She nestled her head under my arm and looked up at me and smiled. “Not just your writing group, but like go all out…”

“Really?” I sniffed. “I want to.”

*

I consulted with my husband, my best friend, and a friend or two, they all encouraged me to seek this writing life. Then, VONA 2017 applications came out in February, and I decided to apply again. When my Assistant Principal mentioned The Cullman Writing Scholar Week at the main library in the City I wondered if this was a nudge from the universe. I decided to go ahead and fill out that application too, what the hell I thought. Then Las Dos Brujas application came, and I applied, certain that I would be invited to at least one of the three writing weeks. I did not think I would get into all three, well maybe I did, hope just a little.

The first acceptance rolled in the month of March. I screenshot the email from the Cullman Writing Scholar and sent out to my husband, writing friends, friends, and called my mother and sister. I was proud, but I wanted them to be prouder.

The day after I got back from my family road trip to Iowa I got my acceptance letter to VONA 2017 at UPenn. Shocked and thrilled, I would be working with the same fiction teacher of 2015, M. Evelina Galang. La maestra, whose sassy and sweet style, checked me in 2015.  Told to write my character without apologies, fearless of conflict, and certain in her strength. I listened. And with the help of my writing teacher, Colleen Cruz, and my writing group I revised and wrote. Pages of a bolder Delores who hurdled conflict sometimes with the grace of a track field star, but most times not.  La maestra noticed and brought me back for another round, 2017. And in UPenn, of all places, never dreamt I, Connie, would walk the campus grounds of an Ivy league school as a student. I told my principal within days about my acceptance, and requested the last two days of work off. Proud and excited for me, she agreed right away.  I sent my deposit for VONA, though worried how I’d pay it all. I reached out to my sister friends, and was shown love through my gofundme , which I did not make public, but chose to share only with some friends.

Three weeks later on a Thursday as I shuttled back and forth from soccer practice for my son and dance class for my daughter I checked email in between. As I waited for my daughter to come down from the apartment so I could run her to dance I saw a Las Dos Brujas email. I held my breath. Christina Garcia author of Dreaming in Cuban had written me a personal email to compliment my writing sample, invite me to her five-day writer’s conference in San Francisco, Las Dos Brujas. I stared at the email through blurred tears, and when Holden slipped in, she studied my face. And through sobs I told her I would attend three writing conferences, I felt closer to my dream. Holden wept alongside me.

Last August after I turned thirty-nine, many asked me if how I planned to celebrate my fortieth. I joked and said I wanted to do something fun like have a spin party. Some nodded at the idea and others gave me odd stares. But as the weeks and months passed, writing began to be the light in which I saw myself, and the one that illuminated my journey. My path.

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But.

It was Rosita that singing pig, who made me want to reach for my dreams. Because of Rosita, I stood in front of my daughter and son and confessed that I too had a dream. I desired to sing, not on stage, but have my words be heard through the pages of my novel. Later that week Vanessa Martir posted on her status that she challenged other writers to start the new year with the same challenge she had just completed. Fifty-two essays, one a week for the year of 2017 #52essays2017 . Scared to share myself, hidden and tucked aside have always been the angle I saw myself best. Vanessa saw my hesitation, and asked me to lean in anyways.  I did. Decided to open up, expose myself behind the thin gauze of writing.

And those around me noticed, but my sister stands out the most:

“Your essay on Mami made me sad,” Joann whispered over the phone. “It helped me understand Mami more.” Mami essay

“Me too,” I said.

And the following week when I wrote my essay on Papi. Papi essay

“I didn’t comment because it made me feel sad,” Joann’s voice quiet on the other end.

“Me too,” I said.

Weeks later after many essays.

“I get it, you see the inside of people. I just see the outside, but when I read your essays I get to see the inside too.” Joann sighed into the phone.

“That’s why I write.”

*

A summer of writing, the greatest gift I could gift myself, the summer I turned forty. A gift to the many versions of Connie that occupied inside of me. My eleven-year old self who realized at that age that nothing greater could exist, but to write, and write. And to my twenty-one year old self that graduated Hunter College with a degree in English Creative Writing, who left for Colombia two weeks after, to write her novel. But back under a year, with a half filled red leather journal, the only token of my dream. That twenty-three year old Connie, that sunk into the hard plastic chair in the New York City Department of Education offices in Downtown Brooklyn, when she was told in order to continue to work as a public school teacher a Masters in Education was needed in the next five years. A Masters in Fine Arts did not insure me permanent certification. Angry I finished my Masters in Education in three years, not five. Though the words of the man, who went over my credentials as he looked at me with pity, stamped through my mind. Slumped, in the chair. He offered me an out stretched hand in the forms of words: Connie, you can get that MFA after. I hoped. Considered it was possible after Holden, thought it would look great coupled with my Masters in Education, but never thought of it again once I had my son.

I was told by my writing teacher and by many others in VONA 2015, that an MFA did not make you a writer. That writing seminars and master classes were the places to learn the craft, be exposed to great articles, readings, lectures, be around great writing teachers, and also a place to find your tribe. The gente that get drunk on words, eat books, and think writing is both holy and fun, but know the grind. This soothed my ache.

My husband and children witnessed me squeeze writing in my life throughout the years. But this was different. I was now making time to write. Woke up early or late to bed, chapters to be written, essays to be posted, applications to be filled out, and writing community to be cultivated. I stepped up my reading game, and read for fun, but also to learn. Television watching was downsized, friends now knew a quick text I’m writing meant I’d catch them later, and my subconscious took note. It began to write. And write.

This summer in order to give myself the summer of writing I had to juggle Holden and Ruben’s schedules, and the ever annoying summer homework. My husband needed to ask for days off, and my mother, my in-laws, and my homegirl Zoraida had to pitch in with kid duties. I also worked a week of summer school to pay for part of my Las Dos Brujas week, though I received aid through a generous work-study they offered.

Once back from my week at VONA my children clung to me. They said they missed me so much, that it was less fun, their lives without me here. I reminded them about my Rosita moment, they understood, but they missed me a lot, and it was a cartoon after all. My week in the City at the New York Public Library, from nine to five, my family waited for me as I walked into the apartment at six ready to tell me about their days and ask about mine. Exhausted, the world of my novel occupied my mind, and left little room for anything else. I endured. And watched Games of Thrones with my husband, went out as a family to see Spiderman, spent a Friday evening at the pool, and listened to music and sang during family car rides. And before Las Dos Brujas my husband confessed he felt jealous of my writing in the dark as we laid on our backs. He reached for my hand and I clasped his. Worry and guilt settled into my chest. How could I juggle all the demands on me, and still chase this writing dream?

On my last night in San Francisco after the Las Dos Brujas’ open mic, and across the street at a bar called, Pops, was when I found some of the answer to that question. My sadness and worry loosened. This question and worry, which snaked itself tight around my neck and coiled in my chest, began to unfold. The answer, its beginning, came in form of  a conversation with fellow bruja and writer, C.F.

*

“I heard great things about the amazing Connie Pertuz-Meza.” C.F. eyes opened wide greeted me.

“Me? Really?” I laughed. “I heard you are mad wise.” I deflected, heard from my roommate, Mariana, how this wonderful person in her memoir class gave great perspective to not just your writing, but life shit too. So, when I met C.F. I was shocked C.F. was another writer person. I expected the three eyed raven from Game of Thrones. But, C.F. was better than some fantasy all-knowing creature. C.F.’s humanity and connection came from experience, and a gift for words. And C.F. did not disappoint.

“Tell me something you never told another human being?” C.F. asked. Small talk not part of C.F.’s lexicon.

Unsurprised by the depth of the question, and around enough writers to know that deep conversation is our only style of talk, I rolled with it. Bit my lip and thought.

“I will make it easier for you,” C.F. offered, “and tell you something I never told anyone.” C.F. proceeded, a handful of soul excavated.

I listened. The way a writer does, careful to note words spoken, observation of the contrast of the light in the room, the touch of my elbow on the bar, and the clink of the glasses in the back.

“What about you…” C.F. smiled, a crooked smile in my direction.

I spoke for a long time about my fears of being a mom and a writer and my fears of being a wife and a writer too.

C.F. nodded. “You must show the world the transition of being not just a mother, wife, and teacher, you are a writer. It’s your job to teach the world how to embrace the writer in you.” C.F. paced back and forth, the words flowed.

“It’s that simple?”

“Yes, but you have to do it.” C.F. said. “You have a great life, you must see how much love you have all around you. Embrace this new version of you, but give others a chance to get to know her. Everybody already loves her, they just have to get to know her…”

*

And

This is my introduction. I am Connie. A writer, who is a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend. A writer, that is a teacher, a Brooklyn homegirl, a Colombiana- Americana. Damn it I’m writer! Come get to know me.

 

 

 

Soy Gordita

Mami loves to remind me I was thin til I turned five. Queso, she offers, as if my love for cheese is the sole reason I have struggled with weight most of my life. Not in the least bit deterred by the scowl on my face Mami continues, as if reading the whole time from a well rehearsed script. I’d find you sneaking into the refrigerator late at night with unwrapped pieces of cheese in your hands. She shakes her head back and forth as if trying to remove a horrific image. I glare. She smiles. Oh and you fell in love with juice the way your father fell in love con la cervezas. Matter of fact. My hand always goes up to my face and drags down, I too want to block the image from my mind.

While Mami complied a list of reasons why my thighs pressed together like a Panini, unlike her thighs that revealed a gap. I jotted down my own list, right beside her, and with the meticulous mind of a researcher, I searched for proof that underneath my chubby layers was a flaca.

  1. I’m flexible, my joints are loose as if made by silly putty.
  2. I run cold, always chilly and in search of a pair of socks or a sweatshirt.
  3.  Doctor visits are always followed by comments from the nurses or doctor themselves about how great my blood pressure happens to be, 110/70 sometimes 100/70. Numbers I’m known to brag about, since the ones in the scale make me hide my face in shame.
  4. Salads and fruits are favorites of mine, while I always forego fries, unless they are cheese fries.
  5. The gym and I have always had torrid affairs on and off since my first membership at Lucille Roberts at nineteen.

The first time I went on a diet I was ten, maybe younger. My diet consisted of hours spent starving and succumbing to my hunger late at night.

But.

By fourteen my next diet was given more thought, large amounts of water in leu of fruit punch, and I would now burn calories with exercise. Options limited, never having learned to ride a bike, swim, or play any sport, I relied on what I saw Richard Simmons do. I too would sweat to the oldies with the other gorditos.

My weight and fitness took on an urgency as every summer lapsed. A combination of the unstructured time flooded my brain, and I spent hours ruminating about my weight in between books. Then, the dreaded bathing suit season coupled with the latest summer fashion, which always included tiny shorts.

*

Tiny shorts and tank tops were on my brain late in June, the summer of 1991. It was the summer before highschool. And with Wimbledon on the television I went to work on the living room floor. I did rounds and rounds of sit ups and crunches while I watched tennis players run across the court, their flat stomach taunted me. But, their lean and muscular arms, waved at me to join them in the fit body squad. I wanted arms that were sculpted and fit too. I searched throughout the apartment for weights to improvise as dumbbells, but the canned vegetable were not heavy enough.

I continued my search, until my eyes landed on two bottles of wine on the little wooden makeshift bar Mami kept in the corner of the hallway when you walked in. Papi never drank at home, but was given bottles of alcohol as gifts or freebies from journalist events. Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal, Buchanan stood tall on the top shelf like guards, in front of them stout bottles of Crystal aguardiente, and to each side was one bottle of wine. I grabbed the two bottles of wine and began to curl them. My new dumbbells. Undaunted that they were glass I gripped the smooth center, and walked to the front of the television, and began my first set. Joann now stretched on the sofa, wore a bored face as she watched the tennis match on television, pissed that the soaps were preempted for Wimbledon.

“I wouldn’t use those if I were you,” Joann said matter of fact.

“I know what I’m doing,” I said. I started on another set.

“Suit yourself.” Joann propped her head with her arm and turned her attention to the television.

I turned away from Joann in disgust, but not before I caught her eyes on the wine bottles and then on me. Joann two and a half years my senior had weighed thirty pounds less than me most of our childhood, and somewhere between forty and fifty pounds less than during our adolescence. A fact that not Joann, but Mami loved to point out at every chance. I pumped my arms in the air, as I worked the back of the arm, and with every movement I smiled. I envisioned tan toned arms in cute graphic tank tops, legs with muscles, that I could trace my finger down, from thigh to calf. My new athletic build would twist boys’ neck and force their eyes on me. And for a second, only one, I closed my eyes, and it was in that sliver of time, the bottles crashed against each other. Horrified, my eyes flew open. Glass around my feet, a deep red bleed into the dark brown carpet.

I turned towards Joann, who smirked. Mami would be home in a matter of hours, I had to fix this. Papi had left already for El Diaro, and wouldn’t be home till late. Transfixed, I watched the stain now soak into the carpet. Then the fear of Mami, like a coach’s whistle, sprung me into action. I ran towards the kitchen for paper towels and let the wine puddle onto the Bounty, but the carpet had drunk most of it like a thirsty wino. I thought of Church and how the priest always wiped the chalice with a cloth napkin, and folded it into a neat square. This would not be an easy clean up. I grabbed a plastic supermarket bag and picked up the shards, and vacuumed the bits. Worried that Mami would discover the broken glass in the kitchen trash I ran out of the building to dispose of my transgression. I sprayed the stain with Windex in hopes to mask the smell. 

And then I waited.

Oprah had just finished and the evening news came on when the door unlocked. Mami. I looked at the spot, stubborn to my prayers it was still there, unwilling to budge. My eyes bounced towards Joann still spread out on the sofa. Concerned for a moment, but soon that smirk came across Joann’s face again. The stain glowed bright, and I dashed from where I sat, and ran towards the spot. Unsure of what to do, I sat down. I crossed my legs like I did when I sat in a circle during my Brownie troop meetings, the one year I did Girl Scouts. Tired and weary Mami did not notice anything amiss. And this is how I sat, well into the nighttime, as my sweat pants grew damp. Damper. I watched the latest episode of Perfect Strangers like this afraid to move until Mami had fallen asleep.

The next morning the stain was still there, though less visible, but unable to be hidden much like my weight.

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And this how I spent most of my life trapped in a world of counting points or overeating, broken promises, and self hate. My weight has fluctuated since my teens like the stockmarket on those legendary wild days. Once I got down to a size eight, but by then I hated my body, and though a size eight was not small enough.  I despised the soft rolls of my stomach and how my thighs spread wide like the ocean once I sat down. I wanted to sit with my legs pulled up high and my chin resting on my knees, the way skinny girls did. I think I began to pray to be lose weight around that time, and even waged a battle on anything that was not fat-free or sugar-free, long gone were the days of Minute Maid Fruit Punch. I had discovered Crystal Light.

In my twenties, pregnant at twenty-five and twenty-nine were the only brief periods in which I lost weight without effort, and to gain was a task. After years of endless prayers to lose weight and not gain, it was answered. Six months pregnant with my daughter and I had gained a mere six pounds. My son came into this world weighing an ounce short of ten pounds, and my total weight gain during the pregnancy was twenty pounds. A small victory in my gordita battle. But, your only pregnant for nine months, and you can only breast feed for so long. Weight soon began to pile on my body, like arepas at a Colombian gathering, a mound of round discs filled with cheese and butter.

By my mid thirties and three failed attempts at Weight Watchers I had given up. I resigned myself to the life of a gorda. Picture time often brought a tsunami of anxiety, and one that required precision planning. Camera pointed high and at an angle, took away from my too large hips and soft middle. I prefered to be hidden by others, a strip of my face was enough. The bigger I got, the smaller I made myself.

Then.

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The last week of December 2015, depressed and lethargic I scrawled through Facebook while I lounged in bed late into the morning. I found myself inspired by meme posted by my friend Zoraida. Laid out in bed, the words yanked me up by the shoulders, and walked me over to my sneakers. I signed up for a spin class and hoisted myself on a bike, already out of breath, I hung onto those handlebars like the bar on a roller coaster. Determined, I  began to pedal. And somewhere in midst of the music blare and shouts of RPM checks and gear calls, I decided to come again the next day. Because in those forty-five minutes, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time. I felt the opposite of numb, I felt alive.

*

Early this June my daughter had one of two dress rehearsals at Kingsborough for her dance recital near the end of the month. One of the dance mom’s and her husband I’ve known for years waved from across the auditorium. Now a soon to be highschool freshman, Holden is dropped off at dance or walks over herself. Long gone are the days when I lingered at the reception area of the dance studio and chatted with other parents. The last time I saw Joe and Jen was a year ago at the same dress rehearsal.

“Hey Connie,” Joe said,  across the aisle.

“Hey,” I smiled. My laptop balanced on the arm rest.

“You look great Connie,” Joe smiled back.

His wife nodded.

“Thanks,” I chuckled. I treated compliments like pesky flies. I swatted them away, and if they persisted I moved.

“Really, you look great keep it up.” Joe shot up his thumb in the air.

Ready to flick the compliment away, uneasy with attention directed my way. I took a deep breath and turned around. “I been hitting the gym.” I offered.

“Oh yeah… we can see, ” Joe said.

“Yeah it’s paying off,” Jen said.

And instead of making myself too big or too small, I just was. I was me. “I got into spin over a year and a half ago, then started doing yoga again, and threw some Pilates into it. And started doing boot camp in January.” I listed.

“Wow,” they shook their heads. Impressed.

“I just wanted to feel good, ” I said.

“Keep it up!” They both said in unison.

“I will,” I said more to myself then to them.

*

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I ain’t  gonna front. I’m still gordita, but less. I went down two full dress sizes, and now rock a size fourteen. My ass still struggles to keep a full minute plank during boot camp, my tree pose still wobbles during class, I groan all through pilates, but on that spin bike I am a beast. I get down real low in third position, tuck my elbows close to my chest, close my eyes, and tear it up. I feel invincible on that bike and the whole time I chill with my thoughts, and love this new me. This me that wakes up early to hit the gym or goes late at night. This me that does it not because she hates her body, but because she wants to learn to love her body. This new me that can say: Yes, soy gordita, but I don’t hate my body anymore.

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