today

today is a hard day

hard and crunching and cracked

like the gravel on that middle path

where you greeted me

 

 

today is a hard day

like Samson I thought I slept among friends

only to wake up alone

to a bald head and barren lands

 

 

today is a hard day

hard and crunching and cracked

the sound of my voice or

the sound your straw made as

you twirled it in your iced coffee

 

 

today is a hard day

you heard it in my cracked voice

as I crunched cool tears back behind my eyelids

to try and talk to you.

and you know and know and you always knew

what was really wrong

the din hidden just on the other side

of this round face and these painted lips

 

 

but you try and you try and you try

to tease to talk to treat

to coax away the voices

of my mom of my ex-boyfriend of all those people

those resounding words of exclusion

 

 

and today was a hard day

but the sun kissing our faces

brightened my day

and that scent of

honeysuckle and fresh water and sunshine on the mount

the sound of your voice

the blue of your eyes when they peer into mine

the warm soft safe place that is your embrace

these are what light these sunset eyes

and these are the air in my lungs

and these

the gold honey of your voice

the gentle grip of your hands

the way your face is filled with love when you smile

these are things which carry me

 

on days like today

when I am hard and cracked and crunching

like the gravel on middle path

on the day we first met

four years ago.

On Being Latin@ in Academia (Elaborations on the Coil)

Hello, everyone. This is the extendo version of the post I made on my PINEMAP blog. Its a little more about me and maybe lends the credibility of replication to my experiences as a Latin@ woman in a white-dominated world. The last half of that post is largely what I wrote there.

Let’s start with who I am: I’m the granddaughter of two Mexican immigrants living in the South Side of Tucson, Arizona. My grandpa worked as a heavy machinery mechanics at the copper mines until the industry fell apart during the financial meltdown that followed the popping of the subprime mortgage bubble, and my grandmother had not worked since I was five years old– she had been a teacher’s assistant to the Arizona public schools system. Neither of them went to college. Like a lot of 90’s teens, my mother had me while she was still in high school, and I was largely raised by my grandparents while my mother worked her way through state university and moved on to her career at Walgreens. When my mother married my stepfather when I was 14, she moved out and into a home with my stepfather, but I stayed with my grandparents. I have never actually met my biologic father– like a lot of men on the South Side, he did not quite feel up to the task of fathering any of his children– but he was a tall, Afro-Puerto Rican/Mexican man from who I receive my dark curly hair, tanned skin, and figure.

By and large, I have always been surrounded by white culture. Maybe you’ll find this sad, but my grandparents always told me to respect white people in the utmost: to this day they still cannot call my stepfather’s parents by their names, calling them “Señor” or “Señora”. When I told my grandmother that I was going to the protest at OSU in response to the slaying of Michael Brown, she said “Mija, what can we do? We are just Mexicans.” My mother was equally paranoid about me “ending up like my cousins”, so she made sure that I always went to “good” schools– mostly white majority charter schools. Here, I did not really realize that “micro-aggressions” were happening all the time– despite constant claims that I did well in class because teachers were “surprised someone Hispanic could do well” or that I was promoted to being a teacher’s aide because of my relationship with the (white) professor.  Somehow, to everyone, I wasn’t getting ahead because I took 13 AP exams and got AP National Scholar– it was because I was a brown girl, and I was somehow using my exotic wiles to get ahead. While the white kids were complaining about the grades I was handing them on their exams, my own parents were complaining that I was becoming “too white”– talking too white, thinking too white, behaving and treating my family the way whites treated theirs rather than acting like the Chicana I was.

By senior year of high school, I was real tired of this and I resolved to go to college away from Tucson. I told myself this cultural dissonance was just a Tucson problem– after all, the government of Tucson did sanction off Tucson proper from South Tucson largely on racial and socioeconomic lines. I thought that once I got to the bastion of higher education that was Kenyon College –THE Kenyon College that gave us such intellectual beauty as this speech and let me come to school for the pennies I had scraped together as a cosmetics girl at Walgreens– this kind of racialized talk would be gone. What did it matter that a white teacher I had known and worked for for years told me that he had initially thought I would be a problem student because of my race and how pleasantly surprised he was at my success if soon I could revel in the glory of academia; where no one would be ridiculous enough to act this way?

I was painfully wrong. It was not even my first full day at Kenyon before someone asked me where I was from– you know, the “No, but where are you REALLY from?” that white people ask. The start of the year was not any better; what better culture shock could there be than hearing two white girls completely diss the “commercial culture” of Dubai while swinging around designer backpacks and trotting around in expensive heels on a gravel path? When I  and a few other POC asked the (white) head of a club I was in if I could pay in installments or have a reduced payment to go to a convention with the group after he raised the price of admission without warning, he told us “Why? Don’t you have parents to pay for you?”. When we got snowed in at the same convention, and I thanked this person for buying the whole group dinner on his credit card, he replied “Don’t worry, I know someone like you would never be able to afford this anyways.”

As a freshman at Kenyon, I got very close to a professor–like, close enough that to this day I still call him Papa and his wife Mama. We were not close at all at first–trust me, I honestly thought the man hated me. But, after a few weeks as his student, he read one of my lab papers and said he saw promise in me and that he wanted to be my mentor. He became my advisor, and over the course of the next year at Kenyon I learned over the course of our weekly tea sessions that my mentor was a firm believer in respectability politics. He explained that it was not so much that whiteness was an oppositional identity, but more that white culture had mainstreamed a lot of the values everyone held dear–especially in the scientific community. I knew a lot about respectability politics from my own upbringing, but when my own mentor seemed like such a proponent of it I thought that perhaps this was the ticket to academic success that I needed to advance myself to the next level without the constricting struggle I had in high school. I toned down my makeup, toned down my hair, and I lost a lot of the more “thug” speech and mannerisms that I had brought with me to Kenyon from Tucson. With my friends of course, I still acted like I had in Tucson– rainbow hat to match rainbow makeup and a livid tongue– but with the larger Kenyon community I was quiet, respectful, meek and subservient; the things my mother had always wanted me to be. It was weird, and I didn’t notice that I was being treated any different except by other people of color (“Why are you talking so white?”).

But it made my mentor happy, and we grew close enough that I went to his house instead of my own during breaks. His (white) wife loved me too– she asked me to call her Mama before he said anything about caring for me like a daughter. She even spoke what Spanish she knew with me, even though I usually refrained from speaking Spanish around people I did not know very well. His wife and he had interesting ideas about certain peoples and the urban poor, but the thoughts they voiced  were already familiar talking points to me: the poor spend their money on themselves rather than better themselves, would you really trust a doctor if he spoke in ebonics, etc. But I didn’t really reply to their talking points, even if some of their comments really worried me (“I can’t be a racist– I married a man of color!”).

For once, I felt really accepted and loved; I felt like I trusted my mentor and his wife with my upbringing and past, and that they trusted and loved me enough to help me build a better future than the ones my parents had.  I had told these people everything, and in exchange I thought they were willing to overlook where I came from and trust me to be an upstanding and accountable person. I thought the respectability of these people meant something;and that if I played along it would mean the same thing for me, too.

And then the dream shattered. At one point over spring break with them, I had bought a more-expensive soap from a specialty store for my eczema. I had a little money left over from my three jobs at Kenyon that hadn’t gone into books and tuition, so I decided to buy a soap to calm my skin. I didn’t know at the time, but as soon as I left their house a suspicious charge came in on their credit card from the same soap store I had been to earlier that week. It was billed from their shipping headquarters and was for a very odd amount of money, so clearly it was an online charge. Imagine my shock, my heartbreak, when the next week my Papa took me into his office and asked me if I had taken his credit card information– because his wife was convinced that I had to have done it. He told me all the reasons why his wife thought I did it– which amounted to “well, you bought a soap from that store”– and I don’t think I’ve ever quite lost my cool like I did after that. That kind of disingenuous reasoning from a fellow scientist, a fellow person of color; I could hear the glass mirror that had been my reality shattering into a million pieces.

And that was probably what hurt most. He knew she was being ridiculous and jumping to a conclusion based on where I’d come from and not who I was as a person. He knew as soon as the first tear I shed after reading the fraudulent charge statement that I hadn’t done it. But he didn’t care. All my newfound gentility, my learned eloquence, all the things I had done as he’d told me to do meant nothing. Because in the face of real prejudice and institutionalized racism, respectability means nothing. It is no real measure of your accountability, your work ethic, or worth. It’s a comment on the Emperor’s new robes, “Oh, but what a fine tailor the Emperor has!” as someone giggles in the background. Respectability politics and adherence to it doesn’t save you from the people who could hurt you– it just means you have to be willing to drown someone else to save yourself.

I’m not willing to play the game anymore. I let respectability alienate me from the community that loved me most, and what I had gotten in return was a bitter reminder that no one really thinks minorities can make it in academia or other high-education fields. I’m over the Bill Cosbys  of the world and pretending that the problems that impact minority communities are those purely inflicted by ourselves– extremism doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and it is too late to pretend that centuries of imperialism and colonialism haven’t left a mark American society.

But we can change these things. We don’t have to play the game by rules we never got to make. We can be our genuine selves, and show the mainstream that we can be trustworthy, hardworking, and worthy of respect. I was really lucky that when all this happened, I had enough people who understood this that I was saved from what surely would’ve been certain condemnation. I don’t want it to just be luck though– I want it to be commonplace that when the racists of the world decide to suddenly bite, the whole community rises up to defend those wronged. We are not there yet. But if we keep talking, keep sharing our stories, and educating others, we can get there.

And wouldn’t that make the world so much more beautiful a place.

 

The Open Door, A Top the Hill

I used to  think keys were simple things

just  broken brass bits we’ve decided should be useful.

I got one earlier today. it looks like a smile

whose teeth look like they’ve been eaten away by years of methamphetamine indulgence.

 

but no

somehow this new companion to my key-chain

this addition to my family of flashlights and figurines

is as complex as the lock he opens.

 

I received my gilded key

one fine spring’s day, as posies pushed their way up through the dirt to bloom

a gift from my love, a symbol of trust

something I’d earned without even realizing

 

of course, I was overjoyed, ecstatic.

a child given free reign in a candy shop

I tumbled down stairs, running headlong into doors

like a bird into glass

 

I ran to tell you

I thought you’d be so happy

That’d you look at my progress, see me finally atop the hill

And cheer

 

But this was not so

I dangled the key in front of you, a bright lure to a voracious fish.

And suddenly, you aged in front of me

Your smile a wizened rose, bowed silhouette.

 

you walked away from me then,

hearts darkened like nights with no stars.

I retreated upstairs then, that constellation of private rooms.

Was it a floor, or a solar system that separated us?

 

I expected you to come find me, too.

I used my newest trophy to my heart’s delight

and there in that sacred place, I left that door

open, up atop the hill, for us to enjoy together.

 

But you never came.

My sole solace was the steady hum of the incubator.

my only companions were the glass flasks at my hands

the only voice echoing in this open space was my own.

 

it hurts to know

that this simple key, this innocuous gift from an absent mind

Could part us so.

 

When will you return to me, precious one?

When will that evanescent scent of rice-paper envelope me again?

will those hazel upturned eyes ever look at me again?

Does this toothy key really signify so much?

 

some nights I wake up,

my mind a sea, and I’m the boat lost in the waves.

this constant battle between you both

cleaves me in two, leaves me staggering like bovine just stabbed for slaughter.

 

It’s been days.

Nature here has pulled her old treachery

The posies are buried in snow.

and here I sit still, atop the hill.

 

I used to think keys were simple things,

small silver slivers that we’d decided should be useful

I’ve realized: keys lock away, hide, protect,

all the sentiments that the sun was never meant to cast his judgmental glare upon.