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.

13123315_1718115681777953_8871502384260665307_o (1)

 

Courtesans and Questions: On Rediscovering Femininity

“You need to…,” the choreographer tilted her head, looked at me. Then she grabbed my shoulders and gently twisted them back. “Chest out.” She smiled. “Seduce the audience! You can do this.”

Can I? I thought to myself. I had been working on this piece for nearly an hour, and I was slowly realizing that my body was… different than it used to be. There are some things I’ve obviously grappled with (and written about), but this was an entirely new experience.

In college, I was a Salsa and Ballroom dancer (the video below was from about 6 months or so of dance training. I ended up dancing at a sort-of competitive level for a few years. What I mean to say is: I got better than this, I swear! But I thought it’d be fun to share).

I wasn’t amazing (and yes, I can tell you most of the technique mistakes I make in this video). I just loved doing it.

Furthermore, it was part of the way I learned to embrace myself as a young woman. When I was a teenager, I was chubby and dark and had upper-lip hair. I liked sports and hung out with boys. In Laguna Beach, California, this made me a target.

So, from high school and into college, I began to embrace what I thought of as my “feminine wiles.” I body-rolled and shook my hips. I learned to wear lots of makeup, handled the lip situation, and wielded the power of glitter and sparkly dresses. I had fun.

salsa

My partner, Rigo, and I with awards in 2007.

Then, after college and becoming a teacher, my body started changing. I also started understanding my physical relationship with the world a little differently.

I began lifting and running and building muscle. For many women, fitness involvement often puts us in the position where we must defend our femininity.  This has made me question the perception and objectification of my body– both internally and externally– ever since. I have been questioning gender expression and trying to push my own biases both in myself and my students.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 3.30.46 PM.png

 

I have been living in that place, it seems, for years now.

Then, a few months ago, I was cast as a courtesan in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. I was (and am still) incredibly hyped to do something that I haven’t done in nearly a decade.

Also, a little part of me was scared and excited to do something I really haven’t done in years: act girly. I have to shimmy (which I am bad at) and shake and ostensibly seduce an audience. This leaves me where I began: standing in a mirror, trying to make my body do things that, years ago, were my shield, armor, and power.

Now, I am slowly realizing something: at some point, I began to see traditional, stereotyped forms of femininity as weak– or, at least, as vulnerable. To be feminine and pretty meant to conform to societal norms that often seemingly put me in a place of oppression.

So, I gave up those things. I rarely wore makeup. I no longer danced. Instead, I ran and punched. I decided to see how much I could lift or how much faster I could run. I tried to subvert the patriarchy by showing I could mimic its forms.

As I dig deeper into this show (which, as a piece of satire, says some interesting things about women), I am forced to hold up a mirror to my own ideas of feminity, power, and vulnerability. I have written that, as an educator, to show one’s vulnerability is often the greatest show of power (Brene Brown talks about this too). If I’ve held to this belief in my teaching practice, maybe it’s time to try and put it to work in my, you know, existence as a woman as well.

Instead of running from the parts of this that are scary, it’s time for me to remember something essential: I had fun being girly! I felt sexy and strong. I enjoyed myself.

It took years to let go of the idea that my identity as a woman was tied to dressing and looking a particular way. If I am trying to subvert the patriarchy– and I am, all the time– then I would hate to be complicit in the myth that female sexuality or femininity is somehow weak.

As I move through 2016, the challenge isn’t just being in a show for the first time in years. I am challenging myself to stand in that mirror and love the sensual, feminine, “girly” side of me as much as the one that runs marathons. I am reclaiming that aspect of identity as anything but weak and seeing it for its full worth as wonderfully and beautifully powerful.