Wind is rushing through the skies delivering urgent messages to the corners of Arroyo City.
The hypnotic push and pull of the waves are a sensual lullaby to the acrobatic fish who stretch as they prepare for their breakfast dance with the pelicans.
I am sitting, swaying to this melody reflecting as the last days of the Nepantla Residency creep upon me. I have never spent this much time on a pier. Not a private one. It is divided into sections of three. The wood rots on either end keep secrets of our hostesses’ family; her childhood and its past life. A hurricane paved the way for new wood. I still see marks and instructions left by the construction crew. My condo is about this size I’m sure.
I recall the evening I drove up to the site. The two small houses could be mistaken for Monopoly homes on the urban side of the board. They were modest. Tattered white and blue tint dressed the exterior walls while scenes of The Last Supper sat below the ceilings. Summer camp ran through my bones. Except, I was here by choice and my life would change forever.
Under the lights of a dazzling night sky, on the old section of the pier, I introduced myself to the first fellow resident who arrived. She is from the Valley. She is home, comfortable, and enthusiastic about Queer and Ethnic Studies; all things Indigenous, Black, and Brown. Black and Brown.
More residents trickled in.
More introductions, theories, identities, labels…
More Black and Brown.
More African American, Black Folks, White Folks; mas P.O.C.
I listened and observed, learned the lingo of the LGBTQIA+ community I am presumed to exist within. Amidst the chatter, I picked up a commanding voice, expressing the importance of respecting the choice of gender identity. According to the story, a parent was taking birthday photos of his son in pants and a dress just in case they chose to identify as a woman in the future. “They will be grateful to have baby pictures they can choose from.” How considerate, I thought. I was forced to wear clothing that made me feel uncomfortable; pants and dresses. I have childhood photos that I still shudder at the remembrance of; pants and dresses.
El chisme contiñuó, “Misgendering an individual is violent. Violent por que it perpetuates homophobia.” I glanced above the rim of my glasses, stretching my pupils like fingers over a border wall. “Misgendering is violent and perpetuates homophobia?” I asked between my silver spoon and Cocoa Rice Krispies. “Si. It’s traumatizing to be called something you’re not,” she exclaimed.
Immediately I began to disassociate and time traveled. I was bullied in junior high. My mother was in the Army and we moved often. I had been accustomed to starting anew every other year or so, but this school, these kids were different. I met them in 3rd grade, made friends, then moved before we took class pictures. Fate would reunite us in 6th grade. Unfortunately, time did not make the heart grow fonder. I remembered them, each one, but I had been forgotten. So much so that I was the “new” girl and ripe for pranks, isolation, and name-calling. I brought this to the attention of the school counselor, the principal, and my family. I learned that I was too sensitive and needed to develop a thicker skin. “Sticks and stones break bones” I was told and that I would find difficulty in life being overly concerned with what others said about me. I did not know then that the name-calling would continue. I did not know that the world identified me as Negro, Black, African-American, a P.O.C, Queer. Oh, what a struggle it has been to shed light on the violence and trauma.
I found refuge in Spoken Word and Poetry. The visual arts saved my life and led me to Nepantla. Between eating, singing, dancing, freezing, crying and sharing stories I had been quietly crafting my art series for critique. I shared a graffiti piece; my love for letters on canvas. It was a collage of text, vinyl records, acrylic paints, and legal documents made to conjure the past; a moment that dominated two years of my sanity and had currently held space in my art studio. I carried the burden for ten years, from California to Texas, between storage and four homes… Finally, I was processing and receiving feedback.
The aesthetic earned rave reviews with constructive suggestions for improvement and as expected, the narrative of police brutality and legal injustice sparked a fire of P.O.C discussion.
“BLACK AND BROWN!”
“MAS AFRICAN AMERICAN, BLACK FOLKS, WHITE FOLKS!”
“As a Queer, Black Woman facing racism you…”
I interrupted; I normally let these identifiers go. “Sticks and stones” I learned, but I had been silent long enough. After thanking my peers for their feedback, I put the proverbial foot down and informed them, “I am not Queer or Black. I do not identify with those terms and I do not believe in racism.”
There was a slight hush; an awkward pause. I thought I heard someone swallow their disbelief.
“Of course you are.”
“What do you mean?”
“The world sees race. Society sees you as Black so…”
I knew these questions would come, but I did not anticipate the shock and awe at Nepantla. After all, this was Las Otras. Unquestionable acceptance towards one’s identity was the constant topic of discussion since I had arrived. Though I am passionate about the topic, it brings anxiety también. Explaining is difficult. Rome was not built in a day.
I fell back on my training. How would I navigate these delusions with my students? Scaffolding, background knowledge, visuals, manipulatives…manipulatives! I found three crayons; black, brown, and white. I held each against the copper tone of my mothers’. My heirloom.
“Which one of these crayons best represents the complexion of my skin?
The clock ticked five times, ten…twenty times. I knew not to interrupt the thinking process.
“Um, brown?” someone hesitated.
I saw confusion and amazement mushroom cloud around the room. It was like…coming out. There was more I wanted to say, but my work for the night was done. These revelations are heavy and so I chose to let the dust settle. The residency was just beginning.
I am an advocate for arts education. Yes, it is important to teach others the value of self-expression and the skills to develop artworks, etc., but what I love the most is utilizing the arts as a tool to investigate the legitimacy of concepts that plague society and create division among its populace. Concepts, like race, that uphold structures of generational supremacy, violence, and injustice that we have foolishly accepted as law. There are vast studies on the topic, some long before I was born, so I acknowledge the works of those who have preceded me. These thoughts of mine are not new and I assert no claim of discovery. What I do feel is a need for simplification. How can we ingest such a large creature? One that is fighting to live in hearts and minds? I suggest that through the study of the elements and principles of art we can do more than train our eyes and hands for aesthetics and craft, but also unlearn the curse of supremacist divisions. With just a few crayons, I found that I could ignite a bit of curiosity inside and outside of the classroom. It takes only a small seed of doubt of the established norm to slowly lift the veil of ignorance surrounding race and racial identity.
It is one thing to be anti this or pro that and another to effectively transform perception and behavior. Amid protests, riots, lawsuits, etc. are rigid minds who believe what they believe and know what they know. No matter which side of the line we ground ourselves upon, what we know are masterful illusions designed by master criminals with goals of acquiring power, profit, and leisure. How mighty are they to have convinced us that Santa Claus is real? That there is such a thing as Black and White people?
One of my students’ favorite activities is finger painting and through color theory, I challenge their perceptions. All visual arts instructors have a lesson on value. We teach our students that value is the brightness or darkness of an object and proceed with demonstrating a range of value via a scale.
My students are prepped and already thinking about their racial identity and the value that they derive from it. Some students identify as White; others Black. They dip their fingers in White paint and scribble across a few pre-drawn boxes. They titrate, add a little bit of Black paint, run their fingers across the next box, and repeat until the last one is completely Black. They are excited that they’ve created a value scale based on their racial identity. I encourage them to compare their arms to their art.
“Which box looks the most like you? Which box represents your value?”
They eagerly guess which square they fit in, review every single tone and laugh with each other until there is complete silence in the room.
“Ms. don’t none of these boxes look like our arms. Ain’t nobody in here got grey arms Ms.”
Li’ilt Nidan, Parham La Tasha Aminah Decé sprang from the soil of The Great River, Biloxi. Aminah celebrates a diverse heritage, tracing her lineage through many rich cultures including, the Medjai Warriors of the House of Shewa, Nubia, the Bantu peoples of the Ivory Coast, and the Mound Builders of Mississippi.