Llaves 3 and 4 or the Keys to Telling Your Truth




OK so let’s try again.  As a writer, and an academic, I have been in rooms too numerous to count from undergrad all the way to a few weeks ago ( a span of more than 25 years) where some version of this kind of conversation plays out:

“Oh great more work about Puerto Rican drug addicts that is the last thing we need.”

“Why do we (you) keep performing the same stereotypes white people have perpetrated against us for all these years?”

“Why is it that only books and movies about our criminality and poverty sell?”

“Wasn’t all that shit in the past. Look at you now. Write about that. That’s what we need to be promoting” (Note the public relations slant as if art is supposed to promote as opposed to reveal and allow and heal and hold)

“People who write about those things are just looking for attention and pity. Poor me stories.”

“ … and right away they want to make the college student someone struggling to cut ties with his life on the streets. We are not all gang members.”

Except some of us are or were or might have been were it not for the teacher, the guidance counselor, the cousin or the aunt, the one that stepped in between you and the abyss.

We could go on, but let’s not. This is enough to make the point. It is always another Latino/a imposing a kind of silencing that I am accustomed to in a world that could care less about The Bronx , the poor, or the “Puerto Rican Problem”, but that never fails to wound deeply, even after  twenty five years, because it ends in someone I consider “safe” calling me, my life, my uncanny resemblance to so many statistics, even in my defiance of them, a stereotype. “Don’t talk about that crap because it makes us look bad, it’s so over-done, because what we really need is Jane the Virgin or Lin Manuel Miranda. Look at Hamilton! Now that is creativity!

Yes, yes it is creative, and wonderful, and I am proud of every single instance of Latino/a creative and intellectual accomplishment even if it doesn’t speak to me or my experience because I don’t believe there is a single story for any group.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brilliantly captures this in her “The Danger of  a Single Story”

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Except most people like to use it just to show what they feel has not been shown that reflects our light, our qualities and our best selves. I am all about my best self, but I am also keenly aware that not everyone where I come from has had the opportunity to even learn that concept. That does not make the selves they became something to hide or be ashamed of or used to define who were are or are not as a people. This is especially true for one so diasporic and loosely defined as the Latina/o community of the US  which encompasses so much diversity it is almost its own 2nd wave “melting pot.” Pero, here is the thing: our communities are still in trouble, our children and young men and women are still disproportionately in prison.   And I, despite all the public relations worthy material in my adult life resume, am still the daughter of two people ravaged by drug addiction, and all of its complications and illnesses, which brings us to the next llave.

Llave #4

Que diran la gente. Eso no se habla. Ay que verguenza. My first published essay was a tiny little thing called “Una Sinverguenza” in Callaloo, under the loving guidance of Emily Rabetou, in my MFA program. I would have never submitted it for publication were it not for her, and in some ways it was both horrifying and liberating to have it all out, all at once. Though it was buried in so much silence and subterfuge you could barely hear it, that essay was the sound of me crawling out of a shame bred so deep into me I barely knew who I was without it. Don’t get me wrong, the whole point of the essay was to point out how the “shameless” sinverguenzas of my family were really acting out what could have been, if simply allowed, spoken.  But act out we did. The spoken, the shared, the burden released  would have meant so much less destruction. It is impossible to imagine how radically altered our lives would have been by not being buried in shame and literally “muriendonos de la verguenza.” So imagine my surprise, though dulled by years of exposure, when I find that overcoming the shame of speaking out what my family had forbidden ever be spoken would then be silenced again, on a wider,  larger scale by other Latina/os.  Someone once asked, “So is that all you ever write about .” A little further along in my maturity I responded, “I promise to stop writing about Puerto Rican drug addicts when there are none left .” But the first time I was shamed like that it was a forty year old Puerto Rican man and I was twenty two and we were the only two Puerto Ricans in the room and I didn’t write again for five years.  Pero ya tu sabes, shut one faucet in the kitchen, but you can still pull water in the tub.

The most wounding is when someone, judging me based on the alleged “quality” my English or my Spanish or  my face or I have no idea what decides that can’t possibly be my life experience and accuses me of writing what white people want to read about us.  But that is not really the point of this essay. En realidad I have entered the phase of life en que, “Lo Que Diran la Gente” matters to me almost not at all. Almost. Except for the people who always matter because they are yours.

2 thoughts on “Llaves 3 and 4 or the Keys to Telling Your Truth

  1. I shed a small tear as I read your essay, Melissa. It brought to mind how many times some person, especially one you respected or as you so aptly put it, “belongs to you” restricted my own voice. When I revealed to a favorite teacher in high school that I wanted to study music, she replyed, “Don’t you think we have enough black musicians?” It made me question who, what and why I even was. But luckily, another teacher would nurture my musical quest and even suggested writing. We must hold these muses & mentors close to our hearts. And when there are none, we must try to be our own muses and mentors. I have been lucky to find some in books who have passed on but are still nurturing with words written even before I was born. Zora Neale Hurston comes to mind. And your stories and words, Melissa might serve another young woman who is trying to find her own voice. Thanks for sharing your experiences and thought. They continue to enlighten and encourage women/people of color.


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