“The need to have equality and Latino diversity in Dharma communities and institutions”

I recently sat on retreat at Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts and left feeling disappointed, as if I had lost a spiritual home. Since 2009 I had attended this hallmark institution for my meditation practice, but also as a refuge from the world. This last time though, as I spoke up about the physical accommodation allocated to the two affinity groups on retreat, the People of Color and LGTBQI sanghas, a white teacher in an interview told me that I had questioned authority and the way institutional decisions were made. To my surprise, I felt scolded and invalidated for speaking up.

I arrived on retreat feeling excited, though with no expectations. As silence gave way to our explorations of the mind, the teachers asserted in several occasions, “All races, religions, and cultures are welcome here. Some of you have come from thirteen other countries and 18 different states.” This was unheard in over twenty or so retreats I had sat at IMS. “You’re all welcome here,” was the opening discourse as most white teachers tried to embrace diversity in their daily Dharma talks, including teachers like John Martin, Carol Wilson, Guy Armstrong, Sally Armstrong, Annie Nugent and Jamie Baraaz. They made an extraordinary effort to mention discrimination, oppression, historical deportations and ongoing concerns around internalized racism and universal suffering. None of these were explored in depth, but only mentioned briefly or unpacked. Uganda Dharma teacher, Bhante Buddharakkhita, who was the tokenized teacher of color for this retreat, spoke about daily occurrences in his experience as a Black Theravada monk in India, South America, and California, however not having the U.S. context of racial, ethnic and gender politics didn’t bring much light to issues of diversity in the U.S. Dharma community. This was the long retreat so many of the people of color who had been recruited into the five-year teacher’s training were there. Their participation was a response to what had happened at Spirit Rock a few months earlier when Dharma teachers, Larry Yang, Gina Sharpe, and Lila Kate Wheeler, walked out of the training in 2016 because of the lack of diversity. The Board apologized in this letter and made an effort to recruit people of color for future teacher’s trainings, mainly African-Americans thus their efforts falling short for Latino and other people of color practitioners  (https://www.spiritrock.org/diversity-initiative).

In a previous post I had written about my own ethnicity becoming as invisible as “colorism” for Black folks on retreat when Latinos/as issues were never addressed in the People of Color Retreat in 2017. My dilemma was being in silence and not being able to express my ethnic background, as well as not hearing any Dharma talks on U.S. colonialism, oppression and the groups that were represented there, including a good number of Latinos/as born in the United States and Latino/a immigrants like myself. The all African-American and African team only spoke to the “Black body.” So at IMS I was glad to talk to some folks in the beginning of the week at the apple-picking activity, when silence was broken. I found out then that there were other Latinos/as and people of color represented in our retreat and I felt more at ease. Some of my own feelings of insecurity around becoming “invisible” as a woman of color in a white-majority retreat were dissipated as I entered in conversation with other women of Asian-American background, Hindu origins and members of the LGTBQI community. I felt somewhat SEEN before going into silence. In the past, not being able to express myself about my “color” had put me in the white majority, involuntarily passing as “white” because of my light skin.

For a few hours, I walked around enjoying the flower gardens and new Buddha statues on the premises. There were a few new walking meditation rooms as the Meditation Center had expanded and grown. Next, I discovered the People of Color and the LGTBQI affinity groups were having a welcome meeting in Room 200 on the second floor, at the end of the hall of the main building. I got even more excited, thinking this would give me a chance to be “Me,” a Latina, woman of color, pansexual. I had sat at the LGTBQI affinity group at the People of Color retreat at Spirit Rock and it was quite liberating to be with “one’s own people.” For the first time at IMS, Bhante Buddharakkhita led the welcome meeting for people of color. We were all settled in when one of the White teachers joined the meeting. I was surprised to see her there, and when I raised my hand to speak up, I was even more surprised how much her presence had triggered me, bringing me back to the time I had sat with her seven years ago during the scientists and educators’ retreat. My body began to contract as I told my story on that retreat and what other things excluded me as a Latina immigrant on retreat, like when Dharma teachers use the word “America” to refer only to the United States, when in fact it is a continent. U.S. ethnocentrism in language usage excluded me and other “Americans” born south of the United States. Without even realizing, within a few minutes, the presence of this white teacher in the meeting brought up the discrimination I had experienced when teaching at Amherst College, having been tokenized then as a Latina professor. I remembered how this particular teacher had told me to do Metta to myself. Would  loving-kindness be a sufficiently “good practice” for those who suffered oppression? Could Metta close the gap between the oppressed and the oppressor? I couldn’t stop thinking about Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, “Call Me by my True Names,” when he encouraged us to embrace the perpetuator’s and the victim’s actions all in ONE as if the healing of one couldn’t be separated from the healing of the other. Was “Metta” a spiritual bypassing by the white teacher? Would the power of naming the oppressor be more helpful? I remembered it had helped during that retreat seven years ago however to hear this again on this retreat when I brought up other similar issues of inequality in my interview time, didn’t seem appropriate.

At the meeting, the rest of the yogis continued to share the different ways oppression had affected them on retreat from cultural appropriation to language usage, invisibility of the colored body and other oppressions, as well financial obstacles or simply not being selected for the five-year teachers’ training program at Spirit Rock. Most immediate was the story of an African American yogi who had flown from Los Angeles to sit with Bhante Buddharakkhita, yet after reading the Orientation Handbook on our room, which included outdated Peggy Macintosh’s guideline, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” she felt self- conscious in front of the other eighty white folks. She said she wanted to take a plane back home. Towards the end, a Latino yogi made an observation about the presence of the white teacher in that meeting, and politely told her that she shouldn’t have been there, to which she got defensive and responded that the protocol was to have two teachers in those meetings. Despite my own trigger in the body, I had not put it together that her presence had changed the quality of our discussion and was not really appropriate. Bhante Buddharakkhita saved the moment by suggesting that we meet again in the afternoon in Room 204, so many of us came back but not all of us did. I was surprised that a woman from Montreal showed up and another woman from Mozambique, both directed there from the registrar’s office, when self-identification with the people of color label has been more appropriate than institutional guidance. It is about the empowerment in the process of self-identification, not about label assignments. Also, I was surprised how loose and expansive the people of color label was being used, by IMS drawing people from other countries and calling them “people of color.” This was quite a contradiction of the usage of the term and the fact that self-empowerment has been at the core of U.S./Latin American political identity movements throughout the eighties and nineties, all the way back to the civil rights movements in the sixties. The white teacher who showed up for the people of color meeting never apologized, and when the LGTBQI meeting happened in the afternoon, only one white gay teacher showed up. The meeting went much smoother and deeper in our shares.

At the second meeting with Bhante Buddharakkhita, the shares seemed more real to our own concerns, like economic, social, and sexual oppression. The room was small though, half of the size to sit all of us, and the carpet smelled moldy. A Black yogi from New York City told the story how oppressed she felt in the Dharma, and how a teacher had told her that there must be something wrong with her. A yogi from Brazil spoke to her many colored identities, and how people saw her as white or black, depending on the context. Another Hindu, Muslim yogi spoke to her growing up in England, and how she was raised to be a racist, which I related to, and also shared what it was like to be raised as middle-class in Argentina and migrating to the United States where I had learned about social justice from the civil rights movements and the Latino/Puerto Rican/Chicano social movements. I also mentioned the dissolution of borders when it comes to big corporations, war and capital interest. Bhante Buddharakkhita was very enthusiastic about our shares, and asked us to write him notes with more questions that he could address in the Dharma talks at night. I wrote him a five-page letter searching for answers about the role of the Dharma in oppressive situations in the world, and back home in our own U.S. institutions. Recently I had shared the idea to start a people of color sangha in Spanish or even a bilingual one, and the local Dharma teacher had told me that Latinos/as didn’t have the time to meditate. In the town I lived, Fort Bragg, California, there was a large Mexican-American population whom I thought could potentially be interested in learning how to meditate. She explained further that this “immigrant population” was only concerned with “surviving,” basically making money. I didn’t understand why one need excluded the other.

On the first week of the retreat, I kept meditating in Room 204 with both affinity groups, however I had to stop going because of the mildew. During one of the last Q&A sessions,  I raised several questions about the room assigned to the affinity groups in the context of who made the decision to sit us there instead of Room 200 where yogis went when they were late to enter the big meditation hall. I also raised the question of anger and social justice movements after a white Dharma teacher had related them in a dharma talk. He said there was a lot of anger in social movements, and that he had taken the active choice not to get involved with the Transgender Social Justice Movement or other initiatives. Did I hear well? People who were trying to make a change in the world have a different kind of anger from people who sit and meditate? Was one method favor over another one? Wasn’t anger a universal human emotion? As a social activist involved in social justice, (Afro)Latino communities, immigrant and women’s rights, I turned the question inward, was “my” anger not accepted? Was my anger different from white neurosis which was extensively addressed at every retreat I had been, as well as U.S. American dysfunctional practices, politics, and institutions? This was very different from what I had read in the writings of one of the leading engaged Buddhist Dharma teachers, Joana Macy when she wrote: “Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart and as your heart breaks open, there will be room for the world to heal,” Engaged Buddhist Reader, 1996. Bhante Buddharakkhita was grateful for my comment and on our one-on-one interviews we brainstormed about possible rooms at IMS that could accommodate the affinity groups. He said I was instrumental in the change when it happened a week later.

During that first week, I had three individual interviews with the same white teacher that came to the affinity group meeting, and on the last interview I told her I wasn’t in the retreat to educate white people on diversity issues, and that I wouldn’t be attending her fifteen-minute every other day sessions anymore. Overall, her responses were awkward, defensive, and at times incriminating. For example, after I spoke up on behalf of the affinity groups, she implied my intentions were not good, and that the founder of IMS, Joseph Goldstein had been meditating in the Room 204 for thirty years. I felt unheard and invalidated. Institutional sacred cows’ actions meant more to her that my need to be in a healthy environment. In fact, soon after this last encounter with her, my fibromyalgia symptoms were activated and I had pain and insomnia for the days that followed. When I tried to explain that my chronic back pain had induced the fibromyalgia and that a fall on the ice at Amherst College was the onset of my physical suffering, she asked me if I had my balance checked with the doctor. I knew trauma in the body could be locked for many years, but it was then that I was one hundred percent sure, something that she would probably never understand. When we discussed my body awareness in the context of my practice, she asked me if I had the skills to counteract the trauma, which I responded positively, through long deep breathing, something I had learned as a Kundalini yoga teacher, not as a Vipassana practitioner. All the years I couldn’t sit on the meditation cushion I had learned to make my life my practice, something she didn’t understand either when she questioned why I had spoken up for my peoples’ rights, and instead gave me other options that I could have used instead of causing such “ripples in the community.” Obviously there was a disconnection between their diversity discourse and what they saw as daily community practices to bring about equality and social justice to this and other retreats. She had introduced herself as the Program Coordinator of Spirit Rock so when I mentioned that I had tried to sign up at the Mindfulness Yoga program that same week, but was not successful because no scholarships were offered for people of color, she also got defensive and said her planning didn’t include daily registration practices, just the long-term vision of the institution. I was even more surprised when the registrar left me a message the next day that there wasn’t even a payment plan I could have signed up for, and a deposit of $1,700 was necessary if I wanted to save my seat. Of course I declined the attempt.

On the day the retreat started, I had exchanged a few words with Bhante Buddharakkhita about next year’s People of Color retreat at Spirit Rock. I was surprised to hear that it was turning 20 in 2018. I would have imagined our Dharma communities would be more diverse by now. What had been the problem? What had been the inabilities of IMS and Spirit Rock in recruiting people of color teachers, were these merely financial or were there other reasons? I had considered it myself before my back injury however no teacher had suggested it, in fact, when I brought it up, I would always get the same answer, “it involves a lot of sitting.” I was about to give up on the idea and even disappointed that if I didn’t sit long enough, then I wasn’t a good “Dharma practitioner,” when I heard Bhante Buddharakkhita said in one Dharma talk, that if this practice was just about sitting, all chickens in Uganda would be enlightened. I laughed hard, having the courage to continue the practice despite the fact that I couldn’t sit for long, and got my certification to teach meditation in other spiritual traditions. I remembered a few retreats at IMS where I had lo lay down in the back because of the back pain I was experiencing. My determination was admirable, yet it went unrecognized, like my ethnic and immigrant background.

At various changing points in my life, IMS had been a place to “meditate” about my life, especially hard times: my second divorce, my second and third back surgeries, my diagnosis of fibromyalgia, professional burn out, and the decision to leave academia and become a yoga/meditation teacher. It had become an annual tradition to sit with former social activist Michelle MacDonald and her teaching team, Rebecca Bradshaw and Jesse Vega Maceo-Frey with a former colleague from Amherst College and long-time friend. Having lived in the area, I had organized many events to bring social consciousness to the Latino/Latin American/Caribbean communities, and as I became a committed meditator, many of our discussions with this colleague throughout the years evolved around how to combine social justice with contemplative practices, and how to integrate meditation into our academic careers. Against this background, I could notice that Joana Macy’s adaptive response to the sorrows of our time had been spiritually bypassed at IMS. I came to the realization that I had lost my spiritual refuge from the world. I could no longer trust an institution that invalidated who I was, and which didn’t represent my values or even acknowledged my suffering in the right, respectful way I deserved. My heart ached and I decided to leave early.

On the last day, I vowed to the Buddha statue in the Dharma hall. Even after everything that had happened, I felt grateful that my prayer to align my heart and my mind had been heard as I was stripped off from all the solid identities I had felt mine. I remembered saying at the beginning of my request for a better room that I was not attached to the outcome. I had truly let my identities go, and expected no change in return. Yet I felt frustrated and overwhelmed with the lack of support and justice for everyone to get a chance to be heard and appreciated, regardless of race, culture, religion, immigrant status or ethnic background, as it was said in the opening remarks. Was being a “good yogi” aligned with being defeated in social justice efforts? Was it easier to talk about social justice in Africa, India, Latin America, as expressed in Dharma talks calling out for compassion, love and mutual understanding than in the United States? Mandela’s reconciliation treaty was brought up in one of the Dharma talks as an example of “good practice,” instead of recurring to a social revolution in South Africa upon his release from prison. From the way I spoke from my heart, it never occurred to me that I was “revolting,” or that “reconciling” meant arriving at a spiritual compromise of one’s identities because No Self/Anata was something to look forward to.

I stood out in my own silence and it hurt, having found no solace when it came to my well being and mental heath on this retreat. I felt defeated over no competition, silenced over no attempt to revolt, indoctrinated under no school assumptions of “who” carries “what” teachings, and most importantly, rejected for speaking up for my own identities. I understood then that only those who have lived through oppression, discrimination, and the effort to bring about social change in our daily lives know how much a new practice, not a fancy discourse, for the inclusion of people of color is needed in Dharma institutions, for everyone’s healing. All I could perceive from the white teachers leading this retreat was fear and the inability to actually embrace diversity and let go of power so that “others” could be treated equally. Perhaps only when white teachers faced their shadows, lack of understanding, and shortcomings as Dharma leaders, only then Latinos/as and other people of color groups would feel fully included in Dharma communities. Until then, any discourse on diversity and equality falls through the institutional cracks of IMS and Spirit Rock as leading institutions of Eastern traditions and the Dharma in the West.

 

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“Latino Diversity at Spirit Rock? The dance between being seen and the “I” in People of Color Retreats”

 

2017-08-01-PHOTO-00000104I recently spent a week in silence at Spirit Rock’s People of Color Retreat organized by Dharma teachers of color, Spring Washam, Rolf Gates, Bhante Buddharakkhita and Ruth King. Unexpectedly, as I unraveled the many identities that lived in me, I questioned what I was being “seen” for.

I’m a long time meditator and have participated in many retreats at IMS, Insight Meditation Society, Barre Massachusetts, and at Spirit Rock, Woodacre, California. As usual, I felt nervous about going into silence for days at a time, but something in me told me that this retreat would be special. Three years earlier, during my first people of color retreat I was afraid of how other yogis would see me, whether I belonged in the People of Color sangha because of my lighter skin. Not having being born in the United States also added another layer to my many identity dilemmas.  Despite my anxiety, the quality of sitting with other people of color took me deeper into the body/mind connection around issues of color, culture, and territorial boundaries.

I signed up for the yogi job to chop vegetables in the morning (after standing in a long line) and asked to lay down in my bedroom to rest my back. Two African-American women were working the registration process, and one of them I recognized from an earlier people of color retreat. Both women had volunteered to work as registrar, getting paid like Dharma teachers, based on a Dana system of donation by the participants. One of them attended to my physical needs right away, especially after telling her about the time it took to register us for the yogi jobs. This White guy seemed more “mindful” about how well he got his job done than our restlessness to get to our rooms. She offered me a motorized wheel chair but I decided to walk instead. I didn’t want to call more attention to my body. My color skin was already something I was becoming more and more conscious as I made my way into the dorms.

After a nap, I walked into the Dharma Hall to reserve my seat and to my surprise the statue of Kuan Yin and the Buddha were back to back on the floor surrounded in a circle with our yogi cushions. Flowers, crystals and other adornments decorated the altar, showing no hierarchies amongst the participants that were about to gather around them. It brought me back to those circles of truth we did in elementary school in Argentina when playing with a bottle we twisted around and whoever had the neck pointed at them had to choose between a Kiss or Telling the Truth. I always went with the second option, which brought me closer to what I was about to do all week, look at my own truth.

I also recognized the circle as an ancient tradition amongst Third World communities, African and Native American in particular, and I recognized the intention of bringing us back to “home” to the many communities that as people of color we had left behind or were forced to leave behind one, two, three or four generations ago. Our commonality: we all lived in the United States and related differently to one another depending on our historical and ancestral roots. I smiled at the altar image thinking its lay out brought us as equals, all brothers and sisters ready to strip ourselves of our egos.

A few days in, not having talked to most people on retreat and deep in my yogi mind, I began to question whether my pink olive freckled skin and reddish hair had people confused about my cultural background. My accent was what defined me once I opened my mouth, but here I couldn’t speak. Many times during my research on immigrant women in Dominican Republic and New York City, I had passed inadvertently as White, and most people thought I was a “White Gringa,” until I spoke up and shared my political views with a foreign accent. I never passed as “White” intentionally but my white privilege was at times my leverage for whatever situation could arise, or didn’t arise.

As hours and minutes went by (everything slowed down on retreats), I began to question: Am I Latina? Am I South American? What are the border differences of all my identities: Latina Immigrant, Third World, U.S. citizen, and Woman of Color? How do they include or exclude themselves? How do they include or exclude me? In a way, the many labels made me a “SATA,” a name Puerto Ricans used when they didn’t know the breed of their dogs, a “MIX,” a “HYBRID,” and in some instances a “TRANSGRESSOR” for daring to cross the lines of “pure blood” or White dominant culture.

I was sure of one thing, being of Italian, German and South American great grandparents who emigrated in the 1850s to Argentina, and having been born there had changed the way my European ancestry marked me. This stood in contrast to becoming of age as an adult woman in the United States. Many times I wondered why my ancestors decided to go to South America instead of North America, and I imagined how our fates would be different today. Besides, while growing up I adhered to a global middle-class South American rationale whereas looking up to U.S. and European culture, mainly through music and fashion in my teenage years, was the way to go and put me in a global community of personal tastes and lifestyles.

Once in the United States, I studied the ways globalization impacted inequality, social justice, color, and class, and it took only a few years before I became more and more politically “aware,” especially when I taught Sociology at the university, resisting and bringing social awareness to discrimination against the Latino/a community in the U.S. and abroad. I also saw the impact U.S. domestic and foreign policy had on Third World countries, and how these policies were connected to migration patterns in the Americas. In the beginning of the week, I even told one of the teachers in an interview, “I don’t feel I belong anywhere. I’m a US. citizen but I wasn’t born here.” Why wasn’t thirty years living in this country enough of an alliance to feel “American”? What was I missing? I was American, I would tell myself, having been born in South America. How ethnocentric of one country to take the name of a whole continent? Other times I had been able to differentiate between community politics and government decisions, telling myself it was okay to feel “American” even when I didn’t agree with our government policies. Many of my U.S. American friends didn’t agree either. I told that same teacher that I had noticed the lack of Latino Dharma teachers in this and other retreats, and he kindly agreed with me.

By the middle of the week, I felt anger and frustration with Spirit Rock for not training more Latino Dharma teachers. I was also frustrated with the U.S. government, foreign policy, oppression and violence in the world, and how every single person on retreat was affected by the larger picture. Each hour I became more self conscious and self aware of the political underpinnings of our identities, colors, class differences, but instead of going down the spiral of blame, guilt, and shame, I focused on what was at stake for me to become a more conscious, loving, and compassionate individual in the midst of social oppression.

One of the notes included my thoughts on the endless causes and consequences of our racial and cultural crossings, and the lack of Latino representation in the teaching body. To make things worse, one of them said in a Q&A session in reference to the Black Body and her own experiences: “and then we have the immigrants.” Her phrase didn’t land well in me. It made me feel even more foreign. I thought to myself but I really meant it for her, “Let’s revise the history of colonialism/imperialism/capitalism please,” and how countries’ policies affect immigrants in their decision to displace themselves from their families and places of origin. Why was being “an immigrant” such a big deal in my head? Was economics the only motivation guiding our decisions? Why did I feel on the defensive? Were immigrants not included in the “people of color” U.S. definition? It reminded me of a polemic with affirmative action in the eighties when newly arrived immigrants from South America were filling requirements that critics said “should have gone to the colonial groups that have been oppressed for generations in the United States like African-Americans, Latinos/as, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans.” After days of observing my stories, cravings for likes and dislikes without crossing the bridge between wanting, feeling, and doing, I realized that my “difference,” the one I carried in my body and psyche, revolved around the fact I was born and raised in South America, and two of my grandparents were born in Uruguay and Brazil, two countries with a large African and Indigenous population and a process of mestizaje that was now part of my historical origins, locality and identity. For the first time in the Dharma community, this acknowledgement deep in my yogi mind changed the way I saw myself, from the moment I migrated from South to North in search of a professional degree at eighteen, to a day on retreat where after thirty years of having lived in the United States, I was still feeling like a “foreigner.”

Interestingly enough, when I wasn’t in my head, the experience of my body was a different one. On this retreat I felt comfortable, safe, taken care of, pampered with good, healthy food, and caressed with love and good boundaries when it came to our presence and communion together. The peace I experienced sitting in community with other people of color was magic, and it didn’t matter where we were from. In fact at one point on the retreat I realized that thinking about our own cultural/racial origins was endless, so I began to see each person as another human being, and allowed for our common and yet unique human experience to settle in. This was possible because of our own understanding of the suffering we have carried from generation after generation around discrimination and oppression in the world. Used to spiritual bypassing in so many violent forms, going deeper into the realm of color and identity made my retreat much more real and powerful. I was able to heal those forms of violence that got us to who we are today, to be seen as empowered people of color, giving back to those who made this retreat possible, from the White guy assigning yogi jobs, to the two women in the registrar office, to the people who raised the funds for us to afford the retreat, to the teachers for giving us the opportunity to sit with them and heal with us.

My change in one week was radical. By the end of the week, I began to feel I belonged in this country. It just took one look at the meditation hall, back to our circle of truth, to look at my “other” brothers and sisters like me “to be seen.” Buddha, Kuan Yin, us holding each other’s back. Like them, I also lived here, and was part of the myriad of races, cultures, skin colors, and intertwined histories of colonialism and modern capitalism that made up the United States today. We weren’t “the hungry” and “the poor” His-story had wanted us to be for an easier assimilation; most of us brought culture, music, aliveness, resources and much more of our humanness that we were able to admit, contributing to our ongoing, unraveling “American” commons.

Today, as I write this and wait for my next silent retreat at IMS this Fall, where I was given a scholarship as a people of color to sit with White folks once again, I wonder what yogi mind will emerge as I go deep in self awareness with them and “others.” Will I be “seen” for my many labels or for who I am? Will I embrace my Latina Third World Woman of Color without the need to speak up about it? My mind/body connection begins to dread the geographical contours of my Self as I set myself for another journey inward, yet in communion with what may arise in our common humanness.

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“Homecoming”

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Homecoming= Advent, Arrival, Appearance, Influx, Landing, Meeting, Return, Approach, Disembarkation, Entrance, Happening, Alighting, Dismounting, Acknowledgement, Answer, Revisitation, Recovery, Reoccurrence, Restitution, Repossession, Reinstatement, Reuniting, Recoil, Retreat, Rebound, Reconciliation.

The taxi driver rushed through the outskirts of Buenos Aires in silence. White and grey buildings, decaying paint, brick and tile terraces with grills and dried flower pots. Metallic antennas, telecommunication cables, windows in divided walls, rails in a five lane highway, and another Renault car packed with suitcases heading towards the airport, in the opposite direction. A sudden exit, cobble streets in my old San Telmo neighborhood, youth hang-outs and sexual escapades with my boyfriend, Mi Luna Hotel. A Coca Cola advertisement, Deli Markets with empanadas (meat turnovers) and milanesas (breaded beef cutlets), a graffiti of Carlos Gardel singing tango and Julia Roberts’ image featuring the latest Lancome perfume. A billboard of Shakira’s promising elixir, “Dance,” and United Colors of Benetton’s reconciling cologne, “United Dreams,” depicting Black, Asian, White and Native women next to the words, “I’m White, I’m Black, I’m Yellow, I’m Red.”

Trees decorated the world’s widest avenue, La 9 de Julio, where the obelisk, a gift from the French, stood in its center. Eva Peron’s metallic contour of her head overlooked the traffic. On corporate ad billboards, colorful graffiti from youth gangs cheered up passersby. Still lit, Corrientes Avenue to my right held various signs featuring names of theatre companies, local plays, and cinema productions. Many halls though closed down, their old Neon signs replaced by Cable Television and Netflix advertisements. MacDonald’s occupied the place of the local hamburger joint, PumperNic. Cellular phone stores, Personal and Movistar popped up everywhere. Clothing store’s names showed a mixed of languages and cultures, Legacy, Icebow, Sea Tu Voluntad, Crocs, The London Shop, Rip Curl, Devre, Vilaro Ropa, Ash, Urban Cow, Rouge, Clara, Cheeky, Mc Taylor, Mamy Blue, Yagmour, Boating, OGGI, Look Famacity, Cardon—Cosa Nuestra, Antonio Belgornio, Kill Jeans, Maldito Glam. They stood next to Universo Garden Angels Oils, Freddo Ice Cream Parlor, Karpatos Luggage, Los Robles Polo, Biblos Resto and Coffee Shop, Martinez Café, Starbucks, and The Coffee House. On the edge of transnational shopping, homeless people slept on the Avenue’s parks next to stop buses for shelter. The former city governor closed down the business area to private cars. Only pedestrians, buses and taxis could transit. Children dove into overflowed blue garbage containers looking for the day’s meal. Jugglers did their best at the stop light for some change. Old movies of Soledad Sylveria, Moria Casan, Susana Jimenez, and el Gordo Porcel starred in an old city theatre.

I stared out the window. Another Friday in the Cartesian calendar. At eight in the morning the city woke up from a nightmare. Youth and night owls were gone like my Dad. The avenue’s clock reminded me of the father of rationality, Descartes’ less famous phrase: “To arrive at the truth, one must get rid of everything we know once in a lifetime and rebuild our system of knowledge.” We were always creatures of habits. Tightness in my stomach. After a fall from a horse, my mom’s leg broke. After fifty-six years of marriage, her heart was also broken. Tingling signs from my overworked, burnt out spine. Love and Trauma. Family dynamics, forerunners of negative emotions. Resentments: Unmet expectations. Blame, Anger, Grief. Unconditional love: Words or whims of fate?

The car took a turn on Marcelo T. de Alvear Street, leading to the same bedroom on 1065 Libertad Street. It hit me then I lived  on a city street called Freedom since I was a teenager. It never worked. I anticipated jasmine scent from my mom’s perfume, the smell of steak and salad, baked chicken with potatoes, meat bread with homemade ricotta ravioli, ham and cheese empanadas. Her aloe plants hung from the balcony security bars. Intimacy spaces defined the outside in a postmodern world. A fifty-year old refrigerator with magnets from around the world. The same velvet sofa from their wedding gift list. Two hundred-year-old handmade Oriental rugs. The same red kitchen clock I gave my parents for their twentieth-fifth anniversary. No image of an in-between space lacking edges or borders. How many doors did I open to take a look outside? How many doors did I close to take a look inside? Crumbling structures that no longer served me. World contact led me to renovation, invention, and new habits.  Maybe Descartes was right but no one listened and lived instead by “to think is to be.” Jorge Luis Borges’ memory of a memory. Was it as real or the same?

The taxi stopped and the driver rushed to put my luggage on the sidewalk. I tipped him a $5 dollar bill. He smiled and didn’t say a word. Pedestrians walked around them. A line of youth in school uniforms stood at the 39 bus stop on Libertad Street and Santa Fe Avenue. My finger held the buzzer. Two crystal doors, two floors, two balconies, two parallel soap-operas between my mother and myself. The lavender oils in my purse soothed my hyperactive, anxious brain. I lowered my sunglasses holding my hair straight. I shook my head and adjusted my eyes to the morning sunlight. I covered my right ear. The sound of the breaks in the orange school bus penetrated my eardrum. Kids yelling in their blue and white uniforms from public schools. It used to be one of the best, free educational systems in Latin America.

The doorman held the doors as I pushed my luggage. I welcomed his greetings and update on my mother.He had a concerned look. “She was always coming and going. She must be in a lot of pain.” I nodded. “Yes, she is pretty active.” I held my mouth tight, thinking what was ahead of me. “We’ll see how she takes it.” I took my sunglasses off and rolled my eyes. “Two months of bed rest.” He chuckled, “Good luck with that.” I closed the metallic door of a tight elevator in the back and pushed the second floor button. The front entrance was always locked.

Going up, I already missed my corner of the world: grounded, neutral territory, walking on my own two feet, unlocked doors, the quiet of the country-side, orange and mint bubble baths, C.I.A agent Carrie Mathison’s bipolar fantasies with a U.S. Marine  turned terrorist on Homeland–a popular T.V. show on Netflix, two million unaccounted presidential votes, Sheryl Crow’s song “Soak up the Sun” playing on Spotify between car commercials, the barking of dogs, the grace walk of wild cats and a neighborhood fox, the smell of horse sweat, the crunch of their teeth, the bright orange of calendulas and poppies, the fresh scent of earth, the salty ocean breeze, lavender and pink sunsets, the smell of rotten apples on the ground, the pinch of black berry thorns, poignant horse and cow manure after the morning fog, a $12 New York sirloin steak from Safeway Supermarket, the rattle of raccoons at night, the stormy, cranky wind of California winters, women’s sacred circle, the fog when it touched the warm sand from a Mediterranean-like sun, soothing tea herbs from my garden, fresh lettuce and walnut salad, steamed kale and Swiss chard, the touch of my sweet lover, sunflowers in the rain, freedom beyond a street name, my embodied heart awaken in a hybrid world– my one and only true home.

~~~

[Disclaimer: The stories and pictures in this Blog do not coincide with the women and people depicted in the photographs. Names have been changed to protect their identity. I am solely responsible for the facts gathered and on which the stories and images are based. Nonfiction narrative asserts descriptions understood to be factual and may incorporate fictional elements to clarify and enhance them.]

“Pocket Candy – A Sweet Memory”

Memories recall positive and negative emotions, but the brain preferentially scans for and reacts to unpleasant moments in our childhood. Even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, the pile of negative implicit memories naturally grows faster. Why is the brain like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones? In our modern world, it’s the “fight-or-flight”response that activates the brain more often than the “rest-and-digest.” Unlike a computer that keeps an exact file on its hard drive, the brain regenerates each memory and draws stimulating capacities to fill in missing details, without you even knowing. Pocket Candy is a memory of a memory of my father and I when I was five or six. Writing about it fosters positive experiences and wholesome states of mind that aid my brain in building new neural structure, synapse by synapse. As the brain changes, the new memory becomes part of me.

Caramelo, chupetines, bombón helado,” I spoke to my father, catching him early morning before he went to work in the city.

He smiled at me as he put his coat on. His black straight hair was wet, combed back. “Is that what you want today?”

I nodded. I always asked for more than one thing: candy, lollypops, and chocolate covered ice cream. My eagerness charmed him as I waved my arms in the air, still in my pajamas.

Whenever he went along with my game, he held my arms tight, stretched out. I raised my legs up his body and stretched my neck out for a flip.

“One more step,” he said. “There you go, put your head down. I’m holding you.” His grip was firm and safe. “You got it. Now do the somersault.”

As I let my body go backwards in a twist, I felt the touch of my hair covering my face. I was thrilled as I put my feet down. He let go of my arms and we both laughed.

In the evening, when he was back, I could spot my dad’s mischievous smile. I was determined to get what I wanted. “What did you bring me?” I stood with my arms on the hips. I knew he was hiding something.

He didn’t answer and held his grin while I searched his pockets.

“Is it here?” I moved as fast as I could.

“Hmmm.” He said. “Cold, cold.” I moved to the other pocket.

“Here?”

“Hmmm. Warmer.” He was now laughing.

Then I noticed his palms were closed behind his back.

I put my right hand under my chin with my index finger up. “I know.” I said. ”Let me see your hands.” I demanded.

He opened his right fist fast. “Hot,” He said and spread his fingers of the left hand slowly.

“The hippopotamus.” I jumped up and down. There it was, my chocolate prize. When I saw it, I smiled from ear to ear. Nestle milk chocolate bar, wrapped in a zoo-animal-figure paper sat on his palm. It meant the world to me, even though he didn’t remember to bring what I asked for: Caramelo, chupetines, bombón helado.

~~~

[Disclaimer: The stories and pictures in this Blog do not coincide with the women and people depicted in the photographs. Names have been changed to protect their identity. I am solely responsible for the facts gathered and on which the stories and images are based. Nonfiction narrative asserts descriptions understood to be factual and may incorporate fictional elements to clarify and enhance them.]

 

 

“Work in a Patriarchal Age”

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“Healing is a cyclical process that follows a pattern until the situation or the physical/emotional pain goes away. If not addressed it may linger from one generation to the next. In a patriarchal age like ours, men and their career choices affected the women in my family, how they organized their lives around the choices of their husbands. As I write my family history, I realize I followed the steps of the single women in my family who were writers and teachers. As to my mother and grandmothers, I broke with this pattern and became the first generation of women to go to college. Now I understand why it was so difficult for my parents to understand why I wanted to leave my career when I got sick. It was more than just money. For the female body, it always is.

“Why do you want to leave your teaching job?” asked my dad thirty years later, as we sat in his study-room. We had moved three times in the city, however my parents kept the same furniture at each place; all gifts from their wedding day: a wooden set of table and French chairs, a red velvet couch, tall lamps with brown shades, two green sofas, a marble coffee table, picture frames, and a cast silver table center.

I chose to sit on the leather chair for back support. The study was in the center of the apartment, in-between the bedrooms and the kitchen.

“I’m in physical pain all the time, Dad.” I said. “The university assigns me almost one hundred students each semester.” I sighed. “It feels like a factory. Time off is not helping my back, only worries me more what I’m going to do next.” He stared at me in silence, trying to understand my situation.I held my tears of frustration. “I love teaching but I also want my body pain to go away and give myself more time to recover from the surgeries.”

My parents paid for my college tuition so leaving my academic career behind was a major decision for all of us. I’ve always felt I owed them for helping me out during those first years in college. My mother eavesdropped on the conversation as she walked by.

“You could have bought yourself an apartment here in the city with all the money we sent you,” my mother couldn’t wait to remind me whenever the subject came up.

“I know Mom, you said that more than enough.” I responded each time.

“I know what the problem is,” she said and paused to clean her hands on the apron around her waist, holding a kitchen rag with the other hand.

“What, Mom?” I said.

She flipped the rag and pointed at me. “You’re just burned down.” I didn’t know how to react to that.“I know.” She spoke even louder. “I saw it in a movie.”

“It’s not burned down, Mom. It’s burnt out.” I said.

She was probably right but at the time it hadn’t hit me yet how exhausted I was. Fatigue, anxiety and insomnia had taken over my body like a California undertow. My mother didn’t express her opinion much but when she had an idea about me, she was firm and most times right.

“Let her talk,” my father pleaded trying to get back into our conversation. “I want to hear it from her.”

“It’s okay Dad. She can express her opinion.”

My mother played the submissive type, so I always defended her when I could. She rolled her eyes and walked away into the hallway, back to the kitchen.

“You will lose touch with your own career,” my father continued. “That’s what my own father told me when I changed careers.”

Opapa, my father’s dad was a Baptist protestant and the general surgeon at one of the most prestigious private hospitals in the city, El Hospital Aleman. He had high expectations for his children and grandchildren. However, my dad didn’t follow his steps because he fainted at the sight of blood. Instead, my dad studied philosophy and then switched to architecture, a career that took nine years to complete. When Tono died, my grandfather on my mother’s side, my dad took up the management of the family ranch.

“And?” I asked.

“At first I didn’t think of it too much,” He said with nostalgia. “As the years went by, he was right. I was too immersed in cattle ranching, trying to make ends meet, and helping your mother to keep her piece of land. I couldn’t do both.”

The sustenance of our family and the survival of patriarchal names depended on him and each family man. As in my family, men were the major players. While my father chose to manage the ranch, my older brother followed in his footsteps and became an agricultural engineer. The need for reason inspired them as they searched for their own truth that led my dad and many other men of his generation in an insatiable dominion over nature. Always struggling to acquire more, they built doorways to the physical and mental labyrinths they created for the upcoming generations. My next of age brother, Jorge became a lawyer and followed my grandfather’s footsteps by practicing law.

Induced by societal norms, the men in my family learned to fortify a male sense of security based on material gain and comfort. In the end, they faced mortality like the rest of us. As to my decision to leave academia, it became an on-going struggle for several years, until my body said enough is enough. Falling back in the gentleness of my female body became my priority for a better healing.

~ ~~~~

[Disclaimer: The stories and pictures in this Blog do not coincide with the women and people depicted in the photographs. Names have been changed to protect their identity. I am solely responsible for the facts gathered and on which the stories and images are based. Nonfiction narrative asserts descriptions understood to be factual and may incorporate fictional elements to clarify and enhance them.]

 

“The Coiled Serpent”

“When I was nine my little girl body faced the challenges of patriarchal authority. The silencing of my voice opened my eyes to class and ethnic distinctions as well as the cathartic power of the serpent as metaphor for women’s solidarity and transformation. This is my story—an excerpt from the unpublished manuscript, Uncoiling the Serpent Goddess: From Ancient Myth to Spiritual Freedom by Joy Karin Weyland.”

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been scared of serpents. When I was a child, after a daunting fight with my father, I hid inside a wood shed. Poisonous snakes were likely to nest there. I sat in the dark, wishing one would bite me and I would die. For many years, I replayed this incident in my head several times, blaming myself for my own rebellious voice.

“I hate you,” I yelled to my father as he served himself a piece of steak.

His dark long thin hair was combed back. Some grey hairs were beginning to show. His big ears stood out against his white skin and his eagle-shaped nose was always running from allergies to dust, pollen, dog hair, and mildew. He sniffed into his handkerchief.

My mother gave me one of those looks to shut up. She was always the last one to sit down at the table, arranging the food and what was needed for our meals.

Minerva Gaea, a plumed, medium sized, Indigenous woman with Spanish features, then the main caretaker, helped her with last minute details. The protocol was that once the food was served, she would go back to the outside kitchen and eat there. My two older brothers never helped, and I was too little, the baby girl. Salt, pepper, a serving spoon, a missing napkin, water, and a glass of wine. Minerva moved slowly as she emptied her tray.

“Why are we stuck here?” I kept at the conversation, “I want to be with my friends. I’m missing all the fun they are having in the city.”

“Your father already told you,” said my mother, “we’ll be here until we can straighten things out.”

“It’s been a whole month already,” I stuttered, knowing that I was pushing the boundaries.

The temperature of the room was rising. Minerva’s thick eyebrows rose as she walked towards the door. Unlike my father, her straight dark long hair was always in place. I never saw a sight of frustration or complaint in her face.

My brothers didn’t seem to care we were stranded all summer at the ranch. After all, they enjoyed riding horses and the freedom of the land. One of my brothers kicked me under the table, but it was too late. My dissatisfaction grew and I blurted out.

“I hate this place and everything about it.”

That’s when I didn’t see it coming, and my father’s hand stroke my left cheek. The only time in my life the heavy weight of a man’s open hand was on my face. His face shrunk with anger, as if he couldn’t believe what I had just said. His parental authority was undermined, out the window.

I was still a little girl, and yet my body witnessed a mixed feeling of failure and solidarity. While Minerva was in the same room, I was safe to speak up, and my father held his anger in place. As his irritation unleashed, I was nauseated with the smell of steak and my mother’s pleasing tone. I raised my hand to my mouth, as if I was going to throw up. My whole body contracted and I left the room crying. I then walked into the shed and sat in a corner. I wished for a snake to bite me.

Dying seemed like the only response to my father’s slap, to his repression of my ten-year-old rebellion, to the silencing of my voice. A baby snake slipped through one of the logs as I was standing up. She wasn’t coiled. No bite. May be yararas didn’t bite when they were little.

Yarara was the Guarani name for the regional poisonous snake that roamed the ranch, and was now part of our mestizo heritage. The yarara knew no boundaries, sharing the soil of Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil. The Guarani, the Indigenous people of this regional area who appeared in the first millennium, drew her on plates, coiled with spots, moving through the jungle with ease like the jaguar, also called Yaraguarete, another mythical figure in Guarani culture.

“Go ahead and look for Karin,” my mother asked my brother Jorge.

It was a busy morning that day, and my parents were ready for their afternoon nap. I could still hear the dishes clanging in the kitchen. I hesitated between waiting for someone to find me. Instead, I stood up and I walked outside, feeling renewed, as if my old skin had been removed.

The process of shedding had turned snakes into symbols of legends and myths representing neurosis, healing, initiation, death, transformation, wisdom and rebirth. I anticipated the power of the serpent goddess and her many polymorphic and multidimensional manifestations in my life. It would be some time though before the new skin was ready for the world, shameless and free, growing instead a strong woman Self that some day would face my father’s authority, or better yet, how I saw the world through my parents’ eyes.

I met my brother playing outside, and we carried on our usual children’s games. He warned me about my father still being angry, so we went to the back of the house and ate some oranges from the trees.

I’ve held on to this traumatic experience for most of the years I lived abroad, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes buried deep down. I came to see my own affliction with patriarchal authority in the immigrant women I met years later in New York City when working in the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights. Here I met Paulina, Carmen, Altagracia, Maria, Mercedes and Belkis, women in their forties who had powerful stories of family, displacement and survival. I was still in my twenties then, but they left an impression on me.

It took me another twenty years however to acknowledge our struggles from a broader female lenses. We had in common the pain that was rooted in centuries of devaluation of female power and distrust of the female will, as if a snake coiled up ready to attack.

~ ~~~~

[Disclaimer: The stories and pictures in this Blog do not coincide with the women and people depicted in the photographs. Names have been changed to protect their identity. I am solely responsible for the facts gathered and on which the stories and images are based. Nonfiction narrative asserts descriptions understood to be factual and may incorporate fictional elements to clarify and enhance them.]

 

“Being Afraid Was not An Option”

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“Being poor and a mom poses a double challenge when raising children and making the decision to migrate. Women face the courage to do something unimaginable. This is the story of Altagracia—an excerpt from the manuscript, Uncoiling the Serpent Goddess: From Myth to Spiritual Freedom by Joy Karin Weyland.”

I met Altagracia in a community literacy class that met regularly on P.S. 182 in Washington Heights, the largest Dominican community in northern Manhattan. Mayra, one of my colleagues from the Women’s Collective, invited me one night. We walked together into a classroom of ten to twelve women who sat in school benches in a circle. Mayra introduced me to the group as a researcher from Argentina who was writing a book on women’s migration. That night, Altagracia’s narration stood out because of the added dangers posed by crossing the Mona Canal, one of deepest passages in the world, in a small boat.

“When I climbed on that yola all I could think about was my children. I did it for them,” Altagracia said as tears fell down her cheek. The women in the room nodded in empathy. During the seventies and eighties, it took an average of eight years for most women to reunite their families; their migratory journeys becoming a leap of faith into the underworld.

“It was about fifty of us,” Altagracia continued. “By the last day, there was little food and water. We had been at sea for four days waiting for the right moment to sneak passed the Coast Guard watches. It was so scary to be in that boat. Sharks were surrounding us and the Captain asked the women whether anyone of us had the menstrual cycle. We all said no but he was suspicious. He kept looking at me for any signs of blood.”

My eyes widened. I had heard of Captains who threw menstruating women off the board to avoid sharks.

“There was a baby in the crowd who kept crying and the Captain told the mother to nurse him and make him stop. Two men suggested that we all nursed as well because soon we would have no food or water, but the other women didn’t allow it.” Altagracia’s voice trembled.

“After four days at sea, the Captain announced we were almost at shore and we had to jump.” Altagracia fidgeted with her fingers. “So when he said jump, I did. The weight of the plastic bag with a change of clothes pulled me down and then up. When my head was above water I could see the lights ahead of us and I swam towards them, hoping I would soon reach the shore.” Her eyebrows rose as if looking for an act of faith. Then she continued.

“One of the men swimming next to me was drowning and he tried to grab my leg. I held on to my bag to stay afloat but I kept sinking with his weight. I thought that was the end of the trip, and my family would read about me in the papers. Then I saw my friend pulled out a knife and he threatened him. He let go of my leg, and I grasped for some air. I was so tired. I didn’t think I could swim all the way to the shore.” Altagracia’s hands fidgeted with her hair.

“The ocean led us into the beach shore of a condominium complex and I hid in a back yard. It was just the two of us now. Everyone else had run in different directions. I must have dozed off when the voice of a woman woke me up.”

“Wake up, wake up. You can’t stay here. I could be fined for hiding illegals,” She said in a Puerto Rican accent, rolling the r’s.

“Please help us,” I said as I lifted my hands begging. She frowned, but something made her change her mind and she took pity on us.

“Okay, you can spend the night, but you have to leave by dawn. I’ll bring out some food and blankets. There is a shed in the back.”

“My heart stopped pounding. I knew we would be safe. The next day we wandered around the streets of the town of Cabo Rojo. The idea was to blend in with the locals and pretend we were tourists. I had a few dollars and I invited my friend for breakfast. As soon as we saw a public phone, he made a call and his cousin picked us up an hour later. We both had a plane ticket to New York where our families were waiting. That night I dreamt about my children and when I woke up I knew I had done the right thing.”

“Why?” I asked while I wiped my tears.

Altagracia responded. “I couldn’t pay for my children’s books, shoes or school uniforms. My husband had migrated but he couldn’t send any money. I worked hard but it wasn’t enough to pay for rent and food. If I had stayed we would still be poor. Being afraid was not an option.”

 

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[Disclaimer: The stories in this Blog do not coincide with the women in the pictures. Names have been changed. I am solely responsible for the facts gathered and on which the stories and images are based. Nonfiction narrative asserts descriptions understood to be factual and may incorporate fictional elements to clarify and enhance them.]