How many walls can a person build around themselves before they become trapped?
I realize I have been denying myself the ability to breath for a while now. And a part of me is ashamed that I was so easy to break, while another part knows that I had every right to take a step back and stop engaging.
In August of last year I was arrested for the first time while protesting the death of Sandra Bland at the hands of police. It honestly felt like a breakthrough moment for me of understanding what it meant to put my body on the line. I had always ran away from protesting to that extent. And even as I write these words I find myself having to justify my actions, having to proclaim that I in no way wish to romanticize arrest but rather understand it's political and strategic ramifications within protests-- when those arrests happen with intention. My friend Nadia and I went to the protest together and the police was unto the protesters from the get-go. It felt more violent than in the past, reminding us that "progressive" De Blasio has made policing much worst for New Yorkers. The cops had a radio that kept announcing that we'd get arrested if we blocked the sidewalks or took the streets. So we marched, peacefully on the sidewalks. I had written a lawyer's number on my arm. In the past I had done that for prevention, but this time it meant something different. When we got to Herald Square, a group started staging a sit-down in the middle of the street. A small group, maybe like two people. Nadia and I walked across the street, looked at each other and immediately understood via eye contact what we were about to do. We sat, and within seconds we were put in plastic handcuffs. Other organizers ran towards us and took down our names, I was holding back tears as the cop who had a arrested me kept asking if I was okay. We were put in a van, taken to a police station, and placed in individual cells, though in a same room.
Hours later, we were let go individually as they processed each of our paperworks and gave us court dates. What happened later is the reason why I'm writing about this. There was a small group of about five people there with snacks, hugs and water providing jail support. And my friend who came to pick me up to accompany me home was also there. Everyone knew he was my friend, though it seems he himself forgot. He didn't hug me or anything, instead he looked at me as if he was ashamed and I was embarrassed and quite honestly heartbroken that now I had to hold space and contain my emotions for this other person, instead of having them hold me. And perhaps there was a lesson in all this; I certainly don't know if I want to go through that again. And yet I told him that his reprimand can wait until later, right now I needed his support. He apologized. And yet the wound persisted and to this day it persists. I wasn't expecting a goddamn lollipop--it takes a level of privilege to risk getting arrested and our own arrest that night for those involved wasn't even about us as individuals but rather about our cause-- but I at least needed the space to acknowledge that and to acknowledge that being locked up triggered my anxiety and to acknowledge that my emotions got the best of me when I sat in the middle of the street, and that those emotions were righteous.
A year later, my mother found out of that arrest and her question to herself was "What did I do wrong?". Meaning, what did she do wrong when raising me.
That same summer I had been fighting against the deportations of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic. And I had been doing this outside of a coalition which I realize now was a mistake. I wrote articles, expressed my outrage online, helped organize a protest, and filmed a separate protest. The video for that protest got over 300,000 views across the internet and put my name on the map of the ultra-nationalists (a group of Dominicans backed by God-knows-who who show up to counter-protest and organize on the internet against anything in solidarity with Haiti). That map is not one where you want your name to appear. I got threatening messages and comments, and my page was bombarded with hundreds of anti-Haitian comments. Some people told me that it was good, it meant I was doing something right. And yet it isn't good when you're getting home scared to find a note on your door, asking your employer to take your name off of the website. Silencing tactics are real, and I can't imagine how others organizing, particularly those who are the face of this movement like Ana Maria Belique can fair through it, but they do, and they're brave.
But my own bravery was somehow lost. And it didn't happen from one day to the next, instead if happened gradually without my noticing. I stopped posting about anything in a way that was instigating. Maybe I got into the fight without training. Maybe it's the loneliness of it all.
Even as I write this I can already read the comments telling me I was too soft, telling me what I should or shouldn't have done.
I almost want to stop writing this, and recluse myself in my own imposter syndrome telling me I'm not enough of anything.
The worst of it came the last time I tried calling someone out. An Afro-Latino activist had posted an article where a Boricua sister wrote that she doesn't mind being called trigueña. He was critical of her piece. But then a friend of his wrote a piece with a similar argument and he posted it and hailed it as something everyone must read. And I commented noting precisely this differing reaction to the argument. Both of these guys then came after me. Both are men I had spoken to personally before and who's work I admire. And in their responses to me they weren't even talking about the article anymore, instead they got personal telling me I thought I was a know-it-all and conflating me with other people saying I'm part of the problem. In this argument I got told I'm not different than the colonizers. One even said I barely take a position on anything (I really hope he would tell that to the Dominican ultra-nationalists who were coming at me at the time precisely for taking a position). It was so personal and vile. This felt like the worst of it, because I was encouraged to say something cuz I'm "Radical Latina" and "it was my duty." Because I was already in a very vulnerable place.
That's the last time I called anyone out. I just didn't have the emotional strength to do that kind of labor anymore. And slowly I've held many opinions in, though of course I'm a writer. So instead I've written poems...non instigating poems that detail my own experiences instead of directly fighting bigger systems. There's more kindness towards art.
But it's been exhausting. It's been exhausting holding in so many thoughts, opinions, and love. Maybe it's a luxury I thought I had, being able to get away from it all, to just stop. Fighting. So damn much.
I've been hiding pieces of myself out of fear of condemnation, of losing even more people and friendships. I've been hiding my sexuality, my opinions, my anger and pain. Putting who I am through a prism and showing only parts of myself; the parts that are pretty to everyone.
And when you do that, when you seek to please everyone, you end up fragmenting yourself. You end up building walls around who you are.
On Sunday, I went to a release of poet Elizabeth Acevedo's new book "Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths". I went though I really wanted to stay in bed because I knew I had to confront some fears from that day, like the fear of seeing myself, of allowing myself to feel anything. So I went, and held back my tears as I stood by the door since I got to the space late and it was so packed. And I watched as someone told her story and in her story was my story and I saw myself, and I held back more tears as I convinced myself to stay and get a book signed. In one of her poems, she said something along the lines of "When you love with your full self, you don't lose anything in the process...isn't that the sweetest thing". And that phrase stayed with me.
"When you love with your full self, you don't lose anything". I repeat it as a mantra since. I haven't been true to myself, and thus I haven't been acting out of love for who I am. How much am I losing by not loving with my full self?
And even as I write this, my fingers feel weird as they caress the keyboards because it's been so long since they listened to my emotions. Someone tweeted recently that I was one of their favorite writers, and it felt like such a beautiful reaffirmation. So much so it made me revisit this piece which I've been writing for this past week.
This week I've been standing up for myself again, speaking up again. Today I even stood up to un tío who had something to say about my work... the bravery from doing that made me hit publish on this. That we had to watch a video on The Danger of Silence at work yesterday by writer Clint Smith feels like no coincidence. In it he tells us that "silence is the residue of fear". I vow to keep tearing down these walls of silence. This is my voice as it is and it is me as I am now, coming back to terms with myself. I can't keep hiding.