When I was about four years old, my mother and I relocated to North Tonawanda, NY from Boston, MA. From the age of about 5, I spent my summers living in Roslindale with my maternal abuela (wela) so that I could spend time with my father (and his “extended” family) and my mother’s “extended” family. Extended is in scare quotes here cause when you are Puerto Rican all family is just family, and even non-family is family. I digress. Wela was born in Puerto Rico, married young, divorced and moved to Boston in the ’70s where she raised five children with her mother, my bisabuela. She cared for four of her grandchildren over those 1980s summers. I share a name with this abuela and I love her something fierce.
Summers con wela taste like the everyday meals of perfectly made cream of wheat and warm milk for breakfast, Chef Boyardee with Tang for lunch, arroz con habichuelas and pollo prepared in a variety of ways for dinner, and arroz con dulce for dessert.
Summers con wela sound like the barking of all her dogs (mostly chihuahas) tied to the bathroom door as alarm systems ready to rat my cousins and I out if we weren’t napping, like the hacking away at a whole pig on the floor of her tiny public housing kitchen, like the nonstop music (salsa, bachata, merengue) coming out of her radio and through the doors of everyone else’s apartments, and like her praying in Spanish—the whispering rehearsal of the rosary before bed every night.
Summers con wela smell like that church incense, like asapoa (soup) on the stove for hours, like bleach because everything has to be CLEAN, and like piss and spilled beer because we were in the projects and as clean as the apartments were kept on the inside by determined and pious abuelitas,people were drunk and disrespectful in the hallway.
Summers con wela feel like damp clean laundry being hung in the communal space outside the door of her building, a skinned knee from the concrete ground or a bumped head from the metal playground, the too-hot bath water to make sure que no esta sucia (that I was not dirty), the sting of a cocotaso (a hit on the head) for stepping out of line, and the excitement when Tití would pick me up after work and take me to the mall.
Summers, in short, were the best.
By now, you might be wondering: what does all this have to do with queer feminist parenting? cissexism? and heartbreak?
Last Sunday, my husband, son, and I visited wela after she got home from church. She will be 80 this year, and I feel that our time together is too infrequent. I was standing in her kitchen contemplating the mouse that’s been chillin’ in her apartment, stressing about the mostly empty fridge and how she always finds a way to feed us, when my four-year-old gender fluid son came to me and said: “mamí, bisabuela said I can’t paint my nails because I am a boy.” (For some reason I haven’t figured out yet) I was surprised and thought I could fix it. “Let’s go talk to bisabuela,” I said. “She didn’t let me wear nailpolish until I was like 14!,” I said, hoping/pretending her “no” was about his age, knowing full well deep down that it wasn’t.
She was in her room quietly rearranging the nail polish he had clearly thumbed through. Once again, my son asked her: “bisabuela can you paint my nails?” Pointing to the shade he wants, “can I have red? pink? no, BLACK?” Without yelling or being aggressive, she said “NO! I told you baby: You’re a boy!” He looked at me in disbelief, he was clearly hurt and confused by her refusal. He had learned that abuelas say “yes” to make up and nail polish and all things sparkly from books and my mother, his wela. “We let him accessorize however he wants. Come on wela, what harm can it do?” Thinking it was about the color, I tried to compromise maybe blue or green, and still she shook her head no. She said to him “Mamí can do clear polish, pero no puedo (I can’t).” She didn’t say I won’t, she said “I can’t” with the kind of resolve I know to be unshakeable. He didn’t want clear, so this gesture on her end solved nothing from his perspective.
I looked around, and let the familiar atmosphere wash over me: rosaries of all sizes and colors hanging from walls covered in baby Jesus, Mary Mother of God, a variety of saints and prayer cards—you get the picture. She surrounds herself with Catholic iconography. And then, her “I can’t” comes into my understanding. I remember that earlier, she took an opportunity to tell me he was “like this” (energetic/hyper) because he wasn’t baptized. I shrugged it off and told her he was, just not in the Catholic church (we held an interfaith blessing ceremony, which she did not attend).
She had breast cancer some time in the ’90s (I am terrible and can’t remember exactly when, but for what it’s worth she couldn’t remember the exact year either). She has always been the most devout Catholic, and before her mobility shifted she was in the choir. When she had the cancer removed she prayed and promised God that if he took her cancer away forever she would never cut her hair. She has been cancer free since. We both believe that the power of her prayer played a major role in her remission (albeit from different belief systems).
She left the room and I walked over to my son, kneeled in front of him and said “I know that you don’t want clear polish, but that means we can’t paint your nails right now. Bisabuela has different ideas about gender than we do. Since we are in her house, and this is her nail polish, we have to be respectful of her decision. But when we get home you can have whatever color you want.” [A flash forward for the distressed reader: his aunt had a lovely red waiting for him when we arrived at her house later that day and he proceeded to paint both of his hands.]
I was fine on the outside, empathizing with him but not wanting him to have a negative association with someone who was so important to me. That said, my heart was hurting and I wanted to leave almost immediately. My cisgender straight passing self was safe there, but my son was not. I wrote and rewrote that last sentence about 7 times, because “safety” is such a loaded term and I would never want to suggest she would purposefully harm him. What I mean to say is that my son’s gender binary transgressions were not welcome and because I married a cisman my queerness was out of sight out of mind.
I texted my friend/PhD wife/sister in law: “Do y’all have red nail polish? My grandmother just told [my son] that boys don’t wear nail polish. I need to fix it. […] I think it’s less important to paint his nails and more important for someone else in his life to reinforce that it’s ok. […] She wasn’t mean about it. Just very catholic about it.”
Two years ago, I wrote about being a queer feminist mamí. I wrote about how folks on social media demanded that I “‘straighten’ his gender presentation and ‘fix’ his body” onto a heteropatriarchal gender binary violently imposed by centuries of colonization. It’s not just folks on social media, obviously. And it’s not so easy to resist their demands.
Since that visit, at least once a day, I stress about how I handled it. Did I acquiesce? What did I model for him in that moment? Was I avoiding conflict with my abuela at his expense? Was I performing revolutionary motherhood in that instance? How else could I have handled it? What did he make of the fact that she—Latina—said no and his aunt—white (partnered with a Latina)—said yes? What stereotypes did this affirm? What sense of belonging did it trigger? What ideas about gender, queerness, and latinidad were set in motion?
I know these are my concerns. He is four, he probably hasn’t thought about it since. These are my concerns that stem from other memories associated with wela. She didn’t attend my “lesbian wedding” and she treated my ex-wife like a friend (chatting about baseball), not my lover. She didn’t intervene when my step-grandfather—her ex-second husband—scolded me for not wearing tights under my church dress (too provocative at 8 years old I guess). She told me that cutting my hair short was like cutting my femininity, my womanhood, away (a sin).
She has also loved me deeply and sincerely through all of our difference. I call her and ask her to pray for me and my friends when we are in need, she in turn (no doubt) prays for things I do not ask for and do not want. And yet, I believe in her belief. She keeps photos of me, my mother, and sister on her alter displayed in the sala. She was my penpal for years when I was living in Texas: we built bridges to transcend our language barrier (I understand her better than I do other Spanish speaking folks).
The clear nail polish and the permission she gave for “mamí to do it” was her bridge. And I held my child’s hand as we crossed it.
I am writing this now because though I have no answers, but I do still believe that “Sharing the labour of queer Latina mothering […] can be a performative and pedagogical anti-colonial enactment that moves decolonized feminist praxis beyond the work of a metaphor, and into the realm of healing and of transformation.”
For the reader who has made it this far: thank you. And I’m sorry. I cannot offer a “neat” ending here. I have no brilliant theoretical conclusion to offer as a template for negotiating the effects of queer Latina feminist parenting. Although I do have a sense that there is something in here about that clear nail polish and my queer invisibility…for later. All I can do now is share what has happened with those who are interested, in the hope that together we can continue to build queer Latinx worlds that are resilient and free.