Sunday, October 4, 2015


"Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership" (from Diversity in the Classroom, UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014).

So many of us have experienced these microagressions for one reason or another: being female, black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Indian, overweight, underweight, disabled, and even the invisibly/chronically ill. There are few people in the world who can escape being the target of microagressions so long as any group of people feel superior to another for whatever reason. The healthy feeling superior to the sick. Men feeling superior to women. Whites feeling superior to blacks or well, to almost anyone (no, not all whites feel this way I am aware of that, but some of them do). Blacks feeling superior to Latinos. Etc. the list could go on.

I know, and I will take full responsibility, that I have at some times been the victim of microagressions AND I have been the agressor. (The time(s) I walked a little faster when a black man walked behind me) I believe that any of us can fall into these roles at any time unwillingly and unknowingly. What may seem and sound like a simple, "innocent" comment or gesture could sincerely hurt the person(s) you are addressing or coming into contact with. Am I saying that we need to walk on eggshells and censor everything we say and do? No, not at all. But we do need to make an effort to use more conscious language and be aware of our behavior so we can begin to change it.

This week, I asked a few of my friends to tell me about some of the microagressions they've experienced. Interestingly enough, most microagressions occur as seemingly innocent comments or even as a failed attempt at a compliment! Here's what some of them shared: (everything from racial snubs/insults to comments about weight)

Verbal Microagressions:
My face after someone says these things...
  • You don't look Jamaican......
  • Your mom is Puerto Rican? She looks black.
  • Oh, you're from Mexico? Your English is so good.
  • I didn't think you were Mexican, you act very Chicano
  • You're beautiful, you don't look Mexican!
  • What ARE you?
  • You don't LOOK Japanese.
  • Your [yoga] practice is so good considering your [bigger] body.
Nonverbal Microagressions:
  • I was at a Asian restaurant within the past year. I was trying to get past a stranger to get to the buffet and he thought I was waiting to take his plate for him. Like, no mofo, I'm not wearing the worker's restaurant shirts!
  • My all time "favorite" it has happened many times: when I'm in a line for something and an older white person (has always been this demographic) cuts in front of me like I'm invisible.
As you can see, most of these occur to people based on their race/culture or better yet their outer appearance. It's easier to target what we can see. But what about those microagressions that occur around facets of our identity that you can't see or that don't seem like a "big deal" simply because you actually believe you're giving a compliment?

In the world of the chronically and invisibly ill we say things like "things not to say to someone who is ill." Let's start to call these "things" what they are: MICROAGRESSIONS. They are hostile, negative, deragatory, messages targeted at those of us who are in a marginalized group. Period. 

The more people I meet in the world of the invisibly ill, the more I realize what a problem it really is. Let me share some examples for those of you still confused:

1. You're too young to be this sick. 
Message: This illness is your fault. I can discount anything you say because someone your age should be healthy. What did you do wrong to get this? Your illness doesn't matter because of your age.

2. I wish I could stay at home and sleep all day.
Message: I think you are lazy. It's unfair that I have to work and you "get to" stay at home and do nothing. 

3. At least it's not cancer. 
Message: Your illness doesn't matter. It isn't severe. You should not be complaining or unhappy. You don't have a right to be upset about your illness because it's not ....X...

4. (When asking for help with something) Come on, you can do it, just try a little harder! Or You REALLY can't do...(X)...?!
Message: I don't believe you are as sick or in as much pain as you say you are. You are not trying. Stop being so dramatic/weak

5. You don't look sick.
Message: You are lying. Someone who looks like you couldn't possibly be in pain or ill. Prove it to me. I don't believe you. 

All of these have been said to me and to many others on numerous occasions, by doctors, nurses, well meaning friends and family and even strangers. The end result is always the same: anger, frustration, sadness and guilt on my part. 

Maybe this disease IS my fault. 
Maybe I could work full time if I just tried a little harder, or ate more vegetables. 
Maybe it isn't as bad as I think because I don't have to do chemo...
Maybe I am lazy
Maybe I shouldn't wear makeup or look nice or healthy so my illness can be taken seriously

Luckily, these feelings subside much faster these days. I don't let them consume me or define me. I realize that most people are ignorant of the fact that these kinds of comments are harmful or just downright rude. They don't understand how complex, debilitating and life-altering diseases like Lupus and Scleroderma can be. They are uncomfortable with discussing ANY illness in general so they say the first thing that comes to mind or what they THINK will be helpful or consoling. I tend to shrug it off or educate them, like I did the last time I was in the ER and the doc said "you're too young for all these problems" and I quickly corrected him and said: 

Actually, I am the perfect age. Lupus mostly affects African American and Latina women in their childbearing years, and I'm 30. 

He proceeded to look at me wide-eyed, then quickly half smiled and left the room. 

Yet so many of us say and do these things on an everyday basis, for example the simple question- "Where are YOU from?"(side eye, confused stare). A seemingly simple question that can be so complex, layered and even insulting for some people. But we, as a society, don't think twice about it. (I have started telling people I am from my mother's womb) 

Or like we don't think twice when we ask a woman "Why don't you have any kids? or Why aren't you married?" Or, in my opinion when we ask anyone "How'd you lose so much weight?" If the individual hasn't willingly divulged such personal information it is not your place to ask. Many of these seemingly innocent questions or statements can carry so much emotional baggage and hurt for the person being asked that it is unfair of us to place this burden on them. When people ask me how I've lost so much weight recently or tell me how "great" I look...I have to reply "it's not by choice.." Which they still don't understand and insist that I should "enjoy" being so thin..despite the fact that it was caused by intestinal problems, painful mouth sores and Lupus complications...yeah sure..I'll enjoy being "thin" at the complete detriment to my overall health and well being... 

Again, I am not advocating for not getting to know someone. For not asking them questions or for censoring our every word. I am simply asking the world to make a conscious effort to think before they speak or act. To consider how we say things just as much as we consider what we say. To smile and nod at the black man before just avoiding eye contact and crossing the street. To realize that all of us, in some way probably belong to one if not several of these marginalized groups and that "membership" into some of these groups isn't marked by skin color, assistive devices or body parts. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Great Debate

For the last 2-3 years, this image has popped up on my Facebook page here and there and when it does show up, it gets reposted and shared for a couple of weeks, then disappears again and then comes back. As an author of color, who uses both English and Spanish in her writing, it is not surprising to me that this was Junot's response. What is surprising, is that folks are STILL asking this question. And, it wasn't until I was asked this question by a high schooler last week, that I realized just how prevalent this notion is and just how angry it made me to have to answer it.

As mentioned in my last post, I recently started up again as an artist in residence for the Alley Theatre. This means that I have the great privilege of going out to schools to share my passion and love for poetry, theatre, performance etc. While on one of these visits, I got asked this very same question: (In reference to slam poetry scores-)
"Have you ever gotten lower scores or had people not like your poetry because they didn't understand that Spanish you used? Because if you don't know Spanish, then you like miss half the poem. I feel like some people wouldn't like it because of that." - 11th Grade English Student

I felt the blood rush to my head as he finished his question. So I took a deep breath and answered as eloquently as possible. (I couldn't use the words Junot did because I WAS at a highschool after all)
I simply told him that no, I had never received "low" scores on bilingual poems and there HAD been times when I performed them for mostly all African American audiences or all white audiences that perhaps didn't speak Spanish and I've always received positive feedback and responses. (Perhaps that's because most people won't tell you if they have something negative to say, but no one has ever approached me to say they felt alienated) I also went on to tell him and the rest of the class that my writing was not there to make them or anyone feel comfortable. It was there to make them think. It was there to make them feel something and if they didn't want to feel or think or ask themselves new questions then my writing wasn't for them. I don't write so people can feel happy butterflies inside (sometimes it DOES have that effect, but that's not its purpose). I write to tell my stories and my stories are bilingual, cultural, sometimes painful and always imbued with emotion and grit.
I think he liked my answer because he smiled. I ended my response with: "Oh and Google is real. If you want to know what I said you can either ask me, or Google it. If you don't have the desire or energy to do that, then again my writing isn't for you."

I often get asked these types of questions by young Latino writers who are struggling with whether or not they should include Spanish in their writing because maybe someone at some time told them it's best not to, so I quickly dispel this notion and tell them it's OK to do so.

In the literary world, us bilingual authors struggle with what to do about our bilingualism often. Our heart and our minds tell us to do one thing and our publishers and editors may ask us to do another. Do we include a translation glossary or don't we? Do we italicize "foreign" words or don't we? How much Spanish/French/Italian/Portugese etc is ok before we lose our reader? It's natural for us to want to ensure that our readers remain engaged, but the first question we must answer is: Who is our reader? Or better yet, Who do we WANT our reader to be?

I wrote Island of Dreams with a very specific reader in mind: 13-19 year old Latin-American females. Have others read it and enjoyed it as well? Sure, but that's not who the target audience was, so if a 40 year old white man approaches me and says he "didn't get it" I can say "ok, of course you didn't, because we don't share the same experiences."

And it is those experiences that deserve to have a place in our schools, in our English classrooms and in our homes. We cannot keep pushing "classical" literature that is not relevant to our student population or they will grow up HATING to read and HATING to write simply because they don't see themselves in the story and in the poetry. Yet so many teachers, educators, curriculum developers and administrators don't see this and don't believe it. They don't think it matters if students see themselves in the books they read. But I know it does.

Aside from being a patient advocate, my first love was Latin-American anything. I started writing because my under represented self was under represented in literature and the arts....15 years later it still is. The fact that it took until 2015 to have the first black woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama is just sad..don't get me wrong I'm incredibly happy for Viola Davis..but should not have taken this she said:

The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity....You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.

Whether we are talking about people of color, immigrants, refugees, the physically handicapped or the mentally handicapped, LGBTQ communities, the invisibly ill or the chronic pain sufferers it's time we removed the blanket that does a terrible job of covering the elephant in the room and begin having honest conversations about how we can truly INCLUDE and not simply TOLERATE these individuals in our society. We need to make an effort to create opportunities where they haven't existed before. We need to share and tell the stories that are often stifled and oppressed so that those who ARE stifled and oppressed can begin to feel liberated and heard. 

Addendum: I know my focus was on secondary schools in general, but MFA creative writing programs aren't much better. I've had several friends tell me of their horrible experiences with diversity (lack thereof) in their programs and Junot also talked about his issues with MFA programs and their lack of diversity not just in the literature studied but in the faculty and students in the program. You can read it HERE.

AND the Association of Writers and Writer's Programs (AWP) hosts an annual conference where they have authors do workshops and panels etc. and one writer says he will never attend another one because they were not accommodating to his disability not to mention the fact that they rarely if ever include panels and talks on literature that address disability or illness. You can read his take on it HERE.

Monday, September 21, 2015


"Society needs both parents and nonparents, both the work party and the home party. While raising children is the most important work most people will do, not everyone is cut out for parenthood. And, as many a childless teacher has proved, raising kids is not the only important contribution a person can make to their future."
View of NOLA from Hotel
-Virginia Postrel

Lupe and I recently spent a rather fabulous and relaxing weekend in New Orleans attending the American Literature Association Symposium.  We went because Lupe was on a panel sharing the research and poetry he's done on the Huelga Schools of the 1960s-70s in Houston. We spent time mixing and mingling with other academics talking about the state of literature and the arts in our schools and in our cities. 

We were all in agreement that there was still not enough minority representation in our schools or in our arts communities (especially in Houston). We brainstormed ideas for what could be done while we drank wine and spirits and listened to jazz. It was all very Harlem Renaissance(y). I left NOLA feeling renewed, refreshed and re-inspired. It didn't hurt that NOLA is a very beautiful city, rich with culture, great architecture and AMAZING food. (Lupe and I even said it was one of the few places we could see ourselves moving to sometime in the distant fantastical future) 

It struck me how passionate all these individuals were about their chosen topics of study. I remembered being that way once and I suddenly longed for it. 

The Awesome Peeps of the conference
I have been toying with the idea of pursuing an MFA in creative writing or a PhD. in something for awhile. (A couple of years actually) But the thought of returning to school, paying out of pocket or going into debt always seemed to hold me back. Truth be told, I just couldn't figure out what I could spend 2-4 years studying without getting bored or going crazy. 

Afro-Latin Studies?
Women's Issues?
Creative Non Fiction and Memoir?

I wanted to do it ALL! And yet, I kept coming back to my failing health. How could I possibly commit to something when my body and my health were so unpredictable? I couldn't possibly start a degree program and then miss class all the time, or have to decide do I pay tuition or do I pay for my pills this month? It all seemed so overwhelming that every time the thought entered my mind I quickly pushed it out. 

But something changed that weekend in New Orleans. It finally felt possible. I saw individuals who were married, with kids, without kids, young, old, from here and from all over the world pursuing degrees and teaching subjects at the university level that they loved and were excited about. I realized that that could be ME. Truthfully, it's what I've always wanted since I started on this path known as "what I want to be when I grow up." Perhaps all these trials and tribulations were the kick in the pants I needed to get me back on track. 

So, as soon as we got back from our trip I did what I do best and I started to research low-residency MFA programs. Mind you, I considered several times over what I wanted to go back to school for and decided on a creative writing program because I didn't want to spend all my time reading and analyzing other people's work, I wanted to create my own. I knew I wouldn't be happy just writing research papers for 4 years. I wanted and needed the incentive and motivation to work on my own writing projects and an MFA was the only place I could do that. Plus, an MFA is a terminal degree and takes half as much time as a PhD in anything else. (Practicality always wins)

I found 5 schools that I really liked and that seemed to fit my philosophy as a writer. They have diverse teaching staffs and offer classes and mentorships that sound like a good fit for me. I have one that is at the top of my list and I'm speaking with the director of the program to learn more tomorrow- wish me luck! (Once I get accepted into a school, I'll share more details) While the thought of paying for this THIRD degree is still a bit scary and uncertain for me, every time the doubt and fear creeps in I simply say "I'll figure it out." I shrug it off and decide to keep pushing forward with my applications, recommendation letters, writing samples etc. If there is one life lesson my dad taught me that I always carry with me it's that "no one can take your education away from you, once you have it, it's yours forever." 

But of course, because I can never seem to get out of my own head, the other day while staring at cute baby pics of my wonderful niece, I thought to myself: why is it so easy for me to shrug off having to pay $30k for another degree but when asked to consider to pay just as much for IVF as an option for conceiving a child I simply "cannot"? 

Isn't having a child just as much a dream of mine as this MFA or publishing another book?
Won't the joy of having a child surpass any joy I get from earning this degree or finishing my second manuscript?
Aren't children most people's "greatest" accomplishment in life?
Can you really put a price tag on the miracle of life?

Truth is, I don't know that I have a really good answer to any of the questions that ran through my mind. What I do know is the following: (this may upset some of you parent folk...this is just MY opinion)

1. I cannot (and will not) fail at my MFA degree. With IVF there is NO gaurantee. It might work, it might not. - Talk about money not well spent.
2. An MFA is an investment. It could lead to a book contract, a teaching gig, a non-profit job etc. My child will be an expenditure (even AFTER IVF, do you know how much it costs to raise a child for 18 years, not to mention paying for THEIR college?!) 
3. Children can and will disappoint you. As long as I continue producing work and writing, I will not be disappointed. 
4. My life should not be measured by what my ovaries and uterus are or are not capable of doing. 

Those of you who know me and keep up with my blog know how desperately I have tried and longed for a child. The longing is there. My desire to be a mother is just as strong as ever, but my willingness to PAY for it to happen is not.  I have a clearly defined budget for how much I am willing to pay for fertility treatments and I promise you it does not even come close to the 30,000 range. 

I want a family just as bad as the next girl, but if the universe has other plans for my body, then so be it. It's either going to happen naturally with as little intervention as possible or it's not. I have too much to offer this world to agonize over parts of me that I cannot control. Do I want to give Lupe a child- more than anything on this Earth. But he and I both understand that my body may not be able to make that happen for us and so, we will cross that barren bridge when we get there. 

School is the one thing I have always been good at. I used to joke that if I could be a professional student for life, I would. (I am truly my father's daughter- he's currently in his first year of med school at the age of 63- GO DAD!) Of course, everyone has to earn a living, so full time professional student isn't exactly an option for me, but perhaps going back to school will provide me with the inner peace and joy that I have so desperately been searching for and missing these last few years. 

There is still hope, I am only 30 and I'm getting healthier every day. We will still try for a family and we will still hope for the best. But until then (and maybe we'll get our "oops" one of these days), I will read books, write poems, teach other people's kids, inspire young minds, and continue baking real buns in real ovens.