A blog by Amanda Alcantara

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016: Connecting to My Ancestors in Letting Go

Last week, I was in un balneario en Dajabon, especifically el Balneario del Salto en Loma de Cabrera (pictured above). It’s a river, with un salto, and when we got there a bunch of boys were jumping from this place that was pretty high up. I knew I wouldn’t jump when I got there: there was no need to...I just wanted the calm of the river, to feel the wind, to feel connected to this land where my ancestors are from.

Bueno, in the end, I made the decision to jump (of course), but I didn’t jump from the highest mount (ni loca), instead the smallest one. It was so close to the water, like the water was right there. But my fear of heights made me feel like my body just wasn’t going to move to make the jump happen. I wanted to move my feet but they wouldn’t respond to my brain’s command, I pictured the leap in my head but couldn’t make it manifest. The boys around me were yelling “brinca” “tírate ya!”, some of them offering "to help" (smh). It was kind of hilarious and felt like community somehow. I was away from the individualism of the US, where everyone is on their own, where you cheer for yourself and maybe some close friends join you. In this moment here, I had everyone cheering for me.

So, after what felt like an eternity, I took a step forward, and leaped into the water. I lifted my knees to wrap them around my chest while in mid-air but not enough for them to fully reach my chest (reminding me I need practice), and because my knees weren’t close to my chest when I dove into the water, my toes gently graced the floor. This made me wonder how these kids jump from much higher spots without injuring themselves, clearly experts (could Olympians do this here as opposed to in perfect pools that guarantee enough depth?). My knees did reach close my face under water, my body completely giving in to gravity before my arms pointed upwards, my muscles remembering better than my brain the swimming skills I learned from doing this a bazillion times as a kid and teenager. I swam up, and breathed. Feeling this euphoria. I had faced my fear, and jumped. I was surprised that it finally happened. I thought I couldn’t make my feet move enough, my arms felt limp when I was standing on top of the rock staring at the water. And yet no importó, I jumped and it was glorious.

People cheered, some called me pendeja. I was totally being a pendeja, hasta yo misma lo dije “diablo media hora pa tirarme de ahí”. To think I was used to jumping from places that were so ridiculously higher up only 10 years ago...que pasó? Where is this new fear coming from?

I jumped again, quickly. This time without putting too much thought into it, knowing I could do it. But the second time, my feet touched the ground much more and the fear of jumping a third time kicked in again. But I already felt accomplished, so I didn’t jump anymore. (Also, the water was freezing, ya taba bueno de andar metida ahi adentro).

2016 felt like a lot of that for me. Overcoming fears. And respecting my own boundaries, even if it meant some would hate me for it.

This is the year I learned the importance of to letting go and giving in. Letting go of expectations. Letting go of illusions. Letting go of fears. And I know that these are ongoing lessons, and maybe next year will be a lot of the same. But in 2016 this felt especially pronounced.

When the year started, I was in a relationship with someone who I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. Now I’m walking out of the year single. While this isn’t my first break-up, it feels like the hardest one among many things because we were living together, thankfully we ended on good terms, making the transition smoother though not any less abrupt for me. I was terrified of being single, I felt that staying meant things were going the way that they were supposed to in my life: I was in a stable relationship, stable job, stable career growth. But it was more than just the stability, it was the comfort of knowing I was loved and in him I had community after having lived in the US for 10 years and feeling like my community became too staggered over the years after college to really feel like it existed at all. I had turned him into my rock, from someone to take care of me when I was sick to someone that provided validation in a society where our worth as women is still attached to our relationship status and the size of that cis-male partner’s wallets. Leaving him meant letting go of those expectations, realizing maybe I too will break from tradition and marry older or never marry at all and/or have kids older. And while many will read this and side-eye me because “26 is young”, please understand that there’s pressures to settle down starting from a very young age. Turning 26 for me right when all this was happening, felt like I was getting close to 30 without control over my family life. To think I picked my marriage dress as a child before picking a career (to think too that I made that distinction when picking a career is also something that shouldn’t be forced upon us...we live in a world where our worth is tied to our ability to produce - and for women re-produce-for capitalism)...what a mess!

To make the transition into singledom a bit more difficult (though ending a relationship is never easy), my therapist had been urging me for quite some time to not leave my now ex-partner until I graduated from my Master’s program because he claimed that my ex provided the stability necessary for me to push through. THE FUCKING NERVE. Anyway, I believed him for several months, until I finally made the decision to break up independently of his advise, and I walked into his office, and fired him too. He was basically creating the very thoughts that kept me from believing I could do well on my own: this idea that stability and truly human worth comes solely from our ability to think “like a man” (really like the social construct of what we’ve been taught is masculine thought). He was wrong in assuming 1. I couldn’t handle my shit. 2. That things considered “feminine” don’t also bring stability like love, nurture, etc.

I left the home that we were building to move into a shared apartment in a new neighborhood, and in my new home I have found myself alone but never happier to be in this position. The relationship I was in helped me find this peace I’m in now.

I love the new space that I’m creating, and I love that I’m building a home in myself first. I’ve also been re-learning what stability means. Sometimes stability also exists in daily rituals, like writing or going to the gym- it doesn’t only have to exist or be based upon the realms of relationships and finances.

I’m actually holding back tears as I write this, because goddamn this year wasn’t easy but everything was worth it. From having led the planning for two huge events at work, to my research this Summer, things have been beautiful and real.

This year I also created boundaries, and let those boundaries exist. Boundaries for myself, to protect myself, to prevent my triggers. I let myself feel the pain and fears that come with ending relationships, realizing I was giving so much and not getting what I expected in return. This year I realized I have parts of me that are bad too, parts that I need to work on. I’ve hurt, I’ve said hurtful shit, I can be messed up and selfish. In the past, whenever I realized this, I would hide from accountability. Instead I would surrender to negative thoughts and quite literally get close to surrendering to life. I wasn’t ready to stop being a victim to ways in which I myself have been hurt. Now that I’ve healed from that stage in my life (with a reminder that healing isn’t linear), I can focus on being the highest version of myself, instead of solely focusing on not feeling at my lowest.

I’m writing this from Mami’s apartment in Santiago, waiting for my dad and Alcantara family to pick me up to go to Cabarete. While I’m sad to be spending Christmas away from the people I normally spend it with, my mom and maternal sister, I’m happy to be spending time with papi’s family in my home country.

I haven’t spent the holidays out here in a very long time, so it feels like a return to warmth, and a reminder that I’m not on this path alone and that where seeds were planted, trees have grown here, in New York, and beyond.

I’m writing this knowing that it will be the last post on Radical Latina for 2016, and knowing that it will be the last words on the pages of a book that I’ll be printing of all my blog posts (for myself, not to be published), and if I have something else to add from a larger angle is that somehow in all this, I feel I have reivindicado and reclaimed my innate worth not in having a partner nor in having a perfect life, nor in needing validation, but in simply being here as a testament to the resistance of my ancestors. The work that I’m doing for myself spiritually and the community work I did this year is inherently decolonial. In coming back to the Dominican Republic, in hearing the stories of black women in Dajabon from the Dominican Republic and Haiti doing amazing projects, in writing few articles for other publics but all three about black femme musicians reclaiming unapologetic blackness (Carolina Camacho, Beyoncé, Andre Veloz), in letting go of fear and in being willing to check myself, I have felt more powerful and connected to my blackness and brownness than ever before...Because so much of our learned behaviour is a result of our reality as colonial subjects, in healing I'm also decolonizing. To the point where I’m contemplating shedding the Latina label because of its inherent connection to Spain and white supremacy.

Makes it beautiful then to be back en Quisqueya to bring in the new year. And while I know that new year goals are a social construct, meaning that it is never the wrong time to let go of things that are hurting us, or to start new and better habits, it does make it way easier to do this work of restarting collectively. I invite us all to keep letting go, or to jump into the depths of our individual and collective liberation dreams, even when we’re afraid and feeling like pendejos.
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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Hate has already trumped love: thoughts on the election

Photo by Amanda Alcantara, December 2015

i believe in living
i believe in birth.
i believe in the sweat of love
and in the fire of truth.
And i believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
can still be guided home to port.
- i believe in living, Assata Shakur
I wasn't a Hillary supporter, and because I don't live in a swing state, the threat of Trump winning in New York wasn't as imminent so I voted with my heart for Jill Stein.

Yet I truly didn't expect that so many other people's hearts would be with Trump. I guess I'd like to think of people as loving, and though Hillary Clinton wasn't always pushing for a loving rhetoric (see superpredators comment), the Democrats co-opt movement language so they come off as the most loving of all, as the ones who protect everyone, as the ones with the most inspirational videos from celebrities urging people to vote against hate.

Many other organizers who I'm surrounded by have expressed that they aren't at all surprised, and I respect them and admire them for not having held back from understanding the reality of the racism we're in, other folks who constantly experience outward hate and racism like Muslim sisters, trans-sisters, weren't surprised either. I can't help but still be heartbroken that people chose to keep pushing for this racist agenda. I was definitely falling for the illusion of inclusion: there's growing diversity on TV, and a black family has been in the White House for 8 years.

Yet diversity on TV hasn't stopped police from shooting black people,
it hasn't stopped Obama from dividing families via deportations,
it hasn't ended the prison industrial complex,
and it hasn't provided any sort of monetary relief for the economic violence our people are enduring.

With this election, there's this doom that feels like a darkness approaching, knowing that the harm inflicted on our people is now being validated. We're being gaslit: told that we're the ones to blame for the poverty that plagues this country.

I thought of my plans for this upcoming year and how they might change, I thought of the people in my immediate family who don't have private insurance. I've been feeling pressure to stop hiding parts of me because of the significance in showing our full selves and showing all parts of who we are, including the not-always visible parts that could be discriminated against or marginalized ranging from mental health to sexuality.

I was in New Hampshire the weekend before the elections to visit Dartmouth College and while I was there I understood what it was like to live in a swing state. The man sitting next to me on the bus on the way there seemed so bothered by my presence, I had to yell at him just so that he could move and I could use the restroom. My ambiguity made some folks not know how to react towards me at first, perhaps the people there thought I was mixed race black and white (which I am), but people reacted differently towards me when they found out that I was also Latina. The man driving me to the hotel completely stopped talking to me when I shared what I went to do there: give a speech at a Latin gala. He then did a double take when he handed me my bag which has the word "Mexico" on it in big colorful letters.

I was reminded that New York truly is a bubble in its own way--though hate lives here too and this past week the holes in the bubble have made it to the public eye (partly due to media's sensationalism which got us here and not necessarily that these holes weren't already there): people are committing hate crimes, people are drawing hate symbols like swastikas on NYC student campuses, and maps showing the different places that voted red prove that Trump supporters live among us. There are probably white people in my life who voted for Trump silently. And there are people of color with selective hearing who might feel included and activated by his message of "Make America Great Again"... Living in poverty under capitalism can do that, it can make you see others like you as competitors and not members of your own community. It doesn't create room for an environment of solidarity and for some immigrants here who are documented (for example) just that tiny tinge of privilege is enough to feel superior.

The reaction by many self-labeled allies has been exhausting. The slogan "Love trumps hate" is becoming the new message to combat this Republican win, to show solidarity with those who will hurt the most. Perhaps it is also a safe message for the many liberals hurting from knowing they won't see a woman as president this time around. New York, like I said before, is it's liberal own bubble so liberals here have been showing outrage or having actions like posting loving notes on the 42nd street train.

"Notes of Hope for America" seen on Times Square subway

But unfortunately, hate already trumped love. And it has, and it will continue to do so unless we take action. A movement for love isn't enough because it could easily lead to lack of accountability, and it could lead to the continued illusion of a post-racial society. The reality is the white working class, including over 50% of white women, have already shown that love as a movement isn't enough.

Safe words like "Multiculturalism" need to become "decolonize", "Diversity" needs to become "anti-oppression", "Inclusion" needs to become "Reparations", and "Love" needs to become explicitly "Anti-hate". We must name the ills in our society, understand them and strategize against them...hugs and kisses aren't a cure.

Because of this safe liberal discourse that makes white allies and those who enjoy privilege comfortable, the need to build a strong third party that isn't afraid to speak up against this is more important now than ever: the rest of the people in this country are seeing how the Democratic party has failed us by deliberately and irresponsibly uplifting Trump's image without care for how his rhetoric of hate would affect Muslims, LGBTQ folks, immigrant families, disable folks, and so many other marginalized communities. The DNC has been irresponsibly lifting Trump's message without thinking of the effect it was having in the heart[lessness] of the white supremacist class (who is now being blatantly legitimized). People have seen how time and time again the democrats will co-opt our movements to create reforms that don't lead to real change, meanwhile many keep choosing them as the party of their choice out of fear of the lesser of two-evils.

Well, check this out: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, and the third-party candidate that got the most votes wasn't even the most left-leaning one, but rather socially liberal yet fiscally conservative economically Gary Johnson. Your fear of lesser of two-evils wasn't enough to keep blatant and outward HATE from winning within this system. Proof that the system must be dismantled. (And I don't necessarily believe in the popular vote, because it can easily lead to minority interests being completely disregarded...I believe in discussions, and in a government that leads from the bottom up, in people owning the means of production, in dismantling the 1%, I believe in a government that protects the people and not corporations).

And all of this is exhausting. It's demoralizing. To be honest I've already been exhausted and when this election happened, my body had an adverse reaction to it. I'm still trying to grasp not what a Trump presidency could mean, because the 100 days have already been laid out by his campaign, because he's already started selecting white supremacists to be in his team, because he's been clear about his goals and his target. What I am trying to grasp is simply that it happened, that hate trumped love, and that now we have to do the work on the ground to truly protect ourselves from a government that won't even pretend to protect us. What I'm trying to grasp is the ridiculous reaction by politicians to be tolerant of Donald Trump, to accept his message. The call to be understanding to Trump supporters when Trump is a rapist who also doesn't care for women, the call for love and unity when what we need is to call-out the ridiculousness of having someone so OPENLY sinister take the key to the most powerful imperialist country in the world.

Hell no. Like 2008 Green Party VP Candidate Rosa Clemente has said, I'm ready to be #ungovernable.

Michelle Alexander wrote the following message on Facebook last night:

"The truth is we are stumbling badly in large part because we are just beginning to learn to walk. Roughly 50 years ago, we still had an explicitly racist system of laws and government: a racial caste system. It was not a true democracy by any stretch. We still don’t have a real democracy. And we’ve managed to rebirth a new caste-like system in recent years, a new Jim Crow. In the words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What many of us have been attempting to do — build a thriving multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, egalitarian democracy out of the rubble of slavery and genocide — has never been achieved in the history of the world. Some say it can never be done.

Is America Possible?"
Like I said before, I'm really still trying to grasp it. I can't reconcile that there's that much hate brewing. Racism backed by capitalism is a truly strong driving force since the days when the first slaves were brought to the Americas to do forced labor.

 I wish anger could continue being my response, but I'm honestly saddened by everything. I feel despair. I remember always wondering when do revolutions happen: is it in times of difficulty or in times of some relief? And the assumption is always that it's in times of difficulty. I've heard thoughts sharing that maybe it's a good thing that Trump won, in order to galvanize the interest of those who haven't been involved in community organizing. I personally think it's horrible that he won, and with the normalizing of his presidency that's already happening like President Obama meeting with him and the aforementioned call for unity, also the media's complete shift from sensationalizing Trump to this weekend's cover on People magazine, I worry that people do let him govern, and that people don't come out to raise hell when his presidency is set to begin. I worry that the times of difficulty may not be so clear. That the masses will not be activated.

Yes, racism is real in America, I know that. And many blatant examples like the ongoing attack on the water protectors at Standing Rock, and the lack of accountability for the contamination of water in Flint, Michigan show that this racism is already legitimized by the state. But like I said before, to have people actively choose that hurts.

There's a Super Moon, a record breaking one, lighting up the sky tonight, decorating the beginning of the week. And I need her more than ever, I need her motivation more than ever. And I need to realize too that that actually does also come from within...we are our own moons. And like I mentioned, many have been here doing this work. But now it needs to be done harder, and at least in New York we can only brace ourselves to fight blatant racism on the hands now of civilians (as opposed to just NYPD); in a city where micro-aggressions have been normalized (and are often internalized), let's not allow the same to be said of macroaggressions.

This weekend I didn't do anything that I had set out to do in terms of work. I just partied at night and slept during the day. And it reminded me of the safe spaces we have carved out for ourselves like in queer spaces in Brooklyn, Dominican restaurants in Queens. I saw little girls dancing to music from central america, and my heart swelled with the need to protect them. This reminded me of why we fight, it reminded me of what there is to be lost, but also the need for liberation we have been fighting for that is still to be gained.

Community altar at Mystica Roots Farmraiser in Brooklyn, New York

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Monday, November 7, 2016

Afro-Latinidad and Redefining Resilience in the Latinx Community: A Speech

Lyrics are from Calle 13's song Latinoamérica. Mural found in Villa Soldati, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Recently, I was asked to give a speech at Dartmouth College's first Latinx Heritage Month Gala. That speech is below: 

The question that was posed to me before coming here was to speak about my work as an AfroLatina and tie it into the theme of Resilient Identities.

Not to sound cliché, but when I think of resilience I think of Tupac Shakur’s poem The Rose that Grew From Concrete.

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.”

When I think of resilience I actually think of burden- and the burden that so many of us carry as people of color, which forces us to have to be resilient- otherwise we will remain under the concrete.

When I think of resiliency I think of the fact that afrolatinx are alive and well in Latin America. That my curly hair and olive skin survived the trans-atlantic slave trade, and colonization and the constant messages from white supremacy that i have to

And so many parts of who I am. And who we are as the descendants of one of the worst crimes in humanity in Latin America.

But before I got to that understanding, a lot had to happen within myself and my own consciousness.

When I was a little girl growing up in the Dominican Republic, I remember someone called me “morenita”. And my response was “Yo no soy morenita, yo soy indiecita”. I’m not black, I’m indian. The myth of mestizaje and reclaiming of indigeneity to serve nationalist and independist purposes from previous centuries somehow managed to survive to the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when I already learned that to be black was a bad thing. And so I almost lived in this disconnected, outside of my body internalizing self-hatred and learning that the best things about me were those that were close to whiteness. And that is my experience as a light-skinned afrolatina, other afrolatinxs with darkskin cannot walk away from the stigma.

The afrodescendents of the Dominican Republic and many other Latin American countries experience this denial which others call self-denial of blackness, but I concur that it’s blackness denied by the state because blackness cannot exist without it being in direct resistance to what the state unfortunately continues to uphold: capitalism and white supremacy.

And while denial of blackness is one of the things that many speak of when speaking of AfroLatinxs, the truth is there is a denial of humanity and dignity tied to this as well. And this is what I mean by blackness being in direct resistance to the state.  Black people in latin america are some of the poorest across the continent- you have displacement happening in Afro-Colombian communities, chemical studies against people taking place in Puerto Rico, anti-Haitianism across the continent, and an unwillingness to name that racism is causing this—because of, again, the myth of mestizaje--that is that we are all somehow a joyous amalgamation of different races living together in harmony.

We’re not.

Because although there is a harmonious way in which sticks caress drums to the sound of the Spanish guitar to create salsa, and in the way in which rice and beans are so perfectly complimented by sweet plantains, the African-influence in these dishes and our music are practically invisible in the larger narrative of Latinidad. We don’t celebrate Afro-latinidad.

Although I was not consciously black and I embraced the Latina label, the reality is Latina never truly claimed me.

In one of many conversations at a Rutgers dorm during my undergraduate career, my friend told me something that explained why I wasn’t included in the Latina label and why this dislike of Dominicanness existed in Latinx culture: she told me that they don’t like us because a lot of Dominicans are black. And immediately it all clicked, it all made sense. Immediately I could see how the things disliked about Dominicans that I thought were tied to a culture of joy, a culture of resistance, a culture that embraces music and that speaks loudly with mouth wide open as if every word was the beginning of a song, were seen by others as loud, of low class, ugly, and essentially synonymous with a warped, negative view of blackness.

I immediately understood why Univision never had a Latina with hair like mine, or big natural kinky curls. Immediately I understood why when travelling, I related more to my Caribbean peers from non-Spanish speaking countries than white upper class Latinx exchange students who spoke my same language.

And this doesn’t only happen to Black latinxs, the truth is black and brown struggles are deeply tied.  

Within Latinidad, it is common to celebrate European Descendency as a way of othering from other people of color, and sometimes we celebrate indigenous heritage but only as a vehicle for achieving independence and hypernationalism, and only as a gimmick--like during el Dia de la Raza, known in the US as Columbus Day.

And the issue with that is that Latinidad is so much more than a myth of mestizaje. And that must be recognized in order to include the elderly man who is working selling paletas past what is deemed as regular retirement age—you can see him struggling in the streets to push his cart, the black Latina teacher making a difference in student’s lives by encouraging them to be their best, the little girl who is told she is Latina but she doesn’t see her afro or dark skin represented on the media, farm workers and laborers across the continent.

When we talk about resilience in the Latinx community, let’s include those people as well.

You see, people who are born with privilege, not living in poverty, don’t need to be resilient—they have connections, and if they’re white, they don’t have stereotypes or microagression attached to them, they are financially in a better place and from a young age go to schools with resources dedicated to putting them on a path to success –in special cases, they can easily get loans from their fathers and even pay their way into a presidential election.

I wrote in a blogpost years ago about my difficulties being a woman of color in journalism, about the many micro-aggressions I experienced as the only woman, sometimes the only person of color, sometimes both in spaces dominated by white men like behind the scenes of the journalism industry. About how I was tired of fighting so hard to find my place. I thought I had done everything right: I graduated from a good school, had a decent GPA, did two internships, spoke three languages fluently, worked in the school newspaper, RUTV, and radio station. And yet after graduating I found myself taking a job at a clothing store: a reality many millennials find themselves in. I found myself sleeping in my sister’s couch. I found myself barely making it and with shattered dreams realizing at that moment that the American Dream I thought of when riding back on a plane to the US at age 15 is a myth.

In September, renowned author Junot Diaz was one of the recipients of the 29th Hispanic Heritage Awards. During his speech he said, I quote, “Our community is the paragon of strength, of resilience, of creativity…We in the Latino community are among the greatest heroes our world has known. And yet despite all we do and all we are, we find ourselves attacked and demonized and endangered. Not just in this country, either. All over the world communities like ours are under assault.” End quote.

When I came back to the United States, and I say “back” because I was born here but left at the young age of three, I wanted to believe that working hard was enough, that fighting was enough. I wanted to believe that just being positive was enough. Because believing that, is often easier than accepting that our community is under assault. And it wasn’t until my own graduation, when my dreams were shattered and the myth that places the United States as the home of freedom and equal opportunity for all fell apart, that I was able to see the inequalities surrounding us.

I bring this up to say that I ended up getting into the work that I do as Radical Latina because I was hurting. I started writing about this pain, I started getting into community organizing, I started voicing these concerns, and seeking to put a dent in this narrative from the perspective of a millennial Afro-Latina from the Caribbean and a 1st generation college graduate.

And now, there’s many ways in which pain is romanticized and resiliency romanticized with it—quotes that say you must hit rock bottom to go up, or we can only be made stronger through suffering and hardships. And while some of these may be true for many, for people of color there is no choice. If you want to get ahead, you have to be resilient. If your family is already in a good place, it’s because someone in the past was resilient. You have to work twice as hard, you have to get through hoops, sometimes you have to assimilate—and if you spend enough time in spaces away from home you actually do change and have to fight to stay true to your roots.

So I invite us all to redefine resiliency.

I have been thinking about my grandmother a lot. She passed away in 2012, the night after I graduated from Rutgers University with my undergraduate degree.

I think of all the questions I should’ve and could’ve asked, of all the stories I didn’t hear.

Lately, she’s been showing up in my poetry too.

There’s this saying that everyone in Latin America, particularly Caribbean countries has a black grandmother, like you’re not black pero “y tu abuela”.

For many of us, we might have darker skin than our grandmothers, or share her skin complexion like I do.

And yet still when I think of my grandmother, I can’t think of a better example of someone who was black though she herself might not have been aware of it—I guess it’s a question I’ll never know the answer to.

My grandmother spoke English as if her tongue was a machete slicing through centuries of English and Spanish colonialism. She renamed a lot of stores like Chorai instead of Shop Rite. Pajmai instead of pathmark. And she would smoke a cigar every night, something that I learned recently at least in Cuba was tied to indigeneity.

And when I think of resilience, no better example comes to mind than her. You see, there’s the example of the rose that grows from concrete—and usually for those examples we think of college graduates, we think of first generation doctors, lawyers, we think of the one who managed to own property. We think of those who get out of the hood.

But there are people like my grandmother who were roses too.  And tonight I want to direct my attention to those people, those black and brown folks who find themselves excluded from Latinidad, the ones in struggle, the ones who are undeniably black and know it, the ones who might not be aware of their blackness and yet are unapologetically black in their actions and words and culture and music and dance and sometimes even their politics. I want to direct my attention to all people of color from Latin America, the ones not in this space, the señora selling mango with chili by my job in Union Square, the single mother collecting food stamps who’s image is used by conservatives as a way of perpetuating negatives stereotypes against us, yet she is in many ways the backbone of our communities.

Resilience is in us because it must be.

And tonight I want to celebrate the resilience that exists simply because it can, even in the moments where we are okay, even in the moments where a payment was made on time and we get into the school of our choice and dad gets out of work early. The resilience that should be there, the one that we should be fighting for—I want to celebrate the resilience that comes from within and the fire that exists in us because we are a people who not only excel in difficulties but also celebrate life so powerfully and magestically. Like the elderly man who sold paletas, his name is Fidencio Sanchez, and he had an indiegogo for him that raised over $300,000 and he has decided to share that with others. Like Nadia Lopez, an afrolatina educator making huge strides as the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy—instead of suspending her students, Lopez brings them into her office and motivates them to keep going. Like Sulma Arzu-Brown, a garifuna woman from Honduras who wrote a bilingual book called “Pelo Malo No Existe”, “Bad Hair Does No Exist”, for her two daughters to read. Like Mama Tingó, a guerrera who fought for land workers in the Dominican Republic. Like my grandmother who fed everyone every night in her home, and who would caress me softly while singing as she put me to sleep.

As we continue pushing for our community to be free of the shackles of residues and left overs of colonization, let these moments be the main course—let this loving resilience be what helps us heal, let this resilience lead us in the path towards a better future and liberation. Let the resilience of the kind that must exist so that we can survive have no need in our lives anymore.

Thank you.
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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Coming Back Into Myself

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.

My parents disagreed with what I was doing (and much of what I do), except of course when I came out in newspapers or got interviewed or profiled: that was nice. Just last week, a photo of me protesting was sent to me by my parents, "they found it online".

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.

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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mujeres Fronterizas: Putting the Focus on Women of Dajabón, Dominican Republic

When I decided to do research on women in the Dominican-Haitian border, I sought to focus on identity, especifically racial identity. Nothing would prepare me for what I learned, what I saw, the diversity and similarity in the stories of the 25+ women whom I interviewed mostly from Dajabón, Dominican Republic but also from Ouanaminthe, Haiti. The topic of my research was changed by these narratives.
Gloria Anzaldúa writes about borderlands as a place of violence, pain, and una “herida abierta”. She wrote of the border as parallel to her own body as a woman: her body is a place of violence and pain too. The Dominican-Haitian border divided by el Río Masacre—a name that signifies a deep wound still fresh in the elder’s minds—is no different than this. The women of this particular border have their own stories too, their own stories of the type of violence that is very specific to women, and their own stories of resilience.

During my time in Dajabón, I met women coming up with amazing and creative ideas to get ahead in light of the economic hardships that they face on a daily basis. There’s a group of women doing artesanía with the support of different local organizations. While I was there, they held a fair presented to outsiders as being put together by different Centro Puente, La Secretaria de Cultura, y el Cluster de Turismo, to insiders the fair was actually erected by the artesanas themselves who put in the hard labor to make it happen. This fair was precisely to showcase their art, and also to sell. With recycled materials, mostly plastic bottles, they make candlestick holders, figurines, pencil holders, etc. With natural materials like higüera, they made lamps.

There’s also the women from El Centro de Madres in El Pino, who are growing, producing, packaging and selling peanuts, and a bunch of other projects in local towns led for and by women.

What attracts thousands of people to Dajabón though is the bi-national market that takes place every Monday and Friday. Bi-national because it takes place right on the border in order for vendors from Ouanaminthe, Haiti to also attend. At a glance, one can deduce that many if not most of the women are Haitian or of Haitian descent. Whether Haitian or Dominican, they’re certainly almost all women, though it is rarely described or acknowledged as such. The market itself is in bad conditions, with an immense heat, and a lack of hygiene brought on by the huge amount of people cluttered in a space that has become too small. A fire in April of this year destroyed more than 40 vending spots. And yet the cheap prices and the amazing finds make it the place to be in for people from all over, and for locals to both buy and sell. Some Haitian women shared with me during their interviews that they don’t have a choice but to sell items for very low prices in the bi-national in order to sell more, and that in the market in Ouanaminthe they actually sell the clothes for more expensive prices.

The thing that is sold the most here is “pepes”: clothes donated internationally to Haiti. The selling of “pepes” wasn’t really legalized until the early 1990’s by an organization called ASOMUNEDA of mostly Dominican women with some Haitian members. The women  would go to Haiti to buy the packs of clothes (“pacas”) and sell them in different parts of the Dominican Republic.

The President of ASOMUNEDA
The need to shine a light on the border via a women’s studies lens is ever-present, being in Dajabón marked that for me even more. On a personal level, words don’t exist to describe my experience listening to so many stories, but also being accepted by so many in the community so quickly. Dajabón is a tight-knit community with love and passion used as its thread. The people of Dajabón too offered me an ear, a hug, café. I couldn’t have had a better host, ally and friend than Nancy Albamiris del Rosario, or better people to work with than folks like Arelys Rodriguez, Luis Recio, Stevenson Jean Pierre or Dania Toribio who served as a friend.

There are gender-based issues that will never get any spotlight in a male chauvinist society that focuses greatly and often unconsciously on male-dominated fields and issues, whether that be the military or politics: two things that are important to the border. Still, while women are involved in both (and all), and while there are women-specific concerns, women’s narratives or concerns are still majorly excluded. A clear example was the topic of sexual trafficking of young girls which was mentioned in a conference in Pedernales, RD which I attended last week. This conference, the Fourth Annual Gathering of Cross-Border Networks of Protection for Boys, Girls and Adolescents (Cuarto Encuentro Interfronterizo de Redes de Protección de Niños, Niñas y Adolescentes), addressed the need to protect children from commercial and sexual exploitation. A less clear example is the conditions of the market itself.

With this research, I hope to shine a much needed light on the lives of women and women’s issues that exist in border towns, issues that often don’t get as much attention from activists outside the zone. I will return to Dajabón and present to local activists and organizers and to hear their thoughts, feedback and ideas. The border has el rostro de una mujer. It has the face of a black woman. During my interviews I always asked the question, "How would you describe Dominican women?" and "How would you describe Haitian women?" Almost everyone responded without hesitation “courageous”.

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