What drives

It was a death and a birth that brought me here.

“A monstrous acceleration, a new conviction to living, working—loving with a new recklessness, abandon, urgent, urgent. [Millie] who taught me to do everything, to be everything, to want, to have, to try everything—to not be afraid anymore.” Carole Maso, The Shelter of the Alphabet: Home

I’ve said it’s my little girl who was the stimulus, the reason I started taking this writing thing seriously. The reason I stopped running away from and started running into the page. The reason I’m up at this insane hour writing—it’s 4:42am. I’ve been up since 3. Why I’ve been waking at this hour, between 3 and 4am, periodically for so many years. Why I spent the first few months of this year, barely sleeping, finishing the first draft of my memoir. But it wasn’t just the birth of this wondrous little girl with her undeniably old soul.

“I chose you to be my mom.”

It was Millie’s death that also brought me here. Her rubbing my huge belly. “¿‘Tas segura que no hay dos alli adentro?” Her sniffling, worrying. “No la voy a llegar a conocer.” It was an urgency she was rubbing into me. Our conversations, about love and life, la calle, las drogas. “Yo conozco esa vida que tu vivistes.” She never worried about me, she said. She knew I would survive. She knew I would thrive. She knew I had to have these experiences on the street and in those ivy, white walls of academia. She knew it was what I needed, “pa’ que seas lo que tienes que hacer.” “What’s that, Millie?” “Solo tu sabes, negra.” I was starting to know.

It was during my pregnancy that I started writing consistently. I hadn’t until then. But this isn’t a reflection on what could have been. It is a reflection on what was.

During those nine months I filled journal after journal. Musing on my life. On my stories. I was getting ready. When I read to my belly every night, I was getting ready. When I told my daughter’s father my plans and he laughed and gave me an as-if “Okay,” I got even more ready. See, I’ve always thrived when I’m doubted. It is my way.

Flashback: Fall 1992. I’m 16.

I’d just walked out of my admission interview at Columbia University. The first time I walked onto that campus, I knew that was where I wanted to be. The gray stone against the blue sky. The steps of Low Library. The brick of College Walk. The fragrant mix of the air that smelled of hood and academia. See, they call it Morningside Heights but it’s really Harlem, folks. It smelled of home. A new kind of home. I had finally arrived.

At my interview, I told the admissions officer that I hate B+s “because they’re so tempting. It’s so close to an A!” I can’t remember her name or even if she was a she, but I can remember walking out of there knowing I had cinched it. I knew I was in. I met my then boyfriend (the drug dealer I dated throughout college. That deserves a book of its own but to put it shortly, I needed, wanted so badly for someone to love me, and he did and so…) who took me to a Famiglia on the upper west side (I can’t say which, there are so many in that area, or at least there were in the early 1990s). What I do remember is the sign, red, white and hunter green, the hunter green awning and the not so fancy interior. It looked like so many of the pizzerias I’d been to in NYC—the small, brown faux wood tables, the standard green pleather chairs, the walls, half wood paneling, half mirrors, the smell of grease and garlic and tomato sauce and a hint of sugar and dough from the zepolles.

That day I was so excited about my future, we sat and ate while I yapped away about my plans: I was going to attend Columbia College of CU, would major in pre-law and Latino studies because I’d been introduced to Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents the year before and thus the Latino History bug had been injected into me. (It wasn’t until I arrived that I learned that Latino studies didn’t yet exist at Columbia and so I became part of the movement to get ethnic studies, which took time and protests, taking over Hamilton Hall and Broadway, hunger strikes and walk outs, but we eventually did get it.) I almost skipped out of the place, I was so happy. So over-joyed. I had so many plans for who I was going to be. How I was going to get there. I felt unstoppable. And then I heard him.

“You’re not going anywhere talking and acting like that. Columbia University? Law school? Yeah, right.”

I hadn’t noticed him sitting there, this older white man, in his late 50s or early 60s, with his white hair, in his crisp tan suit that matched the tables, and his greasy hands. But I noticed his mocking laugh when he said that to me. And I recognized the sneer on his face. He was trying to break me like so many had before.

“What?” the drug dealer said and made to walk toward him. I stopped him with one hand. Didn’t even look at him. I hadn’t taken my eyes off of that jaded old man who had picked me to take his anger out on. Even then I knew that his treating me so ugly wasn’t about me.

I stared right back at him. Into his cold blue eyes that didn’t turn away, that challenged. He thought he knew the world better than me. He did. I didn’t doubt that. But I had hope. I had conviction. I still do.

“My name is Vanessa Mártir. Mártir with an accent on the a. Remember that name. You’ll hear about me.” I gave him a yeah-kiss-my-ass-bastard smirk and walked out.

“I think of all the things that are outside the range of our memories or imaginations or intelligence or talent—it’s the place I suspect which is our true home. If we could get there we would finally feel okay. But we can’t. We are homeless, groping, roaming in the darkness, aware of only a fraction of it.” Carole Maso

I’ve thought of that man from time to time since that late fall day in 1992. I thought about him on my graduation day from Columbia University in June of 1997. I thought of him when I published my first book. I’ve thought of him when I’ve created a list (yes, I’m crazy like that) of the people that have doubted me, tried to make me feel small and unable to do what I’ve set out to do, what I know I will do.

I’ve thought about the kind of resentment and disgust with the world, with life, that it takes to tell a full-of-hope-and-wonder sixteen year old girl that she won’t amount to anything.

I’ve thought about that man when I teach urban youth who have been told the same so many times.

I know that wasn’t my shit to carry though he tried to put it on my shoulders. I remind myself of that periodically, when I need to check myself, when the weight gets too hard to bear and I feel like it’s just too much. Like I’ve hit a wall and there’s dog shit all over it. The big-dog-been-eating-meat-for-days-smelly-kind.

I remind myself that that shit ain’t mine to carry. That I got this. That I’m meant to do it. That I’ve been doubted but the love and passion and faith I have are so much sweeter, stronger, deeper, so much more profound. That’s what carries. That’s what gets me through.


  1. you rock, vanessa! love the voice you come from, speak in…the language of love. love for yourself. love for the written word. love for way things will unfold because you know they will. and when the unfolding takes place, you will rejoice when you know you’ve made it through!

  2. Vanessa you are a true inspiration, and I admire that faith and determination that you have in yourself, and around you. Peoples doubts are the biggest motivators. God bless =)

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