The People Who Danced

The storm of Latinidad hits all in one night.

We make enchiladas (from Costco, sure. I’m tired and haven’t made them from scratch in years) and the episode of House Hunters International on TV is about a Mexican-American family deciding to move to Puerto Vallarta to reconnect with their roots. We watch and dream of moving to Mexico one day so our kids will be fluent in Spanish. For the rest of the night, I speak to Michael in my child’s-level Spanish and badger him to practice with me. I am grateful to still be bilingual, even at a basic level, and am able to quickly switch to it. I still remember a time when it was a foreign language on my tongue and I’m scared of returning to that place

The enchiladas are not homemade but actually a bit spicy and pretty flavorful. At least, I think they are. Maybe I’ve lost my ability to decipher good Mexican food after living away from it for so long. I often worry that being away from Latinx culture will slowly begin to strip away that part of myself.  Being half-Chicana but growing up in a mostly white place, my identity and how it affects my understanding of the world has always been difficult to navigate. Being half-Filipina and half-Chicana in Hawai‘i has, strangely enough, been an even tougher needle to thread sometimes.

Our identities are not simply made up of our internal beliefs— they are validated and enriched by interacting with those cultures and, more importantly, its people. The 6 years I lived in LA, learning to speak Spanish, working in Latinx communities, and Salsa dancing were some of my most formative. They shaped my understanding of what it meant to be Latina.

Now, though, I live in a world mostly devoid of Latinx culture. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but without that consistent connection (mixed with the interesting fact that I am more likely to “pass” as Pinay while out here) makes it hard to feel Latina sometimes. What does that identity mean now? Do I even get to call myself Latina, or is it merely the card I can slip out when I get lucky enough to spend time with another Latinx person or a party trick I can play when I want to surprise people?

Michael goes out and so I finish my meal and scroll through Instagram. I stumble on the Super Bowl half-time show. I still remember watching when it aired, aware of its problems but also so excited to hear rhythms and music that were so deeply embedded in my muscles, my hips instantly moving when I heard them. I watch parts of the performance, realizing how much I love Latin music and how infrequently I listen to it. Without thinking much of it, I throw some Bad Bunny on the Bluetooth while I get up to clean the kitchen.

It takes about three minutes—just enough time to put the enchiladas away— before I am dancing around, shaking my hips and tossing my head from side to side. I move to the living room, turn the volume up, and dance, watching my reflection in the window, amazed that I can still move my body this way when, frankly, I haven’t danced in years. It puts a smile on my face and I find myself laughing at how good I feel, particularly given the fact that, two hours earlier, I was curled into a ball, wrapped in sheets, crying.

The quarantine and mourning the loss of so many things has been hard, as it has been for most of us. I’ve been particularly struggling for the past few weeks. Yes, I find moments of uplifting joy and my students consistently make me happy, but I have found myself bursting into tears at random moments more often than before. A difficult interval or thought-provoking quote while riding my stationary bike will leave me sobbing and breathless for a moment, the intense adrenaline rush combined with the storm of emotions enough to provoke my body to near-panic. Today was a long one preceded by a night of bad sleep, so I was particularly prone to tears.

Yet, now, a few hours later, give me some Daddy Yankee and I am able to find joy once again.

May is mental health awareness month. I’ve been fairly upfront about my mental health journey but have been struggling with what, if anything, to say about it. I don’t know how my mental health is right now and I don’t know how I’m managing it.

Last night, I had a small revelation, a moment where my racial identity and my experiences with anxiety and depression intersected.

The stereotype of “big Latinx feelings” was certainly true in my upbringing and every day I count my blessing that I grew up in a place where we were allowed to openly feel and experience big emotions. It was okay to cry in our house. The ability to express my feelings without shame is something that has saved me in so many ways. Even in my darkest moments, I was able to share and attempt to name what was happening, and it helped me retrieve stability and control out of the maw of anxiety and depression.

The other gift was the ability to dance through pain. When my grandfather passed five years ago, his celebration of life was filled with music. My uncle, a singer and guitarist in a mariachi band, pulled out the stops and played everything to classic mariachi to Johnny Cash with Mexican rhythms. We danced and cried and sang that afternoon, celebrating death in a way that is special to Mexican culture.

I realize now that this gift has stayed with me, even 3,000 miles away from home on an island in the Pacific. I remember that, even after a sobbing breathless interval, I still stay on the bike, swaying my hips in rhythm to the music, dancing even as I catch my breath and push through the bad feelings. When I am sad, movement still finds a way to call me back to my body, to home, to the long line of people that I come from, who danced in the ashes and mixed sorrow with joy.

I come from the people who danced. That lineage gives me strength to move even through the darkness. There is an ancestral knowledge that lives in me, helping me find light even when it feels like there is none. Even when I’m sad, I can find rhythm, close my eyes, and swirl my hips towards happiness again.

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If Not Today, Easter Will Come

Growing up, I had an amazing priest, Fr. Fred. Not only did his guidance shape much of my faith today, but he was a master of events. A former advertising executive, he knew not only how to give a compelling homily, but how to put on a show when the time called. We had Christmas pageants (where I played the Virgin Mary more than once) and Pentecost mass with people speaking in multiple languages around the church.

He was great at Easter, too. We’d have mass outdoors when the weather permitted (as it did most Southern California spring times), with a big, beautifully decorated platform and crucifix. The whole thing would be decked out in flowers– draped over the crucifix, surrounding the platform. As part of his Easter homily, Fr. Fred always had not only multiple chocolate bunnies he would give away, but a real life bunny he’d hide under his vestments, waiting to reveal it to the squeals of a hundred little kids. He’d always have a darkly hilarious name, like “Stew-y,” for it too (the rabbits were normally lent by a parishioner or local pet shop). The rabbit was always used as a point to talk about innocence, redemption, and God’s love.

As I got older, I came to expect the bunny, knew it was coming, did not squeal with delight as I had as a child, but instead enjoyed seeing the smiles on kids’ faces when they saw the rabbit. The joy was watching their happiness. It was one of many things that made me love Easter mass. We’d laugh and celebrate with each other, held together under the beautiful blue sky.

In truth, I can’t remember an Easter where I didn’t go to mass. Even when I was angry with God, when I claimed to have “left” the Catholic church, I still went to church on Christmas and Easter. At the time, I said it was going for the sake of my parents, but I’ve always loved attending mass. I love the ritual and community of it all– knowing I am saying the same words (or similar words) that my family has been saying for generations, speaking them in rhythm with people who have either known me since I was 10 or never seen me before. It’s a powerful, heady thing, particularly for someone like me who loves a bandwagon to jump onto or being part of a team.

Yet, like so many other events in the time of COVID-19, I will not be attending mass this year, nor celebrating with my faith community. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very lucky. Michael and I have a place on the North Shore we escaped to and  we’ll make a nice dinner and I’ll watch mass and then we’ll watch Jesus Christ Superstar on TV. I’ll call my family. It won’t be terrible.

But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t all make me terribly sad. All of the little tragedies outside of the actual sickness and death– our postponed wedding and family plans, not seeing my students, feeling for my kiddos who won’t get graduation ceremonies– have been weighing heavy on my heart. Honestly, this is how I’ve been feeling all month:

giphy

So, when I thought about Easter earlier this week, I didn’t particularly feel like rejoicing. Yes, He is risen and there’s still much to be grateful for– but all of that feels much less sweet when you can’t celebrate with the people you love and there is still so much heartache around.

Then, a few days ago, a phrase popped into my head that Fr. Fred used to say each Easter as well: “If not today, Easter will come.” I remember being confused when I first heard it as an eleven-year-old. Wasn’t Easter today?

What he explained to us that year and reminded us each year after was that Easter isn’t just a day, but a spiritual place we seek. Easter is finding redemption and hope again, even in the midst of despair. Easter is the magic of an embrace long-awaited, the sweet joy that comes after trying times. Easter is the strength to get through the darkness because we believe something greater is on the other side.

It’s a phrase I’ve been sitting with a lot this month, since so many things we would call “joyous” feel like they’ve been stripped out of our lives.

Then, I am reminded that “joy” and “happiness” are not the same thing. Joy can be found even in the darkest events, because we know that from those trials great things can come. The crucifixion itself is a joyous event, but not only because we know that not only will it lead to the resurrection, but it reminds us how beloved we are. In spite of it all– the destruction and wrath and muck of humanity– there is still someone willing to love us with unfettered and unadulterated generosity. There is someone who looks at our faults and also sees the beauty, magic, and potential within us. It’s joyous because it gives us a model for how we could attempt to love others. What would it mean to seek and give love that is bigger than ourselves?

And there, in that question, is the grace of Easter.

Easter is found in our ability to look at the muck of it– the bungled handling of the situation, the sadness of death, the grief of what is lost– and still seek new ways of connection, celebrate the generosity of others, and believe that there is something better on the other side of this. Much as God looked at problems of humanity and still chose to see our positives and potential, Easter is found in the ability for us to see that light within others.

So, yes, I am grateful because I believe that even if it’s not today, Easter will come and this will end. I know that, ultimately, I hope all of this could lead to something much bigger and more beautiful than I’m able to see (while still acknowledging the very real pain it’s causing).

But I’ve also recognized that Easter is already here, as it always has been, in the way we connect with and support each other. It’s smiling and laughing with those around us even when we know the trick, because the joy isn’t found in our own surprise but in reveling in the light of others. Easter isn’t just the resurrection, it’s the love we give to those around us and the expression of that love in action and words. As much as I love the ritual and community of mass, the bandwagon-effect pales in comparison to the faith and relationship with God that give me the strength to look this difficult times and try and find grace within it. It reminds me that even when I am not physically with my community, I am not alone.

So, even though this Easter will be a quiet one, I am comforted in knowing that not only will Easter come, someday, but Easter is already here. I just need to look for it. The magic isn’t in the celebration with others, it’s remembering the sentiment Fr. Fred used to end each weekly message with: “Remember, above all, you are loved.”

Today, I am Mourning.

Sitting on my couch in
the apartment I have not
left in days, I bury my
face in my hands and cry.

Today, I am mourning.

I am mourning the students I
did not get to see yesterday,
the joyful laugher that did
not escape our mouths together.

I am mourning the plane
I did not get on this morning,
flying to new opportunities
I don’t know that I’ll get back.

I am mourning my grandmother,
alone in her nursing home on
her birthday– the one I was
supposed to fly home for.

I am mourning the hugs I did not get
to give her– because who knows
how many chances I have to
hold the one who held me up?

I am mourning for the family
and friends I have not been
able to see. The hands not
held and the food not shared.

Today, I am mourning.

And I know I should end
this with something uplifting,
a reminder of my privilege
and how lucky I am.

but today, right now, I am
mourning. And in sitting
in the space between broken
and healing, maybe there is grace.

Today, I am mourning.
But tomorrow, I hope, will be better.

The Clearing

I stepped into a clearing
with only birdsong and
pine-needle-whispers as
company, and asked myself,
“How could I share this?”

Would the tall, straight
lines of a letter “T”
conjure the proud lines of
the shedding trees, here for
years, watching over you
now when you enter?

What could I write down to
help you feel the spongey
earth cradling each step,
rotting leaves that break
each time they hold you up?

The writer Thomas Merton
once prayed that, even when
we try and struggle and fail,
“the desire to please You
does, in fact, please You.”

I pray that, in attempting
to share the moment, it could
somehow be enough for you. That
you will find the wind draped
around your shoulders, kissing
your forehead, asking you to trust.

Or get the gift of a sudden
rain as you come into a clearing,
washing away everything around
you except the next step you need
to take to finally come home.

I hope that in reading this, you
will trust that there is a place
where you’re met with birdsong
and pine-needle-whispers, that
will hold you up, beloved.

Everything I Can’t Admit

This is part of a much larger fiction (!) piece I started last summer and… stare at from time to time. But the world is crazy right now and I’m hoping putting writing into the world will actually get me to, ya know, write.


You never felt like a pretty girl. You had a lifetime of being chubby and awkward and brown in a world that didn’t want any of those things, and so “desirable” was something you had never seen in yourself. The only way you got boys, it felt like, was if you went out and got them. You were aggressive and flirtatious. Subtly was not your strong suit. 

That’s how you’d gotten Brian. He was in one of your elective writing courses and seemed so much cooler than you— the English department darling, bright blue eyes. He was way out of your league. And yet after a few weeks of very targeted flirting, you hooked up (making out and some under the shirt action— you were still very uptight and confused by your body). That led to actual dating, which led to a serious relationship all through college. Brian stayed and cheered for you when you switched to a journalism degree. You stayed as he graduated and decided to make writing into a career. You both stayed through the first year of your internship at the local paper. You had stayed close to home for Brian and, at 22, were planning a life together. 

But the seams were starting to rip on the relationship. You had outgrown each other, in many ways— his love of niche, fantasy literature were at odds with what you felt were “real world problems.” You hated following him to networking parties; he didn’t connect to the reporting you were doing. There was a lot of love, yes, but there were long fights, uncertainty, and confusion at where the spark of your young love had gone when you were both in your early twenties. 

So, when Andrew joined as a summer intern a few months after you, you were happily surprised at the connection you felt. You didn’t think much of it– when had things like that ever panned out for you?– but it was nice to have someone who shared your interests and sought you out in the lunchroom. You made it a point not to mention Brian, which you knew was terrible, but you justified as “not that big a deal.” Women were punished and put in boxes for their relationships all the time. You didn’t want to be known as the girl who only talked about her boyfriend, you reasoned. It was just good career skills.

When Andrew invited you to get a drink, you didn’t think anything of it. You didn’t get pursued or asked on dates without reaching for it. He was way too cute to be interested in you– a tall, lean former cross country runner with glasses and a big goofy smile. So, you agreed. Did you put on a cute dress and make up? Sure. But you were just putting your best foot forward for a colleague. That was all.

Except it wasn’t. Andrew took you to a little Mediterranean joint, laughing as he told you about his life and his plan to eventually go to medical school and eventually Doctors Without Borders. Your fingers touched as you split pita bread. He asked you about your latest article, gave clear and thoughtful feedback, and insisted on paying. You were roundabout about Brian, making it unclear if you were single or not. He didn’t pry. As you were walking out, he recommended a good dive bar a few blocks away. Then there was beer. A shot. Karaoke. He admitted to you he’d just gotten a tattoo on his bicep, the snakey medical symbol, to remind him of his own plans. 

You smiled as he told you, and he must have seen you bite your lip before asking you coyly, “Do you want to see it?” 

You had never had this before, a man offering his body to you, even in this small way. You always felt as if yours body was the one that needing to be proffered. You nodded slightly and he rolled up his t-shirt sleeve to show you. It was intricate and beautiful, black with blushing red on his white skin. Without thinking, you reached out, then hesitated. “It’s okay,” he smiled slyly. “Touch it. Go ahead.”

Your breath caught in your throat at the small innuendo. You couldn’t help it– you bit your lip again. What bad movie is this? You scolded yourself, but the alcohol had already numbed your mind so much that rationality had left you long ago. So you reached out and felt the heat of his skin under your thumb as you traced the tattoo, your fingers dancing on his arm, chicken skin arising on you both. 

“Does it– does it hurt?” You gulped out. You looked away from his arm and into his eyes for what seemed to be the first time that night. 

The brown of them danced under the tacky flashing of the bar’s party lights. He took a breath and then smiled. “No. Not at all. It feels nice.”

You breathed quietly, taking the moment in, looking into his eyes again. 

Then there was water and the check (he covered again, despite heavier protests from your end). He guided you to the car, lightly by placing a hand on your lower hip, and drove you home, the conversation continuing nonstop. Finally, you were outside your apartment. You blinked a few times, trying to ground yourself. What is going on? You try and figure out exactly what in this experience is real as you look at the dashboard. You are not just drunk on alcohol, but on the experience itself. This man was actively flirting with you: grabbing your shoulder, encouraging you to touch him, encouraging you to speak more, looking at you so deeply you didn’t know you could be seen in that way. This did not happen to you. You didn’t know what to do with it. 

You realized he was silent, and looked up at him, the orange of the streetlight casting across on pale skin, a glint on his glasses and in his eyes. Your mouth went dry. He reached across, taking a strand of your hair and putting it behind your ear. Seriously, what movie– he kept his hand in your hair, his thumb lightly stroked the side of your face as he kept looking into your eyes. Your mind went blank, buzzing. You knew that this was too far. You knew that this was wrong. You have only kissed three boys in your entire life, and the one you thought you will marry is waiting at his house for you to text him that you got home safe. 

Then, without a word, he leaned across the center console and kissed you, so softly you barely felt it. You had never done anything like this, never thought you would, and even though you knew it was wrong you closed your eyes and let it happen. When he stopped and looked at you, you said nothing, and so he did it again, harder this time, and without thinking you leaned into it, feeling his hands cup the back of your head and pull your body into his. You’re still not sure who pulled away first. You stumbled out of the car, said something about calling him, and ran upstairs to your apartment. 

Without thought, you texted Brian, “home” 

He texted back immediately, “You okay?”

You breathed hard, felt your throat constrict before typing. “Yeah, some folks from the office joined us. Lots of fun lol and found a new mediterrean place to try. Gonna knock out.”

You held your breath waiting for his response. Would he buy it? Would he follow up? What if someone had seen you? 

“haha ok glad it was fun. love you.”

You heaved a heavy sigh as you typed back, “love you too.”

You felt your way to the bathroom in the dark, flipped on the light, and looked in the mirror. Your face felt like it was broken into parts– swollen lips, lined eyes, messy hair. You tried to take it all in as it swirled all together. You blinked hard, then said aloud, “I cheated. I cheated on Brian. I’m a cheater.”

You looked at the image in the mirror. Who was this girl? Who had you become?

You stared harder. You thought you would cry, thought you would feel a wave a guilt overcome you when you said the words. You thought you’d burn up into a million pieces right there.

But you felt nothing. You knew you would not get caught, and knew you would be able to go on without anyone knowing. You kept looking into your own eyes, trying to find something more than, “He doesn’t know and he never will.”

But nothing was there.

You flipped off the light and stumbled into your bed into a night of dreamless sleep.

v: hips

I haven’t written in a minute, so I’m mostly going through old pieces. This is from a 3000 word writing sprint I did on my birthday last year. It’s… ya know, it is what it is, but I might as well try and put something up. 


v

My hips are a drum rhythm that I have never known how to handle.

They cannot help but move and sway when the right music comes on, but I never quite know what to do with them. I am not a graceful dancer, but an ability to move and rotate these hips were enough to make me a mediocre-to-okay salsa and ballroom competitor in college. What I lacked in grace, I made up for in the ability to swirl my hips in tempo with the music, my body moving in ways I didn’t fully understand yet. Men would touch places on my hips and I knew to turn one way or another or they would send me out to make space on the dance floor, causing me to hip-check people as they extended my body across like a weapon.

Now, my hips are more every day nuisance than the maracas I shake to be noticed. I put my hands on them when I walk around my classroom, or when I demonstrate how to keep my balance when I coach my middle school students through yoga poses. I don’t dislike them, I just don’t really notice them. My hips will occasionally bounce around to Lizzo or whatever rhythm I find while I’m running or while I clean the house. When I hear Latin music— the other day out on the street,  a Latin jazz band played— they will feel a sparkle and tinge, asking if they should move now. I sigh with a little nostalgia but my hips have only ever known how to be competitive for attention and it’s a quality about myself that I do not like and prefer not to indulge.

The only times I actively like them is when see them in the mirror, the skin around them taut and curved like a drum. It’s a reminder that under the muscle and tissue there is something hard and strong. Sometimes, Michael wraps his hands around them, his fingers pressing into the bones as if he were going to leave his fingerprints in them, and comes up behind me, kissing my ear and telling me I look pretty. Sometimes, he will kiss them when he gets up from bed. I think of the babies I want to give us that will, God willing, be easily birthed from these hips.

Then, I am grateful for them.

For White Folks Who Want to Write Our Stories

Full Disclosure: This title is riffed on Dr. Christopher Emdin’s amazing book, For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood (and the Rest of Y’all Too), which you should read now. Like, right now.


“So, if I’m white, can I only write white characters?”

This is a paraphrased question I’ve seen and heard a lot over the past few weeks. “White” can be substituted for lots of different aspects of identity: men writing women, straight and/or cis people writing as members of the LGBTQ+ community, etc.

It’s not a new query– it’s a long-standing debate, but with the controversy surrounding American Dirt (which is discussed more here, here, and the pieces that best resonate with my feelings here and here), it has come up more and more. Should writers attempt to tell stories from characters that they do not share the background of?

And my gut reaction, to be frank, is noOf course, that’s not my whole answer, because the situation is actually much more nuanced than a simple “no” implies. There are, no doubt, authors who have written wonderful characters who had vastly different backgrounds than they did. There is no hard-and-fast rule with this.

The place my “no” comes from isn’t a desire to restrict who can write what, but rather a story of hurt, frustration, and sadness. It comes from my own experiences as a reader and writer. It comes from my perspective as a Mexicana-Filipina-American, with all the beauty and hardship that entails. It has to do with two important aspects all writers (and people) should consider: authenticity and power.

If someone is going to write about a community they don’t come from, it has to be authentic. It has to reflect the actual, powerful, and nuanced stories that comes from any place or people. A novel that feels like it combined and repackaged a number of the same hackneyed tropes of Latinx people and concepts of “The Border” does not ring as authentic. A novel about Mexicans in a border town that felt inauthentic to many Mexicans and Chicanx readers should be a sign that perhaps the author’s story didn’t actually represent the people she claimed she wanted to.

The thing is, it’s really difficult to be authentic about something that you haven’t actually experienced. You can try to research and listen as much as you want, but actually being from and living in a community or culture will lead to a perspective that is honestly difficult to capture with research. It’s not impossible, but it’s really hard to do authentically. It’s hard to fully capture all the shades, subtleties, and layers of a situation when you only see it from the outside. It’s difficult to grasp the full context and history of a world when you were not involved in the creation or experience of living in it.

Which leads to our second, bigger problem: power.

Someone could write a story that, while inauthentic, is still seen as a great read. While that may not seem problematic, we don’t live in a vacuum. Because we still live in a white dominant society, we are more likely to advance, market, and accept ideas from white voices instead of writers of color. The publishing world is still incredibly white and the books that are bought, packaged, and marketed are still overwhelmingly white.

If readers are more likely to accept white voices, it means that stories about historically disenfranchised and underrepresented communities are more likely to be received when they come from white names. Society often accepts a secondary source’s narrative instead of reaching for the primary source voices who have actually lived that story.

Frankly, an outsider perspective is more likely to be inauthentic, yet white outsiders stand a better chance to be published and praised. So, the rest of the world gets to read and then believe that inauthentic narrative– tropes, stereotypes and all– instead of the perhaps more complex reality a community may really face. Because the majority of our stories are told by people that lack the lived experience, there is nothing to counteract these clichés. Inauthenticities are not just annoying byproducts of shallow storytelling, but instead become the very problematic beliefs that we internalize about an entire people, culture, or place. 

Furthermore, most writers of color (myself included) can tell you a story where their name or identity automatically made their writing viewed as “niche” or “[Ethnicity] Lit.” Whether or not we want to admit it, the belief prevails that readers are more likely to see “Jeanine Cummins” as an author they think will speak to them instead of, say, “Reyna Grande.” We still live in a world where having a white name is more likely to get you an interview of any kind. What does it mean when the people at the top are mostly thinking about whether that name, splashed across covers and marketing materials, will “sell”? Power affects not just what stories are told about communities of color, but who is able to profit from telling them. Profit dictates trends, trends dictate public interest, public interest leads to profit– the cogs of the machine roll on and crushes the voices of people of color underneath it.

So, when I am asked, “Can white writers write non-white characters?”, my negative gut reaction comes from growing up in a world where I was given a cheesy narrative like Puerto Vallarta Squeeze long before I actually saw myself in a piece of writing at age 16. My reaction comes from understanding the pain my friends, who also failed to see themselves in the stories they were given, felt.

My reaction isn’t about restriction, it’s about pushing the person asking to consider their place in the scope of authenticity and power. What does it mean when a white person is more likely to get the chance to tell a person of color’s story? What doors opened for them because of their whiteness? If they walk through that door, whose space might they take and thus profit from once they enter?

For white folks who want to write our stories (and the rest of us too), I hope you ask yourself if your work will fully center and share the complex voices coming from the communities you claim to represent. If not, it is merely taking the easy-to-digest sound bytes and packaging them as truths that will unfortunately play on an overpowering loop that drowns out the real people living in the world you stole.