On heritage and secret worlds and why we write
I remember discovering William Carlos Williams’s Poetry in my anthology of American literature over twenty-five years ago. It was love at first sight:
So much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.
~ So Much Depends by Julia Alvarez
This is how Julia Alvarez begins to discuss her own search for identity as an immigrant and child of immigrants. As an Americana who, like Williams Carlos Williams, “often felt the islandness in him, his separateness.” She writes: “As an adolescent immigrant, I, like Williams, wanted to be an American, period. I was embarrassed by the ethnicity that rendered me colorful and an object of derision to those who would not have be a part of their culture, at least not without paying the dues of becoming like them. And I was encouraged to assimilate by my parents and teachers, by the media and the texts I studied in school, none of which addressed the issues I was facing in my secret soul. So much of who I was seemed to have no place in this world and culture—and so I started to have a secret life, which no doubt contributed to my becoming a writer.”
To be clear, I was born in this country. In New York City to be exact. Still, I can’t say I ever felt like I completely fit in. Not really. I was the girl that didn’t want to, couldn’t, fit into the gender roles that were imposed on me by my Honduran-Puerto Rican family. “Las niñas no se portan asi.” “Las niñas no hacen eso…Las ninas no hacen lo otro.” I wasn’t supposed to climb trees or talk back or question or do all the things I did (and still do), like play handball and ride my bike and play skully and stickball with the boys. When my mother found out recently that I’ve taken up boxing, she asked, “Why you boxing? Eso’s para hombres.” I’ve been dealing with this shit for 37 years.
When my fifth grade teacher, Ms. McEntee told my mom that I was a tomboy during a parent-teacher conference, mom pinched my thigh so hard under the desk, just out of Ms. McEntee’s view, I had a black and blue for a week and a half. I stared at Ms. McEntee through clouded eyes and wished death on her; I wished her yellow like a sunflower hair would fall out; I wished her already so obese she more waddled than walked frame would explode. To this day when I remember her, I can hear her yelling, something she did at least five times a day, every day; she got so into her yelling her pasty white face and barely there neck got bright red like the pimientos mom put in her homemade picante. That shit would singe your nose hairs right off with one whiff.
I thought it’d be easier in boarding school. I was thirteen. That age when you’re just starting to figure out who you are. This was my chance to start over. It wouldn’t be so hard. I could reinvent myself. That’s what I went to Wellesley, Massachusetts believing.
On my first day of school, I woke up early. Dressed in my plaid skirt, green with purple and red, and the matching green shirt with the plaid on the collar. All bright and sunny and scholarly and look at me. I put on the square-toed shoes my sister had given me. Because I was the only ninth grader in the program, I had to walk the two miles from my dorm to the school by myself. The freshman class started a day earlier for orientation. Since I hadn’t yet been taught the shorter route, I took the long way via the Brook Path, which granted was scenic and green and flowery and cheerful with the loud chirps and tweets of all kinds of birds, but by the time I arrived, all the excited and happy was gone. My feet were blistered from those damn shoes and I had sweat spots under my armpits and on my back from speed-walking most of the way. And when I walked into the auditorium fifteen minutes late, the entire 120+ class of freshmen turned to look at the loud clatter that was me tripping through the door. I couldn’t help but notice that the few black kids sat on one side, clustered together. The white kids, the majority, sat together. Me? I didn’t know where to sit so I sat in the back row, away from everyone. And when the orientation was over, I ran out, tearing up as I felt the blisters pop in my shoes.
A few days later, still recovering from the tragedy that was my first day, we were taken to a fancy restaurant by our resident directors, an African American couple who I never saw hug or kiss or much less smile at each other in the year I lived with them. The restaurant was fancier than anything I’d ever been to. The table was something I’d only seen in movies, dozens of plates and bowls, glasses and silverware. I sat and stared. I didn’t get Emily Post lessons on etiquette and dining. I’d never been taught to eat using the utensils from the outside in (a method I still use and never questioned though I don’t even know if it’s right). Where I’m from, I was allowed to eat with a spoon because I preferred (and, as a matter of fact, still prefer). At home I could eat comfortably, in the position I still eat in, one leg tucked under me, the other bent so my knee is just under my chin. I stared down at the table and told myself, “Just wait until everyone starts eating.” I figured I’d imitate them.
I was listening to the conversations going on amongst the other girls in the ABC program. There were a total of six of us, all girls of color, all from New York; two 10th graders, one Dominicana from Brooklyn, the other African American from the Bronx; one junior from Brookyn by way of St. Lucia, two seniors, one Boricua, the other Salvadoreña, both from the Bronx. I can’t remember what they were talking about. Maybe their summer vacations. Maybe what classes they were taking that year. Maybe what colleges they were applying to. Maybe they were schooling me about what life in Wellesley was like, the social scene or lack thereof, the boys. Meanwhile, our resident directors were staring off, avoiding each other. I swear the ice between them left a coat of frost on the window next to them.
I leaned in to listen more closely and put my elbows on the table to cup my face in my hands. My ears were perked. I wanted to hear about how they made their way in Wellesley. My first day taught me that I needed help adjusting. That’s when the junior glared at me. “You do not put your elbows on the table, Vanessa.” She said my name with a hiss. Her lip curled in a looking-down-her-nose-at-me-pretentious-as-fuck sneer. “How were you raised that you don’t know that?” The last sentence was more statement than question. Everyone at the table got quiet. No one looked at me. I snatched my elbows off the table and pushed myself back and down into my seat. That day I learned that I wasn’t home. That this place was not safe. Not even with the girls in the program that I thought, up to that point at least, were just like me.
I did what Julia Alvarez did: “I started to have a secret life, which no doubt contributed to my becoming a writer.” Except I’d started that secret life back home in Bushwick. When I’d climb up into the tree in our backyard and imagine a different life and tell myself stories. When I’d sneak into the junkyard next door and imagine I was a female Indiana Jones and this was my jungle; the feral cats I chased were wild beasts from the underworld and the piles of old tires and mattress and lumber with rusty nails sticking out at all angles were the temples that had been abandoned centuries before when demons lay claim to them.
I thought I’d left that world behind in Brooklyn, but, then again, wasn’t boarding school another form of running away? Another attempt at a secret life? But the life I imagined, where I could start anew, didn’t exist, so I went back to what I knew—my secret, internal world— when every attempt I made at fitting in failed. Because I did try to fit in or at least I tried as best I could, with what I knew. But I couldn’t, wouldn’t erase the culture I came from, Boricua y Hondureña from Brooklyn that was so very different from white culture. I couldn’t erase my New York accent, “You sound like Rosie Perez.” I couldn’t be quiet when I was loud. I couldn’t hide my amazement, my open-mouthed-oh-shit-you-live-here stare, when I visited my first mansion. Shit, I grew up in a railroad style apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn at the height of the crack epidemic after the infamous Fire Wars. There’s no erasing or forgetting that shit, not then, not now. I couldn’t make myself understand and be a part of white suburbia overnight, like I was expected to, like what was demanded of me. So I didn’t. The library and my long walks became my secret life. Reading and telling myself stories continued to be, have always been, how I survived.
And when I went home, I made the stupid mistake of using the words “awesome” and “psyched” in front of my Brooklyn friends. They called me “white girl,” told me I “sold out.” And my sister accused me of thinking I was better than her. And my family called me “gringuita.” So I didn’t belong there either so my secret world became more concrete and more real and more safe. It became the only place I was safe. Still, the truth is, while all this fucked me up in many ways and made me question myself so many times, all of it has served me well in my path to becoming a writer. De eso no hay duda.
Enter junior year. I was sitting on the mezzanine overlooking the lunchroom, my nose buried in a book, when a professor, Mr. Goddard, came up to me and handed me a book. “Vanessa, you should read this.” It was “How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents.” For once I could see not just pieces of my story and heart, but my face too, in a book, in the characters and in the author! The Garcia girls were in boarding school, like me. They didn’t fit in. They had to relinquish much of who they were to fit in. They were lost in America and even more lost in what they thought was home. I read that book at least three times over the next few months and have read it several times since.
Julia Alvarez did for me what William Carlos Williams did for her: she made me feel less alone, less crazy. She made me see that my questioning was valid. That I wasn’t as isolated as I felt. She also made me see that my stories were, are valid and should be written.
It took me a long time to do that. To build the courage. To commit to writing. To find the love and life in me to finally set these stories down. I had to read a lot. I had to write a lot. And I had to fuck up a lot. I’m still reading, still writing and still fucking up. But now I’m writing through it and with it, and that’s made it an all the more interesting and worthwhile adventure.