By: Denise Santina Ruíz
Growing up we moved around a lot. Changing neighborhoods and rent prices had our family relocating about every 2 years between Wicker Park and Humboldt Park. During these relocations my father enrolled my brother, sister and me in at least 3 different Catholic schools for our grade school years. He felt that if we were going to get any chance in this life we had to go where the “Blancos” were taught, we couldn’t go to public schools, where being brown as he remembered rendered you to the special education class. Where teachers treated you like an alien life force unable to communicate with earthlings.
At ten-years-old I was a skinny legged girl in a plaid jumper dress surrounded by mostly brown and black kids and white teachers at Our Lady of Grace. Most of the teachers were scowling nuns who didn’t wax their upper lip so I would find myself staring at the fuzz above their mouth whenever they came close to me. I was in 4th grade and Sister Francis was a particularly angry nun who one morning taught a history course in which she called Native Americans “savages.” I don’t remember her history lesson, but I remember that word and how it crept into the lineage of my skin like a parasite. When I told my father he became enraged and began telling me another kind of history, a history of First Nation’s people including the Taíno Indians that came from our ancestry in Puerto Rico.
We were driving in my father’s 1973 red and white Thunderbird, and he kept looking back at me through the rearview mirror and hitting the steering wheel to drive his points home. It was still nice enough in Chicago to have the windows down and my hair kept flying into my face as I tried to keep focus on his teaching.
“Do you know we come from the Indian people? From Taíno, Arawak people who existed long before invasion?”
“Do you know we had our own language, our own customs and ceremonies? People who call Native Americans savages only do so because they are ignorant mija. Racist.”
I didn’t dare interrupt him to ask what racist meant, I simply nodded and allowed him to continue. “The savages came later with boats and chains. You tell her that”, he said, hitting the steering wheel. “Tell her Columbus didn’t discover shit!” He laughed in that way angry people do when they’re emotions get all confused and come out of the wrong filter.
My eyes popped open and my mouth hung aghast, my father looked through the rear view mirror and his eyes became clearer as though he finally realized he was speaking to a 10-year-old child.
“Ok maybe don’t say shit….but she was wrong.”
With new found knowledge and insight I began excitedly challenging Sister Francis’s context and demanded that we be taught other kind of History. “Why can’t we learn about our country, Sister Francis?!” I asked defiantly. I suggested getting info on Latin American countries since most of the students were Latinos. Sister Francis looked exasperated and annoyed each time my hand shot up. I was a subversive, an ignited rebellion. Her solution was to do a geography map naming Capitals of the states in the U.S. and threw in Puerto Rico free of charge. She asked the class, while eyeing me “who knows the capital of Puerto Rico?” I raised my hand and she nodded for me to go to the board. I jumped up and wrote in “Ponce” because that was where my family resided and where your family is from always feels like the Capital of a country. She mocked me and told the class, “that’s wrong, the Capital of Puerto Rico is San Juan not “Pons.” I was humiliated, it was the 1st time I realized I didn’t know much of who I was or where I came from. It was also the first time a teacher told me to shut up without ever having to utter that phrase.
I went through school flying under the radar. Nothing stuck to me or felt relevant. Though the kids were Latino, they were mostly from Mexico or Guatemala, I didn’t see Puerto Rican kids until my parents bought their first home and we moved back to Humboldt Park. All of my teachers were white up until this point except when I began 6th grade at St .Mark’s and my teacher was Mr. Villalobos. Now, even though Mr. Villaobos was as Boricua as they get he told everyone he was Sicilian. But we knew he was one of us. He sat at the front of the class with a toothpick in his mouth and cursed when we got on his nerves. He had short cropped curly hair that would sometimes grow into a small afro in between haircuts and didn’t walk like the other teachers, all fast paced and stiff bodied. Instead he walked with a slight swagger, his shoulders were lax. He had thick lips that would curl in contempt when he felt you were bullshitting him about why you didn’t do your homework.
Mr. Villalobos wasn’t married, or at least we didn’t think so. Teachers had no romantic lives in our minds. But he came to school in just rolled out of bed khakis and loose ties so we assumed he wasn’t taken care of. Either way, he was attentive and challenging. Once in a parent/ teacher meeting I sat there feeling embarrassed because I had gotten a ‘C’ in English. My parents nodded in agreement as he explained to them that I was an A-B student easily, but lacked discipline and always did enough to just get by.
I would frustrate him in class because I would “hide under” my “potential” he’d say.
He liked to play mock courtroom lessons which he felt helped us think critically about facts and truth while also encouraging our ability to speak in public. In one particular lesson, I was playing lawyer to Yvette, the pretty Puerto Rican girl with a head of curls and big smile. I was to defend her in what was an obvious case of mistaken identity. I excitedly got my argument together, wrote down facts, and conferred with my client. Mr. Villalobos asked for opening statements and then had the prosecution call Raul as the 1st witness. His answers threw me off, my palms began to sweat and my heart began to thump like a gavel inside my chest. I was called to cross examine.
I froze, and then uttered slowly “No questions at this time your honor”
Yvette whipped her head at me and said, ‘huh?!”
Mr. Villalobos shook his head and said, “bad move D.”
I felt my whole body shrinking and tears begin to form in my eyes.
Yvette clicked her tongue, shot her hand in the air and began speaking before Mr. Villalobos could nod, “Can I get a new lawyer please?!”
Later, Mr. Villalobos asked me what happened. I shrugged and looked down at my payless ballet slipper shoes, they were my favorite. All the girls wanted them. I felt like a ballet dancer gracefully gliding through the hallways, pirouetting through my adolescent existence, they were supposed to be my magic shoes, but a look closer one could see the pleather unraveling at the seams, and the tip of the toe was worn even after I had colored them in with black marker to keep them looking perfect. They were imitation shoes. No prima-ballerina would be caught on stage with them.
“I don’t know,” …I finally replied “I just got so nervous, my voice felt shaky, I didn’t wanna look dumb in front of everyone” I confessed.
Mr. Villalobos, never one to stroke a tender ego, tilted his head and said, “And so what if you’re nervous? You think I wasn’t nervous when I began teaching? You think I wasn’t nervous to be in the front of a class with all you brilliant, smart-assed kids?”
I felt myself smirk, I always smirked when Mr. Villalobos cursed, it felt so rebellious, so un-teacher like.
“Of course I was” he continued. “But you gotta push through that, even if your voice shakes, you still have to use it or else you will never be heard.”
“But Mr. Villlalobos, you don’t understand, the kids will make fun of me and…”
He cut me off, “and you’ll survive. Stop playing weak D, use your words and who gives a shit what anyone thinks.”
Sister Francis, with her upright religiosity and humiliation, taught me that my history was filled with savagery and contempt. She shut me down and tried to snuff my fire. But Mr. Villalobos with his disheveled, cussing, “Sicilian”-Boricua burly self, taught me the power of my voice. He challenged me to crawl through the shell of charred self-esteem, and another seed began to grow.
And then just like that, things shifted. During 8th grade my parents split and the next few years were a blur, as we were thrust, like most kids are, in the battlefield of scorned mothers and guilty fathers. During this time they both began new families and I attended a High School on the North side called Mather where I was immediately culture shocked. I floated through my classes, uninspired, unhappy. I failed a lot of subjects and would journal incessantly. In my English classes I learned the poetry of great white men and women, the classics they were called. But their language felt nothing like mine. Their poems were baroque and formal, they sounded like puffed up chests. While mine spoke slang, had an accent like Cortez Street, & looked split down the middle like my family. I wrote my own poems and showed them to certain students who then commissioned me to write one for them and paid a dollar for each.
I flunked out my Senior year and my father frantically tried to figure out a solution to my schooling. All his years of working three jobs to send us to private schools would not be in vain. I enrolled in a start up Alternative school where the “problem kids” would go. All the teachers there were young, of color and passionate. I hated it. I stayed to myself and looked down my nose at the drop-out neighborhood High School kids. I didn’t belong with them, is what I thought. I knew they came with a suitcase load of stereotypes and I wanted none of it, not even a carry on. I didn’t want to see myself in what was deemed as the throw-aways.
I remember my English teacher breaking down in tears one day during class out of sheer frustration with the apathy of the students and our unwillingness to read the required stories.
“You all don’t understand…” he said between sobs…”how much you have the power to change your reality… how much you can do if you just stop believing that this is it!” he waved his hands around his head. “I love you all… I want you to succeed, but you have to want it too.”
Some kids shifted in their seats, uncomfortable. Some kept their eyes down and doodled on the desk, while others smirked, whispered to their friends what a “pussy” he was. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of him. I observed his slouched shoulders, his bi-focal glasses he took off to wipe his eyes with a tissue, the patches of sweat beneath his arms. His desk was empty, except for his attendance book and half the class’s wrinkled homework papers.
One of the kids, Angel, finally broke the tension, “Man, don’t cry, it’s just reading is boring, it’s like sometimes I like it, but most times I don’t really care, it ain’t tellin me nothing I need when I go out there ya know what I’m sayin?”
The class seemed to nod in unison and then a girl named Tati spoke up, “Yeah, it’s true and I like reading believe it or not, I hand in my homework, but I do it cause I have to, cause I wanna graduate and be something betta for my daughter, but dayum, I can’t like…I don’t know how to say it….”
“Relate” I said out loud surprised by my own voice.
I saw the teacher sit up for the 1st time, like a light switch went off.
The next week, I walked into my English class and the teacher had about 15-20 books sprawled out on the desk and told us to choose one we wanted. The whole class seemed to roll their eyes and slowly went up. Immediately a buzz began to emanate within the group. I scanned the books and noticed almost all of the authors were Latino, men and women, with their own stories, with names that felt like my neighbors back in the day. It was like my heart began again. I picked up the books flipping through pages, looking at the covers, the back, the beginning paragraphs. Some of the books were from the teacher’s personal library at home. I saw Angel grab Piri Thomas’s “Down These Mean Streets” and immediately begin reading. I started with the same one and never stopped. I never knew Latinos wrote books. I knew we could tell good stories. We are a community of orators and “dichos” for days. But published books?! In all my years of schooling I never read one story by Latinos for Latinos. Even Mr. Villalobos never veered from the textbook of the bland. I read everything,I went to bookstores with intention. I scavenged the names on the shelves until I came to ones that looked like home. I read it all from Julia Alvarez to Esmeralda Santiago. I discovered Junot Díaz, Abraham Rodríguez and fell in love with the stories of Sandra Cisneros who talked about where she came from and for the first time I saw myself in that place. I recognized that place, it felt like a place I belonged. And the world opened and let me in a little bit more after every story. And after each story I let the world in.
Some teachers teach facts and some lead you to your place of truth, some will shut off your light while others help you find your way out of silence. And some teachers, the best ones I think, will hold up a mirror and reflect back to you your own beautiful identity. Lead you to navigate the lines of your face in history. I don’t remember that teacher’s name but I remember his lesson. And the seed that was sown before I stopped watering finally sprouted within me rooted in books.
Denise Santina Ruíz is a Puerto Rican writer, mother, designer and agitator. She was a two-time finalist for the annual Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Competition, and has featured in such events/venues as the Annual Barrio Arts Festival, the Athenaeum Theater, Batey Urbano, Ponce-at-night, Guild Complex’s Palabra Pura and Columbia College’s 2nd Story among others. Denise recently wrote and performed in the performance piece, “Unnatural Spaces,” from the Guild Complex’s Poetry-Performance Incubator. She has also taught poetry and creative writing to youth in the Humboldt Park community where she was born and raised and is the owner of “Madre de Perla Designs.” She believes in real talk, revolution and statement earrings.