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, seeping into my consciousness and making its way into my bones. 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.
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 to make 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 her five word slogan. Mami’s words, a class of bad people, often rang in my head, as I stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. My eyes traced every feature of my face, and I looked for the oppressor in the lightness of my skin, the oppressed along the rise of my cheekbones, the width of my forehead, and the bend in every curl of my hair.
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. 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. 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. Sifted. Smoothed. 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
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
Now, sure I did not know him. I looked closer at the way his skin folded under his eyes like crumpled pants, like the ones that hung loose on his hips.
“Ok,” Laleh said, “that’s enough.”
“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.
“Where are my Latinas? I see you.” Desperation soaked his words.
No one said a word.
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. But, ask a Colombian about their ancestors, and they will always trace their lineage to Spain, erasing the Latin American diaspora, in one single breath.
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 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.