“By the time I was in my early twenties, I was utterly convinced I was a bad person. It may not sound very rational for a grown woman to see herself as “bad” but that’s what it came down to. I grew up understanding the violence around me as a punishment because I was a bad girl. At the time , I was also undocumented and the fear inflicted by federal and institutional policies and the fear I saw in my mother’s eyes later reassured me that “undocumented” was a bad thing to be.”
— Flying with Butterflies
It’s not always easy to confront your past, especially if it’s a mixed bag of emotions–filled with abuse, migration, anxiety, and confrontation. In Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez’s chapbook, “Flying with Butterflies” she revisits her most painful memories, acknowledges the abuse that she had to survive through, and accepts that part of her self-love means “healing will never have a finite point.”
I first met Sonia in a Latina Feminism class. She was confident, but it struck as a confidence she had learned, rather than always had. She was visiting NYC to do research for her PhD. During the class, when I voiced my concern over the lack of Central American writers, she was the first to offer me a list of writers I should read.
This is powerful, for one main reason: seeing writers who look like me, have the same background, and are even from the same country as my folks, lets me believe that sharing similar pasts also means possibly sharing similar futures.
Sonia’s stories are mixed with fear, adventures, bravery, and sprinkled with bit of catholic guilt–something many Latinas can relate to. One of her first stories is about her First Communion, the awkward acceptance of the lord’s body followed up with a celebration at McDonald’s, of course. Unfortunately, by that time, she had already lost her faith. The prayers for her dad to stop beating her mom or to just flee, were never answered. This occasion, and many more, left her feeling damaged, but at the same time figuring out how to be “una buena niña.”
I recommend this chapbook to any woman who understands how difficult it is to carve out your own identity when your roadblocks come from the ones you love most, when you start to evolve your idea of what love is and dream of loving yourself before any other person, status and social norm.
Read the interview with Dr.Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, author of “Flying with Butterflies” below:
For a very long time, my family was the only one that was aware of the violence we were experiencing. Domestic violence has a pervasive culture of silence that makes it difficult to ask others for help. We were also undocumented which also required its own form of silence and secrecy. I learned to keep my mouth shut and to internalize what was happening mostly out of a greater fear of being separated from my mother and sister, either by way of child protective services or as a result of deportation. In high school, teachers often talked about college as a means to leave one’s community and achieve a better life. I began to see college as my escape from the violence I witnessed and as an opportunity to be someone else. However, that wasn’t what happened when I got to college. I was racked with guilt for having left my family behind. The violence continued but now I was farther away and could do less to interfere. It was during my Introduction to Latina/o Studies course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, while learning about the different histories of oppression impacting Latina/o communities, that I began to understand what was happening at home. I spent many years after that processing the anger, the self-hate, and the despair I felt about my identity and my relationship to violence. In Flying with Butterflies I revisit and confront the past mostly out of my own desire to survive. My trauma had a form of its own and it consumed me from the inside until I no longer felt like a person but more like a vessel for pain and loneliness. Writing and sharing these stories became a way to gain control over the traumatic experiences rather than have them continue to control me.
Writing on my relationship with my mother has been one of the most difficult subjects to write about. I find myself doing it a lot, though. I harbor(ed) much resentment toward her because I often asked more of her than she could or knew how to give me—a demand I’ve also made of others throughout my life. Domestic violence impacted her most of all because she was the one at the center of it. There are many times that I feel guilty, selfish, and dramatic for even writing about these experiences because I feel I didn’t have it as bad as she did. However, my mom and I have been part of a larger cycle of violence that has impacted, and continues to affect, generations of our family—shit, of course, we don’t really talk about. My mom was about 18 when she had me and about 23 when she immigrated to Chicago. At 18 I was staring college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at 23 I had finished my first year of graduate school at the University of California Riverside. Subconsciously and/or consciously both of us have been working toward ensuring that I lead a different life than she did. In other words, we’ve been striving to make me as different from her as possible. She’s always telling me that the hard shit she’s gone through has been worth it because I’m educated. My education is a source of pride for her because the value of the end product is greater than anything she’s ever had in her life. While my mom might not have understood much about the educational system in this country, she always made sure I had glasses so I could read the board, for example. She cleaned the optometrist office for a while in exchange for my first pair of glasses because we couldn’t afford to pay for them. Wanting to give me a different life than the one she had has meant that my mom and I have drifted apart. And as much as we might have worked at making me different from her I’ve come to realize that I was wrong for even trying to do that. My mother is strong, brave, caring, intelligent, temperamental, anxious, and needy. So am I. I also look a lot like my mother. It’s hard to ignore, erase, or run away from our relationship when it’s like she’s staring at me in the face every time I look in a mirror. At the end of the day, though, she is still my mother and having a healthy relationship with her remains important to me. I can’t continue to hold the pain and hurt she has because of what she’s gone through against her but I can negotiate how they affect me.
The first writings by women of color feminists I read were those of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Trinh Minh-Ha, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Cherrie Moraga. What I’ve learned and has always stuck with me about their writings is that there is power in my story. Once I opened up about my citizenship status or about my experiences with domestic violence I found that there were others like me out there that had similar stories. Finding and creating community has been a significant part of my healing process because I have found such great power in sharing stories. I began writing about my life because I needed to do it for my own sake but I also hoped that my words might give others insight. The universal themes I address in Flying with Butterflies are also personal. Not everyone may be able to relate to my experiences with domestic violence but they might be able to relate to my relationship with my mother. More broadly, Flying with Butterflies is a journey toward self-love and that’s a theme that is both universal and personal. I specifically chose to self-publish because I couldn’t and didn’t want to wait for a publisher to show my writing some love. My stories have been brewing inside of me for a long time and only I could give them validation. I didn’t set out to write about universal themes. I wrote about what I’ve experienced and what I’ve learned. That others can connect to these stories further demonstrates our shared experiences as Latinos, as women, or as people. And even those that can’t connect to anything I have to say can stand to learn something from what I’ve written.
Patriarchy and machismo are very real effects of colonialism that continue to impact us today. Because I have two younger sisters and a younger brother I am definitely very conscious of how I challenge patriarchy and how I live my feminist politics. I sure as hell didn’t have the strength or the know-how to practice these politics when I was growing up. Challenging patriarchy is way scary when those reinforcing it are literally bigger than you. I needed to grow into my feminist politics. Since then I’ve been learning to challenge feminism and those creating and writing the feminist thought that guide my politics. While feminism has helped me find healing and empowerment, it has also been a great source of isolation for me. I’m often read as mean, offensive, insensitive, angry, unladylike, aggressive, confrontational, a pessimist, a bitch, etc. At times, this shit is laughable but there are other times when I wish my mouth had a filter. I am surrounded by others that identify as feminists and understand this empowerment and isolation—so that helps. It’s when those closest to me criticize me for my “macho” personality that it stings a little bit more. Such critiques are often followed by questions about my romantic relationships, and when I’ll get married, and when I’ll have babies, y que se me va a pasar el tren, and that I have to learn to cook and clean—this bullshit is overwhelming. Because I have little interest in marriage, children, and domesticity I feel like I have to defend my womanhood that much more. In Flying with Butterflies I attempt to demonstrate that it has taken me awhile to embrace and love how strong and independent I am. I can’t help but think of Sandra Cisneros’s “Loose Woman” right now: “I’m an aim-well,/ shoot-sharp,/ sharp-tongued,/ sharp-thinking,/ fast-speaking,/ foot-loose,/ loose-tongued,/ let-loose,/ woman-on-the-loose/ loose woman./ Beware, honey.”
As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that my mother has been informing my feminism way before I even got to college and learned the word. My mother has always been adamant about not letting any man hurt us, tell us what to do, or bring us down. She’ll say that it might be too late for her but not for us. When my mother put a stop to all the beatings my siblings and I were taken aback because she began to talk louder and we always thought she was yelling at us. She’d say that that’s how she talks now and that we should speak up too.
My feminist approach is one where I try to lead by example. I’m not here to save anyone. I can’t do that. But I can share what I’ve learned from my experiences and about how healing is a continuous process. Most importantly, I want to be a good role model for my younger siblings. I want to encourage them to be unafraid to be them and to be unapologetic about challenging oppression. I do have a harder time making feminism available to my brother, though. That difficulty is probably due to the misconnection between feminism and gender—as in, feminism is only for women. However, patriarchy hurts men too. One of the ways I’ve learned to challenge patriarchy has been through self-love and I try to share that with my brother and younger sisters as often as I can.
I’ve always been an avid reader. Books provided a quiet and escape from the chaos outside. Books created worlds I understood and understanding comforted me. My mother often enrolled me in reading programs/challenges at the Cicero Public Library (Cicero, IL). I was reading books with young female protagonists like those of Barbara Park (Junie B. Jones series) and Beverly Cleary (Ramona Collection). These books allowed me to imagine and dream of a different life. As I got older and my responsibilities as a señorita changed, I found myself annoyed at Junie and Ramona because their life didn’t reflect mine. I was jealous of their freedom. I read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street for the first time as a freshman in college. That book changed my life. I had never really read a book about a Mexican girl. Reading the vignettes felts like I was reading my own story. It was an empowering moment for me because it showed me that people like me can write books and people like me can be in books. The House on Mango Street opened a new world for me—one where people like me can exist. I proceeded to read her other books and stories which led me to read the likes of Helena Maria Viramontes, Denise Chavez, and Michele Serros. Cisneros’s stories were the beginning of my literary awakening. I didn’t know I could feel such passion for literature until I read her. Latina/o literature became my source of empowerment because these stories humanized me and my community. Latina/o literature, and subsequently Women of Color feminism, gave me an opportunity to understand and challenge my experiences with violence. The first time I met Sandra Cisneros was at the University of California Riverside, which I detail in my story “Driving with Sandra Cisneros.” I fangirled so hard. They say that you shouldn’t meet your heroes but if Cisneros is your hero then you should definitely meet her because she’s amazing. There were over 300 people at her talk and I’m sure if more people would have fit in the room then more people would have been there. It was incredible to see a room filled with Latinos inspired by Cisneros’s words. It was empowering. Moving. Surreal. Overwhelming. And I needed to write that story down so that I can remember it forever. I’ve met Cisneros several times after that at different book readings/signings and it feels awesome every time. Her memoir came out this month and I’ve already purchased tickets to her next meet and greet in Chicago and I will be there early waiting in line with all of the other people whose lives she’s transformed.