Me Too

Mind you these are the sexual assaults I remember the most. They begin when I’m five—by an uncle and it lasts for a while. At nine, a soldier who works with my father comes visiting with his family—he sticks his tongue out, flicks it, and licks his lips whenever he catches my eye during a backyard BBQ. At twelve, a neighbor rubs himself against my backside. That same year, American soldiers catcall me as I ride my bike to the library; once there I’m afraid to leave so the librarian escorts me halfway home. At fifteen an old man presses up behind me and places a gnarled hand on my pelvis as I wait in a crush of people to get on a Ferris wheel during my hometown’s fiestas patronales (to this day I hate being in a crowd). A cousin peeps in through a bathroom window as I shower at seventeen. While a student at the University of Puerto Rico a hand is shoved between my legs one morning as I walk to class. Unavoidable men hanging out on street corners force me to walk through gauntlets of sexual harassment every day. I fend off the hands of supposed friends—their touch feels wrong. An English professor offers money for sex; men call me puta after sex; and then there’s the date rape. I’ve worked with many assholes that thought it their God-given right to offer lascivious comments and inappropriate touches. And I kept quiet, silenced by shame, afraid of the pushback because heaven forbid one should talk back since what are you but a female, a whore, a vagina? It takes courage to speak up.

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On 14th Street/Union Square NYC

If you’re a writer it pays to be awake as you wander through life, eyes and ears open to the stories that are everywhere, even if this awareness of place and space is informed just as well by the desire to be safe. I love walking in New York City. Besides my Brooklyn neighborhood, one of my favorite places to walk is up 14th Street starting at First Avenue and heading west. Every time I do, I have the most interesting encounters.

Recently, I noticed a couple walking hand-in-hand across Third Avenue. The woman was heavily pregnant, heavy as in she seemed about to give birth, and maybe not to just one baby. Her lips and nose were swollen, her hair disheveled, and she looked fed-up and tired with the business of being pregnant. I felt a quick sympathy since I know what it’s like to be ponderous with child and want to take back control of one’s body. A glance at the man leading her across the avenue revealed he had a wide-eyed startled look on his face; it was a cross between embarrassed and scared; a cross between startled rabbit and deer caught in head-lights; a cross between, yes, I’m responsible for that belly, and what the hell have I done. It was a funny and tender scene.

Further up 14th Street, I came across a homeless man. He looked like life had dealt him a rough hand; he was grizzled and sunburnt, sitting on the sidewalk, back slumped against a building as if in defeat; his face was almost completely covered by poorly done spider web tattoos. After I passed him, I wondered what tattoo artist would agree to do that to someone’s face?

Past the homeless man, and in complete contrast, I encountered an attractive young woman sauntering up the sidewalk in a wispy, light colored dress that revealed a couple of well-done tattoos scattered about her body; I admired a lovely palm tree etched above an ankle before I began to listen in on the loud phone conversation she was having. “What are you doing this weekend?” she asked the cell in front of her face. A young-voiced male responded that on Saturday he was going to see Cool and the Gang at B.B. King’s, and on Sunday he was going into Brooklyn to a house party. “Give me a call when you head back,” she replied. I continued my trek towards the Farmer’s Market at Union Square, leaving her behind, thinking that maybe she was interested in him, but he was playing hard to get. Then I heard her say, “I’m not wearing underwear,” as if commenting on the weather, and then add, “I feel like such a slut.” I was so startled by the revelation that I had to stop, while she continued her languorous walk up 14th Street, cell phone still held in front of her mouth. I dutifully pulled out the notebook I carry around for moments such as these and began to write. I wasn’t waiting to get home to do it—I’ve learned that lesson well.

I wonder if anyone notices how every once in a while an older woman dressed in workout clothes suddenly stops on 14th Street to scribble furiously in a small notebook? And if they do, what stories about her, if any, flit through their thoughts?



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Love Is A Struggle


Our next-door neighbor calls my husband Joseph and me “the love birds” when he sees us holding hands, or with arms intertwined, or sharing a laugh as we come and go about our daily business. Today is our thirty-third wedding anniversary and we’ll be celebrating as we like to do to mark special days in our relationship; like our serendipitous meeting thirty-seven years ago in Old San Juan; like my getting on an airplane a year and half later to come live in New York City, with a suitcase full of inappropriate clothes and shoes, a box of books, my favorite blanket, and nostalgia for my island; like our wedding three years later in a small apartment on the Upper West Side surrounded by our closest friends and my mother and sisters.

In the late nineties, Joe was asked to give a toast at his brother’s wedding. This is where…

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Love Is A Struggle

Our next-door neighbor calls my husband Joseph and me “the love birds” when he sees us holding hands, or with arms intertwined, or sharing a laugh as we come and go about our daily business. Today is our thirty-third wedding anniversary and we’ll be celebrating as we like to do to mark special days in our relationship; like our serendipitous meeting thirty-seven years ago in Old San Juan; like my getting on an airplane a year and half later to come live in New York City, with a suitcase full of inappropriate clothes and shoes, a box of books, my favorite blanket, and nostalgia for my island; like our wedding three years later in a small apartment on the Upper West Side surrounded by our closest friends and my mother and sisters.

In the late nineties, Joe was asked to give a toast at his brother’s wedding. This is where Joe quite seriously said (in our family it’s become a favorite aphorism), that “love is a struggle.” His words provoked startled laughter from the wedding guests who turned to look my way with amused glances as if I were the cause of it all. As it happens, those words have gained more and more relevance as the years have passed. We’ve persisted through our troubles to grow as individuals while being a couple and parents, sometimes one’s growth outpacing the other’s, but eventually getting to where we need to be to move forward in a way that honors who we are. So yes, love is a struggle in so many ways. We’ve been fortunate: I knock on wood, offer prayers, give thanks everyday for the gifts I’ve been offered, and reaffirm my commitment to being fully present in my relationship, to live with joy, and above all, to cultivate a giving heart even when love is difficult.

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An Epiphany on the L Train

Hell of a commute this rainy morning: people bugging because of the weather, subway platform in Brooklyn is stacked with hipsters, and the L train that pulls up, stuffed as usual. I squeeze in and find myself up and close with all these strangers and I can’t remember the last time I plucked my chin hairs. I resist taking out my cell and instead take a look around and have the horrible thought that this is the perfect target for a fucking terrorist to come blow himself up in the name of Allah—packed morning rush-hour train heading into the tunnel underneath the East River.  I  catch myself before panic gets a hold; this is not the last thought I want on my mind if the worst happens. I resist, changing my thought course, think of my family and begin to say I love Joe, I love Akela, I love Lucca, I love myself. I look around again and send out loving vibes to all. This is how I want to go when the time comes, not with fear but with loving thoughts. An epiphany on the L train. That’s how I reach my destination and then deal with the pissed off people trying to climb up out of the subway behind overweight ladies who are laboring to get themselves, and sometimes a suitcase, up those dammed stairs, and others trying to get down to make that train, huffing and puffing, and losing their patience because they can’t get through, and spraying everyone by accident on purpose as they close their wet umbrellas. But I insist on sending out love as I climb out of the subway relieved to see the rain.

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Written in Blood: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

“We read to know that we are not alone.” —William Nicholson

The most recent kerfuffle surrounding Sherman Alexie’s award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian got me thinking about how I have approached teaching this young adult novel to my middle and high school students. Recently, a middle-school principal in New York City removed the book from the school’s required summer reading list after parents protested that it was inappropriate. One parent went as far as to say, “It was like Fifty Shades of Grey for kids.” My snort of disbelief after reading this was followed by the realization—and here I must offer my most sincere apologies to Mr. Alexie—that I myself have been guilty of censoring parts of the book in my classroom.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was published to great acclaim in 2007, winning the prestigious National Book Award for Young Adult fiction that same year. It has garnered numerous other awards and in 2008 the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) listed it in its “Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults.” But the book has also created controversy. It has been banned in several states and removed from the shelves of middle and high schools—deemed pornographic, racist, and anti-Christian. Since 2010 it has remained on the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books in the United States along with the likes of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

The book is about Arnold Spirit Jr., also known as Junior, who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state. He decides to attend an all-white farm town high school, twenty-two miles from the “rez,” in order to get a better education. As Arnold points out, he’s the only Native American in the school besides the school mascot. The book is funny yet heartbreaking and deals with issues young people face today no matter their race, gender, or social/economic status. The part in the story that occasioned the outcry in NYC takes up about half a page of the book and it’s about masturbation. It is part of a chapter titled “Because Geometry Is Not a Country Somewhere Near France” in which the narrator explains his love of geometry and how isosceles triangles make him feel “hormonal.” Arnold then proceeds to assure the reader that he also likes curves, briefly veering off into the topic that alarms parents by admitting that he spends “hours in the bathroom with a magazine that has one thousand pictures of naked movie stars.” What follows is a funny and honest apologia for masturbation.

Yep, that’s right. I admit that I masturbate.
I’m proud of it.
I’m good at it.
I’m ambidextrous.
If there were a Professional Masturbation League, I’d get drafted number one and make millions of dollars.
And maybe you are thinking, “Well, you really shouldn’t be talking about masturbation in public.”
Well, tough. I’m going to talk about it because EVERYBODY does it. And EVERYBODY likes it.
And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs.
So I thank God for my thumbs.

This portrayal of teenage sexuality is frank and truthful. I can understand why it would make some makes parents and other adults uncomfortable, but to equate it with Fifty Shades of Grey is absurd and going a bit too far, especially when it results in yanking the book out of libraries and the hands of readers.

The Absolutely True Diary is about a fourteen-year-old’s experience with the complexities of race both within and outside of his community, and with the grinding effects that poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, domestic violence, gun violence, death, bullying, stereotypes, and lack of educational opportunities have on individuals, families, and the larger community. It is also a book about friendship, love, forgiveness, hope, the strength of family, and finding one’s place in the world. Above all, this book brings to life the stark reality of being a Native American today in the United States; it is not a pretty story.

From the moment Alexie’s book was published it became part of my middle school classroom library. It also became one of the books I read aloud to my classes every year and a student favorite. This is a book that engages students and makes them think. Despite the serious topics explored in the book, the narrator is irreverently funny and appealing to teenagers—he is someone they can relate to. Yet there I was cutting out the controversial passage for my 7th grade students not because I objected to the discussion of masturbation in a young adult book, but because I imagined a possible afterschool scene like the following:

Parent: “Anything interesting happen in school today?”
Child: “Ms. Ortiz read this crazy book to the whole class where the boy masturbates.”

I could then visualize the outraged parent calling the principal, the DOE, and the media to complain about the use of “inappropriate” materials in the classroom, or even worse, accusing me of being inappropriate. It makes me shudder just to think about it.

I no longer cut out the aforementioned passage because I teach high school now. Students at times respond with embarrassed laughs when I read that part, but mostly they are captivated by Arnold’s struggles and adventures. Rather than being banned in schools, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian should be required reading in history classes. Before being exposed to the book, most of my students were unaware that Native Americans live on reservations throughout the United States, and that these reservations have some of the highest rates of alcoholism, poverty, unemployment, suicide, domestic and sexual violence, diabetes and other health related problems in the country.

In a 2011 Wall Street Journal blogpost titled, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood,” Alexie explains the rationale behind the controversial topics he writes about:

I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

This is why my students understand Arnold’s struggles and why this book is a favorite—they live his struggles also.

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Comfort Reading

How do we cope when the world around us is seemingly going crazy? How do we grapple with the daily stream of horrific events we are confronted with, one more gruesome than the other: the Newtown school massacre, the gang-rape on a bus in New Delhi, the Boston Marathon bombing, the  Bangladeshi factory collapse, the ten-year sexual slavery of three young women in Cleveland . . . the list goes on and on. How do we get up every morning to greet the new day, raise our families, smile, and practice compassion when faced with a never-ending supply of tragedy? It’s enough to make one lose faith in humanity, to sink into despair.

We all have different ways of dealing with stress and grief. One can ignore the onslaught of bad news, or instead pray, meditate, or join action groups to create more awareness about issues like gun-control, violence against women and children, and work-place safety, just to name a few. But more immediately, we can also turn to books. And yes, while it is a rather simplistic coping mechanism, never underestimate the power of a good book. I’ve written before that books are my refuge, especially in those moments when my spirit needs solace. Specifically, I read books with HEAs—happily ever after endings. While I read widely and eclectically, sometimes I just need to read a book where I am guaranteed that in the end love will prevail, and the forces of good will overcome evil. These books are the perfect antidotes to the horrors of every day life.

Girl with the Dragon TattooVAmpire AcademyI’m especially a fan of books with smart badass heroines, like Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, who can take care of themselves and others. Another favorite comfort read is the young-adult Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead. The six-book series has what it takes to supply a life-affirming dose of comfort when needed—a strong female lead who can kick ass, forbidden romance, sexy vampires, action, suspense, angst, and best of all, a happy ending.  What about you? Do you have comfort reads?

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