On queer feminist parenting, latinidad, cissexism, abuelas, and heartbreak

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.

NOW AVAILABLE: “All Hail the Queenz: A Queer Feminist Recalibration of Hip Hop Scholarship”

About two years ago my colleague Dr. Shanté Smalls and I decided to put together a special issue that would recalibrate hip hops studies from a feminist performance studies perspective. And now, the entire issue is available for your reading pleasure (links embedded in text)!! Cover Image: Queens, by AbbyTC5.

TOC breakdown:

Critical intimacies: hip hop as queer feminist pedagogy
Jessica N. Pabón & Shanté Paradigm Smalls

Interview with AbbyTC5: a pioneering ‘HomeGirl’ in Hip-Hop herstory
Jessica N. Pabón

From blues women to b-girls: performing badass femininity
Imani Kai Johnson

A king named Nicki: strategic queerness and the black femmecee
Savannah Shange

From Dirty South to potty mouth: Cee Lo Green’s black camp freedom project, or, the profaning of an utterly profane form
Danielle Heard

Techniques of black male re/dress: corporeal drag and kinesthetic politics in the rebirth of Waacking/Punkin’
Naomi Bragin

Nicki-aesthetics: the camp performance of Nicki Minaj
Uri McMillan

Carnal teachings: raunch aesthetics as queer feminist pedagogies in Yo! Majesty’s hip hop practice
Jillian Hernandez

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 7.29.11 PM

Interview with Stela

As I’ve mentioned before—nothing makes my day like an email from someone who has seen and enjoyed my TED talk or read my manifesto in COP. Last September, I received an email from Stela, a Québécoise feminist street artist from Montreal, Canada who was mentioned in the guest blog by Katrine Couvrette. Stela’s work caught my eye because her absolutely curvilinear handstyle, pastel color palette, and pretty soft-eyed characters are almost always adorned with explicit and aggressive language. I’m all about that kind of contrast in public art…and everyday life. 😉 As per usual, I asked if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions for my research and she agreed. When I send interviews via email I never really know what to expect, but Stela was thorough and sent a lot of photos.

She talks about the value of finding a peer to paint and talk feminist politics with, her social and political aesthetics, public reception, how painting helped her “reclaim her girlhood” and her feminist identity (which I find fascinating!), the value of illegal graffiti, and being an out queer graffiti writer wishing for a community (a unique positionality to say the least). I hope you enjoy reading about her and looking at her work as much as I do!

Tag and how you settled on the name: Stela, or Starchild Stela

Occupation (9-5): Aspiring feminist scholar (student), florist

Crews (If you rep a crew, what are the pros and cons and can you share a bit of the history): WZRDS GNG

-the pros: it means you have support and respect, that you are valued as an artist, and that basically you have friends to back you up

-the cons: you cannot control what the other members do, and when some of them happen to be a**holes you got to learn how to deal with it!

How would you describe your style: I mainly paint fierce feminine characters, preferably in pastel tones. People often describe my recent stuff as kawaii/cute, femme and feminist. People who know me often says that I look like the characters I paint, but I’d say I paint characters I would like to be friends with, that I’d like to hug and support. My mediums vary but I mostly use primers and spray paint, the cheaper the better (I like grimyness and free stuff). I’m also known for being a prolific sticker artist. I think people see what I do as street art, I really see it as a hybrid form of graffiti, as I use mostly spraypaint, but don’t paint letters.

Writing for how long and how did you get started: I started when I moved to Montreal, which means 7 years ago but I’ve been doing it on and off for a lot of reasons. The “scene” here annoys me. But I think Stela as she is stylistically today was born 3 years ago. I guess it’s when I started to be really addicted and taking it more seriously. I think meeting friends who truly cared about me who were also painting made me want to paint more too. Before that, I think I did not have such relationships, which is hard on the motivation. I mean I knew people who paint, but it was not really magical, so what’s the point (beside safety)? I think when I met Meen I truly got something. There she was the friend I was waiting for all my life, with who I can be silly, talk about politics and feminism, music, art, someone that really touched my soul, and we could talk about this stuff while painting a wall. That meant so much for me and today still I can’t believe how magical she is.

Does your graffiti take on a social message, or primarily is it about style—or both: Both. I love adding a little feminist twist to my pieces. I don’t really intend to add a social message to my pieces, the words I add often reflects the discussion I’m having with friends. But indeed we are talking about what matter to us, and what makes us pissed off. I guess the social message resides in the eyes of the viewer, too. Many teen girls told me I inspired them to start doing street art. I only started to add words to my pieces recently, but it brings another dimension that has a strong social meaning. But primarily painting for me is self-care, so it is not about the message, it’s rather a way to makes me feel better first, a way to cope with society’s and personal bullshit. I like adding sentences like “Think critically or die tryin’” or “Fuck your macho bullshit” under my characters. My favorite piece of 2012 says “cats against cat-calls”, which came out of a discussion I had with a friend. We thought that cat-calls were unfair to cats.

How do you feel when you see your pieces up: It depends if I’m satisfy of the result! I think every time I see an older piece it adds a bit of fierceness to my ego, but it also reminds me that I overcome lots of stuff. Recent pieces make me happy, and I’m overwhelmed by the reception of some of them got. It brings me tons of ambivalent feelings! I like that some people relate to it, especially teenage girls, because I think I started doing it as a way to reclaim my girlhood.

How do you feel when you are gettin’ up? What emotions do you associate with the act: I think it depends of the situation. I think the best feeling in the world is painting freight train when it’s not cold outside. Winters are rough here and I often end up painting in the cold, which brings a lot of frustration too! With the act itself, I think I associate fierceness, silliness and fun times. It makes me feel like I will never grow up, and it is in itself one of the best thing ever. There’s something really powerful in painting somewhere you are not supposed to. It can be hard, but it is super fun.

What does the word “community” mean to you in relation to graffiti culture: “Community” is a big word for me. If there is such thing of a “graffiti community” in my city I’m certainly not a part of it. And I’m totally fine with it because I don’t relate to it. If you say that community is about the connections I made with other folks who I paint with, that’s different. There’s only a handful (ok maybe two hands) of people I truly love to paint with, they know who they are, and at the end it’s a bit because of them that I keep painting, it’s not as fun if you are alone. It’s important for me to paint with folks who respect me, and most importantly I think it’s the fact I can talk with them. Having silly or critical discussion is central to me. I believe that I have a small network of really awesome people who paint too, and they are awesome. I think people that organize graffiti stuff here don’t take me seriously, because, well I’m not serious about graffiti. Fair enough!

What do you think is the historical significance of graffiti: Taking back/ reclaiming the space that is controlled by people beholding power. I mean now it can be perceived differently because there is a strong consumerist graffiti scene, which has nothing to do with the origins and true impact of graffiti; which for me is inherently about breaking the law and the social order. As my city is being increasingly gentrified, I think ALL illegal graffiti, even if it is not intended to have a social significance, disturb the forces trying to control the city.

Do you think of yourself as a feminist: Yes! I am currently doing my undergrad degree in gender studies, so feminism is an important part of my everyday life. It’s funny because I think I started to be interested in feminism because of experiences related to graffiti, unpleasant experiences and stuff I witnessed. I really perceived myself as anti-feminist back then, but I really had the mediatic, monolithic white feminist from the 70s in mind and obviously I couldn’t relate. The more I read about feminism and gender theories, the more stories of resistance I read, the more I was able to associate the fucked up stuff I went through with a broader picture. When I started to meet vocal feminists, I understood they were up to something I could totally relate. They really inspired me. Then eventually I started to consider myself a feminist, and an outspoken one. Being openly feminist means being reminded daily that feminine power scare the shit out of many. It also seems like an incongruity for some to be a feminist graffiti artist, and it seems almost every time I talk about it in interview about my art, the “feminist stuff” is cut from the final report.

[To which I say: No worries about that happening here…ha!]

What is feminism to you: Feminism, for me, is a framework that helped me to understand how my experiences of oppression were related to a bigger and complex system. It needs to be intersectional. I think it’s about the political significance of our everyday experience in a rape culture. It allowed me to understand my privileges, and also lead me to the process of becoming a better ally for different struggles.

What does resistance mean to you: Forever bashing back. I think my life shifted when I realized that I had in me the power to resist, cheesy as it sounds. Resistance is being aware that no matter what, nobody can take away your dignity. Resistance is at the core of my fierceness. I think it’s also something that we need to learn to have fun with, like being creative and giving ourselves the permission to be playful even if what we resist bring us painful emotions.

What are the characteristics, personalities, or traits, that you associate with graffiti writers? The ones I hang out with may be different than the mainstream ones! Hahaha… They are not good at maintaining a “contained” lifestyle with a 9 to 5 job. They are all unique, so it’s hard to qualify “them”. I often think of silliness and spontaneity. Good sense of intuitions. Developed aesthetic tastes. A particular interest in shoplifting. For women writers I would add fierceness.

How does graffiti fit into your past, present and future: I started to be interested in street art/ graffiti out of teenage boredom, because I had no true passion in life and I had to do something empowering with myself, and at the time I was partying so this hobby made a bit of sense in my life and schedule. Then I developed my critical thinking and start seeing it as a part of the lifestyle that was meant for me. In the present it is something I will never do enough, I have to set time to do it which is a challenge but that is totally worth it. It still gives me the butterflies. In the future, well, hopefully I will develop skills, be in a femme crew, learn to manage to write essays, be published and being a graffiti artist at night. I’d like to paint in different cities, and I would love to see a queer graffiti scene to develop. More feminist/anti-colonial/anarchist quality street art. A high school friend said of me recently: “well at this point I think she will always be doing it, it’s not like she will stop to be a teenager soon”. I couldn’t agree more.

Tell me what you know about women in graffiti history: For me, there’s two different standpoint we can look at, which is either traditional/hip-hop graffiti, and I think some people really dedicated time to document it, even if it’s probably not enough. It seems, at least in North America, that women who graff had it rough, and they were always outnumbered by men. This side of history is important, but I am more interested in another face of it, which overlap at some points. It is not what some would qualify as graffiti, but rather simple political writing on walls. I would qualify it as feminist street art. I believe revolution; social change and resistance can be read on walls. There is an undocumented history of feminist street art, which appeared (to my knowledge) at the same time graffiti became an “urban crisis”. In the 70s, at the peak of the second-wave of feminism, you could see ads being vandalized by feminists, message such as “discover your clitoris” on walls, reflecting the women’s liberation going on at the time. The backlash against feminism didn’t make these writing disappear. What resonated the most with me is when Doris (in her zine Encyclopedia of Doris) says she felt like someone hold her back when she witnessed girl gang’ graffiti appeared on walls, like “dead dad don’t rape”. For me, this alternative “graffiti” history is under looked, and any graffiti/street artists who label themselves feminist are totally a part of it.