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Dear Millie

August 21, 2012

Today you would have been 62. You, who were so proud of being Boricua, from Lares. You, who showed me how to dance salsa. On the one because that’s how they danced it back in the day. En tu dia. You who loved Budweiser en la latita pequena and your Old Spice cologne.  I remember the bottle on the dresser. The pirate ship and red script letters. You’d pour some on your left hand, rub your hands together and then rub the scent on your neck and the front of your shirt. Then you’d run your hands in your hair. Jet black, always in the same style for all the years that I knew you. The 80s push back.

I thought of you when I was in Berkeley. Truth is I think of you every day, at least once a day. Usually more. But that day, in late June, my VONA sister’s girlfriend said something to me that brought you to mind. What it must have been like for you.

Like you, she’s a butch. That’s not the label she uses. There are more words these days for women like you. I’ve heard AG, stud. There are so many now. Not just one. Butch. The label you embraced and defended so ferociously.

This woman reminded me of you. The first time I met her, she was wearing a white kangol. I knew right away that I’d love her. She’s smaller than you. Boricua, like you. Just as friendly and fierce, but not as in your face like you. I asked her questions about her lifestyle. She identifies as a woman, like you. “I don’t want to be a man,” she said. “But this is who I am. I wear men’s clothes. You’ll never catch me in a dress.” I asked question after question. And she answered. Without reservation or shame. I loved her even more for that. I felt like I was getting an inside to you, Millie.

“The battlegrounds are the barber shops and the bathrooms.”

I stood quiet. I had to digest it. Process it. Millie, I never thought about this. It’s only now as an adult that I think about how hard it must have been for you. To be a lesbian in Puerto Rico in the 50s and 60s where there was a Pentecostal church around every bend. What was it like for you when they told you that being gay was a sin. That God hated fags and they were all going to hell.

Is that why you moved to New York? Y aqui, Millie? Was it easier?

“The battlegrounds are the barber shops and the bathrooms.”

I never went with you to cut your hair. Is that why you never took me? How did they treat you, Millie? Did anyone dare make a comment? Did they call you maricona or dyke?

I remember you taking me to the bathroom when we went out. To Coney Island. To Beefsteak Charlie’s. Did anyone stare at you? I never noticed, Millie. I was too busy feeling safe with you.

But now I wonder. I wonder how you coped. I wonder if you cried. I wonder if you ever fought with someone for something they said or did because of who you were. I wonder if that’s why you’d shrink into yourself when mom called you maricona. Your bottom lip trembled and you’d start to whimper. “Yo no soy maricona, cono. Yo soy butch.” Then you’d cry. “Yo soy butch,” you’d say over and over.

Y ahora Millie? What did the angels say when they met you at the gates? Is heaven all you imagined? Did God comfort you? Did God tell you that She loved you for you, Millie, the butch from Lares?

Today you would have turned 62. I know you’re dancing in heaven. Salsa. Tito Nieves. Hector Lavoe. I see you. Beads of sweat on your upper lip and the bridge of your nose. You’re wearing your black kangol. An orange polo shirt. Your worn jeans. I hear your keys jingling as you turn. And your tooth is chipped again. Did you do that for me, Millie?

I’m going to sleep in your orange t-shirt tonight. I left the shoulder pads in. The ones I used to make fun of you for. “Millie, y esos hombros? You look like a football player.” You’d laugh and shove me playfully.

Te amo, Millie. I miss you. Visit my dreams tonight, please. Tu negra wants to hear your voice. And I could sure you a hug.

Tu hija, siempre,

Vanessa

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5 Comments
  1. This is beautiful and perfect. I hope you use it in your book.

  2. Dear Vanessa,
    You’ve gone and done it again. I cried reading the other one about being strong all the time and controlling emotions and stuff. And when I read it I cried because it was my story too. Something that people had thrown in my face often. I was glad another brown woman knew about it and could write about it. But this one, this tribute, recalling Millie and her struggle (in hindsight)…this one defies words and tears to you when you read it. Thank you for pouring your heart and emotion onto the page for us to see and share in and perhaps begin to own our own. Your fellow VONA sister, Kuukua

    • I’m still owning my own and am glad you are on the journey with me. Stay beautiful, my sweet Kuukua! xo

  3. Your Millie, your beautiful butch mom Millie, forever in your heart and hugging you as you write and love and care for her grand daughter.

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