In Light of Newton, Connecticut: Reflection

Yesterday, a horrible event happened in the psyche of America as a dark day that will remain forever etched in our hearts and minds. In Newton, Connecticut, children and their adult teachers and staff were killed in a senseless act of violence by unstable men. This tragedy has rippled and reverberated deep in all of us. We are questioning the safety of our children. We are holding them tighter, wondering what is this world we live in. We have realized that this world has very real danger. That it does not exist in inner city communities and in other countries as though it was something that could not touch us, and here it is in our backyard. It has shaken us.

As I meditate and pray about the situation locally and also on a global level, this is but a small window into the tragedy that surrounds the American people. We are oblivious to the amount of death and destruction our government and other world powers are perpetuating. We are blind to how this violence lives in our homes, in our communities, in our beds. I have chosen not to engage in conversation about gun control. I want to ask the bigger questions. Why are there so many guns? Why do we have so many militaries in the world opening fire on innocent bodies? Why is it that only 20 countries in the world have zero to limited armed forces, and the United States is leading with over a million enlisted? Why have we normalized violence? Why is child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence still a grave problem? What about institutionalized violence and dissonance? The taboo on subjects like mental health, holistic wellness and how that is killing us slowly? Why has the violence done to those deemed weak and powerless gone on unchallenged? What has happened to us as a human family that we are this deeply ill and disconnected from the source? What is hurt within us that we lash out at each other this way? How did we lose touch with each other and ourselves?

We need to talk about the roots, for what we are seeking (solutions) will not be found among the branches. The details, statistics, death tolls and numbers become trivial when they make us argue about what is more important to talk about and compartmentalize the issue into smaller issues. Let us use this tragedy to reflect on the gravity of the violence that happens daily in our communities and in our world. We must get back in touch with each other and ourselves. Let us speak of healing and solutions. It is time to shift this cycle of trauma and violence in our world.

 

Getting to the Root of Afro-Latina Hair

*originally published: http://newlatina.net/getting-to-the-root-of-afro-latina-hair/

Questioning the Standard
The standard of beauty in the United States is obvious.  Most of the supermodels are tall and slender with long, flowing straight hair.  This beauty standard is impartial to skin tone: many Caucasian, African-American and Latina models have the same hairstyles regardless of its natural state.  As an Afro-Latina, my dark skin and curly hair was not represented around me as beautiful. In a bigger context, Afro-Latinas is not a term specifically for Latina women with dark skin but serves to describe the myriad of skin tones, body structures, features and hair texture that women from an ancestry of indigenous, African and European colonizers come in.

The fixation on hair straightening is clearly seen with the abundance of Dominican hair salons and beauty supply stores that come with memories of living in the Bronx. For 18 years I based what I should strive to look like on the magazines, images of white Latinas on Univision and the messages I absorbed growing up in a low-income community.

It later occurred to me that I was trained to seek my definition of beauty in the world around me. Learning more about the way African hair was destroyed over the course of American history affirmed my choice to grow out my natural hair 8 years ago. It made me want to know more about what Latina and African American women are suppressing with long trips to these salons to apply heat and chemicals to their hair.

The History Behind Our Afro-Latina Hair
The history of how African hair came to be chemically treated starts before lye was applied to the scalp.  Our hair is more than the perceived lifeless stuff growing out of our bodies. Hair is a hard fiber protein called keratin.  The purpose of hair is for protection, adornment and to shield the head from injury. African hair is structured to give maximum external protection to the brain.

The tightly coiled hair that people of African descent have is described as an evolutionary adaptation to the hot sub-Saharan Africa climate.  This hair allowed for more cooling because it keeps the sweat closer to the scalp.  The strands of African hair hook to each other.  Each hair shaft hooks to adjacent hair shafts and, in turn, the hair then forms a sort of barrier between the African’s scalp and the outside world. From a scientific perspective, it can be concluded that the nature of African hair has a very specific purpose.

Before Africans were enslaved, African hair was worn natural and was very important in West African societies.  In various African cultures, the grooming and styling of hair have long been important social rituals.  Elaborate hair designs, reflecting tribal affiliation, status, religious leaning and more were common.

Over the process of 400 years, roughly 20 million enslaved Africans were brought across the Atlantic Ocean to the Western Hemisphere, leaving behind families, culture, traditions and the reverence and importance of hair. The enslavement was a deeply traumatizing experience.  Slave owners cared very little for enslaved African people’s humanity and culture.  Under these harsh conditions, enslaved Africans had no time or desire to groom their hair.  Because of this, head rags were often worn for protection from the sun and out of shame for the condition they were forced to have their hair in. After a couple of centuries of harsh treatment and being taught to hate everything about their culture, enslaved Africans found no pride in their hair and a budding interest in hair straightening began.

Straight Hair = An Economic Opportunity & Social Advantage
Straight hair translated to economic opportunity and social advantage.  The desire to emulate their White oppressors created division among the enslaved Africans.   In the early 1900s, a new image began to emerge among emancipated Africans attempting to assimilate to the White community.  Women are commonly used to represent norms and values of a society; therefore, the appearance of African women was essential to the appearance of the race as a whole. This rebuilding of the African women’s image was particularly important given the sexual and physical abuse that was inflicted on women during the enslavement.

The first version of hair relaxers were used by men. It was a caustic solution of potatoes, eggs and lye called “conk.”  Today’s relaxers are more sophisticated than this early version.  They contain various chemicals that make the hair straightening process less scathing but still have lye as the active ingredient.  Scientifically, lye is sodium hydroxide.  It is used in soap making, biodiesel production, and household cleaners such as oven cleaner and drain opener. Sodium hydroxide is not safe for human beings to inhale, as it can potentially cause lung damage. The prolonged used of relaxers causes hardened scalp tissue and hair loss.

The 1960s came with a surge in Black Nationalist thought.  Hair at this point was desired to be in its most natural state, which in turn led to a stronger identification with the African homeland.  This new way of defining beauty was revolutionary. Many African-American and Latina women still relax their hair to this day.  There remain a considerable number of hair salons in many U.S urban communities.  Afros still remain visible in the African community, along with braids, cornrows and dreadlocks, as we see a resurgence of Afro-descendant people getting in touch with their African ancestry.  Although most of us can agree that the way you wear your hair is not an automatic indication of how culturally aware you are, knowing that our hair-styling and beauty practices stem from a turbulent history can give us more insight as to why our community still subscribes to these beliefs.

Reclaiming This Body: Re-sensitizing the Desensitized Body Pt. 2

I have felt numb for a long time. One day I realized I wanted to feel again. I wanted to be fully alive.

For as long as I can remember, I have had difficulty taking a deep breath. As I got older, I realized that I was nearly hyperventilating for most of the time I felt like I was suffocating on my air. When my stomach would get into knots, my breath stays caught in my chest and my body begins to feel panic. I first started to gain awareness of how much my breath is connected to my body when I was attracted to yoga in the middle of my college career.

In the yogic asanas (poses), the body is often resistant to the position. Through my yoga practice, I became aware of the tension in my body as the instructors would guide the class to focus on our breath first, and once we had a rhythm going, would gently ask us to check in with our bodies. With my eyes close and quieting the monkey chatter of my mind, I discovered these aches and pains that I was oblivious to in the rushing and stress of life. About the same time, my interest in having a healthier diet gave me insight into this vessel I was inhabiting and was unfamiliar with. It was discovering my lactose intolerance that for the first time I began to notice how food made my body feel.

These first insights into paying attention to my body as it was affected by my eating habits and my life led to learning more about how psychosomatic the human body is. Psychosomatic refers to having physical symptoms originating from mental or emotional causes. The easiest way for me to understand this at first was understanding the correlation to how my stomach would clench up when I was anxious. I began to observe the way my body would react to my emotions and understood how much I did not know about being in my body. An important catalyst for shifting my perception of my womanly body was a workshop I attended towards the end of college that involved sharing our menarche (a girl’s first menstrual cycle) and talking about the ways this society has demonized a woman’s reproductive system and functions.

I started to read more about healing the body. I began to realize that I carried many internalized myths about being a woman and my sexual expression. This sparked an interest in learning more about this womanly body I was in but didn’t quite understand. It was also a hard time for me, as I became frustrated with myself. There was much of my body that felt numb, and the more I learned about the ways that women carry emotions in their bodies, the more I began to wonder how to come alive again.

A lot of this preliminary inquiry set the stage for my work at Casa Atabex Ache, a healing space for women of color to heal from internalized oppression and trauma. It was there that I learned about the realities of being girls and women in the South Bronx. I had known the community that the space was located in as La Tercera growing up, so it was an eye-opening experience to see the everyday life of a place previously known to me as a shopping district. Working with Casa gave me a lot of information on the challenges women face, such as mental health, sexual and domestic abuse, addictions and many other circumstances. I learned from the women there that systems of oppression and traumas dramatically impact our health and our ability to have control and power over our lives. I learned how to name the sources of the oppression. Through being a part of and being trained to hold space for a healing circle, I began to learn how to come back into my body.

The work I did in a healing circle space dislodged many emotions that I was holding onto. Up until that point, I felt an incredible amount of tears trapped inside me. I wasn’t even aware how much rage I had inside until I was invited to let it out. It was then that I discovered how good it felt to scream out frustration. Doing this work of feeling old emotions, I learned that our emotions cause illnesses physically, spiritually and mentally. It was an echo of the knowledge I gained during my brief time studying to be a holistic health counselor. Come to think of it, my entire experience at Casa was one of deep remembrance. Of bringing to the surface traumas and memories I did not want to deal with. Of realizing how out of my body I had been. It was a deeply enriching part of my journey and in many ways, the beginning of many endings that were necessary to birth my Self. My true authentic Self. An evolution, integration and maturation of a woman.

I started to dance to African-inspired rhythms because I felt alive, sexy and powerful, not to mention that there was a lot of releasing happening when I would dance for long periods of time. In my dancing, I met an extraordinary woman who taught me that dancing helps to open up our hips and release womanly trauma from our wombs. I started to incorporate that knowledge into creating a relationship with my yoni. In connecting with my body this way, I discovered that I learned what it felt like to notice the sensation of ovulation. I paid attention to the way my body felt at different points of my cycle to the point where I can feel my menstrual cycle about to begin, with a nuanced sense of awareness.

It also opened the doors for me to continue doing the healing work of deep release and organization of the interior world. I was encouraged to go to therapy and seek the advice of spiritual healers while I did my alchemy. Of doing the transformative work of turning a base metal into gold. Of performing magic on my Self. Recently I have come to realize the Process that was initiated was one of re-sensitizing the desensitized body. I feel so much more present in my body these days. Discovering the true essence of the erotic opened up new world of deeply feeling and sensing the world that I had no idea was available to me.

When I first thought of the word, “erotic”, I automatically think pornography. After being introduced to Audre Lorde’s essay, “Uses of the Erotic”, I began to understand the erotic as a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feeling. Of experiencing and feeling deeply the knowledge given to us by our own internal cycles and the mysterious gifts of our bodies. As my exploration of my womanly body was enhanced by this essay, I began to understand that there was an innate knowledge in my body and it felt connected to my reproductive system. It was also a bit intimidating to start to explore the erotic, as I had been merely doing the act of sex and suppressed feeling connected to the event.

A lot of coming back into my body was re-framing my views on my sexuality, body and discovering the internalized negative messages around my sexual expression. Having sexual experiences that were healthy allowed me to understand my body more. Whereas in my earlier sexual experiences, I was used to checking out mentally, as I discovered my own sexual impulses and vulnerability. I learned how scared I had been this whole time to be vulnerable. To share my deep secrets and notice the way they felt in my body. I began to engage my whole being. Being sexually violated was another opportunity to leave my body. I left for a while, because it was too painful to remember. I was afraid to have sex with anyone else afterwards. What I found is that intimacy has been the biggest catalyst to heal from that trauma and my childhood trauma.

I have felt comfortable relaxing my body and allowing my self to stay in the moment. With this comfort, I let my emotions ebb and flow in sharing intimacy. I learned that sex was a space to open up to primal, sensual and honest feeling. It was in being able to cry deeply that I understood how sex could be more healing than scary. Enjoying loving sexual experiences made me present to how unaware I was in the past. Of how I had denied my self from fully experiencing my body in sex because of my traumas and staying in my mind. Turning my head and avoiding eye contact in previous sexual relationships was a way to check out emotionally. Of not being fully there to what I felt, physically or otherwise.

Receiving a professional massage sparked my interest in the healing power of touch. Getting a massage allowed the tension in my body that I’ve been carrying for so long to release. I felt like I could be more fluid in my body. Around this time, a sister friend gave me a small tidbit that stayed with me. She told me to treat myself like a goddess, to pay attention to rubbing oils and lotions into my skin and to honor that time as an opportunity to love my body. Taking this advice has produced hours of marveling at body parts that I had neglected before. Where I find my self in my healing journey is discovering more and more what it is to be back in my body. Therapy and all the work I have done has made me understand that losing the connection with my body was my body’s way of protecting itself when I was experiencing trauma in the past. It is with the work of learning to touch my self lovingly, allowing others to engage in loving and positive touching (hugging, cuddling, embracing, etc). Most of all, it has been appreciating and honoring my body as my vehicle in the world that has caused a deep level of compassion for it.

To resensitize my body, I had to have a deep desire to feel fully. Feeling fully is scary and yet, knowing what it is to be numb, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

*excerpt from my forthcoming book

 

 

 

Giving My Self Away: Re-sensitizing the Desensitized Body Pt. 1

The intimacy of nude photography was both exciting and dangerous to me. A game of Russian roulette. I tripped on the power I had in front of a camera to be a nude goddess. These days, I reflect on those days and wonder why I chose the experience of art modeling.

I had been obsessed with my body developing into a womanly body for so long that I wanted to somehow celebrate it, capture it. Having a curvy womanly body has been a source of pride and accomplishment for me. I was a late bloomer. I began my menstrual cycle and developing breasts later than the girls around me. I felt inferior somehow, like my body was failing me, preventing boys from seeing me as attraction. I wanted to be wanted. This coupled with childhood trauma and feelings of ugliness because of my skin made me want to be desired. Now I understand that I needed this because I didn’t love my self. I didn’t want myself. I didn’t like how weird I was or how incredibly sensitive I was. As I got older and interested in men, I hated how intense I was. I didn’t want to feel anything.

I find that not having wanted my self became giving my self away to the first available person willing to take it. I have learned that relating to men sexually was normal – it was what I saw around me growing  up in high school. Being raised Catholic meant a deafening silence on the subject of sexuality. My father worked long hours to support our family, so I rarely saw him. I used to resent him because as I began to examine why I have had such an unhealthy way of relating to men. The realization that his emotional absence and having no other consistent male role model made me angry with him. I spoke to him about this a few years ago and he told me was just doing what his father had taught him.

It was this conversation that allowed me to forgive him and feel compassion. Yet there is a fine line between compassionate and enabling, but that’s a post for another time. I was still left to explore how all the forces at play in my life were manifesting my reality. I remember that the driving reason to have my first sexual experience was that I wanted to get it over with. I wanted to know what it was all about. I learned quickly that suddenly I was attractive to men because of my body, and I began to blur the line between sex, acceptance and love. I’ve been sexually active for 9 years and it was only halfway through that I began to understand my sexuality as an experience that belonged to me. I had always felt that a man was responsible for my pleasure and that somehow I was sexual only in relation to a man. I remember being conscious that there was a double standard between women being seen as whores for expressing their sexuality and men being praised for it. It hasn’t been until the last 3 years that I understood how I have internalized the sexual repression and taboo of the culture I was raised in.

There was this feeling of being a bad little girl for much of my sexual life It was a feeling I’ve had since I was 6 years old and I experienced molestation. When it happened to me at that age, I remember feeling sick to my stomach. I felt that I was evil and impure, spending much of my life feeling as though I was a white cloth with a massive black stain on it that would never go away. I swallowed my emotions and it was the first time I left my body. It was too painful for a long time to recall that memory and what it meant to my life. The more I grew into my body and as a woman, the more impure I felt. Feeling drawn to sex and wanting to explore it made me feel dirty. My mother being crude about it did not help. I remember being lectured when she found out about different people in my life and would disdainfully comment on how a proper woman only had one sexual partner. Logically, I had been on board with the notion of women having the birth-given right to be free and yet there was trauma that continually set an unconscious cycle in motion when it came to sex. My first sexual experience at age 18 taught me that my emotions had no place in sex. I felt the urge to cry that first time and that person quickly told me to stop.

I suppose then, as I reflect on my life as an art model for 4 years, my body was my currency. It was how I got what I wanted – validation. It allowed me to have power in my nakedness, of drawing all attention to just my body and hanging in the delicate balance of becoming sexual prey. It was a strange paradox. The less I had on, the more I could hide my emotions. It was a way to leave my body, to become more and more detached from it because I didn’t want to be in it. I would learn later in my healing journey that often people who are deeply traumatized leave their bodies to protect themselves somehow. Leaving my body prevented my self from feeling the trauma deeply. I’ve learned that it also prevents me from feeling deeply at all.

Eventually, even the body has limits. I stopped being an art model after two things. My mother called me one day and yelled at me for being an art model, which in this conversation she called me a prostitute and probably a whore for my lifestyle. That was painful. It was even more painful when I brought it to her attention and she saw no need to apologize. The second was my first and only pornographic photo shoot 4 years ago. I had promised myself, when I saw ads that wanted women to participate in shoots that were more focused more on the sexual than the art, that I would never go there. That I would never completely expose my self or my yoni. At this point, art modeling for schools and private artists was how I was paying the rent so I felt desperate to find gigs that paid me well. I swallowed all the nausea and vehement rejection in my body and spread my legs and lips. It was the last time because even the photographer felt uncomfortable and told me it would be the last time we ever worked together. He said my eyes looked hollow, that I looked depressed. Shortly after this, I buried my self in shame that I had ever done something like this. I felt horrible. I felt nauseous. I felt. I finally felt what I could not ignore – the danger I was putting myself in, the inappropriate circumstances of the relationships I had with certain artists, and the cheapening of my body.

I had my first nervous breakdown around this time, in the fall of 2008. That was the first break. I didn’t begin to integrate the realization that I was harming my self by how I was engaging with the world around me until the last few years. When I started to go to therapy and took my healing journey to the level of deep release, I began to talk about my traumas, the childhood ones, the ones that have manifested in the last 5 years and how they were not just sexual but on all different levels due to the passing on of a dangerous legacy of violence unto the black woman body, the entire continent of Africa and all its descendents. Reading about other’s experiences and learning more about the effects of trauma helped me contextualize my experience as not an isolated incident but a symptom of a deeply sick collective human psyche.

Looking at art modeling from a healthier place, I don’t regret any of the experiences I did have. I learned a lot from the peculiar men and few women who met me under the unusual circumstance of nudity at first sight. If I ever did it again, I would return to it in again in a much more tasteful, honest, respectful and graceful way. In a way that I am fully in my body and present, not hiding behind an illusion. It is my hope that releasing this shame, sharing my story and being honest about my life will in turn set free the other stories of women who are also coming back into their bodies.