Bruja fea

Friday, June 5, 2020

7:33 am / my urban corner of NJ

In the current context of George Floyd and racism, I recall early moments of being aware that I was being singled out because I was seen as a bad, dirty thing. One instance was in Lerner’s, a women’s clothing chain that I believe went on to become NY&Co.

I was young, perhaps not yet in kindergarten. Mami was a stay-at-home mom throughout much of my childhood, so she took me everywhere with her. The particular day I’m thinking about, she went shopping along Steinway Street, one of the main commercial stretches in Astoria, Queens where I grew up. One of her stops was Lerner’s. I can’t recall if it was to look for clothes for me, her or both of us. I do recall being involved in one of my favorite activities while she shopped: I hid quietly within a circular clothes rack.

I stood within the clothes, cocooned by the fabrics pressing against me, insulated like a fragile object, and enjoying the solitude. As a child—and even now—I loved the safety of little pockets of space: kitchen cabinets, packed closets, under tablecloth-covered tables. I’ve always (ALWAYS) been desperate for insulated darkness where I can be quiet and alone with my mind, where I build worlds with my inner words.

Well, a female sales associate at Lerner’s shattered my peace that day. Exact details are fuzzy, but I recall sudden brightness, so the lady must have pushed apart the clothes to reveal me, like “Aha!” And really, Aha what? She found a little girl daydreaming within a rack of granny-style nightgowns. But I remember the violence with which she pulled those gowns apart. One gown fell to the floor and another clung to the hanger by one long ruffled sleeve. She scared me with the violence of her actions and words and attitude. I don’t remember her exact words, but she accusingly asked what I was doing there, I shouldn’t be in the clothes, didn’t I know better, that was the problem with my people, did I even speak English and understand her.

There were other children in the store making their presence known, playing hide-and-seek and such among the racks, in plain sight of the lady—yet she came after me. I responded the way I always did (and shamefully, often still do): with silence. Tears. Fear. Guilt at being bad. (Why else would my existence elicit anger?) Shame (at being such a bad thing). Evidence of being programmed from the earliest age to direct rage inward, toward myself for being powerless.

I recall Mami intervening, being heated (read: incendiary) in her exchange with the lady, and pulling me by the hand out of the store as she called bruja fea over her shoulder to the lady. Along the walk back home to Ravenswood, Mami had enough fury for the lady (for being racista) and me (for being malcriada). At the time, I didn’t understand what I had done wrong to make the lady and Mami so angry with me. Almost five decades later, I still don’t have a reasonable explanation for the lady’s or anybody’s racismo. I do recognize the powerlessness and hurt that fueled Mami’s anger. I’ve never asked directly if she directed it inwardly like I learned—and am trying to unlearn—to do.

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