Book Review: “Bodymap” and “Dirty River” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

By Andrea Gutierrez

» Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in make/shift (Summer/Fall 2016, no. 19)

Bodymap: Poems (Mawenzi House) Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home (Arsenal Pulp) by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

A writ­ing teacher once told me that as a writer, I need­ed to under­stand my rela­tion­ship to the body: my body, a body, the expe­ri­ence of being in a body. The mean­ing of this escaped me at first, but only because I felt I had no rela­tion­ship to any body, least of all my own. My body held gen­er­a­tions of shame, vio­lence, regret, long­ing, and loss. My body held secrets. Bond­ing and con­nect­ing with my fat, brown cor­po­re­al being was the last thing I want­ed to do. Of course, I failed to see that this was itself the rela­tion­ship in ques­tion.

I thought of this often as I read Leah Lak­sh­mi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s unfor­get­table new books, Bodymap and Dirty Riv­er. The ten­sion of the body is every­where, start­ing with the first words of the first poem in Bodymap: “to be in dias­po­ra, maybe you are always a ghost / always miss­ing some­thing.” This ten­u­ous con­nec­tion between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract (because what is more abstract than bor­ders and nation-states?) fuels the nar­ra­tive threads through­out both books.

Leah Lak­sh­mi Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha teas­es out her own rela­tion­ship to the body in Bodymap, writ­ing it as both a site and an instru­ment for map­ping out her world as a queer, crip, work­ing-class femme of col­or. To map her body (“you’re going to find the peo­ple you can sketch the secret inside of the world with. if you can’t find them you can sketch the secret inside of your world inside your­self”), or to use her body to cre­ate a map (“Your body a map to the stars, your spots tamarind and char­coal, on an already caramel skinned map. Gor­geous”), is ulti­mate­ly what she hoped would lead her home—or rather, to a sense of “home.” In the poem “Ster­num,” she has an epiphany:

I asked her where home was
she stopped perfect silent in the middle of writhing screaming
said home? home is right here
and touched her chest light

Which leads to the author’s next tat­too, the word “HOME” across her chest:

then wait, what color is home?
we mixed ink the color
of red brown sri lankan road dirt
in the cup

The earth, the body-this tat­too, a meld­ing of the two. And yet it’s worth not­ing that the ink is only a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Sri Lankan soil, an approx­i­ma­tion not unlike the foods and tra­di­tions from the old coun­try that exist in the lives of immi­grants and their chil­dren, not unlike the ten­sion that bira­cial, bicul­tur­al indi­vid­u­als feel with­in their bod­ies ·and their lives. Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha dives head-first into this ten­sion, to dev­as­tat­ing effect. “I don’t know how to write about becom­ing brown,” she writes in her mem­oir Dirty Riv­er, “but I know I have to.”

I’ma be hon­est with you: Dirty Riv­er destroyed me. I’ve got shelves full of mem­oirs, but I can­not ade­quate­ly express how dis­ap­point­ing it is that so few of them are by writ­ers of col­or and queer writ­ers. At a time when the mem­oir is so laud­ed, so sought after, so damn prof­itable, it’s clear that most of that val­ue is placed on the true sto­ries of white cis­gen­der folks. So once I final­ly had this pre­cious tome in my hands, I rejoiced.

Enter Leah Lak­sh­mi Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha, stage right. Queer. Crip. Work­ing class. Femme. Of col­or. She is all of these things at once. And it’s the non-lin­ear, non-chrono­log­i­cal telling of Dirty Riv­er that best con­veys this mes­sage, a genius strat­e­gy that beau­ti­ful­ly reflects the messi­ness, anguish, and pos­si­bil­i­ty of a life lived at inter­sec­tions.

I write this review a few days before Moth­er’s Day, which seems appro­pri­ate con­sid­er­ing that Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha’s moth­er looms large through­out Dirty Riv­er. I sus­pect that Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha has tepid feel­ings toward the day like I do. “She is the woman whose love was enough to let you live to grow up, to get out,” she writes in a chap­ter titled, sim­ply, “Mom.” “She is not a mon­ster. She is your moth­er. The moth­er who abused you. The moth­er who loved you.” I cried. How can the abused and unmoth­ered child find home? How can this child under­stand their rela­tion­ship to the body?

As I go back to review my notes scrib­bled through­out Dirty Riv­er, I real­ize that I’ve under­lined, cir­cled, and brack­et­ed just about every oth­er line in the chap­ter called “Spin­ster.” Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha real­izes what she wants in terms of part­ner­ship and fam­i­ly. A psy­chic tells her there’s a child in Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha’s future, one that will heal her. She balks, says that this is what her moth­er did, and it was fucked-up, and she did­n’t want that. “You’re not going to do it like your mom did,” the psy­chic says, “but it’s going to heal you any­way.” Map­ping one’s heart and desires is how you know you’re on the jour­ney home. I get the sense, after read­ing Bodymap and Dirty Riv­er, that Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha is already there. ☀

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Deer, Unleashed: An Interview with Bamby Salcedo

By Andrea Gutierrez
Photo by Giuliana Maresca

» Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in make/shift (Win­ter 2015/2016, no. 18)

Bam­by Sal­cedo is not afraid of her pow­er. The first time I crossed paths with the trans Lati­na activist was this past March in Los Ange­les at the annu­al live art show and fundrais­er host­ed by Mujeres de Maiz, an art and activist col­lec­tive for women of col­or. Bam­by was one of the fea­tured speak­ers, and I walked into the venue just as she was fin­ish­ing up. I don’t remem­ber much, only that she spoke with con­vic­tion and pur­pose, and that she held the rapt atten­tion of the entire audi­to­ri­um, her fist aloft in the air.

The sec­ond time we crossed paths, Bam­by stum­bled into my office at Cal State LA. She was run­ning late to class—as a stu­dent, as a guest speak­er, I didn’t know—and she want­ed to know where in the maze-like build­ing she could find the room. I gave her direc­tions, and she was on her way.

The third time we crossed paths was more drawn out. Bam­by had to can­cel our inter­view at the last minute because she was held up in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., after attend­ing the U.S. Con­fer­ence on AIDS. What I didn’t know was that she had made some waves that week­end after tak­ing over the stage in protest with a group of trans activists demand­ing to be heard and for their issues to be rec­og­nized. Always busy and nev­er com­pla­cent, Bam­by gra­cious­ly made time to sit down with me in Octo­ber.

AG: I under­stand that there’s a sto­ry behind your name.

BS: The name Bam­by is from my child­hood. I was a fast run­ner. Peo­ple said, “Que corre como venado”—that I ran like a deer. Even­tu­al­ly I asso­ci­at­ed the venado—or the venada—with the name Bam­bi, like the movie. That’s how Bam­by came to be my name, but with a y. It start­ed as a nick­name, but it has become part of my iden­ti­ty. Some­one once made a mean com­ment, and a friend said, “Unleash the deer!” So some­times when things hap­pen, I say to myself, Oh moth­er­fuck­er, you don’t want me to unleash the deer!

What first politi­cized you and drove you to take action?

For a large part of my life, I was liv­ing in a fog. I didn’t have a clear sense of who I was, or what my pur­pose was. I was even­tu­al­ly able to reform myself, get clean from drugs, and get away from street life. Then [trans teen] Gwen Arau­jo was mur­dered in 2002. That was the tip­ping point for me—to get angry and out­raged with what was hap­pen­ing. It real­ly spoke to me. It was a bridge for me to get involved and to con­tribute to cre­at­ing a bet­ter place.

Her mur­der was like a call to action. She could be you.

Not only could she be me, but the same things that had hap­pened to me in the past were still hap­pen­ing to my sis­ters. Even though I was in a bet­ter place—because I wasn’t on the streets, and I wasn’t into drugs—some of my friends were still expe­ri­enc­ing all of that. That’s how I start­ed get­ting involved, start­ed learn­ing from a lot of peo­ple. They men­tored me. I didn’t real­ly know any­thing about how to orga­nize. I had to learn every­thing.

This year you made waves by lead­ing protests at the Nation­al LGBTQ Task Force’s Cre­at­ing Change con­fer­ence in Den­ver in Feb­ru­ary, and in Sep­tem­ber you were at the U.S. Con­fer­ence on AIDS in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. You took over the stage at both con­fer­ences. Why these events? Why these protests?

Cre­at­ing Change is a nation­al con­fer­ence that many influ­en­tial LGBT lead­ers, fun­ders, pol­i­cy mak­ers, and gov­ern­ment offi­cials attend. The idea was to call them out, to let them know that it is time for them to inten­tion­al­ly invest in trans peo­ple. Not only that, but Jessie Her­nan­dez, anoth­er trans teen, had recent­ly been bru­tal­ly mur­dered by the Den­ver Police Depart­ment, and the chief of police was sched­uled to give the wel­come at the con­fer­ence. We orga­nized the local com­mu­ni­ty there and took the stage dur­ing the ple­nary ses­sion. We thought it was a great oppor­tu­ni­ty to make the LGB com­mu­ni­ty see who we are as a trans com­mu­ni­ty, and what they need to do to sup­port us. This was a way to tell them, “Stop bull­shit­ting. This is real. These are our lives.” Since then there have been sev­er­al ini­tia­tives with dif­fer­ent foun­da­tions, so I think there is a new wave of inten­tion­al­i­ty in terms of sup­port­ing trans peo­ple. In my opin­ion, the protest was effec­tive to make things hap­pen.

The Unit­ed States Con­fer­ence on AIDS is a nation­al con­fer­ence. It was an oppor­tu­ni­ty to call out the Office of Nation­al AIDS Pol­i­cy, because they had just launched a new nation­al HIV/AIDS strat­e­gy. With their first strat­e­gy in 2010, there was men­tion of the trans com­mu­ni­ty, and there were some things that they were sup­posed to imple­ment, but they nev­er did. This time, five years lat­er, with the new strat­e­gy, we took some steps back, because the Office of Nation­al AIDS Pol­i­cy hadn’t real­ly addressed the needs of trans peo­ple and HIV.

They’re hav­ing the Nation­al HIV Pre­ven­tion Con­fer­ence in Decem­ber, and they invit­ed me to be one of their keynote speak­ers. I thought they were going to hate me. But it means our protests are work­ing. We’re bring­ing aware­ness.

What do you say to detrac­tors who don’t under­stand why you would protest at an event where the atten­dees con­sid­er them­selves allies? Peo­ple who think, “This isn’t the time or place for that,” like you’re being ungrate­ful.

Peo­ple who are not trans will nev­er expe­ri­ence the life of a trans per­son, espe­cial­ly a trans woman of col­or. When we say that we’re allies, what does that mean? When those issues are not affect­ing us per­son­al­ly, they are not impor­tant to us. They are sec­ondary. But how can we empathize and how can we show sup­port? Sup­port could be as sim­ple as, “Shut up and lis­ten.” And if you have resources, put your mon­ey where your mouth is. Being an ally is not just, “Yes, I sup­port you, I sup­port you.” You have to actu­al­ly do it.

There are a lot of gay, cis white men who have a lot of resources, and they don’t put their mon­ey where their mouth is. We still need to get them to understand—and a lot of soci­ety in general—that we are not men in dress­es, and that we’re not try­ing to get their boyfriends. Trans­pho­bia is real.

Even with­in gay and les­bian com­mu­ni­ties.

Right. All of that is real. It’s a col­lec­tive effort, but it’s not going to hap­pen if we don’t open our minds, if we don’t open up our hearts, and if we don’t open up our pock­ets. Because the trans move­ment is poor. And if there’s no eco­nom­ic pow­er, we have no pow­er. We’ve got to build that, and we can build it faster if those gay, cis white men con­tribute to the cause. Not only eco­nom­i­cal­ly, but also polit­i­cal­ly, to sup­port us and to advance our move­ment.

When [trans activist] Jen­nicet Gutiér­rez heck­led Pres­i­dent Oba­ma dur­ing a Pride event at the White House this year, she was booed by those in atten­dance, and the way peo­ple react­ed to it was like, “Hey, we’re here already, so just chill.”

And who has access to those events? A lot of those events are just props for peo­ple. But how many of the peo­ple are actu­al­ly doing the work? They may have the mon­ey, but they’re not doing the work. I’ve gone to fundrais­ers where they’ve raised hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in one sit­ting, in one din­ner. I wish the trans com­mu­ni­ty could have some­thing like that. I wish I could do some­thing like that.

You’re the founder of the Coali­ción TransLatin@. It’s a net­work with lead­ers across the coun­try. Are they work­ing in their own loca­tions?

The TransLatin@ Coali­tion is a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion formed by lead­ers in dif­fer­ent regions. We have rep­re­sen­ta­tion in eleven states, with sev­en active chap­ters. We’re an orga­ni­za­tion that’s by us, for us. Our mis­sion is to address the spe­cif­ic needs of trans Latin@ indi­vid­u­als who live in the Unit­ed States and to pro­vide lead­er­ship devel­op­ment to all of the trans com­mu­ni­ty.

What have you all been work­ing on late­ly and what do you have com­ing up?

We’re devel­op­ing a pro­gram that’s called the Cen­ter for Vio­lence Pre­ven­tion and Trans­gen­der Well­ness. It’s a mul­ti­pur­pose, mul­ti­ser­vice space for trans peo­ple, specif­i­cal­ly to address both the struc­tur­al changes that need to hap­pen in our com­mu­ni­ty, as well as com­mu­ni­ty empow­er­ment. This includes not only pro­vid­ing ser­vices, but also lead­er­ship devel­op­ment, pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment, work­ing to low­er the recidi­vism of incar­cer­a­tion, entre­pre­neur­ship, eco­nom­ic empowerment—all of those things that we need as a com­mu­ni­ty, for us to get to the next lev­el. We’re start­ing the mod­el here in Los Ange­les and will even­tu­al­ly repli­cate it.

You’ve men­tioned that the trans com­mu­ni­ty is poor, with peo­ple not being able to get work or even a safe place to live.

That’s the com­mu­ni­ty involve­ment that we’re think­ing about. Fos­ter lead­ers, and then build it, build it, build it. That’s what we’re doing col­lec­tive­ly right now as an orga­ni­za­tion. But obvi­ous­ly, we’re con­tin­u­ing to col­lab­o­rate with oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and dif­fer­ent groups. We’re excit­ed for what’s hap­pen­ing right now, but we’re wait­ing for some mon­ey to come in.

We [held] a fundrais­er, GARRAS, on Novem­ber 22—a fash­ion show highlight[ing] trans and gen­der-non­con­form­ing peo­ple as high-fash­ion mod­els, as well as design­ers and styl­ists. GARRAS actu­al­ly means some­thing:

Ground­break­ing Activism Redi­rect­ing and Reform­ing All Sys­tems. Every­body who contribute[d] or participate[d] in the event is an activist. Through their col­lab­o­ra­tion, and through their sup­port, they change sys­tems.

Seems like it’s impor­tant to get that mes­sage out to peo­ple, the dif­fer­ent ways that you can be an activist.

Of course. You don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have to be a Bam­by Sal­cedo.

Show­ing up on stage at a con­fer­ence!

You don’t have to do all of that. Some peo­ple have said to me, “I sup­port you, but I would nev­er do that.” Peo­ple have their own reser­va­tions, like they don’t have the guts.

Are you afraid when you get up there?

I just unleash the deer. [Laughs.] I don’t know, I just become the deer. Like every­body else, even when we do actions, I get ner­vous. That’s the process. But then it hap­pens, and I become anoth­er per­son. A pas­sion takes hold of me.

Do you feel like it gives you life?

[Eyes grow wide.] Yeah! It gives me life.

Your work explores the inter­sec­tion of many iden­ti­ties and expe­ri­ences. But at that inter­sec­tion is also vio­lence. A lot of the work that you deal with has to do with dif­fer­ent kinds of vio­lence that trans people—trans women of col­or, in particular—experience. I saw a pho­to of you recent­ly wear­ing a shirt that said, “Mi exi­s­tir es resistir”—“My exis­tence is resis­tance.” How do you deal with that vio­lence, not only on the macro level—you’re protest­ing at con­fer­ences, you’re doing work with the coalition—but also in your own life. What keeps you going and how do you take care of your­self?

The love and sup­port that I get from dif­fer­ent peo­ple, and the com­mu­ni­ty as a whole. Through­out the years they have lift­ed me up and give me love. Anoth­er thing that feeds my soul is when I see a young trans per­son who is shy at first, and then I see them devel­op­ing through the sup­port that I pro­vide, not nec­es­sar­i­ly mon­e­tar­i­ly, but through morale or con­nec­tions. And when a trans per­son in deten­tion is released and gets con­nect­ed into activism, into lead­er­ship development—these are some of the things that feed my soul.

Do you think things have got­ten bet­ter for trans women of col­or since you start­ed out as an activist?

There have been min­i­mal increas­es in dif­fer­ent things, but we are nowhere near where we should be. If we think back twen­ty-five years ago, there were no clin­ics in L.A. where peo­ple could access hor­mones. Now there are two clin­ics, but it’s not enough. They have long wait­lists, long lists of patients. I think the world of HIV fund­ing has sup­port­ed our com­mu­ni­ty in some ways. It is how I was able to get a job, the way that many trans women are able to get jobs. But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, of course. Things are a lot bet­ter, but not where we should be.

Where do you think we should be?

Trans peo­ple should live in a soci­ety where our exis­tence is acknowl­edged and dig­ni­fied; where trans peo­ple do not feel afraid to walk down the street because they might be killed; where we can live our truths; where we can live authen­ti­cal­ly the way we are, as who we are, with­out fear. And we need to live in a soci­ety where there’s jus­tice for all of us—not only for those of us who are here, but also those who have gone, who have been killed because of igno­rance and stu­pid­i­ty.

What would you say to a young trans woman of col­or who is just try­ing to find her way? How does she get involved? How does she empow­er her­self?

I hope she under­stands the pow­er that she has. If she doesn’t have the resources, she needs to go get them. If it’s by ask­ing, by all means ask. If it’s by dig­ging, by all means dig—unapologetically and unafraid, because our lives are worth it. ☀

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Book Review: “Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories” by Hilary Klein

By Andrea Gutierrez

» Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in make/shift (Summer/Fall 2015, no. 17)

Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories By Hilary Klein Seven Stories Press

It’s after mid­night when I take a break from read­ing Hilary Klein’s Com­pañeras: Zap­atista Women’s Sto­ries to bel­low into the zeros and ones of social media. “GODDAMMIT THIS LAPD COPTER HAS BEEN CIRCLING FOR TWO HOURS,” I tap into my phone. Reports online say there’s a dude run­ning around with a gun two blocks from my house. Cops have set up a perime­ter. They won’t let peo­ple into their homes, and a voice from the heli­copter tells the rest of us to stay put. This is the third time I’ve heard that copter in, what, a week? Two weeks? I’m los­ing count. It’s all so unnec­es­sary.

When I return to Com­pañeras, the famil­iar th-th-th-th-th still beat­ing above, I’m read­ing about the Mex­i­can government’s low-inten­si­ty con­flict with the Zap­atis­tas in 1998, an attempt to destroy the Zap­atista Army of Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion (EZLN) with­out wag­ing all-out war. Mar­gari­ta, one of the dozens of Zap­atista women that Klein inter­views, gives her account. “As women, we can’t work in peace in our hous­es or in our kitchens because we keep hear­ing the heli­copters pass by. […] That’s what the gov­ern­ment wants—for us not to be able to work in our coop­er­a­tives, because we’re work­ing for our­selves and the gov­ern­ment wants to take away our abil­i­ty to work and orga­nize our­selves.”

When I read this, and remem­ber the rumors of a loom­ing gang injunc­tion, it’s hard not to draw a con­nec­tion between police action in High­land Park, my rapid­ly gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hood in Los Ange­les, and the Mex­i­can government’s mil­i­tary tac­tics in rur­al Chi­a­pas, where the once-clan­des­tine EZLN built the most promi­nent, and in many ways suc­cess­ful grass­roots rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment to chal­lenge neolib­er­al­ism and glob­al cap­i­tal­ism.

Klein, an activist from the Unit­ed states, lived in Chi­a­pas between 1997 and 2003, dur­ing what she calls “some of the Zap­atista movement’s most dynam­ic years.” Though she had planned to vis­it Chi­a­pas for only a few months, her inter­est in women’s roles as key actors in the Zap­atista move­ment led her to stay and gath­er the sto­ries of these com­pañeras, many of whom had nev­er been asked or encour­aged to give their tes­ti­mo­ny before. In 2001, women author­i­ties in the More­lia region of Chi­a­pas asked Klein to col­lect and edit these women’s sto­ries into a book for inter­nal use in orga­niz­ing and edu­ca­tion; five years lat­er, they gave Klein per­mis­sion to use the same tes­ti­mo­ny in addi­tion to new inter­views for a book—this book—aimed at an audi­ence beyond Chi­a­pas.

The women that Klein inter­views are sur­pris­ing­ly can­did for being affil­i­at­ed with an orga­ni­za­tion so secre­tive. They share details of their lives before the famed upris­ing of Jan­u­ary 1994, when they lived in what was essen­tial­ly inden­tured servi­tude on fin­cas, or farms, fear­ing for their health and safe­ty under the sadis­tic sur­veil­lance of the rul­ing landown­ers. The first five chap­ters of the book lead us through the com­pañeras’ polit­i­cal awakening—recruitment by insur­gents, orga­niz­ing in their com­mu­ni­ties, involve­ment and lead­er­ship in upris­ings, strug­gles between the women and their fam­i­lies. The com­pañeras are encour­aged to find their strength pri­mar­i­ly as it helps the EZLN’s cause, in build­ing a new autonomous soci­ety among the indige­nous peo­ples of Chi­a­pas.

But as the auton­o­my of Zap­atista com­mu­ni­ties becomes more estab­lished around the turn of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, and the com­mu­ni­ties strug­gle to estab­lish sus­tain­able meth­ods of gov­er­nance, com­pañeras real­ize that there’s still so much to do in fur­ther­ing their own rights. They want women’s rights because they are human rights, because women’s rights are just—not sim­ply because they ben­e­fit the Zap­atista move­ment. Com­pañeras see now that the under­pin­nings of patri­archy are not undone just because a cer­tain lev­el of com­mu­ni­ty auton­o­my has been reached. “The fail­ure to pro­pose any solu­tions aside from women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the strug­gle demon­strates the lack of com­plex­i­ty in the EZLN’s gen­der analy­sis at the time,” Klein writes. But the EZLN has shown an abil­i­ty and will­ing­ness to change. Esmer­al­da, a mes­ti­za nun who has worked in Chi­a­pas since the 1970s, mus­es about the EZLN’s evolv­ing gen­der analy­sis: “There are many things with­in zap­atismo that helped this process. The lev­el of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, the con­scious­ness, the search for auton­o­my, and the desire to change.”

What is most remark­able about this book is how close Klein gets to her sub­jects and how much they are will­ing to divulge with her. While, in gen­er­al, Zap­atista women inter­viewed are care­ful not to cri­tique their move­ment to out­siders, Klein explains that they often share their con­cerns pri­vate­ly with peo­ple “they know and trust,” per­haps imply­ing that she is one of these peo­ple. Many women are cred­it­ed with pseu­do­nyms or nom­bres de lucha (names of strug­gle), oth­ers with their real names. Sev­er­al tes­ti­monies are attrib­uted to a group of women, so as to rep­re­sent a col­lec­tive voice so impor­tant to Zap­atis­tas. Klein keeps the com­pañeras’ sto­ries cen­tral to the nar­ra­tive, nev­er steal­ing the spot­light or eras­ing her pres­ence to the point of invis­i­bil­i­ty.

It’s anoth­er night, and I’m writ­ing this review while I lis­ten to anoth­er heli­copter hov­er­ing in the dis­tance. Some­one writes online that a young hip­ster woman came into her place of work that day and com­ment­ed about the smat­ter­ing of police activ­i­ty in recent weeks. “They still have some clean­ing to do,” this young woman said. She might get her wish if a gang injunc­tion does take hold, a favorite tac­tic of the LAPD that has a way of pop­ping up in neigh­bor­hoods like mine that local real-estate blogs have deemed “up-and-com­ing,” Where new­com­ers like this woman still believe in cops’ abil­i­ty to serve and pro­tect. Oth­ers online have cel­e­brat­ed the uptick in crime in our neigh­bor­hood, hop­ing it encour­ages new­com­ers to leave. I think of Araceli and Mari­bel, Zap­atista com­pañeras who describe the EZLN’s covert orga­niz­ing. “They also told us that the strug­gle is for everyone—men and women—and that all you need­ed was con­scious­ness and a will­ing­ness to fight.” ☀

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Girls Stepping into Their Power: An Interview with Co-Founder of Radical Monarchs

By Andrea Gutierrez

» Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in make/shift (Summer/Fall 2015, no. 17)

In 2014, Anayvette Martinez’s daugh­ter, a fifth-grad­er, begged to join a girls group like the Girl Scouts. Mar­tinez, a Bay Area activist and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er, was dis­sat­is­fied with the options avail­able near her East Oak­land home and co-found­ed the Rad­i­cal Brown­ies with her friend and fel­low activist Mar­i­lyn Hollinquest. The mis­sion of the group was to “empow­er young girls of col­or so that they step into their col­lec­tive pow­er, bril­liance, and lead­er­ship in order to make the world a more rad­i­cal place.” The girls , rang­ing from sev­en to eleven years old, are class­mates and friends of Martinez’s daugh­ter and reflect the demo­graph­ics of their neighborhood—primarily Black and Lati­no fam­i­lies.

The troop formed in Decem­ber 2014, in time to par­tic­i­pate in their first march in sup­port of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, which led to their first badge of the same name. A month lat­er, news arti­cles about the Rad­i­cal Brown­ies spread through­out social media, cre­at­ing an unex­pect­ed amount of buzz around a project that Mar­tinez and Hollinquest were just get­ting off the ground. In Feb­ru­ary 2015, the Girl Scouts of the USA, cit­ing their trade­mark on the name Brown­ies, asked the group to change their name. On April 4, 2015, the Rad­i­cal Brown­ies announced that they had cho­sen the name Rad­i­cal Mon­archs. I spoke to Anayvette Mar­tinez on the eve of this announce­ment.

AG: You’re in the mid­dle of a renam­ing process. For the girls, there’s some­thing very pow­er­ful in this.

AM: Yeah, total­ly. Ini­tial­ly, I had just cho­sen a name. I nev­er thought it would become an issue because I didn’t think it was going to blow up to this mag­ni­tude. When it did blow up, the Girl Scouts of the USA reached out to us, and we knew we had to change it. It’s cool that the girls got to be a part of cre­at­ing the new name. It cre­ates a lit­tle more invest­ment on their part—“Hey, we named our­selves!” That’s excit­ing.

What has the impact of the group been on the girls so far? How have you seen them grow in these three and a half months of the group’s exis­tence?

These girls were already pow­er­ful on their own. Each of them had a strong sense of self. But this expe­ri­ence has real­ly enabled them to form a pow­er­ful shared iden­ti­ty with each oth­er. They con­nect with each oth­er and their expe­ri­ences as young girls of col­or grow­ing up in Oak­land, in an urban city. They are girls step­ping into their power—using their voic­es more. Even the ones who were a bit shy at first start­ed com­ing out of their shell.

You start­ed out with a six-month plan and cur­ricu­lum for earn­ing badges. what does it take to earn a badge and what has been the lev­el of input from the girls them­selves?

When we first launched, we brain­stormed with the girls about themes and top­ics that inter­est­ed them. We used that as a com­pass to inform the cur­ricu­lum. For exam­ple, one of the girls want­ed to know how to nav­i­gate friend­ship dra­ma, so we fold­ed that into Rad­i­cal Love, a sub-unit of the Rad­i­cal Beau­ty badge. Why is it impor­tant to love your­self? What does it mean to have rad­i­cal friend­ships? How do you have healthy friend­ships and rela­tion­ships?

In terms of themes, we start­ed with Black Lives Mat­ter. Fol­low­ing that was Rad­i­cal Beau­ty. Right now we’re in Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice, which we’re call­ing Pachama­ma Jus­tice. Fol­low­ing this we’re going to do a Pride unit, which will be focused on LGBT and gen­der non­con­for­mi­ty. They’ll learn about that com­mu­ni­ty and par­tic­i­pate in the trans march here in the Bay Area, among oth­er activ­i­ties. In July, the girls will earn a camp­ing badge. In August or Sep­tem­ber, maybe some­thing around self-defense and con­sent. It’s all activ­i­ty-based learn­ing, project-based learn­ing, expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing. That just comes from our back­ground as youth pro­gram­mers.

What have the girls got­ten excit­ed about?

They’ve loved every­thing. They loved being a part of the Black Lives Mat­ter march­es. That was real­ly pow­er­ful for them. They real­ly enjoyed hold­ing the signs and hav­ing our voic­es heard and chant­i­ng. They love that. They loved Rad­i­cal Beau­ty. We talked about con­sumerism, how the media tries to sell us things to fix our­selves. But that we’re beau­ti­ful, and we’re per­fect the way we are. They loved talk­ing about what they see in media. They had this whole dis­cus­sion about the Dis­ney princess­es. They loved mak­ing beau­ty prod­ucts. They loved the Rad­i­cal Love unit and talk­ing about lov­ing them­selves. Part one of our Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice unit we did a hike. We part­nered with a local orga­ni­za­tion called Out­door Afro. They loved the hike, loved being in the out­doors togeth­er. They real­ly enjoyed every­thing.

We took them to the UC Berke­ley Empow­er­ing Women of Col­or Con­fer­ence. They loved that. Some of them had been to UC Berke­ley, some of them hadn’t. That may have been chal­leng­ing for them to sit in an audi­to­ri­um and just lis­ten to three keynote speakers—the girls are ages sev­en to eleven—but they were engaged and they took away so much from that con­ver­sa­tion. It was incred­i­ble.

We’re doing a clean-up in East Oak­land dur­ing our upcom­ing meet­ing. I’m not sure how much fun they’ll have with that, clean­ing up trash. But we think it’s impor­tant to con­nect per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty to tak­ing care of our ’hoods.

Count­less peo­ple have asked about expan­sion, but you have been adamant that you want to nur­ture the troop you already have before you con­sid­er growth. what is your vision for the future of this rad­i­cal girls group?

This is our incu­ba­tion year. We’re in the process of apply­ing for fis­cal spon­sor­ship, which would allow us to build our capac­i­ty. Once we have that in place, we want to cre­ate some­thing sus­tain­able. Because the oth­er co-founder [Mar­i­lyn Hollinquest] and I have expe­ri­ence in non­prof­its and pro­gram­ming, we don’t want to move too fast and have some­thing that is com­plete­ly unsus­tain­able for us and the com­mu­ni­ty.

This is not our full-time job. Mar­i­lyn hus­tles three jobs. I have a very demand­ing full-time job and a fam­i­ly. It’s a lot, and this requires a lot of atten­tion to nur­ture and build. With fis­cal spon­sor­ship, we could apply for fund­ing, then maybe we could step away from our full-time jobs and real­ly focus on this because this is what we real­ly feel pas­sion­ate about, and we want to respond to need. We want to do that in this first year, so that with­in the next year, we’re in a place where we can start pack­ag­ing our cur­ricu­lum and cre­at­ing train­ing for poten­tial troop lead­ers.

Being inten­tion­al is at the core of how we work and how we do this work. We want to sup­port the cre­ation of more troops wher­ev­er they’re need­ed, wher­ev­er they’re want­ed. But they need to be set up for suc­cess and with a com­mon thread of val­ues, so when some­one says they’re part of the Rad­i­cal Mon­archs, you know you’re com­ing with these val­ues, this train­ing, these resources. That’s impor­tant to us. These are young peo­ple, these are young lives, and we want to make sure that who­ev­er is going to be tak­ing on this under­tak­ing and join­ing this move­ment with us is real­ly root­ed and ground­ed in that. We don’t want any­one to start a troop and com­plete­ly flop and leave these girls hang­ing. That’s part of why we’re going so slow.

And it’s hard, because every­one just wants it now. It’s hard to say no, which is very gen­dered, espe­cial­ly for women of col­or. We’re used to say­ing yes to every­thing. We’re the nur­tur­ers, the providers. It’s def­i­nite­ly chal­lenged us to set that bound­ary, but we are stick­ing to it.

You’ve got­ten some back­lash. and it’s not just the pre­dictable quar­ters, like the Sean Han­ni­tys of the world. it’s also peo­ple who con­sid­er them­selves lib­er­al or fem­i­nist, who think that this group is a knock on the Girl Scouts. one com­ment i heard is, “well, you can do that in Girl Scouts, too.” as in, you don’t have to cre­ate your own group, like there’s not enough room for anoth­er group. what’s it been like to hear that part of the con­ver­sa­tion?

I think that’s an inter­est­ing cri­tique. For us, this is not about exclu­sion. This is about inclu­sion. I hate scarci­ty pol­i­tics. There’s enough for every­one here. Any group that has been work­ing with young women, women of color—that space is need­ed. It’s not about exclud­ing any­one or cre­at­ing divi­sion. The more spaces we have like this, the bet­ter. Spaces that are spe­cif­ic to a cer­tain group are need­ed. Girls of col­or do some­times need that space to be with each oth­er and talk about issues that are impact­ing them, because their expe­ri­ences are not often reflect­ed in main­stream media or exter­nal con­ver­sa­tions. It’s an impor­tant space to cre­ate. The Girl Scout troops that are doing this type of work—I think that’s fan­tas­tic. But we saw the need to cre­ate some­thing com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. I think this space is just as jus­ti­fied as the more main­stream, tra­di­tion­al scouts is.

The sim­ple act of rec­og­niz­ing the unique expe­ri­ence of being a girl of color—that it’s a part of their lives, not white­wash­ing it or being “col­or­blind” about it—is what i think a lot of crit­ics take issue with, which tells you a lot about them and what their val­ues are for girls groups.

Right. And we don’t live in a col­or­blind soci­ety. We need to stop pre­tend­ing that we do, because we don’t. This is real. Race is real. Gen­der is real. Gen­der iden­ti­ty, gen­der expres­sion are very real things. Yes, these are all social con­struc­tions, but there are real impacts. We feel those impacts. so it does no one a ser­vice to ignore it, to pre­tend like we’re all the same and we all expe­ri­ence the same things, because we don’t. Girls and youth also know that. And it’s just a mat­ter of pro­vid­ing them the safe space to be able to process and artic­u­late that.

What advice do you have for any­one else out there excit­ed about this rad­i­cal group and what they can do in their own com­mu­ni­ties or with their own girls?

This move­ment is big­ger than us. This space is need­ed. It’s so pow­er­ful. What this expe­ri­ence has been for young girls is amaz­ing, to watch them go through this process. It’s def­i­nite­ly felt heal­ing to us, as grown women of col­or. My co-founder and I went through this in col­lege. so what does it mean for a sev­en-year-old to start going through this process of affirm­ing and val­i­dat­ing and empow­er­ing her voice now? That’s just so pow­er­ful.

Peo­ple who feel inspired or called to do it—I urge them to do it, urge them to con­nect with us. If they want to start some­thing now and join us lat­er when we’re ready, there are a cou­ple of local folks who are actu­al­ly doing that now. They feel the sense of urgency. So do it. Do it.

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My First Zit

By Andrea Gutierrez

» Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Mujeres de Maiz zine (2015, out of print)

I don’t know if she sees it first
Or if I have the bad judg­ment to show her
But Mom lays my head back in her lap
On the sofa while we watch Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal
It’s prob­a­bly one of those white­heads
The kind you pop, ooz­ing white, then red, then noth­ing
But she digs and digs until noth­ing gives way to red again
          Mom, it hurts

                                Stop mov­ing, I’m not done
I don’t know what she’s doing, or why
And when I run my fin­ger over that scar today
I still don’t know what it all was for.