Lessons on Relentlessness
Around this time 22 years ago, I walked off the Columbia University campus after my admissions interview knowing that’s where I wanted to go to school for undergrad. I went out for pizza with my then boyfriend to a Famiglia pizzeria somewhere on the upper west side. We were talking about this life I saw ahead of me. I was just 16, in my senior year in boarding school and thought I was going to be a lawyer. I was so excited, I felt like I was flying. As we walked out, an older white man in a tan suit who’d apparently been listening to our entire conversation, said, “You’re never going to Columbia and you’re never going to be a lawyer.” My boyfriend went to say something to him but I stopped him with a hand on his forearm. I looked at this old man with bitterness in his gray eyes and said, “My name is Vanessa Mártir. Remember that name. You will hear that name again.” I started my freshman year at Columbia in the fall of 1993.
De chiquita, my daughter Vasia was never ever able to grapple across the span of the monkey bars without falling. She’d sulk as she watched other kids do it and got mad at me when I tried to help. “Lemme do it myself,” she’d say, rolling her eyes and pushing my hands off. One mid-spring day, when she was five, we were in the playground and I was watching her try to clamber across. She made it a few rungs in and fell. She climbed up and tried again. This time she made it across four rungs but fell again. I saw her tear up and wipe her eyes, roughly. She climbed back up and spent the better part of the afternoon working on getting across those bars. When I asked her about it as we were leaving, she said, “I wanna go across. I’m gonna do it, mommy. Watch.” I nodded and smiled.
By the end of the summer, my girl had callouses on her hands from her efforts. She made it across like she said she would.
That child is relentless like her mama.
Every child wants to know about her birth and asks, Where did I come from? Many are answered with a birth story that speaks to the child of who she is and will be and that sets her life in motion in a particular way. Mothers know the story and tell it like a favorite fairy tale to the child, who rests her head on her pillow, on her way to speak.
But sometimes the stories of origin are troubled, riven with complexity and unanswered questions, and bespeak a cloudy future. ~ “The Art of Being Born,” first published in the epistolary issue of Hotel Amerika, selected by Cheryl Strayed for The Best American Essays, 2013
I don’t have a birth story. I don’t know how I came into this world. I don’t know who if anyone was in the room with mom when I came out, screaming and hungry and sickly. I know the pre-birth story. That mom was on birth control when I was conceived. That she didn’t know she was pregnant until she was four months along. That the doctors told her she should have an abortion because I’d likely be born with severe health problems. That mom refused. That when she told my father, dad accused her of setting him up, he chased her into the street and tried to kick me out of her. Mom was in and out of the hospital after that. She bled for the remainder of her pregnancy.
Then I know the post-birth story. When mom took me home, everything she fed me I either threw up or diarrheaed out. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Every medication they gave me, every new formula, every new regimen, failed. Mom told me of her carreras to the hospital. When I dehydrated. When I projectile vomited for hours. When I was so weak I couldn’t raise my head. Finally she took me to a specialist a doña recommended and he referred me to St. John’s Medical Center, the hospital to which he was affiliated. I was admitted to the NICU. They did countless tests on my months-old body; genetics and blood tests on mom. They even asked if they could test my father’s blood, but papi refused. He didn’t even give me his last name until months after I was born.
One day mom came to see me after work en la factoría, after she’d gone home to check on her other children, my sister and brother. Mom said I was sprawled out, wires and tubes sticking out of me; I had to get the IV through my head because the veins in my legs and arms were too weak to hold the needle. I was riddled with bruises from the blood tests. I looked like I hadn’t been touched tenderly all day. They told mom there was nothing they could do. I wasn’t going to make it. Mom said she got on her knees and begged God, “Dios mio, si mi hija va sufrir, llévatela.” Something came over her. She knew if I stayed there I would die. She started ripping the nodes and tubes off. The doctors thought she had gone crazy. They made her sign a form releasing them of liability. Then they created a makeshift board so mom could carry me because my bones were so weak, I couldn’t be held to my mother’s chest. I couldn’t listen to the throb of the heart that lulled me when I was curled inside of her. That’s how mom carried me on two trains, more than an hour ride, to the American Center (what mom to this day still calls Columbia Presbyterian hospital), holding me on a board which she held out in front of her, her arms bent at the elbow.
There was an enzyme specialist visiting from Boston. He discovered that the birth control had eaten at my liver so I was born without enzymes to digest my food, and I was diabetic. I was in the hospital for four months. When I was finally released, I was put on a special diet of yucca water. Mom had to grind the yucca every morning and wait until it settled. Then she scooped up the cloudy water that remained and fed it to me. When I responded well to that, mashed avocado was added to my diet. Mom hunted the city looking for aguacate when it was out of season. I’m alive because of my mother.
Sometime during my four years at CU, a professor whose name I’ve long erased from my memory handed back a piece and said, “This isn’t writing.” He didn’t have the cojones to look at me when he said it.
My mind flashed to when I was told as a kid that I was too much of too much. Unworthy. Incapable. “Las niñas no se portan asi,” mom said, her nose curled up in disdain at this girl with such fire that years later, when I was already an adult and deep into the writing of my stories, mom told a friend, “Vanessa was always big. Even when she was little, she was big.”
In June of 1997, I donned the blue cap and gown with the CU crown stitched on my lapel. At my graduation dinner, surrounded by my flowers and family, I confessed that I wasn’t going to law school. “I’m gonna take some time to figure things out.” Mom slammed her fork down on the table so hard, the table shook. “Yo sabía que no ibas a ‘cer ni mierda con tú vida.”
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
(won’t you celebrate with me by lucille clifton)
On October 30th, I came full circle—I performed at Columbia University’s Latino History Month Showcase: Noche de Orgullo: Sembrando Raíces before an audience of students and alumni, professors and administration. I dedicated the reading to that professor who crushed that girl I was and made her stop writing for years.
I remembered staring at the top of his head. He just kept writing with his blue pen in his harsh chicken scratch. I wanted to tell him, “This is fuckin’ writing. This is my writing!” But I didn’t. Instead, I went home and I learned to write the way they wanted me to write. I didn’t take another writing class or workshop until VONA/Voices in 2009, and it was there, in 2012, during a residency with Mat Johnson that I learned that I was still writing the way they wanted me to write.
During our last one on one, Mat told me, “You have the stories. It’s all here. Let’s talk about your voice.”
The Brooklyn came out of me, “What you mean, my voice?”
“Vanessa, your power is in your voice. You walk into a room and everyone notices. I want to see that in your stories.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” I was clenching every cell and muscle in my body.
He grabbed my computer. “Talk to me about Millie.”
I laughed. “Millie was a butch and she owned it. She’d grab the brim of her black Kangol and say, ‘Yo soy butch.’ But the way she said it, it was like she was dancing salsa but just with her shoulders.”
“Stop,” Mat said, passing my computer. “I didn’t write that, you did.”
Immediately after, I went to sit on the grass to process what Mat had just revealed to me. I thought back to the times I’d run up the plum tree in our backyard in Bushwick to get away from the jeers that said I was too much. I thought about that man in the tan suit in that upper westside Famiglia pizzeria. I thought about walking down the hall that first year in boarding school, hearing: “Rosie! Tawk Rosie, we wanna hear you tawk.” It was 1989 and Rosie Perez as Tina in Do the Right Thing was the only context they had of a Latina. I thought about that professor at Columbia. I remembered the many times I wanted to scream and rage and make them see me, the real me, not the stereotype or who they wanted me to be. I wanted them to validate me though I knew they never would. I remembered when I went home and learned to write the way they wanted me to write.
I spent that summer and fall working on my voice. I recorded myself telling my stories and transcribed them. I blogged. I read and wrote voraciously. I was relentless.
I’m thinking of the many times people tried to crush my dreams and belief in myself. I am thinking of the many times I let them. Those defeats were always temporary. I am relentless. I always have been. This relentlessness is what’s gotten me this far. This is just the beginning.
In August of 1989, I went away to boarding school in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I was just 13 years old when I left everything I knew and loved to make my way in the world. I left to get away from my mother. I knew she would never give me my wings. I had to take them and run, so I did. I left to get away from the pile of rubble that was Bushwick. I knew when I toured Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey with my dance group the April before that there was a world out there I wanted to know. I left, but I didn’t realize that leaving meant I would be rootless for a long time.
I was miserable for the four years I was in Wellesley. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was just hard. I was in a lot of pain that I’m only now digging into and finding the reasons for.
When I arrived in August of 1989, during orientation I was given an academic year planner that started in August and ended the following July. I went back to the dorm, huddled myself in a corner of my bed in my drafty room and entered every single vacation I had over the next few months, from Thanksgiving to Spring Break to when I finally returned home to Brooklyn for the summer. I then counted down the days to when I’d be going home, so each day, when I looked at my planner, in the lower right hand corner of that day, I knew how many days were left until I went back to my Bushwick. Those numbers scrawled in the handwriting of a thirteen year old girl helped me through a lot of long, lonely days.
I’d been in Wellesley only a few days when the resident directors, a older black couple whom I never saw touch each other tenderly, decided to take us out to a fancy dinner. I remember staring down at the place setting. I’d never had to pick which fork to eat with my salad and which to eat with my dinner. I didn’t know there was a shrimp fork or a soup spoon. I didn’t know you had to put your napkin on your lap. I watched, quietly, my eyes wide with discomfort. I decided I would just mimic what I saw. The girls around the table were scholarship girls like me, A Better Chance (ABC) students who’d also gone through the rigorous application and interview process. They were all from NY, the seniors were a Boricua and a Salvadoreña, both from the Bronx, the junior was from St. Lucia by way of Brooklyn, the sophomores were a black girl from Harlem and a Dominicana from Brooklyn. I was the only ABC girl entering the freshman class. I was all of thirteen.
I leaned in, hungry to hear their insight, their stories of survival, how they made it in this new world. I thought maybe their stories would help me. I was already feeling overwhelmed and out of place. I had to sleep with the radio on because the crickets kept me up. Imagine that!
I put my elbows on the table and propped my face in my hands, intent on listening and learning. Seconds later, the junior from St. Lucia glared at me, “You do not put your elbows on the table. Where were you raised that you don’t know that?” I yanked my arms back and slumped in my seat. I didn’t say a word for the rest of evening.
Within weeks of arriving to Wellesley, a senior set his eyes on me. He was black and beautiful and popular and on the football team. When he noticed me, I saw my chance to establish a place for myself. Maybe I could fit in, afterall. We flirted innocently at first, until he handed me a love letter as I was walking passed him on the mezzanine that overlooked the cafeteria. I was with two other girls from the program, the Boricua senior from the Bronx and the sophomore Dominicana from Brooklyn. I can’t remember what that letter said, but I remember it was a more mature version of the “Do you like me?” check the box yes or no letters I’d gotten in third grade.
We were crossing the bridge to the Math and Science wing when I went to open the letter. They tried to grab it but I yanked it away. “Hold up,” I said. “I have to read it firster than y’all.” They keeled over laughing. La Dominicana even fell onto her knees, clutching her stomach. “She said ‘firster,’” she said over and over again.
Still giggling and wiping the tears rolling down her face, the senior said, “It’s before, Vanessa. B-E-F-O-R-E.” They walked away, still laughing.
That night, during study hall in the basement of the house on Norfolk Terrace in Wellesley, MA, I looked around at the five other girls in the program. They were hunched over their desks, studying, not paying any mind to the freshman girl.
I walked over to the bookcase and took the huge American Heritage Dictionary down from the top shelf. From then on, for the remainder of my freshman year, I took a new word out of the dictionary every few days. I wrote it and its definition down repeatedly until I memorized it. Then I practiced using the word in my speech and essays.
To this day, I hate it when I don’t know a word. Some shames follow you forever.
I was different when I finally returned to NY for Thanksgiving vacation. I didn’t want to be but I was. It had been three months since I’d been back. You can’t go through what I did in that short time and not be affected, especially not at that impressionable age.
When I finally saw my friends, we were hanging out in the hallway of one of the buildings on the block. It was a bunch of us, friends from junior high and friends I’d known since grade school. I don’t know what we were talking about, but I remember the words I said, “Oh my god, that’s awesome, I’m so psyched.” There was a silence so deep, I could hear the shower in one of the apartments above us, then there was a roar of laughter. “Awesome? Psyched? What the fuck is that, V? Oh, so now you a white girl? You sold out?”
I learned that day, weeks before my fourteenth birthday, that I didn’t belong in Bushwick anymore. I already knew I didn’t belong in Wellesley. I’ve spent the last 24 years making my own way in this world, straddling two worlds that don’t claim me as theirs. Worlds that I don’t fully belong in but that have played integral roles in making me into the woman I am today. Worlds that taught me to be relentless.
In May of 2010, I quit the safety net of a full-time editing job to live my dream of writing and teaching. I did it as a single mother.
Over that time, I’ve established myself as a writing teacher throughout the NYC public school system and nonprofit organizations. I’ve taught everything from memoir to fiction and poetry, political writing and how to write the college application essay. Three and a half years ago, I created the Writing Our Lives workshop where I’ve led more than 150 new and emerging writers through the steps of writing a personal essay.
Over these four and half years, I’ve taught children as young as seven and adults as old as 85. I’ve also become the writer I’ve always wanted to be—provocative and insightful, unafraid and terrified at the same time; daring enough to do it anyway. I’ve been back to the VONA/Voices workshop every year since my first workshop in 2009, and have worked with some of the greatest writers of our time—Elmaz Abinader, Chris Abani, Staceyann Chin, Mat Johnson and David Mura. I am now the newsletter co-editor and communications director. I finished my second novel and co-wrote a book for young social activists. I’ve been working on my memoir and have had numerous essays published in anthologies and literary journals including the VONA/Voices anthology, Dismantle, and Portland Review.
It’s in the work, in the risking, that I realized what all this decades long relentlessness has been about—a pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. A want and search for meaning.
There’s a willow in Inwood Hill Park, by the nature center, that my girl has wanted to climb since I introduced her to its beauty when she was three. She first asked me to climb it, and giggled and clapped when she saw me grapple my way to the top. With her, I relived my tomboy days back in Bushwick, Brooklyn, when climbing that plum tree in our backyard was my escape from the world. I have feint scars on my legs from those days.
When Vasia was four, she started trying to climb that tree. It has a thick branch that juts out about four feet above and parallel to the ground, that is perfect for hoisting yourself up. First you have to use your upper body to pull yourself up, throw your leg over so you can straddle the branch to climb up the trunk. Vasia would cry trying to climb it. A few times, she let me pick her up and put her on the branch, but I could tell from her face that it was an incomplete victory. She wanted to do it herself. Of course, she finally did, though she had to grow a few inches before she could. When she did two summers ago when she was eight, she ran over to me where I was sitting on a blanket under a nearby tree reading and writing and listening to the blue jays screech overhead. “I did it, mommy. I finally did it. Come see.” She dragged me over to the willow and I watched through proud mama eyes as my girl hoisted herself up on that branch and onto the tree.
A few days ago, I overheard her talking to her new friend Madison about tree climbing. “I don’t know how to climb trees,” Madison said, shrugging, a look of defeat on her face.
“Yes, you can,” Vasia said. “You just have to keep trying. You can’t give up easy like that. You always have to try.”