Why do I love teaching writing?

Dear Reader,

Someone recently posed a question to me. When you think about teaching creative writing, what does that mean?

The answer was easy and came to me quickly. This is all about empowerment. Writing, especially creatively, is about being empowered and empowering others.

This is why I love teaching writers. In my career, I’ve taught children, college students, and adults.

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And each time I’ve taught, no matter what the age group, something magical happens. Students’ opinion toward writing change and, while they may or may not get into it, they start appreciating it and writing becomes accessible.

Accessible: (adjective) easy to approach, reach, enter, speak with, or use.

For me, English wasn’t always accessible. That’s because another language came off my tongue first.  My first language was Spanish. I went to kindergarten not knowing that much English, just whatever I heard on Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. I remember a teacher thinking I wasn’t very smart when I first started school. Surprise, surprise, East Harris County in the 80s was not nice to daughters of immigrants.  My mom, with her limited English, complained to the point that the teacher was fired.

I was put in ESL classes and had to have extra tutoring in English. My mom would read to me every night in her broken English until I practically memorized books.

And then, in 5th grade, something amazing happened. I skipped a reading level. Now I was one level away from the gifted kids. That’s when I made a promise to myself. I was going to do this English thing — reading and writing —  better than the smart kids. If being able to command this language in the written form was seen as  a magic trick, I was going to do that magic trick better than anyone else.

By high school, I was in English honors courses and taking AP English classes. For me, writing was empowerment. It meant that I could write and understand the world around me in a way that other people couldn’t. And that meant, if I got really good, I could write my own ticket in life.

Empower: (verb) give (someone) the authority or power to do something.

Fast forward to my first adjunct English class. I started my college teaching career in Louisiana.  And in my class, I had students who were parents, adults who worked, folks who returned to college after being gone for awhile. For all of them, English was the subject that they couldn’t pass. They weren’t good at it. I didn’t understand. They grew up speaking this and reading this language, why was it so difficult?

 

Because no one told them that this space was for them and that they’ve already succeeded just by showing up. No one told them that this is how they make a mark in the world and that these words are just building blocks to create the thoughts in their heads.

No one told them that their voices matter.

And my existence tells them the opposite of what they’ve have been lead to believe. If that’s not empowering, I don’t know what is.

In life, as I’m learning, you get a microphone, a chance to do or say things that help impact the world. The size of the microphone depends on popularity, I’m sure. For example, Beyonce’s mic is bigger and has a longer reach than this website. But this is MY microphone, my change to change the world. While Queen B does it with music and concerts, I do it one student at a time, one word at a time, one class at a time.

When you make something that was formerly non-accessible completely approachable and relatable, you’ve just empowered someone. That’s why I teach writing.

So here’s my new motto: Empower to elevate.

Eso mero.

 

Feeling like She-Ra,

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Being a writer in the age of Alton and Philando

Dear Reader,

This is a website about writing. And the writing life. It is about dispelling those myths about what the writing life actually is.

It takes courage to live this life. It takes more courage to live this life as a writer of color. Today is one of those days where writing is my salvation. Reading is my salvation. And reflection is needed.

As a writer of color, I can’t ignore a day like today when we are mourning the murders of two black men at the hands of the people who were sworn to protect.

I’ve personally seen both sides of officers. I live in Texas — guns, God, family and country — is the motto of every die hard Texan. We have an allegiance to those who put their lives on the line, a duty to support them to the ends of the Earth. It’s a blind duty that has hurt more than helped. It has hidden instead of honored.

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My dad

I was about six when a Harris County deputy slammed my father to the ground in the front yard of our house. I was in the car. My mother came out and screamed at the top  of her lungs, “He has a heart condition.” The shrill is still there as I remember this memory. The only other time I heard my mother that way was when we found my dad had passed away.

That day of the bad deputy, I yelled, too. “Get off my daddy!” I wanted to get out but he had closed the door. Dad told me not to get out for any reason. “Get off my daddy! Get off my daddy!” My piercing screams filled our family car. My ears rang, the tears like coals on my checks. I banged on the window

The deputy’s knee was in the middle of his back and dad couldn’t breathe. Then, the deputy looked me. His cowboy hat didn’t hide the angry in his eyes. My pigtails didn’t make my anger any less than his. I hated him, right there, for doing this. Why? Why would he do this to my daddy?

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Because Dad didn’t immediately stop when the deputy put on his lights. But the deputy flashed his lights in front of our house. Dad pulled into the driveway because there was no other room on the street. Did he deserve what happened for that?

The deputy stopped. Picked Dad up. Ticketed him. And left. I never saw him again.

We, at the time, were one of the few families of color in the neighborhood.

Flash forward many years, on vacation to visit family in Central America. Dad stays behind. Mom receives a phone call. There is a shooting. An attempted robbery at the house as Dad was coming home at night. Guns were drawn. Dad shot first. He is alive.

When we arrive home, our driveway is still stained with the bad man’s blood. Dad is still shaken. It was the typical stand your ground case. No charges.

A deputy, different than the one from my childhood, drives by the house to check on us. He asks us if we are okay. When he catches me speeding in the neighborhood a week later, he looks at my face and he sees trauma. A warning. “Call if you need me,” he says. “Anything. That’s why I’m here.”

I don’t see him again after that.

Yes, I’ve seen both sides. But I see one side more than the other. That 6-year-old girl is frightened. She doesn’t want to see anyone else’s daddy on the floor. She doesn’t want anyone’s mommy crying. She doesn’t want her tears to be repeated. And yet they are. So many times.

See, to be a person of color right now is to live in a constant state of fear. Alton and Philando and Trayvon and Sandra and Tamir and everyone else is the reason why. Because I never saw the good deputy again but I see the bad deputy all the time.

Because when I get pulled over in the weeks after Sandra for a taillight being out, my body tenses even though it’s not my fault. Because if I had known the light was out I would have replaced it. Because I place my hands on the steering wheel and hold my breath. Because I am grateful that it’s a busy street down the street from my house. Because my body relaxes when I see the deputy is black. Because he just wanted me to know it was out. Because I tell this to my mom and her eyes grow wide and she realizes that her daughters are in constant danger. Because the country she immigrated to, worked in, and built a life in are hunting her greatest assets and there’s nothing she can do.

I’m tired. For me, the hunting of black bodies didn’t start in the past couple of years. It started when that deputy slammed my dad on the ground of his own home.

I write. Write about this. I share my story. I share that I’ve seen the good and the bad. I share that the bad has cause trauma. I share that I have no solutions. What I have is a magazine, a notebook, and some books to read.

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My self-care today.

So, I immersed myself in self-care today until the words bubbled like grease. I poured them into this blog post. Now, I spread them like dandelion seeds across the universe and watch what grows if anything.

That is what the writing life is today for me. Sometimes, that’s all it can be.

In a state of sorrow and fear and praying for strength,

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Stop apologizing: What independence really means

Dear Reader,

One of the very first things I heard during my VONA experience was this:

“You are allowed to take up space.”

The words weren’t foreign to me but how they were put together were. Space? I nodded thinking that I knew what that phrase meant.

All through my week, I kept hearing that phrase over again like a mantra in yoga class. During our workshops and in conversations with my workshop leader, this phrase was the bad penny of conversation but, like with everything else from that magical week, I took it with me to mull over and consider.

Fast forward to this morning and my scrolling through social media. Forbes posted this gem and the first item on this list was this:

Don’t apologize for taking up space.

But this time, after more than a year, I know what that phrase means. I feel it like one feels cold or warmth. I feel it like how one feels pain. It is instinct now.

For people of color, women of color in particular, we play this inherited game. We walk into it really, the second we accept our first job. We learn to get better at it. We shrink ourselves in ways we’re not conscious of. We learn when it’s best to talk in the meeting even though we had that great idea two weeks ago. We learn to dress professionally, with just enough colors to be seen or even be considered fashionable, but mixed with enough muted colors to blend into walls and cubicles. Our voices are softer and lower, our tones calm, our speech rates slower so that we are understood but don’t come off as “passionate”,  a code word for threatening. We change the texture of our hair — we relax it, we weave it, we place it in buns or ponytails. Our laughter in the workplace is limited least we are thought of as lazy and non-compliant despite working longer hours and working harder.

In short, the goal is to take up enough space to be seen as a professional but not so much that we’re seen as intrusive.

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Writing is like that sometimes. Take up enough space to do your art but don’t demand any more than that. And getting paid for your writing? Well, that’s absurd!  Writing for art? Who do you think you are? Hemingway? Writing the truth of the world around you — well now you’ve gone too far!

How dare we ask to take up the space that is not only due but required to just make sense of the world around us? I, as a writer, a woman of color, the daughter of immigrants, an Afro-Latina, take up this space because, simply, I am human.

So, nah, I ain’t sorry. I am allowed and required to take up all the space I need.

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That is what independence is to me. That freedom of being and creating in my space. Being who I truly am. Not apologizing for it because none is necessary. I am human after all and we need what we need to survive and thrive in whatever way we chose. If that means I take up more space than I’m allotted then so be it. Making myself smaller physically or on the page serves someone else, serves a game that I’m not willing to play anymore.

I am allowed to take up space. I don’t have to apologize for it. I am free.

Happy Independence Day,

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How the worst time of my life became the best

 

 

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Welcome to Miami. There are palm trees everywhere.

Dear Reader,

Today, I am dreaming of Miami.

It’s been nearly six months since I last stepped foot in that town and it changed my life. That was when I felt something break inside of me and a shift happen. There was bound to be change. That was June 26.

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Me at VONA in Miami

It wasn’t even a month later that my life completely changed. I left a rough and difficult situation for home, where I wanted to be for so long. Looking back now, had I continued in that situation, I’d be dead within six months. That’s where my head was.

I’m not ashamed of it now, I was at one point suicidal. There was a time I curled up into a ball and cried. The crying didn’t stop and I soon found myself being diagnosed in a psychiatric hospital.

However, I had help getting there. I know now the dark side of humanity and that it pleased some to create the situations that lead me down this dark path.

So when Miami happened and that shift happened, a new life happened. Happened. Happened. Happened. I have that clear in my head, the last year happened, to me, around me, and in my heart.

During the week of Thanksgiving, I wondered if I would have something to be thankful for. I was upset that I wouldn’t. Surely this is the bottom of the low of my life. But a phone call from a former student, actually several phone calls from former students, reminded me how close I came to ending it all. They reminded me how life in 2015 started one way but is ending in a completely different way and that’s okay.

Those phone calls reminded me that, to live a life worth living it is not about how much of one thing or another you have. It’s about what you contribute to the world. And it’s being here when it’s easier to not be. It’s about feeling the dark and the light.

These past six months have been the most creative in several years.  I started a writer’s retreat. Did a live streamed reading. Won an award. Taught amazing students. Wrote a short story in a genre I never thought I’d write and I went to VONA where on June 26 everything changed. 

I’m not done. If all goes well I will finish 2015 with three more submissions to publications and contests.  And I’ve met my tribe. My beautiful Afro-Latinas who knew me before they knew my name. For them I am forever grateful. 

Dark comes in anticipation of the brightest light.  This is what I know  to be true. (Click to tweet this out.)

Miami, I love you. With every visit, I learn something more of myself. This last one was a doozy. Thank you for that.

Miami dreaming,

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When the N word doesn’t make sense

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Dear Reader,

One of the most eye-opening experiences about teaching college students in Houston is the international feel of the classroom.

In my English classes, I have students from countries in Africa (too many to name) Iran, India, South Korea, China, Haiti, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru and Colombia.

These students are from these countries. First generation. They know nothing about certain things.

So when a Mexican student said the word “nigger” in class the other day, it was a teachable moment I knew was coming.

Now, before you get up in arms, Dear Reader, I want you to know the context. It wasn’t in an effort to name call or to demean. It wasn’t said while saying the lyrics of the latest rap song. It wasn’t even said as a term of endearment as some have decided to use this term.

This was part of an assignment – to read essays in their textbook to find out how to write a certain type of essay. They were to do a presentation on how they think a definition essay should be written.

One of the essays in the chapter deals with the N-word. While my other American(ized) students decided to skip that word and/or that essay, this student didn’t. For him, nigger is a word like cat, or dog, or cup. It means something. There was a definition in a dictionary but it didn’t mean more than the letters it took to write it.

That word was even difficult for him to pronounce. With its double g next to the r, it took so much energy to try to say correctly. N-eh-gg-rrr. Ne-gr. Nah-ah-gar.

Hearing him say it, even with an accent, during the presentation made my skin crawl. I gasped as did some of my other students. The international students looked confused. What did this word mean? Why were some students in shock while others weren’t?

Then came the teachable moment. I looked at my international students and explained that that word, although part of the English language, means something very dark and sinister. We talked about the origins of the word, Jim Crow, and how, at one point of American history, I wouldn’t have been allowed to be their teacher.

Then we talked about the word now. The meaning could not be separated from the connotation, they were one in the same. Some use it in a positive context but it doesn’t erase what is was and still is to some people.

This moment here, this is why English and liberal arts are important. Listen, I can go into this whole tirade about why a liberal arts education is important. I can go into how classrooms need to be protected because that is one of the last forms of a pure free speech. I can politic this into next Tuesday.

But all of that doesn’t matter.

Once upon a time there was this word. And it was hurtful. And the people who said it were hurtful. And the people who they said it too, bad things happened to them for a very long time.  But now that word is a teachable moment for the next generation, the next flocks of immigrants who want to make this their home country. They learned from something that still infects society and understood that a word, one single word, is powerful. By speaking it, they aren’t just saying dog, cat, or cup, they are evoking the past, something they are not interested in repeating. What they are interested in is learning from it and moving forward.

I can’t wait to see what they will do with these essays.

 

Humbled,

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That Latin Explosion documentary…incomplete

Dear Reader,

Sometimes being Afro-Latina comes with stomaching the obvious — being left out of the narrative.

I tried to avoid the HBO documentary Latin Explosion because I already knew what it was going to be, a celebration of Latino achievement in America.

And it should be celebrated — Rita Moreno, Jose Feliciano — their very presence started a chain reaction that allowed Rick Martin to dazzle at the Grammys or Shakira’s hips not to lie.

But where are the Afro-Latinos? Are we not part of the story?

Usually, we are not. Usually, we are the other, the dark-skinned tio in the closet no one talks about. The Afro part of being Hispanic, whether you’re Mexican or Argentine, is usually swept under the rug.

But this documentary is very music heavy. We talk about salsa and include Desi Arnez in the conversation. The Fania All-Stars are mentioned. And yet, where is Celia Cruz?

We talk about acting and yet where is the infamous Zoe Saldana who was in one of the highest grossing films in recent memory?

Continuing with actors, how about Gina Torres who has had an entire career with little recognition of her Latina roots. And she doesn’t run away from it either as we can tell from this video.

Can we also mention Laz Alonso who is an actor on The Mysteries of Laura, which was adapted from a Spanish television show?

I find it difficult that the Estefans were part of this documentary and didn’t mention their friend Celia once, or the fact that they made a living with beats that came straight from their African roots?

Like this moment never happened.

Or at the very least that her life was on Broadway. Yes, THE Broadway.

It’s harsh when not even your own recognizes you and most especially when they were your friends.

It’s obvious that the documentary made me angry but it doesn’t surprise me. I don’t like that as a people, Latinos are not united. We have the potential to do great things and yet we insist on not accepting and telling our entire narrative. We, as a people, seem to be okay to just tell one side of the story and accept it as complete — this is who we are, not that other side.

Newsflash, there were slaves in Latin America. They have last names  like Fernandez, Gonzalez, Guerra, Martinez. They speak Spanish. They dance salsa and bomba and tango. That music you are dancing to? Came from the motherland. That pride, part of that came from the motherland too. We are Latinos and we deserve to be part of the narrative of being Latino, not only in Latin America but here, in the US, which seeks to categorize us as African American.

Documentaries like this make me tired and upset. Story, my dear reader, is currency. Those with the currency have power and can frame the narrative in any way they choose.

That’s why it’s so important to tell our stories, the Afro-Latino story. It’s just as beautiful and varied as everyone else’s and it’s just as important to tell.

So, I’ll tell it.

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The best night of literature and words

 

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The most brilliant women I know. They make me look good.

 

Dear Reader,

I am exhausted and with good reason.

On Wednesday night, I was part of an amazing livestreamed reading. Culture, Love, and  Identity: An Afro-Latina Reading. 

It was amazing and just knocked my socks off. You know when you work on something for so long and you don’t know how it’s going to turn out but you just can’t stop to think about it. That was that moment.

Wait, it’s all jumbling in my head like a brand new jigsaw puzzle. Let me start where all things start, the beginning.

I had this idea. What if there was a writing retreat for Afro-Latina writers? Like why wasn’t there before? It just seemed to be this was a thing to do.

You have to understand, Dear Reader, that when I thought about this, it was for an award given by a lit journal. It wasn’t really thought out completely. It was half baked on its way to being fully baked, as most ideas are.

But then I won it and all of a sudden I became something more than a writer. I became a person who created space for other writers. I became a person who went from writing in the shadows to asking people to apply to spend a weekend in a Houston in Galveston, Texas. I became a person with a voice and an opportunity to do something different.

Talk about adulting.

And I took it seriously and it was amazing. The five ladies that joined in were just amazing writers and people. It was surprising how close we became in such a short period. So much so that I can’t imagine my writing life without them.

Then we did this reading. This crazy awesome reading of our work and now people are saying they were inspired. I read a section of Jennie Manning, my novel in progress, and now people are asking about my character.

And yet, this feels like my life’s work, something that I should do always and constantly. Something I should explore because there’s an answer there somewhere, I think, though I have no idea what the question is.

And so this reading happens. It happens the same week I grade what feel like a million papers. It happens the same week I get some distressing news from my past. It happens the same week I questions a list of truths I’ve grown up with.

This reading happens just as life happened. As it should.

So here, I give you the reading. I hope you like it. I hope it inspires you. I hope it fuels you.

As always I remain your humble storyteller,

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Can you create a community that’s been there all along?

We all need community. Writers are no different.

Dear Reader,

Today, I’m thinking about community.

On a day where most of the country is voting on local elections, it’s not a bad topic to think about. What is a community? How does one form? How does it govern itself for its collective goal?

Since coming back from the Afro-Latina Writer’s Retreat, I think about community all the time. It’s mostly in exclamation points like I can’t believe how awesome that was! I can’t believe how great those women are! How did I get so lucky! They truly get me!

That last sentence — they truly get me — that sentence is what my brain continues to mull over.

Afro-Latinos wrestle and consider identity. Given. Are we more one or the other? If we are truly both, why the guilt? Or why is my culture decided for me?

Never have I felt that four strangers (one I knew before the retreat) knew me in that way. It’s usually a matter of adapting. I adapt when I’m around my Latino and I adapt when I’m around my African-Americans.

It’s not that one experience is more than the other, it’s just that’s it MY experience. That’s my super power to be able to survive. This concept is difficult to explain unless you live in a cultural duality unless you live your life straddling that line. But it doesn’t stop me from trying. That’s what my work is about, it’s about voice. However, I’m also slowly adding identity.

This reading on Nov. 18 will be amazing. Everyone will get a chance to see and hear what I’ve been talking about. There is amazing art out there that’s created by those who seek to form their own identity.

I think what I find surprising is that this Afro-Latino community exists. It does! We have Boricua Chicks doing their thing and they do their thing well. We have my girl Alicia Anabel Santos, a member of the retreat, doing her thing as a producer of a documentary about Afro-Latinos. Just discovered this new blogger (new to me). There’s a festival? Yes, there is! And even the academics are helping to tell our story. And that’s just a couple of people who are doing their thing!

There is a community out there for me and since announcing the reading, we’ve been welcomed with open arms! We even got some press on it.

Community. It’s a thing. And it’s my privilege to join it already in progress.

Write On,

Icess

P.S. Spaces are filling up fast for Culture, Love, and Identity: An Afro-Latina Reading.  Make sure you reserve your spot. Click here to do it.

When writing the truth is a good thing

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My journal, my favorite chipped mug of coffee, and my trusty computer. Lots of work and picking at wounds today.

Dear Reader,

The rain in Houston today was a chance to do something I hadn’t done in a long time, write something different.

I’m in the middle of a revamp for Jennie Manning. Lots of good stuff there and lots coming from workshopping. But today, I wanted to revisit something I began to write a couple of months ago. I’m not quite sure why. I have a feeling about these things and sometimes it’s about taking out of you something that won’t let you breathe.  

For me, that’s literal. Yesterday I had trouble breathing and needed to sit down for long periods of time. I yearned to write but had no idea what to say.

And then this morning, I knew what I wanted to do. Without planning or scheduling, I opened up the words I started months ago and read the first lines. It was the first time I had read them in months.

Wow! There was gunpowder on the page. I had written them with so much pain in my insides and then put them away because I couldn’t bear it.

Today, I must have been ready to make them into art.

I spent the better part of a rainy and flooding Saturday putting together a non-fiction piece with pieces of research interwoven in it. In addition, I’m using excerpts from my journal from the past year. As I read, I noticed something…I could track the pain in those pages. From the hopefulness to the despair, I could track my pain and unhappiness. I also saw the source of it.

For the first time, I wasn’t afraid to hurt. I wasn’t afraid of the truth in those pages or how I would feel about it now.

The past year, it was painful. More than it needed to be. People are cruel. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I know that more now than I ever have. My poor heart, it was taken advantage of by people unworthy of it. So it bled for a long time.

Today reminded me of how humans are made of elastic. We bounce back. We bend. We don’t break, not completely. Something tethers you to yourself, a version of yourself that allows you to come back. One only needs to look for it, hold on, and hope.

So I wrote and wrote and read through my journal and typed it into this non-fiction piece. A new world for me and I like it.

I don’t know what will become of this piece, but I’m glad I’m writing it, glad that I’m in the thick of it.

Until next time,

Keeping the faith when everything goes wrong

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Have I ever told you that I’m a HUGE fan of Accidental Creative?

I love the podcast hosted by Todd Henry. He’s essentially the Jedi Master of creativity and flow and how to have a creative team. His podcasts are inspirational if you’re a creative in any capacity. I know it’s inspired me when I’ve lost direction or just need a boost.

His latest podcast, Mind Your Baseline, make me stop and think. In fact, I probably played it four times to make sure I was digesting the message.

Continue reading “Keeping the faith when everything goes wrong”