Oye me, when writing from conditions and communities that feel under siege, untangling the story you need to tell from the one people want to hear is the work of lifetimes, and yet sometimes, when you are writing to survive because it has become the place you go, and the thing you do, to drag the net through the river to keep your drinking water clean, it has to be condensed. The task of untangling has to be placed like a bulls eye target just above whatever corner of the world you have carved out for writing, and you need to stare it down and figure it out, with precision; how to control the bow and unleash that arrow, not for your readers, though you hope, but for yourself because you must. Your survival really does depend on it. Those who argue it doesn’t, don’t know suicide, addiction and self-annihilation. But you do, so you keep pulling your net through the river.
For so many of us that bullseye is the tiny space where you manage to tell the truth without enacting stereotypes long used against your people, but sometimes your truth feels like a long list of stereotypes no matter which way you turn. And so I stare at the bullseye and keep trying to hit the truth. Esa habla por un tubo y siete llaves as my grandmother likes to say when insulting the wordy ones who like to tell truths out loud like an uncontrollable flow that can’t be stopped. It is supposed to be an insult, but it means talking from one true source even if it is coming out from various spigots and faucets all at the same time. Talking too much and all at once. Talking and talking until you finally say what you mean. Talking until someone finally listens. Wasteful. Annoying. Required. If you are looking to find the thing you are actually trying to say, and landing it, you better open all those faucets until you hit the one spilling clean water and clearest truth. I am transforming it from Hablando por un tubo y siete llaves, to Writing por un ubo y siete llaves.
Pick, at random, almost any of the maddening statistics/stereotypes/half-truths/blatant lies about: my community, The Bronx, my people, Puerto Ricans from the Bronx, or myself, a Puerto Rican woman born and raised in the Bronx. Poverty. Welfare. Drug addiction. Alcoholism. Drug Dealing. Teen parents. Parental abandonment. Poor health outcomes for preventable and treatable diseases. We could go on, but let’s not. There are lots of studies of all the ways in which we don’t function. Lots of statistics to tell you all the ways we fail to thrive. It is a sub-genre of the NY Times since the 1950’s when there was declared a literal situation referred to as “the Puerto Rican Problem” because we had arrived in huge numbers ( some years 40,000 at a time) and we arrived with American citizenship we never asked for, but quickly began to use to register to vote. We posed our biggest “problem” by being racially unfit for a country so clearly set on black and white; we had the audacity to arrive in every shade of black, white, brown and beige, married and comingled . But I digress. Did you pick one of the entrenched dysfunctions from the limited list above? Any one of the ones listed, and several that are not, can be applied directly to my life, and not by extended family ( though there is plenty there too), but right in the tight concentric circle of a tiny group of people to which I belong, and from whom I emerged, and who I love deeply though not without complications.
My statistical information makes for controversial subject matter everywhere I go. Ay mija esa’ cosa no se hablan. Por Dios. The story has become a thing I can’t tell without pissing someone off or carving a new wound where an old wound had just been trying to heal.
So let’s begin this story another way. Let’s try to tell it the way some people would like it told. I am an Assistant Professor of English at Bronx Communtiy College. I have an MFA and am currently writing my dissertation for a PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center. I just signed my first book contract with The Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Both of my sons are beautiful creative spirits, good men. One in college, one a recent graduate of City College (6/16). I have been happily married for twenty four years to a Dominican man who arrived at twenty two and spoke no English and is the embodiment of the American Dream, in terms of his achievements. He is also a fierce and gentle warrior, a loving father and committed to justice, truth and light. I adore and admire this man beyond words. We own a house in the Bronx in a complicated space between Riverdale and Lehman College that is undergoing its own transformations from working class to gentrified, but there is still an empty lot on our block and a community center across the street, in addition to Starbucks, Target and TJ Maxx within walking distance. Our home, like our lives, exists at a cross current of possibilities and futures embedded in deeply laid grooves of the past. This is, after all, the way I am supposed to tell the story. The official version I am supposed to use to tell everyone “we are not like you think we are. ” I am supposed to tell it as some kind of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” story of hard work and achievement always being linked. I am supposed to tell it with pride and hide the rest in shame. Except that is not a story. That is public relations. Art is not public relations. As one of my intellectual and spiritual mothers, Audre Lorde, wrote in her magical essay “Poetry is Not A Luxury”, “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized.” Stay in that space with me one second before we move on. What magic can we pursue and what quality of light can we use to scrutinize our lives if we can’t say out loud what really happened to us, what is still happening to us? How will we make that magic realized?
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in seeing with new eyes . – Marcel Proust