May 19, 2013, Boone Ave in the Bronx NY. Artists: AbbyTC5, Neks, Queen Andrea, Erotica67, Miss163, Pixie, and Chock.
I had the challenge of discussing white feminism, bridgework, and intersectionality in ten minutes for a panel on “Race and the Women’s Movement” as part of my community’s celebration of Women’s History Month.
The panel was moderated by Mariel Fiori of La Voz and La Voz en la Radio. Panelists included:
- Susan Lewis, Professor Emerita in the Department of History at SUNY New Paltz, will discuss race in the suffrage movement.
- Evelyn Clarke is the former Ulster County Human Rights Commissioner and Youth Bureau Director. Evelyn is a voice-over artist and also serves as an ordained minister at New Progressive Baptist Church, Kingston, NY. She will reveal the “Unsung Sheroes of the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist Movement.”
- Rashida Tyler, Citizen Action of New York Board of Directors Member for the Hudson Valley, will speak about her experience in organizing and local government.
- Jessica Nydia Pabón-Colón, Assistant Professor at SUNY New Paltz, will speak about teaching and applying the feminist-of-color concepts, “bridgework” and “intersectionality.”
- Diane Harriford is a Professor at Vassar College and the current Vice President of the National Women’s Studies Association. She has also been the Chair of the Sociology Department and Director of the Women’s Studies Program at Vassar.
I have two videos: the first one is the official video of the entire event including Q&A. I begin speaking around minute 40. The second video was taken by a person in the audience, is a little shaky, but is a clip of just my ten minutes. Thanks for watching and please share!
Here are the texts I mention:
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color by Cherríe Moraga (Editor), Gloria Anzaldúa (Editor)
On Intersectionality: Essential Writings by Kimberlé Crenshaw
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
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.
I woke up this morning with a headache stemming from my neck and shoulders: a headache I blamed on my pillows but soon realized was actually tension. Before I had my coffee and actively engaged my “thinking” self, my body told me that today we (people of color) would need to fortify, to take care ahead of the SUNY New Paltz College Council’s vote on the Hasbrouck Complex re-naming.
I am writing this open letter as a non-tenured Puerto Rican faculty member who identifies as a queer woman at a predominantly white institution in a predominately white area to my fellow people of color at SUNY New Paltz—to all faculty, staff, and students—in the case that the council votes down the recommendation to rename. I write in solidarity and in love, with vulnerability and without fear.
I was unprepared last time—I thought surely they would vote to change the name with this much support from campus members. I left that meeting hopeless, infuriated, and questioning my worth/work in academia and at SUNY New Paltz in general. I know others did as well. I spent a great deal of time over the following days unpacking what had happened and how students felt about it in my classrooms.
This time, I am ready and I want you to be ready to. I want to suggest that you make a self-care plan, a community care plan!
I want to suggest that we take as much time caring for ourselves as we do trying to change the institutions determined to beat us down.
“I would call our work to change the world ‘science fictional behavior’—being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations. […] It is so important that we fight for the future, get into the game, get dirty, get experimental.” […] Remember you are water. Of course you leave salt trails. Of course you are crying. Flow. […] water seeks scale, that even your tears seek the recognition of community. that the heart is a front line and the fight is to feel in a world of distraction. […] that your grief is a worthwhile use of your time.”
― adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds
Hopefully, this love letter will be for nothing! We will win this battle in our ongoing war for an inclusive and equitable college campus that roots out the settler colonial white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal foundations to imagine and manifest something better.But in case it isn’t:
you are not alone.
you are allowed to feel.
you do not have to explain those feelings.
you belong here.
you are loved.
you are worthy.
you are valued.
you are in community.
your power does not come from (and does not need to be validated) from “above,” it is in you.
and you deserve better.
PS. Check out the video produced by the DASHlab reminding us of our mission to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
We chatted about
- my book Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora (02:13)
- The future of feminist graffiti art (05:10)
- The intersection of art, academia, and activism in Jessica’s work (10:14)
- Curation as a social justice project (12:22)
- Resisting academia’s hyper-productivity culture (16:01)
- Imagining Otherwise (18:56)
The transcript and show notes can be found here:
The show notes contain links to all my projects, as well as the books, people, and concepts discussed in the episode (which is super helpful for teaching!). Give it a listen and let me know what you think. #graffitigrrlz
I am *so* hyped for this book (and to be part of it)!
Sneak peak of the cover. It comes out in June.
Table of Contents
Introduction, Grisel Y. Acosta
1. “Punks and Hipsters: Latina Outsiders Remaking Latina Identity,” Grisel Y. Acosta
2. “The child is bewitched”: Syncretism and Self-Making in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban,” Alexander Lalama
3. “Coritos for Las de Afuera,” Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros
4. “The Journey of a Sexy Nerd—Antes Muerte Que Sencilla,” Connie Pertuz
5. “Just for Standing Out,” Toni Plummer
6. “Activism is Not a Phase: Testimonio of a Radical Xicana Ph.D.,” Irene M. Sánchez
7. “Playing Chola: The Discourse of Subjects and Subject-Selves,” Veronica Sandoval
8. “Caravan” Grisel Y. Acosta
9. “Ruidosas to the Front: Alice Bag and the Construction of Violence Girl,” Sarah Dowman
10. “Loving Latinas: When Questioning Sexuality Means Questioning Latinidad,” Sarah Paruolo
11. “Returning to the Bronx: Gender Fluidity and Coming of Age in Juliet Takes a Breath,” Grisel Y. Acosta
12. “Separación,” Luis Lopez-Maldonado
13. “Catcalls to My Brain,” Nancy Mercado
14. “Between and Beyond the Mediated and the Material in Teatro Luna’s Generation Sex,” Melissa Huerta
15. “Permission,” Stephanie Jimenez
16. “The Lunasole Class,” Stephanie Laterza
17. “Parts of an Autobiography,” Carmen Giménez Smith
18. “Every woman keeps a flame against the wind,” Kristen Millares Young
19. “Dear Barbara T. y Gloria E.: Found Auto-ethnographic Letters to Afro-Latinx Nepantla Acrobats,” Monique Guishard
20. “Haciendo Caras: The Alter-Native Illuminations of Laura Varela and Vaago Weiland’s Enlight-Tent,” Cathryn Merla-Watson
21. “On the Threshold: A Latina English Professor,” M. Soledad Caballero
22. “My English Victorian Dating Troubles,” Analicia Sotelo
23. “What was the passion fruit named before the Europeans renamed it?,” and “Excused Absences” Aline Mello
24. “Inlaws, Outlaws,” Anna Padilla-Davis
25. “Yo Soy Boricua Feminista, Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Notes from a DiaspoRican on Performing Outsider Identity,” Jessica Pabón-Colón
26. “Latina Liberation: A Conversation of Soul, Sacred Well-Being & Wholeness,” Gloria Rodriguez
27. “Pa’Que Sepan,” Vanessa Alviso
28. “The Symbology of the Derailed Mind,” Angela Gonzalez-Gartelman
29. “Poison and Monsters,” Jiovanna Pérez
30. “Stroke,” Nova Gutierrez
31. “You Either See Me or You Don’t,” Joanmaris Cuello
32. “My Mother as the Voice of Frida Kahlo,” Analicia Sotelo
33. “Sounding La Raza Cósmica,” Veronica Salinas
34. “Why a Girl Becomes a Hardcore Chica” Grisel Y. Acosta
35. “Dropping Dimes,” Diana Díaz
36. “Good Enough,” Nancy Méndez-Booth
37. “Tracing Elaine Summer’s Dance and Performance Lineage: Performance Notes,” Jane Gabriels
38. “Belonging, Chaos, Blood, and Tissues: Assumptions about Latina Writers in Academia,” Naida Saavedra
39. “Write Like a Girl,” Claudia Rodriguez
40. Conclusion, Grisel Y. Acosta
Throughout the book they challenge graffiti being Hip Hop and fail to call themselves feminists. However this disjunct leads Pabón-Colón to much more nuanced understandings. So, for instance, towards the end of the book she discusses why the South American ‘graffiteras’ reject the feminist label. This could have haughtily been put down to their own ignorance but instead Pabón-Colón concludes that this is a failure of Western feminists to “make room for truly alternative performances of feminism, despite years of scholarship and activism demanding that very thing.T_C, 2019
Thank you to T_C over at Graffiti Review!
You know those amazing shirts that list the feminists we love? I bought one maybe 7 years ago (Audre, Gloria, Angela, bell) and I love that shirt.
And I’ve always wanted one with Puerto Rican feminists on it. As I continue on my journey of unlearning and relearning, the names of the warriors who came before me matters.
And when you want something done, sometimes you have to do it yourself. So, I made a tote bag. If you too want to honor boricuas doing important things now and in the past, pre-order your tote bag today! As usual, the bag is a #FeministsforPuertoRico fundraiser, so please share with anyone who wants a nice sturdy tote with a zipper and an inside pocket.
I planned on marching with my local #WomensMarch2019, but my knee had different ideas about how I’d spend the day. So here I am: blogging.
My friends keep texting me and folks keep asking me what I think about the current controversy with the Women’s Marches. (If you want a take I co-sign 150% read Alicia Garza’s piece here). Here is what I think in a nutshell: there has always been and will always be controversy and conflict in coalition.
I’ve learned that controversy, conflict, and failure should be valued, remembered, and treated as lessons in what *not* to do next time. I learned this firsthand in my own organizing work, but also by studying women of color feminisms.
For the march today, I was going to make a sign focusing on coalition and difference, but since I can’t walk today I made these instead. The images below are a small grouping of quotes old and new that inspire me and that I hope inspire you.