The Silence of Our Friends

Sunday, June 03, 2007

New Life

I've been thinking a lot about Nadia's post about sexual violence and historical trauma. In the post, Nadia states:

Reading this article makes me think about the types of historical trauma we as Palestinians, and Arabs in general, are carrying around with us. When Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart speaks about sobbing uncontrollably after viewing a photograph of her ancestors, it reminds me of the way I feel when viewing photos like the one at the top of this post. It reminds me of last summer in Italy, driving through mountains and valleys on our way home to Gagliano. After viewing miles of olive trees out the car window, the same trees we passed every time we went into Sulmona, I burst into tears and felt sad, as if in mourning, the rest of the day. I was mourning, mourning all the things that were taken away from my ancestors, all the things that continue to be taken away, the things we can’t ever get back. This is something that makes me find fault with the term “historical trauma”–it’s not just historical, it’s current. While I am experiencing historical trauma, others are experiencing the trauma firsthand. I guess this is what makes historical trauma secondary trauma, especially in our case. But how does that relate to our conception of ourselves as Palestinians? How much does this legacy of suffering affect our self perceptions, and how willing are we to be defined by it?

Nadia's words brought me back to a time, about two years ago, when I was at a fruit market. I was standing in front of a pile of bananas, and suddenly, for what appeared to be no reason, I almost threw up. I got very shaky and dizzy and almost started crying--I had to go sit out in the car while the family finished up the shopping.

At the time, I sensed what was wrong, but I didn't have the words to articulate it. I spoke of the incident to one other person--I told her how the voices of the mostly Mexican migrant workers in the shop had come together with the warm smell of the huge pile of bananas, and suddenly, I could see the brown hands that hacked the bananas off the trees, I could feel the hunger in his stomach, the heat of the sun on his skin, sucking the sweat out of his body--and I couldn't touch the bananas--i couldn't touch them because what I wanted to touch were the hands, the brown callused hands, that had made it possible for me to feed my newly born baby.

The person I told this to said nothing--just nodded with a soft look on her face.
That is what I needed at the time.


Money was always an issue for my family. But it's important to note that even though I come from a chronically working class poor household, my life wouldn't have been much different if I had come from a well off household. Work was admired in my family--in my community.

I worked in the fields from the time I was about 11 until I was about 13. At that point I switched to a job as a news paper delivery person. And eventually, when I was old enough, I worked at Mc Donalds.

And their were two common factors running through my experiences at each of these jobs. First, I was never the only Chicana/Mexicana at the particular job. Especially while working in the fields, there was always an overwhelming amount of brown people (of all ages, mothers, grandmothers, children as young as 2 or 3) working there.

The other factor was that I always *wanted* to be working. I didn't see anything wrong with being 11 years old and working 8-10 hours a day with one break for lunch. I *embraced* the feeling of tired, the feeling of independence, the self-assurance that now, no matter what happened, I would have the power to take care of myself.

And I wasn't alone in that feeling. In working class Chicano communities, work is how you prove yourself to be an adult. In general, nobody really much cared when 15 year-olds got pregnant, because they were working and/or they had a spouse that was working and it was just understood--once you had the power to live on your own, you had the power to make your own decisions. Similarly, when boys came home and said they dropped out of school to get a job, there may have been some angst--but mostly, there was ambivilence or even admiration for the boy. He was a man now.


I enjoyed the feelings that hard physical labor brought about in my body. The deep dreamless sleep the came after hours and hours of picking, the clean empty way your brain feels when your whole body is concentrating on not passing out--I even enjoyed the tenderness of my skin, puffy and red, as it recovered from multiple burns, bruises and cuts from spattering oil, hot grills, and tomato slicers. Physically--to move your body to the point of sweat--it just feels good.

It wasn't until I was a 19-year-old living on my own, working at a popular restaurant chain that this changed. I had left home for a good shortly before my graduation. I had nobody except myself to rely on in any way--and as a result, I was working anywhere from 50-80 hours a week, often as much as 20 hours a day. And as the lone female working in a position that required lots of physical labor (grill cook), I got endless flak from male grill cooks for needing help with lifting or things like that. So I pretty much figured out how to do it myself.

And eventually, the sexual harassment began--lots of touching, rubbing against, grabbing every single day. Touching, rubbing and grabbing that I was forced to make a decision about every time it happened. Did I want to make a big deal out of this? Did I want to further cement my reputation as an incorrigible troublemaker with my bosses? Did I want to be alienated from the guys even further for 20 hour work shifts? The one time my breasts were grabbed in front of several people, I was told by my managers that I shouldn't have been in the position where I was--that I shouldn't have been joking around with the guy who grabbed me. And because the guy was black and I was white and it was Flint, the ensuing racial strife and tension in the place where I spent up to 80 hours of my life was almost unbearable.

But I couldn't leave.

I had worked my way up to making 8$'s an hour--and I knew if I quit and went to a different resturant, I would have to start all over again back at 5.00$ an hour. And I also knew that there would be no guarantee that I would get my 20-40 hours of over time. Overtime was where I made the money to pay for hospital bills and to keep my ass off the streets.

So I stayed. And I took it. My body took the abuse, the extreme physical labor, the mental strain--and eventually also took the asthma and anxiety attacks, the arm and hip trauma that resulted from constant repetition, the mental breakdowns that left me locked in my apartment on days off, alternatively sobbing and staring at the wall.

I took it because if I didn't I would be on the streets. And if I didn't--I would be a failure. I was not able to make it on my own. I was not a real grown up. I was not a real Mexican. And for somebody who already didn't qualify as a real Mexican on other physical levels (my pale skin, my inability to speak Spanish), the idea that there was another way I could prove I wasn't real--it was intolerable. Self preservation and cultural identity were all tied up into one messy physically disintegrating body.


It wasn't until I was pregnant with my first child that the disintegration began to become obvious to me. Due to extreme health problems, I was forced to spend most of my pregnancy lying down doing nothing. The movements of the television made me sick, the sound of W*'s breathing made me sick, the smell of tap water made me sick, rolling over too quickly made me sick. I was in and out of the hospital and given pretty much *no* help by condescending doctors who told me "Every woman feels like shit when she's pregnant."

So I spent most of my day doozing in and out and thinking. Thinking about how shitty I felt because I wasn't working. W* and I have never been well off. We were only able to survive on one income because we lived in a one bedroom apartment in the middle of Flint Michigan. I knew he was working his ass off, I knew he was worried--and there was nothing I could do to help because I was so busy being sick.

And even more so--It was the first time since I was 11 years old that I wasn't working. The first time in almost 15 years that I wasn't earning an income of some sort. The first time I had to confront the way my body had been trained--the way my muscles and blood and brain had been trained by the demand to work.

I noticed how my muscles twitched involuntarily when a visitor needed a glass of water or a towel. The way blankets and blankets of guilt forced my body to crawl out of bed and try to help make dinner or take the dog out for a walk. The way, even 2 years after quitting my restaurant job, dreams would still invade my brain at night--dreams where I got handful after handful of orders to cook, dreams where I couldn't keep up, and I knew I was going to get fired and goddamn it I need this job, what am I going to do?

I couldn't rest and heal my body from pregnancy related sickness because I was so busy unraveling and recognizing for the first time the sense of desperation that had motivated almost my entire life.

I swung in and out of severe depressions that only alleviated once I was finally able to go back to work.


Although feminism saved my life on so many levels--at the same time, feminism also helped me to overlook the deeper more traumatic aspects of my life up until that point. The first feminist book I ever read was The Feminine Mystique. And while I am forever grateful to Betty Friedan for helping me to see I was not alone, her solution to the depression, pain, violence, of staying at home (get a job, basically) was not my solution. How could it be? The women she talked to had never worked, had never felt the inescapable heat of the sun beating on their heads for 8 hours a day, had never felt guilty for playing with toys rather than working, had never felt like a trapped animal day in and day out for 80 hours a week. I identified very strongly with the lack of humanity the women Friedan discussed felt and internalized. But they and I were not the same. And so our solutions could never be the same. But I didn't figure that one out for a long time.



Mexicans have bought into the myth as much as anybody else. We are hard workers--we are better than blacks because we work and they don't. We will do the work nobody else wants to, we will leave our children and loved ones to get them a better life. We will scavenge through deserts and risk being raped and shoot just for a 8$ an hour job. We patently ignore the violence this love of work does to our physical bodies and to our families.

And I understand why. When you have nothing else, when you have already been shamed in so many different ways, when your own English speaking children are embarrassed of your Spanish accented English, their eyes and ears judging you with the mind of that which hates you--what other choice to do you have? What other way do you have to make your children proud of you?

And really, all of us know that in spite of how much everybody beats education education education into our brains as the solution to our problems--things just aren't that easy. Not when schools are war zones. And Spanish speaking students are shoved into the back of the class and ignored until they teach themselves English. And college loans have a way of being bigger than the house loan. And nobody ever hires the spic anyway.

It's so much more complicated than even we allow ourselves to consider. Immigration reform will not help our children no longer feel lonely when they don't see us for 18 hours at a time. Getting paid more and eliminating sexism on the job will not give a childhood to children who migrate every year and must work in the fields after school. And indulgently looking away while mothers and fathers risk the desert to find a job does nothing to keep the lonely children back home from killing themselves.

It's so complicated--but we don't have the time to work through it all. We're busy trying avoid deportation, keep food on the table, keep our children off the streets, and keep our bodies from disintegrating into a pile of bruised mush, our minds no longer strong enough to push the mush to where it needs to go.


Nadia said in comments:

i have little choice but to support systems of oppression in everything i buy and eat. there are so few alternatives to it. that is an added dimension to secondary trauma; not only do you experience the trauma, but you are also in the position of having little choice but to force that trauma on others in your group. we have to pay taxes, and those taxes go towards military action against our people. we have to buy food and clothes, resulting in us financially supporting industries that exploit our people.

Even as my body recovers itself, even as my muscles learn how to move for their own reasons, I am participating in the exploitation of my own people--of mi raza. The bananas I eat to empower my body, keep me strong, are the same bananas that I know steal away the life of other brown workers. My road to recovery is based on the continued violence against my community.

Which is why I found myself standing in front of a pile of bananas ready to vomit. I know what the body's of those pickers look like, I know what their hands feel like, I know how their shoulders ache and how their skin burns to a dark red tomato color. I know because their bodies are mine.

And when I reach out to pick up bananas what I really want is to reach for the hands of my fellow worker, to hold his hands and tell him, promise him, that my health will not come at the cost of his health. That it will not come at the cost of his children's health.

But I can't do that.
And it destroys me.


I started keeping a garden about three years ago. And W* has been very patient with me--I get out and work for a few days, and then abandon the thing for weeks, forcing him to pick up the slack. At the same time, when he gets overwhelmed and decides he's going to stop working on it, I cry and beg and plead for him stick with it. I promise I'll help, and even do so diligently for a few weeks until I drop off again.

Because even though I've never been able to articulate it, I've always known that our little garden is liberatory to my community. Besides the fact that our little garden makes it so that we don't have to waste gas going to the store, makes it a few less bananas that children need to pick, etc etc--our little garden allows me a space to see what it feels like to have hard work stem from love, to have sweat result in nurturing and healing. It allows me the space to teach my children traditions on their terms--my son knows death is not forever, that death brings life. He and I have discussed it quite a bit while scattering dead leaves and mulch over our plants.

And my daughter, who is like me, and inclined to do things in bursts, plays off to the side of the garden, listening intently while she plays, coming over occasionally to ask questions and get clarification. She figured out all by herself that bombs destroy the earth, makes it impossible for new life to grow in a healthy and safe way. Something many full grown environmentalists haven't quite figured out.

It's just one garden. Just like the South Central garden was just one garden. And the Esperanza garden was just one garden. And the Avenue A was just a garden. All just gardens that teach the bodies of brown people, many times for the first time, what it feels like to create for oneself, what it feels like to move and sweat and breath all for oneself.

To make choices we have never been allowed to make.

To love ourselves the way we've never been allowed to.

New life arising from the disintegration.


~En Lucha~

4 comment(s):

This is so beautiful, bfp. I want to print this and hand it out at the grocery store! I want to plaster pictures of brown hands onto the groaning stacks of produce so that we can all see what you know in your bones and your muscles and your very being.

"I swung in and out of severe depressions that only alleviated once I was finally able to go back to work."

Yes. Oh, god, yes. How well we've been trained and/or trained ourselves. Even when we see it, question it, challenge it, the reality is, to work is a cure, of sorts. Ay!

By Blogger Ravenmn, at 6/03/2007 7:44 PM  

amazing what happens when you actually give people the means to make something on their own terms.

and how threatening that is seen to be.

By Blogger sly civilian, at 6/04/2007 11:59 AM  

Wow. Just... yeah.

By Blogger Deoridhe, at 6/05/2007 9:15 AM  

I just wanted to say thank you to brownfempower for her powerful blog. I came to this blog in search of alternative voices and was hooked by your reference to Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, whose work I know of from elsewhere.

Thank you again for what you wrote.

Bob in HI

By Blogger Bob in HI, at 6/06/2007 6:32 PM  

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