Activism

A present for Mami

I’ve brought you a birthday present, Mami! Do you realize that if you were still alive you’d be turning 90 this year!? That’s right! Rosario (Sari) Morales Moure, born to Lola and Manolin (especially Lola), New York City, 1930. My present for you this year is me being angry. Furious, really. To be even more precise, furious on your behalf. (Yeah, it’s about time!)

Your life was like one of those crazy-quilt designs you used to show me. An organized confusion of colors, shapes and patterns held together by the strong threads of resistance, resilience and defiance. Rosario threads. That’s what was called for. You always did what was called for. I’m angry at the crap you had to push back against. Like how you used to go into those big downtown department stores, walking in like you owned the place. A working class Puerto Rican girl from El Barrio? You figured out that if you faked a British accent you’d get the royal treatment. Staff scurrying to find what the exotic foreigner was looking for. Brilliant! But why should you need to be brilliant to score a little respect? Why should you have to be seen as someone else just to be seen?

But you would stop pretending. If you were going to have to deal with oppression, persecution and erasure, might as well face them head on. Eyes blazing. Once you picked up that troublemaker banner, you took it wherever you went. Loud trouble. Quiet trouble. Reluctant trouble.

You were fierce, Mami, in ways that made you seem fearless. But you described yourself as a “scaredy cat.” I had to grow up before I understood you meant it. You just did what needed doing. Even when you were afraid. Even when you might have to stand alone. “I am political in spite of myself.” you wrote. “I don’t want to do the things I know I have to do, don’t want to expose myself to disapproval, to retribution, don’t want to go to meetings and demonstrations, distribute leaflets, don’t want to ask people for signatures, for money.” But you did them. “Because I know I’ve got to.”

I mean, really! Having to spend our lives fighting injustice is, itself, an injustice. We’d rather be thriving in a world without it! But you were about doing what had to be done. Dealing with what’s real. Like you and Papi moving up into the cordillera to coax fruits and vegetables from a red clay mountaintop in Maricao – when neither of you knew how to farm. That was real. In the aftermath of the Nationalist uprising, with the cold winds of McCarthyism howling in from the north, there were no jobs for the likes of you. That was when owning a Puerto Rican flag was illegal, and speaking out was an act of courage. “Farm or starve,” your friends advised. Farming sounded better. I have always been grateful to have grown up where I did, held in the encircling arms of those ancient mountains, the drumming of the rain on a zinc roof, the thin cries of the guaraguaos hovering on the updrafts over the valley. The dazzling stars at night. But the forces that drove you there are not to be celebrated.

In the barrio you organized. Of course you did. Re-purposing the handy container of “agricultural extension” classes. It was really about making a space for women to talk about what mattered to them. What was real. Women in a circle sharing stories. The bedrock of organizing.

Organizing is never simple. Beside the harsh reality of colonial rule and the daily trials of survival, you also had to deal with the super-sized egos of male “leaders,” threatened as they were by your sharp clarity and your low tolerance for posturing. Naturally they had to criticize, condescend, accuse, attack and marginalize you until you walked away, slamming the door behind you, in search of oxygen.

Papi started teaching in the capital, driving the four hours each way, spending half the week in classrooms, assemblies and planning meetings in San Juan. Half on the farm. Preparing the ground for the next wave of the freedom struggle. You stayed in the mountains. Feeding, dressing and teaching your young; hanging out the wash to “dry” in the humid air; filling in what Escuela Rubias could not – or would not – teach us. No one had to tell you that the personal is political! Your contraception was provided as an experiment on Puerto Rican women to see if it was safe for the US market.

I was seven years old when, coming home from school one day I found you in front of the house, crying. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, you told me. You weren’t shedding tears for him, though, just the latest face on a still-expanding empire – its thick, sticky tentacles squeezing the life and wealth from Latin America. From Puerto Rico. No. You were frightened that they’d make it a pretext to let loose with yet another attack on the peoples movements, with the usual waves of arrests, firings, sham trials and new, aggressive laws.

That fear did not play out. But it would be only a few more years until the pitiless winds of colonial politics would dislodge us from our mountain home, sending us tumbling into the hard streets and acrid air of another, distant, place. Now the the gray, stone walls of Chicago rise up around you, your feet following hard sidewalks to another meeting, another protest. Police are everywhere, here, prowling the streets like they did in the New York of your childhood. So are the echoes of war, muffled, distant, but constant. So much to be done.

And wouldn’t you know it? Those over-sized egos are here, too. We call them the “movement heavies.” Wannabe Lenins, displaying their revolutionary plumage and rattling the windows with their cries of dominance. And they had the nerve – when they couldn’t intimidate you – to invite you and Papi into their inner circle of self-congratulating geniuses. As if!

You were so excited to go back to school. Anthropology! An open window into the lives of the world’s peoples, that rich soil of humanity that gives life to solidarity. But it wasn’t like that. What you walked into, instead, was an outpost of the empire. A stronghold of colonialism, racism and misogyny. Enemy territory.

“No wonder I drank.” you wrote. Late into the night you would curse the smug (white male) professors, reeking of entitlement, carrying on about the quaint rituals of the simple people and never mentioning poisoned wells, silver mines and smoke rising from village fields. “Not a word,” you noted, “about how they were despised and killed, infected and killed, poisoned and killed.” But, Mami, you knew these were your people. All of them. “Then I would write about Pawnees dying in the thin winter sunlight, coughing up blood, or Polynesians dying on the beach n the Pacific, shot by passing whalers, or Caduveo dying of Spanish buckshot. I wrote about Wounded Knee and Canton de Chelly, places I had names for, and all the beaches and valleys and rocky plains in Africa, in Canada, in Australia, on the Caribbean Islands, in tropical South America, in Arctic North America, in places for which I had no names.”

What came next was inevitable. You dissected, illuminated, unmasked and even (the nerve of you!) ridiculed the intellectual heroes and unquestioned beliefs of the anthropologists themselves. Turning the microscope back on the powerful. Oh, they did not like that! They would spend years making it their mission to block your way.

You had blocking of your own to do. Alcohol dulled the pathways of your nervous system as you struggled to stay afloat among the crosscurrents of immigration, racism, sexism and the absence of rain on a zinc roof. Long days spent in bed, pillow clutched tight over your head to buffer the bright light and jarring sounds. Your children tiptoeing about in our socks, mindful of every creak of a floorboard or clink of a plate. Sometimes you would come up for air, go to a meeting, make a meal. Finally you gathered the strength to come out of your cave to stay. There were things to be done. Finding your way to AA meetings, you’d sit for hours on metal folding chairs under church basement fluorescents, breathing air thick with Christianity and cigarette smoke. But they had something you needed, and dammit, you were going to get it!

No more hiding under pillows. You would find your voice – and claim your place – as a writer, poet and warrior. But wait! It looks so easy written that way. Taking up a mere few inches on a page. But life is real. There were newsletter collectives, writing circles, dissident pamphlets, defense committees.

You took aim at the multi-layered oppressions of women, deeply connected – as you always insisted – with the architecture of empires and the machineries of plunder. You inspired and influenced those around you. Like the young women in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Just because you can’t explain something, you instructed them firmly, doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Along with other sister warriors of that wave – Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Michelle Wallace, Barbara Smith, my sister Aurora, others – you sounded the call for third world feminism (to use the language of that time). Centering the voices of women whose struggle for freedom did not fit in the narrow boundaries of white-defined feminism. Taking part, with Aurora, in “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color,” birthed and edited by Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga. It was about claiming space. Space for women in liberation movements. Space for women of color in feminist organizing. Space for every body’s lungs to expand to their natural capacity. To exhale at their natural volume. Without permission. Without apology. Space for new the ways of thinking and speaking that women’s real-life experiences demanded.

Sisterhood bloomed in all colors, neighborhoods and workplaces. There were those kick-ass women in the Young Lords Party (and no, they weren’t the “Young Ladies”!) who demanded – and won – changes all across of their organization, to make it truly theirs; the LA Brown Beret women who collectively resigned, walking out and starting Las Adelitas de Aztlan; the Third World Women’s Alliance, which began as the Black Women’s Liberation Committee, which grew out of SNCC; the National Black Feminist Organization and its offshoot, the Combahee River Collective. There was Mujeres Muralistas; the Indigenous performers of Spiderwoman Theater (still going); Where We At: Black Women Artists; the Asian-American feminist newspaper, Gidra (recently revived). There were also the workplace organizing campaigns of clerical workers and airline attendants and the influx of women into construction, mining and trucking.

These are the stuff of movements, not footnotes or sideshows. They are strategy sessions late into the night, newsletter collating parties, delicate coalition meetings, midnight postering squads. Profound insights still vibrating today. Movements breathe. They bleed. They sing. They often emerge, gasping for air, from within other movements, at the same time rejecting and expanding on what came before.

It would make you angry, years later, how those complex and courageous struggles would get erased, disappearing behind the dismissive label of “white, middle class women’s movement.” There was such a thing, for sure. When whiteness places itself at the center of any movement, it sets out to limit the conversation, deny the threads of connections and prioritize its own survival. But did you disrupt the attempt by white liberal feminists to erase and silence your resistance (you’re being “so divisive” they said) only to be erased again by the young rebels you opened the way for? The ones who most need to know? It would rob them, you fretted, of vital knowledge. Of their own political DNA. Of what it took. Who was there. History is always about who was there. It’s not their fault, perhaps, but it is their loss. Without accurate, specific knowledge of the past, the story can get re-written. Distorted. A herstory of rebellion replaced with the corporate feminism of Gloria Steinem or the hedge fund imperialism of Hillary Clinton.

Your final brave act was to stop the cancer treatments. To begin to say your goodbyes. To us. To life. To a world that never stopped delighting you with its fascinating complexity and unruly beauty. You would leave on your terms.

Oh FUCK! (No one could hurl the “F” word with more precision or glee than you!) I didn’t want to know this. Never far from the winds of anger flows a deep, swirling river of grief. The river I refuse to acknowledge. That I turn away from. Close my ears to. Not wanting to know its depth. The strength of its current. The combined roar of its million voices; mine, yours, everyone’s. Maybe this is how I get to grieve you, Mami. One drop at a time.

“How do you mourn endless numbers of people in endless numbers of places?” you wrote. “Is there a form for it, a requisite time and place for mourning? Is there ever an end to it? Can there ever be an end to it?” No, there isn’t an end. But maybe it’s like the Nile. The Yangtze. The Mississippi. Overflowing their banks to the endless cycle of the seasons. Enriching the floodplains for new life to grow. When rivers are dammed, floods become disasters. When lives are blockaded, grief and fury swirl together, pressure building against the soft membrane of our hearts and the hard walls of the system. I am so grateful you left before having to know about children in cages. Seized from parents. With no road back. Some things are too much to hold.

Fifty years ago, when I was living at home, I remember reading The Bluest Eye. You probably gave it to me. What stayed with me was Pauline, making beauty and order with whatever she could find. “To line things up in rows – jars on shelves at canning, peach pits on the step,sticks, stones, leaves…” Whatever items caught her eye “she organized into neat lines, according to their size, shape, or gradations of color.” Toni Morrison then adds, sending a sharp pain through my artist heart. “She missed, without knowing what she missed – paints and crayons.”

I always had pencil and paper. Later I would discover color, but when I was little I had all the paper I needed. As long as I followed your strict instructions That I cover both sides with drawings before reaching for another sheet. You and me, Mami – access and absence defining the courses of our lives. Defining the courses of history. Colonial empires and global markets play out through land grabs, through massive mining machines crawling along rain forest roads, through surveillance drones, shell companies and tax havens. But underneath – at the grainy subsoil levels of oppression – it’s about who gets crayons.

Being your son didn’t net me a “get-out-of-patriarchy-free” card. Nobody gets that ticket. Revolutionaries can pass our tools along to each other but we each have to sharpen our own machete. One tool I got from you, that you acquired growing up with a violent father, is knowing that what seems peaceful and safe on the surface might conceal danger beneath. It’s served me well, Mami. It’s helped me survive. But at a cost. Like forgetting that sometimes, when something seems peaceful and safe on the surface, it really is. It sometimes is. I have a hard time knowing that. I know that you get it. Your mindfulness practice, late in life, was about learning to trust.

That’s what I brought you, Mami. I hope you like it. I miss you. And somehow that means missing the things you missed. Missing them with you. What you set aside “when there was a house to clean, food to prepare, a mimeograph to fix, children to respond to, factions to conciliate.” And you would find them, demand them, make room for them. (“Good on you!” as you would say.) You displayed them with pride, you did: the white hairs, the battle scars, the hard-won wisdom. And your version of freedom. Of victory. A cup of tea. An open window. Sunlight filtering through rustling leaves. Bright printed fabrics on a side table. And that sweet, heady quality laughter has when there is no fear.

It’s a hard present to give, Mami. Not because I feel your presence. I always welcome that. It’s because setting it down in front you, unwrapping it, means unwrapping myself. It means facing the river. Listening for the music in the thunder. The healing drumbeat. Feeling it. Duele, Mami. It hurts plenty… But it’s real.

5 replies »

  1. I love your art and thank you for sharing wheee it came from. I have at least five prints hanging in my house and have given away others. Thank you!

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  2. That’s really beautiful, Cardo. I remember your mother fondly although I knew so little about her. It’s been so interesting to follow you & Aurora on FB & to realize that even as we lived in the same place, we grew up in such different worlds. Your artwork, in particular the sheets about what to do in a pandemic, have been a real comfort in this difficult time. All the very best, Susan

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  3. The rich tapestry you weave Ricardo stuns me. So moving and so intimate. The ending is so jarringly real and live. We lived parallel lives for a time, and I always remember your sense of loss clinging to you, of what had been and yet your sense of being in the present despite that. I only knew your mother from the outside. This moving memory piece makes me see her in a whole new way of depth and complexity. While I remember the warmth and bustle of being in your house, I most remember spending time outside with you or in Room 306, where we lived in a sometimes imaginary world. I am so grateful for that time. Thank you for giving your mother this gift, and sharing it with the rest of us too.

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