Relentless Files — Week 24
*An essay a week in 2016*
The first time it happened, she was walking a few feet behind me. We’d just left the supermarket and I was lugging several bags across Broadway when I heard him blow a kiss and say, “que linda estas nena.” My mama wolf senses piqued, I followed his eyes. They were leering at my ten year old daughter. He licked his lips. I dropped the bags, grabbed my daughter’s hand and pulled her into my chest. His face fell and turned all the shades. “Tu eres un viejo sucio. Esta’s una niña de diez años.” Of course he denied it, said that his pirope was to a woman in a passing car but I’m no fool. I had seen him do it and I doubt my daughter was the first child that sixty year old pervert made passes at. I threatened to break his legs then said her father would break them again.
That day my daughter admitted it wasn’t the first time grown men had harassed her in the street, winking their eyes, blowing kisses and saying God knows what to her. I felt a fury rise in my chest that still sits there, angry that our girls have to deal with this shit.
Let me remind you that my daughter was all of ten years old then. Ten.
I wanted to crush the world.
I don’t remember when it started happening to me, but I know I was still pubescent like my daughter, breasts hardly there, I hadn’t even shaved my legs for the first time yet.
My partner said it started for her when she was in junior high. A yell from a passing truck. Stares that undressed her. Lips licked.
Every year I have a student write an essay about street harassment for her college application. One young lady, who said it started when she was nine, wrote about how she once talked back, calling the men dirty and pedophiles. They cursed at her, calling her a conceited bitch. She ran home in tears. She was all of 14.
The first time I was grabbed, I was twelve. He was passing by on his bike. A boy not much older than me. He grabbed my ass as he sped by then scream, “Ugh!” when he felt the thick pad between my legs. I was on my period. I chased him for a block. I was fast but he was on a bike and easily got away.
This wasn’t the last time this happened to me—my ass grabbed by a thirst-ball on a passing bike. Fuckin’ cowards.
When I was growing up, there were the men who sat outside the corner bodega store who drank latitas of Budweiser, a stronger drink (likely Palo Viejo or Bacardi) wrapped in a paper bag passed between them. They leered at all the girls that walked by and looked away when we were with our mothers. But when we went to the bodega alone to buy Now N Laters or gallons of milk, they stared at our legs and baby tits. I always sped by, head down, staring at the cracks in the sidewalk.
One of them once whispered in my ear, “Eres bella.” I turned to see him lick the beads of sweat from his upper lip. I gasped, pushed passed and ran home. I didn’t go back to that store for weeks after that.
There have been campaigns about street harassment. There was that artist, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, who started the “Stop Telling Women to Smile Campaign where she hung her posters in cities like Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. as a direct message to cat-callers: “Women do not owe you their time or conversation.” Fazlalizadeh says she’s been dealing with the harassment since she was a teenager and decided some years ago to use her art to address the topic.
Her website says:
The project consists of a series of portraits of women – women who I have sat [and] talked with about their experiences with harassment. The portraits are designed into posters, including text that is inspired by the subject’s experiences. And then I wheat paste…
Street harassment is a serious issue that affects women world wide. This project takes women’s voices, and faces, and puts them in the street – creating a bold presence for women in an environment where they are so often made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
A while back there was that video of that white woman who walked around NYC for ten hours and experienced allegedly 100 instances of street harassment. I read the comments that said it was the neighborhoods she was walking through—black and brown neighborhoods. I thought of all the construction sites I’ve passed where the men, many white, some not, have ogled and hollered and made lascivious comments about my dress and my breasts and “damn, look at that J-Lo ass.”
I thought of the white man that time at the bar when I was in my twenties. How he grabbed my wrist when I refused to talk to him. I remember his hot breath in my face and the nastiness he said. I remember growling at him, “You better get the fuck off of me.”
That same summer, a white guy threw his entire drink on my back because I wouldn’t dance with him. My boys were on top of him pummeling him before I could even say a word.
All of this is to say that harassment is not exclusive to men of color or poor men or only certain kinds of men, whatever the fuck that means. Trust me, I’ve witnessed and been victim to it in various places—at bars, on the street, and even once at a company party by a man in a tailored suit who flashed his Rolex and thought that gave him permission to put his hand on my lower back, dangerously close to my ass, which he was remarking on. He got shoved and given a piece of my mind. Fuck you and your Rolex, pendejo.
This week I was walking with my daughter in a shopping area in Upper Manhattan. She was walking right next to me as we passed two men who were selling water filters on the street. I made eye contact with one of them, who I was looking at because he had this weird trying-to-look-windswept-but-failing hairdo. I’m not sure what he mistook my staring for but when our eyes met, he said, “Regalamela” (which basically means he was asking me to gift my daughter to him). I gasped and responded in Spanish, “You’re lucky I don’t slap you for being so fresh.” A man behind me told me I should call the cops. I sped up and seethed. Que atrevido!
I can defend myself but my kid is 11, far too young to have to deal with this shit already. The saddest part is that I know she’ll have to deal with this for pretty much the rest of her life, as that’s just part of being a woman, and I’m not sure there’s not much we can do to stop it. Yes, there are campaign. Yes, we can tell our boys to be respectful, remind them: “Would you like it if someone did that to your sister?” but we can’t do these things alone.
A while back I overheard a woman saying, “I have a boy. These women with girls better tie them up because once my boy is loose, he’s gonna devour all of them.” I shook my head and kept walking. What kind of shit is that to say? What are we teaching our boys?
I love the hot weather. There’s nothing like a summer in New York City. The only downside to NY summers is the street harassment that starts when you leave your house and doesn’t stop until you step back into your house. I want to believe that we can be better, that we can exist in a society, a city, where that kind of behavior isn’t tolerated. Where when a woman is followed or harassed, bystanders come to her rescue, but experience tells me that’s not going to happen any time soon.
Last year I had an essay published on The Butter where I recounted what happened to me years ago when I ignored a man’s advances on a darkened street in Brooklyn.
The first time it happened to me, I was in my early twenties. I was walking back to my mom’s house in Brooklyn after visiting a friend. This was the mid-90s before Bushwick was gentrified, when there were still piles of rubble for blocks, before that rubble was cleared to make room for houses and condos and fifteen dollar burger bars. The block down from my mom’s was still desolate and badly lit, but I felt safe in this neighborhood that I called home for the first thirteen years of my life.
I heard him hissing at me but just kept walking. I always keep walking. That hissing and calling me mami shit has never gotten my attention. I slept. I noticed when it was too late, when I heard his footsteps running up behind me. When I turned, he pushed me against the wall and started grabbing at me. He grabbed my breasts. He grabbed my crotch. He went to yank open my pants. Thank God I had a belt on.
I started punching and scratching and screaming. I remembered that teacher who told me when I was a tween, “If someone attacks you, don’t fight back.” “What? Hell no!” I said. I couldn’t hide my exasperation. “You’ll get killed,” she said, looking at me real serious. “Imma fight back,” I said, shaking my head and staring right back at her. And that’s exactly what I did. I fought. I screamed loud, “Get the fuck off’a me!” And I punched. I punched hard. I slapped. I clawed. But, shit, he was so strong.
He held me down with one arm across my chest, above my breasts, while he groped me with the other hand. I just kept screaming and hitting him with everything I had.
The entire incident probably lasted under a minute. When he ran off, he yelled, “I never wanna see you around here again, bitch!”
That day I learned again just how vulnerable I am. How dangerous this world is for women. That’s the day I learned how right I was to tell that teacher “I’mma fight back.”
When I got to my mom’s house, I was shaking and crying. She called the cops and we circled the neighborhood in a patrol car looking for that pendejo. Of course we didn’t find him. The cop, a heavy-set white dude with bright eyes and a worried face, said, “You have to be careful out here. You shouldn’t be walking alone.”
I looked at him. “And what if I don’t have anyone to walk with? Am I supposed to stay trapped in my house?”
He shook his head. “Just be careful, okay?”…
I’ve taught my daughter: “If someone grabs you, what do you do?” “Fight back and scream.” “How loud?” “Loud!” and she shows me just how ear-piercingly loud she’s supposed to yell.
Once, we were walking home late at night when she saw me carrying my keys splayed in my hand, a key in between each finger, my fist wound tightly around the ring. “Why do you do that, mommy?” I showed her how hard and swift I’d swing if some fool dared to attack us. Her eyes grew big. “Woah,” she mouthed in barely a whisper.
Last year I started giving my daughter boxing lessons. I taught her the jab and the right cross. I taught her how to block blows and always protect her face and body. I taught her how to bob and weave. We practiced on the platform waiting for the train. We practiced in the park on our long walks in the evening. We practiced at home in our living room. One day, I came up behind her as she was walking home from school. I didn’t tell her I was coming. She had her huge bookbag hanging off one shoulder and one earphone in her ear while the other dangled, like I’d told her to do, “so you’re always aware.” I grabbed her shoulder and pulled. She flung around, her fists up, eyes wide, nostrils flaring. When she saw it was me, she frowned. “Maaaa,” she whined. “You scared me. Why’d you do that?”
I pulled her into my chest. “I want to make sure you’re always ready.”
She giggled. “You saw how I put my fists up right away.”
I can’t always protect her from this dangerous world, just like I can’t always protect myself, but I also can’t live my life or raise her with fear. I can’t live my life worried about a danger that lurks around the next corner. What I can do is live as fully as I can and I can teach my daughter to do the same. And we can always be ready, fists up, keys ready to knock out the pendejo who dares.
This summer I’m putting my daughter in self-defense classes. It’s real out here on these streets.
Today is the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade up Fifth Avenue. I imagine there are already several million people lined up waving our beloved Borinqueña. Some are wearing it on their shirts and tank tops, others as capes and bandanas. I have so many memories of that parade from childhood.
I remember one PR parade in particular, the summer I was seven or eight. We got up early, dressed in our I Love Puerto Rico shirts. Mine had a coqui in a Panama Hat sitting on a map of the island. My sister lined her purse with her Menudo buttons, all 100 of them, and we (my mom, Millie, sister and I) jumped on the train with our flags on a stick. We ran up 5th Avenue with the rest of the girls, following the Menudo float, waving and screaming and tearing up. I screamed extra loud when I made eye contact with Johnny and he blew me a kiss. We took the train two stops to get ahead of the mayhem, so we could get closer to the street and wave at the float as it drove by.
I haven’t been to the parade since 2001. The year before the parade made headlines when a group of men were charged with attacking 50+ women, assaulting them, dousing them with water and ripping their clothes. It wasn’t the first year this happened but it was the first time it made the news. For years, my friends and I had come up with tactics so we wouldn’t be targeted—don’t walk through the parade, find a space and stay there; stay with your group, preferably a large group of people who can help you out or defend you if something went down.
That year, I was with my then best friend and a friend of hers. It was this friend who decided she wanted to walk through the parade. I should have listened to my instincts.
The men gathered on each side, several deep, and 15 or more long, you had to travel through these tunnels to get up the avenue. I saw water thrown on women, hands and waists grabbed, hair pulled. I was trying to get out of there when it happened—I got scooped from behind. Scooped meaning my whole intimate area, yes, my ass and my vagina, were grabbed from behind in one fell swoop. When I tore around, ready to pounce, there were like 50 men behind me. What could I do?
Before you ask, let me say that I was wearing a maxi dress that fell to my ankles. While it was form fitting, no, it was not painted on. The thing is, it shouldn’t matter what I was wearing, no one has a right to grab me like that without my permission. I was mortified. I felt dirty and violated and helpless. I ran out of there and have never been back to the parade since. When people ask me, “You going to the parade?” I’ve always responded, “No, thanks. I don’t want to be groped.”
To be clear, this isn’t an attack on the parade or the people who attend it. Those who act the fool are in the minority, I get that. This event is just one example of the many ways violence is perpetrated against women. This is just one place where men feel they have the right to touch a woman without an invitation.
I miss my parade but these days I feel safer hanging in the park, sitting on a blanket reading a book. And, even there I’ve had to deal with an uninvited fool plopping himself down on my blanket. C’mon men, you can be better. I challenge you to dare to be.