A Series of Revolutions
Here’s the thing: I’ve been meaning to tell you this story for weeks now, but it’s hard, because I don’t know how to explain these things in terms that aren’t used for families, and I know for a fact that these people are NOT my family. I sometimes question if I really have one, actual people who would actually defend my needs when the time comes, people willing to share who I am with their communities without fear, people who love you enough to get your rare disease diagnosed during childhood, people who don’t hurt you more than they love you.
This is not the environment I grew up in, so it's hard to call them my family. But for the sake of this story, I will use the following terms in replacement of the words that make me want to pull my hair out: Bisa is my biological great-grandfather, the father of Boo, who is my biological maternal abuela. Ello is her husband and my biological maternal grandfather, making Monk their daughter and henceforth my biological you-know-what. Caveman made me with Monk. Moving on now.
Some context: This is where Boo taught. It was the only school she ever educated anyone. It was also the closest school to where she lived and was born, until she moved here, where she eventually met Ello during highschool. Going back to where she lived before then today, though, looks like this: It’s sort of hard to tell what’s all out there anymore. Seems like corn fields in the distance, though it’s mostly burnt down crops and a gated field of sugarcane corpses. I can’t see the wooden house where she was born, the one Bisa would be drunkenly upset to wake up in front of when his horse would take him there after a long night in La Hacienda to make up for the hard work of being loyal to his family. They burned it down, along with the post where he would watch over the crop workers, the crops. I wouldn’t be surprised if this includes some of the people, too.
I grew up being unaware of a lot of this, Monk being afraid of the truths of her own story that she would have to unravel and give to her quote, “children”, if she was honest about any of the beginning in a way that would lead to us asking more questions, which it always did. I don’t get to know who I am, I just get to be ripped away from it for a “better opportunity”. I never really look online, either, because of my lack of access to it until late highschool/essentially college. The other day some old lady told me it wasn’t fair for me to expect her to get on board too quickly with equal rights for transgender people because she quote “didn’t grow up with it like me”, as if I was educated outside of whatever Monk said. The only time I asked her about this was after seeing the ‘World’s First Pregnant Man’ on a TIME magazine cover sometime in 2007-2008, to which she said ‘don’t worry about it, those are people with a mental illness’. I didn’t know anything else about the word transgender until about 2019, when it finally clicked in my brain. Monk kept a LOT from me.
In adulthood I’ve been able to reclaim my own identity, having been independent from them now for almost a decade, as I ran without looking back to conservatism at seventeen, and am now in the midst of writing out my quarter life crisis to share with all of you. Part of this being my awareness of my rare disease, which brought me to Washington D.C. in April, to help the National Organization for Rare Diseases with an event that jump started, a series of revolutions for me.
Revolution 1: While forcing myself to experience the Presidential Portrait Gallery, rolling through halls begrudgingly murmuring about how tiring it is to wheel myself over the carpeted floors, I overwhelmed myself far too quickly from the discomfort from the awareness of their slave owning tendencies, the wars they commanded where so many soldiers fell, the blood on the hands of Caveman from the deployments that left him absent in my life in some ways, and disturbingly present in others. The backs that my “family” chose to stand on to get us here, to treat me like that. It was eating away at me from the inside, and it only got worse when I got to the end of the hall. Remember what I said about the backs the presidents stand on? Yeah, the immediate room after the portraits is reserved for all past, and present colonies of the US. It takes me a moment to realize this at first, because I book it for Hawaii to re-charge from the portrait torture, and think it might be a state-by-state display. I soon realized I was wrong, when I came up on the corner for Puerto Rico.
That’s when it happened. The two landscape photographs - that weren’t portraits of activists - in our Puerto Rico section of this “hey, look who we’re colonizing!” section of the museum, are paintings of my town, Ponce. I sat and cried with one of them for embarrassingly long (given the white man reading a book on the bench right behind me), because it was a place I had heard in Abu’s stories, but never seen in a picture, painting, and I can’t time travel back to see how it was before. It’s the center of the scene: La Hacienda.
Detailed by the Smithsonian as, “a portrait of a plantation, this painting simultaneously reveals the limitations and the potential of the sugar industry in late nineteenth-century Puerto Rico. Depicted from left to right are the quarters for formerly enslaved persons, the house of the hacen-dado, or planter, and the sugar mill with its towering smokestack. Laborers guide cane-loaded oxen carts to the ramp, where others direct the stalks to the mill to make molasses. The lethargic atmosphere points to the recent decline of the Puerto Rican sugar industry. Factors included the global fall of sugar prices, the island’s abolition of slavery in 1873, and the industry’s technological lag, as compared to Cuba.
Located in Ponce, La Fortuna was a “central mill” that processed its own cane and that of nearby plantations. For the United States, seizing Puerto Rico represented an opportunity to expand its sugar industry into the island.
Oil on canvas, 1885”
I had never really thought of it with that word before: slaves. Bisa, the people before him, didn't have a choice in working there. It’s just, Abu never really talked about it that way. She was born on that land. She acknowledges the hardships, but also can romanticize them in a way that leaves her relatively bipartisan about the whole thing. Maybe that’s how she has to process this in order to be okay. I definitely took my pride about the situation from her, which is why it was so crushing to see it this way for the first time. That was the first time I saw my blood line as slaves. I mourned centuries of pain in about twenty minutes, and ripping myself away from the portrait when the time came felt identical to leaving the island the last time I did. I feel defeated by this right now, but also comforted by knowing what it looked like. Getting to imagine Bisa and Abu running through it, imagining the evening falling and Bisa’s horse taking him home against his wishes.
Revolution 2: I really don’t like America. No, these are not the same revolution. Upon rolling onto the National Hall, I had this to say: I didn’t feel like I fit in here, but I hoped I could fit in wherever there was art. And I did feel way more comfortable in the Hirschorn, I felt like an equal with the artists I was sharing the space with through learning about + consuming their works for the first time in excitement like I did the ride through the old sugar cane fields several years back. I think I like myself the most when I’m in a museum, or a concert hall. The sea is where I go when I don’t know who I am anymore. America is NOT like a museum or a concert hall.
I don’t know if the other people in the museums or concert halls understand that I am also an artist, when I am not hung up on the wall or standing under the light. I never really felt understood in college, or by any production teams. I feel understood by the craft. The easiest part of the job is the job. Because it isn’t a job it’s what I love to do. The hardest part of the job is the interpersonal relationships that are an inevitable part of working in a large group of people. The constant exploitative free DEI consultations that end up being used against me, while the ‘new-wave ableds’ that think including me is the only work that needed to be done, the only thing that needed to change about their business. Like it isn’t a mental rewiring towards mindfulness and listening to listen, not listening to respond in anger because you are being taught how to do something ethically for the first time, that needs to be happening in each and every person alive right now.
The thing is: I just said this applies to everyone. If I leave my field and go to another, the same interpersonal issues will happen. Not because there is anything wrong with me (I write in the very short moment of luck where I don’t hate myself enough to disagree with the statement), but because people are lacking in mindfulness. The hate that people have thrown at me, probably without even understanding it themselves, has led to an imposter syndrome I cannot beat.
I have no idea where this revolution leaves me, and I am not happy about that.
You don’t get to hear the others, they’re for me to unravel and build off of. Maybe the only other thing worth sharing is that trains are great, as are the stations and I only ever want to travel by train.
I wish I could take a sleeper train to self-love and acceptance, where you gain confidence as you get closer to your destination. If I were a train conductor, would that be the isolated life that would please me, or would I crave making art that makes a difference?
I wish there was a train I could take that would make me want to be here.