[A little note of explanation, before this essay begins.
Writer, memoirist, and badass Vanessa Mártir has challenged…well, everyone…to write an essay a week in 2017. The hashtag is #52essays2017. If you go on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll find one of the more than 450 writers who have taken the challenge thus far.
So yeah. I’m one of them.
Doing so as a way to unpack my thoughts as I move through an entirely different project–my second collection of poems. And, because I need to. You can follow the journey on this blog, and you can join the challenge yourself by visiting Vanessa’s blog here. Happy writing, and happy reading, and thanks for sharing with me.]
“We have a home movie of this party. Several times my mother and I have watched it together, and I have asked questions about the silent revelers coming in and out of focus. It is grainy and of short duration, but it’s a great visual aid to my memory of life at that time. And it is in color — the only complete scene in color I can recall from those years.”
-Judith Ortiz Cofer, “Silent Dancing”
On Noche Buena, 1986, there was a massive party in my house, in the city of Paterson, New Jersey, and I was nowhere to be found. I didn’t like pasteles yet, but I had my plate of pernil and arroz con gandules, and I went to bed before 8 o’clock. In my family, we kept the American Christmas morning tradition, so I found it a little strange that the family was going to stay awake the night before Santa showed up. I was nine. It was the year before I stopped believing in Santa altogether. Some say I hung on too long. I had my suspicions about the Claus, but listen—I was into magic.
In 2002, I wrote a poem about the experience of missing that Christmas Eve party.
I was all of nine
hiding from tías
in too-tight slacks
who pinched fat cheeks
like their thumbs had hydraulics
and I wasn’t quite feeling that
so I’d hide in the bedroom
which doubled as a coatroom
and I’d pretend it was Eternia
and I was He-Man
who got stronger
as his skin got browner.
Like most poems, the stanza contains facts (tías aplenty, in their ill-fitting pants) and plenty of fiction. When I say “fiction,” I don’t mean lies; I mean fiction in the sense of constructed reality. As a college student and young adult, I was not in a place to reckon with the introverted and sensitive little boy I was. Hence the line, “and I wasn’t quite feeling that.” I read that line now, and if someone had brought that line to a poetry workshop, the teacher in me would ask, “Why did you hide? The tías were enough to send you into a fantasy world? I’m not sure I buy that. Can you pinpoint why you felt the need to check out?”
The party was happening, and I pretended to sleep. The music was loud and every bit Puerto Rican jibaro fabulous, and I didn’t dance, and I didn’t want to. My brother played the güiro, a jar of banana peppers, and the peanut butter. My uncle, up from Florida that year, ran a movie camera in the living room. My sister’s husband arrived in a black and white checkerboard shirt and matching black fedora. Everyone else was a stranger to me, and my body felt an intense need to be alone. That’s exactly what I honored. I told my mother I’d be sleeping for the rest of the night. A lie. Eventually I did sleep, but not before leaving the chaos close behind my bedroom door, lying on the bed, and listening intently to every single voice and sound, intensely fascinated, and intensely uninterested in joining in.
I’ve told people that I became a writer—a “serious” writer—in high school and college, when I began entering contests for poetry, and when I met my first writer friends who encouraged me to share my work. Those are definite starting points to a life in letters. I’ve met and shared space with dozens of my poetry heroes since then. But I think the poet inside me began to emerge at the age of nine, when I was overtaken with the need to go inside myself. Even when we went back to the home video, even when my father explained who everyone was, what I knew was that I was in a house full of a strangers during a strange and wondrous event, and that I had begun to record: sights, sounds, various levels of bochinche, the feeling of my own breath, the air on my neck when someone would open my bedroom door looking for their coat. (The bedroom always doubled as the coatroom.)
In 2002, I wrote a poem called “Noche Buena.” But in 1986, I experienced it. I recorded it. And I do mean recorded. I can tell you exactly what records were played that night. I can tell you that the beer flowed heavily, and I have never liked that. I can tell you that I never felt right in that house, and I can tell you that some of the people there were the reason why. But I didn’t have the words for that yet, just the knowing. Just the feeling.
My lady and I had a conversation the other night about mathematics and language. I’ve always maintained that words are the things we define the world around. Maybe that’s why I’ve always told people that my origin story as a writer began in 2002, when I put “Noche Buena” to paper. Fresh off this conversation, however, I’m starting to think it has more to do with math. What is that chemical process, that body and brain response, by which an introverted little boy knew he had to retreat? Knew there were too many bodies around? Knew to listen, and savor, and write it down later? There may be a number to explain it, but definitely not a word.
So maybe there’s a mathematical explanation, or a science, to explain why the news of Judith Ortiz Cofer’s death hit me physically. I grabbed the news off Facebook, one of the first news items of the day. I had to confirm it first, since truth is not social media’s dominion. But even the possibility of it made me pause, say no, and breathe heavily.
Judith Ortiz Cofer came to me in the fog of undergraduate study, in a classroom with Jim Nash at Montclair State University, at a time when I was a legal studies minor engrossed with the scintillating practices of case law citation and legal writing. This masterpiece of an essay, “Silent Dancing,” landed at my desk and said everything I wanted to say about 1986. She talked about Paterson. She talked about a silent movie with relatives dancing in and out focus. She talked about the bochinche and what was happening in her mind. She talked about her mother and father and systemic racism. She talked in lyric, in a way I understood, in a way I was familiar with. She talked in Boricua. She didn’t have to explain herself for me to see myself in her.
I wrote wildly that year. With intention and volume—I think I turned in fifty pages to Dr. Nash that year. Easily could have gone more. Judith’s story broke a dam inside me that I have not closed since. And I have never said so—never said the words—until now. I have only felt it.
I wrote to Judith once. I asked her to feature for us at a reading series I helped run in the Bronx. I remember telling her I read her in college, but I didn’t mention all this. She never answered me back. But today, her book arrived in the mail. And today, I’m writing the first in a 52-week series of essays, at the behest of one my best friends, who is a writer on a crusade to get people telling their stories. A Latina memoirist is kicking my ass again.
Rest well, Judith Ortiz Cofer. You were my teacher, even if you didn’t know it. And I’m hearing your voice again.