The third annual Comadres & Compadres Latino Writers Conference was held on Saturday, September 27 at Medgar Evans College in Brooklyn. It was my first time at the conference. It was also one of the few times in my life when I’ve attended a professional event where I was not the only brown person. I’m a writer, a woman, and Puerto Rican, so I’m often in the minority due to one or all of those identifiers. As an undergrad at an elite New England college, I felt like the token cocoa-colored model who might appear on every eighth page of the J. Crew catalog. I was the face of diversity in grad school and during my corporate career days: I was usually the only non-white, non-male available to feature in promotional literature about inclusive environments. Being a writer is a lonely gig, and even at residencies, retreats, and seminars, I’ve often been the sole writer of color.
My experience was different on Saturday morning in that auditorium in Brooklyn. I was part of a “we”: no longer a lonely singular, but a member of a community. We didn’t all look the same, share the same mother land, write in the same genre, or speak Spanish with the same fluency (or at all), but we were all of a kind. For me, that means the kind of people who know about playing la loteria, praying to la virgen, or having taken sancocho leftovers to school for lunch. The kind who get references to telenovelas, chisme, and time in el campo without need for translation. The kind who understand about being American, yet being asked if you speak English or being told to go back to where you come from. And we were all the kind who are driven to tell the stories of our experiences from our particular point of view.
It was a relief to not be the only Latina in the room. When I was much younger, those situations made me feel lonely, self-conscious, and that my difference was a liability. I’ve been spoken to loudly and slowly, sometimes not at all, which made me feel misunderstood and out of place. The few times I spoke in those alienating situations, people were surprised and marveled, “Wow, you don’t sound Puerto Rican”, like not fulfilling stereotypical expectations was my greatest achievement.
I knew that being well-spoken and being Puerto Rican were not mutually exclusive, but I began to believe the hype: maybe I was always the only Puerto Rican in those classrooms, auditoriums, and corporate offices of my youth because I was exceptional. Maybe I was better, good enough to be admitted into more exclusive circles where I was recognized with glossy plaques, framed certificates, and pats on the head. Those inanimate acknowledgements were shitty companions that only ever made me feel lonelier: too good to be with “regular” Puerto Ricans, but not good enough to be just regular.
At The Las Comadres conference, I was surrounded by people, mostly women, who were each pretty damn exceptional. Writers, like me, who are committed to their craft, and try to find homes for their work and their professional ambitions—and we are an ambitious bunch of mujeres. I listened to writers pitch novels, children’s books, self-help guides, memoirs, and story collections that deserve to be in mass market bookstores on the shelves of their genre, not just on the “Latina/o” shelf. I attended a panel led by Meg Medina who reminded us that when writing, it’s expected to produce a lot of shit before getting to the good stuff. I sat at Esmeralda Santiago’s table for lunch (!!!!) and had a straightforward, down-to-earth sharing with her and the other amazing Latinas at the table about how to stay motivated, the structure and fluctuations of the writing life, our dreams, and our fears and frustrations.
There were eight of us at that table. There were likely less than 200 attendees at the conference. But like I said, it wasn’t the number that mattered. The important thing was that we were all there, together. No one was any better or any more exceptional than anyone else. I certainly wasn’t. We were all just regular, doing what we do, what all writers do, Latina/o or not.