It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
This week in our series highlighting the poetry of Southern Latinx writers, it's all about reclamation. We share a prose piece by RJ Robles exploring the vast geographies, histories, violences, and songs they carry within them as a trans child of multiple diasporas, and a poem by Lauren Espinoza that tenderly evokes an agricultural worker's intimacy with the land they behold and are beholden to.
Read more from 'This Work Will Take Dancing' here.
Who Am I & Who Is God?
- To get at who Jesus is for me, I must first reveal who I am to you. When I was a 15-year-old girl, nobody could pronounce my last name. I guess it had to do with the fact that all my teachers were white. So at 15 years old I stopped caring about what my name sounded like. It became white noise, in white mouths. And I was too afraid to be too brown in front of them. So I drowned out the voices. I told myself it was funny. Yes, haha my last name is very Latin. You can say Rob-less if its easier. What I didn't realize was that I was shaving my name to whatever these tongues preferred. I was ripping my grandfather's callous hands apart. When he gave this name to my father. To give to his children. Dad I apologize for all the times I did not speak up. For all the times I did not protect what grandpa gave you to give to me. I am sorry for those moments when I was trying to be white. I now know my name means tree. Oak trees that can be found in Argentina, Chile, Trinidad, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
- Middle passages mark the makeup of my afro-boricua ancestry. Sometimes it is hard to see the motherland legitimacy in me. But I can't deny the fact that Yoruba songs, lay in the lines of my grandmama's songs, as she puts her hands up in praise, seeking the calm offered by God's Sun. when the day is done, the color of my skin still marks me an alien in the country of my birth. I can't check myself into a box. I'd be ignoring my mama's afro hair, my daddy's light skin, the chi town, Midwest city in me, the nonstop beatbox and salsa I dance to, the queen of soul in me. Growing up next to Mexicans with the orale way, andale, tacos and tamales in me, the taino in me, the descendence that doesn't deny.
- When I was 20, I left the military and came out as transgender, changed my first name, got my breasts removed, and have been asking everyone to call me Rj ever since. I am a transgender Puerto Rican. chit-town. West side. Rican. Born American. Raised Puerto Rican. Found Latino. I am simply seeking to see freedom and liberation for my people. Just like the Puerto Rican Young Lords back in the day. You see. This movement has been anything but siloed. The Young Lords grew up out of my neighborhood. Workin side to side with the Black Panthers. The Young Lords was a Puerto Rican revolutionary nationalist group born in the 1960s that championed the independence of Puerto Rico, America's last standing colony. Members of the Young Lords saw themselves as part of the African Diaspora. And committed itself to the struggle against racism in the U.S. insisting that poor African Americans and Latinos shared common political and economic interests. Predominantly first generation, poor and working-class Puerto Rican movement led community-based campaigns to alleviate poverty and raise political consciousness among youth. The Young Lords were the black panther party's Puerto Rican counterpart. See Blacks and Latinos have a long history of working side by side in this country working diligently to ensure that the arc of the moral universe continues to bend towards justice.
- Puerto Rico. My motherland. The same motherland where transgender activist and civil rights leader Sylvia Rivera is from. She helped lead the charge on the night of the LGBTQ Stonewall riots in New York City. As trans people fought back against police brutality. She was drawn to helping the poor, sex workers, the homeless, people of color, and other gender nonconforming people. She was arrested multiple times for her activism. With her friend and fellow activist Marsha P Johnson, a black transwoman, Slyvia and Marsha co-founded STAR and opened a shelter for homeless transgender youth. Marsha and Slyvia being trans women of color worked side by side for civil rights and trans rights. Continuing in the footsteps of their ancestors. My ancestors. Our ancestors. The lesson to learn from studying 1960s social movements is that lasting change toward economic and racial justice will probably be built brick by brick, person to person and "real slow."
- This work will take dancing. Dancing to the rhythm, beating the drums of my skin, afro- descendent, the rhythms within, the first language I ever spoke was Spanish, mom's broken English made me embarrassed, it cracked my pride when she spoke, I would poke fun at her myself, hoping to lessen the humiliation, proud to call myself American, a citizen of this nation, I hated my brown skin, freckle face, dark hair features, thick eyebrows, and my own English accent. How quickly we forget where we come from. Remind me. Remind me that I come from the Tainos, Arawak, the Spanish conquistadores, and the Yoruba Africans which with their hands they built a world I never would have imagined. My blood is the story of 6 million Americans who like me check the "other" box on the census. I am the walking definition of rape, kill and conquer. I am birth from oppress and oppressor. I am Puerto Rican, an indigenous mutt, Spanish conquistador, and African blood. I come from stolen land. From coco and sugar canes. The children of slaves and slave masters. A beautifully tragic mixture of erased history. The soul of a people past, present, and fate. Our stories cannot be checked into boxes, they are the forgotten. The undocumented. The arroz con gandules that grandmamma made, to the way our hips skip to the beat of salsa, merengue, bachata, and cumbia. They are in the bending and blending of our mother's backbones, the landscape of our traditional skirts, the cheering on of young soccer and baseball players, born out of cultural wedlock, our palms tell the stories of many countries, we are every ocean and borderland crossing, we are sons and daughters, cousins and siblings, the destiny of my people, our bodies have been bridges, black, brown, and beautiful. We will live on forever. Who am I?
- Child of border hoppers. Daddy drives a fork lifts in a warehouse. Mommy works factory lines at a pharmaceutical company. What I am good at is translating things for my parents, like letters, school notes, doctor visits, bills, phone calls, traffic directions, prescriptions, I think in English but my tongue speaks in Spanish. I am brown. And full of stars. I am not the absence of light. I am who allows light to exist. I am a child. I am a sibling. I am teacher. I am a lover. Who am I? I already know how I am going to die, the rest of society has decided my cross for me. They've wrapped it up in blue and pink, named me the way they wanted to, kept me in gendered lines at school, regulated my body's every move. But my body is not a burden. You didn't listen the first time Jesus and I said these words. My body is mine. I am unapologetically trans. My gender transition is my radical process of self-love. I love my trans body, and because of that I am better able to accept God's love of me. My trans Latinx presence manifested in this world is a prophetic witness to God's embodied presence in humanity.
I've already told you—
leave me here in this field.
Laying in a furrowed row
my face atop a seedling—
each tear drop a dirt cloud,
small explosion in a climate where
this is closest to rain.
My body for these seeds,
to ensure they survive unblemished.
I take them in my hands,
hope they grow bigger
than the landscape they are a part of.