*An essay every Friday in 2016*
*I finished this essay this week for the Michigan Women’s Music Festival (MichFest) edition of Sinister Wisdom. I forget how hard this writing is sometimes and so I swore I’d be able to write a new one for today’s Relentless Files but, no, I’m too drained and pensive after therapy today so I’m sharing this essay instead… Enjoy
An Education on Love Between Women by Vanessa Mártir
I’d heard about MichFest for years from my sister friend Nívea Castro. She’d been attending for twenty years and insisted that I needed to experience the magic of fest. For the 40th anniversary, she helped make that happen for me and my eleven year old daughter Vasialys, so in early August of 2015, I left NYC in a packed SUV with my daughter and three adults, my comadre Alicia Anabel Santos, her partner Yoseli Castro and daughter Courtney Aucone. I was ready for an adventure but I didn’t imagine my life would be changed so drastically.
The evening we arrived, the clouds gathered in dark gray wads. When they broke, the rain fell hard in fat drops that pelted the car in torrents. When the rain subsided, the most gorgeous rainbow appeared. I know now that was a sign of what was to come.
We spent the night on the line. I’d never experienced anything like it. We walked up and down the line of cars, hundreds of them, where people blasted all kinds of music from funk to country to soul; they sang and danced and talked and laughed. Some slept soundly amongst all that joy and love. I marveled at the magic of it all. In the morning, my daughter and I woke early, before anyone else traveling with us, so we got out and walked the line again. I bought coffee and breakfast, earrings, oils and other trinkets. We met so many womyn that morning and were hugged tight and welcomed with hoots and hollers when we announced ourselves festie virgins.
I confess, I felt strange those first two days on the land and I couldn’t put my finger on why. It hit me early on the third day, as I watched my daughter walk off topless on another adventure. I was sure Vasia would come back with a huge smile and stories of having learned or done or seen something new. I teared up when I realized that the strangeness was what it feels like to be safe in the world. My daughter could go off topless and I didn’t have to worry for her safety. I could walk around and venture at any hour and didn’t have to look over my shoulder. It was weird to feel so safe. I was so overwhelmed when it hit me, that all I could do was sit outside my tent and cry and give thanks to the expanse of sky above.
The Womyn of Color (WOC) tent was my safe landing from day one. It’s how I started my day and ended it, every single day. Those womyn I met there (Martha and Mama Rose and Maria and so many more) will forever hold a special place in my memory.
The entire experience was magic, just like Nívea said it would be. The concert on opening day blew my heart wide open, and the one on the last day with the fireworks, performances and testimonies, brought me to tears several times. I felt so honored and happy to have shared this experience with my daughter and dear friends. I could tell you about so much about that week but my mind goes back to the same place, or should I say, person—my love, Katia Ruiz, who I met on the land.
I met Katia on the line that first day. I spent the week checking her out, this beautiful butch womyn who I didn’t realize was pining for me too, because apparently I have zero game and was blind and deaf to her advances until the day of the Latina Dinner. I woke early and headed over to the WOC tent to see how I could assist. Katia was already there, a shovel in her hand and machete on her hip, I swooned at the sight of her but tried to play it off. I asked, “What can I do to help?” She smiled wide and said something like, “Just stand there and look beautiful.” I giggled at the realization that she was digging me too. Then I grabbed a shovel and went to work to help dig out the fire pit. I spent the day helping and watching this womyn be the fire keeper that she is. I marveled at how that delicious dinner was cooked right there in huge pots on that massive fire. That evening I performed my poem Wild which I’d written years before and had performed dozens of times. I choked up as I performed because I knew then that it was written for that very moment, surrounded by a powerful force of dozens of womyn who’d traveled from all over to be together in our womynness.
my wild seed arrived on the wind today
split up swiftly like fertilized egg
nestled in uterus lining
she dug in her roots and blossomed
dandelion iris lily
poison tipped rose venus fly trap
for those who dare
velvet petaled violet
for those who want more
me llaman criatura salvaje
unharnessed unrefined uncontrolled
loose disrespectful bad girl
soiled sullied and used
because I dance in the streets
and scream when my throat itches
I will not be tamed
I will not be caged
I’m not a fucking horse or bison
you cannot toss a rope around my neck
drag pull whip
until I acquiesce
I will not be yoked
don’t fuck with this Wild Woman
I run with wolves
howl at the moon
even when she’s not full
and she purrs back
croons her sister song
for she too is wild like me
Ella, la que sabe,
She was the ocean before the tides pulled
the sky before She married herself to the earth
the stars before They made heaven
She takes a hold of me
grita la historia de la Mujer libre
untethered and unbound
so these are the Women I write for
the one enslaved in brothels
the one flinching under a fist
the one whose hands are blistered and calloused
from toiling the fields
the one that walks for miles to bring water to Her son
the one who’s been told for centuries
that She’s not good enough
just a piece of Adam’s rib
I write for her
because at night
when all is silent
and She’s finally alone
She remembers and honors
that wild woman
the one you hear
feint whispers in your ear
that roar like dragon’s breath
telling you you got this, baby girl
Tu eres La Loba
She lives on
~Wild by Vanessa Mártir ©2013
When I finished, I ran into Katia’s arms. I didn’t know why. I just knew that’s where I wanted to be. And that’s where I’ve wanted to stay since.
We left the land two days later promising that we’d see each other back in NY. I didn’t want to wait that long.
Katia rode back with her best friend Yaya. I was in another car with Nívea and my daughter. I hadn’t seen her since the day before. I’d stayed in Detroit. She spent the night in Grand Rapids. We met up somewhere in Ohio, on the road from Michigan to New York. I wanted some time alone with her so I told everyone that we were going outside for a few minutes. Nívea, who is 63 and came out when she was a teenager, who is seasoned and protective, reminded me: “We’re not on the land, V.” She didn’t have to tell me what she meant. I knew and I resented it. I resented not being able to hold my love, to kiss her and feel her arms around me. I insisted. I leaned into Katia and puckered my lips. She kissed me swiftly. Just a tap kiss. It wasn’t long and deep like it had been on the land. She looked around and stepped back. I frowned. We were in the parking lot of a Mexican Restaurant in a random, small Ohio town along a heavily traveled highway. Back in New York we’d be safe. NYC cosmopolitan city with a huge gay population. NY is more accepting, or so I thought.
No one actually said anything outright when I walked hand in hand with my love in my neighborhood, to the supermarket and the liquor store, to the park and the hardware store, in a neighborhood in Manhattan I’ve lived in for twenty years; where my family has roots since my grandmother first arrived in the late 1960s from Honduras; where I know the bodeguero by name and the lady who sells the icies and the street vendor who sells everything from sunglasses to boots to movies; where I walk into the Dominican restaurant on 207th and my coffee is made without me having to specify how I want it; but I couldn’t help but notice the eyes on us, leering, a few sneers, some outright staring. The manager of the supermarket, the one I go to a few times a week, who asks about my daughter when she isn’t with me, just stared and looked down at our clutched hands. His “Hello” felt forced. A womyn I’ve known since I was a teenager who always gives me a wide smile from her always heavily make-upped face (bright blue eyeliner and crimson red, matte lipstick), snapped her head away quickly when I noticed her, she looked puzzled, her lips were tight. It’s the first time she didn’t greet me with a smile and an “Hola, ¿como estas?” When I turned, she was staring back, her mouth in a perfect “o.”
My love has been out since she was fifteen. She’s a butch who says she’s used to the stares and reactions. She giggled at my discomfort. How I stared right back, daring someone to say something. “You’ll get used to it,” she said. I thought about my Millie.
I was raised by a self-proclaimed butch in late 1970s Brooklyn. She wore her hair in a short push back, A man’s cut. She wore faded Lee jeans and nylon bell bottoms. Men’s pants. She wore guayaberas and polo shirts. Men’s shirts. She put her large breasts in bras and wore womyn’s underwears, the cotton Fruit of the Loom, full coverage kind. She wore kangols on her head and men’s shoes on her feet that she bought at Fabco on Myrtle Avenue, the shopping area closest to our railroad style apartment in Bushwick. Millie hung out with the men. They sipped on small latitas of Budweiser beer while they took swigs of pints of Bacardi and Palo Viejo, wrapped snug in a paper bag that they passed around. They cut open cardboard boxes and laid them out flat on the ground to slide under their cars, hands greasy, cheeks smudged.
I only saw Millie shrink into herself when she and mom fought and my mother pulled out her strongest artillery: spitting maricona at Millie, whose lower lip trembled in response. “Yo soy butch,” she yelled, over and over.
When we visited the storefront Pentecostal church where her brother Sergio was the pastor, Millie who was usually raucously loud and boisterous, grew quiet and sullen. She didn’t stand with the men like she did when we went to Long Island or Hancock Street or Highland Park where she played dominoes and talked with the men about their carros and the mujeres that swished by. But Millie still dressed like the men in the iglesia, in her polyester slacks and crisp off-white guayabera. She didn’t stand with the womyn either. She stood off to the side. By herself. I went over, grabbed her hand and looked up at her. The rusted elevated train trestle framed her face. She’d look down and smile. But this wasn’t her trademark chipped tooth smile. It wasn’t wide and joyful. It was small and sad. She didn’t belong there though she tried. She always tried.
When we walked in the street, Millie held my hand and stared straight ahead. I was too young to notice if people stared but I imagine they did, like they stare at me and my love when we walk. When we kiss. When I lean in and she takes me into those arms where I feel the safest and most protected I’ve felt in lifetimes. I won’t stop loving her publicly but I’m having a visceral reaction to the stares. “You’ll get used to it,” she says. We shouldn’t have to.
The day after our first kiss, I knew I had to tell my daughter about my love. They’d already met and spent time together, and I knew Vasia liked her but this was different. I don’t keep secrets from my kid. Not these kind, at least. I knew even before the kiss that I liked this womyn, I wanted to see her in New York, and I wanted to get to know her romantically. I’d always kept my daughter away from anyone I was involved with. If we’re not going anywhere beyond casual dating and sex, there’s no reason for you to meet my kid, I rationalized. But this felt like more than that. I had to say something.
We went for a walk on the land that morning. I bought her a doughnut and myself some coffee. My heart thrashed in my chest. My hands shook. We’d talked about my sexuality being fluid before, but she’d never seen me with a womyn. She’d only seen me with a man once. A situationship that didn’t last. It’s been just me and her for so long.
“How do you feel about mommy liking a womyn?”
She stifled a giggle and searched my face. She shrugged. I was quiet. “You like Katia, don’t you?” I laughed and stared at this child who is so wise, I don’t know what to do with her sometimes.
“I do.” We both giggled playfully.
She threw her head back. “Finally, mom!” she said loudly, in an exasperated tone, like this was something she’d been waiting for. Then she hugged me tight. My eleven year old little girl doesn’t care who I’m with. She just wants to see me happy.
Weeks after we got back to NY, she was watching me get ready when she said, “You smile more now, mom.”
She invited my love to her birthday BBQ. “You okay with your friends knowing?” I asked, knowing she’d invited more than 15 of her friends from school. She shrugged. “I don’t care.”
When I took her and her bff out to the movies on the day of her birthday, I asked, “Did you tell her?” I was purposely evasive. “What? That you’re a lesbian,” she said this in a matter of fact tone, while she looked from me to her friend. “Yeah I told her.” Her friend smiled her wide, gummy smile, “It doesn’t matter as long as you’re happy.” They skipped off ahead of me, not a care in the world.
I blinked hard to push back the tears. These kids are more open and understanding than the adults who stare and judge. Adults who are supposed to lead the future generation in the right direction. Adults who are more lost than the kids they’re raising.
When my kid was five, she came home from kindergarten with the word faggot in her mouth. “That’s nasty,” Vasia said. I knew she didn’t know what she was saying. She was just parroting. I sat her down. Asked: “What do you mean faggot? What does gay mean? Why is it disgusting?” I didn’t reprimand her. I just listened. When she couldn’t answer, I told her about my Millie. She’d heard my many stories about my childhood and how Millie loved me. “Millie was gay,” I said. “And so is Tio Tio.” I was referring to my now dead brother, Juan Carlos, her favorite uncle. “That’s love, baby girl. Love has many faces. Love is me and you. Love is daddy and his wife. Love is a man and a womyn, a man and a man, a womyn and a womyn. Love is so many things.” She stared at me with those big brown eyes that tell me I am her hero. “And all love is beautiful.” I kissed her cheek. “Remember that I told you that God is love and love is in you.”
She nodded emphatically. “Yes, God is in everything.”
“Yes, and in everyone, right?”
She nodded again.
“God is in all of us. Gay and not gay. Ok?”
Later my daughter told me stories of how she’s stopped her friends when they used the term gay as a slur. When they yucked at the mention of homosexuality. “I tell them love is love,” she said, neck swiveling, all attitude and bad ass. “And all love is beautiful.”
My love asked me to be her girlfriend weeks after we met, under the supermoon on Coney Island beach. She took pictures of us kissing and posted them on her Facebook and tagged me. That’s how we announced our love to the world. Friends celebrated with us, leaving supportive comments and hearts. I got messages in my inbox. A few texts. I thought of the stares and the silence.
Some time ago I was having a discussion with someone about my fluid sexuality. She insisted that my femme presentation protected me from the often times vicious homophobia she experiences as a boi identified lesbian. I got defensive. I know better now. She was so right.
Today I know this: I am so grateful to have experienced the magia of MichFest, and I’m eternally indebted for all that it’s gifted me, especially for my love Katia. I’m also grateful for the education I continue to receive now that I’m in a relationship with a butch womyn. Here’s the thing: I’m not looking for approval. People don’t have to agree or like it. They will, however, get bit back if they come at me or my babe. As a kid, I once punched a girl in the face for saying, “You’re dirty like your lesbian moms.” I’m older now. These fists now have words. I won’t swing on you but, make no mistake, I won’t be silent either. This life is mine. This love is so good. I will protect and defend it with all of my five foot two Bushwick fierce. I’m a writer and an activist, and I have a big mouth, and everything I’m learning is making me even more committed to my defense and support of LGBTQ rights. There is no silencing this womyn. Not now. Not ever. Get used to it.