Friday, September 18, 2009

Eshet Chayil

“…a poet must write, if [s]he is to be ultimately at peace with [her]self”

-Abraham Maslow-

I do not believe that my parents’ naming of me was accidental, although, at the time, they did not know that Xiomara meant “ready for battle” in Spanish and Andrea meant “(wo)manly,” “courageous,” or “warrior” in Greek. Similarly, the Hebrew phrase eshet chayil biblically represents a woman of valor who is also ready for battle, and I have decided to adopt that name for my future poetry publication. Having been described by Timothy Donnelly, as “an ambitious, forceful, [and] outspoken poet,” my name seems quite appropriate. Armed with words, I expect to fight a life-long battle for social justice,

To me, the written word embodies power: the power to change society through the minds of its members; the power to give lost youth a life’s purpose; the power to return the voices of society’s marginalized members to them; the therapeutic power of releasing concerns and pain to paper (or word documents); and the power to inspire other, perhaps greater, art. Through my writing, I desire to achieve the following: raise awareness of contemporary social issues; reclaim language in order to combat gender inequities, racial and socioeconomic injustice, and the negative propaganda of established institutions; encourage others to empower themselves through art; and represent myself, express who I am. As Jorge Luis Borges identifies himself in his essay, “Borges y Yo,” or "Borges and I," the Borges who experiences life informs Borges the writer, and both are housed within a single flesh. Therefore, in order to define Xiomara the writer, I must identify Xiomara the life-liver; and to define the latter, I must first look to my family’s talents, values, and ethnic, migratory, and economic history, and then I must look to my life as it is experienced by my body and by my mind.

I am the first in my family to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree and the first to do so from an Ivy League university; I am also the first to compile a manuscript of poetry. I owe these accomplishments, not only to my own dedication and hard work, but to God and to those generations who passed their intelligence, creative artistry, desire for justice, and aptness for perseverance on to me. Like me, my mother is an avid reader, and I can often find her indulging in the writings of Esmeralda Santiago, James McBride, or Toni Morrison, in addition to the authors of various books bought on sale from the Strand or the New York Public Library. My father loves to read books on Martial Arts, and he has built a business on his love of fluid movement and his synthesis of several art forms; I have found that this craft is surprisingly similar to that of poetry. In New Jersey, Tío Ralphie houses books of interest, such as the unabridged version of Anne Frank’s Diary and Towards Understanding Islam, as well as beautifully bound tomes of Walt Whitman’s and Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry; and Tío Victor, who has added yearly to his library, once took from it to give me my favorite birthday gift, rich in literal and allegorical details: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Finally, Tío Willie’s acrylic illustrations of Puerto Rico’s houses and landscape represent only some of the vibrant colors swirling in his head, and his instruments—the congas, bongos, and keyboard—have long been a source of loud entertainment at family functions. Now, the talents of these people shine through their children: through my sister, who is a dancer, poet, artist, and musician all at once, through me, the aspiring poet, and through my cousins, all of whom have great potential.

My maternal grandparents, who only completed elementary school because they were unable to afford school lunches, let alone shoes for the long walks to and from school, worked hard from very young ages. In 1955, at the ages of 17 and 25, respectively, my grandfather and grandmother permanently left the mountains of American-colonized Puerto Rico, temporarily leaving their firstborn there, to work in New York City’s toy and textile factories, where low-wages, long-hours, unsafe conditions, and racism was the norm. When my grandmother stopped working to take care of my mother and her three brothers, my grandfather managed to find a job as a taxi dispatcher, opened a record store, and saved enough money to buy his own taxi medallion. Cunningly, my grandfather would replace the z in his last name with an l so when taxi company officials saw Mendel, they would think he was a white Jewish man instead of a “mulatto,” as he is described on his birth certificate; they would then call on him sooner than later. When my grandparents finally moved from their furnished room in Chelsea to the projects of the Lower East Side, the buildings were still surrounded by unpaved streets, and my mother often missed school, although it was right across the street, to translate for her parents.

Similarly, my paternal grandparents arrived in the L.E.S. from Puerto Rico in the 1950s, just before the Korean War and some years after WWII’s end; my grandfather worked in a toy factory and my grandmother lost the tip of her thumb while working in a textile one. Not from lack of love but in order to escape the everyday pressures of immigrant life in America, my grandparents succumbed to alcoholism and left their twelve children to experience life’s ups and downs for themselves. Ironically, my parents met on the L.E.S. when my father hailed my grandfather’s taxicab outside of Gouveneur hospital where my mother worked. With my parents’ marriage, the histories of their two families merged, and now these pasts shape the worldviews, aspirations, and art of their daughters.

My writing reflects what my parents have long taught me: love for God and love of nature; the importance of faith, education, and generous, community-oriented spirits; and the ever-present possibility of transcending socially constructed barriers. My writing reflects, too, what my ethnicity has taught me: the ravishment of land and dark bodies by European men, the painful prongs of prejudice created and used by American institutions, and the strength of Puerto Ricans to overcome these injustices.

The writing you will encounter in this blog is stimulated by daily journeys through my urban home—New York City’s parks, apartments, piers, subways, concrete, stoops, boroughs, rivers, buildings, and corner stores, and my interactions with the people who traverse these spaces. Each social interaction, whether with the man who just smoked crack and insists on repeating that the woman is the holy grail and ought to smile quietly during “man’s talk,” with my Muslima suitemate about her medical ambitions, or with the neighborhood guys about “hot” streets, influences my thought and my life and, thereby, my poetry. Seeking constantly to be at peace with myself, with my history, my present, and my future, I intend to write poems for the rest of my life, poems that are simply the musings of a Puerto Rican church-girl from the Lower East Side.

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