Poster art & Upcoming Zine Design: AnaKaren Oritz Varela.
Portraits: Antonia Padilla.
featuring creative nonfiction by Chicago and San Anto writers with commissioned cover art by Frijoliz.
Braiding together research and Anzaldúan autohistoria, Bonnie Cisneros presents on the ways women dress and adorn themselves to express cultural identity, remix vintage and thrifted textiles, rasquache style, follow and forecast fashion trends, and express beauty and joy in a lineage of South Texas ancestral aesthetics.
Teaching to Power Speaker Series
Dr. Sylvia Mendoza
University of Texas at San Antonio
March 9, 2022
ZOOM / 10 AM - 11:15 AM
Poster Art: AnaKaren Ortiz Varela
or: Antidotes to Amnesia.
(my mom calls it “save in queso emergency”)
Bonnie Ilza Cisneros
Mexican American Studies Research / Feminist Research Methodologies
Dr. Sylvia Mendoza
University of Texas at San Antonio
April 1, 2021
ZOOM / 6 PM - 7 PM
Poster Art by Linda Monsivais.
...from my March 2021 email to Linda regarding this commission:
“All I know is that I want to connect the articles by María Cotera with what we have been doing during quarantine:
Rebuilding the world. Remixing the archives. Doing all the memory work.
A quote by Judy Smith:
"You don't think your way into a different way of acting; you act your way into a different way of thinking."
Archives are an act of love. Altars are an act of remembrance. Art is an act of love. Autohistoria is an act of rememberance.
I had the opportunity to chat with Carmen Vidal about some of my favorite topics: education, academia, and the power of ancestral maestras who blazed trails and never thought it was too late to achieve their dreams.
The real power is collective…
there, the survivor emerges to insist on a future,
a vision, yes, born out of what is dark and female.
The feminist movement must be a movement of such survivors,
a movement with a future.
“La Güera” from Loving in the War Years, 1979.
In September of 2016, four newfound comadres organized the first-annual Chingona Fest at La Botanica in San Antonio, Texas. Later, we discovered that a Chingona Fest had taken place in 2011 in the Río Grande Valley of Texas, and that the following month, another Chingona Fest would be happening in California. This only confirmed to us the fact that something was brewing, chingonas were thinking the same things at the same time.
The goals of the two-day festival in San Antonio were trifold: to celebrate what it means to be part of a chingona sisterhood, to explore ways to sustain ourselves in this day and age, and to reconnect with the wisdom and tenacity of our ancestors. As one of the four organizers, I sought to zero-in on ways Chicanas, chingonas y comadres can lift up and be lit up by nuestra cultura, our culture that cures.
It all started with an Instagram post. Five years ago, I realized a decades-long dream of becoming an all-vinyl, self-sustaining, independent and mobile DJ. This dream, conceived in late-night, smoke and booze-infused living room listening parties with longlost childhood friends, has clear-cut steeping stones to fruition. The collection of records I inherited from my dead father, along with my mother’s stack of records I saved from being given to charity when I was a teenager, comprised the base of my vinyl record obsession. Flea markets, garage sales, thrift stores were always places to thumb through dusty crates of the almost-defunct vinyl discs.
The daydreaming and night-scheming with my equally music-obsessed comadres became a little more real when my first husband bought me my first turntables and mixer. I’d practice transitions and mixing after teaching middle school all day, taking my own advice and not giving up on what seemed like an impossible dream.
The last step was choosing a DJ name. Sandra Cisneros had recently, finally released her epic novel Caramelo. There on its pages a word jumped out at me, and along with it memories of my great-grandmother combing my difficult-to-comb curls, and she’d yell or sigh or soothe me with the word that meant unkempt, messy-headed, tangled: despeinada.
There it was. DJ Despeinada. I liked the alliteration and all the syllables. I liked how it signified something more than hair: the tangles of my musical roots, how they were firmly rooted on both sides of the border.
Looking back, I am convinced that naming myself DJ Despeinada, a good five years before I ever placed the needle to the record in public, was a premonition of sorts, a first-step in a series of reclaiming: words, music, dress, food. My own Chicana cultural awakening. Look at me then, as now: blooming in the borderlands.
Fast forward eighty some-odd (!) DJ gigs later. Serendipity, several solid DJ mentors, and a home-away-from-home bar called Saluté, led me to my first paid gig at the legendary Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in the corazón del Westside of San Anto.
I became a lady DJ in a mostly-macho field, spinning vinyl for hundreds, maybe thousands of people. It took balls, but I was never scared. I knew music, I knew mood, I knew nuances and what it took to inspire people to move, think, feel. When I joined Instagram a few years later, @despeinadastyles became a place to document my DJ work. From my set-up, to astounding album covers, local labels, and obscure liner notes, to the curated outfits I chose to wear at every gig,
Instagram was the perfect place to share and follow likeminded people I would never know otherwise.
I knew Cristina Martinez from the local arts/craft vendor scene. She was the brains behind the highly popular @VeryThat, “your one stop Chicana shop,” handmade accessories and object d’art proclaiming words like chingona, puta, nalgona, degraciada, chiflada, necia, and gorda. Cristina was one of the first successful “local locas” to reclaim these words that have been hurled as insults to control, oppress, and shame women for centuries. In her signature cursive script, she made the words look beautiful, and in effect diffused their negative connotations. Her work helped us see that these descriptors also held positive power.
In the early summer of 2016, I posted a picture from the previous night’s DJ gig. A photographer caught me in action, flipping a record in a vintage teal vaquera dress with multicolored beaded fringe. Rebel Mariposa, a woman I’d never met, hearted the picture and commented: “You should DJ at Botanica someday!”
I knew @rebelmariposa as the owner and chef at La Botanica, the only place left on the St. Marys Strip that I could tolerate after its newfangled gentrifi-makeover, after having babies, and after being burned by some scenesters I thought were my friends several years back.
Cristina @verythat must’ve liked the idea, because she commented straight away: “Yes. Let’s plan something! #metiche” That made me laugh, another old palabra that used to mean nosey, but now could mean more like jumping into something on purpose with the intent to help, build, create.
And that’s how our Chingona Fest was conceived . Instagram, where metiches meet, brought us together. At our first meeting, Cristina confided that she’d hatched the event name years back and was waiting patiently for the right people, the right time, the right space. We all agreed on the name immediately. We all sensed a certain magic in the air, and saw the festival as a way of celebrating how far women of color had come. By highlighting chingona musicians, artists, writers, and DJs, we could reinvigorate our spirits as we all continued down the paths our ancestors forged.
At our first planning meeting, we wrote down words like celebration, party, plática, baile, honoring, storytelling, vortex. Sitting at a picnic table on the Botanica patio, planners and notes spread out with lists and ideas, Rebel spied Denise Hernández behind the bar, and she asked her to sit with us. I followed @deniseylosdinos and from her posts I gleaned that Denise Hernández was an amazing combination of twenty-something social media-savvy Xicana and activist San Anto old soul. In March 2016, Denise presented at TEDx San Antonio on implicit biases, political identities, the histories uncovered by discovering identities, and fighting oppression. The youngest of the four, Denise took on the task of organizing the workshops and talks at the two-day festival. Her primary goal was a build a space where chingonitas would be empowered to build on in the future.
Denise sat down and completed the four: hardcore chingona comadres hellbent on creating something beautiful.
I always go back to books. When my own Chicana reawakening started, I was a teenager devouring Cisneros, Castillo, and Tafolla. In my twenties, I got my hands on This Bridge Called My Back and Borderlands/La Frontera. I can safely say that nothing was the same after Gloria Anzaldúa. Nothing is coincidence.
While we were planning Chingona Fest, I was immersed in reading the works of second-wave feminists. Post world wars, post Beat-Gen, women activists of the sixties and seventies worked to crack open the door of equality. The white feminists worked to dismantle double standards in the workplace and fought for reproductive rights, while feminists of color saw their own challenges layered with the aftershocks of colonialism and racism that never went away.
“Chingona is a term that signifies power,” writes Anita Tijerina Revilla, “a ‘bad-ass’ or strong woman…some feel like the root word ‘chingar’ which translates into ‘to fuck’ continues to signify patriarchal notions of power” (90). We were expecting some forms of backlash, so it is not surprising that most, if not all, of the negative feedback stemmed from the use of the word chingona. “OMG. Why y’all using a cursing word for this event? I love the objective and would love to bring my daughter to the festival,” wrote Monica P. on the Facebook event page, “I just can’t handle hearing this word.”
All in all, though, the festival went off without a hitch. Two days of workshops with topics such as: Decolonizing Sisterhood, Equity in Texas Public Schools, RAICES Families in Detention Centers, The Lilith Fund for Reproductive Justice, along with two nights of music, comedy, and dance performances. We gave out chingona awards to celebrate mujeres making a difference in our communities, and Cristina curated a market of chingona vendors to highlight the magic of alternative economies.
I put out an open call for lady DJs asking women who had always dreamed of spinning records for an audience to step up and do the thing they always wanted to do. All in all, six “baby” DJs performed for the first time that night. They got their DJ names on the flier and leapt over the first-gig hump. In addition, members of the all-girl collective Chulita Vinyl Club spun their hearts out. I provided my equipment and set the parameters (all vinyl, all chingona power anthems), but that night I didn’t spin a single record. It wasn’t about me or Cristina or Rebel or Denise. The point was to get people together, inspire and empower them, celebrate the chingona and encourage her to shine.
Chingona Fest is over, and the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election looms darkly over all of us. The purpose and process of this paper can never be “just a paper” based on “just what happened.” Though I cannot help but tie in the work of Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, and Maxine Hong Kingston as I was diving into their works for a presentation that landed around the time of the election, I must also seek relief from crippling sadness and fear of the end of the world.
Learning the word biomythology was more than a lightbulb moment for me. More like a lightning strike. In her 1983 autobiography Loving in the War Years, Moraga seems to speak directly to me as in this passage from the essay “A Long Line of Vendidas.”
When we name this bond among Raza women, from this Chicana feminism emerges. For too many years, we have acted as if we held a secret pact with one another never to acknowledge directly our commitment to one another. Never to admit the fact that we count on one another first. We were never to recognize this in the face of el hombre. But this is what being a Chicana feminist means--- making bold and political the love of our women (129).
Chingona Fest was, and will continue to be exactly this: a safe space to declare our love for each other in all the ways humans can love. Moraga continues:
Possibly the words of one Latina to another will come closer to the cultural/female connection I am trying to describe: There is something I feel for you or with you that I experience with no one else, that I need and crave, that I never get enough of, that I do not understand, that I am missing at this very moment…perhaps it’s spiritual openness, two souls touching, love that transcends the boundaries of materiality, ordinary reality and living (Mirtha Quintanales, unpublished letter) (129).
Truth be told, I was a taken aback a few years ago when I noticed the word “chingona” bobbing up both online, on artwork, and on the lips of young Xicanas. In my own experience, the word connoted both negative and positive energies.
As usual, I immediately posed my questions to my mother. Though born a mere seventeen years before me, my mother Ilza was raised in the Río Grande Valley in those AM-only radio, black and white television, pre-Internet days when kids were safe to play outside all day and trained to listen for their mothers’ particular whistle which meant the sun was setting and it was time to come inside.
My mother’s wild childhood consisted of riding horses through her suburban neighborhood, traipsing back and forth across the bridge from Brownsville, Texas into Matamoros, México, riding bikes, walking around barefooted, and being crowned the tetherball champion of her elementary school. Her teenage years were equal parts fun and chaos. She and my father sang those late seventies bordertown blues driving to the beach, passing a joint back and forth with the windows down.
These mixed roots comprised my early childhood on the border. I spoke English when we lived in Texas, and forgot it all and learned Spanish when we lived in Tamaulipas. Sesame Street and Sábado Gigante, Michael Jackson and Ramon Ayala.
I often wonder how I’d have turned out if my mother had not chosen to uproot herself, and by extension, my sister and I from the tip o’ Tex all the way north to the big city of San Antonio. In San Anto, my Spanish got rusty and my English got polished in the posh Northside schools where my mother somehow found a way to send us.
My friends were mostly fellow apartment girls, undocumented and first generation, with a handful of suburban military necias whose houses seemed so spacious, so modern, so American. All that to say, I was raised by a chingona who was raised by a chingona who was raised by, you guessed it, another chingona.
“Ilza es bien chingona!” her primos would declare, as if to say, “Our girl cousin don’t take no shit!” “No seas tán chingona,” her father would reprimand, as he’d try to get her to see things his way. “Te crees bien chingona,” my father might tease, as if to thaw her icy defiance.
What were these men trying to say when they called her a chingona? It was a word hurled with a curve of a compliment and the rattle of a snake. Dangerous, these chingonas who maybe let others walk on them (no te dejes) once, but rose like smoke from seemingly extinguished embers.
To raise two daughters with no husband in a sprawling city where shadows hid the worst, Ilza made a way, always, to pay the rent, keep the lights on, feed her kids and their friends, and when it comes down to it, prepare them for the world outside the apartment complex.
“Chingao!” we’d exclaim when we were thrilled over some cool revelation, or when we were pissed at some minor or major travesty, when we stubbed a toe or made a mistake. “Chingón” meant massive and masculine, “chingos” meant a lot, and “chingada” meant fucked literally or figuratively. Looking back, I strain to see why “chingona” was such a rare bird of a word for my particular group of ‘90’s bilinguals.
To dissect the roots of chingona, I do what all Xicanas do when reaching back for meaning: I revisited Octavio Paz and his chapter in Labyrinth of Solitude entitled “The Sons of Malinche.” I’m always going back, circling around the idea of history and how it intersects with truth, myth, and wishful thinking. There are ghosts that haunt us, I truly believe, because they are trying to tell us something:
History, then, can clarify the origins of many of our phantasms, but it cannot dissipate them. We must confront them ourselves…history helps us understand certain traits of our character, provided we are capable of isolating and defining them beforehand. (73). I view Paz like an old-school tío. Part of me reveres what he has to say, and the other part of me reviles it. Tracing the history of “chingona” is so deeply rooted with the conquest and patriarchy, yet I agree with the idea that: in our daily language there is a group of words that are prohibited, secret, without clear meanings. We confide the expression of our most brutal or subtle emotions and reactions to their magical ambiguities…They constitute a secret language like those of children, poetry, and sects. Each letter and syllable has a double life, at once luminous and obscure, that reveals and hides us…They are the bad words, the only living language in a world of anemic vocables. They are poetry in the reach of everyone (74).
Chingona. Say it loud, and it is a curse. Whisper it, and it becomes a prayer. A chingona refutes the myth of Malinche, the traitor/sell-out/whore who single-handedly led to the downfall of our indigenous ancestors. La Chingada who literally fucked us over by helping Cortés, though the word chingar “probably comes from the Aztecs: chingaste (lees, residue, sediment) is xinachtli (garden seed) or xinaxtli (fermented maguey juice)” (Paz 75).
Etymology has always fascinated me, but Paz pisses me off when he goes on to blame and blaspheme Malinche:
She is the Chingada. She loses her name; she is no one; she disappears into nothingness; she is Nothingness. And yet she is the cruel incarnation of the feminine condition. If the Chingada is a representation of the violated Mother, it is appropriate to associate her with the Conquest, which was also a violation, not only in the historical sense but also in the very flesh of Indian women. The symbol of this violation is doña Malinche, the mistress of Cortés (86).
How on earth can a brown woman be vilified for the actions of a white man? Whether or not she was sold to Cortés, her role as “la chingada” pales in comparison to the “chingón” actions of a conqueror. The word “chingona” does not appear in The Labyrinth of Solitude.
When “chingona” starting bobbing up online in the early 2000’s, in artwork, and on t-shirts, most of us chalked it up to Sandra. Patron santa of bookworm Chicanitas, Cisneros, with her knack for digging up an ancient concepts and polishing them bright for all of us to behold, wove the concept into speeches.
The following is a list culled from the notes of her devoted audiences:
How to Be a Chingona in 10 Easy Steps
1. Live for your own approval. Center yourself. Be alone. Create your own space.
2. Discover your own powers. What floods you with joy?
3. Find true humility and practice it.
4. Keep your palabra, your word.
5. What are you using to cover or mask your pain? Address it.
6. Your only true possessions are your actions
7. Seek forgiveness.
8. Live in the present moment.
9. Depression has a purpose if you use it before it uses you. Transform it to light. Compost it through art. If you can’t do it by yourself, see a professional curandera (healer, therapist)
10. Listen to your body.
Whether or not the four of us had these objectives in mind when were conceived and created Chingona Fest SA, TX, it seems now that years of reading (internalizing words of our Xingona foremothers) and working (as teachers, organizers, artistas, entrepreneurs) had poised our intentions to land on the same page.
Sandra’s ten steps break down all the ways we can break through centuries of oppression. Rewriting stories and reclaiming language is only the beginning.
Chingona Fest could not have happened without a safe and sacred community space in which to contain it. La Botánica is a vegan restaurant, bar, and music venue located in the corazón of the St. Mary’s Strip on the northern edge of downtown San Antonio. The brainchild of Rebel Mariposa, Botánica is a hub for all that is queer and brown and proud in an area of town that is rapidly gentrifying. A self-proclaimed “artivist,” Rebel followed her desire to create art and curate in the kitchen. She veganized family recipes and started catering.
Within a few years, she opened La Botánica, Texas’s first vegan restaurant and full bar, with the help of investors and a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Rebel is a force of nature. Her energy made the festival possible, and she creates a space that represents what Clarrissa Pinkola-Estés deems "the wild nature has a vast integrity to it. It means to establish territory, to find one’s pack, to be in one’s body with certainty and pride regardless of the body’s gifts and limitations, to speak and act in one’s behalf, to be aware, alert, to draw on the innate feminine powers of intuition and sensing, to come into one’s cycles, to find what one belongs to, to rise with dignity, to retain as much consciousness as we can" (12)
In the vast jungles of the Internet, social media makes it possible for one to find, for better or worse, their tribe. It happened to me later than most. Born too late to be pegged Generation X, I was in my early teens when Nirvana broke. I carefully clacked away on a Smith Corona with a high-tech white-out option, and remember the cyber-hum of dial-up internet.
Yet, I’m too old to be a millennial. Cellphones were a thing of my twenties, and I didn’t join Facebook until 2007. From the start I was wary of friending strangers, and remember responding to friend requests with private messages: Do I know you?
Enter Instagram. If life is a series of lessons that lead to a series of realizations that lead to bookended reinventions, then IG was a reaffirmation that I was not alone, we were not alone, and we were never going back. I followed accounts of local women I knew superficially, but their posts made me love them, and as a consequence myself, much deeper.
Again, Moraga speaks to us from the tail-end of the second wave:
Within the women’s movement, the connections among women of different backgrounds and sexual orientations have been fragile, at best. I think this phenomena is indicative of our failure to seriously address some very frightening questions: How have I internalized my own oppression? How have I oppressed? Instead, we have let rhetoric do the job of poetry. Even the word ‘oppression’ has lost its power. We need a new language, better words that can more closely describe women’s fear of, and resistance to one another, words that will not always come our sounding like dogma (46).
Moraga taps into the power of comadres who harness the power of language in the sacred spaces afforded to women: “the words and rhythms that were closest to me: the sounds of my mother and aunts gossiping—half in English, half in Spanish—while drinking cerveza in the kitchen” (47). This code-switching chisme is the lifeblood of our survival. Who but other women to relay our truths? Who but a circle of comadres with whom to build the future?
One week after 11/09/16, I sat at a picnic table with the Chingona organizers. I burned palo santo, and we all took turns crying. What does this election mean for our future? How will we protect our babies? What are ways in which we can slow down the gentrification of our inner city barrios? Where will we meet up is communication gets cut off? I try not to get hysterical. I tell them about my plan like a butterfly with her fragile little caterpillars she must protect at all costs. “Your daughters are our seeds,” Rebel declares. “And we will do everything to make sure they are safe.”
These thoughts have clouded my thoughts even in the most carefree of days. Whether planted by dystopian literature, zombie apocalypse propaganda, or some ancient thread in our DNA, I know I’m not the only one who has fully expected the end of the world. What was European colonization in the Americas but an apocalypse, anyway? How was slavery anything short of the end of the world?
Now, more that ever, it is the wisdom of our elders and the stories of our own matriarchal ancestors who never had the luxury of even uttering the word feminista that will get us through.
Gloria Anzaldúa talking to us como una “luz en lo oscuro.” Cherríe Moraga reaching out to her followers on Facebook. Alice Walker posting on her website. People making memes of Audre Lorde excerpts. A group chat between Cristina, Rebel, Denise and me named “Chingona Comadres (floating hearts emoji)” in which we send each other screenshots of beautiful and terrible things. Where we nudge each other onward, where we crack jokes and dismantle chisme.
These chingonas, our chingonas. We chingonas be chingona.
Moraga, Cherríe. Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. South End Press: Massachusetts, 2000. Print.
Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. Grove Press: New York, 1961. Print.
Pinkola-Estés, Clarissa. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. Ballatine Books: New York, 1992. Print.
Revilla, Anita Tijerina. “Muxerista Pedagogy: Raza Womyn Teaching Social Justice through Student Activism.” The High School Journal, vol. 87, no. 4, 2004, pp. 80–94.
Roth, Benita. Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2004. Web.
October 2020: a private despedida at La Botánica on the final weekend at the N. St. Mary's location.
–email from a professor to me regarding a drop in letter grade due to poor attendance after I tried to cite motherhood as the reason for my absences.
These days it’s hard to be solitary; I’m hardly ever alone. The new baby is usually on my boob, on the boppy, on my lap. The three-year-old is always in my sight. Yet because I have the support at home, and I’m learning to adapt my work habits, I am able to eke out time to have my nose in a book and get my hands on a keyboard. As with any project I’ve ever undertaken, I like to read up, research, look and listen to those who came before. I’m new to this ‘hood of mothers who write, these writers who mother.
And, like always, serendipitous connections happen to help me make sense of my new role as mother who is honing her craft at the graduate level. Last year I heard Zadie Smith speak at Trinity University. She talked about having children, and the work involved in raising them, while writing and teaching for a living. She said people always ask her that new age-old question: how do you juggle, some say balance, it all? What’s the secret to keeping the boat afloat with kids onboard, plus housework and teaching and major projects? Keeping up house and keeping up yourself? How on earth do you find the time to write?
And what of inspiration? The muse? The moment? How do you catch those fleeting moments of magic when you go somewhere else mentally through reading and writing and thinking about words? When every day is comprised of moments, loosely strict schedules: feedings and changings and bathings…The art of motherhood with all its playing and loving two teeny baby people.
I remind myself: this is the path I chose. Graduate school seemed a good way to keep up my studies and produce work, and yes I had a seven month old daughter, but that would only make it better, more worth it, the natural next step in our line of mothers and daughters. Attending part time for the past three years, I even had the audacity to get pregnant again on purpose. Although I won’t go into my reasoning (here), I’ll just tell you that I am so, so, so happy I did. Two little baby girls who will someday be women on earth. For now, they are mine. I will always be theirs.
This is not to say it doesn’t help to hear how other mothers do it, which is exactly why that question keeps popping up. Another side-effect of motherhood, the fact that I have to take notes nowadays, or risk forgetting forever, so here I will paraphrase from my scribble-scrabbley handwriting inside cover of Smiths’s latest book of essays, Changing My Mind:
“I don’t have time to wait for the muse to arrive, nor the perfect moment to write. What I do is pay someone to watch my children for four hours. Then I go the library and write.”
I have drawn stars all around this information. So sensible, right? Like most people, Smith works, for money, during scheduled windows of time. In this way, writing has to happen, there is no time to wait nor waste when kids are saying: Mommy, look at me (and I quote my three year old here!). clack, clack I rush to type out her next words to me: “ I can’t see you looking at me.”
Most mothers who can afford a babysitter still have a shitload of work to do after the babysitter leaves, and it’s back to the business of children with all their humdrum and humongous needs.
Smith also mentioned an app she uses which blocks out internet connectivity for those four hours away from home when she has no time to waste online. It’s called Self-Control for good reason, as I will testify that during the composition of this very post, I have gone online at least a dozen times to do a variety of research, watch several music videos, peruse and participate in various social media forums for both long jaunts and short spurts, tweak my Spotify playlists, and send out a couple of emails, both imperative and not.
Mostly it is honest research, but still. You’d be surprised what Googling the terms motherhood and writing will bring up. The first hit that piques my interest is a June 7, 2013 article from The Atlantic called “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.”
Bingo! It seems someone has an answer. Lauren Sandler (author of the hilariously titled One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One) gives a list of famous female writers who had one child apiece: Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood, Ellen Willis.
I’m not going to lie and say that I did not ever-so-slightly racial profile this list of all-white, affluent lady writers, but then Sandler immediately quotes Alice Walker. When asked about writers who are considering procreation, she states:
“They should have children—assuming this is of interest to them—but only one. Because with one you can move. With more than one you’re a sitting duck.”
Yikes, that sounds scary. I myself am sitting at my kitchen table, the baby still sleeping on my lap, and the toddler is down the hall in her crib. Of course, I immediately go further down my research hole, google Alice Walker and daughter. I scan and words pop out at me: estrangement, neglect, clash. Says Rebecca, Alice Walker’s only child: “As a little girl it was drummed into me that being a mother, raising children and running a home were a form of slavery.”
That is certainly one way of arguing the benefits of having one child: if you’re going to be enslaved by a baby, better to only have one master. I’m shaken by this, and I immediately search for Alice Walker’s response. It’s a humdinger, let me tell you. She addresses not only her daughter’s version of their relationship, but she comments on the very idea that you really know the truth of anything online. To varying degrees, information is second-hand, can be hazed by time and skewed by memory. Writes Walker:
“I was not a perfect mother, whatever that means, but I was good enough. The pain of being unfairly and publicly accused of willful harm, by someone I gave birth to, and raised, to the limits of my ability, someone I’ve deeply loved, has been at times almost unbearable.”
It makes me think that in the end, the writing won’t talk back, but the child always has the last say.
Soon thereafter, Sandler mentions Sylvia Plath, because of course she mentions her, how can you not? Retell her pristine rise through the world of words, all those cobwebs she cleaned only to leave her children in the most final of final acts.
But, I don’t choose to google Sylvia. Surprisingly, I find that now that I’m a mother, I am more interested in knowing how her daughter Frieda turned out. She was two when her mom died, and as an adult lost her younger-by-one-year brother to suicide. Wouldn’t it be cool if Frieda made it through the muck?
She only recently did her first interview for the BBC, and I can’t tell you how good it is to read:
“One of the things that I feel very strongly, and that my mother’s suicide and my brother’s suicide make me feel deeply was to live well,“ she says. "To do the best I can with what I am. So that in a way I do them justice - somebody has to make it worthwhile, somebody has to try. Otherwise what’s it for?"
What’s it for? That question often keeps me up at night when I should be sleeping. When I look at the familiar yet surprising faces of my own children, and I think about the world I’ve invited them into, it becomes almost too much. What can we do other than try to do justice to those who have come and gone? It helps to hear that Frieda grew up and thinks so too.
I’ve always thought that ideally our daughters are meant to be new and improved, latest and greatest upgraded versions of ourselves. As I have always had a soft-spot for Plath, it is soothing to know that her daughter has learned from the beauty and pain called life. And that, for now anyway, she is okay.
I look at the time. As usual, it’s late, so I lay the baby down and put the Plath away. All I know right now is that when you’re mother to two small babies, morning is always just around the corner.
There’s another rather damning quote in the article in regards to Joan Didion’s daughter Quintana who recounts how her mother
“once nailed a list of ‘Mom’s Sayings’ to the garage door that read: "Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I’m working.”
For me right now, it’s more like hush they’re sleeping. At this point it is 3 PM and my toddler (pre-schooler?) is still napping, the baby is propped on my boppy, and we are sitting in front of an open window, at the green Formica dinette set my mother gave me when I moved out of her apartment for the first time. I try to push the laptop as far as I can and still read the screen. Radiation, just one of a million worries that gnaw at me in varying degrees at all times.
I press shuffle on my Itunes and another mother croons in her croaky poet way: Patti Smith is also a mother of two, but who’s counting, a prolific musician, poet, memoirist, artist. I remember reading how people accused Smith of being a “domestic cow” for leaving New York in the eighties, putting her career on hold in order to raise babies, and be a housewife in Detroit. As usual, Smith’s response shines through like a smooth slab of rose quartz:
“I was still a worker…to be a mother and a wife is probably the hardest job one can have. But I always wrote. I wrote every day. I don’t think I could have written Just Kids had I not spent all of the 80’s developing my craft as a writer. I had to learn, really, how to rein in my energies and discipline myself…I’m always working.”
Always working. Here is another example of someone who stayed home, focused on her children, but still got her own work done. Like Plath, she rose early to write in those wee hours before the babies awoke. Days add up to years, and the kids grew up because they always do. It’s cool to note that Smith performs multigenerational music with both of her grown children. Says her daughter Jessie:
“There are all different kinds of people, and finding your clear path and purpose sometimes includes following a lot of different paths, a lifelong pursuit of learning and ever expanding and growing. My mom has never stopped learning, expanding her mind and knowledge and following through with her creative endeavors and projects. She loves to be busy and loves to work and create. And that is very admirable.”
Motherhood and the writing life is a path that is well tread. In my city of San Antonio alone, I know several amazing writers who also happen to be mothers to amazing children. I even requested that they give me a blip of advice for this essay. While Dr. Carmen Tafolla and Laurie Ann Guerrero, who both ascended to the role of City and State Poet Laureate, responded with a resounding yes, I’ve yet to hear back. I don’t take it personally; I know how precarious one’s time management can be with kids clambering on your lap, while clacking away on a keyboard, or jotting notes in the cover of coloring books. You do your damnedest to do it all, while cooking most meals mostly every day, and stealing some minutes to read, or tweeze your eyebrows, or sweep the bathroom, or hammer out your masterpiece. I know that one moment, when I really need it, their words will come.
In a happy twist of luck, it turns out that Zadie Smith also read Sandler’s article, and, joy of joys, she actually commented on it for all to read:
I am Zadie Smith, another writer. I have two children. Dickens had ten - I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too father-ish to be writer-esque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavitz, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (i could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers? Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon - or just for his wife the writer Ayelet Waldman? The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd. What IS a threat to all women’s freedoms is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse. We need decent public daycare services, partners who do their share, affordable childcare and/or a supportive community of friends and family. As for the issue of singles versus multiples verses none at all, each to their own! But as the parent of multiples I can assure Ms. Sandler that two kids entertaining each other in one room gives their mother in another room a surprising amount of free time she would not have otherwise.
My children are very new, but luckily I am not. I’m at the age where I know that motherhood gives me less time to waste than I used to have. All my minutes are accounted for which makes the time I carve out to read or write or do any of the countless tough and pleasant and fun and necessary things I have to do that much more urgent. My two girls come first because at the end of the line, I want what most mothers want: to sleep easy knowing I gave 100% pure love to my children. And that love will continue to bounce around in the good works they weave. And on and on and on.
In yet another twist of ridiculously good fate, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my all time favorite writers-with-children, la Ana Castillo, whose latest memoir Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me is set to drop May 10, 2016. I had the awesome opportunity to ask her all kinds of questions about living and writing in the mother ‘hood. Stay tuned to Front Porch Journal’s upcoming issue.
Clocks and calendars mark the time, but it is all the Sylvias and Alices, Joans and Pattis, all the Zadies, Carmens, Anas, and Laurie Anns who remind me: life is work, mi’ja. Just ask your mama.
(Originally published April 16, 2016
Front Porch Journal)
School Photos of My Mothers/Teachers
I'm so happy to brag about our San Antonio Public Library as we celebrate National Library Week!
April 7, 2021.
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