A Space for Women of the World
As a young girl I remember mumbling words with a lot of r’s and l’s, pretending to speak a language that wasn’t my own. Under a mango tree, in Yauco, Puerto Rico, I dreamed of mastering this beautiful, flowing, better English language. Even if it made no sense, I felt intelligent. Everything from “America” was better. A pre-cooked imitation of meat between two buns of bread was more delicious than my mother’s arroz con habichuelas. I did not want to talk about Puerto Rico as a colony; one of the few left in the world. Actually, this was the best that could happen to a small island like ours. Although I had heard many times about how privileged Puerto Ricans were, something just didn’t feel right.
As a teenager, I read through magazines from the US. I saw the models and felt envy towards them, hatred towards myself. Why did I have to be short, with plain ugly brown eyes and hair, big hips and practically no breasts? Why couldn’t I be tall, witty, intelligent, radiant, successful, worthy? If I could only come closer to being at least a bit intelligent, even if I had to fake it…
Years passed, and as I stood in front of the turquoise waters in a nearby beach in Puerto Rico, gasping for air, I told myself: “There’s so much work to do in the island”. Immediately I responded to myself: “There’s nothing to do in this land of yours! There are no opportunities for you to grow. There’s no work for you! If you want to move forward, you need to leave… leave for the great “America”, and maybe come back in a few years. No wait, don’t ever come back”.
Twenty-seven years of age, suitcases in hand I went off to conquer the true “America”. My eyes swollen after hours of crying, scared to death, completely lost, I stepped down a plane. There I was in a semi-rural town in the Midwest of the United States. I had heard they had snow during the winter. I had never seen the pretty snowflakes that floated in the air. My point of reference was wrapping paper during Christmas time; the wrapping paper everybody in Puerto Rico used to wrap the gifts that Santa Claus was going to bring through the chimney that none of our homes had. Not only was I ready to see snow, I was ready to go after the perfect legitimate evidence of intelligence: a PhD.
After a couple of hours of moving to the great America, I started missing the arroz con habichuelas. It was better not to cook arroz con habichuelas… it did not taste the same. Things looked different now. As winter made its entrance, those pretty tiny snowflakes had transformed into large gray mountains of snow. On my first doctoral class, I reminded myself that I had a few options to survive a discussion with my incredibly intelligent, charismatic, powerful fellow learners. I could pretend that I was the shy, soft-spoken, reserved Latina women (which I am not), or I could trick people by making them think I was actually intelligent. Days before any speaking in public, I would find an online pronunciation site, and would practice as much as I could, as if my accent would ever be erased. I always brought with me a couple pre-written, translated statements, in case I needed them.
As my journey continued, the more I embraced resistance and bravery, two of my favorite concepts. I will forever be grateful to an African-American female scholar who crossed my way. She became the light to a path I did not want to walk through because it hurt. It made me remember the voice of the White American missionary woman, and my elementary school teacher, who would tell me over and over again that I had un cerebro de coco. Having a grandmother that could not read or write was enough proof… I had in fact a cerebro de coco. For years I was forced to believe her. I was forced to think that I was weak, and politically Puerto Rico was weak as well. As I read through works written by Black feminists, Chicanas, Mujeristas, I felt that I could bravely face the flashbacks, the nightmares in which my elementary school teacher would appear to remind me of how dumb and weak I was. I was ready to embrace more than ever the Borinquen I always knew and loved, the brave isla mía, flor cautiva that has resisted more than 500 years of colonial imposition. El arroz con habichuelas gained a different meaning as it was also nurturing my soul. I received the greatest gift as I read through the words and stories of others, who had resisted to being forced to see themselves as nothing but ugly, dumb, a failure, and unworthy; those who found strength as they opened spaces for themselves and others by trespassing the ivory tower. As I read every piece, tears flowing, the heart breaking into pieces, I was able to find my own voice. I was able to do the unthinkable. I was able to find the little girl I once was. I was able to tell her who I really thought she was: beautiful, witty, intelligent, worthy. The bravest acts of resistance took place after that: I survived cold winds and dark skies while falling in love with the turquoise waters I once saw as obstacles to growth; the journey of pursuing a PhD, more than just obtaining a legitimate proof of intelligence ended in learning about life and liberation; even with a fair share of challenges, I was able to return home convinced that there was in fact a lot of work to do in the island and I had the responsibility of taking action. As my feet touch those turquoise waters that dance to a welcome back song, I can finally breathe.
Elithet Silva-Martínez is an Assistant Professor at the University of Puerto Rico Beatriz Lassalle Social Work Graduate School at the Rio Piedras Campus. She has worked on several research projects involving gender violence and migration, and has presented her work at national and international conferences. Her latest work has been published in Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work and Migraciones Internacionales, among other journals. Elithet is the recipient of the 2014 Council on Social Work Education Feminist Manuscript award for her article, “Permitanme Hablar”: Historias de Valentia de Latinas Migrantes Sobrevivientes de Violencia/”Allow Me to Speak”: Stories of Bravery among Latina Survivors of Violence”. Her work is inspired by her abuelas Abuelita Ana and Mamá Isabel, and her mami María Odette, and is dedicated to her divertidas guardianas 4 year old Lina and 1 year old Lara.