March 3, 2003
Hi, my name is Juliet Palante. I’ve been reading your book Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. No lie, I started reading it so that I could make people uncomfortable on the subway. I especially enjoyed whipping it out during impromptu sermons given by old sour-faced men on the 2 train. It amused me to watch men confront the word “pussy” in a context outside their control; you know, like in bright pink letters on the cover of some girl’s paperback book.
My grandma calls me la sin vergüenza, the one without shame. She’s right. I’m always in it for the laughs. But I’m writing to you now because this book of yours, this magical labia manifesto, has become my bible. It’s definitely a reading from the book of white lady feminism and yet, there are moments where I see my round brown ass in your words. I wanted more of that, Harlowe, more representation, more acknowledgment, more room to breathe the same air as you. “We are all women. We are all of the womb. It is in that essence of the moon that we share sisterhood”—that’s you. You wrote that and I highlighted it, wondering if that was true. If you don’t know my life and my struggle, can we be sisters?
Can a badass white lady like you make room for me? Should I stand next to you and take that space? Or do I need to just push you out of the way? Claim it myself now so that one day we’ll be able to share this earth, this block, these deep breaths?
I hope it’s okay that I say this to you. I don’t mean any disrespect, but if you can question the patriarchy, then I can question you. I think. I don’t really know how this feminism stuff works anyway. I’ve only taken one women’s studies class and that was legit because a cute girl on my floor signed up for it. This girl made me lose my train of thought. I wanted to watch her eat strawberries and make her a mixtape. So I signed up for the class and then she became my girlfriend. But please don’t ask me about anything that happened in that class afterward because love is an acid trip.
Feminism. I’m new to it. The word still sounds weird and wrong. Too white, too structured, too foreign; something I can’t claim. I wish there was another word for it. Maybe I need to make one up. My mom’s totally a feminist, but she never uses that word. She molds my little brother’s breakfast eggs into Ninja Turtles and pays all the bills in the house. She’s this lady that never sleeps because she’s working on a master’s degree while raising my little brother and me and pretty much balancing the rhythm of an entire family on her shoulders. That’s a feminist, right? But my mom still irons my dad’s socks. So what do you call that woman? You know, besides Mom.
Your book is a refuge from my neighborhood, from my contradictions, from my lack of desire to ever love a man, let alone wash his fucking socks. I don’t even wash my own socks. I want to learn more about the wonder of me, the lunar power of my pussy, my vadge, my taquito, that place where all the magic happens. You know, once people are quiet enough to show it reverence. I want to be free. Free like this line: “A fully realized woman is at all times her true self. No soul-crushing secrets or self-imposed burdens of shame, these create toxic imbalance, a spiritual yeast infection if you will. So step out into the fresh air and let that pussy breathe.”
I’ve got a secret. I think it’s going to kill me. Sometimes I hope it does. How do I tell my parents that I’m gay? Gay sounds just as weird as feminist. How do you tell the people who breathed you into existence that you’re the opposite of what they want you to be? And I’m supposed to be ashamed of being gay, but now that I’ve had sex with girls, I don’t feel any shame at all. In fact, it’s pretty fucking amazing. So how am I supposed to come out and deal with everyone else’s sadness? “Sin Vergüenza Comes Out, Is Banished from Family.” That’s the headline. You did this to me. I wasn’t gonna come out. I was just gonna be that family member who’s gay and no one ever talks about it even though EVERYONE knows they share a bed with their “roommate.” Now everything is different.
How am I supposed to be this honest? I know you’re not a Magic 8 Ball. You’re just some lady that wrote a book. But I fall asleep with that book in my arms because words protect hearts and I’ve got this ache in my chest that won’t go away. I read Raging Flower and now I dream of raised fists and solidarity marches led by matriarchs fueled by café con leche where I can march alongside cigar-smoking doñas and Black Power dykes and all the world’s weirdos and no one is left out. And no one is living a lie.
Is that the world you live in? I read that you live in Portland, Oregon. No one I know has ever been there; most people I know have never left the Bronx. I refuse to be that person. The Bronx cannot own me. There isn’t enough air to breathe here. I carry an inhaler for those days when I need more than my allotted share. I need a break. I know that the problems in the hood are systemic. I know that my neighborhood is stuck in a sanctioned and fully funded cycle of poverty, but damn if this place and the people here don’t wear me down. Some days it feels like we argue to be louder than the trains that rumble us home. Otherwise our voices will be drowned out and then who will hear us? I’m tired of graffiti being the only way to see someone’s mark on the world—the world that consists of this block and maybe the next, nothing farther. There aren’t even enough trees to absorb the chaos and breathe out some peace.
I’ll trade you pancakes for peace. I heard that you’re writing another book. I can help with that. Let me be your assistant or protégé or official geek sidekick. I can do all the research.
Seriously, some of my best friends are libraries. If there’s room in your world for a closeted Puerto Rican baby-dyke from the Bronx, you should write me back. Everybody needs a hand, especially when it comes to fighting the good fight.
Punani Power Forever,
Juliet Milagros Palante
PS: How do you take your coffee? This will help me decide if we’re compatible social justice superheroes or not.
Welcome to the Bronx
Wolves, Falcons, and the Bronx
“We are born with the power of the moon and the flow of the waves within us. It’s only after being commodified for our femaleness that we lose that power. The first step in gaining it back is walking face-first into the crashing seas and daring the patriarchy to stop us.”
Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind,Harlowe Brisbane
There was always train traffic ahead of us and that Saturday was no different. The delay between the cell-block-gray train car and my redbrick house on Matilda Avenue, mi casa, was long enough to merit theAssaulting an MTA Officer Is a Felony sticker on the wall. Without a heads up, I was sure we’d all be busting heads and windows open on the 2 train to the end of the earth, aka the North Bronx. Any wait period that lasted longer than two songs provoked collective teeth-sucking, eye-rolling, and a shared disgust for the state of New York, public transportation. I always wondered what would happen if the white people didn’t all get off at 96th Street. Would it make my commute home to the hood easier? Would the MTA give any more of a damn? Good thing I had a pen, my purple composition notebook, and headphones blastingThe Miseducation of Lauryn Hill like it was my j-o-b.
The train was elevated after 149th Street and Third Avenue, so for almost one hundred blocks the view of the sky existed only above the train station—but no one ever seemed to look up that far. I’d looked through metal bars my whole entire life just to get a view of both the sidewalk and the sunshine. Past the train, there were clusters of electrical wires and telephone poles that looked ready to burst into flames or fall over from a gust of wind. This was my Bronx: the North Bronx, the split between the Bronx and Westchester County, the difference between the South Bronx and the part of the Bronx that no one ever traveled to.
“We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience,” said the automated white male robot voice used by the MTA.Thank us for our patience. Like, save the gratitude and get me home. I was leaving that night for Portland, Oregon, and I still had to finish the mixtape I was making for my girlfriend, Lainie, who was already away at her internship with the College Democrats of America. On top of all that, I had to pack, shower, get ready for my good-bye dinner, come out to my family, and then hopefully still be able to hug my mom so hard that I would feel her on my skin for the whole summer. I didn’t have time for the train to be stalled.
“Seven times three is twenty-one, seven times four is twenty- eight.” Across from me, a young girl and her mom, both wearing bandanna dresses and head wraps, reviewed times table flash cards. Three dudes stood in the doorway. They bragged about their conquests over “some bitches from last night.” When boys talked, it sounded like feral dogs barking. They fiended for attention, were always aggressive, and made me wish I could put them down.
Raging Flower was both book and shield. I pulled it out, sighing mad loud. The main boy gave me a look. Whatever, papi culo. I couldn’t even with dudes lately. All they did was talk smack about how good they laid down the pipe. Anytime I ignored them I was both abitch and all of a sudden too ugly or too fat to get it anyway. Neighborhood dudes sure knew how to slime and shame a girl in one swift move. Reason number five hundred and fifty-oneRaging Flower was so necessary. Reading helped me gather myself, reminded me that I had a right to be mad. It felt like my body was both overexposed and an unsolved mystery.
“You must walk in this world with the spirit of a ferocious cunt. Express your emotions. Believe that the universe came from your flesh. Own your power, own your connection to Mother Earth. Howl at the moon, bare your teeth, and be a goddamn wolf.”
Ferocious cunt. I circled that phrase in neon-purple ink. Was I a ferocious cunt? By tomorrow night, I’d be in Harlowe’s home, not on the train in the Bronx. I had planned my escape—chose to come out and run off into the night. What kind of wolf did that make me?
I needed air. I wasn’t ashamed of myself. I wasn’t ashamed of being in love with the cutest girl on the planet, but my family was my world and my mom was the gravitational pull that kept me stuck to this Earth. What would happen if she let me go? Would my family remain planted to terra firma while I spiraled out and away into the void?
The train lurched a little. The mother-and-daughter duo beside me packed up their flash cards and got off. The train doors closed with a high-pitched two-note signal.
At the corner of 238th Street and White Plains Road in the Bronx, the 5 and 2 trains split ways. I got off the train and stood on the corner, staring at the fork between the elevated train tracks. A bent, corroded metal rainbow, it curved above and beckoned the 5 train in another direction, away from Mount Vernon and into the unknown. But nothing likes to be split in half so when the 5 train hit that bend, sparks flew out and landed like mini-meteors on the sidewalk. The wheels ground hard, metal on metal, and sent out a screech: a torturous yell that could be heard for miles. The sound shredded the fibers of my bones. I felt it in my cavities, heard it in my daydreams.
The sun was setting over the neighborhood. Jamaican men stood in zigzag patterns on the block, shouting, “Taxi, miss?” No insurance, some without a license, but damn if they didn’t get a person where they needed to go. I dipped around them and made a left toward Paisano’s Pizza Shop. Black and brown bodies were in full motion. A solid line of people shuffled in and out of the liquor store. It was owned by Mrs. Li. She sent flowers to my uncle Ramon’s wake when he died two years ago from cirrhosis. Sirens sounded as ambulances rushed to the nearest emergency to transport the bloody and wounded off to Our Lady of Sacrifice Hospital.
The block was never silent.
We lived loud and hard against a neighborhood built to contain us. We moved like the earth pushing its way through cement sidewalks.
I pulled a dollar out of my pocket. “Robert,” I said to the man crouched in between the liquor store and Paisano’s. He didn’t move. Jacket over his head, he stood still as death. Robert existed in a plume of crystal-white smoke. “Robert,” I said again, louder. The jacket shifted, his wide brown eyes peered out from the sleeve.
“Hey, ma,” Robert said, not blinking. I put the dollar in his coat pocket. He nodded thanks and pulled the jacket back over his head. I didn’t know how else to reach out to this man who’d been smoking crack in between the same two buildings for almost twenty years. Even on Christmas morning, he stood like a sentry dedicated to crack rock. I’ve asked him if he needs anything. All he’s ever asked for was a dollar. That was our relationship. I nodded and kept it moving, past his smoke spot, past the row of cab drivers, past the seventeen-year-old girls snatched up for prostitution and their eighteen-year-old pimps. I was almost home. Good thing too ’cuz those dudes from the train werestill talking mad loud behind me. Why were they on my ass? My cell phone buzzed in my pocket. Mom.
I yanked the phone from my ear. “Yes, Momma?”
“Pick up some recao, cilantro, and tomato sauce for the sofrito. Oh, and something sweet. I love you.”
“Love you too,” I replied, still keeping the phone a safe distance from my ears. I learned a long time ago that you never told Momma she was shouting.
Everything in the Imperial Supermarket was mad suspect. The fruits and vegetables were often moldy. A pack of sesame candy I bought had a roach in it once. And man, I hated buying chicken there too. Every package of meat had a grayish tint to it, and the aisle itself often smelled like blood. But it was the only market we had within walking distance from the house. Momma was going to get her sofrito ingredients. I just had to be diligent and examine everything, as per usual. Figured I’d start with the easy stuff and pick up the tomato sauce first.
The group of bro-dudes from the train found me in the canned vegetable aisle, and one of them said, “Hey, mami, you lookin’ good. What’s up with your number?”
I didn’t answer him. I focused on the sixty-five-cent tomato sauce in my hands. He moved in close behind me.
“I said you lookin’ mad good,” he repeated, his breath harsh on my neck.
My back tensed up. I cracked my middle knuckle with my thumb. Every way this group of man-boys could possibly assault me flashed through my head. A bolt of fear snaked up my spine. I squeezed the can, wishing I was bold enough to clock him with it. I shrugged hard and turned around. His friends had moved in closer, forming a little semicircle around me. Fucking dudes, man.
“Whassup? You too good to say hello?” he asked, smiling.
“I’m gay and not interested,” I blurted out.
My whole face went hot. Why did I say that? Jeezus. With fluorescent lights above me, stained white tiles under my feet, and a circle of machismo incarnate around me, there was nowhere to run.
“That’s a damn shame. Maybe you just need this good D right here,” he said as he grabbed his crotch. He stared at me and gave himself a good up and down stroke. His eyes had a hard glint to them. His tattoo-party tattoos showed from beneath his beater: a lion on his right arm, a crucifix on the left, and the name Joselys across his neck.
His boys gave him a pound. They laughed, salivated, and tightened their circle around me. I stepped to the right, and he moved in my way. They laughed again.