I went to a predominately white high school where I was the only Latina in any of my AP classes. Senior year, my English teacher, Ms. Sayago, suggested that I read How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez. At first, I was offended. Why is she singling me out to read a Latina author just because I'm Latina? I became immediately self-conscious. I had never read a book by a Latino/a author, but when I did, I was home. The Dominican Republic that Alvarez vividly describes was so relatable to the Puerto Rico I'd only heard of, the Puerto Rico I considered my native land though born in Newark, New Jersey and only having visited as an infant. The book, speckled with Spanish words and scenes that I could clearly envision, was the start of my love for all things Latino. I wanted to devour every book like this and before the dawn of the internet, roamed bookstore fiction aisles looking for Latino surnames and book titles.
When I came across Sandra Cisneros' works, however, I assumed I wouldn't relate. That Latina was different than me. She was Mexican from the Southwest. I was Puerto Rican from the Northeast. I read Julia Ortiz-Cofer and stories that spoke of poverty, housing projects, and dysfunction. I didn't even like mangoes. What could House on Mango Street
do for me?
But as I went into the 2012 National Council of La Raza Annual Conference in Las Vegas, specifically, the Latinas Brunch, eyes, ears and heart wide open to receive the kind of inspiration that leads to action (like writing this piece), I was haunted knowing that Cisneros was going to be a part of that afternoon's highly-touted workshop, The Adelante Movement
, led by Nely Galan, and featuring Cisneros amongst others intent on giving Latinas the tools for financial self-empowerment. "Don't buy shoes, buy a building!" screamed the promotional materials. Suze Orman was the keynote speaker for the brunch, and I was in this highly motivated euphoria as I moved into the Adelante workshop. I was excited about the discussion, but ashamed about dismissing Cisneros' role. I was being judgmental, and there was no room for it in the midst of all this girl power.
I got there early, and was in the first seat of the second row. Univision's Maria Elena Salinas came in, elegant in her sheath dress and surrounded by a horde of fans. She was a famous Latina journalist, I thought it was a picture I too should take, so I did. Cisneros walked in, wearing what I would call a bata. I'm no fashion maven, but definitely can't relate to that. Maybe it has a story, maybe it's handmade, but the girl was in a bata. I thought I should take a picture with this famous author, but, aware of my own ugly judgment of her, I couldn't add hypocrite to the mix, so I didn't.
Cisneros was introduced to the stage first. She walked seemingly unaware of her own importance in the room. Like if she was in someone's living room instead of at the largest Latino conference in the nation. Then, she spoke and in her remarks she undid it all. To understand her comments, she said, we had to remember that her references to light simply mean love. Every single notion I had of her was dead wrong. Dead like the ancestors she said come back every sunset. Cisneros' simple introduction to the session, where she wanted you to get in touch with yourself and your spirituality, "whatever that means to you," as she repeated often, left me raw. She had me at chingona. We are different enough that I didn't know what it meant and had to quickly look it up, but once I saw the definition we were one in the same. Sandra Cisneros was for me, totally my kind of Latina, entirely, perhaps purposely, relatable. Ironically, she referenced how we as women are so critical of ourselves and each other, our bags, our clothes, our assumptions, yelling Stop It! She left a pause in that room that the subsequent speakers, including Harvard-graduate and current US Treasurer, Rosie Rios, could not match. Rios referenced Cisneros in her own remarks, and credited House on Mango Street
for the role it played in her Harvard thesis about the Mexican-American experience.
Cisneros' remarks were in effect a to do list for how to be better Latinas, better people, and completely authentic versions of ourselves. "There is no competition when you are being you," and nothing wrong can come of decisions made from such an authentic place. She called on us to meditate and endearingly said "I don't know how to meditate, but this is how I do it..."
"Close your eyes and envision someone who represents unconditional love, seeing their smile, absorbing their smile, and sending that love right back to them, until there was a little white thread between the two." I envisioned my brother Chino, who died in 2007. I breathed quickly, trying not to let a single tear fall, and I didn't. Chino was the one who taught me my alphabet, sent me quizzes from jail, and the reason I graduated from high school and college when none of my other siblings, including him, did. So, he's the reason I was in the position to be at the NCLR Conference and in this workshop with these amazing chingonas to begin with.
Growing up as the only girl with five brothers, I'm pretty competitive. But to Cisneros' point, it feels really good to not have any competition when you're just being yourself. And being Chino's favorite sister is a great place to be.