How I Got My Name
Let’s start the story where abandon meets faith.
Aight, so, boom. Check it.
I’m named after a homegirl
in the Bible who couldn’t have kids.
Her man Abram was all like:
Yo, Sarai, God promised me I would be the Father of Nations.
Sarai was all like:
Nah B, you must be buggin’, you know I can’t have no babies.
Our pastor says faith is believing in something
you can’t really see.
According to Mami,
we should never put our faith in men.
Mami was pregnant with me when Papi bounced
for some new chick & told Mami to have an abortion.
Abram got himself a new chick, too.
Got her pregnant and all that.
I guess Mami identified with Sarai’s fear and doubt—
& so I was born out of Mami’s faith & hope.
Mami is a round woman.
A square by any other definition.
with no patience for her own children most days.
There are three of us in total.
Danny, Estrella & Me. I am the youngest.
My sister Estrella said Mami’s depressed.
File this under “shit we don’t talk about.”
Pentecostals, we’re just supposed to pray
the sadness away.
¡Fuera! The pastor demands on prayer night.
¡Fuera! I imagine sadness is a bad singer
being kicked off the show
by el Chacal on Sábado Gigante.
Apparently, Jesus & Don Francisco
can save anything.
Once during church testimonio,
Mami gave Jesus mad credit
for saving her from Papi’s fists. ¡Amén! ¡Aleluya!
Now, Papi lives in the Bronx with his new wife.
Estrella uses the payphone
to collect call him all the time.
She says Papi is also Christian now
& that God forgave him
for beating on Mami & so we should too.
But Mami’s eyes never close right during prayer service
& I wonder what kind of God you have to be
to receive praise from the hands responsible for that.
How We Got Our Names
Estrella was named after another woman
Papi was cheating on Mami with.
Nobody says that out loud though. But I can tell
by the way my sister’s name jumps off of Mami’s tongue
like one of those side chicks
on The Ricki Lake Show.
On my father’s tongue, Estrella matters.
Her name is a sloooow dance in Brooklyn.
Her name is a bullet that didn’t kill nobody.
Her name is the beeper alert that gets a call back.
Estrella is three years older than me.
She is sixteen but her body is not.
She got that it’s not my fault,
I thought you were older kind of body.
She is the kind of beautiful
that dique puts men in danger
or that makes men want to be dangerous.
The kind of beautiful Mami always wanted to be.
When we walk down Knickerbocker Ave.,
the men hiss like they are deflating at the sight of us.
They call Mami suegra. Mami can’t stand it.
Qué ridículo, she says.
She ain’t old enough to be nobody’s mother-in-law.
She shifts her body in front of Estrella’s, to protect her
or maybe so she can be seen first.
Estrella races to the window
and pulls back the curtain,
which is really just a fuzzy blanket
with a lion print that Mami ordered from Fingerhut,
a magazine that lets Mami own nice things
and pay for them slowly.
Papi parks outside and makes his station wagon cry
until it guilts Mami into letting us go downstairs.
I examine my father until he is human again.
When he hugs me, I want no parts of his hands.
I become Mami the last time he hit her.
Leave me alone. Don’t touch me.
Estrella laughs at my fear & tells Papi
Mami is brainwashing me into hating him.
Papi says he hopes
I’m not becoming an angry bitch like Mami.
Men don’t like angry bitches.
Men leave angry bitches.
All Mami was ever good for was kicking him out.
He can’t remember the last time
her mouth made a home for him.
That’s why he left
and didn’t come around for a few years.
Now Papi comes by every weekend
& gives us five dollars to split.
Estrella & me argue over how to spend it.
can buy us mad chips,
Now and Laters, Devil Dogs.
Or we can use it to share one ham & cheese hero
and a two-liter.
When I look up at the window
you can’t see Mami peeking but
the lion’s mouth is open
and roaring for me to come upstairs.
In Bushwick, the reporters double park
to shoot the latest crime scene & then bounce
quick before their news vans get tagged up.
The teachers find their car radios missing
and blame the worst student they have.
Pero, the teachers and the reporters, they get to leave.
Back to their “good” neighborhoods
with boring-ass walls and vehicles
they don’t have to piece back together like a puzzle.
They’ll have a nice dinner with their predictable family
and talk about their wack-ass day in Bushwick
& somebody will say: You’re lucky you don’t live there.
Someone else will echo: Imagine?!
& they think they can imagine because fear
got them believing they know what it means to be safe.
I mean, it’s one thing to feel danger.
& maybe it’s another thing
to work in it.
& maybe it’s another thing altogether
to live with it.
But it’s something else completely
to be the thing everyone is afraid of.
We Ain’t Afraid
We ain’t afraid of nothing.
We ain’t afraid of nothing.
We ain’t afraid of nothing.
Some days though,
shit is scary.
Not gonna front
like shit ain’t scary.
Damn, yo, what’s so scary?
That’s just Corner Boy Jesus and his friends.
Shit. That’s 5-0. Ayo!
They’re creeping around the corner.
I tell Estrella & the corner boys to run. Run!
Estrella & the corner boys say:
Run? We ain’t running.
Snitch? We ain’t snitching.
Yo, chill, we’ll be aight.
Yo, chill, we’ll be okay.
& even when we not
we are. You know what I mean?
& I know exactly what she means
’cause it’s just like being afraid.
Even when we not we are.
Even when we not we are.
But I don’t say that.
I don’t say that.
Bushwick is full of hip-hop & salsa.
Cuchifritos & soul food.
Nail & hair salons.
Bootleg CD vendors & tamale ladies on the corner.
We are all the same in our difference.
No matter how we got to be neighbors here
We all know we lived somewhere else first.
I know this because on the occasion that
Our eyes lock for more than a moment
Our mouths ask each other the same question.
Where you from? Like nice to meet you.
Where you from? Like what block?
Where you from? Like what country?
Where you from? Like what God?
Where you from? Like where you been?
Where you from? Like where you going?
Where you from? Like who you missing?
Where you from? Like why you here?
Where you from? Like have you gone back?
Where you from? Like what did you leave behind?
Curiosity Killed the Cat
Satisfaction Brought It Back
Mami says ¡que soy entrometida!
& she’s right,
I’m always asking
about things I shouldn’t be.
Estrella thinks I ask a lot of questions ’cause I’m dumb.
Being a dumbass has its rewards though. She laughs.
She means that in Bushwick,
there are some things you just don’t wanna know.
That way you sound believable if the cops ever ask you
something where the answer could get you locked up or killed.
But I know asking questions
is sometimes the smartest thing I could do.
It gives me permission to not know everything.
Besides, answers are just questions
that haven’t been discovered yet.
I Ask Questions About Puerto Rico
When I ask Mami to tell me about Puerto Rico
she says it’s none of my business
and that I should focus on school.
How is where I am from none of my business?
I decide to talk back today.
You are not from Puerto Rico.
You are Nuyorican,
A Puerto Rican born in New York.
Does that make me less Puerto Rican? I wanna know.
Sí. No. ¡Qué sé yo!
Mami is annoyed
& tells me to stop asking questions & pack my clothes.
We are moving.
Leaving Gates Avenue
Mami never has money for the bus or cabs
so we walk our belongings to the new spot
on Knickerbocker Avenue.
We gotta stop at the Check Cashing
to get a money order for the week’s rent.
I’ma miss writing Gates Avenue on the money order.
It always felt super appropriate considering that
everything in Bushwick looks like it could hurt you
if you crossed it.
All the buildings are built like weapons.
Even our schools are gated &
the welfare office is spiked
as if to let you know
that you are entering a war zone.
We order Chinese food through glass
that might stop a bullet
but can’t stop a kid with a blade
and a dope tag.
Windows are secured with metal bars &
roofs are fenced in with barbed wire.
In this way even the sun becomes a criminal
if it sneaks into an armored building.
At the Check Cashing spot the pen is chained
to the counter & today I stole it
just to say I set something free.
How We Got Our Names
is what everybody calls Knickerbocker Avenue.
& since names have a way of making things true
Mami has a warning for Estrella & me
as we leave the new room
we’re staying in to go buy pizza for dinner.
She tells us to come straight home
& not to stand on the ave. for too long.
Si te coge la jara no hay dinero pá sacarte.
Which is to say you can’t even trust the cops
to tell the difference.
Which is to say Puerto Rican girls
always look like they’re for sale.
& for a brief second I wonder what I’m worth.
What it would cost to keep me for a night.
What it would cost to set me free.
Today in Bible Study
God the father.
God the son.
God the Holy Spirit.
Are all the same.
Are all different.
I’m not even gonna front like I get how that shit works.
But if I had to share my identities with two other people
I’ma pick the underdog. The one who flies mad under the radar but does some powerful ass shit.
That’s the Holy Spirit in this case.
I mean, sure, Jesus turned water into wine
and did the whole I’m dead. . .SIKE! I’m not dead bit
but have you ever seen the way the Holy Spirit
possesses a body and makes it dance across the room
without hitting any of the furniture?
I guess what I’m saying is that I think I’m talented
enough to make it out of here
while avoiding everything
that tries to get in my way.
Sarai’s Got Talent
Actually, I don’t really know if talent is the way
out of the hood.
There are mad talented people in Bushwick
who are still here.
Like the ladies who make the toilet paper doll covers
made of yarn
& the hood musicians who record
then hustle their mixtape on CDs on the ave.
& the street chefs who make the most bangin’ empanadas
and tamales that you’ll never find
in any restaurant
& the acrobats who swing their bodies
on an L train pole in the name of showtime.
& the writers who tag up the walls with their names
so colorfully that you couldn’t ignore them
if you wanted to.
Mami says my talent is being nosy.
I say my talent is paying attention.
I know the moment right before
the homeroom teacher
is about to call my name off the roster.
A brief silence stings the air
while all the kids with heavy names
sink their bodies into the chair.
My best friend’s name is Lauricia,
which people always wrongly pronounce
Larissa or Laurish-a.
So she just tells people to call her Lala
to avoid the exhaustion that comes
with correcting people.
Lala & I can tell who has a “good” name
by the way they chew their Bubble Yum
mindlessly or scratch the date on the wooden table.
Our mouths do not get the luxury of rest.
Our mouths must always be war-ready,
which means, sometimes we rip our names
from the teacher’s mouth
before she has a chance to kill it,
but other times we wait.
the teacher is human, like us,
but more real.
Maybe we wait to see if this time, she will get it right
or maybe we are waiting to see if our name
can be held in a mouth that is not our mother’s.
The Cool Puerto Rican English Teacher
Ms. Rivera looks & talks wild familiar.
Like she could be my cousin or something.
How funny it would be if
Ms. Rivera was really just a cousin I didn’t know.
Ms. Rivera could even be me. Yo. Maybe she is me.
The me that finishes school & gets a college degree.
The me that learns how to talk proper and shit.
The me that owns a car and lives in a good neighborhood.
The me that makes mad money, or at least enough
to make sure we always got food in the fridge.
The me Mami couldn’t be.
The me Estrella doesn’t want to be.
The me that makes it
for everybody that couldn’t.
How We Got Our Names
When Ms. Rivera asks me what Mami does for a living
I don’t know how to make her sound important
enough to mention.
You know the kids who have parents with good jobs
by the way their hands shoot up
and shake until they’re chosen.
Let’s hear from someone
we haven’t heard from yet.
Ms. Rivera scans the room for those of us hiding
our hands, our eyes, our lives.
Mami sews people’s clothes, I say.
Ms. Rivera gives Mami’s job a name
that sounds valuable. Names can do that, you know.
I shrug. All I know is that she works
in a factory making clothes
& she’ll never know the people who wear them
and they’ll never know the lady who made them.
Copyright © 2021 by Elisabet Velasquez. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.