On the Violence We Do to Ourselves

by Aracely Mondragon, ’13

It is often easy to paint violence and oppression as something external to ourselves, say the aggressors is the white able bodied male because yes over history and institutionally there is a system with hierarchies set in place that is extremely violent… this is a vital conversation but so is that of our interpersonal relationships. What about the violence that goes on within our closest relationships and within ourselves? By violence I don’t necessarily mean physical abuse, but harm that can happen at both an emotional and psychological level. When you are bombarded with messages from society that try to tell you you’re not good enough, that you don’t belong, or that who you are is someone to be despised …. you have to think how much of that do you internalize? How much do you start believing and then disseminating? The more I think about all the small expressions of hostility I thought I had just let slide off, I realize how much of it I swallowed and let fester inside. I can’t help but think of what harm I have done to myself and others….

When I think of the times I was followed around a store, being 15 and being accused of stealing a pack of blank CDs at Walgreens…. I relive the hurt and shock, I guess at the time I thought that maybe somehow my AP test scores and white friends would render me immune to stereotyping. Incidents like those hurt but in that year alone, I got a number of comments from friends and family that also hurt me. Like sophomore year of high school when my friend Diego, who I had Math with since the 6th grade, told me to stop trying so hard, “They’ll never let a Mexican be top of our class.” This is the first time academic rankings crossed my mind and it happened as I was simultaneously told not to expect much out of my schoolwork. And I was told this by the only other Mexican-American in my Pre-Calculus class. By Junior year of high school, Diego had stopped trying. When he wasn’t cracking jokes in class, he would get up in the middle of lecture and walk around campus… outside of the classroom, that was his terrain, walking around with head up waving at everyone like a rey. That year our teachers stopped caring about him too, al fin y acabo there was a whole pool of white students who would graduate and bring back a college banner to hang on their high school teachers’ walls.

Though I didn’t follow Diego out of the classroom, I did learn something from him. I learned to keep quiet and pretend… pretend like I didn’t know I was the only Latina in my class. Pretend like I didn’t care that people pronounced my name wrong, like the substitute teacher that always called me Arasslee. Pretend like I wasn’t aware that the only time I interacted with people that looked like me was at home.

Diego also use to tell me that I was overdue… because being a sixteen year old Chicana and not pregnant meant I was overdue. He liked to remind me of this every time he saw me, of course my white boyfriend at the time laughed and continued the joke for the duration of our 2 year relationships. I rolled my eyes everytime but inside I was terrified… I had been having nightmares about getting pregnant way before I even had my first kiss. (At 10 years old, I worried that if I sat on the same toilets as my uncles I’d catch something they may have left on the seat.) Time and time again I heard how my tias and mom talked about my cousin Yuri who got pregnant when she was 14. I joined in the chastising… I ate up the rumors about how she was a puta and how her thing was going to rot because of it. This was common in my family, to point at everyone’s mistakes….

When Mariana and I were 15, we made a diagram, like our own family tree… we mapped out all the tios, tias, and primos and put X’s over all the ones that had “messed up already.” Yuri already has two children at 15 and doesn’t know who the fathers are… X, Genaro has been in jail and now lives in the garage… X, Tere ran away with an older man right after her Quinceanera …X, We were a family of stereotypes, a tree of X’s… our screwed up family we laughed…. and believed it. We believed everything media and institutions wanted us to believe. We believed that we didn’t belong and would never amount to anything.

That’s the violence in it, that we internalized these beliefs and used them to admonish each other… It doesn’t matter that Yuri left Mexico when she was 7, grew up without her mother, with a dad and brother that cared more about trying to find girlfriends than about her, that she never had anyone ever encourage her in school, and that she moved from house to house for 6 years before returning to Mexico. All these external factors didn’t matter to us.. we just continued the hostility that society started.

Perhaps part of it was that we were so afraid of that being us or maybe like Diego we were just exhausted… last time I talked to him, he asked me if I knew any good immigration lawyers, maybe he knew that his immigration status had already predetermined his path…. and maybe we also figured we would all end up dropping out or in low end jobs, so why try?

When I got to college, I started unlearning a lot of what I was told growing up, about who I was supposed to be, about my position in US society as a Mexican-American woman. Once I started fostering a conciencia, I became embarrassed and baffled by my relationships in high school, particularly my two year relationship with someone who made far too many jokes about my “dirty” skin. We used to walk down the hallway and he’d ask, Is that your cousin? about any brown person we saw… he thought it was funny that I had such a big family. He never seemed to notice all the stares we got when we were out in the suburban side of our city…. my brown hand and his pale one attracting attention… or maybe it was just me that attracted all the attention.

I grew up knowing I shouldn’t attract attention, as a woman, as Mexican-American… I was supposed to stay quiet. I simply took it as normal, that my family always thought I was too white-washed and my boyfriend thought I was too Mexican… so I just did my best not to be too visible in either spaces… hiding away during family parties and trying to hide the fact from my friends that I didn’t know the English words for common objects. But I have to ask myself now… When I judged my cousins, stayed quiet as I watched Diego give up on school, or stayed in a relationship with someone who called my skin dirty, how much violence was I perpetuating? How much of society’s destructive beliefs did I internalize and then disseminate on others?

Knowing how much I struggle to simply accept myself, I can only imagine what the answer to those questions. What I do know is that I can’t stay quiet anymore, I’ve come to believe that the longer I stay quiet, the longer I let the violence continue…

Su plan es…
que mis manos aprieten la garganta
de mi hermana
corten su respiracion
Que me agarre a puñaladas
con mi hermano
mientras ellos miran desde las barandas
que mi lengua se enrede en si misma
haga nudos tratando de explicar su dolor
que las llamas de mi enojo me consuman
desde adentro
mis palabras tragadas planten una semilla
crezcan como hierbas
encarzelen en sus garras
mi triste corazon
quieren que mi silencio envuelva en humo
mi gente
que yo mantega sobre ellos un velo
Pero con el tiempo e aprendido
dar luz a mi conciencia
respirar mas aya de sus aires toxicos
romper las ataduras de mis muñecas
levantar los puños hacia arriba
convertir mi fuego interno
en rayos de calor
cultivar adentro flores de anís
que sane a mis herman@s
mi voz les de aliento
vida a mi gente

I am born of Mexican immigrant parents.
I identify as queer, Chicana, radical feminista, a different kind of spirit.
I love the beauty of words and the literature of the Spanish tongue
I believe in the power of advocacy and activism.
I work toward social justice and the celebration of difference.
I strive for never allowing frustration to lend itself to apathy.
I give everything of myself because I care.
I dream, I hope, I live.

“When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
— Audre Lorde

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4 thoughts on “On the Violence We Do to Ourselves

  1. […] On the Violence we do to ourselves by Aracely, specifically about her experiences as a Mexican-American woman. […]

  2. thines16 says:

    This is a beautiful piece.

  3. esqg says:

    This piece very much speaks to me right now. Thank you.

  4. Anonymous says:

    really beautiful thank you for sharing!

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