A few years ago, during a summer in Puerto Rico, I went back to my old neighborhood, El Caserío Padre Rivera. When I was a girl, El Caserío, one of the island’s government housing projects, was a world of men, of violence. A world that at times wasn’t safe for women or girls. There were shootouts in the streets, fourteen-year-old boys carrying guns as they rode their bikes to the candy store just outside the walls. We watched a guy get stabbed right in front of our building once, watched the cops come in and raid places for drugs and guns. Outsiders were not welcome. Outsiders meant trouble.
What you didn’t know unless you lived there, unless you spent time there, was that most people in El Caserío were just trying to raise their families in peace, like anywhere else. The neighbors kept an eye on all the kids, fed them, took them to school, took them trick-or-treating on Halloween. All over the neighborhood, people told stories. El Caserío was where I learned about danger and violence and death, but it was also where I learned about community, where I learned to love stories, to imagine them, to dream. And it’s a place I love fiercely.
That summer, I drove into El Caserío to look at our old apartment, my first elementary school, the basketball courts where my father taught me to shoot hoops. I’d been there less than five minutes when a boy on a bike approached the car, motioned for me to roll down my window.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Just visiting,” I said. “I was born here.”
He kept his hands on the handlebars, looked inside the car for a while, then gave me directions to the nearest exit, even though I hadn’t asked for them. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen.
“I know my way around,” I said. “I used to live here.”
“You do not belong here,” he said, then pedaled away, disappearing around the corner.
You do not belong here.
Even though I was born here, even though I spent my childhood riding my bike in these same streets.
You do not belong here.
Some of us have been hearing this our whole lives.
For the past ten years, I’ve been writing a book about girls. Girls who are black and brown and poor and queer. I have been those girls. A runaway, on a Greyhound bus, homeless and on the run, a girl sleeping on lifeguard stands, behind a stilt house restaurant, on a bus stop bench where the city’s panhandlers drink. And I have been other girls: girl on a dock the morning after a hurricane, looking out at the bay like it’s the end of the world; girl on a rooftop; girl on a ledge; girl plummeting through the air; girl standing before a judge. And years later, a woman writing letters to a prisoner on death row.
I write about girls, about how girls become women, about the women they become. I write about people who lived and continue to live in poverty, about the systems that keep them there. I write about being a woman in spaces mostly occupied by white men, where we’re often told we don’t belong. I write about girls, but also monsters. Sometimes these are mythical monsters that haunt bodies of water, shape-shifting demons that shed their skins at night, existing only in stories. But sometimes, as they say, the monsters are real.
For some of us, the 2016 presidential election didn’t change a thing. For some of us, just existing in certain spaces, getting through the day, and surviving has been an act of resistance. While white America woke up on November 9, the rest of us have been waking up in this America every single day.
In my America, the clerk at the DMV asks me four times if I’m a US citizen, even though I’ve handed her my US passport, even though she is looking at it, even though my answer is the same each time.
In my America, alarms go off at the airport and the TSA agent tells me that my hands have tested positive for explosives, pulls me aside, pats me down. And then another TSA agent searches my luggage, which contains suspicious-looking items: protein bars, a roll of quarters, a blow-dryer. And then a different TSA agent walks me, barefoot, to a private room, puts her hands inside my bra, inside my underwear.
In my America, a white woman at a writers’ conference tells me I look like a gang member, and the next day, a completely different white woman asks, “Are those gang signs?” when she sees me signing at a friend. She does not ask, “Is that American Sign Language?”
In my America, white women clutch their purses as I pass them in the grocery store, the cashier calls the cops when she sees me reach into my purse for my phone, and I keep my mouth shut, spread my legs as the cop searches my body, as he searches my purse, as all the customers gather around us and watch.
In my America, my Puerto Rican family members can die in US wars, but are not allowed to vote for the president who will send them to die in these wars, and have no voting representatives in the US Senate or Congress.
In my America, neighbors and coworkers and strangers and even teachers tell me, “This is America. Speak English!”
In the weeks leading up to the election, and in the weeks that followed, I thought about leaving the Kenyon Review. While I’m grateful for the time, the experience, the kindness, and the support, I’ve felt unsafe in Ohio. There are periods when I’ve dealt with almost daily micro-aggressions, two instances of flat-out unrepentant racism from a neighbor, and a taxi driver who told me all the jobs in Gambier are going to “ethnic people,” and then asked, “What are you?”
In Ohio, I am invisible. In Ohio, I am hypervisible. Both of these statements are true.
It’s also true that I considered leaving, but stayed. Every day I leave. Every day I stayed.
I’m Afro-Boricua. I’m biracial—my mother is white and my father is black, both Puerto Rican. Sometimes people don’t know that I’m black, but I’m black. I was raised in a black family, by my father and grandmother, both unapologetically black and unapologetically Boricua. My sister and I look brown, and our brother looks white. Our white grandmother was racist and threw around the n-word even when referring to us, me and my sister, her grandchildren. She made us feel like we were not part of her white family. But my brother, with his blond hair and his blue eyes, she loved to claim.
My whole life people have tried to tell me who I am or who I’m supposed to be. My whole life people have tried to measure my proximity to whiteness, always asking, What are you?
But even though this has been my experience, racial ambiguity is a privilege. Colorism is real and it lives in the US, in Puerto Rico, in Cuba, in the Dominican Republic, and all over Latin America. We need to keep having these conversations. Race is complicated, especially when you consider that race and colorism in Puerto Rico are not exactly the same as in Mexico, Honduras, Peru. You can’t simply lump us all together and pretend we’re one country and one race and call us “Latin America,” because Latin America is made up of cultures and people with various histories of colonization, occupation, militarization, genocide, enslavement, displacement, and erasure.
However, Afro-Latinx erasure is widespread. Latinxs are hardly ever represented in American film or television, and when they are, they are hypersexualized or criminalized or written as stereotypes, and only light-skinned Latinxs are ever portrayed as educated or successful. Black Latinxs have been completely erased, and the writing world is part of the same system of power that reinforces the erasure of Afro-Latinxs, excluding us from our own stories. The dominant workshop model in creative writing programs tries to make all writing the same, tries to tame writing rather than expand and explore all the things writing can be. Most often, it tries to mold it into work that is palatable to white men, that fits the model of white, male writing.
I regularly think of the ways in which we allow these systems to continue. Resistance, for me, means first acknowledging all the ways I have been complicit.
In literary spaces, I’ve often referred to myself as “brown.” I tell myself that I’m referring to the color of my skin, what you can see. But it has always felt like a lie. It is a lie. In telling it, I’m trying to avoid talking about the painful ways my own family tried to erase me, how many times I’ve heard someone say, You do not belong here.
For the last ten years, I’ve been writing a book about girls, and about a woman in Miami Beach who was sentenced to death for the murder of her three-year-old son. There were two women convicted—the other woman, who confessed to beating him with a baseball bat, got a forty-year sentence. She served fifteen. What no one is talking about, what not one person has dared to say—not even the mother herself—is that the woman who was sentenced to death is Afro-Latina. No one involved with this case has talked about sentencing disparity in Miami, or about the criminalization of Afro-Latinxs in a city with a deep and painful history of segregation.
Some people in Miami would have you believe that the city is a “melting pot,” that the city celebrates its diversity. But the so-called melting pot is an illusion. I grew up in a Miami that was either Latinx or Black, and those of us at the intersection were told where we belonged and where we didn’t.
I stayed because I wanted to prove that I belong here.
I stayed because I felt a sense of responsibility.
I stayed because I want to open the doors and make sure that they stay open. Because I have been, too often, the only person of color sitting at the table.
I’m always exhausted when I read recommended reading lists. There are never Latinxs on these lists, and I can’t recall a single time I saw an Afro-Latinx writer on one. I was disappointed, though not surprised, when I saw Kenyon Review’s Summer Reading List last June: a list of books by mostly white writers. What happens when the only person of color sitting at the table misses a meeting? When they step back to finish that book they’ve been trying to finish for ten years? If they miss the deadline to have their recommendations included on the list?
The list illustrates exactly how publishing works: almost every person is white. And let’s be clear: I’m not talking about diversity. I’m talking about access. Who gets access to MFA programs, and gets published in the top tier magazines, and gets into the competitive writing conferences, and gets an agent, and gets the publishing deal with a big house, and gets all the marketing on their book, and whose book makes it into the hands of readers, and gets reviewed, and then makes it into the hands of the person working at the Kenyon Review who then reads it and loves it and recommends it on the Summer Reading List.
It’s important to say this out loud, publicly, because those of us who have been allowed access are often faced with having to be the only one sitting at that table, of bearing the weight of having to fight these battles, of having to be the one who says, Where are all the people of color? Why is this list, this program, this conference, this faculty, this masthead, this admissions committee so white?
It’s crucial for every single person, not just people of color, to interrogate their own complicity in enabling a system that keeps us out, engage in open conversations about white supremacy and privilege and power. It’s time to listen, acknowledge the ways this privilege has made you safer, to recognize that as gatekeepers, it is our responsibility to do more, to reach out, to say, “You belong here.”
Is it safe there where you are? There are people standing outside, waiting. Open the door.
Gambier, Ohio. June 2017.