Mutant // First Generation By Another Name
The breaking of my skin, the blood — none of this was as wild to me as the surprise of it all. Could this really be happening? I feel like I’m in the middle of one of those sci-fi books I love to read so much. Any second now Octavia Butler, Tupac and one of the ghosts from the House of Spirits are going to appear in this bathroom stall with me, grinning, saying some catch phrase like “Te gatchamos!” I had to figure out how to get out of here, covered in blood, with what feel like 2, 6” bones sticking straight out of my back. Yes, I’m in pain, but I’m more annoyed than anything else.
There’s something special about being a first-generation person. Dubois talked about double consciousness and there’s something about that that feels true and something about that which also feels incomplete to me.
I am the first of my people, the whole, long line of them, to be born in the United States. My brothers, cousins and myself, who were all conceived and born here, are the guinea pigs to this experience of immigration. We are the first to experience winters as a regular part of our lives. The first to eat many of the foods that are found here, grown the way they’re grown here. The first to learn english as a primary language, even if it’s not our first language learned. These might seem superficial. But take winter as an example. We are the first to have sun and warmth removed from us for months at a time. All of our people before then, people of the sun, had/have it available to them all the time, with sweet breezes and the sound of palms. To me this means that on a cellular level, we have not been prepared for this reality. Experiencing it here is not just buying a winter coat, it is undergoing a physical mutation wherein my cells are adjusting and the cells of any children I bear will be modified until a few generations from now we will have built up genetic adaptability to winter. Or not. We are the genetically modified organism. We are being tampered with. There is “ownership” over who we are, and become, that extends into a long history of how we arrived to this country in the first place. That’s more than just some thick socks.
The language aspect is also very real, and very deep. I have nieces and nephews that can no longer communicate with elders because spanish has not been passed down to them. Granted, that is a colonizers language, and it’s also what we’ve had to communicate with each other for centuries. And now, in many cases, we don’t. There are words in spanish that don’t exist in english and I wonder if the language is lost, will the feeling be lost too? Will the idea or what it evokes no longer be possible because we cannot name it? Will we feel it and sense that it’s something to be kept to ourselves because we’ve lost the way to let others know that we feel nono or queremos acurrucar or tenemos ganas. And dreams. What of dreams that don’t come with the same insignia, signposts or refranes? And our clever ancestors still find ways to communicate with us…and how much harder is that when the symbols we know and recognize shift from what they show us? If we no longer know what a guira is…?
So I consider myself a mutant. A creature that is shape shifting and turning into something new, unknown, that will not be like other people, like how I was, how we were. And there are groups of us mutants! Colonies! Differences between us, adaptations; some of us made in Boston, or California that we didn’t make in Indiana, New York or Texas. Shit — even in the “same place” there’s so much difference! I STILL think Dominicans from Brooklyn are WAAAY different than those of us from the Heights. From my cells, to how I be, there is a change underway, a transformation, that has been in the making for decades and that once undergone can never be undone. I was created in the Dominican Republic, with the history of my mothers’ experiences, because I was in her womb from the time of her birth. A woman is born with all the eggs she will ever have to conceive for her entire life. All of the moments and lives my mother lived in DR, I was there, growing with her. I was basking in that sun, eating those mangoes, struggling through poverty. I was there with the sexual assaults, the torturous conditions at her aunts’ house where she stayed with her broken heart wide open at having been left behind by her mother, my grandmother, who couldn’t afford to keep all of her children with her at that time. I was already there. The years she spent waiting for my father, who was in NY creating a life for us, I was there. And when she arrived, during winter and thought that everyone smoked cigarettes because she didn’t know that freezing weather made plumes of air come out of your mouth with every breath, I was there.
As she underwent changes, trying to understand this city, this neighborhood, how to get around, do things, where to shop — as she navigated setting up a home in a place that was not her home, I was there.
When she got pregnant with my brothers…
When she kept trying until she got her girl…
When she was told that she would die if she had another child…
When she got pregnant with me and kept me…
I was there. And then I was here. On this land, in the physical form, already having traversed 2 lands and being introduced into a third:
my mother’s body, the DR, and the US.
I am here.
My mangoes, and hamburgers, my joys and parks and schools and friends, have been here. And because I carry all the eggs I will ever have to conceive, any children I bring forth into this world, have already been with me, and my mother. They know her, only even less than I do. They know DR, and will know it even less than I did. And that thread gets thinner and thinner, fades away…or does it?
How much do the “trips back for summers” count?
How much does still speaking the language count?
What’s the weight of reading Dominican authors? Organizing with my people? And does that weight ground me into the earth or grind me into the earth? Does it anchor into our roots, and if it does, where are those planted?
And just like that, as if it happened all the time, Mami showed up. “Mi hija. Te ves bella.” And I smile. And tears start coming down my face. Because I see her the way I see her in my dreams. So alive. So real. Right there with me. And she is, right here with me. And she tells me how beautiful I am, como siempre. She touches my face. “Por fin. Siempres haces todo a tu tiempo. Haci era con la menstruacion, con los trates, y ahora, con el cambio para Colobra. Te he estado esperando.” All of this feels so good. I’m filled with such a warmth, such ease, love — it’s the same feeling I’ve gotten only a few times in my life, and I’ve been terrified each time. I’ve thought of all the things that would happen to me, to people I love, and that feeling would go away; I’d scare it away with my fears. Not this time. This time, I’m in. Mamis’ here. She’s touching my face, and she’s welcoming me, and it feels so good.
It didn’t occur to me until I went to college and learned fancy words to describe some of my experiences growing up, and also connected more and more with the ways that both struggle and resistance are woven into my existence, that I realized how much my mother, and all my people before me, had equipped me with. My mother worked raising us children. She did not allow us to speak english in the home, unless we were translating something, or I was teaching her to read. We ate home cooked food everyday, that she learned how to make in DR — rabo, pollo guisao, arroz con habichuelas, y mas. Every once in a while, we’d wake up or come home to some creation she had heard about that the blanquitos eat and she’d try her hand at it. Her pancakes were the best because they were the size of an entire dinner plate! Those boiled brussel sprouts were horrible and created a huge pelea where she’s yelling, “Comanzelo que eso es lo que hay! Y eso es lo que comen lo blanquitos!” “No mami! That’s nasty!” No pruebe bien!” And finally, when we got her to taste them herself and be honest about what she thought, she broke out in laughter saying, “Eso es malisimo!”
Any children I bear will have the imprint of that moment with them when they’re born.They’ll have those smells, those tastes, those peleas, in them. They also have papays’ hotdogs with the banana daiquiri, hamburgers, marshmallow pies, salt and vinegar papitas, spiced ham and cheese sandwiches, pizza, school lunch, “speak English we’re in America,” ….imprinted on them too. They are here. They’re here for things that no one, in all the history of our people, have experienced, in this way. It’s not to discount that life happens in cycles, that there are similar experiences even if they look different — te conozco bacalao, aunque venga disfrasao. It is to say that it is fundamentally and utterly different in inescapable ways. In the ways this country does not escape you, and often you don’t escape it, once you’ve been here.
Even if I decided that I reject these changes, and that I want to go back to the homeland of my parents, of our people, I cannot extract the experience of being born and raised in the United States from myself. I cannot undo “learning” in these schools, the indoctrination into capitalism from every system you can think of, speaking in english just slightly more fluently than spanish, or winters. I cannot undo the harm of winters and the experience of being depressed, more and more severely each year, when the sun leaves me and the cold settles into my bones — or worse, when I’m reminded how the cold has already settled in my bones, and how much more that has happened each year. Perhaps there’s a direct correlation between the cold seeping in, becoming a part of me, and the increasing depression. I’m grieving. I’m grieving the loss of so much and that makes it hard to move, to breathe, to think, to be. How does one be? How do you “stay present to the moment’ and any number of other cliches when your body is calling you to another time? Your make-up, and all your ancestors are both rooting for you to continue, to survive, and yet, to cast off the harm that is being done? And you gotta get up to make that money, to pay the rent, to make your family proud, to make yourself proud? Because now their dreams for you are also imprinted. And the “goals” you’re supposed to have for yourself, all measured by very specific points in your life, have been plotted and woven into this system, and you’ve been indoctrinated, so you get up, push past the lethargy, drink that coffee — not the cafecito, but the designer coffee, that doesn’t taste so good, so it takes less time to drink, because cafecitos are meant for us to linger and talk,
and to stay present in the moment,
because we have that time
and our cafecito
and the sun
and the vecina
and here the sugar replaces the warmth of all of that.
It tastes good to the mind because that’s where the ego resides
and we take it in, and need more, and are addicted
because we wouldn’t be able to stand
if we admit,
if we FEEL
what it means to lose the warmth of the sun
of the cafecito
of the time to linger
of the vecina.
I’ll take a grande of forgetting
It all started plainly enough. An itch. A rash. A mark. Waking up with a bruise. It had been happening all my life. No big deal. There was also the moods, the fogginess in my brain. The fancy term I learned to explain what I felt was cognitive dissonance: . What I was going through made me feel crazy.