Monday, October 26, 2015

The Write to Heal

It is no secret that I recently had the most amazing weekend of my life alongside 5 other Afro-Latinas at a writer's retreat in Galveston. I have been living off the high from the weekend for days. If you follow me on FB or Twitter or read last week's blog, you know how energized and empowered that weekend made me feel. Never, and I mean never, have I felt so connected to a group of people I rarely knew. Never, and I mean never have I finally felt like I belonged somewhere. Never, and I mean never have I ever felt so understood. For the first time in 7 years, being sick wasn't what defined me. And that made it feel like I could finally breathe. 

It's one thing to try and build a community of support in the virtual world. And it's actually quite easy to do so. But to actually come together and share our experiences, our stories our deepest fears and desires, and our written work...nothing..nothing is more powerful than that.
I won't go into great detail about all that we did or said or shared. Some things are meant to be kept between sisters (yes, that's what they are to me now, sisters). But I will share a few things that I walked away with from that well as a few pics of the best moments.
The Women

1. Hair. We all have issues with our hair. Whether we're Dominican, Cuban or Afro-Mejicana, our hair is something we all have to learn how to love if we are ever to be truly happy with ourselves. It can define us and destroy us if we let it. There is a love/hate relationship many of us have with our hair from the moment we are young girls until the day we die. I've known for years that I am not alone in this struggle (a struggle I have finally overcome since I really do LOVE my hair finally) but it's always nice to hear others empathize and relate to your plight.

2. Identity. All of us identify as Afro-Latina,
but we are all at different points in our journeys. Some have fully embraced their "African" roots, while others don't even have proof they are of African descent but something within tells them so. Some of us still feel more "Latina" than African (me), and have a hard time embracing and accepting our blackness (in the African-American sense of things) if only because we've been told all our lives one of two or both things 1)Blackness is wrong, evil, dirty or "other" 2) You are not "black enough" if I needed a card to prove it or something, because I "sound too white," have "good" hair, and speak Spanish...hazme el favor.

Cafe Bustelo in da HOUSE!
What I came to understand is that most, if not all Afro-Latinas are stuck in the beautiful but often isolating world of grey when it comes to identity. The light-skinned Latinos don't like to acknowledge us (especially in the media, but even in our own countries), and black folks in America are quick to say we don't understand their struggles. It's a tricky space to live in, and we often feel like we have to pick a side...but the strength with which some of these women claimed their identity left me feeling more empowered and willing to do so myself. I am who and what I say I am, and no one can say any different..and I don't have to prove it to anyone either.

The last and probably most profound piece of identity that I came to that weekend (Thanks to Icess), was the "where I'm from piece." Something that I've struggled with for decades. As a military brat I thought I could never answer that question simply. But I think I am one step closer to a true answer. Truth be told, I am from...the South. Yep. There, I said it. Most of my experiences in life have been with a southerner's point of view. All the states I've lived in have been southern states, and I've spent so much time in TX already, I may as well say I'm from here.

The Retreat House!
I came to the realization that I hesitated to admit to my southerness because of all that it implied. Slavery. Discrimination. Racism. Hate. Violence. Women as property. Not that those things don't exist in the north, but the south has such a dense and torrid history. I didn't want to carry the baggage of what it meant to"be from the south." Truth be told though, after some reflection and writing by the water on the last day at the retreat, I'm kind of proud to be from the south now. Yes, it has a turbulent history and it hasn't been kind to people like me, but Southern hospitality is a real thing and I have been shown so much love from so many people here in the south, that I can't simply ignore that.

I feel connected to the landscape, the architecture, the arts and culture, the food, the music (even the Rodeo) and the people. The south is home and I think I'm finally ok with that.

3. Anger. We are all angry. And that's ok. Though we resist and hate the stereotype of the "mad angry black woman" we understand and accept that our anger is justified and necessary. We have every right to be pissed. About A LOT. Low wages. Inequality- everywhere. The way were are treated like "exotic" objects to be conquered and sexualized. Street, work, and overall life harassment from people who feel entitled to us and our bodies. All of that and MORE. We are angry, and we are forced at times to carry that anger with grace and humility when all we really want to do in the words of Ntozake Shange "is scream, and holler, and break things and tell you all your truths to your face and [not] be sorry for none of it." But that isn't alwyas possible. So what do WE as Afro-Latina writers do instead, when we can't fully express our rage? We write. And that is how we learn to heal. We did a lot of healing that weekend.

4. Anxiety, Sadness, Fear. We are all vulnerable and feel just as deeply as anyone else. Just because we are angry doesn't mean we are not afraid. It doesn't mean we are not deeply sad or anxious. All of those emotions exist within us simultaneous and that alone is often maddening. We are afraid of how we will be treated and received by others. We are anxious about our next step in life because we don't know where our feet will land at times. We are saddened by the fact that so little has changed to improve the lives of our gente both in the US and in our countries of origin. We carry all of this in our hearts and on our backs and if someone were to ask us why, why do you carry all of this around? Like Anne Carson, I believe we would simply have to reply:

"Where would you want me to put it down?"

The Beach...
5. Peace & Joy. Even amidst all the chaos and noise in our lives we all were able to find a little peace and a little joy that weekend that I believe all of us have carried with us moving forward.

6. Family. We became a family that weekend. We ate together. Laughed together. Cried (well at least I did) together. Shared stories together. We even went shopping! It was easy to be around these women and we have continued our conversations and our community online. Some of us our poets and memoirists, while others are playwrights and fiction writers. The genres didn't matter, our love and passion for the writing is what brought us together and will keep us together.

We are looking forward to coming together again soon, and you can join us! Our lovely organizer Icess Fernandez has coordinated a Live Stream Reading of our latest work coming up November 18th, 7pmCST/8pmET. You have to register for the online event to get the link. You will hear written selections from all 6 ladies (including me) that attended the retreat. You don't want to miss this!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Thicker Than Water

“You must remember, family is often born of blood, but it doesn't depend on blood. Nor is it exclusive of friendship. Family members can be your best friends, you know. And best friends, whether or not they are related to you, can be your family.”
Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society

My family (Lupe) and I celebrating my book award
There are many definitions in the world of what it means to be "family." In Latin, familia refers to the "servants of a household" or the "estate, property and members of a household, including relatives and servants." In English it has come to mean something slightly different: "the collective body of persons who form one household under one head..including parents, children and servants.."(Online Etymology Dictionary) And yet, even with the more modern day English definition we must ask ourselves what "household?" The physical space we dwell in? The emotional space we allow people to occupy? Or the community and societal spaces we spend our time in? 

How do we define family and are we allowed more than one?

I have been struggling a great deal with my notion and understanding of what it means to be a family over  the last several years. Mostly because my family circle has evolved. It has grown and shrunk at the same time. While I used to see my immediate family as my parents and siblings (5 of us in total), I now consider my immediate family to be my husband ( 2 of us and 2 dogs). Both my brother and my sister are now married and have kids so I have a larger extended family that consists of 3 nieces, 2 nephews, a brother in law and a sister in law. My cousins have also had children and our family blood lines keep growing. 

Having a family and being there for your family are values that were instilled in me at a very young age. 
Some of my immediate and extended family
Family is forever I was told.

Blood is thicker than water I was told.

You have to...because they're family.

And yet, over the last several years I have come to question these "familial obligations" because although they represent a core value of what it means to live and grow up Latina, I wonder if it's something we need to start reevaluating as a culture.

This past weekend, I spent an incredible three days writing, talking, laughing and even crying with 5 other Afro-Latina writers. (That will get its own blog post next week) While driving to Galveston, where our retreat house was located, me and two of the other writers had a conversation about Latin families and if it could be possible that one of the reasons we fail to progress as a people and a race is because of this antiquated notion of "familial obligations." It is often the case that many of those who feel obligated to help their blood related family members do so simply because it's family and not because those receiving the help actually deserve it. We, especially Latina women are often very self-sacrificing. We give and give and give and get nothing in return...especially from family. It drains us, but we keep giving. We insist that family is forever. And yet, our definition of family is limited to those who share our same blood. Why?

I can say, that this has frustrated me GREATLY over the last 8 years since I was diagnosed. Why? Because my blood family has often failed me when I have been at my lowest. Because my blood family has often failed me when I have been at my highest.

I am truly a giver. I give love, attention, money, joy and even praise to and about my family. I plan parties, send gifts, condolences, good energy, prayers, FB posts, Tweets, cards etc. for their highs and their lows. I have been giving for as long as I can remember. (Was I always the nicest sister or daughter, no..but I have learned from that and changed). Have I received as much in return? From my parents, YES. From others...not so much.

My Sclero Family
Am I asking to be showered with gifts and attention? No. But is it too much to ask for equal treatment and consideration? I don't think so. There are some blood family members for whom I don't give as much to anymore, because I'm tired. At the young age of 30? Yes. I'm tired of giving my time and attention and energy to those members who have not earned it, who have failed and disappointmted me time and time again. Who never bother to call when I'm laid up in a hospital bed to IVs and beeping machines. Who can't bother to text a note of congratulations when I win a book award or invite me to dinner when I'm in town but expect me to provide hotel service when they want to travel to Galveston and spend the weekend at the beach with their families (without inviting me of course). No. I am done with THOSE family members. If they want me in their lives and they want to be treated like family, they will have to start treating me like family first.

Family, to me is not about the blood that runs through your veins. Being sick and dealing with extreme highs and lows in my energy and in my mood has shown me that it is deeper than that. It is about being there for someone when they need it most, whether that's at a joyful moment or a painful one. Family is my mother-in-law who sponge bathed me only 2 months after marrying her son because I was hospitalized for 3 days and couldn't do it myself. Family is my best friend answering her phone at 3 am, telling me why I shouldn't take a bottle of pills. 
My poetry family
Family is showing up to the hospital EVERY SINGLE TIME I've been there over night (Marina) and brining me magazines, cupcakes, and a smile. Family is texting me once a week just to say hi. Family is remembering to celebrate my succeses as much as I celebrate yours and allowing me to cry when you don't know what to say. 

Family can be made in a day and broken with a few words. Family admits when they are wrong and work to make it better. Family takes but they also give. It is not a one way street.

I have come to understand that I have many families. My Scleroderma and Lupus families who understnad what it means to be chronically ill. My friends turned into sisters and brothers family- all those that have been with me for years through the good and the bad. My Houston poetry family that encourages me to keep writing and performing. And this past weekend, I made a new family with 5 new sisters.
Afro-Latina sisters walking fiercly!
My Afro-Latina writing family will be with me forever and I hope it keeps growing. I am connected to these women not by blood (though we all share our African roots), but by something greater. Something that will reverberate after our blood has dried up and our bones have wasted away. We are connected by a shared mission and a shared experience. Our stories brought us together and our stories will keep us alive long after we are gone. I feel closer to these women than I do to some of my cousins (not all of ya'll, relax..if you're reading this you're probably not one of those cousins lol). 

We are all educated, passionate women who empowered each other and didn't bring each other down. We are all at different points in our journies as women and as writers, but we used that to help each other grow. In a matter of 72 hrs I made lifelong friendships with some pretty amazing women that were hard to say goodbye to when I dropped them off at the airport. I cannot tell you the last time I was filled with such joy in my heart for people...for people I barely knew. (I'm usually not that upset when I say goodbye to "real family") These women transformed me and made me a better person. THAT'S what family does. They raise you up and make you want to be the best version of you.
My Afro-Latina Sisters
Family isn't supposed to make you bitter and sad. Family shouldn't emaciate your soul and your spirit. Might they disappoint you from time to time? Sure, we're all human and we all make mistakes. But will you forgive each other, learn from it and become stronger together, yes. That is what REAL family does. Family, the people that fill your emotional and mental household should nurture and encourage you in the best of times and in the worst of times.

My blood family and my family family will continue to grow and shrink with each year. Those who give and take as much as I give and take will be my familia. I get to choose who I call and consider my family. And only those people who have earned a place at the table will have a chance to sit and break bread with me.

And...The one who never fails me:
Mami and Me

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why I Try- An Open Letter to Colbie Caillat

This week singer and actress Selena Gomez spoke up and finally confirmed her Lupus diagnoses. And in an interview with Billboard Magazine she disclosed that her time away from the public eye and in a rehab center was not drug abuse or alcohol related (as rumors speculated), but because she had to undergo chemo. And, as one might expect...the response on social media was at times increasingly supportive and positive as well as hurtful, ignorant and just mean. But, what can you expect from internet trolls.

In the interview, Selena says:

“I was diagnosed with lupus, and I’ve been through chemotherapy. That’s what my break was really about. I could’ve had a stroke...I wanted so badly to say, ‘You guys have no idea. I’m in chemotherapy. You’re assholes...But I was angry I even felt the need to say that. It’s awful walking into a restaurant and having the whole room look at you, knowing what they’re saying. I locked myself away until I was confident and comfortable again.”

But WHY did she have to lock herself away? Why and how could people be so cruel and push/bully someone into hiding? Someone who was ill for that matter? What does that say about our society? Are we no longer compassionate and empathetic? Do we no longer seek to understand before we judge? Why must we judge at all? If she were battling cancer would she have felt more comfortable sharing her struggles WHILE they were happening and not after the fact? Why does it feel like some diseases matter more than others? And why can't suffering be just as empowering as health and happiness?

All these questions and more have been running through my mind the last week. Especially after (my mistake) I started reading the comments under her interview. (Sigh)

She went into hiding and concealed what she was going through because of the hellish tabloid rumors and speculations. And when she finally comes out and claims her power, she still must suffer public criticism and reproach.
Selena Gomez photographed in Beverly Hills on
Aug. 31, 2015. Zoey Grossman

You see, the Billboard interview also consisted of a photo shoot and cover spread. In it,
most pop stars are in these mostly half nude and very sexualized. my opinion she looks amazing and you can see her strength and beauty in her eyes. And if showing her body and owning it makes her feel empowered, then rock on girl!

The internet trolls were having none of it. Comments from the interview and photo shoot ranged from:

"You're so strong. I heart you Selena!"


"Who cares?!"


"Oh, so taking off your clothes is what makes you feel comfortable and confident? You're a slut."

If Selena finally feels empowered enough to just "take it all off" and show her strength and beauty through her sexiness why the hell not? (Hell, I've wanted to do a bordeaux photo shoot for months now, I just can't afford it!)

Does society over sexulaize women, yes. I am not debating that. Could she still show confidence and courage with her clothes on, definitely. But she has a right to claim her power back any way SHE wants (as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else of course). And you know, it's not like she's being groped by some man, she's not grinding on a chair, she is taking control of HER body and telling HER story the way she wants it told. She is being courageous despite the fat shaming and bullying. She no longer cares what the critics have to say and she's basically telling them "You think I'm fat and on drugs...F's a hot and sexy photo shoot..this is me, this is who I am and I'm proud of how far I've come. I applaud you Selena.

For my sanity however, I stopped reading through the comments. But it really got me thinking about so many things. For example, why is it wrong to put on a sexy outfit as a woman and feel good in it? Why do some people see make-up as oppressive and like we're trying to hide our flaws? What if I just feel pretty with some mascara and lipstick on?

Why is it so wrong, Ms. Caillat to TRY? I completely get the message of your song. I know (and it saddens me to my deepest core) that so many women suffer with self esteem issues. They spend their whole lives never truly loving themselves, their bodies, their flaws and imperfections. I know millions of women spend hours trying to fix themselves just to please others and are never happy in their own skin. I find your song inspirational. It makes me teary-eyed every time I hear it. I think you send an important message to women all over the world. I applaud you for producing a song that inspires confidence and self-love.

But, as someone who struggles to "get up, get up, get up, get up" out of bed every day...why is it so wrong for me to TRY? To try and look better than the disease that's ravaging my insides? To try and curl my hair just right so that I feel like I accomplished something for the day? To try and throw on some lipstick and mascara because it adds a little color to my life and that makes me smile? Why is it so wrong to TRY?

I know, that I am one of the lucky ones. Not just in regard to how gentle these diseases have been on me (yes I mean that, I've seen the real havoc these illnesses can wreck on people's lives so I consider myself lucky) but because I have never really had self esteem issues. My parents refused to let me enter beauty pageants as a kid even though I begged them. They rarely called me beautiful and I was bullied as a pre-teen because I had really hairy legs and wasn't allowed to shave until I turned 15 ( I broke that rule and shaved at 13 because I liked wearing skirts and hated the taunts and teases I got everyday in the locker room and on the school bus) And yet, the bullying didn't crush me. It didn't rock my core. But, I realize now, that that was probably because I found my confidence in other places. I was always applauded and recognized for my intelligence, public speaking abilities and acting talent. I knew and still believe that I would get farther in life with my brains than with any outward beauty.

Being good at things I loved allowed me to never really worry about the size of my breasts or the occasional muffin top. I've always been extra confident (probably to a fault or close to conceitedness) because my self-worth and strength have never come from my physical appearance. Have I felt self-conscious at times and maybe "not beautiful enough?" OF COURSE! Any time I'm in a room full of skinny white women and I'm the only Latino/Black woman in the room, for example. But the feeling passes as soon as I start a conversation with one of them, because I know that I am intelligent enough to hold my own. I know that I have skills and talents some of these women can only dream of. I also know that we, as women, can only grow stronger if we pull each other up rather than drag each other down. I choose to see the good and the beauty in all women rather than judging them and being envious of what they may have that I don't.

And I know, Ms. Caillat that that is part of the message of your song. "Do you like you?" And for me, the answer is HELL YES. I believe that this girl.....
 Is just as beautiful and inspiring as this one...

So, to your point...why TRY? Because I spend an inexhaustible amount of time in yoga pants at doctor's offices feeling broken and a little blush brings life back into my placid and peaked cheeks. Why TRY? Because the cute clothes and outfits I spend hours trying to pick out help me forget about the bruises and skin spots I used to try and cover up. Why TRY? Not because I want to please anyone else, but because it makes ME happy. Why TRY? Because I spent years early on in this disease feeling sorry for myself, fatigued and too drained to do anything more than brush my teeth and keep the crust out of my eyes. Because I'm tired of looking as bad as I feel. Because there will come a time when my hands don't work and my lungs give out, and at the end of the day, I am still a 30 year old woman who wants to remember "the best years of her life" as a time where I didn't HAVE to TRY, but I DID because I still COULD.

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.