Voice of the Jaguar
I am a direct and assertive woman who is often told to “lighten up” or “relax” (a euphemism for “I need to control you.”) I will not relax. I am often accused of being “too much.” To this I respond: “Am I too much or is it that you are not enough?”
Why do many of our sisters still straighten their assertive hair? How is it that “relaxers” and hot combs still insinuate themselves into our lives? Why do we take classes to play a one finger middle C on our multi-octave language? When did fashion shows of sweat shop generated, U.S. style clothing become a “cultural” event? Our men trade their Guayaberas for corporate uniforms. We trade identity for social stature and anglo acceptance. We beat our machetes into SUV’s. Our actions indicate that the basic lessons of history still elude us. We avoid confronting the Master and the Slave, the Colonizer and the Colonized that battle within us. We must interrogate the fear of rejection that feeds our addictions and workaholism; the fear of loss that fuels our materialism; the buried grief and rage that make us laugh when it is time to weep or to roar. We have forgotten our Indigenous and African roots. We form ethnocentric, class driven cliques that dilute the power of our unity as people of color. Words like Prieto, hincho, jabao, betun, achinao, still prevail. These are not “terms of endearment” or “cultural”; they are internalized bigotry; a jagged stick in our own eye.
Last year, an extensively schooled Latina, turned to me during a Bomba y Plena performance and said of the dark skinned plenera wearing a gele, (Yoruba for head wrap): “I didn’t know Aunt Jemima was a Puerto Rican.” I nearly lost my tostones. When I explained that a) Aunt Jemima is a racist “mammy” construct and that b) her, she portrayed the injured party with grand telenovela body language.
If we are too busy for self-reflection and too egotistical for personal accountability, we are co-conspirators of own oppression. When we hold those who are different from us in contempt simply for their difference, we close the door to learning from them and participate in our own cultural extinction.
My mother did not learn to read and write until she was 60 years old and she taught herself by sheer will. She painfully sounded out each word in a large print bible. she didn’t understand most of what she read, but she knew how each word made her feel. she began to string words together until she could read entire sentences. she began to understand the purpose of punctuation. she couldn’t articulate why, she just could feel it.
As a teen and only child born into poverty, I did my best to help my mother learn to read. I found neighborhood programs here and there, but nothing worked. She could read and write two things: her name and mine. I taught her to write my name after I entered the first grade (kindergarten was optional and my parents, rightfully suspicious of the school system, kept me home as long as they could. Yhey were right, the schools i went to were no place for a child. We were not students, we were inmates. but that story is for another day.
As soon as I learned to write my name I went home to teach my mother how to do it. I remember how painful it was for her to try and get her brain to think in this new way. Since I had learned English by television jingle, I began to sing my name to her, breaking it up into syllables in the sincere and sing-song way only an innocent child can. I would stretch out each syllable on a long note while guiding her trembling hand. Eventually she got it: Mag-da-lena. No, excuse me, not Mag-da-lena, but Ma-de-line. By first grade the system had already begun it’s attempt to colonize me, and my mother, with a burning desire to shed the identity that had caused her only the shame and rejection of being called a SPIC, went along with it. I sang my new colonial name and Mami learned to write it. two things happened that day: I had my first experience as an arts educator teaching phonics with music and I took the first steps on the journey of unwitting assimilation. If only later as a teen I could have found a program for mami that would have combined literacy and art, my mother might have had a life beyond sweatshops and a loveless marriage. She might have sung her way into a new and literate life. She might have had the opportunity to learn her history and help me honor my true identity and her own. But we each struggled along on the fuel of guts and intuition. Mami learned to read and write and over time. I fought my way through schools where I was the anomaly, the artist who insisted on performing her research, who turned study notes into poems. My multiple learning disabilities had escaped everyone...it was by singing, rhyming dancing and performing in front of the mirror that I was learning my school lessons and remaining on or close to the honor rolls. As the persevering artistic outcast, I reclaimed my name, my soul and my identity. To this day I do not allow anyone to abbreviate my name or abbreviate who I am. I refuse to be a victim of cultural extinction. I protect my history and culture with the ferocity and roar of a jaguar.