De La Luz Letters
by Mariel Masque
Mi Querida Alma,
No sabes que gusto me dio recibir tu linda carta y los ricos chocolates. How did you remember that dark chocolate cherry cordials are my favorite? The hint of chili pepper made them a delicious treat. In my condition, I have to take little bites. I better write to you in Spanglish since plain English is not a saint of my devotion and your Spanish is not as polished as your mother’s. I still remember clarito the way you stood, long brown curls facing the wind, fists at each side of your waist, when you did not agree with something. You looked like a carbon copy of your mother Solangel. Dicen que de tal palo tal astilla. Solangel was such an incredible woman and the best mother in the world for a bright and precocious child like you.
Almita, I know I scolded you bastante about speaking your language at home when you were chiquita. Perdóname, mi sol. In exile, all we elders had left was our language and our Latina pride. After all, Mr. Ponce de León set foot in La Florida long before the English-only pilgrims arrived. Being a mujer with Caribe roots, I know well that Mr. Ponce stepped all over peaceful native folks who first called Florida their home. What can one expect from a grown man in search of the fountain of youth? What’s wrong with being old? ịPendejo!
Built by immigrants who stole the land from the native people and the African people from their land in Africa, this country is not much different than other nations in the Americas where colonization also occurred. Losing your native tongue is not your fault, mijita. To be honest, before we were forced to learn Spanish, we spoke Caribe, Taino, and Siboney. Stealing people’s language is how those in power keep us on a short leash. Stripping any group from their roots and their ancestors’ tongue is a form of cultural rape. It allows the conquerors to squeeze in and build a nest in our brains. Once settled, this parasite imposes a false sense of identity. Genocide often works like a brainwash. As you know, al vino, vino y al pan, pan. Tantos chiquitos lindos lost their identidad con el cuento del melting pot. The only thing melting in that pot full of white cheese was our identity, mi amor.
Ay Almita, I remember how your beautiful gordita face with cinnamon cheeks and lovely brown eyes turned into a pout every morning when you begged your mamá not to send you to school as if attending class was a punishment. I know that las blanquitas always bullied you in school when you were a child. Every time they called you Spic, refugiada, rafter, balsera, island beaner, boat rower, your mother screamed back at them, “Chiquillas inconcientes. ¿No les da verguenza? ¿Es que ustedes no tienen madres?”
ịPor el amor de Dios! How could girls so young be so stuffy? Your mamá, the best friend I ever had, que Dios la guarde en su gloria for all her hard work at la factoría in Hialeah where Mr. Marcus always made fun of us, always said that a mother is to be blamed for her child’s behavior. And there is some truth to that, dear Alma.
As you well know, los chiquitos no nacen aprendidos, mi amor. No child comes out of the womb hating. After nine months floating in a dark and cozy sack, every newborn faces the frightening earthquake that is the process of delivery with their ojitos closed. When they first see the light, they freeze in big shock. Por eso we call the process of giving birth, dar a luz. A woman gives light to the child at the moment of birth. No wonder the first thing los piojitos do is to scream at the top of their lungs. Despues de tanto pujar, no digo yo. Every newborn is horrified to pieces with so much new stimulus.
That is why we wrap babies in a hand-embroidered cargador and keep them warm while gently slapping their backs to reassure them. A child’s place is close to a woman’s heart. Once they recognize the mother’s heartbeat, they immediately relax. La criatura passes from arm to arm among all las tías, primas, abuelas and vecinas until the age of 5. That is why our chiquitas dance so well to the beat of a drum when they grow up. We keep our children close to the heart, every child’s first set of drums. It takes a whole village to raise a mocosa.
As you wisely point out, mi querida Alma, hate is something taught. When you give a crying baby your finger, her response is to grab it tight and calm down.
Now that I am 60 years old, I can be candid. ¿No crees? So many tools have been used to divide us. La verdad is that we are one, mi sol. Divorcing us from our flesh and blood by building invisible walls, like language and cultural barriers and by exercising cultural appropriation in all of its forms, is perhaps the saddest film I have been forced to watch. Well, let me retract. The bluest low-budget flick was watching our chiquitos, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, as they engaged in their rants. ¿Que les pasó a mis muchachitos? Did they fall from their cradles and hit the floor headfirst? Where did they learn so much hate? Santa Barbara Bendita, they need a despojo. Privilege is what privilege does. These two hombrecitos may have learned a lot about worldly affairs, and I am glad they did, but in that process they sold their souls. Who needs Hollywood when those in power know how to stir one’s pot?
And now, as you mentioned in your letter, the worst nightmare morphs into a full-blown scene. I am so glad I am ready to kick the bucket. I could not stomach staying for another round of nonsense. I may not be that old, but my health is taking a toll. I have seen enough, mi querida Alma – Batista, Castro, Reagan, Bush. Y ahora esto. Lonely boys are muy ociosos, mi amor. All they do is hurgarle la paciencia a uno, especially the “undo” type that launches a career by undoing others’ hard work. Que war ni que war, por el amor de Dios. War is what grown boys engage in when they don’t know how to communicate like adults. And our new Bully-in-Tweet, with airs of Indiana Jones, is nothing but trouble, mi amor.
Someone who needs so much attention was probably severely neglected as a little boy. How else can a person choose hate over love? I wish I could do an intervention and offer our incoming president one of my warm and apretado island girl hugs. The type that weakens the knees and melts the heart into a melcocha candy. ịBocón! What that carajito Donald needs is to have an elder wash his mouth with soap as we did en el barrio when a child got out of control. But how can one blame the poor creature, when he, like most children in this country, probably grew up alone watching an ugly Big Bird? A young mind should never be left unattended, mi amor. ¿Cierto?
Thank you for asking about my whereabouts, mi vida. Now that rheumatoid arthritis has stolen my hands, my dear nurse Luna, born in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, is dutifully writing this letter to you as I dictate while I spend my last days at De La Luz Hospice. Nothing brings me more pleasure than to read your letter over and over. No sabes cuanto I would love to see your brown eyes that turn amber when hit by the sun. They look just like mine. Who would have thought that my best friend’s child would look like me? But I would not want you to see me like this, mi amor. Además, you have too much on your plate. You must focus on your midterms.
Alma querida. When el buscapleitos steps inside the Oval Office, he will try to undo everything many generations worked so hard to achieve. And we cannot sit back and cross our arms. Que desgracia, por Dios. Your mother always said that men who shout a lot have small penises. They shout to compensate. If that is true, Bully-in-Chief must have a worm.
My dear chiquita with long, brown curls tight in a ponytail, every day you brought me a slice of pastel de bonito your mama baked with so much love, and when you asked me about life on the island, I selfishly never responded. Perdóname, corazón. In my mind, I always thought that we would return. Every year that went by, I refused to let go, mi sol. We were so busy working several jobs that hope turned into a skinny cow, una vaquita muy flaquita, grazing solita in a field without pasture. Imagínate, mi cielo, juggling each momento, one did not have time ni para echar cuentos. I may not remember much about life on the island, but I remember clarito my first years as a refugee. How could I forget my very first obsession?
“I will always be on the other side of the sea,” were Abuelo José María’s last words to me at the Rancho Boyeros Airport in Havana back in 1961. I did not want to leave mi adorado viejito with silky white hair and puckered lips who always wore his black beret at a slant.
As the airplane flew away, puffy gray clouds covered the turquoise blue of the Caribbean Sea. The island with an alligator shape vanished. I swallowed. It felt like having a porcupine stuck in my throat. The idea of swimming back to my abuelo’s arms crawled inside my 5-year-old’s mind and nested inside my heart. Y pa luego es tarde, mi amor.
While Mami always praised my indisputable strength, I also had my Achilles’ heel. The pinching-cold melancholy lurking in Doctor Zhivago’s song, “Somewhere My Love,” found a home in my little refugee head as the old man living next door played that LP over and over again. The word “volveré” had been etched in my viscera, plunging me into an insatiable quest to return to my homeland.
The sands of Cuba still clung to my sandals when I resolved to swim back to my adored abuelo, to the garden where blue butterflies fluttered in harmony, playing hide and seek, and to the grounding scent of Abuela Felicia’s creamy tamales. Mi amor, I wanted so badly to watch my great-grandfather Rafael, el Mambí, as he moved his hands when he delivered his cuentos about the Cuban Independence war. During those first years of exile, the cavalry’s alluring horses and the heroic deeds of the Titan of Bronze swirled in my dreams late at night after the sound of the old sewing machine stopped and Mamá got in bed by my side, kissed me good night and turned off the lights.
At the age of 6, in Crandon Park Beach, a merciful dolphin brought me back to the shore after floating adrift for hours. Wearing my yellow lifesaver and walking oddly like a duck with blue fins strapped to my feet, I returned to the shoreline five miles away from the point where my escape mission had launched. A lonely old man held my pruned and shaky hand until the lifeguard found my mother.
Mami screamed, “Libertad, no me vuelvas a hacer esto,” kissed my forehead repeatedly, hit me with her pink flip-flop, and cried on the verge of a heart attack.
Months later at Biscayne Bay, I sneaked out on a black tube left unattended between palmettos and royal palms. With feet up and ass in the water, muy campante I floated among cruise ships toward the sun singing my version of “La Guantanamera.” My escape mission aborted when the loud siren of the rescuing boat approached. A Coast Guard brought me back to the arms of Mamá.
Again Mami compulsively kissed my forehead, hit me with her blue flip-flop this time, and cried on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “ịMe vas a matar, niña!” she blurted out.
My strategy needed revision after we move to Venezuela, when Papi, tired of cleaning public bathrooms, finally landed a sales job.
One afternoon, when I was 9, trying to swim back to the island from Palma Sola Beach, I got sucked by the riptide. There was no lifeguard on duty. With all the strength a child with Mambí blood possesses, I tried to reach the surface. My legs cramped. The pull of the undertow dragged me to the depths. I watched the last bubble of air leave my mouth and float toward the sun.
Hours later, after being vomited by the sea, I woke up and coughed streams of salt water. Hair entangled with eelgrass, I greeted life. My scratched tongue wetted the cracks on my lips. I rose from driftwood, diatoms and beach wrack.
Wearing the cloak of a starlit night, I walked home sobbing to Mami’s delicious frijoles and a slice of marzipan.
“Where have you been all day, muchachita?” Mami screamed.
My beloved Alma, I learned at a very young age that holidays were sad times. We left the island in search of freedom and wound up living in Liberty City, the place with the highest rate of crime.
Mi sol, I am glad to hear that you are a writer. You were such an excellent storyteller as a child. I am sad you did not win the writer’s summer residence at that beautiful ranch in New Mexico. Keep applying, mijita. There is always the next time.
The comment you heard at the queer readers’ potluck, “Why don’t you edit out the Spanish words. It’s hard to follow your thoughts,” should slide over the slope of your indifference, mi amor. And the woman who told you after your reading that your accent makes you sound uneducated has bigger problems than any of us. Why is it groovy and desirable to have a British accent and not a Spanish one? Spotted!
Que cosa mas grande. We learn their language and speak their tongue, and to top it all, we have to edit ourselves for the sake of maintaining their comfort zone. ịHabráse visto!
Me pregunto what Latina or woman of color writer has not heard an editor say, “It’s too ethnic. Tone it down. It will improve readability,” or the “You are an excellent storyteller, but your writing needs to be more linear. It is hard to follow.” This attitude, dearest Alma, makes me rush to the bookstore every time I hear that a Latina/Chicana writer publishes a book. It makes me cry to hold the book in my hands and smell the ink. Now Luna buys them for me. As a Latina writer, I know the drill.
Virginia Woolf wrote extensively about the need for every woman writer to have a room of one’s own. In an extended essay, she advocated for a literal and figural space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men. Although it took a full book to express her sentiments on the topic, as it relates to the needs of women of color writers, Woolf’s acclaimed essay missed the target. For Chicana/Latina writers, a room with mortar, bricks and wood floors is simply not enough, and the “literal space” has never been a concession granted to us.
Sandra Cisneros once wrote, “I am a woman, and I am a Latina. Those are the things that make my writing distinctive. Those are the things that give my writing power.” Our voices are more important than the space in which we write. I like to ink too, Alma. And I even ink in the dark. Although I cannot write anymore, Luna helps me record my thoughts. She is a writer too. I either write to fill my time or misplace my head. As escritora, you need a safe space with other Chicana/Latina writers and women of color where your issues, cultures, roots, traditions, thought processes and worldviews matter, mija.
I understand your frustration with the women in your writers group. Not everyone gets it, mijita. As creatures of the margins, we are always asked to edit ourselves. When I tried to publish my work outside of Latina/Chicana magazines and anthologies, I got tired of hearing publishers and editors say, “It’s too ethnic. Tone it down.” How can I tone down my identity? If I trim my voice like a little bonsai, what else is left? My voice is my power. ¿Qué no? In this country, people are always walking on shells around us. They are genuinely afraid of what we have to say. That’s why I sought Canadian presses to publish my work. They get it. It’s easier that way.
You need a powerful mujeres writers group, one that nourishes your soul. Find a mujeres group. I found mine in 2002, and I treasured it deeply for many years. Most of las blanquitas will not be able to follow your thoughts. Remember what they said about Tony Morrison’s Beloved? “The story is hard to follow.” ịBabosadas! I read that book in one night. Not everyone thinks in a linear fashion. It’s not their fault, mijita. They were brought up in a very different environment with certain privileges. Privilege leads to the tantrums of entitlement. When triggered, people get defensive.
Speaking about defensiveness, a week ago a new volunteer sat next to my bed. It was so early, I still had drool on my face. Without even introducing herself, or allowing me to reach for a napkin and clean up, she grabbed a safety pin from her basket and rushed to plug it into my cotton pajamas. ịAlabao! My shaky, wrinkled and stiff hand has not yet learned how to be polite with such invasive types and immediately shooed her away.
“Ms.,” la muy babosa said, rolling her eyes as if I am her child and she is my mother, “You must wear a safety pin to show solidarity with immigrants.”
“I refuse to do such a thing,” I responded emphatically without letting her know that I am an immigrant.
“How does a dying woman wearing a safety pin help immigrants, young lady?”
“Everyone is wearing one. Look, I am wearing my own,” the safety pin agent said with a condescending tone.
I tell you, Alma, I always thought that bangs cloud one’s vision. The young woman could not see past the curtain of blond hair covering her eyes.
“And what does wearing a safety pin achieve?” I asked, now intrigued.
“Well, it tells immigrants feeling threatened that they are safe by my side,” she said and nodded, emphasizing her statement.
Gracias a Oshun, Luna arrived.
“Libertad, you look concerned. What’s going on?”
“This young lady insists that I wear a safety pin to show my support to immigrants. Isn’t that a ludicrous idea, Luna? I am in a hospice!”
Luna smiled and clicked her tongue while signaling the door.
“With all due respect, ma’am, I don’t want people out there to confuse me with conservative hatemongers,” the young woman said and kicked the ground like horses do when upset.
No one ma’ams this butch. I promptly sat down on the bed and my adrenal glands flushed my veins with their little juice left.
“So you are wearing the safety pin for yourself, not for us,” I responded, smiling. “As you said, you don’t want to get confused with other white women who embrace hate practices.” I reasoned. “Now, tell me, what does that have to do with us immigrants? How does that support us?”
The young woman left slamming the door. Horror! This is a hospice where people come to die in peace. Que falta de respeto. En este país, una ni puede morirse en paz. ịAlabao!
As I told Luna, who understands the curvy nature of my elliptic thoughts, this is the laziest entitled idea I ever heard in the 47 years I served as an activist. Somehow, a white person wearing a safety pin is supposed to make an immigrant afraid of being deported feel safer. ịSolabaya! Does it ever occur to anyone that wearing a safety pin is another way to flaunt privilege? What if a Klan member wears a safety pin to lure us to a dark alley and lynch us? Has anyone thought about this? Of course, a white person can wear the dichoso pin. The hate preachers are not after white folks. Doesn’t that make it a privilege that only white people are entitled to wear it? And doesn’t that make those of us with a darker hue fall at the mercy of the benevolence of those with privilege? Por tu vida, this is another round of Driving Miss Daisy.
This pin situation leads to the point in your letter where you describe how you were treated at the queer potluck when you tried to hug a white woman, and she got pissed and stated that she always considered people who embrace others a bit flaky. What does she know, mi amor? The problem is not that this person does not share the same greeting practice. The problem is that she automatically assumes that people who hug are flaky. ¿Qué sabe el burro de pasta de diente? ¿No es verdad? Always stick to your roots, dear Alma. Don’t let a spoiled bean stop you from cooking. Toss it out and, por el amor de Dios, keep hugging.
A hug is something sacred to us. Before sharing our opinions or distributing our thoughts, people in our Caribbean culture stand face to face with a grin. Looking deep into each other’s eyes, we hold each other’s arms and pause. Then, we pull one another close into a shoulder-to-shoulder touch that flows into a full body hug – with chests pressed and breasts squeezed, our hearts resonate at each other’s beat. After the release, we follow up with a kiss on each cheek delivered with spicy hot lips. Acknowledging words like mi amor, mi sol, mi vida, mi reina, que gusto de verte, que linda tú estás, que placer, accompany the hug. On the island, no one engages in conversation until properly embraced. That’s just plain rude and not conducive to deep dialogue.
This greeting ritual creates a safe, intimate space that allows proximity by recognizing and celebrating the sacredness of one another. There is nothing flaky about it, mi amor. Para mi, un buen abrazo is a great place to start, don’t you think? After creating such heart resonance, what needs to be said is blurted out, allowing us to move on quickly instead of stomping around. Not because we lack manners, not because we are too angry, not because we are too loud, but simply because we know how to get close. This tradition of coming together is our way of creating space for social intimacy. ¿Cierto?
In turn, this type of closeness makes it possible to say anything we dare to each other’s face. It allows us to disagree strongly with a “No, mi amor, estás muy equivocada,” or release an emphatic “No me jodas,” or even blurt a robust, “Oyeme tu, no comas tanta mierda,” and move on before closing the encounter with the same open heart. In few words, we say it as it is and don’t hold back. Pare de contar. Culturally speaking, we love to nourish and groom one another. Así pues, te mando un abrazote bien apretadito, el abrazo de la osa as you used to call it when you were a child.
Luna agrees with me. We are not flakes. We know how to create the safe space required to let our guards down. Tu sabes bien, Alma, que letting one’s guard down is not a valued trait in the dominant sea. We are always asked to mainstream. We learn their language, cultures, worldview and whereabouts, and they don’t even take the time to even spell correctly our names. Why can’t they at least meet us halfway? I know, mi amor. It is frustrating!
And I completely understand your reaction when the white sister talked the entire time during the diversity workshop. ịQue pesada! I also have sat impatiently while attending a consciousness-raising event designed to promote diversity. What do we do when a white sister takes all the space (the type who claims that men do the same)? We tap the floor repeatedly with our heels or boots, scratch our heads, sigh, reach for the cell phone, check our emails, text Tía Lola the recipe for the tres leches cake, and la comadre is still furiously talking. Well, mi vida, privilege takes a lot of room. It keeps them at the center of attention, while we are called to organize and clean up. And that needs to stop if we seek to work together as sisters toward common goals.
You are right, corazón. A diversity workshop is not the place to hear the white voices. We hear those voices everywhere at all hours of the day, hasta en la sopa. It is our place to plug in our voices for a pinche hour in hopes that they may learn something new. How can they learn a thing about their sisters of color if they are the only ones talking? By osmosis? I honestly do not comprehend the logic.
Even at a diversity fair, we are expected to act white and shake hands. In the United States, a tradition that made one’s heart sing transforms into an awkward ritual that leaves one with a sour taste. Luna and I always laugh when my friend Mariel stops by to bring me red apples and read me stories. Mariel always poignantly reenacts her experience, which I include in her voice because I know it will make you laugh. Yemaya only knows how many times you and I have been victims of variations of the following exercise.
“Hi, I’m Mariel,” I say while my arm reaches out awkwardly anticipating the unfamiliar handshake that creates a larger space to circumvent one’s reality and reinforce the prescribed individuality typical of the land of the brave.
“Hi, Maria. I’m Tracy, nice to meet you.”
“Mariel,” I say slowly releasing my name.
“I’ve got it, Mary.”
“MARIEL,” I repeat raising the volume and one eyebrow.
“M-a-r-i-e-l,” I spell the name, “like the famous Cuban port or the Mariel boatlift.”
“Oh, yes. You look like Elian.”
“No. I don’t,” I deny my resemblance to Elián González, the little boy who floated adrift in the Caribbean. We don’t look alike at all!
More frequently than not, that sister promptly reaches out for another sister and asks out loud, “Why is Mariel so angry?”
That Mariel always makes me laugh so hard. You two should meet. I think you would like each other. ịQue aguante! And yet, we cannot blame our sisters. The system is designed to perpetuate the illusion of separateness, feed the ongoing debate and keep us divided. When we divide, we lose our power. When the boys engineered the flawed, non-inclusive and oppressive structure, women were not invited. Esa es la pura verdad. To move forward, we must stop blaming each other, listen to one another with attentive ears, dismantle the invisible forces that keep us tuned to the centuries-old sad song, and empower and nourish each other.
Yo tambien pasé por lo mismo, mi amor. I understand your indignation. I recall how after the awkward salutation at many queer potlucks, I submerged 10,000 leagues under the inner sea. From those depths, I observed the estranged surroundings while dancing my heart out and delighting in the view of giant squids. It takes a dash of surrealism to endure the constant abrasion. When our queerness messes with our mestiza souls, we are bound to feel so terribly and horribly alone. And like you, I am one of those who longs for solitude since being a writer implies spending most of the time on your own. ịGracias a Dios!
I still remember the dyke who played “La Macarena” every time I stepped inside the University Club, thinking that she was Latinizing the dance floor with one pinche song. That was just the last drop. I profusely disliked that song. When she asked me, “Why Latinxs do not come to our bar?” I responded with a candid, “Well, why don’t you try playing some Latin beats. I can make you a list.” As you probably already guessed, dear Alma, a list is quite too much. La dichosa Macarena was all we got for years.
Last time I checked, we all grew up with these isms, and we all live with them. Privilege and prejudice always crawl out from unsuspected terrains. And until we come together with open hearts and candidly have a blunt chat about the nuances of privilege, we will continue to float adrift in the divide-and-conquer sea. Punto.
Last year, as I switched medications, I came to the conclusion that privilege is the inability to see others for who they are. And you know the saying, you can’t love what you can’t see.
And you are right, dear Alma, as Latinxs, Chicanxs, Latin Americans, we do not fit neatly into a box. In fact, we transcend the established concept of race. Latinxs make up the largest and most diverse group of mixed-descent people on Earth. As a mestizo group, we represent the amalgamation, syncretism or mix of all races. We carry the blood of most of the world’s races: Native, African, Asian and European; practice most of the world’s major religions as well as Afrocentric and Native cosmologies; and we have the most diverse tapestry of cultural expressions, food, traditions, music, dance, arts and ideologies. In the Amazon Rain Forest alone, there are hundreds of variations of Tupi-Guarani languages. We also encompass a variety of genders, abilities and disabilities, body types and sexual orientations. We not only speak Spanish, Spanglish and English. Some of us also speak Hebrew, Quechua, Nahuatl, Maya, Papiamento, Creole, Portuguese, Yanomami, Guajiro, Hopi, Navajo and a large gamut of native and mixed languages. Some of us are direct descendants of great civilizations like the Mayans, the Incas and the Aztecs. And yes, we know these patriarchal groups engaged in serious sexist practices too, like throwing a virgin into a cenote to appease their gods. That is a story for another letter.
This diverse makeup is what Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos termed La Raza Cósmica (The Cosmic Race) in 1925. Check his writings, dear Alma. As members of La Raza, we embrace the ancestry of all the races contributing to our makeup. Our presence makes those racial-cleansing and racial purity-minded Neo-Nazi, far-right types very nervous. Así es, Almita. We are too “dangerous” to be ignored. That is why hate worshippers feel the itch to build a wall and send us back home when our home is this country. And to add to the hives chewing up the skin on supremacist types, as Mestizas we are hard to spot. Is that girl African-American or Afro-Cubana? Is she Asian or Bolivian-Chinese? Or is she Mexican, Japanese or Mexican/Japanese-American? What about the Arab-Colombian gal who works on our local TV? And you know how confused and irritated those conservative types get when things do not fit neatly inside a box. Although we have our share of mainstreamed folks like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and many other sinverguenzas who simply have too much white privilege to get it, we make up the largest and most diverse minority group.
As you pointed out, mi sol, our success depends on our ability as mestizas to build bridges, find common ground and celebrate the richness of our diversity. Something some of us do faithfully, as expressed every year during Hispanic Heritage Month. We have to adopt this celebration as a daily routine, not just a month out of the year. As we celebrate our diversity, we celebrate all races and all people simply because we carry all the races and all people in our DNA. Así es. As mestizas, we cannot afford to turn our backs on anyone. We are everyone. Although some of us are still not aware, this is why we shout Viva La Raza, which means Viva La Mezcla. And that is the reason we do not celebrate Columbus Day and instead celebrate el Dia de La Raza, the day when the horrors of the conquest gave birth to who we are as people of the Americas. As we celebrate the mix, our mestiza race, we celebrate humanity. And yes, we wear our share of isms too like everyone else. We also do it to ourselves and to each other in some form of excruciating masochism. Like cangrejos en la olla, we are often too busy pulling each other down. And when we do, there is no need to put a lid on the pot.
Because we are mestizas, spanning the rainbow of color, those of us who know better see life in technicolor. Debates on meaningless terms like “color blindness” and “all lives matter” are a waste of everyone’s time. Bottom line, Alma, as you wrote in your letter, Black Lives Matter, mi amor. Only someone incredibly naïve would think that what such a statement implies is that other lives don’t matter. Por favor. That is absurd. The movement is a response to the fact that people of color get shot for a California stop while white folks are sent to driving school to erase points. And we need all the movements we can get. The universe is not a static place. Constant change, movement and flow are the true game changers.
Tanto va el cántaro a la fuente hasta que se rompe. And when the pot breaks, my dear Alma, we are bound to lose our Zen. If you leave the pressure cooker unattended on the flame after it whistles, the frijoles will reach the ceiling and cover the kitchen counter and floor. It will get messy, mi amor. When that happens, we get the “Why are you so angry?” And whether you are shy and calladita or a passionate, warm-hearted full-blown conmovida with Puta Power like our powerful goddess tatiana de la tierra (que en paz descanse), the 24/7 aggravations gnaw down to the bone.
I like what you suggest that in addition to our rich diversity, many of us share a community-centered worldview. As you know, most of our white sisters grew up expressing an individual-centered worldview, and even those who have crossed over still carry traces from the individual-centered perspective and continue to show individual-centered habits, traditions and behaviors. There is nothing wrong with having a different worldview as long as we are not asked to conform to someone else’s views.
On the other hand, we often rise from the quicksand and seep through the cracks. While some of us are enculturated to maintain a community-centered worldview, the schools and institutions we attend reinforce individualism. The resulting clash of worldviews, or subtracting biculturalism, is inherent in our souls and is the first struggle every muchachitx faces and conquers from our very first steps, whether we choose to speak Spanish or not. In fact, we created Spanglish, a new tongue that bridges the gap and connects both worldviews. That is one reason why we tend to be great sabidas multi-taskers like you.
Tú sabes como es la cosa, mi amor. To house two contradicting worlds takes an enormous effort. No digo you. Like the Temperance card of the Tarot, we live with one foot on the earth and one in the water. For many of us, extended family, cooperation and community are the core values at home, while nuclear family, competition and individualism are the so-called “norms” taught to us at school and expected at work. While many of us count with bilingual brains, others of us repress the language of our ancestors because we feel threatened. And unfortunately, that threat is very real.
And yes, dear Alma, I am familiar with the scene you described in your letter when you entered the restroom of a local restaurant muy bien vestida and the white woman on her way out said to you matter-of-fact, “Could you please bring toilet paper? It ran out.” That exact same thing has happened to me a million times. It takes some ovaries to deal with the ongoing nonsense. And this new government already made it clear that we don’t count. We are going to need to focus on building bridges and coalitions like you wisely wrote, but we also need to strengthen our own communities to provide empowerment, nourishment and support to our own.
I wish I could stand from this uncomfortable bed and walk this January in the Women’s March. Maybe Luna will get me permission to leave the hospice, and I am taken in my bed like Frida Kahlo. Imagine that! I doubt it. Once committed, you’re locked inside these walls. A apretarse los pantalones. ịLo que viene with this new government es the ampanga!
Fortunately, we have many allies in our white communities. Build bridges and speak out, Alma. That’s all you can do. You may lose an amiga or two, but you must have the intestinal fortitude to remain true to yourself. And yes, your mother taught you well, no one learns with someone else’s head. Repeat yourself, again and again as I do, while taking many deep breaths and drinking plenty cafecitos to keep yourself wide awake. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated. It takes a while to crack open a mind filled with privilege. And it will only happen when individuals decide to open up on their own. Since cada cabeza es un mundo, we have no control over others’ awakening process. All we can do is live by example and keep speaking out. After all, the only thing we can control is the development of our own awareness. ¿Cierto?
Que triste. Love did not trump hate. The fact remains that more people voted for love. It is true. We have a long way to go. That so many people engage in racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, ableist, ageist, homophobic and xenophobic practices is not news to us. Those of us who are lifelong activists have been saying this for decades. ¿No es verdad? Luna and I are not in shock. We are looking at each other asking ourselves out loud, “Where have they been all these years?” We knew the pot has been brewing for a long time, but no one listened to us. I am glad that many white folks finally realized that racism and all the other isms are still alive today.
Those dancing the privilege dance would not have been so shocked if they had listened to us. ¿Verdad? Como decía Abuela Felicia, “A lo hecho, pecho.” Let’s move on, three steps forward and two steps back. We have so much work to do, mi amor.
We, querida Alma, the targets standing in the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, disability, creeds, migrant work, immigration, socio-economics, feel rightfully frightened as the avalanche of hatred sets in motion. It means that our families fear being ripped apart and that our realities are going to be split by tall walls. As people of color, we are afraid that we will be the victims of racially motivated attacks. As a Latina queer woman with a disability, the attacks get quadrupled! When that white sister asked you not to feed fear, she did not know better.
Paciencia, hija. Paciencia. Just like you expressed in your letter, Alma, we are looking at each other, tongues clicking and thinking, “Are you freaking kidding me?” You are right, mi sol. We are the targets of these oppressions, and that person asking you not to feed fear while she takes all the time in the world to grieve and heal is not aware that she reeks of privilege. I hear you, mi chiquita linda. The type of healing we urgently need is to have more mujeres like you willing to speak out. Even at the risk of hearing the sublime, “If you are not happy in this country, move back to yours.” You tell them, Alma, “This is our home.”
Working full-time and being an activist for women, Latinas/Chicanas, people of color, migrant workers, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, and other causes takes a toll on one’s health. When all of these spheres constitute integral components of one’s identity, it is impossible to give preference to one aspect of identity over another.
Why do I have to choose which aspect of my identity is more important? I sincerely cannot split myself into slices without compromising who I am. And if you value one aspect of your wholeness more than the others, aren’t you devaluing yourself and in turn engaging in internalized self-hatred? These are the questions I continuously ask myself, Alma. Favoring one aspect of one’s identity over the other results in invisibility, mi corazón. It engenders an inner contradiction. It makes one a walking paradox. Invisibility is often more painful than physical illness itself. It shreds the soul and creates splinters of one’s energy body. I can speak to that. Please find ways to nourish yourself and share with other comadres and women who care and understand. If you don’t, wearing all your hats in token land will inevitably result in severe burnout.
During the period I lived in the swamps, as it may be expected, I suffered another major relapse. A severe case of shingles bit my ass. That is why you always need to take long walks at Paynes Prairie, dear Alma. I know that you are like your mother, one who never stops. It is not your fault, but please take some time to smell the marsh.
Abuela Felicia always said, “Dime con quien andas y te diré quien eres.” I’m glad to read that you found your tribe. I recall with a smile how my life changed when I had the privilege and honor of meeting Gainesville’s strongest activist, Nkwanda Jah, and rekindling with my grandmother’s Orishas via my beloved friends, Yeye Omi Aladora Ajamu and Baba Olomide Ogunlano, and the many other wonderful members of the Yoruba family at Ilesa Ire. There is nothing like finding one’s roots while one lives in exile. My search for a place called home ended the year I met these wonderful people. They reminded me that home is where the heart is. And the heart is inside my chest. I would never forget this lesson.
You asked about my experiences as an activist. That cuento is longer than Luna can condense in this letter. For the sake of focus and space, I will only focus on recent decades. For me, the 1990s opened with the gift of rhyme. I fell in love with Gainesville’s radical wild women tribe, bloomed as I fully and forcefully grabbed the pen, nourished my soul, did magic with my sisters and began to ink my memoirs. Then, I encountered a glittering sight. And I had lived long enough to know that not everything that shines offers good light.
Summer of 1990 arrived. It opened with Daniel Harold “Danny” Rolling’s appearance. Also known as the Gainesville Ripper, the American serial killer haunted Hogtown. Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Tracy Paules, and Manuel Taboada were brutally murdered. This monster mutilated his victims and even decapitated one. I lived a few minutes away from Brandywine and worked at the Center for Wetlands, also a few miles from the scenes of these horribly brutal crimes. The prairie cried that summer like it had never cried before.
That nightmare left a vapor of horror that covered the land as panic spread over the peaceful swamp where once River Phoenix, with laid-back attitude and Southern tang, ate black bean empanadas made by Zaydeth at the local Latin stand. These terrible crimes may have been the reason the NDolphin band stepped out of its dark garage and delivered its hit “So Baroque,” speaking about 17 long days and not knowing what to do. An epidemic of hate crimes sprouted wherever you walked. What is happening now, dear Alma, has happened before, numerous times.
The onslaught of people with AIDS, the Iraq War, the invasion of Kuwait and constructionism swirled in the air. Not again, por favor, I stared at the bottle of rum. This is fucking too much! And there was more. With pompous overture, the Klu Klux Klan celebrated Hitler’s birthday in Gainesville’s downtown plaza in 1992. Cowardly men covered with sheets hid their faces behind white hoods and held signs reading “Repent or Die,” “Dirty Spics are stealing White Jobs,” and “AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexual perverts.” Each word like a double-edged dagger punctured my spleen.
There was no time for freaking healing when the Klu Klux Klan had training grounds for paramilitary practices in Palatka, Florida, only a few miles away from our homes. You either organized or died, mi sol. The healing took place in our coming together to stop hate crimes, not in taking time out to heal and grieve. At this point, I learned about the power of sisters coming together.
We talked to each other in the lesbian community, met at each other’s homes, supported one another and shared our feelings at lesbian potlucks. Radical Feminists and Lesbians for Diversity (RFLD), an interracial and multicultural group of women, emerged from our conversations. As members of this organization, we engaged the community in consciousness-raising efforts, education, political work and networking from a feminist perspective and worked together, committed to promoting the social changes that allow people to live in safety and dignity, free of economic, physical and cultural barriers. Although extremely involved in projects and actions, we also made time to check in with each other about our feelings. Some meetings were more playful (making banners and writing songs), and others were action-oriented.
Much like you do now in your Black Lives Matter group, I joined my sisters in counter-protest every time the KKK, Neo-Nazi and other supremacist groups rallied in Lawtey, Waldo, Gainesville, Palatka and many other Florida towns. I recall a rally when I traveled alone with Kathy Freeperson and her little blind poodle to Lawtey. A man wearing dark glasses spat on my face and said, “You will pay for this, bitch.” During the drive back home neither one of us said a word.
As the intolerants traveled from town to town wearing white hoods and feeding hatred and bigotry, I followed them with my “Justice and equality for all” sign. I have photos of these rallies. It was frightening and those of us committed to eradicating hate crimes were either too naïve or too brave.
One evening right before sunset, as I drove from Gainesville to my home in Melrose where I lived with my partner, the red pickup truck tailgating my blue truck decided to pass me on Florida 26 West, a rural two-lane road with swamps along both sides on that segment. I slowed down as one does to let an apuradito pass.
When the vehicle positioned right next to mine on the incoming lane, the mystery driver turned on the light inside the cabin, lowered his tinted window and started shouting. The twilight slowly crawled under my skin. I remember the words “pig” and “Spic” being spat from his mouth in a number of ways and could clearly see his hateful look.
As I accelerated, he did the same, and his violence and insults continued to escalate.
Suddenly, I recognized the diablo’s face from one of the rallies where a sister and I screamed, “Real men do not wear their sheets,” and the dragon pulled off his hood and jumped to reach our throats as the chain of police kept him, foaming, away from us.
While keeping my hands on the steering wheel, I looked out the window to assess the situation. At that point, the hate-poisoned driver raised a hand holding a gun and pointed at my head.
After the initial chill, adrenaline kicked in. As my heart galloped, I stepped on the accelerator. Luckily, a transport truck driving in his lane coming in our direction honked the horn frantically to avoid a head-to-head collision. The bigot slowed down and changed lanes. Now behind me, he accelerated, getting close to my rear bumper.
Fortunately, esta pendorcha had raced cars when I was a teen and drove over 100 miles per hour. Thank goddess that enough incoming traffic; the old car that suddenly emerged from a driveway after I passed it, forcing the aggressor to step on the brake; and the red light at the intersection with Florida 21 South bought me time to escape the chase.
I recall stopping at the end of a dirt road right at the edge of the swamp in the dark, heart pounding to the beat of one million dissonant drums. At first I could not stop shaking, Alma. On the verge of a heart attack, I assessed the situation. I had survived Molotov bombs, tear gas and being kicked by National Guards in Venezuela during student strikes, but this tale had horror plastered all over its grand dragon face.
Ay Almita, que susto más grande. My partner was out of town, and I felt it was best to stay embraced by cypress trees and Spanish moss in the dark than to drive home. We did not have cell phones back then, mi amor. My thought was, if I see headlights enter the dirt road, I will get out of the car and jump into the swamp. I’d rather die eaten by alligators than murdered and raped by a soulless skinhead.
The next day, I drove to Chiappini’s, Melrose’s convenience store and gas station. Not to my surprise, the red pickup truck was parked with the tail down next to a police car. The middle-aged man with the shaved head sat on the tail of his red truck and drank a Coors while chatting and laughing with two police officers as if waiting for me. The ugly man looked at me squinting and smiled in a manner that almost made me barf. I was only 35. As a wise young woman who had worked as an activist since my early teens, I knew better than to try to fight his type. I decided to step back into my truck and drive away. I was so poisoned with anger and frustration that I fell ill. The next week, I moved back to Gainesville. Others were not as lucky as I was, mi amor. As Abuela Felicia would say, “ịViví para contarla!” Sí, mi amor, I lived to tell this cuento.
Like you point out in your letter, all I had was my radical sisters, mi amor. As members of RFLD, we worked with local police department informants, monitored and reported hate crimes, and wrote letters to our representatives to extend the “1989 Florida Hate Crime Law” to include sexual orientation, size and disability. I still have a letter from one of our representatives. We organized a day-long “diversity festival,” which celebrated creative expressions of our distinct communities through art, music, theater and food. All these happened while I was enrolled in graduate school, cleaning houses and holding two other jobs. Every time the KKK or other groups spoke publicly of hate and intolerance, we peacefully spoke publicly, in the majority voice, about the richness of diversity and our right to live in dignity and safety.
And as expected from a group of radical women, we challenged our attitudes and assumptions, developed workshops that raised consciousness about racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, LGBT issues, and other beliefs and behaviors that deny the uniqueness and value of each human spirit. The third Monday of the month, we met at the University Club, our local gay bar. We also boycotted businesses that supported the hate-centered agenda.
Sadly, as you point out in your letter, we are back in the same rabbit hole. And I am glad to hear that you are getting involved. The man who chased me in Melrose had the empty eyes of a dead red snapper and clearly did not have a soul. Keep in mind that while these bigots organized underground back then, today they have a VIP pass to the White House. Tenga mucho cuidado, mi amor. We are dealing with monsters, not with humans. Always travel accompanied when attending rallies and take your cell phone wherever you go, with the batteries charged. I breathe better knowing that you do.
I hear you, mamita. All of us wear many hats. Back in those days, tatiana de la tierra called and asked me to serve on the editorial board of Esto no tiene nombre, the nascent Latina lesbian magazine funded in part by a grant from the Astraea Foundation. Unequivocally, my first reaction was a rotund, “No me jodas, mi amor. Are you out of your freaking mind? I don’t have time to scratch my ass!” A moment of silence followed. Acto seguido, tatiana gave me her mujeres peligrosas, puta power and para las duras speech and, rolling my eyes, I joined la lucha.
Imagínate, Alma. The magazine emerged as the only Latina lesbian magazine in the U.S. We published Esto no Tiene Nombre from 1991 to 1994. It fed the hunger for Latina Lesbian power and was succeeded by Conmoción 1995-1996. Published in Miami, Florida and founded by tatiana de la tierra (who hated capital letters and never used them), Vanessa Cruz, Patricia Pereira-Pujol and Margarita Castilla, it provided a forum for Latina lesbian writers and artists from the United States and elsewhere in English, Spanish, and Spanglish that included poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, photography, news, interviews, comics and artwork. Contributors included established writers as well as writers publishing for the first time. It also included poetry, fiction and prose from Terri de la Peña, Vanessa Cruz, tatiana de la tierra, Maya Alba, Erotiza Memaz, Margarita Castilla, Rosita Libre de Marulanda, Kleya Forte-Escamilla, Maria de los Rios (my pen name at that time), and numerous other Chicana and Latina writers. The magazine reached Argentina, Mexico and Cuba and turned into what tatiana named as Nuestra Telaraña, our mujeres web.
Todera like you, during the 1991-1996 period, I earned my master’s degree, served as co-founder and active member of RFLD, worked full-time as Associate Planner at the Regional Planning Council. In the writing scene, I served on the editorial board of Esto No Tiene Nombre and Conmoción, wrote forcefully completing my first novella, myriad short stories and several poetry collections. I lost my first planning job during the 1992 market crash. After that, I focused on activism and writing, traveled cross-country, lived in my pickup truck, edited from the road, engaged in multiple odd jobs, and interviewed women of color who grew up in inner cities. During those years, I published my first poems and short stories, learned Tai Chi, and marched in the 1993 LGBT March on Washington. On my return to Gainesville, I became director of the University of Florida Institute of Hispanic/Latinx Cultures. In that capacity, I had the honor of hosting Gloria Anzaldúa, who visited campus during People Awareness Week, and of meeting the mother of Chicanx/Latinx novelists in the U.S., Ana Castillo. At that time, Ana lived in Gainesville, Florida. And last but not least, I became one of the founding members with other local Latina women of the Alianza Latina in Gainesville. And after all we do we are frequently called lazy. ịNo me jodan!
Yes, Almita, I read you. I also felt like a rubber band stretched to the max. And that is the law of the trait. As Latina/Chicana activists we keep moving, mi amor, and as writers we keep inking. Without writing, I would have lost my mental health, mijita.
Since you asked, the job you mentioned in your letter seems like a great opportunity, Alma. Don’t be afraid to start all over again in a different place. To keep growing, we must leave the comfort zone. A stagnant place does not offer much excitement. And you know that Solangel, your linda mamá, always said that the only constant is change.
In February of 2000, at the age of 44 and the opening of the new millennium, I accepted a job offer at a planning and design consulting firm in the Southwest and moved to the Sonoran Desert with my beloved cat, Maria. The delightful brown tabby, no-tail Manx with one green eye and the other gold, meowed all the way from the swamps of North Central Florida to the Sonoran Desert.
At this new post, I established, marketed and directed the community and regional planning division, an exciting move in my career that allowed me to work with native tribes and border towns as a paid activist. What a concept! In Tucson, I became a member of a strong Latina writers group. That is the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer, mi amor.
The desert is a sagacious and grounding place. It also makes you a minimalist as it offers the bare minimum. I gladly accepted these challenges not knowing what to expect.
During my first year in Tucson, I missed the active and radical lesbian community I left in Gainesville. One day, while tossing around the idea of returning to the swamps, I hiked alone among spiny cactus, wild sage and cottontails in rattlesnake territory. Eventually, I reached a fork in the trail. The steep path on the right climbed the mountain and offered a better view. The other one meandered along the wash. I sat on the flat rock facing the choices presented. In eloquent silence, I asked myself, what do I want to do with my life? Do I want to stay, or do I want to move back? The wise desert responded with a crackling sound that emerged from the dry creosote bush.
“Stay still,” I heard a commanding voice in my head.
Instinctively, I froze. Slowly, my eyes moved to the right. A molting rattlesnake head, eyes covered with a cloudy membrane, forked tongue sticking out, appeared less than a foot away from my face. Without making a move, my wide-opened eyes followed the length of her molting body and noticed the tail coiled around a bare branch. Having handled snakes as a volunteer in a zoo during my teen years, I knew that her body was too stretched up in the air to attack. The reptile appeared to be observing me and continued to balance its body in the air while sticking out her tongue. As my breathing tightened and my heart rate galloped, I remained still as advised by the inner voice.
In slow motion, the agent of my distress slowly lowered her body with sheer grace until it reached the ground. Next, she moved in serpentine motion on the sand, climbed over my hiking boots, rubbed her body against the edge of my jeans to help remove the shed and proceeded calmly, leaving the gift of a piece of dry skin tucked between my pants and my feet. I thought this was the scariest moment I had ever lived after surviving the B-26 attacks over Havana as a child before the Bay of Pigs invasion, and after being kicked by National Guards in my hometown, and being chased by an armed Klansman in the swamp. I “stood still” and stayed in the desert. That was one of the clearest deliveries from the universe I ever had. Pay attention to your gut.
I thought that was the scariest moment of my life, and I have been in an ICU more than once. I was wrong, Almita. As you stated in your letter, the surge of hate at this moment in history is a horror movie where Big Foot and Chupacabra look like pale angelitos. But we must walk past our fears. Solangel always said, “Fear can only make you stronger if you learn how to play with it and make it work to your advantage.”
Luna warned me to stop. I feel too weak to keep talking, and her fingers are cramped from all the writing she is doing to complete this letter.
Que Dios la bendiga a mi Luna tan querida. But as you know, Alma, I have always been known to be stubborn. And I begged her to continue writing after a small break. She fed me a little scoop of lemon gelato and enjoyed some herself. My stomach does not hold food very well these days, but it always makes room for half of a cherry cordial. What an atrocity it would be to kick the bucket without having the opportunity to share these vivencias with you, mi querida Alma.
This election left me bloated by the intense sensation of déjà vu. At least it should force us to get up and clean up our act. If we don’t, it is going to get ugly, mi amor. Continue to move forward and always keep your chin up. Know that I have some dinerito that I plan to send your way to give you some breathing room. I already told Luna to go to the bank and take care of that. You need to focus on your studies. Every woman needs an education, Alma.
Thank you, mi amor, for adopting my two lindos gatitos. Tan preciosos mis chochitos. I miss so much mis recojidos. Who would have thought that two callejero stray cats would grow up to be more loving than most people I know? I hope they are acclimating well to their new home. Please give them my love. Don’t forget to feed them their healthy treats. It keeps their gums strong.
To close this letter, mi querida Alma, aunque dicen las malas lenguas que más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo, age does not automatically imply good judgment or wisdom. A quick look at our new president and su camarilla is all you need to confirm this. I know many women in their 20s and 30s like you who are wiser than this older queer.
Please know that I am so proud of you. You make my heart sing. Since not much has changed, perhaps my generation needs to seek your advice and not the other way around. I am so happy to hear that you are joining other powerful mujeres in D.C. We have work to do, mi reina. I’m sorry that I won’t be of much help.
Your mamá is so proud of you, mi amor. She keeps watching over you from the other side. I will do the same when my time to kick the bucket arrives. Whatever you do, Alma querida, ahora más que nunca, keep speaking out. Aunque esté flaca la vaca, la esperanza es lo último que se pierde, mi amor.
Un abrazote bien apretado y que Oshun te bendiga y te cuide, mi reina.
Te quiero mucho,