But if you don’t feel the same way, it’s cool, too. I was thinking about Hispanic/Latino History Month on the train ride back Uptown this morning from my boxing gym (Allow me one tangent: So, a couple weeks ago I sparred with a couple of women from our sister gym. One of them surprised me—this is New York City and 2013—by stating as we were warming up on the floor: “Oh, so you’re a Dominican? I guess that must mean you’re tough,” she said with a sort of concerned look on her mug. I wanted to reply, “Oh yeah, crazy tough. I’m not even going to wear a mouthpiece today. I’m just going to hide a razor blade in my mouth.” Instead, I smiled. I was proud of myself for not taking it out on her in the ring. If the Dalai Lama were in the house, I think he may have said I grew a little. We cannot learn tolerance from a guru or friend, after all, but that’s another story for another time).
I rushed back home and, with the quickness, got ready for an event sponsored by Simon & Schuster’s Diversity Council in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (They were awesome and engaged, by the way!). There’s so much I wanted to say but with only about a half-hour slot to read a few passages from my book and talk before opening up the floor to comments and questions, I decided to jot a few things down. Here’s a sample:
Good afternoon, folks. I had planned on giving you at least ten reasons why I think we should dead Hispanic/Latino History Month aside from the fact that I keep forgetting to send myself reminders signaling its arrival every September 15th.
It’s saccharine. Every year it plays out the same way; a non-Latino/Hispanic friend or acquaintance will ask me: “Isn’t this when they celebrate Spanish culture?” to which I roll my eyes and don’t bother explaining that we’re not Spanish. Or an institution will scramble to find someone, anyone—me (yes, por favor!)—to inject inspiration into a room full of indifferent suits who would much rather spend the hour at SoulCycle than sensitivity training. Or, my daughter will bring home a stack of homework assignments all involving mariachi music, Mexican food and salsa dancing.
I won’t bore you all with a list, I promise. But I will say that cramming Hispanic/Latino History month into a checkbox has a negative ripple effect. It encourages us to approach one another in the way the folks over at Fox 5 intended: with clenched fists, with closed hearts, and with fear.
Until then, let’s deal with the present. Storytelling, in my case, through documentary filmmaking, journalism, and what brings me here today—through memoir and nonfiction writing—is a sure-fire tool we can use to break down the invisible yet palpable barriers that exist between “us” Hispanic or Latino-Americans and “them”: everybody else. Ted Lange, the actor many of us know and loved as Isaac Washington on The Love Boat said it best: “Artists should always think of themselves as cosmic instruments of storytelling.” Cosmic, I love that word. It has no boundaries. We are cosmic beings. We were not meant to be confined to a box or other peoples definitions of our selves.
My own life, a transcultural experience filled with a cast of saints and sinners, magic and kismet, ’80s hip-hop and family dysfunction, and the popular tool of ancestral DNA and travel, is the prism I chose to explore racial, ethnic and national identity in Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina. It’s in these universal themes that we humans can all find a parts of our selves.
Before embarking on the journey with me, I encourage you to do what I did, abandon convention and ideology, and open yourselves up to focus on the telling. When we share our life’s stories from a place of truth, whether you dig or hate the lyrics within the pages, this is what ultimately draws us together. This truth is what breaks the invisible walls down within ourselves and allows for an awakening.
And what an awakening I had in the living and, specifically, on the genetic adventure I embarked on. I came to the realization that I don’t enjoy writing about what I already know, but rather, what I’d like to discover and learn. And since it is a celebration of Latino/Hispanic culture in the Americas that brought us here today, I’ll leave you with two nuggets the universe gifted me with when I abandoned my own ideological self and dived in headlong into the experience; For one, race is in the eye of the beholder. And secondly, everyone is Dominican. I’m kidding. Sort of. I’ll tell you why. It’s not because modern day Santo Domingo is the seat of this so-called New World, a place where the Indigenous discovered Columbus, and where Africa and Europe clashed with the former to create a blueprint for our own modern society. It’s because like you all, I am an example, as are other Hispanic or Latino-Americans of the Columbus Effect on our bodies. We are the physical embodiment of what it means to be American, to be global citizens. And so I think we need to invest more time exploring what that means and how we are truly banded to one other for more than four weeks out of the year.