I believe in joy. I don’t think it’s something you can touch but I know it lives. It lives between people, under our skin, hidden in our bones, hanging in the air we breathe and sitting in the silences of our stories. I come to the page and to poetry to find and sit with that joy, but I also look for it in my writing tribe, the community of writers and friendships I have cultivated over the last few years by attending writing workshops, readings and residencies predominantly by and for writers of color. My writing tribe has kept me sane and stable. My writing tribe reminds me why I write and encourages me to keep writing.
But building and sustaining this writing community has not come easy for me. I am Afro-Latina and because my race and ethnicity are always at odds with what the world understands, I have often felt alienated and othered even in places that were meant to feel inclusive.
At a workshop in Texas a few years ago, for example, only two of us were of African descent. And while there were plenty of opportunities for sharing, communing, talking, laughing, and crying, I struggled to find my place and to feel safe in this space. Even though everyone was inclusive, open, loving and kind, I felt alienated. All four days of the workshop I tried to not feel self-conscious about my writing, my hair, my skin color and the way I spoke my loud and splintered Spanish. The only other Afro-Latina in the group was Raina, and she and I gravitated towards each other, grew closer, and, over those four days, leaned on each other for support when needed.
On the final night of the residency after a few street tacos and a couple of margaritas at a local dive bar, Raina and I, and another small group of writers, walked the brick-laid streets of downtown San Antonio. We were surrounded by rambunctious bars, dim yellow streetlights, historic homes and the Texas heat. I took a second to look around and wonder at the moment. The other group was quickly ahead of us engrossed in a conversation about Gloria Anzaluda and poetry while Raina and I lagged behind, enjoying each other’s presence and the stars.
I felt joy then and told Raina I loved what she said about passing on generational joy instead of generational trauma. “How do you think we do that?” I asked. She paused and adjusted her scarf, rustled her curls with her long slender fingers, and stared deeply into the night sky.
As we waited for her words to enlighten us both, an old rusted red Camaro drove past. A man, whose face I could not see, raised his white fist out of the window, shook it as if it were on fire, and yelled: “White power! White power!”
The Camaro skidded off and its exhaust fumes blew my curls back. I shivered, and goose bumps rose up my arms. A cold shiver snaked up my sweaty spine and we both stopped walking. The small group of writers ahead of us never stopped. Either they hadn’t heard the insult or had chosen to ignore it. Whatever their reason for not stopping, I knew the insult was meant for us, not them, and in that moment Raina and I were not poets or writers, or educated women with published books and degrees. To that man in the Camaro we were just two ni**er women walking down a Texas street where we didn’t belong.
Raina adjusted her scarf again and looked at me wide-eyed from behind her blue-rimmed glasses. I caught her stare and our eyes locked in disbelief.
“Did that just happen she asked?”
“Yes. Yes it did,” I said. And there was nothing left to say.
The Texas heat smothered our black skin and swallowed us whole. We knew that this reality was inescapable, that there would always be someone trying to rob of us of our joy. But at least in that moment, thanks to Raina who after that residency would become an integral part of my writing tribe, I didn’t have to face it alone. We both sighed out what little joy was left in our lungs and walked back in silence. Raina never finished explaining to me how we could pass on our joy but I continue to look for it on the page, and in my tribe of writers who know what I know and have lived what I’ve lived.
Jasminne Mendez is an award winning author, performance poet and educator. She received her B.A. in English Literature and her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. Mendez has had poetry and memoir published both nationally and internationally and her first multi-genre memoir Island of Dreams published by Floricanto Press was awarded Best Young Adult Latino Focused Book by the International Latino Book Awards in 2015. Recently, her personal essay "El Corte" received honorable mention in the Barry Lopez Creative Non-Fiction Prize in CutThroat, A Journal of the Arts. She is the co-founder of Tintero Projects: A Reading & Writing Workshop Series, an organization that seeks to build and promote emerging and established Latinx writers in Houston. She is a 2016 VONA/Voices Alumni and a Macondo Fellow and she is an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.
Read Jasminne's poem, "An Abecedarian Lesson for My Bilingual Students in Houston."