To the girl in the back of the classroom:
I see you,
Trying so hard to sink down in your chair shield yourself from the rest of the world
But those large frizzy curls that stick out and up from your face.
They won’t let you.
And everything else thats large on you,
From your thighs to your hips to your arms
And your loud voice that you’ve always tried to quiet down.
Your features are yelling at bystanders to notice them.
According to your middle school classmate, they were too, begging to be ridiculed
From the moment you step into a space.
White girls are already crowding your face poking and pulling, stretching your coils with their sticky soiled fingers and without your consent.
They’re fascinated, they’ve never seen such black and kinky hair before.
So you become their new circus monkey.
An ape, you don’t feel too far from it do you?
That’s what your 8th grade crush called you right? A chimpanzee.
With your hairy arms and melanin drenched skin
You're an animal, that’s what they see you as.
As 1 of 3 little brown kids in your 60 student pre-K
You tried to fit in so badly, begging your mother to pack you lunchables instead of savory thick molé
You pleaded god every night to please rid your tongue, of your sweet latin accent
That bled through every word you said as your mouth was born trained to harshly rolls it’s r’s and skip vowels.
But as you began to realize through your pre-teen years
No one likes talking to chubby tall earth toned girls.
Now you hide yourself, under baggy clothes and a meek voice.
You’ve subdued your once vibrant coffee eyes.
Replaced is the girl who despite being spat slurs at still tried to speak up in class.
When did you decide you just weren’t worth fighting for anymore?
You were created to be loud and thunderous to be smack dab in the front of the room with all eyes on you, rejoicing in all the attention I see you but I want everyone to start seeing you too.
I am an actress.
I can show you genuine sympathy and a laughter that outshines the hyenas in Africa
And yes I’ve taken lessons,
Too many in fact.
Beginning from the time I was five To 7 and a half years ago.
My father was my best teacher.
And oh God was he a preacher about how high he held his princess.
He would tell of the pedestal I stood upon and I promise you everyone loved Johnny, Johnny who grew up in church and sang in the choir in the perfect spot where the stained glass sunlight danced,
Who worked so hard and after Sunday service took care of his aging parents.
Johnny who was my father,
Who was the embodiment of a strong family man.
But Johnny pulverized my mothers confidence under his fists indeed underneath his wrists which carried to tuck me in bed every night I broke bones every time saying goodbye, no sorry I meant goodnight.
They don’t teach you self love in preschool.
They teach you to share and love others I never once had to sit through a Dr. Suess book of how juggly wuggly a muggly ugly animal learned to love himself before a who.
Maybe thats why I failed preschool.
Maybe that’s where I began to measure my selfworth through letters,
Aching every time he got that look in his eyes.
That told me I better hide faster than the time it took for him to set his bottle down And maybe that’s why it’s my fault I now carry the scars of it.
But not physical, no, I was never given his blessing to have those
At least he found it within himself to act on self preservation.
Instead I carried his prayers,
Praise dancing at 4am oh god why was I cursed with such awful children
Oh God, why can’t she be good enough I am no Cain and my brother he is no Abel so tell me again please
Why you couldn’t love me?
My Johnny was my best teacher,
My preacher who taught me how to act.
Who broke down my childhood and hid it so well from my savior,
My savior who tried to deflect his rage like a mirror.
But he couldn’t even pretend to see her
Until at last she couldn’t no more.
She stood her ground and let herself roar.
She never knew how fractured I had become.
My Johnny, mommy became my only teacher.
My non religious preacher who taught me how to end a scene.
Rico means rich in Spanish but it also means deliciously good.
My relationship with money.
I hate it but at the same it’s directly correlated to my happiness.
When people tell me “money doesn’t buy happiness” I’m expected to agree.
And I’m a little bit ashamed to admit I pretty much always do, never truly voicing out my opinion.
But those same people are the ones who get to go home most days and see their mom preparing dinner,
Or dad cleaning the kitchen, maybe feeding the dog.
I don’t get that.
And please I don’t want your pity I just want you to understand that when I wake most mornings first thing I think about is if my mom got home safe tonight,
Or if she even arrived home at all if she is still stuck in a pretty mansion in Montecito where she can only gaze at fragile expensive art works that line cream colored walls,
And care for an antique lady covered in prune skin topped with cotton candy gray hair Who will only ever call her Juanita, Maria, Jessica, Guadalupe and any other name except Karla.
Karla is what my grandmother named her.
But over her 25 years in America she can count on her two rough calloused hands how many of her employers actually ever cared to call her that.
She works like mule 7 days a week with not ever a enough rest,
But can only barely cover rent.
So she crams the two halves of her broken heart into a tiny room to rent out her home just so she can afford to feed them.
It trembles her to her core when her daughter at only 8 years old says "Mommy it’s okay I don’t need new clothes I’d rather save up for school books".
Or when she got bedridden for 4 months and couldn’t work so her son figured out canned sticky peaches don’t taste that bad and if he stayed in during lunch his stomach wouldn’t hurt that much when his sister could only fry up one single salty egg for his dinner I couldn’t stand seeing him get thinner and thinner.
So now when people comment on his weight it makes me furious because he deserves to indulge in his favorite foods and have enough energy to go out and get dirty during recess.
How much money is available to me directly affects how happy I may be.
Because happiness to me is being able to see him not worry about how much money he wastes when he eats.
Happiness to me is the day I have enough in my bank account to let my mother breathe when she can sleep for a full 10 hours straight and not care about how ironed her uniform will be.
When she no longer sits in her car crying until 4am about how she will pay the bills alone where no one especially not her children can see how she suffers.
But I’ve seen and I see her the most days I can, sacrificing herself in an attempt to give us the best life she can.
When I first walked outside and saw her dimly lit inside her rusty car
At 10 years old I understood that she simply wanted to be left alone, so I did and I watched her try to mend her fractured soul crunching numbers in her calculator as she held back tears that seemed like tsunamis.
So I’m sorry if you think of me as greedy or maybe even naive for putting green right up with my happiness I don't think the best things in life are money I have just witnessed my mother killing herself everyday and every night doing a job she hates so she can put bread to my mouth.
A bread that I can’t seem to live without.
When did we become classmates, not friends?
Was it when I turned twelve and let someone stab a needle through my ear
After we promised we would never be adorned,
Never become “pretty”
Was it when you chose to swim and I chose to run
So you swam to the top but I couldn’t keep up,
My legs too weak to wade through the sea
Or when you became smart, and I became creative,
When I picked up a paintbrush and you grabbed a calculator
Is that when?
I bet it was the night I shared so much, and you shared so little
You were too quiet, too hushed
It must have been then.
Did I not listen,
What did I miss?
I strained my ears, I swear, but heard nothing except,
“I’m good, thank you”
I still remember your birthday, do you remember mine?
Do you remember when we ate great bowls of ice cream with Skippy on top
And later you let me hold your favorite chicken
She clucked and you smiled,
Do you remember?
I run by your house, we’re neighbors, you see
And when I see four cars lined up,
I stop and my hand hovers over the door
But I hesitate.
Is she busy? I ask.
Am I imposing? I fear.
I imagine you opening the door, face alight, happy to see me and invite me in
So that I can hug your cats and shake your dad’s rough hands
And forget that my eyes are brown, not blue
That I wear glasses, not goggles
I want to see your face and chlorine-green hair and nails bitten down to nothing
I want to make art with you, lots of it, orange and blue, yellow and true
Do you want to make art too? I wonder.
So I put down my hand and walk backwards,
Brushing cool fingertips on the walls of the house
Tracing back to when you protected me, and I, you.
Is that when we became peers?
When I couldn’t knock and you couldn’t answer
When I only saw three cars, not four
When we began to spend more time in classrooms than in bed, sleeping
And we both got nervous and “busy”
Oh, we knew how to bicker.
I still can see that face of yours: the eyes went mean and that lip would curl
You could go from pleasant to so prickly your gaze could puncture a rock.
Little did I know I had the same face, same challenging eyes
Our fights were glorious
Set off by one word, one glance
In the first grade you wrote: “I like Camille, except when she doesn’t listen to me”
It was true, your love was selective but I knew it was constant
You were a tiger, no, a killer whale
You had thick skin and knew how to cut mine
But the next day my wounds were forgotten,
Like they are now, for I don’t know when, or how,
We became associates, not friends, not foes
Students who can’t breathe above the surface of textbooks and schoolwork
Sports and stressed families,
Students who can’t take the time to say
How are you?
No, I mean how are you.
Tell me everything.
My father is afraid of earthquakes, and fears that the house,
The world will crumble.
This must be why he glues his eyes to his phone,
I know he does not realize he’s left his coffee mug―
The sixth one today
―lukewarm on the windowsill.
Or that he doesn’t think as he makes the house cold
By leaving things open,
Like the back door.
My mother has to live by the sea
Farther inland she is lost,
As though something’s amiss.
She walks every morning,
Pumps her strong arms
Walking by the ocean
Is what she loves most.
I know my sister feels trapped in our house
She is forever trying to escape
But is paralyzed by indecision
She is drawn to danger like a bear to honey
With each risk she grows bolder while Mom’s hair gets grayer
I know my grandmother dislikes the taste of chocolate
She hides all sweets in the bottom drawer,
I’ve learned we cannot cry in front of her,
And we must pretend she’s not forgetting
I’ve learned to listen for a sniff as a sign of disapproval
I’ve learned to be explicit with my grandfather.
Directions must be clear, and measurements exact
He opens the door for his wife every time
And gives her a scruffy kiss
I know he loves the taste of chocolate.
Both his feet and mine are not pretty
But running will do that, and so will
Standing in other’s shoes.
I know I look too closely, but
Cannot protect myself from what I soak up
I’ve learned empathy is not my friend.
It comes with 24-hour hyper-awareness
It loves to make my ears burn when I listen too closely,
My stomach churn as another rubs their temples
It makes me exposed and malleable,
Charred by flammable emotions.
You are nervous?
I am nervous.
You are furious?
I am enraged.
I know insight is worthy,
But I am tired of feeling,
Of fearing earthquakes
Of being trapped
Of hidden desserts,
Of passive aggressive sniffs!
I am tired, but I am listening.
High Tops and checkered Vans tread in crowded halls
Lanyards swing by confident hips and
Car keys jangle with pride.
Then, a water bottle crashes and clangs
On the hard cement
A new dent added to its neon skin while
We wince, look down, and do not smile.
Short hair is pushed behind ears pierced with hoops,
Gold and true
Headphones streaming sullen tunes
Cords tangled by our chins
Our backpacks heavy, the lockers unused
We hunch, look down, and do not smile.
The weather is fickle this term
Too warm for winter with frigid mornings and
Glaring at the bright sun and icy wind
We stubbornly don puffy down
As we shiver, look down, and do not smile.
In the hallways we frown
But in classes we drown
Beneath floods of thick papers and words
We do not smile at one another
For we fear that the other
Will not return a shy grin with their own
I wish that we saw that a wave has no claws
For then we would smile,
With wide, toothy grins
Our fists unclenched and our shoulders unwrenched
With phones in our pockets
Not our hands
And keys at our hips
Sharing stories through our lips
Not our thumbs
For then, only then, would we
Look up and smile.
My life zooms past me like a music video and I try to collect stills, soak into the moment and turn it into honey. But beauty is elusive. A friend once told me that to remember things exactly as they are while they’re happening, you should take a mental photo. So I collect them, day after day.
It’s the middle of June and we run barefoot on the blacktop, our feet on fire. At nine years old we are immortal, invincible, nothing can touch us. We don’t care about the bottoms of our feet burning off, we just devour the feeling of the wind in our long sandy hair as we sprint to the end of the block. When we’re together the entire world stands still and it’s just the two of us--two fairies, two mermaids, two pirates--anything we’ve ever dreamed can be a reality. The world welcomes us with open arms.
You see, there are times that certain things feel so familiar that it’s like a punch to the gut. I can’t always place it exactly but the feeling still stays.
I’m washing my hands in the bathroom with chestnut soap and suddenly I’m at my aunt’s house, a cacophony of voices talking in the next room over and holiday music playing from the speakers. It’s the contagious laughter of my grandmother during a card game; when she laughs the whole world feels a little brighter. Walking past a pungent fish market in Chinatown and being transported back to my grandpa’s “monster truck” --age eight, waiting in the backseat with my cousin while my grandpa sold fish to the man at the counter.
Maybe I hold on too tightly to things, but I don’t want to let go. It stays stored in my heart in certain smells that I can’t place, food that warms my soul, music that moves my entire being, and voices that remind me of home. I don’t want to ever forget.