29 September 2011


Something happened this week. There was a conversation about this cupcake protest and someone mentioned to me that if we all would just stop paying attention to race, racism wouldn't even be an issue. That the way to fight the system is to prove to people that we are more than our skin color. Fight the stereotypes, be successful, and then "they'll" like and accept us.
I didn't respond. I'd already told the person we'd just agree to disagree, but that comment? It's been bugging me since because people are still looking at my skin and my name and my sex as if they're bad things, as if they're the opposite of privilege. The thing is that if it's true that ignoring it and doing the "right thing" will prevent this treatment, I'm not sure where I've failed.

I've spent a lot of my life proving people wrong:

Third grade rolls around and they ask me to take a test to show that I speak English. Yeah, I'll do it. Let's ignore the fact that last year I took a test that put me in my elementary school's gifted and talented program; I'll go ahead and prove to you that I have mastered your language.

In middle school, I was in a special program for gifted and talented students and my English teacher told me that I was the smartest minority girl she'd ever taught. Um, what?

High school teachers and counselors steered me away from advanced classes - not in my HS in Germany, just the one in VA. I didn't listen, and took the classes anyway. I was in NHS and German Honor Society. Oh, and I studied German in high school, because my parents weren't going to let me study a language I already knew and spoke and it just made sense.
In my spare time, I get harassed by cops for walking around with my (Latino) friends at a football game and / or attending my (Latino) church youth group.

College. I came in with something like eighteen credits approved. I was part of my school's Honors program. I made dean's list almost every semester after my freshman year and graduated with a cumulative GPA of 3.7 or something like that. No "C's get degrees" for me. Oh, and my freshman year a girl flat out tells me, "I don't like you because you're Puerto Rican." Mmmkay... Thanks?
I graduated in five years, but only because I took a year and a half off in the middle: one year to volunteer and a semester to earn some money while working for the federal government.

I worked for three years as a Spanish teacher at a public school. I replied tactfully or shut up when my colleagues and / or superiors made comments about our immigrant students, or the "barrio" by the ESL classrooms (I wish I weren't quoting), or when people told me Puerto Ricans didn't know how to speak. Meanwhile, my Latino students were discouraged from taking advanced courses, being guided, instead to Auto Mechanics and Child Care. Security barged in to accuse one of my kids of vandalizing a bathroom when he'd been in my room the whole time. I saw two of my students being roughed up by cops for walking around in the evening. Oh, and this happened.

I went to grad school, and did really well, surprisingly enough. I cried my way through a Cross Cultural Skills class. I fell in love with a white man. I got stared at - not in a friendly way - when I went to the grocery store in my very white neighborhood. I was pulled over because a cop didn't think I should've been in my neighborhood at night.

I taught in Philly. I was told that "some students" shouldn't be held to the same standards, because, really, when were they ever going to use the information I was teaching them? Seriously?

So what I'm saying is that there's a flaw in this type of logic. I've done the right things. I'm well educated, well traveled, well read. I'm intelligent, middle-class, decently attractive. If I'm following the logic that being successful will make people ignore my skin and my heritage, then I should not be dealing with racism at all. Not ever. Not in my life, not in the lives of the people around me.
And yet, I've been yelled at to leave my own country, I've been told that my language isn't worth learning, I've dealt with the reality of being in a relationship with a white man, and I've been utterly exhausted by the dynamics of oppression.

What I'm saying is, I've played by the rules. I've done it even though it's hurt me and I sometimes wonder why I've had to give in and shut up and go along in order to be successful. Does it sometimes make me feel like I've sold out? Yeah, sometimes. But do I also think that I'm subverting the system in some way? Yeah. Put me in your stereotype box, sucker: I listen to country, salsa, and hip hop on the same playlist. But those rules? Those rules did NOT undo the system. It's going to take a lot more than that for me to, oh, I don't know, be paid the same amount as a white man in the same field.
What I'm saying is that I'm not going to feel guilty for believing that there's a system at play here and that said system goes beyond individual actions and beliefs. It's about the fact that people will react to my last name before they react to my educational background. It's about the fact that even though I have zero plans to have children, possible employers are worried about how soon I'm going to want to be on maternity leave. And I've done what I can, I've fought for myself and I've fought for others and I'll keep fighting.

It still matters. It's still important to note our privileges because we all have them. And you know what else is important? Finding ways to shed those privileges, or to subvert them, at least. And it's important that in the areas where we're at a disadvantage that we push and push and fight. And there will be tears and exhaustion and pain, but it's important. Because the sooner we recognize that there's a deeply flawed system at work, the sooner we can begin to live in opposition to it.

11 September 2011

Remembering Ayer

I feel like I've been a different person since we moved to Costa Rica. I feel like I don't really know myself, like I can't trust myself. That's a hard thing. Part of it - most of it - is my self-diagnosed seasonal affective disorder; the cold and rain are really getting to me.
Another part is just missing. Missing family and friends, missing hot water, missing the little things....
The rest?
Well, let's just say that I keep a lot of things inside. I keep going. Al mal tiempo, buena cara. Lift your chin, throw your shoulders back, and walk with a confidence you don't feel. It's hard; it's supposed to be hard. Get over it and get on with it.
So this is what I do, day after day, month after month.
This isn't about me. The work isn't for me. So I push this aside and keep going. And today talking to B about this, he makes me wonder if this is the right way to go about it or not. I don't know.
I don't know.

I stumbled across this post - nearly four years old - and remembered how hard that time was. This time is also hard. Really hard. And the poem? It still speaks to me. So here it is again:

Ayer - historia de un vuelo 

Ayer lo vi.
Ayer, domingo, aunque él no lo sabía.
Lo vi con las alas estrechadas
flotando sobre las corrientes de aire que yo
jamás conoceré.
Lo vi y en ese momento,
con el viento fresco de otoño molestándome los ojos,
sentí una nostalgía tan profunda.
Nostalgía casi inapropiada
porque nunca he conocido lo que se siente
Lejos de todo, de todos, de la gravedad que me mantiene aquí
Pero en ese momento, viéndolo flotando
sin mover esas alas enormes,
qué celos me han entrado.
Es lo único que anhelo.
Lo único que anhelé ayer, lo único que sigo anhelando:
sobre esas mismas corrientes de aire
sentir ese vientecito molestándome los ojos y llorar sin pena sabiendo
que allá nadie me verá.
Nadie me dirá que
Que saldré de ésta.
Que puedo encontrar algo - alguien - mejor.
A él nadie le dice eso.
Cuando viene ese viento
a agitarle las lágrimas, él las puede soltar
sin pena alguna.
Qué libertad plena.
Ayer lo vi
y mi alma se encogió, adolorida por el anhelo,
la nostalgía,
los celos.
Lo quise seguir hasta allá
hasta el cielo inmenso, azul y frío
en esta época (noviembre, el mes más solitario de todos),
y volar.
Volar, volar, volar hasta escaparme de su recuerdo,
hasta escaparme de mi debilidad tan obvia y vergonzosa,
hasta escaparme del dolor que me ahoga.
Y mientras volara, lloraría.
¿Al frente de tal libertad?
Quizás no.
No, no.
Solamente me quedaría volar para
poder aprender a respirar
para aprender a querer nuevamente,
para aprender a ser
igualita a él.
Ayer lo vi.
Y hoy me sostiene ese recuerdo.
Estoy estrechando alas metafóricas,
flotando sobre corrientes que me suben y me bajan.
Eso lo supe desde un principio.
Pero lo que quiero no es sobrevivir, sino
Vivir en una libertad plena.
Respirando profundamente del aire que me sostiene
sin importarme lo que me digan.
Si me toma meses de supervivencia para
que llegue la vida, que así sea.
Días, meses, años
- ay, Diosito mío, que no sean años -
de supervivencia, esperaré.
Porque estas alas algún día me
llevarán lejos de aquí.
Como lo anhelé ayer.

11 May 2011


I'm tired. I'm tired of not having my own space, of working the proverbial double shift, of having no way to go anywhere. I'm tired of the isolation. Tired of not having a tv. Tired of running things. Tired of the never ending to do list. Tired of translating. Tired of budgeting. Tired of planning every moment of every day. Tired of joint decision making. Tired, tired, tired.

And it sounds like I'm whining, and I am. But I've been fighting this for a long time, and today, today it all caught up with me, and it's just too much. I need a break. Desperately, urgently, hopelessly need a break. And the reason it's rubbing me raw right now, is because I just don't see that break coming any time soon.

I need a moment alone. A moment - or several - alone with my husband. A day or two or seven in the city or on the beach. I need a full weekend. I need some time to just sit and be lazy. I need to not cook twice a day for a little while. I need to breathe. I need space to just sit down and have a good cry just to let something out, not because I'm actually sad.

I am tired.

25 February 2011

I'm not on vacation

It's been a while, yes? Yes. Things have been busy, life's been crazy.

We've moved. That's the first thing. We left Philly (happy dance for me!) and moved to Costa Rica. We're working with ADE in a really rural area of the Costa Rican mountainside, safely off the beaten tourist paths. Not that we don't have any tourists, just that we don't have many, not for a country whose economy revolves around tourism.

And therein lies my issue today. When people think of Costa Rica, they think of sun drenched beaches, frosty drinks, bright sun, and tourists. And they think I'm here on vacation, which, you know, I'm not. I'm working. I work anywhere from eight to thirteen hour days, six days a week. It's coldish where we live, getting down to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and up to 75 degrees on bright, sunny days. Oh, and this used to be rain forest, so it rains. A lot. Torrential downpours of Biblical proportions. And that's all well and good, because that's what I signed up for. But sometimes I miss things from home. Cheese, for one. Or dark chocolate. Or the convenience of having a steady income. Or even just the ability to find a variety of things at a grocery store or, luxury of luxuries, restaurants that serve food from all over the world.

It's the little things.

Yes, there's running water, electricity, hot water in the shower, but sometimes I miss a little luxury. And when I say I miss something, people are all like, "But don't you live in a tropical paradise where every day is a sunny vacation with umbrellas in your drink? Be grateful that you live in one of our most popular tourist destinations."

Right. I am grateful because this is an amazing experience and it's doing wonders for my faith. You don't realize how big God is until you start expecting Him to be that BIG.

But let's get one thing straight: I'm not on vacation. I don't live on the beach, no one puts umbrellas in my water glass, and even if I do live in a country that gets a ton of tourism, I can't afford to check most of it out. I am not here to be a tourist. I am here to get up at the crack of dawn, teach all morning, come home, make lunch, and do administrative, organizational work until late in the evening. And then, when y'all are lazing around on Saturdays, I'm working some more. Again, it's what I signed up for, and I'm gaining some great experience, so I'm not writing this to complain about my work. What I want people to know is that I have not been here relaxing. This is my job. My day-in-day-out job that just happens to have dramatic volcanic backdrops.

The reality is this: I'm living in an area that is in recovery. It's been two years since the earthquake and the roads are still a rutted mess, the local clinic will see only thirty people once a month, this is only the second year that the local high school has been in existence. There's a lot of work to do, good work, fun work, important work, but it's still work. Life is different here. And because things are different, I'm allowed to miss some of what I had in the States. A car, for example, or security. Or just plain convenience.

Because I'm not on vacation every day of my life here, and sometimes, I'd like to be.

25 October 2010

Soundtrack - Good stuff

Because it's been ages since I've done one of these.

Here are the old(ish) songs I still think kick:

Here Comes the Hotstepper by Ini Kamoze

I can't understand most of it, but I love it. Also, I watched this video incessantly one summer when I was in Puerto Rico. I think I was eleven.

"Under the Bridge" by The Red Hot Chili Peppers

Even at ten I knew this song was amazing. A.May.Zing.

"You'll Think of Me" by Keith Urban

Not old enough to be a classic, but not new enough to be cool. Of course, it is country so cool is debatable. In my world, it's cool.

"Inevitable" by Shakira

This is the Shaki I fell in love with. Yeah, yeah, she sings in English now, but this stuff was so fabulous.

"Octavo día" by Shakira

I mean, as long as we're talking about her....

"Querida" by Juan Gabriel

This is the sound of family dinners at my house circa 1988.

"Crossroads" by Bone Thugs and Harmony

This was absolutely NOT played at dinner at my house, but it's still a good song.

"Unpretty" by TLC

I still need this song to get me through those ugly days.

"Waterfalls" by TLC

Gosh these girls were so great!

"Ordinary People" by John Legend

I love him. That is all.

"Burbujas de amor" by Juan Luis Guerra

This man is a poet.

"Maldita Suerte" by Víctor Manuelle and Sin Bandera

Another one that's in that in between - not old enough and not new enough.

"Good Life" by Kanye West

This song still makes me happy.

"No te veo" by Casa de Leones

Listen to this and TRY not to dance.

"Collide" by Howie Day

I don't know what it is, I just love this song.

31 August 2010


"You droppin' that off?" he asks.

"Yes, sir," I respond.

He mocks me: "Okay, ma'am."

"Sorry, I'm from the South."

I said I was from the South today. Today when Philadelphia drivers made me so incredible angry (it's called a turn signal and NOT using the exit lane as your own personal fast lane, jerks!), I told the guy at the UPS store that I was from the South. And it's kind of a lie.

I hate the "Where are you from?" question. I'm not "from" anywhere. I mean, yes, technically, I'm from Puerto Rico. I was born there, it's the one place that I've gone back to over and over again. No matter where I've actually lived, Puerto Rico feels like going home. But it's not really where I'm from. Not in the sense of feeling that kind of intimate connection to a place and the people there. I look at my cousins, at the closeness they share, and I long for it. I get this nostalgia for what could have been if only my parents had stayed there - then I wouldn't've been the foreign cousin who came to visit every summer. Puerto Rico would've been mine. My place.

But it's not.

We left. We went to Virginia for six months, then moved to Montgomery, a suburb of Chicago in the dead of winter. Yes, y'all: in the dead of winter. I was nearly five. We lived there until I was 13, and I grew attached. We moved once while we were in Illinois, from Montgomery to Aurora, but it was the same general area. We could drive past the old house, visit our old friends, see the old haunts. I learned to ride a bike there, learned to speak English there, decided I wanted to be a writer, archeologist, fashion designer, doctor there. Lots of things happened to me in Illinois. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Aurora, for Chicago - my gosh, I love that city! - but I don't feel attached anymore. How could I? It's been fifteen years and I've only been back once for a conference in Chicago, far from the areas I used to visit as a child.

When we moved to Germany the day after my eighth grade graduation, I identified with Chicago. When people asked where I was from, I said, "Chicago," because none of us Army brats in Germany were really FROM Germany, you know? And then I spent three years in Heidelberg, picking up German, taking family road trips across Western Europe instead of across the US, snacking on döner kebab and Haribo and spezi. I shopped at H&M and Ikea before they came Stateside and listened to entirely too much Europop and techno.

We went back to Virginia after that stint in Germany, and I remember the culture shock all too well. Y'all, I was still wearing my Spice Girls inspired looks; I didn't realize the Americas had moved on. It took me a long time to get used to VA. I don't know if it was being back in the States, being about to graduate from high school, or living in the South, but everything felt foreign and restricting and I hated it for a long time. But then something happened: I kept going back to VA: after college, after Mission Year, briefly after grad school, and I fell in love. It was the proximity to DC, the incredible diversity, the good conversations about current events and politics that did it for me. Northern VA is an amazing place. Just Southern enough, I think, and very cosmopolitan as far as suburban sprawl goes.

And in the meantime, I've been in MD, Costa Rica, Atlanta, and Philly. I feel like each place has left an impression on me.

Puerto Rico is my center - the closest thing to home. Illinois gave me the easy, modulated English and taught me to pronounce Chicago "Shi-caaaaaaaah-go". Germany opened my eyes to the world, gave me the travel bug, peppered my speech with German phrases, and gave me space to roam and explore. NoVA reintroduced me to my love of all things political, put authentic international cuisine at my fingertips, and taught me to drive aggressively - uh, I mean defensively. Maryland taught me I hate winter and small towns. Atlanta nurtured my penchant for long, languid days, my ability to deal with humidity, and the ability to mimic a great Southern accent. Costa Rica made me more confident in my Spanish, let me swim in two oceans,and gave me space to take risks and face the consequences. Philly gave me my Masters, my husband, a chip on my shoulder, and a feeling of superiority because at least I can MERGE! (I'm [mostly] kidding about the last part.)

But here's what I'm missing: a real, strong connection to place. The safety of lifelong friendships with anyone who doesn't share my DNA. The security of knowing I belong to a place.

This morning I woke up to a facebook friend request from my eighth grade boyfriend. I look at his page and see he's still in touch with a lot of the kids from my class. They're mostly in IL, it seems, still friends - at least on facebook. And here I am, fifteen years later with no connection to that past. None. And I don't know if that's good or bad or what. I just know it made me miss something. Place. Home. An easy answer to "Where are you from?".

But then I think about what my life would've been like if I'd been in the same place all my life, if I hadn't gotten a three year European adventure paid for by the US government, if I hadn't learned to pack a house in a matter of days, if I hadn't learned a third language and found places that fostered my ethnic identity.... I wouldn't be this person, the person I am today.

So there's nostalgia, yes, but there's also the recognition that all this movement, the connections that I've made, the connections that have broken because of time and space, the nomadic nature of my life have all taught me so many things. I've lived, I've learned. So I'm still floating, still disconnected from place, but mostly okay with it.

08 July 2010


I was called "White girl" last night. Granted, I was called this by some kid who thought I was staring at her as I was looking out the window, trying to get some air on our drive home from small group. Clearly this child was a bit delusional since she thought I was looking at her, specifically, even though she was pretty much in the middle of a group of nine or so girls of the same age, but her comment really irked me.

I hate being called white. Hate it.

As a woman, I've spent a lot of time looking in the mirror and lamenting what I see. Butt's too flat, hips too narrow, shoulders too broad, hair won't cooperate, what is up with my boobs? But in the long run, I've come to terms with my body, and not just come to terms with it, but learned to love it and embrace it and care for it. But there's this one thing that I still struggle with and that's my skin. For as long as I can remember, I've hated my skin tone. My sister and my dad have such a lovely, caramelly complexion and I'm so stinkin' pale. Yes, I can tan, but that fades in the winter, and I burn at least once every summer. I definitely take after my mom, though my mother's skin is lighter, even, than mine.

When my sister was born, I had a little baby doll that I tended to the way my mom tended to my sister. C. got a bath, my doll got a bath. I still remember that doll, chocolate-hued plastic and dark hair; my gosh, I loved her. Then we moved to the States and my mom learned English by watching Oprah. In my four-year-old mind, Oprah was the most beautiful woman on the planet, and I was convinced that I would never be pretty because you had to be Black to be pretty.

Clearly, I don't still think that there is only one type of beautiful today, but I still wish my skin were darker. My sister is so classically Latina, with her curves and golden skin. I feel like people think I'm an impostor. I know better, but I also know how I'm perceived, especially when I'm with B.

I've been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about ethnic identity, about the ways it's perceived and the ways it's presented. I think about what it means to "be Latina" in the US. I think about stereotypes that have impacted my own perception of who I am ethnically - the ones I've embraced and the ones I've rejected.

I know that when it comes to my hair, my curls feel like such a Puerto Rican thing. I try not to straighten them too often, because man, they make me feel so Latina. I wear fitted clothes, things that hug my curves, because aren't these curves so like a Latina? Aren't we all about emphasizing esa cinturita y esos muslos (waist and thighs)?

And I tan. All summer long, I try to draw those rays to my skin because in my head, darker skin is so much more Latina. I think about songs where men sing to their morenitas and negritas; songs that talk about piel canela.

I know in my head that there are many ways to be Latina, that there is no one Latino "look". But I feel like the rest of the US doesn't really get that.

And that "White girl" thing bugs me. While this girl was going off yesterday, I ignored her. And then she said, "White girl", and I snapped, "I ain't White." Because I don't feel White, I've never thought I was, never felt like it was the world I lived in. I've always been so Puerto Rican. And I know that Latino is this thing you become here in the States, that our own system of racial identity on the island is so different, but this is one area of my life where I've been completely "Americanized": I see my culture and my ethnicity in a US context, where I've been thrown in with the inhabitants of an entire continent (minus the US and Canada).... And now that B. and I are married, I see even more that I am not White. There are real things that are different, things I don't get, things that aren't acceptable in my culture. And B. and I work these things out, we try to build these bridges, create this hybrid, learn about and from each other. And it's not easy but we do it.

It's changed my life, our being together. Changed it in many ways, but one of the big ones is this part of ethnic identity that comes from others' perceptions. Yeah, yeah, I'm not supposed to care about what they think or say, but let's be honest. Human beings are social creatures, and we all base at least part of our identities on the perceptions of others.

I am, as always, living in the tension: too dark / too light. Too White / too "ethnic" (newsflash: being "White" does not prevent you from having an ethnicity). Too rich / too poor. Too loud / too quiet. Too safe / too exotic. Too gringa / too much of a S**c....

It doesn't get easier. I know, I know, I know that I have this strong identity, that I'm bicultural, that I know how to function in a variety of environments, that I can and have lived in areas that are majority White, majority Latino, majority Black, majority Asian. I know this. And yet....

"White girl".