Our Brief Wondrous Capacity for Compassion

Black flowers have lost their way… again
Cursed for their will to dream
Raped by mankind again
Like the auction blocks of castrated dreams
Kills the heart of love
Turned into disease…
-excerpt “Black Flowers” by Fishbone

“We have always bled with our veins and legs open to forces beyond our control.”
-Cherríe Moraga

“Dignity was once a reality
But who’s really free
Not you and certainly not me
is that the way it’s supposed to be?
…I don’t know what they’ve done. But they all somebody’s son”
-excerpt, “Somebody’s Son” by Harlem River Drive

Though fictional, the character Beli Cabral is born from webs of warrior women who manage to birth life from our broken wombs.  Life we are sometimes incapable of nurturing through our own trauma. Life granted as testament to our resilience and greatness even in brokenness. Broken wombs seldom birth whole children, but together with broken hearts they weave recetas of healing remedies.  This is a Mother’s Day lament on secrets suppressed and secrets spoken, on broken daughters and broken sons and a call to heal them, heal us.  In healing ourselves, we in turn heal our ancestors.

There is a vicious vulnerability in this cyber space that we use to air out fear, trauma and hurt.  Cyber confessionals are simultaneously used to hunt each other down, launch character assassination missiles from the safety of our screens, while spectating oppressors run free.  I write this from across the waters of the Mona Passage, from the islands known as Puerto Rico, a colony still battling US imperialism and political repression. Waters that flow, unite, cleanse and divide two sister nations wedged apart by colonial legacies of self loath. Here you view all through the lens of catastrophe. Here everything is a matter of life and of death, revealing in between the crucial need to individually and collectively decolonize and liberate.  If only this raging dialogue would elevate the liberatory movement to dismantle patriarchy, white supremacy and oppression, to decolonize our hearts in love.  Instead it resounds with the clanking and cracking of colonized crabs in a bucket. Voices rising to be heard, to be acknowledged, to shed pain, to shed light, to confess, to reveal, to claim collective healing should not be lost in the chaos of cyber chatter. Loveless and liberation-less, this dialogue is left washed out in drab, muted, messed up tones.  Colonial confusion clouds our vision. Colonial confusion castrates our capacity for compassion.  Yet, it is from a space of compassion that we can more effectively tackle being accountable for the harm we have caused while simultaneously advancing mutual healing.

Times like these we reveal ourselves to be a vile race of people.  Oppressive powers that be reveal themselves as more ruthless each day.  We debate, scrutinize, praise a video for its accurate reflection of US violence, then criticize the artist for not doing it well enough. Then we dig deeper to see who he’s sleeping with and examine their color, their gender. We praise the language and violence in one’s books then persecute him after the revelation of the cycle of violence that helped craft these books that we bought and loved.  We love books so much that we hold cyber discourses on how to still teach or replace these books, forgetting all the while to have conversations around the continued rape of our children and what we must do to stop it.

If we are to eradicate violence against children and women we must first call out the inhumanity we cultivate in men when we diminish them to be ambitious performers, providers, protectors and entertainers devoid of emotion.  We cannot publicly lynch someone for the violence they have verbally waged in academia and literary spaces without admitting the inherent violence we inflict when we give more attention to the books a person writes than to their emotional well-being and healing. We cannot claim to bring about more respect, more love when we breeze over suicidal confessions of bodies broken to debate the practices of accolades and awarding.

We cannot declaw the conversation to custom tailor it to our convenience.  Truths are revealed not to shock or shame.  Truths are little fucked up treasures granted as tools to know exactly what we are working with, so the speculation ceases and the real work can begin.  This would involve the decolonization of our hearts so that we are better capable of bringing respect, dignity and integrity to this work.  There is no elevation to be found in a struggle rooted in lovelessness.  Rage is a necessary emotion. Rage exists to despojar, to cleanse, to learn from, to wake up and refocus, to strategize and with new tools in hand, transcend that space and get to working.

“Portrait of the artist and her brother in warrior training camp” 2003, Yasmin Hernandez Art. Acrylic on canvas.

It is difficult sifting through talk of academia, the white male literary canon and how the violence of these have been placed on the shoulders of a brown brother allowed some access. I’m still here cradling an 8-year-old boy that was violated.  I’m still grappling with the limited emotional literacy of a child, their limited vocabulary to even speak their hurt and trauma and expel it from their bodies as needed. I’m still here grappling with the fragile anatomy of a child and how physical and sexual assault can wreak permanent damage on and within their tiny frames.  I’m still here tending to this child’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wounds.  Thoughts might bubble up in your brain like “that’s what we women always do.”  Damn right! It’s what we do when we come from a tribe of ancestral healers who raised each other’s babies and sheltered them from the master’s wrath. Healers that used plants and magic to cast colonial spells out of our violated and bound bodies. We owe it to our ancestors to heal and be healed.

Since reading the New Yorker piece, I have energetically held this injured child, hoping for his healing (I have a son his same age). I read it while sitting in the waiting room at the Gynecologist. Tasting the iron and salt de un buche de sangre. Blood held in a child’s mouth as he wrestled through night terrors. Mouth spitting a morbid morning ritual of ridding himself of this residual blood, of traumas his and not his, still oozing from wounds unhealed.  I have heard the night terror screeches of a rape survivor that rattles your fucking bones. Reading those words, that sick ass, wanna-throw-up feeling I had through the paralyzing winds of Hurricane María rippled through my gut.  When my doctor announced that I recently had a normal pap and didn’t need another, I nearly did cart wheels. (You forget such details in the aftermath of catastrophes like hurricanes on colonialism). Last thing I wanted to do upon reading this narrative was open my legs and vagina up to inspection.

Celebrity has a way of taking the sacredness out of everything. We humans grapple with all sorts of shit that we hopefully tell other trusted souls or trained professionals that can help us elevate from our misery.  Here is a case where one shared their trauma openly. Said trauma has been erased to hold him accountable for the actions resulting from the trauma.  OR, the trauma has been rewritten to be a sinister strategy of self-defense in anticipation of reports of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault. My observation of the dialogue that has ensued is that we reward writers for tragedies that flow from their pens, but deny them the space for confessing, venting, cracking, healing.  The silencing, suppressing or rewriting of another’s truth is never tolerable.   All that has been shared since can be heard and healed as added layers to an unfolding narrative without attempting to suppress or rewrite what has already been stated. It robs the narrative of its authenticity and we all deserve to work with the full truth versus repeating strategic omissions like we have faced throughout history.

my mami and me 

I cannot read of the violation of a child and a month later pretend to not have read it or to dismiss it as some cover up.  The casual quick mention of this detail in some of the comments circulating, its complete omission or its being referenced as a strategy speak volumes to the reality of how children remain the most powerless in cycles of group oppression. Reading this account triggered every part of me, like the part of me that is raising two little boys; the part of me that was terrified of vaginal birth; the part of me that was molested by a neighbor when I was around four years old.  I was too young to remember my exact age.  I was aware enough however to know that what had happened was not supposed to have happened.  I had a very clear sense that I was broken as a result. I had a very clear sense that I had to protect my mother from that betrayal by not telling her. And I was left with a powerful, subconscious sense that I was safe no fucking where and with no fucking body. It becomes very difficult to craft healthy notions of love from broken bodies. I still juggle feelings of not fitting anywhere in this world.

Though my family did not know what happened to me, I was raised with the notion that men were not to be trusted. I was raised to believe in and to fear an inherent monster that lies in each man.  Ironically, I was simultaneously raised to believe that I would marry a man one day and he would be responsible for my financial, physical and emotional well-being. I juggled these conflicting notions that taught me to measure myself by affirmations to be found in another. I carried that crap into my marriage as I was taught.   We drag our own colonial childhood traumas and resulting low self-esteem, low sense of self-worth into our relationships hoping that love will rescue us from these, expecting to be loved whole. We seldom step into love whole.  How many of us are still subscribing to the myth of finding “our other hal,f” not fully contemplating implications of “halfness.”  It is not an agreement we make with our partners. It is an imposed yet unspoken expectation that also happens to be an impossible one as no human being on the planet (beyond perhaps the initial parent/ baby stage) is capable of handling the full protection/ nurturing/ safekeeping/ saving of another.  We step into relationships with partners who, just like us, have much to heal.  How could they have possibly been exempted from the same colonial childhood traumas we ourselves endure? When our partners naturally reveal themselves as incapable of performing this impossible deed of loving us whole, we unleash a generations-deep wrath, raging for all the inherited trauma, ours and not ours, that we desperately need healed. Regardless of gender, we charge those we love with the healing of our wounds.

Victimhood is a helluva drug. If we allow it to persist, it keeps us moving from relationship to relationship (romantic, personal, professional) in search of salvation. It never occurs to us that the manipulation we accuse the other of is part of a mutual ritual of the broken, both seeking salvation in love.  Perhaps if we made more clear, open agreements on the matter, we would be more successful at making mutual healing and growth a central aspect of our loving partnerships, as should be the case.  But this of course would just be a safe, supportive environment in love. Ultimately, we are not only fully capable of, but responsible for healing our own selves. We should not expect another to do this work for us. Accusing our partner of all wrong doing without fully evaluating the brokenness, the expectations, the fantasies and myths that we brought to and upheld in the relationship only sets us up to replicate these dynamics with others.  This is why many of us, of all genders and persuasions, meander in and out of relationships looking to fill voids in ourselves all the while calling it love. It’s not love.  It is hunting and gathering to satisfy our hunger with little consideration for the other person.  Do we fall in “love” with all a person represents and is, brokenness included, or do we fall in “love” with qualities in that person that we believe will qualify them to heal our wounds? If it is the latter, then instead of love, it is actually hiring the best person for a job we won’t be paying for. Psychologically, it is said we subconsciously tend to partner with people who replicate our childhood traumas to have another chance at healing them.  With all these layers at play, oftentimes on the subconscious level, it would benefit us all to get clear on what the fuck love is and to stop throwing the term around so loosely.

Colonialism and sexual abuse anchored my adolescence in an abyss of inferiority complexes.  I tried to escape via an alternate reality crafted from music, art and poetry. Two things helped shift my reality however. The first was my father introducing me to the liberation struggle of Puerto Rico, which became the center of my art and work. The second was when a male friend revealed that he had been raped as a child, by a grown man.  That revelation transformed me at 17 years old. I thought girls and women were the only ones. I realized that no one escapes the violence of patriarchy unscathed, girls and boys alike, even the ones that walk around in grown bodies.

My family and his were in the next room when I was molested. He took me and another little girl right under everyone’s noses. These are sadistic cases that speak to demented obsessions with power and risk, stemming from severe mental illness.  Where many Latinxs/ people in general are raising boys to roam independently, toughening them up and playing lil soldier with them to build their own macho dreams, I am guarding the shit out of my boys.  We talk about emotions and feelings.  We talk about justice, liberation, peace, love, the earth and universe. I knew to intervene one day when I saw their father tickling them to giggly shouts of “No, papi!”.  If they say no, we stop.  We must teach them how to have agency over their own bodies, so they know how to respect someone else’s agency over their body.  We do all as a family, and their father and I take turns in going out to pursue our passions and work while the other holds it down with our children. If you have ever commented to me about my not having enough of a social life or not giving my art career enough push or play, not being out in the world enough, leave me alone.  The world does not need another painting as much as it needs more healthy, emotionally sound, liberated, elevated men. That is my priority right now.  It is also my priority to continue my own healing so that I raise them in liberation and not smother them with my own fears. Each day I am learning how to love more. From this space of love, I am free to pursue all else. Without it I am a mere, molded, malleable colonial subject.

Josef’s birth (in our bedroom really), 2012 with our midwife Sakina O’Uhuru.

As a survivor who continues to experience and witness the wrath of injured men from my family, community and everywhere, I deliberately center my thoughts on boyhood, manhood and constructions of masculinity within my own womb that birthed two little boys on my sofa and bedroom floor respectively. I birthed them real, I birthed them raw, vivid, peaceful and on my own terms. Hospitals were where my brother battled cancer and as a survivor I needed a woman-centered space where my safety and comfort were priority.  My midwife, delivered breech by her own grandmother from a line of women whose healing traditions transcended generations of enslavement, was fierce.  She was my first therapist, my healer who revealed the infinite powers of my vagina, not as a site of trauma but as a site of light, possibility and strength.

Though no physical trauma was inflicted during the abuse (mostly likely because of the people in the next room), the mental and emotional trauma wedged themselves in that part of my body.  Prior to the births, a recurring cyst in my vaginal area sometimes made it difficult to walk.  The first one came shortly after a phone conversation with my mother where she revealed that the man who had molested me had died.  My dead silence on the other line alerted her to something having happened.  That was how I finally told her 20 years later.  The cyst continued every few months for the next 7 years.  I found healing with the help of a Puerto Rican man/ reiki master/ acupuncturist recommended to me by one of our freedom fighters.  Learning about the abuse through a routine line of questions for my medical history, he was surprised to learn that I had not sought therapy for it. “These things don’t just go away! We suppress it, hoping it will disappear, but it turns up somewhere in our bodies, in a tumor, in some illness,” he warned. I listened while squirming in my seat because I had been sitting on one of them fucking cysts at the very moment. Each time he had done auricular acupuncture on me, I bled from the point connected to my reproductive organs.  After that schooling session, in the bathroom I discovered a stream of blood flowing. Sitting there, hearing his words the cyst had drained.  I went home that night and wrote a poem about the cyst as the reincarnation of my now dead molester.  The cyst hasn’t been back.  It’s been 11 years.

We humans who all carry loads of trauma fall ill and drop dead like flies.  We blame it on all kinds of shit. It is easier to speak of violent deaths because the cause is blatant.  We speak of healing in western medical terms but give little attention to our emotional well-being and capacity for self-healing.  We especially watch our men of color die. They show videos of it as sport on-line.  I’ve watched two men die before my eyes.  The first was after a birthday celebration of mine with friends where we saw a brother stabbed, fall writhing in the street. I gave his friend my white crocheted sweater to help stop the blood, but it kept flowing and pooled in the gutter until he stopped moving.  His friend uttered the phone number of the victim’s mother to my friend who left the anonymous, 1 am tragic message about her son. He was 19 and had a baby on the way.  My brother found a few lines in a newspaper about it.

A few years later I watched my own brother heaving like a beast the whole night as he battled to hold on to his breath. The cancer had consumed his skeletal system.  He breathed like a raging bull because he didn’t want to leave us. Since childhood he had charged himself with caring for my mom and his sisters, especially as our father weaved in and out of our home.  I have wondered if his inability to live up to this impossible standard of masculinity, his inability to shield, carry and protect us as he felt he should gave him blood cancer in the first place. I know emotional labor.  Though we perfect it, it is not a trait exclusive to women, nor do all women possess the capacity for it. I watched my brother die from fucking emotional labor!  I have watched men mother more effectively than some women. If we are to eradicate patriarchy, we must stop appropriating and wielding patriarchal weapons in our fight.

When a man stepped up to talk about his wrongdoing and contextualized it within the revelation of his own trauma, his own experience with sexual assault, I saw it as opening a space towards shifting this dynamic that has persisted for way too long.  He wrote a public piece where he revealed the unthinkable, at least all the unthinkables within a hyper-masculine, sexualized culture that is generally Latinx and Dominican culture:  rape, being raped by a man, being raped as a child, resulting impotence, infidelity, aggression, and suicidal tendencies.  In other words, by societal standards, this man committed a form of self-castration, and for public consumption nonetheless.

There have been many questions around the term sexual assault.  In Merriam Webster it is listed as the “illegal sexual contact that usually involves force upon a person without consent or is inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent…” On a website providing resources around sexual assault to children, it goes on to list that any type of unwanted/ non-consensual touching, including kissing, would constitute sexual assault. Though they define the term sexual assault as a wide umbrella it goes on to state that if you have been sexually assaulted you should not bathe and you should go to a hospital to be checked for signs of trauma. These terms must be defined and addressed explicitly. I admit that prior to this case, though I would know to fight off a forced kiss, I didn’t realize that it would fall under “sexual assault.”  For many, sexual assault is rape.  We have taught that sex must be consensual. We see kissing as part of foreplay, but we also kiss very casually in our culture and a kiss is not always deemed as foreplay.  If a kiss given and not consented to is sexual assault, then we must go back to the Sex Ed drawing board quick fast before we lose another generation of our young men to prison over kissing, like we lost the last one to the weed that white people now capitalize on. I am not trying to compare the selling and use of weed with the abuse of women. I am commenting on the mass criminalization of our men and on the nuanced and multilayered socio-political implications on our communities still marginalized, implications rooted not just in patriarchy but in white supremacy as well.  A white kid can rape an unconscious woman and get slapped with three months in prison.  5 black kids get coerced to take the rap and serve prison time for a white woman raped even though they did not do it.  As we have dialogues about this, it is helpful to discuss and strategize around the impact on our communities.  It helps to raise awareness around these issues and to educate children and young adults accordingly.  Additionally, as many have spoken about not giving someone a free pass because of who they are, we must also be careful not to condemn a person beyond what it is merited because of who they are.  We must also take care not to trivialize the experiences of other survivors by failing to acknowledge the gravity of their experiences while over analyzing/ over publicizing the experience of another.

Many comments on-line have come from academia.  The fight against sexism and patriarchy within academia cannot be limited to the privileged confines of academia.  Sexism and patriarchy have indeed limited the advancement of our studies and our careers and success; however, we cannot neglect the fact that for countless people in our communities, there will be no studies or flourishing careers because abuse and cyclical, systemic violence stunts our growth as children. The problem with perceived upward mobility, which is assimilation really, is that for it to really work, we must subscribe to the myth that all is well and swell up there (academia, white collar work place, literary world, insert your chosen space of perceived success).  Then we are mortified upon discovering that people up there are just as broken as they are in our home communities and/ or when poor.  It is not about education, material access and gain.  It is a spirit problem rooted in oppression and resulting lovelessness. How can academia be instrumental in lifting people with limited access?  How can academics of color and in general be held accountable to the people and communities who bear the weight of privileged decisions, people and communities with limited to no access to academia but who become case studies and folkloric findings in dissertations?

Lessons on lovelessness and liberated loving were the order of the day when I moved to my ancestral homeland of Borikén in 2014, leaving the New York City where I was born and raised.  I would not have survived repatriation had I not ascended in my healing journey with the guidance of an amazing Boricua therapist the year before my move.  The first thing this land showed me was how my loving or lack of loving was intricately interwoven in my colonial trauma and in the systemic trauma my ancestors had suffered.  Oftentimes what we call love is to smother.  We possess to protect.  It is what our ancestors had to do to protect their babies on plantations.  We continue to police each other with this notion of knowing our place and knock each other for ascending above our societally accepted space.  Unaware of how this genetic trauma is passed down generations, we carry out this policing for survival nonsense that is no longer relevant to our realities and works more to the benefit of our oppressors.  Here’s an example: the chosen word “asshole” and its prevalent use in this cyber dialogue. The dialogue devolves to name calling.  The word chosen not only describes a character in question, but it happens to mark the very site of the child’s trauma as revealed in the New Yorker piece.  And we wonder why a nigga can’t heal….
(my word choice is strategic and intentional).  I also use child in present tense because as this man is brought up for review, investigation, scrutiny, insults, the injured child persists. We have done everything possible to bury this injured boy.  It is easier to rage at the man, call him an abuser and an asshole.  Few seem to have demonstrated the courage to face the 8-year-old and bear witness to his truth in the same way we must and should bear witness to the truth of the women coming forward.  Perhaps doing so might force us to confront and heal our own inner child injured.  In the social media aftermath with everyone and their mother commenting, I admit fearing the number of men taught to stay silent after watching how this whole thing went down. Actually, I have seen a number of posts telling men to keep silent and just listen. Listening is a must, but for all sides. This is a necessary fight for us all. We owe it to ourselves to elevate this dialogue. Let us push past the primal place of fear and come to this with love and compassion because there is effective strategy there.

The truth is that all we needed to know was long revealed in those books. We consume the fiction, the fantasy.  If it’s not real, it’s shameless entertainment. Junot authentically took his truth everywhere all the while negotiating the dynamics of his own trauma and healing.  Maya Angelou warned us that when one tells us about themselves we should believe them.  Then he told all and then some in his article.  But as the famous scene blurts in A few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!”  Junot was great so long as he was fiction. When Junot revealed himself as non-fiction, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, help us baby Jesus, everybody pulled out their guns.

We colonized people appropriate the terror tactics of our oppressor. We attack when our opponent is most weak. We lose sight of the collective oppressive forces that keep us under siege and instead attack each other when we are down.  We do this effectively because we have long practiced on ourselves and each other as women.  Our oppressors have taught love as a weakness when it is our greatest decolonial strategy.

I’m wondering about the 8-year-old child that was sacrificed. Was it he, adult Junot or the totality of Junot, post-solar eclipse shadow side and all, that called for a decolonial love? If love is the ultimate expression of liberation and if within liberation love can be its highest and purest, what reality must someone be living to know and call for the decolonization of the greatest liberating force of humanity? I hope that in the rage and hurt and in wanting to hold him accountable to what he himself first stepped forward to admit, that we do not miss the opportunity to listen and learn from what his experiences have revealed and what his healing journey has called forth.  We can learn from the journeys of ALL to end this patriarchal shit once and for all.

Though it be brief right now, our capacity for compassion is indeed wondrous. Wondrous for all the liberatory possibilities we cultivate and activate when we think, act and behave with our integrity, dignity and humanity at center.  Wondrous Compassion when we are called to stop replicating our oppressors’ need to conquer, to compete, to destroy. Wondrous for the possibilities of uniting as a force against real systemic oppression.  Wondrous when we realize that the power of our healing journeys is in our own hands. Wondrous and liberating in standing in solidarity to fight a war our oppressors declared on us centuries and generations before we were ever born.  Wondrous like love decolonized.

This is dedicated to my mother, my mother’s mother and their mothers. I share my secrets for all the mothers who could not.

Brooklyn-born and raised, Yasmín Hernández utilizes art as a decolonial strategy.  In 2014 she repatriated to her ancestral homeland of Puerto Rico.  She lives and works in the hills of Moca where she dedicates herself to raising her two boys, writing, creating art and living love as the ultimate liberation strategy. She shares her repatriation chronicles at repatriatingboriken.com and her artworks can be seen at yasminhernandezart.com.


3 thoughts on “Our Brief Wondrous Capacity for Compassion

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  1. Pingback: News (May 2018)
  2. As another survivor affected by Diaz’s reflection, I am writing a few reflections on his essay and the accusations against him. Would it be okay to cite your blog post?


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