As many of you may know I am a writer. For those of you that don’t know I have written 3 books all of which are heavily influenced by my experiences as a Puerto Rican woman born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Last night I had the opportunity to talk to a phenomenal woman who read my book Letters to My Daughter and one of her favorite lines is “You preferred me voiceless” from a piece I wrote entitled Skin. That particular line comes from what I saw as child growing up in a traditional Puerto Rican family.
I grew up in a family where the men made all the decisions. Generational conditioning had acclimatized the women in my family to do as their husbands, fathers, brothers said and to never question them about anything. To me, these women were voiceless; powerless. They were nothing more than trophies, porcelain dolls, or expensive pieces of art to be hung on display. They were to be seen and not heard.
My paternal grandmother played her role well, always mindful of my grandfather’s needs and desires. If she was the trophy he was the conquistador equipped with charm that comes only from experience. A big spender, he knew exactly how to court a woman. His wandering eye often impelled him to send over a round of drinks to any woman who happened to gain his attention at the night club. Other times, if he was feeling particularly cocky he’d invite the woman over to his table to join him. If she agreed, she’d be on one side of him and my grandmother would be sitting on the other. For a poor man who migrated to the US from Puerto Rico without much, he knew that as long as he had money there was nothing he could not attain.
My father was like him in that sense. He also knew that with money came respect, status, and power, though not always in that order. And while my father was the younger version of my grandfather mirroring everything about him from his name, to his flashiness, to how he pursued and treated women they both wanted more for their own daughters. They never wanted their daughters to be one of those women.
My mother admits that it was my father’s nice car and flashy style that she was initially attracted to and although my father wasn’t as brazen as my grandfather with his infidelity there were always rumors. As I got older and started to get a better understanding of gender roles (both traditional and non-traditional) I began to wonder why both my mother and grandmother allowed themselves to be disrespected and in a sense de-valued. For a very long time it affected how I viewed relationships and marriage. By the time I was 17 I’d decided that I didn’t want any of it. I didn’t want a relationship nor did I want to get married. My fear was that I’d lose myself in a relationship; I equated being in a relationship and more specifically being married with loss of freedom and power.
For years I had seen my mother ask my father for permission for everything as if she were a child. If she wanted to go out with her friends or sisters she needed permission. When she wanted to go back to school (an endeavor that my father supported) she needed permission. When she finally started working (after being a stay-at-home mom for 10 years) she’d hand her paycheck over to my father and then have to ask him for money when she needed it. To this day she has never paid a bill, lived on her own, or made any major decisions on her own. If my sister and I wanted to do something or go anywhere it was my father who we needed to get permission from. My mom had no power as a woman, wife, even mother.
After years of successfully avoiding a serious relationship I eventually met and fell in love with the man who would become my husband. When I got married I started doing the very things that I’d sworn I would never do or put up with. Little by little I saw myself metamorphosing into my mother and while my husband didn’t cheat (not that I’m aware of) there were other similarities. I found myself asking for permission to do basic things like go out with my sister and girlfriends. As a married woman I thought it was what I was supposed to do. That was due in part to my naiveté as a young bride and what I saw between my parents growing up. Subconsciously it had been embedded in my psyche.
My desire to be a good wife (whatever that meant) as well as be an independent and progressive woman, clashed. I did not know how to reconcile the two, resulting in my husband and me separating many times. I was continuing the cycle. I was repeating everything I had witnessed in my parents’ and grandparents’ marriages. My grandmother eventually divorced my grandfather and although she re-married a couple of times she died alone with no spouse or partner.
My parents since then have come a long way. They now have a healthy and loving marriage where they each are equal partners. Still, it did not come without hard work and sacrifice from both of them. They realized that in order to make it work they would both have to give up some of the things they had conditioned themselves to do. This was true for my marriage too. After many separations my husband and I realized that if we wanted our marriage to survive and thrive we had to be willing to break free of the cultural conditioning we had been taught –either directly, or indirectly on gender roles. We needed to decide if our marriage was worth it or if we were going our separate ways. In the end we decided it was worth it.
A while ago in a writing workshop I was asked what my origin story is. Initially, I didn’t have an answer. After giving it some thought, I realized everything I witnessed as a child has influenced who I am, but more specifically my writing. I realized that my desire to write comes from the things I wished my grandmother, my mother, even I would have said all those times we conceded to our husbands. I realized that I write so that I never lose my voice or power. I write so that my daughter does not repeat the cycle. I write so that I can tell the stories of women who are not brave enough to tell their own. I write because I refuse to be anyone’s trophy, porcelain doll, or piece of art. Am I a feminist? Maybe. All I know is that I want my voice to be the voice of the voiceless. My writing is my revolution. I write so that we can be heard. I write because I refuse to be voiceless.