On The Streets, They Call Me Iris Chacon

This morning, I hobbled into the spin room at the gym. Sore, hopped on the bike, to the right of the instructor. I turned to my Sunday morning spin comrades, and told them I barely made it in. I had skipped Pilates, unable to scrape myself out of bed any earlier. Before they could ask me why, I told them. I danced for two hours straight, closer to two and a half. My record is four hours, but that was some time ago.

Smiles.

“I had to, don’t you know on the streets my name is Iris Chacon?” I clipped onto the bike.

The Latinas in the room howled.

“I’m Iris! Didn’t ya’ll know?”

*

I learned to dance watching those that know how to dance.

I spent hours of my childhood mesmerized by Iris Chacon. Watched her shake her big ass on the screen, dressed in a body stocking, while the lights of the stage caught the glint of every sequins placed across her chest. A cleavage, that plunged to big breasts, a tiny waist, and round hips. Her bright red hair as wild as her dance moves. Iris looked like a goddess.

Born in Puerto Rico, Iris was known in all Latino homes. Her variety show that she hosted weekly in the 1980’s on Univision was never short on viewers. Mami walked by the television and screamed the word, fresca at the screen. Her eyes glared at me, and then landed on Papi. Papi peered from his newspaper or looked up from his typewriter, and then settled on Iris. I turned towards Papi, and watched his eyes dance across the stage in step with Iris. If only I could grab everyone’s attention like Iris. Glamourous in her high heels and red lipstick, and with each sexy rumba shoulder roll. While, my hair puffed with frizz, thighs stuck together, and forehead resembled a potato.

Comparisons drawn, I felt defeated, and soon wandered from the sala, in search for something other than the truth. I was not beautiful like Iris Chacon. I grew use to the absence of attention, and looked elsewhere. School became my stage, and books the sexy dance moves I could impress those around me with.

*

I learned to dance watching those that know how to dance.

Mami has two left feet, and I’ve never seen her dance ever, not even a quick bounce to a catchy commercial tune.

But, Papi, well he was born to dance. Before being confined to a wheelchair, Papi never sat down for a song. Papi sang the lyrics of every song like he penned them. And, in between the lyrics he whispered, que letra, pero que letra. Driven by the poetry of the words, hand wrapped around a can of beer, Papi’s body pulsated with every beat. Tia Lola, Papi’s youngest sister, often danced alongside him, salsa, merengue, and vallenato, but it was their cumbia that they were best known for. People circled Papi at parties, and cheered him on. But, when it was brother and sister, and La Pollera Colora came on, it was like the Colombian Ginger Rogers and Fred Astire. Silence came over the room, and all eyes made their way towards Papi and Lola. More than once a long flowy skirt was chucked at Lola, and she slipped it on, her pollera. Smiles broad, Papi and Lola’s bodies picked up every call of the drums, melody of the Native flutes, las gaitas, and the European composition of the music. Souls swayed back and forth in response to a time long ago. And, though it was just the two of them circling around each other, the space between their bodies held room for all those that had come before them. Papi danced as if all his ancestors were inside of him, and his moves told a history of Colombia.

I learned to dance watching those that know how to dance.

It was the last summer we would be in Colombia together. And Joann’s last. Maybe, somewhere deep inside Joann knew that, and willed herself to learn to dance. We were seventeen and fifteen, I held a book in my hands, but peered above the pages at Joann. I watched Joann dance with her yellow walk-man as her partner in the first bedroom at Abuelo’s casa. A stand up fan in the center of the room whirled, as Joann moved to the beat that spilled out of her headphones. In midst of the heat and mosquitoes, Joann’s confidence grew, and she danced every chance she had afterwards. During college she entered local salsa club contests and won. She competed with dancers that took years of lessons, her dance studio were those parties.

I learned to dance watching those that know how to dance.

It was in Zumba classes that the basic steps to salsa were broken down to me. Side to side, front to back, a count was given, and my instructor shouted at the class to listen to the beat. And to feel the music. I already learned to dance with music, but  Zumba taught me how to dance to the music.

*

Yesterday, I went to my madrina’s 80th birthday party. I handed my godmother a small bouquet of flowers, and held her hand as she told all her guests that I was her god-daughter. “You look like your Tia Lola,” My godmother stared at me. Madrina and Mami had been comadres decades, and knew each other’s family members.

A compliment.

I chuckled to myself. Several weeks ago my sister and I did our makeup in the same hotel bathroom mirror.  “Oh my goodness, I look like Lola,” I looked at my reflection, which smiled back at me. My eyes moved to Joann’s reflection, her eyes traced over my face, and she shook her head. “You do,” she nodded.

Armed with a fresh gel manicure, winged eyeliner, bright red lips, dressed in all black, and knee-high boots, I was ready to face a Latina party. Small talk, a part of life, like bees in a summer outing, an annoyance, but expected. Saved by music, pulled onto the sala dance floor by the first few chords of Joe Arroyo’s En Barranquilla Me Quedo. I spun on my heels, swung my hips, and shook my shoulders. I belted out the lyrics, like I had written them, and smiled. Tossed my head back and laughed, as some gathered around to watch me and the other two Colombians at the party.

Colombia! Colombia! The cheers by a room of Cubans.

Transported to my year in Colombia. In those early months I watched those around me dance salsa, and longed to join the crowd. Later, after some shots of aquardiente, I found the courage from the licorice flavored alcohol, and danced. Unsure, I stared at my feet the whole time, and cursed Papi for not having taught me to dance.

But, I was wrong all those years ago, Papi indeed taught me how to dance. You let the letra, the lyrics, tell your body the story, and then you feel it, not just your feet, but deep inside of you. When you do all that, everyone will look up and notice. Because you have told a story.  And, everyone loves a story.

My story is: Yo Soy Connie!

 

 

Prayer Warrior

A loved one told me a few weeks ago that it was a waste of time to pray. That my waking up early in the morning to do so was futile.  I thought of my tattered prayer-book that I tuck under my pillow, within reach, in both the light of day and the dark.

Enraged. “I have been praying my whole life,” I answered

But.

While true, there was a time I stopped. Ceased prayer, as if God could be extinguished. Then prayer made its way back to me.

*

The first time I remember praying I was five or six years old. Scared, I crawled under my bed, looked up the wooden slats, and whispered a Hail Mary, and then another, and one more after that. Bed sheets hung down low, it was hard to see the world from this place. I heard Mami’s voice in the distance. I turned on my side, and burrowed myself.

It was Mami who had forced me into hiding in the first place.

When I first heard the term rageoholic, I recognized my mother. Never a time that Mami was not prone to rants, which turned to the wild fires of rage. Mami’s voice forever sounded an alarm in my chest, but when she hated the world, well a convoy blaring engines pulsated through my body.  Calm, steady, and reasonable, seldom occupied Mami’s state of mind. But, on that day in particular, Mami’s sand colored face was smooth and even, at first. Then, taunted and insulted, an argument ensued with Mami and our neighbor Angela’s home attendant.

Mami sat down to have cafe in Angela’s apartment. I circled around the women in the kitchen, a broom in hand. Mami bragged to her friends that I loved to clean. And, forever in search of her approval, I told myself I loved to clean, and grew to believe it.

“I pray all the time,” Mirian pressed her hands together in prayer. “But, I only pray to Jesus. I don’t believe in La Virgen.”

Mami’s eyes bulged.

My heart joined. La Virgencita, Mami had always insisted was more of a mother to her than her own. And, Joann and I were to hold La Virgen with the same adoration, and to do anything less was criminal.

“She’s a common woman. Why would I pray to her?” Mirian shook her head back and forth, as if the motion explained her blasphemy.

Glued to Mami’s reaction, unable to push the broom, I held my breath.

“You must understand one thing and one thing only,” Mami slammed her hands on the table. “Con la virgen no te metas.” Her voice thundered.

“Ok, everyone is entitled to their opinions,” Angela said. She sat between Mami and Mirian in her wheelchair. The pancreatic cancer had scooped her hallow, within months Angela would succumb to the disease.

Unable to be reasoned with. Mami shouted her love to the Blessed Mother with the fervor of a Menudo fan in the 80’s.

Mirian, unwilling to acquiesce, repeated her opinion over and over, each time a bit louder.

Rattled by Mami and Mirian’s voice. The heat that rose from the space between their chest and throat. I worried that I’d be engulfed by their flames. I bolted out of the apartment unnoticed. And hid. And prayed.

After the uproar about the Blessed Mary, Mami discovered Catholic vigils in honor of the Holy Mother in Bayside Queens Angela’s youngest daughter, Licey, swallowed by the grief of her mother’s death, accompanied Mami to the first vigil. Licey a self proclaimed former wild child had found God, as Angela was dying, was now devout. Deemed Catholic and legit by both Mami and Licey. Joann and I attended the next one alongside them. Licey’s husband Bob, drove us in his run down Chevy, on a Friday evening. Quiet the whole ride there, the only sound to escape Bob was the inhale and exhale as he smoked countless Marlboro Lights.

Once there Bob pulled close to the main entrance of the park. An Irish Catholic bartender, Bob didn’t join us. Bob preferred to nap in the car till it was time to drive back home. Mami and Licey unloaded the trunk: lawn chairs, a coffee thermos, and blankets. I looked towards Joann and wondered how long this vigil would be. But, neither of us dared to ask. Mami and Licey slapped crocheted doilies on the top of their heads, both dressed in long skirts, and each with a strap around their neck. Mami a pair of binoculars, and Licey a Polaroid. I looked up at the night sky, and felt the urge to laugh. This made no sense. I clamped my lips shut. The absence of light meant I could not read, and I could not pretend to be somewhere else.

Loud speakers were set up all along the park, and on stage a small brown-haired woman recited the rosary. Mami said her name was Veronica and that Mary had appeared to her. I opened my eyes wide, old enough to disbelieve, but to young to understand why. Throngs of people gathered around the stage, and the click of rosary beads filled the air. Joann and I trailed behind Mami and Licey with a fold up chair under our arms. I looked all around me. It was spring, so the evening air was brisk, and I noted that many had on sweaters and thin jackets. Mami had insisted we wear long sleeves, a sweater, and on top a jacket. I tried to wiggle out of the jacket, but too tight I got nowhere, as the layers beneath restricted me. Annoyed I looked at Mami, steps ahead. Mami marched like a solider intent on obeying orders, back straight, gait fast, and her hands at her sides, Mami was never at ease. Even at this religious vigil, Mami was extreme.

Mami parked herself under a tree, pulled out her silver rosary, and began to recite the rosary a loud in Spanish. Licey bilingual, prayed in English, her arms open like a priest at the altar. Joann and I set camp beside her. We entertained ourselves playing with the flyers about Veronica’s life story that were passed around. I folded them into paper fans or fortune tellers, and hoped time picked up speed. But, in between the incessant rosary chant, Licey and Mami took pictures. They both titled their heads back and snapped pictures at the night sky. Seconds later their wrists snapped, fast back and forth, and then waved the photos to expose the image. Their heads pressed together as they studied the pictures. Most of the time they said nothing, but sometimes they let out short gasps. They examined every inch of the photographs, and only then passed them to Joann and I.

I expected to see the silhouette of Mary, perhaps Jesus in the night sky. But, instead they were ribbons of light that curled and lined the dark. No pattern or shape that formed any type of letter, no great revelation. Once those ribbons formed what looked like three number sixes, Mami and Licey shrieked in horror, and showed those around them. I watched them excited to find answers, but not privy to their questions, I just looked away. I composed my own questions. Why couldn’t Mami be normal? Why didn’t Papi try to stop Mami from these schemes? Why would La Virgencita appear in a park in Queens of all places? And why did Mami need to believe so bad?

But others seemed to enjoy Baysider vigils simply because the ritual made them feel close to Mary, Jesus, and God in a way that traditional Catholic services did not.

 

If you were to ask Mami about those vigils now she would hold firm that the Virgencita was there in between the trees, in the beats between each Hail Mary recited, in the way everyone walked around and shared stories about Mary. How La Virgencita had interceded on their behalf, and now were believers. Saved. Perhaps even in those pictures that captured all the dark, but one sliver of light.

We went to those vigils for months. Once I even went dressed in my Communion dress. And each time Mami snapped pictures at the sky like a paparazzi, recited the rosary with the piety of a cloistered nun, and waited for an apparition with Linus like belief, but instead of a pumpkin, Mami waited for Mary.  I hated those vigils. Beside that they were long and boring, and that I wished to be home watching that night’s ABC lineup of sitcoms, those vigils scared me. I worried my mother had lost her mind. Now, I know it wasn’t that at all. This was how Mami saved herself. How she kept herself from being swallowed by her life. A past that hung heavy on her back. A present that threatened to capsize her.

This summer my writing teacher for a week at the NYPL scholars and writers Cullman Center, Salvatore Scibona said, writing at its best is a holy experience. Yes. I nodded my head. He knew. And, that’s a lot like my writing these days. I go and write, and hope to be saved.

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The Facts and Romance of Colombia

I’ve been accused of being a Colombiana de Bibloteca before. An insult to slap me with the truth that I’m not a “real” Colombian. A Colombian-American shaped by the proses of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the lyrics of Rafael Orozco’s vallenatos, and the docu-dramas that Carcacol favors, and I watch on Netflix. My defense, five words: I love all things Colombian. Arepas, palmeras, futbol Colombiano, Shakira, Juanes, Grupo Niche, Los Carnivales, los indios del Caribe y los Chibchas. I spent most of my childhood summers in Colombia damn it! Lived there for almost a year after college hijueputa! I have dual citizenship to both America and Colombia, both blue and brown passports to prove it too. That’s not a Colombiana de Bibloteca!

murio-gabriel-garcia-marquez

And for the longest time I was so certain of my position as a Colombiana. But, a Tuesday evening a few weeks ago, a memory from the past, and something my daughter said, has made me reconsider. Perhaps, I’m neither Colombian or American, but a bit of both, and something in the middle. I’m still trying to figure it out.

*

This was the weekend I was supposed to be in Bogota at a U2 concert with Mike and his girlfriend. And, for a few hours on a Tuesday evening in mid September, it almost came true, but facts and romance collided. And my dream to travel to Colombia disappeared.

“Have you ever had a pipe placed in the back of your head?” Ruben asked.

We were in Mike’s living room. The Yankee game on the big screen television illuminated Ruben like a spotlight.

I sat on an ottoman with my legs tucked under me. The air conditioner buzzed in the back, a reminder that summer still clung in the night air. Mike and his girlfriend on opposite ends of the couch, the space between them where Ruben just sat. Bracco, retired for four years already, sat in a corner, able to see the whole scene as it unfolded. The original grade 5, the three of, having taught years side by side, always came together. Dinner, brunch, even a late lunch squeezed in, and pow wows when one of us sent out a Batman signal.

“Well?” Ruben asked again. His hair sweaty from the motorcycle helmet he had worn.

“What kind of pipe?” Mike’s girlfriend flashed a wicked smile.

“A pistola mujer!” Ruben said in Spanish, though only I could understand him. “You know what it’s like to hide because someone shows up waving a gun.” Ruben looked down at me.

“Yes, but…” I pushed away the memory, and turned to Mike and his girlfriend.

“We are going to stay in one of the best hotels,” Mike’s girlfriend waved her phone to show a blur of color on her screen. “I read the reviews.”

“Reviews? Ha! You don’t know Colombia like I do,” Ruben shook his head back and forth, and slapped his forehead. “Four times I had a gun pointed at me in Colombia. One time coming off a bus in the middle of the day. Do you know what they wanted?” Ruben looked at us.

I knew the answer: a Casio watch. Cheap plastic hand me down watch. Ruben had told this story in front of me several times, but I watched the others become transfixed by his words.

A warm week day night, similar to the one now, crept it to my mind. Eighteen years to be exact.

Bored by a long hot day of doing very little. Sophia pointed the video camera I had brought with me from New York. We passed the time by making videos of our adventures in Colombia. Inspired by the endless hours of MTV Real World we both watched like devotees, Sophie and I taped the snippets of our lives. This way we fooled ourselves, that we were doing important things in Colombia, like soul-searching, and cultivating experience. And, not hiding from life.

“We should go out tonight?” I said as I did my makeup by the glow of the veladores on the altar Tia Delia had for Francisco. His picture in a silver plated frame bounced the light of the flame that flickered in front of him. Next to Francisco was my Abuela’s framed photo, having died two decades before, it seemed less ominous.

“Yeah,” Sophia nodded. She laid across the bed stretched on her back, eyes closed, and arms crossed made a pillow rest under her head.

“I will call Ruben at work,” I said. “He will know a spot for us to have fun.”

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Colombia is broken up by classes, and the color of skin tends to fit that structure like in every other country. The lighter folks sit in the high estrato, status acquired by money. Nightlife could be found in all the estratos de Barranquilla, but El Norte was the it place. The bars, restaurants, and nightclubs were modeled after Miami’s South Beach. Populated by rich kids, tourists, and the likes of me, American-Colombians killing time. I took taxi cabs from San Roque, Abuelo’s neighborhood, to El Norte several times a week. I ate lunch in La Cafeteria Americana, strolled the huge department store, El Super Ley, and looked at the latest t-shirts and dresses at the clothing store called, Tennis. I had even gone clubbing at clubs with names like: Macondo and Frog Legs. All while I stretched the monthly allowance Mami sent me. For the first time I felt rich, that I was in Colombia, a detail I learned to accept.

El Norte was as safe as Colombia could get, and I was not in the least worried when three men barged into the bar looked around and left. The crowd in the bar had dwindled down, not even ten in the evening, and it was near empty.

Buzzed, by the four Cuba Libres I had just down, the world around me felt magnificent. I laughed at Ruben’s jokes. And, belted the lyrics to Ricky Martin’s Vuelve with Sophie, our heads pressed together and arms around each other’s waist.

Algo me dice que ya no volverás. Estoy seguro que esta vez. No habrá marcha atrás. Después de todo fui yo a decirte que no. Sabes bien que no es cierto. Estoy muriendo por dentro.”

I pulled apart from Sophie and pressed my fist to my heart, pantomime the heartache of the lyrics. My eyes shut, I popped them open, and saw Ruben’s face transform. No longer tipsy and laughing, Ruben’s face became very still, and in the calmest voice he told me to go to the bathroom.

“Go now, both of you.” Ruben ran over to the bartender.

“What’s wrong?” I looked around. The three men were back again, but carried rifles over their shoulder, as if it were nothing more than a gym duffel bag. I grabbed Sophie’s wrist and ran to the bathroom.

“Don’t come out until I get you.” Ruben called out.

“Are we going to die?” Sophie looked at me. Her eyes teared, her eyeliner smudged.

“No,” I answered. I reached over and wiped Sophie’s smudged eyeliner with my thumb. I strained to hear, with our bodies pressed against the door, and listened for wails, broken glass, or bullets. But, only Ricky’s voice rushed to my ear.

“What just happened?” Sophie asked.

“Those guys came in. They had guns,” I said. My brain answered, my voice spoke, but my mind played scenarios. I worried Ruben would be dead by the end of the night. And, with nothing to do but wait. I prayed to El Divino Nino.

Thirty minutes went by before there was a knock on the bathroom door. “It’s ok you can come out.” Ruben said.

I pulled the door open, Ruben stood before it. “Oh my God, what happened? I thought you were dead.” I flung my arms around him.

“Some guys had beef with another guy here last night. They thought they saw him. Came to settle things… They looked all over the place, couldn’t find who they were looking for, and left.”

“What if they hadn’t left?”

“Someone had to have the bartender’s back.”

“You? What about the cops?”

“La policia here is not like in Los United.”Ruben grabbed my hand, and put his arm around Sophie’s shoulder, and steered us towards the door.

“Hombre, I like how you think. You were fast.” The bartender said, as we walked by.

I looked at the counter where two shot guns were laid down.

“Want a drink before you leave?” The bartender pulled a bottle of aguardiente and three shot glasses.

“Next time,” Ruben said.

*

Later on, the story of hiding in the bathroom while three armed guys almost shot up a bar, seemed less terrifying. It became an example about how wild and scary Colombia could be, and how I lived there for almost a year. It was badass. I was badass. Now years later, I sift through that memory, and think not how bad ass. But, how sad. Sad for Colombia, and sad for the people in which violence is part of their everyday, and survival instincts are developed alongside the terror. And, how every summer on those last days of August I got to climb back on plane and head home. New York. Where cops are called from the smallest to the biggest incident, sometimes late, but they do come.

And that year that I lived there was a blur of dancing, musica, aguardiente y cerveza, and day trips to the beach. Long evenings rocking back and forth on Abuelo’s porch with the stars above me, as the night breeze rushed past my arms. But, there were a list of facts I tucked away. Refused to dwell on, that my watch was locked away, that I never took the bus by myself, and that before eight in the evening you had to be locked inside. That I hopped on a chair and unscrewed the light bulb above the porch light, and helped my cousin Clarita drape blankets over the windows so no light from the inside spilled out. An invitation to los rateros.

*

“So, are you going?” Holden asked me a few days later. She knew about this possible trip to Colombia.

“No, tu papa says it’s dangerous. He’s afraid something will happen to us if we go.” I rolled my eyes. “Colombia is safer than it once was.”

“Mama, don’t you get it.” Holden shook her head in my direction.

“Get what?”

“Haven’t you listened to all of Papi’s stories.” Holden’s eyes searched my face.

I looked at her. She seemed so grown up right there in the kitchen table dressed in her soccer uniform. Apple sauce cup in her hand.

“He knew a lot of people who died over there. It wasn’t just Francisco for him that was killed. He was just the one that mattered most.”

“I know that,” I sighed.

“Ok, then give him time. You keep pushing Colombia on him.” Holden scooped apple sauce in her mouth.

What if he’s never ok? I wanted to ask, but didn’t. Later that night in bed I thought about the trip that never was. Ruben thought of Colombia in facts, and I thought in romance. I wondered if we would ever meet somewhere in the middle.

 

 

 

Drowning On Land

The word itself, is like a ragged blanket, one you wrinkle your nose at, as it lays unfolded at your feet. Taking my cue from those around me, I have kept that part of myself the most hidden. And, in order to build distance, I laugh and joke, as if depression has a sense of humor. Smiled in its face, hopeful that my dimples will force a grin on its somber face. It never has. These “funks” have plagued me since I was as young as three or four, unable to escape the shroud which enveloped me, night terrors invaded my sleep.

I didn’t have a name for it until much later. But never tired of all the different ways I could describe it.

  • Drowning on land, the ocean my thoughts, and emotions the waves.
  • A dark tunnel, like the ones that take you on a ride at Six Flags, but endless with no euphoria in sight.
  • An exhaustion that comes from the fuse box of your soul. And sleep is all you can hope for.
  • A sadness so heavy and thick, it wraps around you like burlap. You wrestle to loosen yourself, but the ache of melancholy grows tighter.

The evening news triggered my nightly decent into despair, my heart hung low, close to my stomach. Late at night, laid on my back with my hands folded between my heart and chest, my fingers pressed the space, and willed the pain to subside. I was ten, maybe eleven when I realized that the sadness on the screen crept around my throat and left me mute.  Weeks later I gave up the news altogether. But, already contaminated, sadness had infected me, a zombie bite to my soul.

Sadness like any emotion is sticky, it clings to you, settles into that part of your brain that stores memories, and comes to keep you company. And for most of my life, sadness sat the emperor of all my emotions.  The reason I love heart wrenching ballads, dramas that make you weep till your eyes are sore, and poems that make you wince. As a teen I video taped episodes of Life Goes On and 21 Jumpstreet and watched the super sad ones over and over. I cried over dreary scenes, soundtracks that matched what unraveled on the screen, and emotional dialogue, which all gave me permission to cry. The first time I watched Platoon I balled as the character of William DeFoe got shot as he ran from the Vietnam jungle and towards the helicopter. I saw the scene several times over, feeling connected to the pain on the screen, awakened. Numb free, if only for a brief moment. I knew this fascination with heart-break was odd, so I kept it a secret.

My last summer in Colombia with Francisco being alive, I was fifteen, and he was in his early twenties, the Spanish translation of Platoon came on canal RCN. It was late at night, Francisco sat in front of the television. His bare feet on the floor as he pushed himself back and forth on the rocker. Uncomfortable on the orange couch, but near Francisco and the television, I sat and read. A novel propped in my hands, lost to the world of the pages before me. I looked up when Francisco began to quote the character of Charlie Sheen. His eyes closed and fist balled in the air, no longer in Abuelo’s sala and on that rocker, Francisco dug into his own sadness. Francisco became Chris the hero in Platoon, as he rode high on the helicopter and looked down on the chaos that was Vietnam.

And when he finished his performance I clapped. “You are so good!”

“I’ve seen this movie so many times. It’s my favorite.” He smiled wide at me.

“Everyone thinks I’m weird because I love Platoon. I also like Born On The Fourth of July too.” I thought about how I had read the book as well. “I guess I like war movies,” I said.

“Nah, your like me. You like sad movies.” Francisco rocked back and forth, his eyes straight ahead.

“I like sad songs too,” I said.

“The sadder the better,” Francisco now faced me.

“Why?”

Francisco stared at me for a long time before he spoke. “Because we have a lot of sad in us.”

I nodded. I didn’t realize until much later, that the attraction to sad things, was the shine of a flashlight against the silhoutte that was us.

“You and Joann are my sisters. But, you and me, we are the most alike.” Francisco eyes clung to me.

“Claro,” I agreed with him.

*

In many ways, Francisco was right. A lot of sad existed in him and exists in me. If I search in my past I can come up with a long ass bulleted list. But, I suspect there is more to it. A predisposition fortified by this sensitivity that has me feel things in only two frequencies: deeper and deepest.

Recently when I told a friend I felt sad. I was asked: Why? That I needed to think of the misforntune of others. I became quiet. Said nothing because the retorts were on the tip of my tongue. But, I no longer want others to understand me. I seek to accept myself. Of course I know why. I’m a writer, and articulation of feelings is what writers spend endless hours cobbling. The misforntunes of others? A keen awareness of other’s has always been my greatest burden, but it’s the reason many confide in me, and share details of their life with me. At forty, I realize these truths about myself cannot be hidden, es como tapar el sol con la mano.

Here it is: I’m mad sensitive, and I over think, and I live in my head way too much. I seek art, to be punctured by its beauty, because it moves me. I get into these funks, and always have, since I was a little girl. The waves don’t batter me like they use to, when the current pulled me under and left me breathless. I have learned to defy the waves, turn my back against them and ground my legs. Also, I have learned ride them, lay on top of them, float. When you see me quiet and lost in thought, know that I’m on my back riding the waves, my eyes on the sun. The sun, so merciful, it bows down everyday so that the darkness can be illuminated in its absence.

sylvia-plath

 

Doc Martens 

This past Thursday I had a rare ninety minutes to myself. Ruben was at soccer practice, Holden at her best friend’s volley ball game, and my husband late at his office due to the company move. Laundry was in the wash, chicken cutlets fried, baked beans and a salad were the sides. I thought of going home to wait for the clothes to be done, so I could toss it in the drier. All in an effort to save time later in the evening, and maybe in between, watch the season premiere of This Is Us on my DVR. But, I found myself driving to Park Slope, in search for a new pair of shoes. I needed something comfortable and practical for work. I sped through the Belt Parkway, merged onto the Gowanas, and then the Prospect. Sun, hung low in the sky, as it threatened to disappear. Pandora was on blue tooth, the Eagles station, forever hopeful for Hotel California, instead Tommy Petty’s voice came on.

She’s a good girl, loves her mama

Loves Jesus and America too

She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis

Loves horses and her boyfriend too
Windows wide open, my hair wiped over my face, with one elbow propped on the window, and the other on the steering wheel. Those four lines, transported me to another time. A time when ninety minutes to myself was not something I snatched and stole, but owned. I thought of being in college and dressed in a bright orange Charlie Brown shirt, green baggy pants, and the latest shoe trend at the time on my feet. Converse, Adidas shell tops, Timberland loafers, Nike high tops, and Doc Martens, once I stepped into them I became someone else. Cool. Artsy. Anyone but myself.

I parked by a shoe store in Windsor Terrance not far from my old high school. Bishop Ford no longer a highschool, closed down for the last two years, now a labyrinth of a charter school and a handful of universal pre k classes, maybe a public middle school too. The store was empty, all except one client at the register.  I walked in, a giant timer was set in my mind, time quickened its pace. A fast look of the displays of shoes, and I saw nothing I liked. I should be at home, midst a juggle of wiping down the kitchen, answering emails, and planning lessons for school. Forever in a mad dash to finish before ten, so I could have some writing time. I turned on my heels to leave.

“Can I help you?” A sales woman asked. She walked over to me and smiled.

I flipped around to face her. I really did need a new pair of shoes. “I need something for work, practical and comfortable. I have the flattest feet ever, can you help?” I asked.

“The dansko shoes have great support. She pointed to the front of the store. Those by the window are all the latest ones we have.”

I walked over and grabbed one clog after another. They were ugly and looked like an odd-shaped box. How I could wear these?

“Why don’t you try them on. See how you feel.” Sales woman said.

I nodded. “I guess these in a size 8.” I held up a reddish-brown clog.

While I waited for her to return. I looked at my phone. I had forty-five minutes before I had to pick up my son at soccer practice. My eyes wandered to the display next to the dansko clogs. Doc Marten combat boots lined up a tiny corner of the front window. I reached for a pair of maroon combat boots, and traced my finger around the yellow thread around the bottom of the boot. My mind drifted to freshman and sophomore year of highschool. Obsessed with Doc’s, I wore them with everything, my school uniform, jeans, shorts, and even long dresses. Loved the echoes that followed my footfalls as I walked. Stomped. And I felt heard.

“I have a size eight and nine for you. They don’t come in half sizes.” The sales woman said.

I sat down.

She placed the shoes by me.

I pulled off my sneaker and slipped on the clog and walked around the store. One sneaker on and one clog, with each foot set in a different world, I hobbled around the store. I hated how I looked in the clog, and ignored how comfortable they felt. I didn’t wait for her to ask if I liked them or wanted to see another color or style. “I hate them,” I said. Still up, I yanked the clog off. I walked over to Doc Martens and asked for a size eight. “I want these.”

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Those were the words that played on an endless loop in my head as I tried on the maroon boots. I want them. What I heard when she told me the cost. I want them. And when I asked to wear them out, and stuffed my sneakers in the Doc Marten box. I want them.

I didn’t think about how they were not in my budget. Nor did I think about the fact that I was forty and bought Doc Martens to wear like a seventeen year old.

A mother of two, financially responsible for three, owner of my apartment in Brooklyn, married, and a school teacher for seventeen years I have little space for rebellion. My schedule is rigid, packed tight by places to be and events to attend. I must show up. But, my Doc Martens are me showing up for myself, the biggest rebellion I have stomped for.

The Brave Essay I Wrote For Myself

Leave your soul on the page. Evelina Galang

Those were the words that struck me the most after my first experience at VONA, 2015. For two years, the words refused to peel themselves from me, certain there could be no better writing advice. But, then Evelina offered something else during VONA 2017. Words, not her own, but given to her, ones that moved me, and made me want to be brave.

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*

Saturday night, my husband, daughter, son, and I went to a bookstore in The Lower East Side, called Blue Stockings. I left my daughter’s soccer game with a copy of Evelina’s Galang’s latest book, Lola’s House,tucked under my arm, ready to be signed by my two-time fiction VONA teacher. During the thirty minutes it took to drive from the soccer game in uptown Manhattan to the bookstore in lower Manhattan, I thought back to my week at VONA this past summer. The first time I saw a copy of Lola’s House, Evelina passed it around to the nine of  us, whom made up her class, like a proud mother. Later that week Evelina read from Lola’s House at the at the faculty reading. And I recoiled as these Lolas, Filipina elders, recounted their stories, of abductions and rapes. Their brave souls seeped out of the book, and settled in my chest. Women raped over and over by Japanese soldiers during WWII, referred to as comfort women, these Lolas survived being sex slaves. I wondered how they could speak about their pain, tell their stories, and not collapse under the weight of it all.

My story, a love letter to myself, nowhere as harrowing and graphic, yet being unable to speak it, pressed itself into a sharp edge, and cut at me. No, greater ache than a story untold. And in order to tell my story, I had to look at the oppressed and oppressor in me, my interactions in the world as a woman. No, great crime, no torrid infedility, just a betrayl of self. All in my quest to be noticed and wanted, never seeing that the reflection I most wanted to see was my own.

Little by little it leaves your heart. Evelina Galang

On the last day of class at VONA 2017 I read my writer’s prayer, and overcome with emotions. I wept. Buckled by the weight of years spent policing my words, being silent, as I choked under all of the things that I have left unsaid. Swallowed. And when I looked up, Evelina quoted one of her Lolas’ words: little by little it leaves your heart. First in Tagalog, and then in English. Filled with relief I sighed, as the echoes of all the Lolas invaded my heart, and believed that one day I too would be brave.

But, bravery does not happen in one single act. It’s little bitty acts, which build on one another, and bulge like muscle. And the heart is just that, a muscle.

In the web page, Inner Body I found this definition of Cardiac muscle, and at first it read text-book and boring, but after a closer reading. I saw the poetry that is the human body, the heart itself, something of great beauty. Cardiac muscle tissue is an extremely specialized form of muscle tissue that has evolved to pump blood throughout the body. In fact, cardiac muscle is only found in the heart and makes up the bulk of the heart’s mass. The heart beats powerfully and continuously throughout an entire lifetime without any rest, so cardiac muscle has evolved to have incredibly high contractile strength and endurance. And because the heart maintains its own rhythm, cardiac muscle has developed the ability to quickly spread electrochemical signals so that all of the cells in the heart can contract together as a team….

The fact that the heart beats powerfully and without rest its entire life, and that in order to pump the way it does it relies on the cardiac muscle tissue. A muscle tissue, individualized and wrapped around the heart to be strong, be fierce. Hearts, are made to seem so fragile, shattered, broken, and achy with pain, but the heart, the heart is so much more. The heart can grow strong again as you release your pain, the muscle will stregnthen.

Upset and unsure about a particular situation, I set out on Friday to write an essay that I knew I could not share on this blog. Freed by the fact that my essay would not be seen by others, and would live in my laptop, I wrote my bravest essay. Uncensored, the dark shadows that creep alongside my soul and mind, found themselves on the page. I dug. And when I thought I had exposed this other side of myself, I worried I would no longer be able to find my way back to the Connie that tucks and hides. Ashamed of the layers that had fallen by my feet with every truth I typed, I looked for a penance.

Penance from my VONA sisters, Yesenia and Elizabeth. A writing trio, bonded by our roles as mothers, wives, Latinas, and writers. I sent out a batman signal in form of a messenger text: I just wrote the rawest essay ever. My bravest one. Can I send it to you both? Quick were the responses of: Yes! Of course. I warned them that it was deeply personal, that I trusted them with my writing. What I meant was, please don’t judge. I wanted to be brave, like the Lolas, because I believed, little by little it leaves your heart.

But, to write an essay that kicks ass, you must write that sentence that is hard. That line that you shrink back from, the one you don’t even whisper to yourself in the dark. Ann Hood’s Tin House podcast on How To Write A Kick Ass Essay lists among her Ten Commandments on essay writing, that writing brave is the road to writing those essays, which take the writer on a journey.  The writer starts one way in the essay, but by the end they are someone altogether. And that is what I did.

After I wrote my last sentence Friday night, I hit save on my document, and shut my laptop down. The waves of truth forced me to stay awake. I waited for the relief to come. It didn’t, not until days later. Once truth and fear had been confronted. A new Connie has emerged since then, one not afraid to draft around the darkest corners of herself. And, yes little by little it leaves your heart.

 

Time and Teaching and Joy

This past week marked the first full week of teaching. Sixteen completed years. And, with the lapse of seven days came a greater sense of time, how it sifts through, and accumulates.

I have been obsessed with time for so long, can’t pin point when it started, but it started early. As a child I laid on my back, my Raggedy Ann and Andy sheets beneath me, my red-headed Cabbage Patch doll named, Cindy on my side, my arms crossed over my stomach, and ankles to match. I stared at the ceiling in a trance, and wondered where time went: how could movements, conversations, and incidents all disappear? They had to keep existing somewhere, on a perpetual reel, I hoped. If not it all seemed so unnecessary, irrelevant, and worthless.

And as a teen I was desperate for time to gain speed, weave in and out of the years that unfolded before. I gave many of my friends birthday cards, and inscribed my fear: one more year closer to death happy birthday! All around me I saw time dwindle, as if a joke about time and death made it cool and less scary.

In my early thirties I read this book called the Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. It was filled with great tidbits and quotes, but I lacked the motivation to search for my happiness. It did not seem important, my to do list had greater priority, and happiness seemed only to grace others, and not so much me. One quote in that book haunted me, seemed to whisper to me in the dark, and rattled my insides. The days are long, but the years short. I would sign my emails to my brother-in-law, Al, while he was in prison like that. And for a lot of his time inside, we wrote back and forth, about time. Time, he was serving, and the one slipping from my grasp.

He once wrote me: sis you sure love that line.

I responded with a simple: I do. But unsure why.

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

This summer I was the oldest group member in my VONA fiction section. Some, as young as twenty-three, the closet to my age, Salima at thirty-six, I was a few weeks shy of turning forty. The only married one and with kids, somehow I felt older than forty, but also younger in other ways. But, my fiction members saw, not what I lacked, but the abundance of my experience. And long ago, I realized if people expect you to be a certain way, you do what is expected, and I did. I dispensed advice like Lucy Van Pelt in Peanuts.

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I wanted them to succeed, and sat next to every one of them: Amanda, Annie, Anum, Bobuck, Nia, Noelle, Ruben, and Salima, and in our conversations I left them scraps of myself, and listened to their story. At the very end of every conversation I told them one thing, which I had learned: time had legs, and it ran from you. Go! Do! I urged them all. I needed them to listen.

But, what we tell others is what we long to tell ourselves.

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My last night at Las Dos Brujas I drank a beer at a local bar and spoke to Michelle and Tomas, both VONA alum I met in 2015, now we met again at Las Dos Brujas, two years later. Young poets I asked about their dreams and marveled at all the time that laid at their feet. I did what I had done at VONA, and urged them to see time as a gift, but one that quickened its pace with years. They nodded.

“You know,” I looked at both Michelle and Tomas. “Time has legs, it runs from you.”

Silence.

I repeated myself again, knowing that poets follow the echoes of words.

They told me their plans.

I smiled. I urged. I reminded them time was on their side and not to let it slip.

“What about you, Ms. Time Has Legs?” Michelle asked.

I laughed. Stalled, as I waited for the puncture of my words repeated back to me to fade. “I’m going to write. Writing is my joy,” I said.

“Ok.” Michelle shook her head, her smile wide. “Because time has legs, Connie.”

*

This week as I drove to work and listened to an audio by Dr. Wayne Dywer he quoted one of my favorite books, one I read long ago, required reading for Sociology. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. A sophomore in college, nineteen at the time, I read the book on the train ride the day it was assigned, horrified. How could someone live their whole lives without purpose, and their last thought be a deafening scream, as Ivan realized time had slipped from him. The agony of wasted time a torture for Ivan and Tolstoy’s readers.

death

Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light…Just then his schoolboy son had crept softly in and gone up to the bedside. The dying man was still screaming desperately and waving his arms. His hand fell on the boy’s head, and the boy caught it, pressed it to his lips, and began to cry. 

Naive and young, I declared that I would never be Ivan. I knew what I wanted more than anything in my life. I wanted to write. This I was sure of.

But.

Time has legs, and it runs from you. But, since I’ve spoken those words I have learned that there is more to it. Where you stand matters. And, if you are angled in such a way, those legs can look like more of a trot than a run. You can fool yourself. Stronger now, I can run alongside time. My own voice has been the shot in the air, the one that has signaled me to run.

*

Time seems to be everywhere. The trees are changing colors, the hues are subtle, only a few scattered leaves have fallen, but I notice. And like the seasons note the passage of time. School, notes the transition of time for me, a signal for me that another year has left me.  Seventeen classes, not including the two from summer school I taught those early years, before being a mom, When teaching felt new, like a coat. A coat, not broken into, no crumbled receipts in the pockets, loose change in the lining because of the small tear in left corner, and frayed cuffs.

I catch my reflection as a teacher, teaching sits on my shoulders, hangs off my arms, wraps itself tight around my chest. It’s familiar. But, it weighs on me.

On the first official day of school, I asked my students to write goals about what they wanted to accomplish this year. They had to write academic as well as personal goals, and while they shared their goals, written out in colored index cards. One particular student turned in my direction, and asked me what was my goal. I did not hesitate, and answered in one breath: I want to find joy everyday I teach. I wrote out my goal in black sharpie and placed it beside theirs.

Later that day, as I walked home from school towards my car, I saw a former student. Now, a freshman in highschool I asked him what school he attended.

“Stuy,” he said.

We walked next to each other the whole length of the block before we parted ways. But, not before I asked him about what he was reading, and how he felt about being in one of the best high schools in the nation. Shy and matter of fact about his accolades, I rejoiced for him. This was one of my favorite parts about being a teacher, my former students, and learning about their current lives. Not one student has failed to remember me, but sometimes I must slow down and stare at a former student’s face for a long time, their name always come back to me. And once I have a name, the memories come, flood and invade.

My oldest students are now twenty-six, some twenty-seven. They seem to stick closer to my memory, and I think about them, sure I have made a difference in some of their lives. And, while this fulfills me, I want something greater. I can’t help, but want to grow, and make my students proud of me. I want them to say: Ms. Meza was my teacher before… she went and followed her joy.

I recently got a writing mentor. He came into my life when I asked the universe to send me light and love. We have begun emailing back and forth.

Today I wrote him an email, I asked him if I could be so bold as to ask him when he realized that writing was his joy. I told him that I was eleven when I feel in love with writing, but only during these last nine months did it become clear, writing is my path to joy. And as I typed my email to him during the warm up of my son’s soccer game, I couldn’t help, but look up every other sentence. The bright blue sky above me, the hot son on my legs,  as ants crawled up my sandals, the world seemed perfect. I was content. Everything seemed to come together. Holden played soccer on the side, with my friend, Kristen’s, six-year-old daughter. Rubencito jogged the field with his knees high up in the air. My husband sat close to the sideline ready to cheer our son on, and I emailed my mentor about writing. I described the way the grass moved in the light breeze, and how shiny it looked under the bright sun. I confessed to him, writing makes me giddy, and forces me to look at life and those around me different.

Writers, write above your imagination. Laleh Khadivi

Laleh Khadivi dropped so many quotes and lines that fucked me up. In a good way. Her words, continue to unfurl from my mind, and they slant my vision, and I’m left in awe by her knowledge and wisdom.

I’m doing the work. I’m digging. I let Vanessa Martir words on the first night of VONA this summer guide me. Under the lamp-post by the restaurant, Copacabana I stood with V. She squinted her eyes in my direction, and said: “Connie, we are not so different. I’m no different from you. I made a choice to live this writing life… that’s all.”

Her words have played over in my mind, and I know she’s right.

And on Friday I was tagged on a post by one of the writer’s I studied alongside with at New York Public Library Cullman Scholar Writers Center, for a week in mid July, under Salvatore Scibona. Kelly, inspired by my weekly essays, has begun to write an essay a week, and created her own blog. Filled with joy, my eyes watered, and I knew for sure then, what I wished for at eleven, to write, was my path to joy.

He broke up with Colombia and I’m Still Going Steady

You either believe in signs or don’t. It’s that simple for me. Maybe we all look for signs, but only some of us admit it. I have always looked for signs in the universe, my neck craned, and eyes squinted. The world one giant magic eight ball. I no longer scavenger the world before me like a giant I SPY book. But, as I wade through the ebbs and flow of life, the signs bob up to the surface, unexpected, but connected bits.

Throughout this past week Colombia has haunted my memories more than normal. As if, my soul and bones are in conversation behind my back, and Colombia whispers to them both.

The early days of September, as a teacher and a mother of two, a marker for me, back to school season. Much of my time spent lost in the world of lesson plans and bright chart markers, and filling out forms, and asking my daughter and son about their new teachers. But, today I realized September makes me lonesome for Colombia too. As I walked down the block of my building, I noted the browning of the tree leaves, and my eyes longed for another tree. Las palmeras de Colombia. Countless months of September, spent as a child, homesick for Colombia, summers in Barranquilla, the fireworks and hot dogs of my American childhood.

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In mathematics, two angles that are said to coincide fit together perfectly. The word “coincidence” does not describe luck or mistakes. It describes that which fits together perfectly. –Wayne Dyer

Since they are no coincidences, just angles that coincide, not stunned in the least that Colombia began to do more than whisper. It tapped my shoulder. And when I turned, I saw Colombia everywhere.

Late night last Sunday, my husband and I sat down to watch the new season of Narcos. Excited to watch the third season, my VONA sis, Tabitha and I, hatched plans the week before to write separate essays about the show, and what it stirred up for us as Colombian-Americans. Ruben and I saw the first two episodes. My eyes on the screen, I watched the Colombia of the 90’s unfold before me. He watched his past erupt in front of him, as Colombia’s long history with violence played out on the screen. Saddened by how Colombia rested in our hearts, I watched him turn off Netflix and flip to CNN. American news has always given him solace, despite the current state of our government.

*

Monday, Mami called me breathless, her loud siren voice, louder.

“Que fue?” I shouted into the phone. My mind went straight to Papi, was he dead? Had he fallen? Something was wrong.

“Nada, calmate.” Mami said, and rushed ahead. “I looked at my savings account book. You know the money I have in Colombia.”

“Yes,” I said and thought of Mami’s dream casa in Colombia, that never was. The last time she was there, a little over a decade, Mami had opened a savings account, a nest egg. Mami had not anticipated Papi’s diagnosis with dementia, and his declined health, so soon after that last trip.

“I want you go to Colombia for me. So, that you can take the money out for me.” Mami voice small. “I don’t want to lose the little bit I have. Yo a perdido todo.”

“But when?” School had just started, my next time off would be in December. Tickets to Colombia for Christmas were astronomical.

“Find out what we need to do so we can make this happen.” Mami said. “Will you go?”

I thought of the seventeen years that wedged themselves between Colombia and I. Of course I’d go. “Claro,” I said. And the pictures a writing friend from hispanedotes.com, had posted these last two weeks, from his trip to Colombia flashed before me. I imagined the captions of my posts, and licked my lips in anticipation of, arroz de coco y mojara frita.

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“Maybe you and Ruben could go?” Mami echoed my worry.

I had never been to Colombia alone.

Once off the phone with Mami, I called Ruben. “Hey, I just spoke to, mi Mama.” I took a deep breath before I spoke. Unspoken, this dream seemed possible. “She wants me to go to Colombia. Let’s go. Please!”

“Que? How can we go? The kids, and we can’t afford four plane tickets. Where would we stay?” Ruben’s questions and statement, like a skilled boxer’s upper cut and jab, left me doubled over.

“What if we just go, us two?” I sucked in my breath and balled my lips.

“How? The kids?” Ruben asked again. “I want to go as a family, want the kids to meet Santiago…” Ruben trailed off at the mention of his son, eighteen years old, and father and son had never met. Though Ruben paid for his college, and sent him a monthly allowance, a small remittance for all those lost years. Santiago used silence against his father, and refused to speak to him, soon after their first conversation, about a year and a half ago.

“I don’t want to go to Colombia without you,” I said.  The last time I was there I stood in the airport in Barranquilla, my arms around Ruben’s waist, his head pressed against my temple. Afraid I’d never see him again, the plane ride back to New York my heart never left my throat. And I only cried seven months later, when Ruben stood in front of me in Brooklyn.

“I don’t want to go,” Ruben said. His voice like water, soft and steady, but the surge of rage threatened to implode.

Colombia, a pair of hands for both Ruben and I. For, Ruben fists, ready to hurt. And, for me, hands, which waved me over.

*

Tuesday, the first day teachers were due back. Excited to see Mike, once just a colleague, and now family. We have worked together for a decade. I sat in his classroom as we caught up, among dusty book bins, piles of old paperwork, and scattered pencils.

“Hey, listen to this. My mom’s wants me to go to Colombia.” My head rested on the heel of my hand. I looked at him, my eyes wandered to the wide windows that revealed a blue sky. I imagined Colombia’s egg yolk yellow sun, and oppressive rays.

“Funny you say that, I was looking at flights to Bogotá last night, for October.” Mike said.

“What?”

“Yeah, Bogotá is the last tour city for U2.” Mike said very matter of fact. A huge fan of the rock band U2, not surprised that Mike looked into going to another concert by them. He had already seen them earlier this summer in Jersey, and raved about the Joshua Tree Tour.

“You would go to Colombia without me?” My voice gripped around my throat, a grunt.

“I just looked last night, I didn’t buy anything.” Mike laughed.

But I was serious. “If you go to Colombia without me I will never speak to you again.” I did not care if I sounded like a crazed brat.

“I couldn’t find a direct flight.”

“What! You were going to go without me?” I knew I sounded ridiculous, but like a jealous ex, I became fixated on the thought that Colombia would cheat on me with Mike. “Don’t you know I miss Colombia like a person? That it’s been seventeen years. You can’t go without me!”

Mike’s eyes rested on me for a long time. Then he said the kindest thing. “I will look again tonight. If they are three seats together in a direct flight to Bogotá I will get them.”

I smiled. “I can sit, between you and Jennifer,” his girlfriend, another big U2 fan. “I will translate, we can drink aguardiente, and cerveza Club Colombia.”

“Do you even like U2?” Mike laughed.

“Of course I do.” And I do, but greater is my love for all things Colombian.

“The chances are low that this will work out,” Mike a math person, saw life as one probability problem.

“I know it is, but can we pretend. Just for a day or two, can we pretend!” I didn’t care if I sounded foolish. Mike was my brother, we knew how foolish we could be, and it had never mattered.

*

Tuesday night,  Ruben and I sat side by side on the coach to watch the Colombian vs. Brazil elimination game for FIFA 2018. The game was earlier in the evening, and we knew the score, but it was our custom to watch the game as a family. I had already called him on the drive home from work to tell him about this very slim possibility, that I might go for a weekend in October to Bogotá to see U2. He half believed, but gave me his blessing. Friend with both Mike and his girlfriend, Ruben knew I would be in great company.

“Here,” Ruben handed me print outs, the application to renew my passport. “You will need to expedite.”

“I don’t think it will work out,” I clutched the application.

“But, if it does. You have to have a passport.” Ruben said, his eyes now on the game on the screen.

“What about you?” I asked. I ran my hand across the side of his face.

“The day I got on the plane to New York. I told myself I would forget Colombia, and all the bad things that happened there.”

I didn’t say anything after that. Did not say that my last time in Colombia, my only comfort was the hope to be back soon. That at Colombian restaurants, I close my eyes for the briefest moment, and fool myself that I’m in Colombia, and not Jackson Heights.

*

Wednesday, my mentor and dear friend Valerie texted me that Pope Francis is in Colombia. I chuckled to myself, seemed like everyone had Colombia on their mind.

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*

Thursday, I meet my students for the academic year, my seventeenth class in my teaching career. A mom and father, Colombians, told me they were disappointed their son was not placed in my class. I assured them they were in great hands with one of my grade team members. The father, an offical for the New York, Colombian consulate,  I explained to him I needed a power of attorney for Mami, in order to take care of something for her.  He offered to help print out the papers, which Mami and I would need to bring with us to the Colombian consulate. I thanked him.

*

Friday,  I hung out with Zoraida after school. The papers, delivered by the Colombian parents that very morning at lineup, inside my back pack, right beside my feet. We sat on Zoraida’s couch and chatted about the week. Our son’s played video games in the next room, we awaited phone calls from our daughters to pick them up, both at practices, one at volleyball, and the other in soccer.

Only told her about Mami’s proposition, time ran out before I got to the U2 Bogotá scenario. I lingered over Ruben not wanting to go to Colombia.

“I can’t believe Ruben does not want to go to Colombia,” I said. The news on, footage of Hurricane Irma model, and the exodus across Florida, in the background. Floridians, on the screen worried, and sad to leave their beloved Florida.

“He broke up with Colombia. And, like an ex he does not want to have anything to do with Colombia.” Zoraida said, no-nonsense.

“You are right,” I nodded. The only problem was that I was going steady with Colombia.

*

I don’t know when I will go to Colombia. But, I know that just like I watch for signs. Well, the universe listens and watches too. This essay is my shouting from the rooftops, Colombia I miss you. I want to see you soon, and want my daughter and son to meet you too. Colombia, one last thing, loosen your grip on my husband’s heart, so he can love you once again. Te amo Colombia!

 

 

Don’t Tell A Soul…

Last weekend, surrounded by a few of my home girls, conversation flowed among us. Swayed back and forth, like late summer breeze across grass, we spoke about motherhood, our struggles with our own mothers, the men in our lives, and then sex. I mentioned I’ve only been hit on by only two men in my life, my ex boyfriend and husband. Met by skeptical eyes and arched eyebrows, I shifted in my seat, and changed the direction of the conversation. They were right, this was a lie, there were other men. A boy in high school who I hung out with my junior year, named Michael, and my friend Gabriel in Colombia. And recently, I realized I had been hit on, but didn’t figure it out at the moment, only later.

Sure they have been more, but the ones that have made the list, haunt. They were friends. We were friends.

We write to hold up a mirror to our souls. Language is the vehicle, and that is why we write. Laleh Khadivi.

I do this thing, once I’ve told my confidants something unearthed from a dark corner of my soul, I ask for secrecy. Terrified, as if truth is a catalyst for catastrophe, I’m quick to add: Don’t tell a soul. As if these words are both lock and lost skeleton key. Words, meant more for me, than them. My soul to take heed, and place around itself a do not disturb sign, and for a long time this suited me just fine. But, my soul no longer dormant, and as it awakens, courage becomes shaped by my voice.

I began to keep secrets around the time I began to suffer from night terrors and wake up in the middle of the night to eat slice after slice of Kraft cheese. Not one incident led to this, but many, were needed to accumulate, while I sunk in silence. Always careful not to enrage Mami, I tuned only to her, while the world around me was left ignored and muted. 

My first inclination when anything happens is to ignore it, good or bad, fooled by a hushed layer of protection. Later, and only then, when suffocated by the weight of it all heavy on my chest do I speak up. Decades later I must learn to do what others learned so long ago. Live. Feel. Be.

*

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This past Spring, my then thirteen year old, daughter mentioned that a boy in her class had called her a stripper as a joke. Enraged I asked what the hell did he mean, as I plotted to show up to her school, ready to fist fight this boy. Holden studied my face and said the boy thought it was compliment. I gritted my teeth, through the close gate of my mouth, asked if she told the principal or a teacher. Eyes rolled, Holden answered: I took care of it. How? I demanded. I thought of my daughter in her navy pleated uniform skirt, white button down shirt, and cardigan, and saw an everyday Catholic school uniform. But, he saw Brittany Spears in the classic video, Baby One More Time. Holden recounted: she told him off, shoved him, and reminded him not to speak to her that way. Eyes fearless, Holden marked off the details. Surprised by my surprise, Holden reacted. I’m not a boba, her eyes glared at me, offended. The words: I’m not fool, fluttered in the air like a trapped moth caught between light and dark. Damn, Holden was tough. Tougher than I was and am, then and now.

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The first time I got cat called, I was ten, about to turn eleven. My body did not match my age, it was shaped like that of a woman. Tall, curvy, and a full chest, were my measurements. Scared, I took to looking down, and felt betrayed by my own body. What had it done to rile up this attention? The more my body filled out the bolder the cat calls. Old men on the corners, like the villainous wolves of fairy tales, turned on by innocence and fear. Hidden behind my books and glasses, I let the world fade away, and said nothing. Baggy clothes, which I favored in my early teens, a thin armor against stares that penetrated. Unable to see myself beyond the stares, I felt ashamed of my big ass, wide hips, and large breasts. Only now, settled into my skin, do I walk unashamed, like the main attraction, and not the freak show. (words from the poem Elephant by Elizabet Velasquez)

But.

At sixteen, I’d run my tongue across my teeth, and wondered when my first kiss would be. I had crushes, but like the stars in the sky, I remained distant and beyond reach. Then things changed middle of junior year, two boys liked me. My buddy Michael, and my ex boyfriend, Jose. Michael and I often sat next to each other in History class, and would help each other with test answers. Michael spoke with flair, hated sports, and his eye roll game could rival a Valley girl’s. Jose had struck out asking out two of my friends, and hung around me bummed. One sat by my side, to hide, and the other lamented over my friends. Clear about my position with Michael and Jose, I let my guard down. We were friends, and I could now be myself. But, high school, a lair of lust, and emotions, made a sharp turn, somehow I became an important pivot. Stunned, when both boys sat beside me one day at lunch, and told me they liked me. They had discussed it, and wanted me to make a decision, they would be fine with my choice. I looked back and forth from Jose to Michael, knew only one could want me, and days later chose Jose.

Smitten, Jose claimed ownership right away, always an arm around me, insistent that I was his girl. As soon as Michael caught me by myself in the lunchroom, he called me a cock tease, and refused to speak to me. His words echoed through my body, cock tease. Afraid that it was true, I asked Jose. He shrugged his shoulders, said all girls were, cock teases, but I was his girl now so it didn’t matter. You are all the tits and ass I need, Jose assured me, and slapped my behind, as we walked down the hallway.  I looked around the hallway to the smirks of other boys, embarrassed, but happy too. Happy to be wanted.

We were together for five years.

*

Twenty one, broken-hearted from my first love, Jose, and filled to the brim with grief because of Francisco’s death, I dreamt to be another Connie. Six years since my last visit to Colombia, I arrived June 20th, 1999, weeks after college graduation. My suitcase filled with books, mosquito repellent, and pretty dresses from the Gap. Jose had cheated on me, rejected, I wished to be wanted again. I wished to catch men’s eyes, and when I walked the foot falls of my heels moaned. Certain that my heart could not be penetrated by love again, I did not allow myself to hope. A string of lovers, I was sure would soon follow. But not love.

Down to a size eight and a new devil-may-care attitude, men began to notice me. Still afraid of their catcalls, I forced myself to look up, smile. Fuck it! It felt good to be wanted. Some so bold, sent over bottle service of Aguardiente for myself and my prima Clarita, I waved to them. They asked me to talk English. I did. Then asked me to dance, and I did, but as soon as their advances grew, I retreated. Cock tease. Michael’s words like a bullhorn let my mind hear nothing else.

Desperate to get over Jose, and curate a list of men that would love all the parts of me, even the ugly and broken, I scouted for a wingman. And my answer came in form of Gabriel. By the time I got to Barranquilla, Gabriel had already been in Colombia for more than half a year. Born in Colombia, but left for Nueva York at seven with his mother and older sister, he grew up in Spanish Harlem. But, now Gabriel lived with his Tia, a few blocks away. He was dating D, the girl next door to Abuelo’s casa. D, Joann, and I had played tea set and jumped rope when we were young.  Later, we fan girled over Ricky Martin during our teens. Now both in our twenties, and accustomed to long periods apart, our friendship had grown vines, sturdy and strong. 

I spent my late afternoons, reading on Abuelo’s porch, as the heat relented.  Then to D’s porch, to sit in conversation, between her and Gabriel. The three of us rocked back and forth, Coke bottles in our hands, as we talked about things that mattered, and didn’t. And when it was time for D to help with dinner, Gabriel and I didn’t budge from our spots. We continued to talk, but now free to talk in English. And in one of these English only sessions,  Gabriel revealed the details for his long stay in Colombia.

“I got busted yo.” Gabriel looked away when he spoke. “D, doesn’t really know all the details, so keep that shit on the down low.”

I nodded, despite what he said. “What were you slinging?” I asked. It was never a question that they sold, but what they sold.

“Mostly weed, but some blow too,” Gabriel eyes rested on me. “Yo you is mad cool, even if you went to Catholic school all your life.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” I laughed.

“It’s the reason you always have your nose in a book,” Gabriel said. He handed me a cigarette.

Kools.

I reached for it and smiled.

“Look what I got,” Gabriel whispered. He looked towards the front of D’s door.

I watched him pull out a small bottle of aguardiente from the backpack at his feet. He waved for my Coke bottle and poured a long swig. Then did the same to his Coke bottle.

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We sat in old wooden rocking chairs, our faces straight ahead, as the sun dipped low, lower, and out of the sky. A cigarette in between two of my fingers, while the rest wrapped around the spiked Coke. And to break the silence Gabriel, rapped, mostly Biggie, but they were others. I never tired of his rendition of Suicidal Thoughts and often asked for it. Gabriel rapped every word, his voice filled with rage, and with his eyes closed, as if he was somewhere else, the corner of East 116th.

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It was Gabriel’s idea to go to Palm Tree that night in late September. I was happy to go clubbing, something I had done very little of back home. But, since three is a crowd, D invited Ruben. Already having flirted with Ruben at a graduation party the week before, and had dragged him to the dance floor, as I gyrated to Elvis Crespo’s, Suvamente. I was nervous, but excited to get to hang out with him. We kissed that night near the bar, later we danced to Carlos Vives, and kissed some more. The next day, Ruben sent me flowers and asked me to be his girl. I said yes, and a few days later he sent another dozen roses.

Excited to tell Mami that I finally liked someone else, that the memory of Jose did not sear a gap in my heart. I phoned her and told her I liked Ruben, yes Ruben from three houses down, yes the one with the two brothers and younger sister. Time stood still, as I waited for Mami’s answer, certain that she would be happy Jose had loosened from my heart. But, I was wrong. Her words: Please don’t tell me you like that enano. Afraid to battle differences with Mami, even matters of my heart, I said nothing. Her words you like that midget, made me fold inside of myself, and though we were the same height, I felt ridiculous. I cried to Sophia, who had arrived to visit me in Colombia a week before. We concocted a plan to hang out at the beach and get drunk. Gabriel was to come with us. Upset at Mami’s reaction I got black out drunk by mid day. Unable to stand straight and puked on, Gabriel suggested we crash at a motel for a few hours, until I sobered up. I flung myself on the plastic mattress with a flimsy sheet. Gabriel tipsy himself laid beside me. The room spun, Gabriel’s voice seemed far away, I reached for Sophia’s arm, but she pulled away from me.

“I want to kiss you.” Gabriel rolled over, his face leaned towards mine.

“No,” I moved my head back.

“What’s up with you?” Gabriel reached towards me.

“What about D?” I asked through the fog of alcohol. I thought of D, and how she loved to play with the dusty pink tea set my Tia kept inside the gabinete, even years later.

“What about her?” He slurred. His eyes rolled in his head.

“Ruben,” I said. I tried to pick up my head, but moved it a millimeter. “I’m kinda seeing him…”

“Wait you really into that immigrante,” Gabriel looked at me dumbfounded.

“I guess I am,” I struggled out of the bed. Waves of nausea weakened my knees, and I crawled to the bathroom. I passed out on the cold tiles.

Some time later Sophia dragged me up. She called my name until my eyes fluttered open.

Helpless I stared at Sophia, opened and closed my mouth, opened it again. “Gabriel wanted to hook up with me,” I wailed. Sophia pushed me into the shower with my dress still on.

“You have to snap out of this.”  Sophia leaned me against the wall, and turned to leave.

“Don’t go out there.” I called out.

Sophia glared at me.

“He’s gonna try something with you,” I sputtered.

“You know what…” Sophia studied me. “You want all the boys to you like you, but can’t handle when they do. There is a word for that…” Sophia slammed the door shut.

*

Decades later I’m reminded of those that called me a cock tease, and even more so, by the one that did not say it, but said so much more. Hurt. I chose to say nothing, but under the silence grew a loud rumble. This is my reckoning, and now at forty. I will check you. But, only because I have checked myself.

 

 

 

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, 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.

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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 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.

*

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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 his 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.

“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. 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.