Saturday, December 29, 2012


Tia is coming over, so Mami picks the kind of dresses for my sister and I that scratch at our armpits with their pink lace trimmings on the short puffy sleeves, and keep our arms off our bodies with the fluff of fabric layers, floating on our chunky bodies. Mami pulls at our scalps with a brush, to roll the knotty hair on our heads into shiny tight braids and greasy hairlines.  We sit at the couch, watching Mami move nervously between the bedroom and the kitchen with a new article of clothing added, then a new layer of makeup done, then her hair combed out of her duby wrap. The tension exhausts us and we fade into the dim light, letting our bare legs stick to the plastic stretched over the couch’s surface.  We don’t budge when the doorbell brakes into a buzz, our stretched out lids squeezing against our eyes still coasting the mid-air.  Mami and Tia exchange hugs, kisses, and compliments about disappearing body fat and new hair dyes. When Tia walks into the living room, she stops and looks at us, and then calls out to Mami in the kitchen who’s pouring black coffee, “Mira mana, tu tiene la dos ninas como muñecas, sentada con sus vestidos y todo, pero no hablan, no tienen vida. Que le pasan?” We smile politely and submit to hugs and kisses.  Mami walks in with the same polite smile pasted on our faces. Muñecas. Tia turned a compliment into sour limes, and Mami has no come back for us.
My sister and I share the same imagination. Together we give birth to baby dolls, breast feed them, and create invisible electric shields to guard us, and our children, from el cuco, a character we draw together as some dirty boy with broken clothes and a bad attitude.  We do this in the privacy of our and our parents’ bedrooms while our father is at work and Mami takes half days to cook dinner. One of our props consists of a dollhouse we found on the street, too small for our dolls, but we crunch the limbs of Barbie, Ken, and Theresa to fit the living room and kitchen at the first floor, and the two bedrooms at the top floor. Barbie doesn’t live with Ken. She lives with Theresa. Ken and another unnamed male character visit Barbie and Theresa in their dream home on several occasions to force their bodies over and rip their clothes off, after my sister and I excitedly agree, “Let’s play rape!”
I am 7. My sister is 5.
One breezy fall, Mami pulls me down the Upper West Side of Broadway by the hand like I’m in trouble. She stops us suddenly, inside the park island that cuts 106th street in three ways, hosting bread fed pigeons during the day and trash fed rats at night. “Has anyone touched you?” she asks, as she crouches down to my height. “No mami,” I answer. “You know if anyone touches here,” she points between my legs, “or anywhere underneath your clothes, you have to tell your mami, ok?” The sudden awareness of my private body parts charges me with fury, “No mami! Nobody touched me!” We walk.
I try to remember where my body has been each time I had been without clothes, to make sure I wasn’t lying.  I remember how my father’s mother would comment on what great legs I would have as a woman. How she asked me if I had yet grown pubic hair. Her fascination always makes me feel like my clothes have fallen off, like I want to disappear. I try to remember my earlier years when my father would wash my popogina at the bathroom sink, when we were too much in a hurry to take whole baths. I’m not sure anymore of what Mami is asking me.
When we arrive at a grey waiting room, Mami sits down while an older, tall, blonde white woman shows me the way into a toy filled room, with boxes of Barbies and Kens, and a dollhouse that actually fits them. “You like Barbies?” she asks after reading the surprise in my face. I nod. “Go ahead, you can play with them.” I quickly kneel down and pick out a blonde Barbie. This one is not knotted up, and has pink heels on that mismatches her outfit. I try to be gentle with her. I pick up a Ken, that unlike the one I have at home, has an outfit meant to fit him, one he doesn’t need to share with an unnamed friend.  Barbie explores her home, complete with kitchen appliances, a table, and even a couch. She does not need to crunch her limbs in order to feel at home. “What does Barbie like to do?” the lady asks with an open notebook neatly placed on her lap. “She likes to invite Ken over.” Ken comes over and their static, thin lips come together. The kiss is long. His body bends in half to bring his plastic palm underneath Barbie’s skirt. Barbie pushes back. Ken quickly forces her against the table, stretched out fingers scratching at her nippleless torso, shirt lifted. “Tell me what’s happening now,” the woman interrupts. “He’s raping her.” She writes in her notebook. Ken continues to succumb her.
“Rosa, do you have dreams?”
The question stops Barbie from shouting for help in my head. “Yea,” I answer. I look behind her and find a large, dark monument of ticking wood with a door above it. The swinging brass pendulum in it makes me ask an obvious question, “Is that a clock?” “It’s a coocoo clock, have you seen one before?” “Uh uh,” I respond, fascinated by the strange glory of the thing. She explains to me what comes out of the door at the hour, and I’m horrified and interested. “Tell me about your dreams, Rosa. What do you dream about?” My eyes follow the pendulum as I tell her about family members dancing without clothes on in the living room, the bedroom, and imaginary white space. I ask her when the clock will sing. I don’t want to be surprised, scared. “Soon, I’ll let you know when. Tell me more about your dreams, what happens between your family members?” she presses, gently. I tell her about body parts that rub against others and people that kiss. The clock is about twice my height, and it has a certain majesty to it that makes me stand back and feel like I need to brace myself for a big sound that might grab me. “And how do you feel about those dreams?” she asks. “I like them. I sometimes go to sleep so I can have those dreams.” The room suddenly fills with the cling clong of bells, and I stiffen. I want to giggle but I don’t want to interrupt the sound so I hold it in a tight smile. I can’t make out the twirling characters that circle and spin as they exit and enter the clock, but the parade keeps my eyes from blinking for the whole minute. “Great huh? Come now, your mother is waiting.”
Mami and I walk past our building and head down the block into the hospital.
“Mami, where are we going?” I ask her.
“We need to take you to the doctor.”  
I don't feel sick. “Am I going to get a shot, mami?” I ask.
“No, mami. You won’t get a shot.”
Hearing her endearing term for me, mami, makes me forget the ache in my arm from her dragging me along with one hand while she burned cigarettes in silence with the other.
Inside the hospital room, Mami folds up my clothes in a neat pile on a chair while, in a hospital gown, I sit on the cold paper rolled out on the patient table. The cold air makes me want the doctor to get here quick to listen to my heart beating, lungs breathing, and look behind my tongue, and get it over with. When someone shows up, I’m surprised it’s a woman. She’s carrying unusually large cotton swabs, some plastic peepee containers, and a clutter of gadgets I’ve never seen. The room gets colder and I can feel each pore squeezing in on a hair on my skin. I don’t want to lye back. I don’t care if it will be fast. I don’t care if it doesn’t hurt. I don’t lie back. The woman talks to Mami. Soon, she is holding me down by the shoulders, and there are arms and hands forcing my legs open. Mami blocks the view of my legs, my tears block the view of Mami. I feel a stretching somewhere unfamiliar, and a sharp pinch inside my body. I let a wall shaking roar out with an open mouth. When it ends I’m curled up in a ball crying against the sore in my throat. Mami’s caressing hand against my head feels like a betrayal. “I’m sorry mami, I’m sorry,” Mami cries. I want to disappear, and never come back.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

American Tradition: Broken Children and Unbroken Barriers

A similar version of this narrative appears in Gawker's True Stories series.

Last Friday night, after hearing about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, I spent the last hour of my son's preschool day in class with him. I feared his safety. The thought that scared me most wasn’t the possibility of some white man draped in a black trench coat, carrying semi-automatic weapons, charging into his classroom; it was, and is, the fact that the nation will eventually try with all its might to cut through my son’s spirit. The Sandy Hook murders were a painful reminder of the American tradition my three-year-old son will have to reckon with. This unfaltering reality frightens me because there is no emergency response for that.

When I told my mother I was pregnant, almost four years ago, we pushed against Washington Height's cold February blast. My face dodged the smoke of grilling lamb meat, whirling off the gyro truck, to keep my insides from rolling out of my mouth. The wind swept tears from her eyes. Mourning tears. I was twenty-nine, the same age my mother was when she gave birth to her first child, my older brother.

“Why do you want to bring another child into this world?” she asked me. “To suffer?”

The questions, quietly descended into my already turning stomach. For five weeks, I waited to avoid my mother's stoning at this pivotal juncture in my life. The romantic mother-daughter moment of embracing arms and tearful smiles was not for us. She turned the blooming life in my body into some complicit act with the violent world.

Her studio apartment on the Grand Concourse of the Bronx was an escape from a secret shelter for women who had fled their violent husbands. She lived by the 176th street subway station, where some boy pulled up her skirt, because he wanted to see what was underneath it. After ducking some flying bullets while walking home, she demanded my sister and I get her out of there. One of the most remarkable things about my mother is that she never allowed herself to get used to the way this nation would bang her up.

Two months before giving birth to my son, I walk the four blocks from the train station to see my mother. A boy catches my eye. I must have caught his. That looming look in his eyes has something in it that should not belong to a young boy. He begins walking my direction. I hold the heavy door open for him to walk into the apartment building standing on the Concourse of Hip-Hop’s crowded womb.

I hit the elevator button. I notice the baby flesh he still hasn’t lost in the back of his brown hands as they grip a bag of groceries. He asks me questions about the child my body has been carrying for seven months. There’s a quiet fascination, and a strange nervousness in him that I’m embarrassed to fear.

I walk into the elevator with him, hating myself for thinking about the knife I had forgotten at home. The door slides to a close, and a hand quickly reaches for my shirt to expose my swelling breasts. I knock his hand away.

His face never shifts.

He's done this before, at least once. The space in the elevator squeezes us closer together. I want to hurt him now, but I realize this is a child that could hurt the boy that is still growing inside me. I ask him what the hell is wrong with him. He reaches again and asks me why my nipples are so brown. His face remains frozen, through the pushing, pulling, and shouting for help that somehow ends in the elevator door closing with him on the outside.

My mother tells me she didn’t hear anyone shouting. Her apartment is stuffed with heat coming in through the open windows facing the blaring Concourse. The anger, shame, and disbelief smear in with the beading of my skin, stretched on the now violated and pregnant body I want to rip away from. She listens to me with eyes fixed on the table she’s slowly wiping, and resetting. She's lived in this dumped up world longer than I have. I want her to carry my rage for me so I can figure out how this boy seemed to be so far removed from the attack he was carrying on.

Six floors above the Concourse, out the window, I search the void. The sun shoots back from metal scraps scattered in front of some boarded up building, and beside each building is another that houses either people or dusty space. I realize the boy inside me hasn't kicked once.

I look at the mix of teenage boys and middle-aged men marking the corners with bodies that rock with a tilt and fixed faces like the boy in the elevator. The faces carry the same stone. The fear is either hidden, forgotten, or morphed into something I can’t detect. The Concourse turf is womanless. I want to not feel so far away. I look down at my swelling womb and wonder what it must feel like to have a son standing among the slanting male bodies.


When I became a mother, Sherman Avenue was home. Whenever I hastened my way in and out of the block, with my son wrapped against my chest, every man became a version of my future son. He might be the guy in the white tee and baseball cap, whose clean sneakers glued him to the corner, or the eighty-year-old vecino who lived on the first floor of our apartment building for more than forty years, who told me that the blasting bachata beating against the booming reggaeton didn’t disturb him from sleeping through the summer’s heat. Or he could be the bodega owner who, struggling to keep his business open, wiped the expiration dates off the cans of coconut milk and black beans I’d buy, sometimes with credit.

The uncertainty of my son's future brought me to tears each time I dodged broken glass and dog shit to drop him off at a family daycare about five blocks away to get on the A train and teach students from the city's boroughs at a small transfer school in Chelsea. The black, brown, poor and gay sons and daughters of this nation's city face their own uncertainties, stemming from nontraditional homes, leading nontraditional lives, with little faith in the safety of American tradition.

There’s a murky silence in the dim room of empty teacher desks after I explain to Evelyn’s mother the long rows of “A’s” for days she has been absent, and the sprinkle of “P’s” for “present” on her attendance record. I've known Evelyn for almost a year. Her mother has known her for eighteen. Together, at the edges of each other's long and hard exhales, we're trying to make some meaning of Evelyn’s life. I describe to her the way she casually tosses John Locke and Montesquieu in discussions on philosophies of freedom in history class, the way her classmates stop moving when she walks into the classroom.

“Evelyn won’t listen to me,” escapes from her mother’s tightly pursed lips. “I’m so lost. I can’t anymore. Maybe you…” The tears come easy. The way her back folds over her chest, shrinking the small body into the chair before me seems familiar. Those are the same tears of uncertainty my mother shed for me when I attempted to run away from womanhood by banging into it. She’s more afraid of what the world is doing to her daughter on those absent days, than she is concerned about what Evelyn does when she’s present. The fear of mothering someone who had more possibility than the world would accept settled into a lump in my throat when I told Evelyn’s mother I wouldn't stop trying.

The next evening, I met Evelyn at the diner where she served milkshakes and cheesecake, down the block from my old elementary school. The burning urgency running inside us quickened our pace against Broadway's chill. We walked along the same streets where I lost my childhood to the city, when my mother had given up on not losing me.

“Leave,” I told her. Leaving was what saved me, so it felt right to offer it to her too. “Just finish, take this shit, and apply to college somewhere out of the city. Just leave.”

“I’ve been trying,” she said. “I want to. I just feel so out of place, and I'm tired.” She was eighteen, with two more years of high school left. The act of cracking books, complicating ideas, and asking probing questions in the classroom had worn out its purpose.

Evelyn knew that graduation was just breaking a barrier, that her teachers were all spooks that both loved and battled the city to place some of James Baldwin's wisdom into their students' hearts. "The paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated." Scribed on the backs of our school t-shirts, Baldwin warned us that Evelyn had examined society prematurely and thoroughly enough to decide that perhaps the diploma was not a barrier worth breaking, because on the other side, stood American tradition, ready and waiting to take her down.


At four months, my son is in my mother's arms, hovering over her shoulder looking up at the light bulb, attempting to point at it.

“Luz,” he says.

My sister, my mother, and I are all standing in the living room where we once formed part of a clamoring young family. We are looking in the direction my son is pointing, and we are coaching him, “si, la luz! Luz!” The flesh of his lips poke into a round circle pointing up, dragging out the “ooo” and landing on a “zzz” that splatters at his and my mother’s cheeks. He is saying his first word. The glow in our smiling faces moves me in some way that makes me believe that his first words might be, in some way, prophetic. That American tradition might not define the contours of his spirit.