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To Amanda

I was so focused on taking a next step. But what step would be next? Work from home, work from an office, work on family, write a book?

I was forgetting to listen to my body (see previous post), so my answer appeared in a dream. My friend (a certain one with a beautiful voice and keen goddess awareness) and I were in a beautiful place that looked like a spa or a garden or both. It was misty, bright, clean, comfortable and cozy. She and I sat close together on a giant futon that looked and rocked like a boat, only it was soft. We floated in the mist, as if suspended inside a cloud. We talked like old friends, like two girls who grew up together.  I was telling her my dilemma, just sharing my worries like I do with my best friend. Her voice was firm and friendly at the same time. She posed a simple question: “Why should you pack for a trip you don’t want to take?”

I woke up softly, just floated out of the mist with eyes still closed. I had no idea what just happened, but it felt soothing. I heard my own consciousness (while unconscious) through my friend’s soft voice. It was like hearing the voice of God – in all Her feminine divine presence.  It was a subtle and sublime experience, like a soft morning breeze. I still don’t know what the next step will be. I no longer feel like I must know. When it is time to take that step, I will know where to put my foot. The other foot will follow and my feet will take me to where I want to go. I will listen to the wisdom of my body-mind and go where I shall go.  

May the force of the changing earth be with us in this time of equinox.  May we allow the light of the full moon to enlighten our steps in the dark.

In the weeks prior to moving with my family to our new home, my 8-year-old child came to me and confided a big truth. “Mom, before, only half of my body wanted to move to the new house, but now my whole body wants to move to the new house!”

I did a double take from behind a pile of boxes and dropped the pan I was trying to pack. “What do you mean, oh wise child?”

“Well, um, before, I didn’t know if I would like going to a new house; but now I like it [the house] and I’m sure I wanna move.”

I hugged my child and thought about the lesson in her simple comment. As children, we knew how to think with our bodies. It was not until we were indoctrinated into Western traditions of separation of mind and body, and the supremacy of the mind over the body, that we forgot that we ARE inside a body that feels and absorbs all our emotions. Stress is the result of the body’s inability to assimilate all the stuff we pile up on ourselves. Symptoms such as chronic backaches, headaches and heartburn are signals your body sends to remind you that you have overdone it.

This is not just new age theory, the American Academy of Family Physicians recognizes the effects of stress on your body’s wellbeing. They go as far as to point out that even “good stress,” such as having a baby, can affect your health.

Humans are creatures of habit and any change can bring about emotions that we think with our Western minds that we can control, only to have our bodies tell us otherwise.

We need to remember to listen to our bodies – our whole bodies. Like my 8-year-old.

Bald cypress, RGR.I’m getting ready to move to a new house. As I pack, I reflect on all the other places where I’ve lived and what each place felt like. The “spirit of place” at the house where I’ve lived for the past year lives in an old, huge, bald cypress tree. It dominates the yard, the canal and all other mature trees around. It has its own symphony of birds, ants and wind. In its shade, time slows down. A microclimate envelopes and nourishes everything around it. This is what this tree gave me on the eve of my move:   

…I’m just out here playing on the margin, walking the fence. I’m a human bridge between the old and the new. I’m a transition. I’m the amorphous seed holding together both the old brown leaf and the new green leaf on the cypress tree. I hold both firmly and keep them alive.

One morning, I was wondering how people write so personally about their ancestors; as if they were narrating their own lives. Then I opened the back door and walked to the bald cypress. The tree extended one branch and handed me a brown leaf. It’s summer, the brown leaf should have fallen off months ago, so I thought I’d help by pulling. The brown leaf, the white seed AND the new green leaf all came off in my hand. Now I’ve done it. I started to ask forgiveness of the tree. But this tree is 100 feet tall, is probably about 100 years old and has seen it all. He meant to bend down, hand me that leaf and answer my question. I kept the leaf to help me reflect on my mother and my grandmothers. Later, I started to feel like the seed in the middle; holding past and present (and future?) in one firm grasp.

“No waste of space in Texaco. Every last centimeter was good for something. No private land, no collective land, we weren’t the landowners so no-one could pride [herself] on anything besides the number of hours, minutes, seconds of [her] arrival…In our mind, the soil under the houses remained strangely free, definitively free.”

(Noutéka of the Hills is the purported name of a community of squatters in Martinique. When I first read Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Texaco(quoted above), I drew a pencil sketch of my grandmother’s parcela in Arecibo, PR, on the book margin. It looked just like Esternome’s house in the noutéka, except her place was a government parcel. In the book, the Noutéka of the Hills was settled by former slaves decades before the shantytown of Texaco (Fort De France, Martinique) was founded. Both communities make a strong case for claiming your own space. The noutéka would be like Bajadero in Arecibo, PR, and Texaco would be more like Barrio Obrero, Arecibo or La Perla in San Juan, PR. )

My noutéka of the hill (if you can call it that) was in a deep forest, house painted brown to blend in, hidden from the road behind the oak, the mimosa and the dogwood. Four steps up into my resonant floor. (Don’t forget to duck past the spider web.) The living room was at ground level, the kitchen and the rooms flying up into the air, looking down at the slope.

My spacious house in a noutéka of the hill in North Carolina had a big kitchen with a nice view, and two bathrooms with skylights, where my orchids bloomed on command. The neighbors came to dinner and were envious of the oak floor. The Ukranian landlords were thankful I took good care of this refuge. It wasn’t mine, but it was mine. The space and the moment were mine. The bird chorus was mine. The deer who interrupted my dinner each evening. The hawk who perched on the hickory tree. The yellow hickory leaves in the fall. The gum tree and the oaks going up in flames. The sticks that were left in winter. The red-bellied woodpecker, always constant, always mine. The squirrel and the raccoon who stole cat food. The slippery slope and the impromptu creek. The fawns feeding on their mother. Everything was mine to care for, to take in and enjoy.  The early summer fireflies belonged to my daughter – that was my legacy to her and she chased after them daringly.

My grandmother Tata’s noutéka was on a different hill. It was parceled and bare; deforested to match the valley below, where the sugar cane used to grow. You could see her yellow house from a mile away, perched like a canary on the back side of the hill. Sometimes we would drive to the bottom of the hill and climb 100 crooked steps to her house.

Four narrow steps (sized for her small feet) led you inside to her uneven floor boards. (After you ducked under the line from her nephew’s house that supplied illegal electricity.) The front door was at ground level, the rest of the one-room house suspended precariously by thin stilts.

Her tiny house on this noutéka had wood slats you could look through to the cliff below. You could see two goats pacing under the shade of the house. Light seeped in through the walls too, which compensated for the lonely window opposite the front door. The window was a square with shutters that swung open in the morning and closed nightly with a hook and eye lock. There was one light bulb hanging from the ceiling, with a long cord she could reach. There was a curtain slung over a clothesline which served as a partition between her bed and the rest of the refuge. She used a basinet to pee. She walked two houses down to her brother’s house when she needed to use the bathroom and the kitchen. He had a regular latrine and an outdoor pipe that brought in water through the kitchen window.

Everything was hers – and the government’s.  She took good care of it. The cute shack painted yellow, the plants she grew between the rocks out front, the goats under the house, the karst rocks that I used as chalk, the fossils she found and saved for me (once we found a sea star up the hill from her, at the top of the mountain). The steps were hers, the gravel road was hers, the neighbors hollering a greeting as she walked by. I saw her sign an X at the housing office when she got her parcel. That X meant it was all hers, even if she couldn’t write. She refused to leave even after someone beat her up (she never said who) for the few dollars she had in her pocket. She refused to leave even after she no longer could climb down the 100 steps into town, much less come back up.

She only left her noutéka for the same reason I left mine: to benefit her daughter. Thirty-something years later, her parcel must still be there, no doubt holding a much bigger and sturdier house.

I’m closing on a new house tomorrow, thinking about the “free” noutéka I traded for this luxury with strings attached. Regardless, I’m glad I can do this for my daughter. But I’m even happier I can do this for Tata and through Tata. I thank my grandmother for the free spirit she granted me by living her life as she chose, and for the borrowed treasures she taught me to claim and enjoy. She filled my path with fireflies.

A Ñeca

 Desperté el cuatro de julio de un sueño muy largo.

 Tú me llevabas por Nueva York, por callejones de Spanish Harlem, por tus edificios, evitando gente peligrosa, saltando sobre escombros, vallas, construcciones de nunca acabar.

Entramos a un edificio a medio terminar, oscuro, tenebroso. Había gente sin autorización de estar allí. Un hombre dormía en el piso. El edificio olía a apocalipsis. Se escuchaban ruidos de máquinas y clamores extraños.

 Subimos unas escaleras blancas y anchas a tientas, sin saber si las luces estaban rotas o si era muy temprano para encerderlas. A mitad de camino, dijiste, Mira.

A través de las vallas de construcción había un ventanal.

Abajo en la bahía se veía la torre de un presidio.  

Más allá de la torre el mar se abría inescrutable.

Pero yo sabía que había algo más allá del mar.

El mar de este mundo terminaba en una isla. La isla del origen. La cueva de Aytí. Donde Iguanaboína recibió a tus ancestros y los míos. Allí era a dónde yo quería llevarte desde un principio. A levitar sobre el sumidero de mis tres pueblos que también son tuyos.  

Pero tú dijiste, No, esa isla es una leyenda. Déjame enseñarte la realidad.

Me arrastraste hasta el último peldaño de la escalera, me hiciste seguirte por un pasillo estrecho que terminaba en una oficina pequeña y sin ventanas. Me dijiste, Tengo que trabajar, busca algo que hacer.

Yo quería salir de aquel laberinto. Creí recordar el camino de regreso, pero me daba miedo ir sola. Tal vez nunca saldría de allí, pero había que intentarlo. No sabía qué hacer en caso de llegar a la calle. ¿Cómo regresar hasta la bahía, cómo volar sobre el océano que me separaba de mi origen? ¿Cómo volver al sumidero de karso, con su foresta circular, con su fuerza de agua subterránea que sigue fluyendo; con su magia misteriosa que el rey de la isla demuestra no entender cuando saca un dedo flaco y denuncia a los que estan “en maridaje con los ambientalistas.” Como si eso fuera una acusación. Tal vez para él, concubino de desarrolladores que quieren tapar el sumidero y construir otro condominio. Yo sé que esto es real y que el presidio es inventado, y los edificios a medio construir son de cartón.  Y la metrópolis toda es de cartón.

Con esa certeza, y a pesar del miedo, logré salir del edificio. Afuera ya era de noche. Pero las calles estaban repletas de gente que vino a ver los fuegos artificiales. Se oyen disparos y pirotecnias a la vez. No sé de qué bando estoy porque los bandos no me importan. Estos bandos no saben que existe un sumidero en una isla. Abro la boca para protestar tanta estupidez. Nadie me oye sobre el tumulto. Titubeo entre regresar al edificio oscuro o proseguir. Prosigo hasta la bahía sabiendo que no hay forma de cruzar el mar. El sumidero me llama. Desde lejos, como por internet, su círculo me muestra imágenes proyectadas sobre la neblina de su pantalla circular. Es una tumbadora gigante con un fino y silencioso cuero de neblina. Veo una democracia golpeada, policías asustados macaneando mujeres y estudiantes, jóvenes tirando piedras, pájaros tirándole a las escopetas. Escopetas teledirigidas apuntando a un hombre desarmado que se asoma a su puerta. Hormigueros bañado en sangre. Mujeres golpeadas por sus maridos, hijos asesinados por sus padres. Puntos peleados en Sabana Seca. Pérdidas vengadas en un río de sangre. Todo se ve en la pantalla circular del sumidero. Todo se ve. Todo se hunde. En silencio.  

Alguien me sostiene la cara para que mire.

Son la manitas de mi hija que me despiertan: “Happy Fourth of July, mami!”

Back to the beginning

…That was the year the Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men who bring gifts on the eve of Epiphany), left a book under her bed. It was big and colorful and it had a sturdy cover. The title was Héroes en Zapatillas (a 1974 Spanish translation of Varona and Olivar’s Eroi In Pantofole, Edizione Paoline, Roma, 1971). Every European hero from Aníbal to Ulises, and with the generous inclusion of Gengis Khan, was there in caricature form. No mention of women.  Still, the book provided hours of entertainment and later she would beg her mother to keep it for her when she went to college. (The book is still around for the granddaughter. It’s yellow, not as colorful, and the pages are coming off the unstitched spine. It will be a supplement to the heroine stories they’ll read.) 

By the time she was in eleventh grade, our girl barely recalled the details of the medical kit from Christmas Past. But she remembered the feeling. Everything started to come back to her as if in a tunnel when her guidance counselor refused to give her an SAT application.

“Una niña como tú debería quedarse aquí (en la isla) con su mamá y su papá.” (“A girl like you should stay here (on the island) with her mom and dad.”) He wanted me (you already knew it was me) to concentrate on taking the College Board exam and forget about the SAT. I guess La Academia (my parochial private school) was more interested in raising overall scores than in placing their students where they wanted to be. I switched high schools my senior year and chose not to graduate with my friends over this. I did great on the College Board, got into UPR Rio Piedras, and Sagrado Corazón just in case, then turned around and left for FSU. It wasn’t easy. No one wanted me to leave. Many said I wouldn’t make it past the first semester. Too young, too sheltered, too attached to family. I went around all objections. Found a friend who went to school at Fort Buchanan to get me an SAT application, took the test at her school without any help. Then I took things one step at a time. My parents saw how determined I was and rallied behind me. My whole family sacrificed a lot to send me to college. Every semester was a small miracle. Twenty-something years later, my life is a miracle. The doors that seem to close just lead me to better things than the ones I imagined for myself. And really, I have a lot of say on which doors close.

So, listen to your children. Pay special attention to the girls and take their dreams seriously. Don’t tell anyone, boy or girl, how to play –let them teach you how to play. And for the record, I don’t want to be a boy anymore. Life’s more interesting as a girl.

All this writing about cross-dressing female doctors from the 19th century got me thinking about another story. Habia una vez una niña que queria ser niño. She did not dislike herself, she just wanted to be more than what people told her she could be.

It started one Christmas morning when she was three. She tore open the last present to find a strange red box inside. It was plastic and it looked like a lunch box, only bigger and with a curved top. Inside the strange red box she found small white instruments. There was a long cord with a plastic cone at one end and two plugs on the other which her mother said went in her ears.  “To listen to your heart beating.” There was a thin plastic cylinder with some lines on it, to take your temperature.

Her grandfather offered himself as a patient and she eagerly went about the task of becoming a doctor. But after she had examined her patient and decided which small bottle contained the right medicine for him, grandfather said “you will be a good nurse someday.” The game suddenly stopped. She wanted to cry, but she didn’t know why. The lump in her throat turned into a yell as she threw the medical bag on the floor and said she didn’t want to play anymore. At three years of age she knew that if she couldn’t play doctor, the role she chose, there was no sense in playing the game at all.

Later, she played Zorro with her neighbor Jorge and with her younger sister. The long pods from the flamboyant tree (a royal poinciana) made good swords and sabres. She didn’t listen when she was told to take the old blankie off her neck. That made a good cape. Zorro made a good role model, for lack of any female ones. There was much jumping off tree stumps and swinging from torn clotheslines, unsheathed sword (pod) cutting a Z in the air. 

On January 6, 1978 she would have been nine…

(Second part.)

Tuve la oportunidad de dar una charla a un grupo de académicos en New Orleans sobre el personaje histórico de Enriqueta Faber (1791-?). Ella fue la mujer francesa que se vistió de hombre para estudiar medicina en París y eventualmente sirvió como cirujana en el ejército de Napoleón y fue a parar a Cuba donde fue enjuiciada por hacerse pasar por hombre. Sus habilidades como médico nunca estuvieron en cuestión. Los detalles de su vida se pierden en las calles de New Orleans, a donde fue desterrada en 1823. Nadie sabe qué le sucedió ni si volvió a ejercer la medicina, pero el economista y escritor cubano Antonio Benítez Rojo (1931-2005) le dió vida y alma en su novela Mujer en Traje de Batalla (Woman in Battle Dress).  Fue un honor muy grande para mí discutir una obra tan importante frente a un grupo de gente que conoce bien cómo la economía de las plantaciones en el sur de Estados Unidos  y el Caribe (sin olvidar el resto de las Américas) explotaba a esclavos(as), mujeres y niños para alimentar trapiches de azúcar, molinos de café y fábricas de tabaco. (Todavía nos explotan, pero para otros productos.)

La historia de cómo Enriqueta pudo burlar ese sistema por un tiempo y lograr una carrera en espacios masculinos es más impresionante al toparnos con el hecho de que ella no fue la única. Mi audiencia estadounidense en la charla estaba informada sobre la vida de Loreta Janeta Velázquez, una cubana educada en New Orleans que se hizo pasar por hombre para participar como soldado y espía en la Guerra Civil de Estados Unidos. Sus memorias fueron publicadas en 1876. Su disfraz no fue descubierto hasta que ella misma se lo quitó. Loreta da una larga introducción en su libro sobre otras mujeres que, desde Juana de Arco, se atrevieron a luchar a la par de los hombres. Casi todas pagaron muy caro – no tanto sus causas sino su travestismo. Y el cambiarse el vestuario era la única forma de luchar por sus causas. Enriqueta no tenía otra opción para lograr su sueño de curar enfermos. O se vestía de hombre y se iba a estudiar o se quedaba buscando marido en los bailes, como ella misma (o Benítez Rojo con voz de mujer) narra en la novela.

Entre la gente que asistió a mi charla estaba la novelista Cristina Garcia (Dreaming in Cuban, The Agüero Sisters). Ella era la Keynote Speaker en la conferencia esa noche y vino a la charla a escuchar a mis compañeros panelistas discutir las obras de ella sobre cubanas en el exilio. (Yo me hubiera puesto nerviosa si mi autor pudiera haber estado allí, aunque me gustaría pensar que estaba allí en espíritu.) Después de la charla tuve la oportunidad de hablar con ella y me preguntó más sobre la vida de Enriqueta. También me habló de su personaje Chen Fang  en Monkey Hunting, quien se educó en China a principios del siglo XX vestida de hombre. Chen Fang resulta ser otro ejemplo de mujeres sin fronteras, ni de género ni de nacionalidad. El mundo las miró como aberraciones, cuando en realidad fueron personas  muy productivas y ahora admiradas.  En el caso de Enriqueta, ella tuvo que traspasar frontera tras frontera: era francesa haciéndose pasar por cubano para estudiar en París. En Cuba era conocida como Enrique Faber, doctor cubano con acento francés. Y pensar que yo puedo ir, vestida de puertorriqueña y con acento boricua, a hablarle a un montón de profesores norteamericanos con acento sureño acerca de un escritor cubano que escribe como una francesa que pasaba por cubano para ser doctor(a). Alguien pagó el precio por mí, para que mi vida sea lo que es. No todo ha cambiado, pero mi generación entiende que muchas cosas son como la cuchara que se dobla en la película The Matrix:  “There is no spoon.” Las limitaciones de géneros y fronteras son para doblegarse ante el poder de nuestra voluntad  –  porque no son nada.

Ya que la estoy citando en mi intro, por favor ver el enlace sobre el ultimo libro de Isabel Allende, La Isla Bajo el Mar (http://elboligrafo.es/2009/08/21/isabel-allende/). Yo lo estoy leyendo en ingles porque asi me lo obsequiaron, Island Beneath the Sea. Con aprecio y respeto a la escritora chilena.