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Literary Fare

La Vida, La Fuerza, La Mujer

by Adriana Teitelbaum

An essay from the Fall 2017 issue.

by Adriana Teitelbaum | Literary Fare | Fall 2017

Images by Anya Katz

The first book I remember my mother giving me was The Secret Footprints by Julia Alvarez. It was about Dominican folkloric creatures called ciguapas, mythical women who lived in underwater caves. They were said to look like ordinary women, except for their feet, which were turned backwards so that if humans found their footprints in the sand, they would not be able to follow their tracks. This simple triumph of evolution protected the ciguapas from what they feared most: people. The story follows a young ciguapa girl who becomes curious about these strangers, and eventually travels ashore to observe them up close. She is discovered by a boy and his family, who in turn surprise her with their kindness. However, when she parts from these people, she vows to never again come that close to their kind. In the end, she returns to the safety of living with her fellow ciguapas and to the serenity of her ocean home. As a child, I took this book everywhere with me, and every trip to the beach I would make sure to walk facing away from the water, in order to leave behind a trail of backwards footprints.

***

Julia Alvarez and her work followed me into my adolescence with her novel In the Name of Salomé, a biography about Salomé Ureña and her daughter Camila. Ureña was a Dominican poet who began publishing her work at seventeen in the late 1860s under the pseudonym Herminia. She was a bold activist who used her words and her voice as means of revolution. I first read this book, given to me by my mother, at seventeen years old during the week I was hospitalized for depression. I spent my time in Newark Beth Israel Hospital pouring over the pages, trying to remind myself of better women who had gotten through harder situations. Though Ureña had lived in a different place at a much different time, I still found I could understand her pain and her sadness. I found comfort not only in her accomplishments, but also in the way the world had shaped her ideals, her personality, and her overall identity. Her poetry fueled a fire of revolution against Spanish imperialism in the 1860s by preaching for social and political change. But beyond her historical significance, the legacy of her words continues to thrive with generations of Latinas who hold onto them.

Throughout history, women have repeatedly turned to writing as an act for social change. Fighting against patriarchal power structures, countless women have produced essays, poems, novels, and other forms of written revolution to make their voices and opinions heard. Specifically in Latin America, under a particular brand of sexist social codes commonly referred to as machismo, women have marked their place within the ever-present legacy of revolution. Not only have their words helped inspire meaningful progress, but they have also left a foundation from which future generations of women can grow, both personally and politically. Julia de Burgos, a twentieth-century Puerto Rican poet, was one of these trailblazers. Like Ureña, de Burgos’ life in the Caribbean was marred by U.S. imperialism. They both witnessed the pain and injustice that spread rampantly across their homelands, fueled by economic and racial conflict, much of which was a direct result of norteamericano political intervention. Because of this, de Burgos was a fierce advocate for Puerto Rican independence. She was also a feminist, speaking out not only for women’s rights, but also against rigid social expectations that women were told to follow to be considered mujeres buenas, and fit for marriage.

Yo soy la vida, la fuerza, la mujer…
I am life, strength, woman…

In her poem, “A Julia de Burgos,” de Burgos writes about a personal dichotomy—being torn between the person she is and the woman she is expected to be. De Burgos confronts the two Julias that exist, and makes the brave claim that she is life, she is strength, and she can be these things because she is a woman, rather than in spite of it. With this statement, she makes it clear that it is not her womanhood that is a setback, but rather the way the world treats women. Yo soy la vida, la fuerza, la mujer. I first read these words in passing at the age of fifteen, sitting in the back of an almost exclusively gringo classroom, eyes glued to the clock. In the moment, I thought of nothing more than waiting for the bell to ring. But later on, I found myself constantly returning to her words. Yo soy la vida, la fuerza, la mujer. And it wasn’t just the words themselves I thought of. I found myself obsessing over the moment she wrote them—what time of day it was, where she was, what she was thinking. Yo soy la vida, la fuerza, la mujer. Was it in the dry heat of early summer or the wet humidity of a fall hurricane season? Could she hear the sound of coquis chirping in the trees, could she see the mountains of San Lorenzo where my mom had grown up? Trying to get myself through the cold New Jersey winter, I couldn’t help but repeat the words la vida, la fuerza, la mujer, finding comfort in the mere fact that they existed, and that they came from a place I felt so connected to.

In the late forties, Julia de Burgos moved to New York. Historically, the city has served as a hub for Puerto Rican migrants searching for economic opportunity. In 1917—nineteen years after the U.S. annexed Puerto Rico—its people were granted U.S. citizenship, which allowed them to move to the continental U.S. without the legal obstacles that had previously existed. This began a wave of migration that has resulted in a population of Puerto Ricans in the States that is larger than the one on the island. In the eighties, at the age of eighteen, my mother was one of these migrants, leaving San Lorenzo and coming to New York to get her degree. Working as a secretary in order to pay for school, she fought against racism, sexism, and classism on a day-to- day basis. Nonetheless, by the mid-nineties, she had earned both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree on the same streets where Julia de Burgos had died alone in 1953. My mother, in turn, had two daughters, and raised us on the stories and legacies of great Latinas who came before us.

Yo mis cantares lancé a los vientos,
yo di a las brisas mi inspiración;
tu amor grandeza dio a mis acentos:
fine fueron tuyos mis pensamientos
en esos himnos del corazón.

I sang my songs to the winds,
I gave the breeze my inspiration;
your great love gave to my accents:
fine were my thoughts
in those hymns of the heart.

In this poem, Salomé Ureña professes her unconditional love and gratitude for her mother. Among her poems of freedom and revolution, she writes of this crucial relationship not as an outlier, but rather as an important part of her literary and political career. All of the lessons, experiences, and wisdom she learned and inherited from her mother became the foundation of who she was. And although the impact of maternal relationships is something that transcends cultural boundaries, the legacy of oppression that Latinas have historically faced creates a unique kinship among Latina women, which is first experienced for many in their relationships with their mothers.

This phenomenon also transcends familial ties. I have found these relationships in academia, in professional settings, and among strangers and familiar faces alike. I found it with the nurse who would sneak tostones into my hospital room, and with the kind old woman in Port Authority asking me,“¿Sí pasa el camión 66 por aquí?” These types of relationships are precisely where political and personal revolution meet. The passing of information, inspiration, or a simple gesture on a real, observable level is the intersection between social progress and individual growth. Growing up in the U.S., reconciling one’s own latinidad against the reality of estadounidense surroundings is a lifelong battle. But being able to turn to other women who have come from similar backgrounds, who have experienced similar paths and understand where you’re coming from is more than helpful: It is crucial as a means for survival.

Nonetheless, these connections are not always so easy to find. In certain circumstances, they may seem almost impossible to come across. It is in these situations where I have turned to the written word to try to overcome that seemingly insurmountable loneliness, and it is in these poems and narratives that I have found a feeling of home. This is what makes latinidad so inherently transnational––the act of looking for connections to your identity that come from miles away. I understood the term transnational before I had ever heard of it. Growing up as a Latinx person in white America is a manifestation of the concept. By this I mean that if you identify as Latinx, one of the first things you will remember is feeling different. You’ll come to realize that there are things in your life that, despite seeming so normal, don’t match up with the world around you.

***

The concept of transnationalism goes hand in hand with Latinx identity. Since the beginning of European colonization, what is now known as Latin America has been abused by foreign powers. Ingrained in its past is the slaughter of natives and the enslavement of African people. Through the rest of Latin America’s existence and to this day, Europe and the United States have economically and politically oppressed Latin American land. Its transnational history begins with the genocide and forced migration of people of color, and continues with the interference of Western powers. This complex history has connected a wide variety of people and cultures, resulting in an ethno-racial identity that spans across nations. And this identity, which is interwoven with a plethora of different languages and histories, is impossible to pinpoint to a singular place or time. While there are overlapping themes and trends that follow latinidad, age, gender identity, race, and place of residence also impact the way it has manifested in different people’s lives.

This is why music, literature, and other cultural phenomena are so important in the exploration of identity for Latinx people and communities––especially for women. Literature has long been an essential tool in the spreading of revolutionary ideas; it is only natural that Latina women have found their voices through their writing. While part of this is in service of larger political movements, there is also a deeper level to their words. Their literature serves as a basis for different generations of Latinas, a structure from which we can continue to build and grow––whether they help inspire political figures like Sonia Sotomayor or allow teenage girls growing up in white America to find a place for themselves.

Even now, I find that I am constantly searching for myself in the words of others. In the middle of writing this piece while back home for fall break, I trudged through the mess of my attic and stumbled upon a book of poems by Lorna Dee Cervantes titled Emplumada. Cervantes is a Chicana feminist and poet who writes about her childhood and femininity growing up as a Latina in the United States. Sitting in the Newark airport, I read her poem “Freeway 280,” where she writes,

Maybe it’s here
en los campos extraños de esta ciudad
where I’ll find it, that part of me
mown under
like a corpse
or a loose seed.

While going through Cervantes’ work and reading her words about feeling out of place, misunderstanding her own identity, and searching for a part of herself that had been “mown under like a corpse,” I was reminded that I have not reached some grand conclusion about myself and my identity. That despite all of my searching, I would never shake off the feeling “that this is not my land and this is my land,” and that I would be constantly reading, listening, and watching for things that represent who I am and where I come from. Like the young ciguapa girl I read about as a child, I would always find comfort in people and spaces I understood, and that understood me in return.

Print by Julia Deen

***

Today, I am sitting in the back of the library, finding myself caught in a moment of deja vu, as I am in another academic setting surrounded by (mostly) white peers. Only instead of reading Julia de Burgos, I am armed with my copy of Emplumada. I am stuck on a line of a piece titled, “Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well- Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between the Races.” It’s on the second page of the poem, highlighted by a previous owner, perhaps my mother, or whoever had it before her.

Let me show you my wounds: my stumbling mind, my
“excuse me” tongue, and this
nagging preoccupation
with the feeling of not being good enough.

It’s the “excuse me” tongue and that feeling of not being good enough that I can’t seem to move past, the always apologizing for one’s own inability to live up to perceived expectations. That feeling of being too Latina, and yet not Latina enough. The feeling of growing up in a place that does not feel like home. It’s not just the relatability of this line that draws me in, but the fact that sometime in the mid-seventies, in San Jose, California, a place I’ve never been, Lorna Dee Cervantes expressed emotion so akin to my own experience 40 years later. And there is something about that fact that feels revolutionary. It’s the type of revolution that manifests not in strikes or protests, but in connections between people of a similar background. The type that, to me, is a fundamental characteristic of latinidad:

We were a woman family:
Grandma, our innocent Queen;
Mama, the Swift Knight, Fearless Warrior. …
Myself: I could never decide.
So I turned to books, those staunch, upright men.
I became Scribe…

As a child I loved to read. When my family and I visited my grandparents in Puerto Rico, my sister and I would spend hours outside, our noses buried in books. My abuela would step out of the house in a long linen dress and her chanclas and watch as we sat beneath the trees and on the patio, absorbed in our reading. She’d smile and feed us pastelillos and piraguas, and say something about the orgullo she felt for her nietas inteligentes. My memories of this are dreamlike: the symphony of smell in the air and the sounds of the wind and my abuela’s voice in harmony among them.