Death By a Thousand Trumps

Trigger Warning

Memory. Thirty-two years old. Most nights he sits on the window ledge outside my favorite bookstore. He never says hi to me. Never introduces himself. Each and every time I pass by, he stops what he’s doing and stares. He looks me up and down. The first several times I look away. Embarrassed. Then I remember my voice. I shout a greeting. He doesn’t speak. A few months in, I settle on stone cold silence. I will not look away. I will not speak. I will stare at him until he breaks.


I hate passing that bookstore.


Thirty-four years old. I am drinking a beer, taking a break from dancing. The bookstore man grabs my wrist and says, “let’s dance.” I say no. He pulls my arm toward the dance floor. I pull away, break free. “Leave me alone,” I say. He steps closer to me. My date, back from the bathroom, steps up to the man. He leaves. At the end of the night, the man apologizes to my date.


Memory. Nineteen years old. I stay on the bus eight blocks past my regular stop hoping the guy who’s been staring at me since Kendall Square will get off first. I stay on the bus because Harvard Square has more light, more people, restaurants and stores I can run into if I need help. It’s dark, late fall. I have to study. I always have to study.

I step off the bus and walk as fast as I can, past the pierced kids with pink hair and leather, past the bookstore and the burger place. I turn off Mass Ave onto the side street that leads to my dorm. The guy from the bus is half a block behind me. Maybe he’s a student. Maybe he’s going back to his dorm. But I know that he’s not, just like I know that I’m not a fast runner, that I should have put the mace my mom gave me in my purse, that I don’t really ever want to use the mace, just like I wouldn’t want to shoot someone.

I walk faster. He follows me. Three blocks from my dorm, I turn and face him. “What do you want?” I shout.

He takes a step back, hands in his jean pockets, head down. “Um. What’s your name?”

I shake my head.

He tells me I’m pretty.

“You have to go,” I tell him. “You can’t do things like that. You can’t follow someone.”


My seventh-grade art teacher talks about landscape, draws a tall letter m on the chalkboard and says, “You don’t want your mountains to look like Dolly Parton hills.”

In eighth grade, he’s my basketball coach. At the end of practice, he insists we dress like ladies the next day for our away game. I am thinking of my one nice skirt and blouse, how the material is thin, and I say I’ll be cold. He says, “Wear your wooly bra.”

I think the girls he touched must have told someone. They weren’t believed. He’s probably out of prison by now.


Thirty-four years old. I’m a guest author at a university, reading from my book. When I finish, a man raises his hand to ask a question. “Was what the Spaniards did to indigenous women during the Conquest sexual assault like you say, or was it simply diversification of the gene pool?”


Twenty-three years old. My friend and I ride a bus from Quetzaltenango to Antigua, Guatemala. We sit near two men from the U.S. They invite us to lunch. Over licuados and tamales wrapped in banana leaves, we chat about the volcanoes on the horizon. They warn us that hikers should use a trusted guide. Otherwise you could get robbed or raped. One says, “Well, you gotta pay extra for the rapes.”


Ten years old. A boy I liked in kindergarten tells the kids at his school that we spent the night together on an old mattress behind the gym.


Fifteen years old. Three boys I kind of know write me a letter saying what they want to do to my body, how they would f— me, how they’d want me to respond. They also send one to my best friend and another girl. I find one of them after school, hold the letter up to his face. “Gosh, we were just joking,” he says.


As the father of three daughters

As a husband and father

As the grandfather of two precious girls


Remind me, how is this about you?


I am somebody.

I am somebody.


Thirty-one years old. I’m jogging near a school. Morning drop off. Kids walking with backpacks, busses pulling into the parking lot. I’m waiting for the light to change so I can cross the street. A guy pulls his blue sports car to the curb in front of me, lets the car idle. We make eye contact. He grabs his crotch and strokes.


Seventh grade. Eighth grade. Boys grab girls’ butts and snap their bras as we push through the patio doors back into the building after lunch. I am supposed to want this; it means I am pretty, I am “good.” That’s their word for it, for having a nice butt and not being fat. I am anxious, anticipating a hand. It happens. Again and again. I turn around only once. Three boys I’ve never met stand behind me, giggling.


College. I ride the subway back to campus from tutoring in the city. A man crosses the train car and stands right in front of me, facing me, holding onto the metal bar. The fabric on his thermals or running tights or leggings is flesh colored, threadbare. I can see the outline of his penis, which seems to hang down to his knee. He stares at me and rubs his crotch against the bar.


When I read from my book or give a talk about the years I spent in Oaxaca, someone almost always asks about the machismo in Mexico. “Was it hard to deal with that?”


Twenty-five years old. My roommate, a friend, and I walk her lab mix on a trail through the bosque. The afternoon silence is shattered by a woman’s screams. The dog breaks away, runs toward the screams and stops. Hair stands on the back of her neck. Teeth bared. I yell out, “Hello? Hello?” My roommate calls, “Are you okay? Is someone there?” Silence. My roommate grabs the dog’s leash. We run to the car. The friend says we’re overreacting, asks, “Are you sure you heard a scream?”


Are you sure that’s what he did / what he meant / what you heard / what you saw?


Every time the maintenance man at my old building worked on my apartment, he asked if I was married, if I had a boyfriend. He took hours to fix two broken tiles between my bathroom and kitchen, stopped his work to say, “Usted es guapa, pero muy guapa.” I lived alone. He had a key.


Thirty-four years old. A writer’s conference. I run into a man I once dated. He’s in a group of other men, all suited and older and accomplished. He and I exchange a quick hug. I’m in a hurry, on my way to a panel. A man from the circle, someone my father’s age, someone I’ve never seen, holds his arms open to me and asks, “Why does he get a hug?”


Thirty-three years old. The zócalo in Veracruz.

“Can you tell me where the Palacio Municipal is?”

“No, I’m not from here.” As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I want to pull them back.

“Maybe I could show you around. Can I buy you a drink?”

The next night I see him pull the same trick on another woman.


Forty-four years old. Walking an unfamiliar city with a colleague from home. He asks if I’ve been here before.

“No. Never.”

“You walk like you know exactly where you’re going.”

Even when I’m lost I walk like that.


The building manager at my last apartment gives me a tour of the property. Each unit is assigned a storage area in the basement. He says, “Some people put their bikes down here, or extra furniture. You might wanna lock up your boyfriend. Sometimes we like cages.” Months later when the shower leaks onto the floor, I call him to fix it. “I don’t know what you might be doing to cause that,” he says. “I mean, I’ve never showered with you.” I stop calling.


Five years old. I visit a friend. We play in her room. Her uncle is in town. He sits on her bed, asks if she thinks I’d like to play that game he taught her. She shrugs her shoulders. He tells me to hold his thumb and close my eyes. When I open them, his thing is in my hand. He laughs. When I tell my brother, he says I should never play there again.


I hate the question posed to men who practice non-violence: If your wife or daughter were being raped, would you use violence to protect her?


My best friend from high school runs into a kid we knew from band. When he asks about me, she says I am in Belize doing a Catholic volunteer program. He mistakes this for missionary work, thinks I’m on my way to becoming a nun. He tells my friend, “What Michelle really needs is a good f—.”


I worried I wouldn’t have enough to write this post.


Lonely man on the train.

Lonely man on the plane.

Lonely man at the coffee shop.

I’m reading, studying, staring out the window, writing, thinking, daydreaming, planning, plotting, reflecting, resting.

I don’t want to talk.


I don’t want to smile.

Unless I do.

And then I will.


Back from the grocery store at our neighbor’s Saturday morning brunch, I tell my friends about the man in the parking lot who followed me to my car. “He was creepy.”

My neighbor dries his hands on his apron and says, “You think everything’s creepy.”


What did you expect to happen?


Thirty-something. Raggaeton on the jukebox. I sway my hips while the bartender pours my beer. Behind me, a table of men claps to the beat, chants “Hey, Hey, Hey,” in rhythm with my hips. I stop swaying. They stop chanting. I start. They start. I stop. They stop. I turn around. They applaud. I grab my beer and find a table in the other room.


I am afraid sometimes, and I don’t want to be.


I walk my roommate’s pit bull mix on a North Valley acequia trail. I sense someone behind me. A man in jeans lunges toward me and gropes my thigh.

It’s been almost twenty years. Massage. EMDR. Therapy. Meditation. And still, when I feel threatened, that part of my leg throbs.


Twenty-nine years old. Old Town, Albuquerque. I come face to face with a burglar in the house I’m renting. I scream him out the door. He trips and falls, and I don’t stop screaming until he is gone.

My boyfriend says, “I don’t like you living here. You need to move somewhere safer.”


Where is that place?


Stranger in a downtown bar caresses my face.

I fall asleep on the bus from Belize City to Punta Gorda. The driver wakes me by massaging my hip.

A woman in a café is trying to read. Some guy won’t leave her alone.

The girl I am raising. Seventh grade. A boy sticks his hand down her shirt.

I tell her, “I will always believe you.”


I thought I wouldn’t have enough to write about.


Shall I go on?

It’s a lot to take in.

You must be tired.

Yeah, me too.

Published in: on October 13, 2016 at 3:18 pm  Comments (11)  

2015 in Review: Six Word Memoir

We rang in 2015 in Deming.


Grandma China’s been gone eleven years.

We thought it was only ten.

Went ahead with the commemoration anyway.


K. cut three years of hair.

Just like that, he looks older.

Little boys get bigger. He resists.

Sometimes his fear outweighs his trust.

We celebrate risks faced and overcome.

We process the others. He grows.

I see him. I’ve been him.


P. turned 13. She wears eyeliner.

They grow so fast. Cliché. True.

I love who she is becoming.

She is stronger than she knows.


Feast Day at San Ildefonso Pueblo.

The dances root us in place.


I am constantly trying to simplify.


One board at a time—plenty.


After thirteen years, the Saturn died.

We left it where it stalled.


EKCO poets with Shelle and Valerie.

Write ten pages. Cut them up.

Collage them together. Rehearse. Perform.


We finally have a house plan.

There is a window between our bedrooms.

Can’t wait for that to go.


My friend started a book club.

Favorite: Between the World and Me


It’s time to be more honest.


Being a stepmom is no joke.

P. and K. – my greatest teachers.


Hembras. “Mother Lode.” My stepmom play.

My pink rebozo played a baby.


It’s time to write about Harvard.

Then I’ll have a suitcase trilogy.

Packing it to go to college.

Clinging to it after the fire.

Unpacking it to live my life.


I love reading at Sunday Chatter.


The cutest dog ever chose us.

Sat at our gate all day.

K. fed him, named him Leo.

Now he’s ours. I love him.


We lost Henry’s dad, April 20.


My dear friends lost their brother.


Aparna Levine healed my back pain.


I’m not allowed to run anymore.

Insurance pays gym fees. Hello, elliptical.

I’m trying to take up swimming.

Easier on the knees. Great cardiovascular.

Took first lessons since first grade.

I’m still learning how to breathe.


America Healing in Asheville, North Carolina.


Adrián Pedroza for Bernalillo County Commissioner.


It’s hard to share this part.

Depression has me back on Lexapro.

I tried everything I could try.

Running, writing, sleep, therapy, acupuncture, limpias.

Weight lifting. No coffee. No sugar.

Yoga. Meditation. Long walks. Good friends.

Poetry. Theatre. Being harder. Giving less.

Some combinations. Sometimes all at once.

But then there were mornings lost.

I’m kind of a mess today.

Yoga unlocking emotion in my hip.

I’m in tears on my mat.

Hours crying in the living room.

Nobody home. Thank God. I can’t.

And the worst is the judgment.

It came from nobody but me.

Suck it up. Pull yourself together.

Stop crying. Get off the floor.

What is wrong with you now?

You have everything you ever wanted.

You are healthy. You are loved.

Henry. P. K. This place. Words.

People are mean in my head.

Stop messing with my friend Michelle.

If I were my good friend

I’d say, you’re sensitive, that’s beautiful.

I’d say, it’s just for now.

I’d say, understanding why isn’t necessary.

Right now just do what works.

There’s nothing wrong with needing help.

Some people need to be medicated.

I guess I am one of them.

What else is there to do?


I remember I like to dance.


Summer garden wasn’t about the harvest.

I needed my hands in dirt.

I grew stevia, lemongrass, and sunflowers.

I grew six yellow pear tomatoes.

Oaxacan green corn, basil, marigolds, hyssop.

Lemon verbena, bell peppers, volunteer melons.

Grasshoppers and hornworms ate like kings.

K. said to chop their heads.

“Post them on toothpicks as warnings.”


I finally took the curanderismo course.


I want chickens in our yard.

They would help with the grasshoppers.


K. made the school’s archery team.

He and Henry shoot into hay bales.


The Kellogg Fellows are buena gente.

I get to work with six.

Carmen, Carnell, Carlos, Kayla, Sarah, Ventura.


Happy Arte Hour. So much fun.


We are launching an artist cooperative.


coffee, coffee, Zendo, Zia Latte, coffee


We lost Leo. He came back.


We rafted. Let’s do it again!


We lost my cousin, Robert Otero.

My BFF married a good man.

We lost Henry’s cousin, Epi Chavez.

We lost my tío, Joe Calderon.

A wonder he lived so long.

We lost Henry’s cousin, Alfonso Lopez.


P. was the best Halloween chola.

Thanks, Andrea, for doing her makeup.


My godmother was diagnosed with cancer.


P. dyed her hair in LA.

Four hours later, it’s bright pink.


Things I am embarrassed to admit:

I love that Justin Bieber song.

It’s too late to say sorry.

My mama likes everyone, except you.


Why don’t mid-school kids wear jackets?

That hoodie can’t keep you warm.


We lost Berna, a family friend.


Some things I could’ve done without:

Two words. Donald Trump. Enough said.

Middle school girls with duck lips.

Road rage. Police violence. Susana Martinez.

(Pee-tzah. Cokes. Call off your guys.)


I am blessed with good friends.

Stephanie reminded me who I am.

Emmy, thank you for making time.

Avi visited with her youngest daughter.

Anel and I wrote in Santa Fe.

María Limón surprised me one morning.

Finally got to meet Jesse’s kids.

I told them stories about college.

I wish his family lived closer.

Vicki and I ate and laughed.

Got to hold Desiree’s baby Luisa.


It’s time to be more honest.

I am constantly trying to simplify.

I’m still learning how to breathe.

Everything is better when I write.







Published in: on February 2, 2016 at 8:30 am  Comments (7)  
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On the passing of my father-in-law, Henry Rael, Sr., April 20, 2015

IMG_6058That first night each of us prayed in our own way. My Henry held his dad’s hand and whispered, almost chanting, “we love you, thank you, it’s okay, you can rest…” His sister held the other hand, smoothed her dad’s hair and prayed the Our Father. I sang Hail Mary, Gentle Woman and Las Mañanitas. Priscilla spoke in tongues.

We thought he would go any minute, grasping our hands, lifting his chest from the bed only to collapse into it again, moving his lips to speak, no sound. The sun rose, and my father-in-law was still with us, the hum of the oxygen machine with its intermittent bursts still a constant backdrop. We drank coffee, ran home to replenish our overnight bag, canceled meetings and travel, made arrangements for our pets. We lit a candle and kept it burning on the bookcase where he kept his Bible and binders of Spanish liturgical music he’d composed over the past 40 years.

We made agreements: when we are here, we will be here. We won’t speak about him. We will speak to him, with him. We will do all we can to make him comfortable.

The next night we took turns. There were long, quiet hours when each of us was alone with him, the light low from his bedside lamp. Loose from its ponytail, my hair cast wild shadows on the wall. I think the shadows spooked him. He was a man who sought light.

And so I changed the angle of the lamp and sat on the floor next to his bedside table.

He stopped eating. Spoonfuls of water to ice chips to a sponge to wet his lips. White spots on the nails. Dark spots on the hands. Cold toes. He didn’t talk or close his eyes for three days and nights.

To his bedside those last 72 hours came the estranged sister, the gay nephew, the niece who’d lost a young daughter a few years prior, the cousin and sister with their rosaries, the priest who got a smile out of him when he said, “I’m here to pray with you.” This is how we should pass. At home, with people we love, no need to talk, just listening to beloved after beloved say, we love you, thank you, you are good, God is with you. And as steady as the oxygen machine, his daughter, his son, his wife of nearly 50 years. That last morning he looked Henry in the eye, took his last breath, and he was gone. I woke to my mother- and sister-in-laws’ weeping. He is gone.

I think of Mary Magdalene weeping at Jesus’s empty tomb. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:13)

The day he was buried, rain pounded our procession as we rode from church to cemetery, then again from cemetery to reception. I had run out early that morning to buy umbrellas and waterproof mascara, but we didn’t need the umbrellas because both times we stepped out of the family limo the rain stopped long enough for the pallbearers to rest their boutonnieres on Henry’s casket, for his white-haired cousin to sing an alabado, long enough for my Henry, his brother, his sisters, and his mom to reach across their folding chairs under a blue tent and hold onto one another as the casket was lowered into the ground.

He is gone.

And he is here. In the choir that played his music at the rosary and funeral, in the angels with their crockpots of posole, beans, red chile, green chile stew, their trays of brownies and bowls of macaroni salad, their packets of sugar and powdered creamer, their bottomless cups of coffee. He is in the condolence cards, in these words from a dear friend: “In Navajo Way when a person passes, we talk about how our essence is to be wiped from this world—our breath, fingerprints, footprints, etc. The rain helps to cleanse us from this world to go into the next world. I thought about the rain that has fallen since Friday. Your father left such significant marks upon this land that it took so long, so many days of rain to celebrate his essence.” This is the wettest summer in the children’s lifetime, the first summer that our peach tree—a gift from Henry Sr., started from the stone he planted in a backyard bucket—yielded more than one fruit, a dozen peaches on the northern branches and on the south, about twenty nectarines.

He died during the Easter season, just as he’d wished. “‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’” (Luke 24:5)

He has risen.

And he is here. In the strum of P’s fingers across the strings of the guitar he left for her. In K’s desire to sleep in Nano’s bedroom. “It’s a little creepy, but even if there’s a ghost, it’s a good ghost.” He is here, in Henry’s eulogy, written and spoken with such honesty and love.

He was 93 years old. He was a good man. No weeping and gnashing of teeth for this one. I picture Jesus and Saint Peter welcoming him, “Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of [the] Lord.” (Matthew 25:21)

Published in: on August 18, 2015 at 7:00 am  Comments (5)  
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The Savior, Part 5b: (Gotta Have) Faith

Continued from July 2 post: The Savior, Part 5a: (Gotta Have) Faith


Twice in my life I have returned home from two-year stays in other countries. Neither time was fun or easy. After Belize, the priest at my home parish opened his Father’s Day homily with an observation that all movies featuring single fathers are comedies. I thought he’d go on to say that fathers were important, that Hollywood did them wrong, that men needed support in their roles as fathers. Instead he launched into a diatribe against “the radical feminist movement of the 1970s,” excoriating the bad women who had children out of wedlock and kept babies from their fathers, the awful women who pursued careers and forced children into daycare. He stayed with the image of father as helpless buffoon. This from a man who had never parented, a priest in a community with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in a state with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

He was one priest in one parish, but I thought of all the people listening to him that day. My high school classmates who’d earned diplomas after giving birth. The boy being raised by a single dad because his mother died. The fathers. My mom who worked her ass off to become a teacher, whose salary kept us afloat when my dad’s job hit a slump and dropped everyone’s hours. The friend who left the mother of his child right after high school. The childless woman. Me. Do I matter to this priest? This church? Do I matter at least as much as the child I might someday bear? And if I never bear children, do I matter at all?

IMG_5930I didn’t lose my faith. It changed. This was when I turned to La Virgen de Guadalupe, weeping before the tilma at her Basilica in Mexico City. This was when I started hiking, when I began shaping journal reflections into poems, when I jogged North Valley ditches with my roommate and her yellow lab, when I found a good therapist. This was when I had an egg rubbed over me by a traditional Mexican healer. I buried the egg and the rosemary she’d swept over me; I felt rooted and ready to fly at the same time and knew I had found a kind of home.

I would never leave the Catholic Church for another. I would miss the ritual, the songs, the liturgical calendar, communion, the sacraments. I would miss the bloody saints, the reverence, the solemnity of Christ’s suffering, a suffering we share in the breaking of bread, and I would miss the joy that follows that suffering because, like the denouement of a good novel, it is earned.

The Catholicism I grew up with and deepened at Harvard was of the Americas, tied to ancient tradition and new, post Vatican II, folk songs in Spanish, children sitting around the altar. Nuns never rapped me on the knuckles with rulers. (Though I, along with all of the other children who crowded into Father Stanley Hall for weekly catechism, was justifiably terrified of Sister Rosalie.) I was part of the mass, a lector, playing my trumpet, serving communion, holding the holy book above my head in procession with the priest.

IMG_5926I still feel at home dipping my fingers in a holy water font, still feel drawn to ritual and sacrament, to Good Friday mass, leaving the church in silence as the white cloth is gathered from the altar and folded. I am learning the newer mass parts (though “consubstantial” will never sound right to me). Pope Francis gives me hope. (Favorite quote so far: “Who am I to judge?”)

As with the fire, building my faith was never about trying to recreate my old life, but about creating and recreating with what remains: the ancient, the acequia, el mestizaje, the word.

Published in: on July 31, 2015 at 7:55 am  Comments (4)  
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The Savior, Part 5a: (Gotta Have) Faith

Continued from June 18, 2015 post, The Savior, Part 4: Three Chords

IMG_5432I didn’t love Belize. I love what Belize gave me—four of the best friends I’ll ever have, a daily habit of waking early and writing, an education in cooking, a healthy respect for intense heat, humidity, wood lice, fire ants, and flying cockroaches. Running as a form of exercise (up to that point it had always felt like punishment). Two years of car-free living. Simplicity. The Indigo Girls, Joni Mitchell, Alice Walker, Bob Marley (somehow I’d gone through four years of college without being immersed in these artists), baked bread, banana shakes, handmade cards and gifts, soca, punta, Happy Cow processed cheese, rice and beans, community.

In some ways my time there was a second adolescence and an extended college education all rolled into one: pushing boundaries, questioning authority, eyes opening to the injustice in the world, learning to speak in a voice that felt more like my own.

IMG_5433Belize didn’t get my best me. And like any relationship in which I was awkward or said the wrong thing or had a hard time finding my way, I feel bad for the partner sitting with me through it all, grateful and guilty at the same time.

I used to think, this must be when I lost my faith. When the rock of prayer, mass, and belief I’d stood upon my entire life, fortified by my U-mates and the Catholic community at Harvard, eroded into the sea. Mass was no longer refuge but work, the thought-provoking, soul-stirring homilies I’d grown accustomed to in the basement of Saint Paul’s replaced by tirades against unwed teen mothers and other radical feminists, against the faithless who didn’t come to church. (I’ve never understood this one; why complain to the people who went to the trouble of showing up?) It wasn’t just that the church was my job, not just seeing up close the power dynamics between a white American priest and the many Belizeans needed to run the parish. It was having my house broken into twice, my bike stolen, not being able to go out at night unaccompanied, feeling intruded upon every time some guy on the street hissed at me or called me Spanish girl. Belizean women were masters at shutting it out and going about their business. I never got used to it. I got so tired of being stared at, of anticipating what the men would say each time I left my house.

IMG_5434By the time I returned to the States, the faith I’d had at the beginning was gone. I am thinking of something Father Wally, our in-country coordinator, said one of our first nights in Belize: the reason you start something is not the reason you stay with something.

I tried to recreate my former faith in Albuquerque, believing if I found the right mass, the right community, the right spiritual director that I would feel at home again.

What I found instead: a curandera, the acequia, solitude, the mountains, yoga, poetry.

Stay tuned for The Savior 5b: (Gotta Have) Faith, Tuesday, July 7

Published in: on July 2, 2015 at 1:18 pm  Comments (6)  

Mother Writer Interview with Michelle Otero

Poet, novelist, mother, NEA award-winner, and all-around amazing mujer Jennifer Givhan invited me to share some stories as part of her Mother Writers’ Interview Series. Thank you, Jenn, for all you do for writers, poets, and mamas.

Jennifer Givhan, Poeta & Novelista

Performing “Mother Lode” as part of Hembras de Pluma 2015, photo credit: Alan Mitchell Performing “Mother Lode” as part of Hembras de Pluma 2015, photo credit: Alan Mitchell

I’m so excited to share this conversation with fierce Latina poet/playwright/actor/activist extraordinaire Michelle Otero, who discusses her experiences as a writer and stepmother of two.

But I wish someone would have handed me The House on Mango Street or Bless Me, Última and said, “Your people write books too.” … We hold mothers to very high standards. My mom taught elementary school, raised five of us, cooked, and kept the house spotless. I hate cleaning the bathroom. I enjoy cooking, but the pressure of generating a new meal for kids who don’t like vegetables has sucked any pleasure I might derive from that experience. –Otero

Read the full interview here.

Thank you!



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Published in: on June 18, 2015 at 1:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Savior 4: Three Chords

Continued from March 10 post, The Savior, Part 3: La Culpa


My second year as a Jesuit Volunteer (JV) in Belize the church was my job. An American priest who’d spent most of his time in country on the grounds of a private school became the pastor at St. Martin de Porres (nicknamed St. Martin de Poors) Church, across the street from our JV house. I’d worked myself out of a job with the Lay Ministers Program. The wonder-JV a year ahead of me who played guitar, ran the children’s choir, coached the soccer and track teams at the adjoining school, and had attracted legions of grade school admirers who affectionately ran after his bicycle as he rode onto the church/school grounds calling, “Mistah Phil, Mistah Phil!” had completed his service and returned to the U.S. I became the Pastoral Assistant.

I’ve written about this before, trying to lead the children’s choir with my three chords on the guitar Mr. Phil left behind, the genios Father would throw me from the altar when I got it wrong. Teaching religion to the kids in Standard 3 because their regular classroom teacher was Jehovah’s Witness. Setting up the school counseling program with another JV, though I had majored in History and my only training was a three-day course put on by an all-white team from the U.S. whose orientation to Belize was a coffee meeting with a former Embassy worker.

I naively (it goes without saying) believed the kids at St. Martin’s would trust me, that all they needed was a good person to listen to them, and that together we’d develop the skills they’d need to navigate poverty, violence, absent parents (many of whom were trying to establish a foothold in the U.S.).

“They won’t go too deep,” Father said. “They just need a little encouragement.”

Sometimes we drew pictures. Sometimes we did homework. Sometimes we sat in silence. I thought instinct would guide me. I was afraid to ask for help. And the one time I did, reaching out to a family violence prevention organization, I got called into the principal’s office to face the mother whose son told me she beat him. “He’s a naughty boy,” she said. I walked straight from her office to an empty classroom and wept loud and messy for the shame of f#@*ing up, for the certainty that I’d failed him. He didn’t come to me anymore. Even now, I don’t know what else I could have done.

To Be Continued

Published in: on June 18, 2015 at 1:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Hembras de Pluma



“When I grow up, I want to be a stepmom,” said no one. Ever.

And so begins “Mother Lode,” the short play I wrote and am directing for this year’s Hembras de Pluma. You might remember from last year that we are a collective of women of color artists, actors, and writers. Or that we debuted during the 2014 Women & Creativity series at the National Hispanic Cultural Center to mostly sold-out audiences. You might remember the one and only Lola, grand dame of 1940s radio who refused to be aged out of her long-running show without a making a statement. You might remember the bond between six sisters and their makeup, or the teenager barricaded behind a flimsy bathroom door with her first box of tampons.

Though we know this to be true, I think we were all a bit surprised that we could take the tiniest seedlings of ideas, nurture them with time, attention, and hard work, and share them with our community. But there we were, writing on our laptops and journals around a dining room table, in a living room, on sofas and throw pillows. And then months later, lights, makeup, sound cues, audience.

And so we’re back with new stories. This time we’ve gone a little deeper, peeled back another layer.

Valli Rivera returns as Lola with new spicy advice for your life and a few secrets to share.

Monica Rodriguez brings us María Elena, a 40-something believer in love who has “spent a lifetime chasing the wrong men.”

Bineshi Albert explores the trafficking of indigenous women through a fast-talking, sharp-dressed salesman.

Michelle Estrada Allred shares two stories. In one she journeys to childhood in the land of pecans. In another she introduces a crew of cholas with a passion for public service.

María Teresa Herrera ignites the fire within three women as they drift into memories of life-changing events.

Andrea Serrano channels the voice of an elder as his life draws to an end.

Please join our audience at the National Hispanic Cultural Center as part of the Siembra Latino Theatre Festival, April 23 – May 3, Thursday – Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 2:00. For tickets, call 505-724-4771 or visit

Follow our progress on Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, please contribute to our gofundme campaign. By day we work at non-profits, in children’s court, at a cancer center. We defend voting rights, organize our communities to protect clean air and water, and support vulnerable families. We help others tell their stories through poetry, dance, and theatre. Your gift not only enables us to build a set and pay our crew, but it supports our ongoing creative work, telling the stories of our communities, one little seedling at a time.

Published in: on April 7, 2015 at 12:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Savior, Part 3: La Culpa

continued from February 3 post, The Savior, Part 2: The Dream

FullSizeRenderI was lonely. The other JVs had colleagues, peers in their twenties. They had set schedules, students to inspire, classes to teach, papers to grade (yes, I envied their papers, the usefulness they must have felt at winding down the stack, much like I’d helped my mother do with the elementary school classes she taught). I felt like I could have been a good teacher. It was in my blood: mom, great-grandfather, brother. But instead I spent my workdays alone, sorting papers, organizing the office, researching the program I was now directing, scheduling appointments, prepping workshops, and occasionally cocking my ear toward a voice inside that wondered why a decade-old program for Belizeans should be run by a twenty-something American who’d be gone in less than two years.

Those weeks and months meeting with lay ministers and priests and sisters, reworking the program so that it didn’t need me but instead cultivated leadership from within, connected me to a deep sense of guilt that I wasn’t working hard enough. This wasn’t the first time I’d felt it, but for the previous two decades of my life, I’d been surrounded by family or slogging my way through school, neither of which left much time for deep reflection, much less boredom. I wasn’t my mom, who went back to school and earned her teaching degree after having four kids, driving one hour to class in Las Cruces or Silver City and another hour back after working a full day as a teacher’s aide. I wasn’t my dad who often left the house as the sun was rising to assemble circuit boards at an electronics plant.

Of everything I lost in the fire, I miss my journals the most. I wish I could hear that twenty-something Michelle, search her writings for roots of the guilt that still surfaces, even now. I used to wonder where it came from. I’ve studied it, sat in it, medicated it, collaged and written it, each time rubbing my fingers and finding its tiniest threads still attached to me.

I don’t want it anymore. Is it enough to say it? Does that send it on its way? This is work I know how to do, soul work, naming what no longer serves me, accepting its place in my life, and releasing. Naming, accepting, releasing. Naming. Accepting. Releasing.

Published in: on March 10, 2015 at 7:40 am  Leave a Comment  

The Savior, Part 2: The Dream

continued from January 28 blog post, The Savior, Part 1: Breaking

Jesuit Volunteer (JV) program, Belize City, Belize, September 1994

Sister Eileen is my boss, the founder and director of the Lay Minsters Program for the Catholic Diocese of Belize. We don’t know each other well. I can count on two hands the number of weeks we have worked together, on one hand the number of parishes we have visited. To me, most of the fifty or so lay ministers around the country are names in a ledger. Some are photographs from Sister Eileen’s albums of the group’s annual retreats. To me–less than two months in the country–only a handful are real human beings who have invited us into their homes, attended one our trainings, or popped into the office at the back of a dark parish hall to check out the new space or say hello and offer their support to the American volunteer. While the other JVs teach high school and junior college classes and develop friendships with colleagues, I spend my days alone, reading the lay ministry curriculum, studying photographs of people I hope will one day be my community, organizing the office, and waiting for Sister Eileen to return from the States where she has gone to unravel the mystery of debilitating back pain that set in over the summer and has only gotten worse.

This isn’t what I envisioned. I miss my friends, my U-mates (so named because our dorm rooms sat along a u-shaped hall, two doubles, three singles, one bathroom at each tip of the hall, and somehow Dawn and I had one bathroom to ourselves while the five boys shared the other). I miss my Catholic Student Association amigas, Sunday evening student mass in the basement of Saint Paul’s Church, spaghetti dinners, making brownies in the student center kitchen, praying through final exams in the chapel. I miss my family, our goofy sense of humor, my nephews who ask me to draw smiley faces on their big toes, my Grandma China’s close hugs, my mom and dad. I don’t know how to be here yet.


In the dream a note written on blue paper greets me as I walk in the door of the Jesuit Volunteer house—my house for the next two years—in Belize City. Your mom called. You need to go home right away. The next moment I am walking off the plane into my mom’s arms at the El Paso airport. I expect her sit me down and tell me that one of my grandparents or siblings is gravely ill. But there is no announcement, no let’s talk before we drive home. Instead she asks if I’m hungry. We drive back to Deming, nearly two hours (the speed limit is still 55, even in my dream) of small talk about her classroom, painting the house, the new priest and how my grandma still doesn’t like him because he only ever talks to her about me and that’s because I went to Harvard. Finally, as we pass the newly expanded golf course with its thirsty grass and turn into our neighborhood, I ask, “Mom, what happened?”

“What do you mean, mi’ja?”

“Why am I here? Is there an emergency or something?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that. You just sounded so sad when we talked to you, I thought you should come home.”

I tell her that I need to go back to Belize. I’m not finished. I haven’t done what I was supposed to do.


I wake to the same shapes, sounds, and colors I’ve grown used to in Belize: pre-dawn light on the wood walls of my bedroom, hammock hanging still from a hook in the corner, clock reading 5-something, journal from my night table, to my hand, to my lap where I write the dream and maybe something new for me in Belize. I don’t know what I am supposed to do here, but I know this is where I belong.

I don’t remember the rest of that day, only the phone call that night from Sister Eileen’s roommate. Sister Eileen’s back pain is Multiple Myeloma. I know without being told that it’s advanced, that Sister Eileen won’t be back, that the cancer will kill her and quickly, but not quickly enough to spare her pain. I know that in an instant I have gone from Assistant to Director of a program I know little about in a country that is not mine. And though I want to run, I stay because I know, at least for now, this is where I belong.

Published in: on February 3, 2015 at 2:09 pm  Comments (4)  
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Jennifer Givhan, Poeta & Novelista

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