Protect Your Children
When I was thirteen years old, there was an active intruder drill in my middle school. These drills were common, for us- every three months, we would practice cowering in darkened classrooms. They told us it was important to be prepared.
For what, they didn’t say. But we knew, we all knew. Everyone knows about the shootings that happen almost every day in America, that have happened at hundreds of schools across the country.
When we heard the announcement “Teachers, lock your doors. Repeat, lock your doors,” two close friends and I were in the hallway, walking to our next class. We’d left early, because I had a broken ankle at the time, and needed extra time to take the elevator instead of the stairs to my next class.
We all froze, and stared at each other, erupting into nervous giggles as we made eye contact with each other. Surely, it was a drill. What else could it be?
“Um,” one of my friends questioned, “Should we go back to the class we were in?”
We all muttered an agreement, and I started limping back to our class as fast as my leg cast would allow. To my friends’ credit, they stayed with me, even though we knew we might get in trouble if we were caught in the halls during a drill.
When we made it back to the classroom, we stepped inside quickly, shutting the door behind us. Our teacher, a young woman who dreamed of being a professional singer, looked frantic, clutching an armful of papers and desperately trying to cross off everyone’s names as present. When she saw us, she let out a relieved gasp- our first clue that something was wrong.
A thrum of confused and excited voices filled the room, an odd twenty seventh graders all gossiping about what was happening. Me and my friends were quick to jump into the babble of speaking, flitting around with the others and making jokes about the possible outcomes of the situation. No one knew what was happening, but it was entertaining to speculate.
“Everyone, listen!” Our teacher called suddenly, after frantically scrolling through something on her phone. “We need to turn off all of the lights, and go into the storage room.”
A hush fell over us for a moment, before an explosion of voices erupted. We all knew that the drill was one for a serious threat if they were making us hide in the small closet attached to the classroom, and our minds immediately jumped to how much of our next class we might be able to miss.
But, why would the drill be that serious, if there was no real problem? And why did our teacher look so pale?
“Guys, please!” The woman yelped, trying to corral us into the sideroom. “Quiet!”
One of my friends, the braver out of the three of us, spoke up. “But why? What’s happening?”
There was a pause that seemed to last for decades.
“I… I’m not sure,” our teacher finally admitted. “But I think this might be a serious situation.”
With a revived sense of urgency, everyone hurried to enter the closet, with our teacher closing and locking the two doors once everyone was inside and seated. The room was small, and cramped, with one door entering our classroom and one entering the classroom next to ours. The other class wasn’t with us, since the closet was only big enough for one class.
The lights were off, but there was just enough light to see each other’s faces. I was sitting next to one of my friends, with a near stranger crammed on my other side. The room wasn’t big enough for all of us, not really, so I had to curl my legs up tightly to my chest.
The teacher got settled herself, then addressed us in a chilling whisper. “Everyone be silent. Do not speak. Something… I don’t know what’s happening. Stay quiet, don’t stand up.” Her voice was shaky, unsure.
I gawked at my friend, starting to mutter my shocked exclamations until an elbow in my side from the person next to me stopped me. “Shut up! Do you want us to die?”
I spun to look at the other girl, and sure enough, she looked terrified.
“Do you really think it’s real?” I asked, disbelieving.
“Has to be,” she reasoned. “Just look at our teacher!”
She had a point, as the young woman we needed to instruct us was huddled with the rest of the students, chewing her lip and bouncing her leg anxiously.
Soon, the murmured voices died out, leaving us all in a tense silence.
Time passed, with nothing but sitting in a darkened quiet. Ten minutes, then twenty. I had my Apple watch, but no phone, nothing to do but close my eyes and worry about what might be happening.
After another five minutes, a boy across from me started to speak. “Do you think the drill is over..?”
But before his words had even fully died away, we heard a noise that made my heart skip a beat, a sound that every schoolchild in America is taught to fear.
Goosbumps snaked down my arms, and my hand instinctively reached for my friend, clutching her arm. Was that- I mouthed to her, and she nodded before I even finished, hands shaking.
Our teacher wiped her head up, instantly holding a petrified finger to her lips in the universal symbol for quiet.
The girl on my other side started crying.
We knew what was happening to us. We knew it was the same as so many other schools in America. We knew, but we had never thought we’d have to see it.
No one ever does.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
The teacher buried her head in her hands, slumping forward. Her outward panic was the last straw for our nerves, and the terror of the situation truly sunk in to everyone. Girls and boys both were crying, and holding on to each other. I was hugging my friend just as tightly as the near stranger on my other side, pressing myself against both of them.
There was a dead quiet, for another moment.
And then, on the other side of the storage room, we heard a door open.
I didn’t think it was possible, but the fear in the room became even more palpable.
Fingers trembling, I fumbled for my watch, turning on the screen and flipping over to the text app. I wanted to text my family, but my phone was in the classroom, powered off and in my backpack. My watch was an old model, and couldn’t send messages on its own, so I don’t know why I bothered opening messages. Maybe I just wanted the comfort of my parents’ and brother’s contacts.
I shuddered, and leaned down even further, cowering away from the sounds.
The door handle of our closet turning from the outside rattled tears from our teacher. The room was dead silent, the only noise our shaky breathing and the odd muffled sob.
I thought I was going to die, along with everyone else in the small room. My heartbeat was loud in my ears, drowning out everything else as the handle was wrenched back and forth for a moment, before being abandoned.
Turning to the teacher, I saw her face streaked with tears. The woman who we needed to guide us was just as helpless as we were.
We hid, staying silent for over forty minutes before we heard an announcement from the speaker system: “Teachers, you may resume teaching. We repeat, you may resume teaching.”
Everyone looked at each other, fear, confusion, and panic visible in our eyes.
“What- what happened?” Breathed a boy with red-rimmed eyes. “Is anyone-” He swallowed, unable to finish the sentence, but we all knew what we meant.
My mind immediately jumped to all of my friends in separate classes. I’d heard four bangs…
I mentally prepared myself for there to be four people missing when we left the classroom.
Shakily, our teacher stood up, flipping on the lights and opening the door. We followed her out in a stunned hush, hardly even breathing.
“E-everyone, please take a seat. I’m going- going to call the front office, and find out what happened.” The teacher instructed, squeezing her phone like a lifeline. She stepped away, behind her desk, leaving us to talk amongst ourselves.
All around the room, expressions were filled with a variety of emotions. A girl I knew was actively having a panic attack due to PTSD conditions, but the teacher was preoccupied, leaving only her friends to try and comfort her. My broken ankle was throbbing from the tight position I’d been sitting in, and one of my friends was still crying.
Everyone was scared. Everyone was hurting.
“Who do you think it was?” My other friend asked me, speaking softly despite the threat being over. “That brought the gun?”
I merely shook my head. I didn’t know. I almost didn’t want to know, either.
When our teacher returned her focus to us, I saw that she looked flustered, and… angry?
“There was an error in communication,” she growled, drawing everyone’s attention immediately. “The principal sent out an email to the other teachers about the upcoming drill, but arts teachers were left off the email list by accident.”
“Drill?” I repeated, feeling a hot flush on my face. Did that mean-?
“There was no active shooter,” she continued. “Just a prolonged drill.”
A boy shook his head, and raised his hand. “But, what about the gunshots we heard, and the door handle?”
“Someone in the band room kicked over a drum, and a few others thought it would be funny to turn it into a game, and see how many times they could knock down the drums before being moved or scolded. And the class next to ours left their lockdown spot early, and were walking around the classroom. One of them turned the handle.”
The explanation made sense, but it didn't feel right. How did falling instruments sound like bullets being fired, and a kid messing with a door from the silhouette of a murderer?
In the end, it was all just a series of coincidences. The fear we all felt was real, though, seen in the crying from my teacher and the desperation that led to us hugging strangers.
I came as close as possible to experiencing a school shooter, without experiencing a school shooter.
This traumatizing event happened to me when I was only thirteen. Students should never have to be in situations like that, let alone worse. A drill gone wrong is nowhere near as horrible as an actual school shooter, where lives are at stake.
There have been 1,924 school shooting incidents between 1970 and 2021.
Do something, America. Change the gun laws. Campaign for metal detectors or a police presence at your local schools. We shouldn’t have to worry about being murdered at school, a fear that will never truly leave me after what happened.
Protect your children.
Amelia Tharp is a high school sophomore from Knoxville, Tennessee. She was a regional gold key winner and a national silver medalist in the 2022-2023 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for her poetry submission, “Graffiti." Her passions are reading and writing, and she plans to major in Creative Writing in college. Through her writing, she aspires to express herself and evoke strong emotions in her audience, as well as to develop her narrative voice through poetry, fiction, and personal essays.
Patriarchy’s Preclusion of Past Protégés and Present Professors
Beginning with a warning that “fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact”¹ should contradict the validity of Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own. Instead, it confirms her feminist claim that patriarchal power structures have suppressed the voice of women throughout history, leaving few “facts” written by women themselves to prove the necessity of efforts towards gender equality. Published in 1929, after the decades-long fight for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom, Woolf’s essay is a compilation of lectures she delivered the previous year at women-only constituent colleges at Cambridge University, Newnham College and Girton College. Her examination of the social and economic obstacles female writers faced due to the presumption that women had no place in literary professions and so were instead relegated to the household, particularly resonated with her audience of young women who had struggled to fight for their right to study at their colleges, even after the political successes of the suffragettes. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf exposes the difficulty for women to succeed in exclusive and male-dominated spaces without institutional support and inspirational predecessors, continuing in the present when skewed gender ratios in higher education disproportionately obstruct the success of both female students and faculty.
Through juxtaposing the conditions at Fernham, a newly established women-only college, and Oxbridge, a historically men-only university, Woolf reveals how generations of adherence to traditional domestic roles prevent women from succeeding in male-dominated opportunities. As Woolf laments the difficulty for Fernham to fundraise while Oxbridge can rely on endowment, she remarks that if only their matriarchal line had left their money “like their fathers and their grandfathers before them”, female students could have sought “fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships” as men do.² Woolf’s observation of women’s generational poverty, compared to men who receive such a wealth of educational opportunities that come “and” after “and” reflects the Feminist theory that the cycle of intellectual poverty that traps women of potential genius is caused by the reign of men in influential economic positions, worsened by traditional gender roles that confined women to the household. Even with England’s Married Women's Property Act of 1882³ which allowed married women the right to their assets and the Equal Franchise Act of 1928⁴ that gave all women over the age of 21 voting rights, it was impossible to reach economic and political equality when social inequality continued in gender roles that relegated women to the household. It supports the Feminist theory that sexism cannot be resolved with the abolishment or creation of laws because of how severely patriarchal standards permeate through generations so that women could not seek support from a community of their own to act as role models and mentors. Woolf believes that this cycle can be disrupted if women are encouraged to break into exclusive fields, such as literature and higher education, accelerating the progression of gender equality when women can see others like themselves succeeding.
As Woolf illustrated with her hypothetical schools, excluding women from higher education for centuries due to ingrained gender roles has led to a deficiency of institutional support, impeding the ability of present-day female faculty to reach tenured positions in academia. Even though the colleges of Newnham and Girton that inspired Woolf’s fictional Fernham College were, respectively, established in 1871 and 1869, they were not allowed official admission as degree-awarding universities until 1948.⁵ In the United States, the push for an end to single-sex education at men’s institutions largely occurred from 1969 to 1983 with the educational reform of aspect of the Civil Rights Movement.⁶ As the timeline of women in academia has only firmly been established in the last century, even today when men’s colleges have fallen obsolete, women at co-ed institutions still face the consequences of their comparatively short legacy. According to a longitudinal study by the University of Maryland conducted from 2003 to 2019, rather than relying on institutional support such as deans, chairs, and tenured faculty, women faculty “often utilized multiple external sources of support…from peers, family, and friends...defying established (and very often gendered) norms” and that although female “full-time faculty increased from 31 to 45 percent…the percentage of women who were tenured professors actually decreased from 27 to 26 percent”.⁷ Although more women are gaining access to academic careers, they are still barred from the positions that offer them the most benefits, a continuity of economic inequality like the underserved mothers and grandmothers of Woolf’s women. This disparity is attributed to how women are subject to double standards, especially by the higher-ranked male faculty who perform their evaluations. Compared to their male counterparts, women faculty face lower promotion rates due to employers’ doubt of their capabilities, as there are fewer women to serve as an antecedent. And though the social norm of a subservient domestic housewife is no longer as prominent as in Woolf’s time, familial duties are still factored as an employment risk, such as the disadvantage of potential maternal leave, for women but not men. Female faculty are doubted for their commitment to work, more scrutinized for their performances, and weighted as riskier hires due to a systemic bias against women in academia, established by the generations of men before them.
Rather than waiting for men to permit their entrance, Woolf believes that women can successfully saturate themselves in the literary arts by looking to other inspirational women as examples. Woolf compares the lives of William Shakespeare and Judith, his hypothetical sister born equally genius, but when Judith attempted to follow in her playwright brother’s footsteps, a theater manager “bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting—no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress”.⁸ Judith represents not only the typical woman of the Elizabethan Era, but of Woolf’s time as well, the women who were forced into unwanted marriages, unwanted pregnancies, and unwanted domestic life, who consigned themselves to the passive role assigned by patriarchal standards. The theater manager represents the obstacles women faced in attempting to enter male-dominated fields, in Judith’s case, the disbelief that
women could act and direct, and in Woolf’s case, the disbelief that women could write anything of substance. Although ‘Judith’ shortly met her end as a victim of rape and suicide, Woolf states that she will be reborn “drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners”.⁹ Woolf argues that ‘Judith’, as in all the women of untapped potential, will be able to prove her talents to the world if she continues to draw from her ‘forerunners’, having faith that a community of like-minded women will help each other open the door that ‘theater managers’ shut. Unlike Woolf’s own unfortunate literary predecessors, if women establish a support system of their own, they will no longer have to be the noblewomen socially permitted by their husbands and fathers to hold a pen, nor will they have to be the poor women economically freed to work by the deaths of their families. An ocean apart, but facing similar resistance to Woolf as a woman in literature, Louise Bogan, an American poet of the Lost Generation remarked that “women who have produced an impressively bulky body of work are few” and rather than “spare, chiseled, even anorexic verses she could allow herself”, she wished to write like her friend Theodore Roethke, who had dismissed the work of women for their “embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life…lamenting the lot of the woman”.¹⁰ Although her view that successful female poets were so rare is accurate of her time where even Gertrude Stein was overshadowed by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bogan’s harsh deprecating tone towards her own writing reflects the standards determined by male critics rather than the true quality of her work. Female poets were marginalized as lyricists waxing on mundanities of life and love, as Roethke mocks with his diction of “embroidering” and “meer”, a view so widespread that women like Bogan began subscribing to that notion themselves, believing that it was demeaning to continue writing in a so-called feminine fashion but simultaneously being told that they could not live up to abilities of great male poets. As argued by Woolf, women writers should not defer to superficially accomplished men, who in any case have an advantage due to a longer history of works, but should instead take steps towards establishing their influence to set their successors up for success.
Mirroring the underrepresented women writers of Woolf’s time, current female college students, particularly in male-dominated fields such as STEM, are disproportionately harmed by an unequal gender ratio in faculty when they could otherwise be empowered by using female faculty as support and inspiration. According to Stanford University’s demographic reports, women make up 40% of the undergraduate students at the School of Engineering, but women only make up 20% of the professoriate faculty.¹¹ While the rate of women attending college has increased from the early days of Newnham and Girton, the rate of hiring female professors has remained stagnant for decades. A study by Pew Research Center finds that nationwide, women are 37% less likely than men to graduate with degrees in science or engineering and account for 25% of the STEM workforce, an issue that has attempted to be resolved by early education programs such as Girls Who Code and IGNITE Worldwide.¹² These STEM programs focused on introducing girls to fields that have historically, and even now, been dominated by men, reflecting Woolf’s hope that women could one day depend on their forerunners. Another possible solution is suggested by the results of a 2010 study on over 9000 students at the United States Air Force Academy that shows when a female professor is teaching, “female students perform 10% of a standard deviation better in introductory math and science courses when taught by female rather than male faculty, while there is minimal impact on male students”.¹³ Since the study found that levels of preparedness for both genders were about equal prior to entry into college, it’s a positive sign forward that STEM access for young girls has been improved, but also an indicator that more work needs to be done in higher education where they still face social barriers in terms of struggling to identify with their ‘forerunners’. It is important to increase the percentage of female professors to fix the skewed gender ratio so that students can see
themselves represented in these role models, which is particularly important for women in gender-imbalanced fields of study.
Although Virginia Woolf’s observation of women writers in the 20th century through A Room of One’s Own is analyzed here with a lens of modern feminism to reveal the persisting systemic biases against women in academia, the crux of her argument concerning the legacy of historical injustice is applicable to multitudes of modern social movements. The fight for equality has no identifiable beginning nor a determinable end. From the cycles of colonies and conquest, to the patterns of poverty and protests, and to the blueprints of butchery and bloodshed, people have always held the innate desire to subjugate. But today when we can look back at history and learn from the writings of observers such as Woolf, perhaps we can look forward to the end of oppressive power structures and the start of a society shaped by an embrace of multifaceted perspectives.
Rita Lai is a student in California who enjoys reading with the company of her cat. She has been published in the Lumiere Review.
The philosopher George Hegel asserted, “Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights.” Niels Bohr, the Nobel laureate in Physics (1922) stated it this way, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” I have to keep Niels Bohr in mind whenever I enter into political discussions with my Evangelical Christian relatives.
I was born in the Bible Belt, specifically to a family living in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. For some reason, I inherited a natural immunity to near lethal doses of “that old time religion.” I matured concluding that not all spiritual people are affiliated with organized religion and not all that is sacred resides in houses of worship. Since I live in New York City but stay in touch with the “born again” relatives, I am privy to the diverse viewpoints (or spin) on most issues of political and religious contention. Ironically, both the left and right extremes are convinced that if people simply knew the truth, they would “think like me.” I tend to resonate with Ani Pema Chodron, who cautions in Interpreting Tibetan Buddhism (meditation applied to every day life): Don’t believe everything you think.
Unfortunately, whether political or personal, truths are often not particularly self-evident. In 3rd Century BC Aristotle maintained, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” The spiritual cliché may be that you must “love your enemy,” but that is not always possible, or even necessary. It is, however, important to listen to your enemy and, more often than not, respect the differences in your perspectives. Some of my most instructive and humanizing experiences have emerged when a person whom I like and enjoy—one whose intellect and experience I respect—is my polar opposite politically.
In fact, in the early years many of John Jay’s first-generation-college-educated students favored unbridled law enforcement and traditional family values: to my dismay, some were openly homophobic, anti-choice, and gung-ho capital punishment. The college classroom may have been the first place, however, that they were asked to consider such issues through dialogue, in an intellectually informed way. When I teach, I insist, for example, that opinions and differences among my students be expressed respectfully and documented through research and evidence of critical thinking. This enhances personal relationships as well as class discussions.
For my part, I best serve my students (and my sanity) not through academic lectures, but by infusing all controversial personal and political issues in the curriculum with empathy and authenticity. I demand this of my students and myself. This process was particularly put to the test the first time I taught a course on race and ethnicity in police supervision to senior police officers. The officers immediately "made" me for a plain-clothes hippie and were understandably suspicious of my politics and intent. During the course, however, the personal testimonies and insightful reflection of these officers left no doubt in my mind that racism and prejudice are not particularly prevalent among New York City police officers. In fact, officers themselves commonly felt oppressed and under-valued. Some have certainly become jaded and resentful over the years, particularly when their challenging work goes unrecognized or underappreciated, or worse, when a few bad apples are taken to represent the barrel. Still, when the police officers and I recounted our youthful motivation for the work and life styles we had chosen, we all agreed that most people share a common ground in wanting to improve themselves and the world. More than they need information and academic theorizing, law enforcement officers, in their efforts to uphold civil society, need better communication skills and acknowledgement of their own human dignity.
In the aftermath of September 11th, I served as a trauma response counselor in New York City. For more than a year, the prevailing sentiments in the City were loss, grief and personal safety. I was taken aback that in other parts of the United States, and particularly in Washington, DC, the mood quickly shifted toward patriotism, national security and vengeance. When the war on Iraq got the backing of the majority of Americans and both Houses of Congress, I was forced to examine my worldview. I never ended up supporting the war, but I certainly came to understand a lot more about the impact of anger and fear on public policy.
Karen Beatty was reared in an impoverished family in Eastern Kentucky and later served as a Peace Corps Thailand Volunteer. She finally settled on the Isle of Manhattan, where she trained as a trauma-informed counselor and taught police officers, firefighters, immigrants, and Veterans. In her youth Karen dedicated her life to pursuing peace and justice. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Snowy Egret, Books Ireland, and most recently in Mud Season Review. Her first novel will be published this coming summer.
Mami’s Nature and I
Droplets of water sparkle in the air, kicked up as I run through the little stream in my backyard. My toes press into the clay soil at its bottom, soft like brown sugar, a stark contrast against the occasional elevated rock.
The stream is shallow—no higher than my calves—and lukewarm. I do wish it was cooler, but the PuertoRican afternoon sun will have its way; despite the shelter of the mango and coconut trees, the scattered rays that peek through are more than enough. Sweat beads on my forehead and I wipe it away.
I crouch down, stick my hands into the water and wiggle my fingers. A leaf flowing downstream catches on my hand and I shake it off, standing back up. Droplets hang between my fingernails.
I step forwards and balance on a rock with my right foot, then hop to the next with my left. My arms are extended outwards. I imagine I am on an adventure, and there are crocodiles in a great torrential river, and if I slip in, I will be eaten. I jump to another rock, then another, making my way to the side of the river opposite my house. I land on the bank with a heavy breath. Success. A chango sitting in a mango tree flies deeper into the grove, rustling the leaves and shadows and cawing at the wide blue sky. I watch until it has fully disappeared, then turn my attention back to one of the crocodiles slithering in the river.
I'm looking into their beady eyes when I hear the creak of a window being opened, and my Mami’s voice calling out to me.
“Sierra!” Her head peeks out the window. “Come get yourself changed and help me cook. I left a lacy white dress for you on the bed. The neighbors will be over around eight.” The crocodile sinks down into the river, which dissipates into a stream, babbling softly. “Okay Mami!” I call back. I dash into the stream, water splashing at my thighs. I step onto the grass on the other side, then the concrete, which burns the bottoms of my feet. A small puddle forms, dark gray footprints, as I make my way around to the front door. Immediately the puddles turn to smoke and cloud. They swirl around my legs, kiss the inner corners of my knees, spirals and curls of transparent white.
I walk inside the front door.
The clouds let go of their grasp.
Mami and I like to cook together—it's just one of those things we do. I love it, because when Mami cooks, she sings. That's how you know the food is going to be good. Mami says the best food is made with the power of music, and even though she has a silly grin on when she says it, I think she is right.
We pour sofrito into the pot with the chicken while singing and dancing to the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz.
Mami holds the wooden spoon to her mouth and it becomes a microphone, an exaggerated emotional expression on her face. The pot sizzles and pops like her hips. I perform with her, screwing open a can of Goya tomato sauce. We pour in the Goya, sprinkle in the sazón, and plop in the vegetables, all measured with the heart.
A glass lid covers the metal pot, and heat on low, the food simmers.
Mami sets the vegetable cutting board down and takes my hands, which feel tiny in hers. We do the basic Salsa step, alternating feet forward and back to the beat of the music. She raises her arm and spins me. I giggle, then back to basic. We sway together and dance our way across the kitchen floor, cool white tile on bare brown feet.
About an hour later, the metal pot is painted in greens and warm yellows from the walls and lamp light, a few slight blues from the night sky reflecting in through the little window. The fire flicks at its bottom.
It is ready.
Mami carefully lifts the lid. Tendrils of flavorful steam dance in the air, illuminated yellow by the lighting. I watch Mami from behind, her black hair pooling on her shoulder as she leans over the pot, stirs with the wooden spoon, the movement of her hand a practiced pattern. She offers the spoon to me filled with brick-red sauce, a piece of chicken, lumps of potatoes and carrots. Warmth down my throat, I chew and swallow and my cheeks tingle pink. It tastes of song and laughter.
I will never get tired of our pollo guisado.
It is seven forty-six when the first guests arrive: the couple from a few houses down, Mrs. Paula and Manolo, who is holding a container of rice. Mrs. Paula is wearing the same pair of dusty red heels she always wears, and Manolo, his brown sandals. I know all my neighbors by their shoes. I watch them pass by whenever I draw with colored chalk on the concrete outside my house.
Then, it’s black loafers and white socks—Abran with a walking cane and tinfoil-wrapped alcapurrias. Finally, fourteen minutes later, it’s paint-splattered timberlands– Clemente and his daughter, tan flowery sandals–Lili, carrying a pot of habichuelas.
Clemente greets Mami like this: “Alondra Eva Ortiz,” a flourish in his voice, “I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” and he touches her hand, eyes glittering.
“Ay dios, Clemente, no need for your formalities,” Mami shakes her head, “We've known each other too long for that.”
“Oh but a woman like you deserves only the best treatment,” Clemente starts stepping in rhythm to the merengue song that's come on, smooth and playful, and he moves her hand along with his to dance. Mami laughs, a bright and twinkling sound, and allows herself to be swayed.
Clemente is cool like that– charismatic. He's got good energy, as Mami would say. He raises people up wherever he goes. Lili puts the habichuelas on the table and skips over to me.
Her smile is toothy, but, oh! That is new! One of the front ones is missing. She runs her tongue across the space in between. “Look!” She exclaims. Laughter bubbles out of my mouth at the sight of
it. “Lili!” She starts giggling too, and sticks her hand into her pocket to pull out a crumpled napkin. She unwraps it, revealing a white tooth. I am in awe, and apparently it shows on my face because she's laughing harder, and I'm gasping, and our hands are on our stomachs in glee.
Lili is my best friend like Clemente is Mami’s, and she can always make me laugh like this.
The song leaves Mami and Clemente breathless from dancing. Abran shifts his weight on his cane.
“Let's eat!” He complains, “I'm starving.”
Tin cups and old ceramic plates are nothing fancy, but filled with the food everyone brought, our kitchen feels like the most elite of restaurants. My attention is mostly focused on shoveling arroz con gandules and pollo guisado into my mouth, but my ears are open to the chatter of the adults. Some of the things they discuss sound like a whole other world to me, but it is dramatic and thus it is fascinating.
Abran scratches his white facial hair. “What, so you think statehood is better?” “I do,” Manolo pushes up his round glasses on his round face. “Think about it! More jobs would open up, good ones. The economy would strengthen. More companies would invest in us.”
“And we would be able to vote for president and have active representatives in the House,” Clemente adds.
Abran’s eyebrows are wrinkled. “That does sound good, but…” his head tilts, “what about the culture?”
“What do you mean?” Clemente asks.
“What if too many mainlanders start to come here, and gentrification increases faster than it already is– and you know how bad it has been in some areas already– and what if the things that make Puerto Rico so distinct start to fade? Our food, our language, our identity.”
Gentrification. I think I’ve heard that word before, whispered, a heavy sore on Mami’s tongue during late night phone calls when the smell of dinner and spices has started to settle down and leave out the windows. The way Abran said it too, it sounds dirty. Bitter. He basically spat it out. I don't think I understand why.
“I understand your concern, Abran,” Manolo speaks, “but I do think, regardless, things would improve around here with statehood. Statehood would make us eligible for better disaster relief efforts, and with all the hurricanes–”
Mami chuckles, shaking her head at the men while chewing a mouthful of alcapurrias. All eyes turn sharply to her and she waggles her fork.
“If you want to be a formal American so badly” she teases, a failed attempt at a New York accent on the word American, “then why don't you just move mainland?” The men roar and then there is a muddle of laughter and jokes about gringos and clinks of forks on plates.
Mami leans over to Mrs. Paula, close to her ear. I see her lips move and just barely make out her words. I think she says: “Sometimes I consider moving to become a mainlander myself,” and then “rent is rising,” and something about money.
I quizzically look at Lili to see if she caught the last part, but she is happily eating her father’s habichuelas and smiling because everyone else is, chewing carefully to avoid the space where she is missing a tooth.
It’s all very warm—the lighting, the house, the food, the company—here we are safe and cared for and together, but I can’t help but focus on Mami’s whispers. I don't understand why she is worried.
I think we must be rich to be able to eat like this.
Just past the little, now dried up, stream in my backyard is a grove of fruit trees. We've got guavas, mangoes, coconuts, and bananas, but right now, only the bananas are ready to pick. Our banana trees are short so it is not too difficult to gather the fruits. I think they are short because they are young. Mami says she and Papi planted them about a year after I was born. She says it was one of the last things she and Papi did together before he changed. It’s ironic that she and Papi planted a banana tree, as bananas are a very reliable fruit here—ready to be picked pretty much year-round—while Papi is the farthest thing from reliable. Whenever Mami reflects on it, there is a bitter crinkle between her eyebrows. She doesn't like to go back to the banana trees, so she sends me.
This time Lili has accompanied me and we are running loops between all the fruit trees in the grove, touching their leaves, their bark, our sandals crunching on dried grass. The banana trees have large green leaves that are half my size and yellowish-brownish trunks. The bananas are light green, plump and ripe; that's how you know they are ready. I stop running and point to a nice full bundle hanging on one of the trees.
“Lili! This one is perfect!” I call out, and she pauses to look at it and nod her head enthusiastically.
I pull a small knife out of my shorts pocket and begin sawing at the stem of the bundle. It is best to pick bananas in mass, rather than individually.
After a few moments of sawing, the bundle falls and Lili helps me catch it. She grins and motions to another bundle.
“Let’s get that one too!” I skip over to it, holding the knife carefully, and cut it down as well. And then another. And another. By the time we have cut the fourth bundle, we are sweating and snickering.
“What are we going to do with so many bananas?” Lili exclaims, lying down on the dried grass.
“I have no clue,” I reply, lying next to her, bananas resting on the ground around my head.
Lili faces me and I can see a gleam in her light brown eyes reminiscent of her papa’s. “You might say,” she grins, “we've gone… bananas.” She plucks one from the bundle and holds it up to her mouth sideways like a smile.
She looks so silly and combined with her joke, I just double over laughing. We lay there for what could be minutes or hours, watching strange shapes of sparsely dispersed clouds float across the sky and sorting them. We have just seen a fluffy castle fly by when I feel overheated and want to go back home. We grab two banana bundles each and start making our way through the bends of the grove.
At the stream, I hop from rock to rock while Lili just walks across the cracked clay. I can't fully see where I am stepping because of the bundles, but I think I know these rocks well enough to be able to navigate. It's a fun challenge, testing my muscle memory. It's fun, until my foot lands on the side of a rock rather than the center. I lose my balance and a shriek rips out of my throat; I topple to the ground, feel my knee scraping a dead stick, feel the tiny tears in my skin and the impact of my bones on the cracked earth. The bananas fall with me and get coated in dirty dust, bruised skin to match mine. It happened so fast. The trees are spinning, there's tan sandals dashing a few yards to me, a light-colored hand reaching out to me, someone calling my name. How can they expect me to respond already? It's been only a second.
I sniffle and see the sizable scrape on my knee starting to produce blops of blood. My eyes water. I have banana skin. So easy to injure. I know the bundles I was carrying might be ruined too. They’ll turn entirely brown and speckled with banana scabs in a few days. As will my knee.
I take the light-colored hand—Lili’s, I can tell that now—and I stand up. She rubs my shoulders and asks if I'm okay.
I'm not sure what to answer. I think I am. Maybe. When Lili and I get back to my house, my knee is still dripping a little blood. We set the bananas down, peer in through the window, and see Mami and Clemente sitting on the couch together. Her hands are in his and he is saying something indiscernible from our distance. His thumb rubs over her knuckles as he speaks. He raises her hand to his lips and kisses it. It feels intense, like we are intruding on something intimate. Lili and I share wide eyes. My mouth gapes. She pulls a funny face of dramatic disgust and amusement. One of our hands knocks at the window, I can't be sure which. Immediately both their heads snap in our direction and Clemente hastily rises to open the door. Mami stays sitting until she notices my knee.
“Ay dios mío, what happened? It wasn't the knife was it? I knew I shouldn't have given it to you, what was I thinking?”
“No Mami, I just fell. It's... I’m fine.” A drop of blood slowly makes its way down my leg and my eyes start to water again.
Her face tells me it doesn't appear fine. “Clemente, it was a pleasure as always, I will talk to you later, yeah?” She hastens him out the door, “I have to deal with Sierra right now.”
“Don't worry Alondra, I get it,” he reassures her, holds Lili’s shoulder, then turns to me. “I hope that feels better soon, Sierra.” He makes a weird smile, picks up the other two banana bundles, then shuffles away with Lili, who sends me a sympathetic wave.
“Ay, baby, what were you thinking?” Mami chastises, pouring a bit of water on my cut to wash it.
“I don’t know, Mami,” I mumble. “I couldn't see because of the bananas.” She rubs a salve onto my knee. It smells of honey. “Next time try not to take more than you can handle,” she starts. I tune her out and my vision blurs, hyper-focused on a small, melted candle on the table in front of the couch. Her voice of television static says I must be more careful, and “you don't always need to reach for more,” and something about appreciating what we have. I feel my head slowly turn to look at her. A strand of black hair lies
on her forehead. It is beaded with sweat.
A sigh escapes her cracked lips.
Rainy season is supposed to have come already, but it isn’t coming. The weatherman on the television calls it a drought.
Drought. That is a strange word. I ask Mami what it means and she says it is bad. It means the coconuts will have less juice and the grass will turn brown and there will be more dried worms on the concrete. I recall the landscape of my trip with Lili, the dried grass and disappearing stream. I frown. How terrible. Mami says we need to be good to the earth because Mother Nature is working hard to sustain us. Swirly words of prayer rise from her mouth like smoke to the sky. Two days later, it rains. The weatherman on the television sounds ecstatic.
The sky has been weird lately– gray in the distance. A dense fog has rolled in and hasn't left, along with a sporadic light drizzle. The coquis have been very loud. The stray cats have stopped coming. There's this orange one that always lays down on a ledge near our kitchen window. We've named him Hercules and we feed him occasionally. Mami says he stood up a few days ago, looked at her with his golden green slotted eyes for a whole minute, and left. We haven't seen him since. The birds have been on edge as well.
“Something bad is coming,” Mami says, tasting the air. Her dark brown eyes burn into me. She paces the kitchen, the sound of her bare feet on the tile. After seemingly contemplating for a couple minutes, she tuts her tongue and says we need to cleanse the house. “Bad energy,” she concludes.
I don't question her. She is usually right about these things; it is an ancient sort of knowledge she has, one that ebbs and flows to the beat of the natural world. The cool misty light from our catless kitchen window illuminates her figure against the green walls. Her black hair shines like the feathers of a chango. She's wearing a thin blue shawl over her shoulders right now, and I can almost imagine she has wings. Maybe she is getting the sense that she should fly away too, like all the creatures have this week. After all, her name, Alondra, means lark.
Her phone rings in the other room and she patters away into the shadows to get it. It is a piercing sound, electronic against the rustle of trees and songs of coquis and foggy ambience. “Why are you calling me?” Her voice is hard, muffled by the wall between us, but hard regardless. I can't hear the caller's response, though I guess who it might be. She only uses that tone with him.
“I thought we agreed all ties would be cut, Samael… No. I don’t care… No.” Mami huffs, and I picture her pinching her brow bone.
“I am not giving you—you haven’t supported us at all and you expect—” She raises her voice. I can tell Papi is asking things of her. Every so often he will. Mami never wants to give them, though she always cracks and gives a little. She makes him promise that it will be the last time. It never is.
“Samael, I—okay, I will mail it to you—Goodbye.” She hangs up.
Mami patters back to the kitchen, now holding a bundle of sage and a stick of palo santo. “To send out negative energy and bring in positivity.” She opens the rest of the windows and doors. The smell of burning sage and palo santo fills my nostrils.
Five rapid knocks on the front door demand attention I am not sure I want to give. I am comfortable. We’ve just finished eating dinner, so we are relaxing. I am drawing with my crayons as Mami is watching the news. The people on the television warn about intense downpours and harsh winds. I don't pay much mind. In my art we are smiling with Lili and Clemente and big pink flowers. The knocks persist and I wonder who could be outside in a rain like this. An umbrella could barely shield you, the drops are heavy and many and I brace myself for a wet breeze as Mami stands to open the door.
“Alondra.” The voice is raspy, masculine.
“Samael. What are you doing here.” A practiced calm, placid but spiky. Mami’s blue dress billows a bit, her body a dark silhouette, and his even darker. The thud of black boots on our floor, Papi pushes past her into the house. He leaves muddy footprints.
“I called you again earlier today.”
“Why didn't you answer?”
“I didn't want to. And I was at work.” A little louder now: “How many times do I have to tell you I—”
“You answer me,” he demands, and his voice booms, bouncing off our walls, resonating off my eardrums. He saunters across the room and his eyes meet mine for a split second. My lungs are chilled. He smells strange. He passes me to the kitchen table. Mami is still standing at the door. The rain pours outside.
“Sierra, baby, go to your room, okay? Let Mami handle this,” she pleads softly. But I don't budge.
“No, let her stay, Alondra. Let her see how unfaithful her Mami is, that she won't help out Papi when he needs it,” he croons. He rustles through the pile of papers sitting on the table– electricity bills, mortgage statements, spam mail. He doesn't find what he is looking for. “I need twenty dollars,” he says, resolutely. “For gas. Where do you keep the cash?” He smacks the pile off the table, papers flying haphazardly to the ground.
He looks at Mami and his brow bone casts a shadow over his eyes. “Can you give me that? Just twenty. Then I'll be out of your hair.” A sharp crooked smile pulls on his face. He has crocodile teeth. I'm sure of it, I've seen crocodiles before in documentaries on television.
“I don’t like it when you do this.” She says. Suddenly she seems so small. When did Mami shrink? She clears her throat and begins again. “You need to be a grown adult and stop coming back to me asking for—”
He slams his hands on the table and it shakes. “You need to give me what I ask for! We were in love once, Alondra. Got any left in your heart to give me?”
She swallows a lump in her throat. Samael roams to the refrigerator, green reflected light from the walls painting his skin. He examines the photos taped to its white exterior. His hand touches one of me as a baby, then one of Mami posing with sunglasses, then one of all our neighbors together smiling. He stops on a photo of Mami and Clemente. His arm is around her and the colors are sunny. Samael tugs it off the fridge, a prolonged sound of the tape straining and ripping.
“Who is this?”
Mami steps forward, but doesn’t reply. In the stillness between them, the men on the television say something about a hurricane. The wind roars outside.
“Tell me who this is!” Papi screams. He looks to me and shoves the photo in my face. “Do you know who this is? Tell me, Sierra. Who has your Mami been spending time with?” He is thundering, and outside the world is thundering, and everything is shaking. He throws the photo onto the tile floor and steps on it, leaving muddy boot prints.
“Stay away from her!” All focus turns to Mami. “You have no right to come into my house and make demands. You do not own us, Samael.” Something in Mami has shifted, broken maybe. She strides over to him, a fiery glare on her face. She grabs his arm and her nails scrape his skin. She leans in close, and–
An ear-splitting crack, the window fractures. Shards of glass splinter and coat the sink, the stove, the floor. A large branch from the mango tree outside our kitchen lands with a thud. Mami and Papi turn their backs to the window, arms instinctively covering their faces. I curl into the couch. A beat of silence extends across our home.
Mami stirs first, still holding Papi’s arm.
“Get the hell out of my home.”
“GET OUT.” She screams. She pulls him towards the door. “Get Out Get Out Get Out.” I see something I don't recognize in his face: fear. Papi’s eyebrows are furrowed as he dashes for his car parked in front of our house. Mami chases him, her light blue dress turning dark from the wetness, splattered with bits of mud. Activated car lights turn rain droplets white and red.
“And don't come back!” Mami yells after the car as it disappears down the road. Her shoulders shake. I don't know how long it takes me to run from the couch to the open door. I don't know how long Mami stays standing there, drenched, bare feet on chilled muddy earth. The rain drops fall slowly. I run out to her and I think I’m crying because the droplets on my face are warm. Her hand, fallen at her side, is warm. She looks shocked when she feels me take
it. Her black hair shines. I guide her back inside. I lock the door. I close the window shades. The wind howls outside that night. The incessant rap of rain and falling mangoes on our tin roof is loud, and the ripping of tree leaves is loud, but the pattern of Mami’s heartbeat as I lie curled up next to her is calming enough to lull me to sleep regardless.
The next morning we wake to dried muddy footprints and lights that won’t turn on. Mami doesn't go to work. Schools are closed. I'm afraid of what I'll see if I open the window shades. It turns out I don't even have to open them because by 11:00 AM, the outside intrudes in, our sanctuary torn apart.
With a loud crash, the rest of the mango tree falls into our kitchen, ripping open the green walls and tin roof. The metal pot sitting on the stove hits the floor and clangs. Ceramic plates in the sink shiver and smash. The mango tree drips water from torn green leaves onto the white tile floor.
And Mami prays
Two days later, the hurricane has left, and yet it remains. Fragments of it have been scattered across the island, and they accumulate in the corners of our eyes, the back of our throats, and the pit of our stomachs. They stick to us, a rainy grief that the sun just won't dry up. People lean to each other for support and there is crying everywhere I look. Mrs. Paula cradles Mami’s face as she cries about the tree that broke our kitchen walls and ceiling. Mami holds her back when Mrs. Paula sobs about the second floor of her and Manolo’s house that's broken from the wind and rain, the things they've lost. She says the roof and walls were ripped right off.
Clemente points to his car, squished under a palm tree like a berry. He says that his bedroom window caved in, and the wall came with it. He runs his hand across his face and says how grateful he is that everyone is alive, because that is what is most important. He kisses Mami on the forehead. Manolo helps Abran cobble over the debris and opens up a lawn chair for him to sit. Abran’s roof had been leaking everywhere and his floor had been so wet he could barely walk without slipping. He had injured his ankle.
And dios mío, there is so much debris: broken wood and shards of glass and pieces of homes, of lives, laid bare across the streets. It looks like how my heart feels. Lili doesn't let go of my hand. We wander around and see the little stream that was once dried is now overflowing. Two of the banana trees have ripped in half. Bananas and unripe coconuts and guava-tree branches litter the ground. Mostly, they are rotting, or the wildlife has already gotten to them.
We carry some of the salvageable fruits back for the others to eat. The brown wounded bananas taste overripe and I gag.
Despite the pain, people have been rebuilding. Our neighbors here are very resilient. Makeshift closures of wood and plastic reform walls that had been torn. Debris is carried out and piled up in a mound. As soon as they can, the local government sends agents across the neighborhoods. When they reach ours, they ask if anyone is hurt, and tell us of people they had to pull out of the rubble of collapsed homes from other areas. They wrap Abran's ankle, then go about their way. The mainland government has been slow to help. There is a local repurposed gas station that provides canned food, bottled water, and toilet paper. We visit every so often to meet our needs. My neighborhood still doesn't have power. There is incessant chatter on our battery-radio documenting the damage across our island, the number of people rescued, injured, dead. Mami gets tired of hearing it one day and just shuts off the radio.
“We're going on a walk,” she states, sliding on black flip flops.
“But it's raining,” I reply, looking out the front window.
“It's drizzling,” she says.
I see that there's no changing her mind, so I follow her out and she locks the door. Locking the door is more out of habit than necessity these days. The kitchen wall is still open, plastic and staples the only thing stopping anyone from breaking in. No one would dare, though. Our neighbors look out for each other. We walk around to the back of the house. Mami stares at the fallen mango tree for a moment, then gracefully lifts her dress and removes her shoes, wading across the flowing stream. I don’t even try to walk on the rocks. I don't imagine crocodiles. We pass the coconut trees and step over their moist brown leaves on the grass. We go around the guava trees and their still inedible fruit. We halt at the broken banana trees. Mami holds her head high and her dark eyes scan their bodies. She turns to me. Her mouth tugs into an amused smile.
“I like them better like this,” she says.
I am taken aback for a moment, but then I start to laugh, and she's laughing too, and it's hysterical and loud and the trees quiver. And then I'm crying. And she's crying. My arms wrap around her waist and she leans down and hugs me so tightly it is hard to breathe. We stay like that, wordlessly, for about two minutes. I hide my face in her neck.
“So much has broken,” she says, defeated.
“But we will rebuild here,” I hold her, salty wetness gathering on my cheeks, “Right Mami? Us and all our friends. We will fix our houses and then life will go back to normal.”
“We will rebuild,” she repeats. She sounds wistful. Distant.
A chango sitting on one of the broken banana trees tilts its head and stares into my soul with its dark eyes. Then it opens its wings and flies up and away, cawing at the wide gray sky. I watch until it has fully disappeared, then I turn my attention back to Mami’s arms around me, the broken banana tree, the broken home behind us. Mami exhales–a silvery noise– and I think of her whispers, and her phone calls, and her tired sighs.
And for the first time, I think I understand.
Sophia Medina is a Latina teen writer from Brooklyn, New York. She has been recognized nationally in Young Arts and regionally as first place in the BPL Ned Vizzini Teen Writing Contests 2022 and 2023. Furthermore, she was a poet in the 2022 Untold Stories Poetic Theatre Productions program, in which she created poetry about her queer identity. Sophia values highlighting underrepresented groups in her works and views creative writing as a powerful agent for social change.
The Golden Enemy
I used to hate the sun. I hated the feeling of rays of heat against my chest. The way it soaked my skin, as it smeared the world with its golden glaze. But more than that, I abhorred what it represented, and what it impelled me to see. My name is Isabella Zambrano, and I am from Barranquilla, Colombia. A city that sits on the lip of the Caribbean sea, and is hugged by the white speckled mountains of Sierra Nevada. A nest; preserved by the bold warmth of its people, and where closeness is a rule, and privacy, a crime. My home. The home of the sun.
Summer before third grade. My bare feet squelch against the cold marble floors of my house, as I walk towards the dining room table. The air conditioning blows against my chest, as blades of sunlight slice through the window panes. My mom sits at the table taking sips of her black coffee, her eyes skimming through some balance sheets. “Me quiero mudar a Estados Unidos” , I tell her with hesitation. She looks at me with a sceptical gaze, setting her mug on the wooden table with gentle finality. The white walls of the room close tighter around me, as the temperature plummets by 10 degrees.
I apprise her of my white-picket dreams, and how I long for a house with a tall stone chimney and a verdant backyard. I explain my wish to see a world that is hued in more than one colour; in more than the sultry varnish of the sun. I tell her how I long for the cold winds of autumn, that twist, furl and unfurl as they waltz through a cloud-mantled world. An autumn with pumpkins and nose-prickling cinnamon spice and crimson leaves that cover the sidewalk like patches in a worn down scarf. I tell her how I long for the lifeless elegance of winter, powdery snow, and snowmen. And somnolent nights by a crackling fireplace. I tell her that I want to leave. To Massachusetts, Maine, or even Canada. Somewhere where the sun hides behind thick curtains of clouds, and I can stay hidden in the wintry dark. And my mother listens.
But truly, I no longer wanted to wake up to the sun. A sun that exposed me to myself, making me feel like an umber lens propped against unabating beams of light. Just as well, I no longer wanted to wake up to this sun. The sun of the small, insular community to which I belonged. The sun of oceans too dark and dirty to swim in, and unsafe streets, and mothers and children, that with faces drenched of sweaty despair, trudged through the sun-bathed streets of Barranquilla, begging for money and food. The sun of friends that I met when I was 5 months old, and privilege, and unawareness. A sun that showed but one dimension. Except I didn’t say this. I didn’t include my demons in my depiction of heaven. And sure enough, 2 years later, my family, and I absconded from the sweltering city of Barranquilla—pursuing a better education, a better life, a different life—a house of stone and ivy.
It’s June, 2019. After a difficult year in the U.S, we’ve returned to Colombia. Outside the Aeropuerto Internacional Ernesto Cortissoz the streets are inundated with the abrasive beeps of taxis and the cheerful voices of passengers being greeted by their families. It was 90 degrees out, yet I wore an oversized shawl hued in brown, grey and crimson darkness, knee-high black leather boots, as well as a fedora hat whose circumference contested Big Ben. As I went past its exit, I peered up at the roaring sun, and in my disquieted mind, its mane grew in impish strands of sunlight. It roared, and the golden flesh of its mouth consumed me, as its blazing mane blighted my eyes. We pulled out of the airport in our grey Toyota, and were greeted by an endless row of flamboyant green, yellow and red flags. The sun accentuates their brilliant colours, and from the front seats of the car, I could see their chests sink in effortless acceptance. Rays of mellow evening sun pierced through me, and a gust of breeze entered through the car windows, in feeble preclusion to the heat that soaked the car. But my chest was stiff. For all I knew, I was back to square one.
Weeks passed by. The sun followed me to the bathroom when I woke up, pinching my bare feet with its golden precision. Slicing through me with whetted unpredictability. It crept up on me at school from the thin slit curtains above the lockers, when from them, threads of sunlight unravelled, morphing the hallway into a searing funnel of light that tantalised me to escape its monochromous circus game. The sun grinned at me every evening, as it stealthily tucked behind the white speckled mountains of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Reminding me that it would return again tomorrow.
“A Última Hora, en noticias Caracol...Atención, El Ministerio de Salud acaba de confirmar el primer caso de coronavirus en Colombia. Se trata de una joven de 19 años proveniente de Milán que llegó a Bogotá en el día de ayer. Fue atendida en la Fundación Santafé de Bogotá donde se le realizaron los primeros exámenes y se confirmó que tiene el Covid-19”
I press the off button of the T.V remote and stare at the black screen in utter bafflement. The first Covid case has been confirmed in Colombia. Sitting at the breakfast table, I wait until the clock strikes 7:30 AM, and it's time to head to school. My feet and legs enfeeble into noodles, and the glaring yellow lights in the ceiling blur into five tiny suns as my head turns into a buzzing cannonball. The clock strikes 7:40, and my hands are still gripping the T.V remote; my thumb pressed firmly against the off button. Covid has struck the country.
2 weeks later, all the schools in the city close. “At first they said it was temporary. 2 weeks. One month at most, while we sort everything out”, they said. By the end of that March, thousands of Colombians had been diagnosed with Covid-19, and the lockdown was extended indefinitely. It was then that my school adopted the virtual learning program.
During quarantine, I lived a pretty much sunless existence, as for the vast majority of the day, all of the blinds in our apartment remained closed. Me? I spent my days in my own company, relishing the infinite amount of time I had to pursue my interests. I practised the piano, read, wrote, sung, took some macroeconomics lessons from Khan Academy, cooked, and did the occasional pilates YouTube workout (a lovely memory I’ve come to orchestrate). For 5 months I remained alone, a stranger to the sun, and insulated in a cinder block square of darkness, and tranquillity. No complaints. None at all.
Then July came. By then, I was desperate for a breath of fresh air, and longed to be anywhere–anywhere at all–other than in my home. So my parents decided that it was time to leave the city.
I hadn’t been in this car for 5 months. The grey leather seats were hot and stiff against my sweaty hands. And the air was dense with the pungent smell of gasoline and lost mileage. My dad turned the lever to the driving position, a grin of incredulity stretching across his face. By the time the car thrust to the front, I felt as though my rib cages were enclosing a pounding drum. We pulled out of the driveway, passing by other dusty cars in the garage, as the rusted garage gate opened with a sharp creak. That night had been restless—spent in bouts of inexorable apprehension. I was about to go out into the world after 5 months, afterall. It was normal to be scared, healthy even. Not that my panda-eyes could attest to that of course. The clouds above were bruised with blotches of grey, and had stretched into an ashen carpet that smothered the horizon. I sat in the back seat of the car, kneeling my head against the window as I watched deformed raindrops unite, and stream down the cold glass. I caught glimpses of red brick buildings and derelict billboards, the streets still with pervasive silence, and the ghosts of the spirited, whose bodies remained stocked away in the 50,000 hospices of fear.
We’d driven for almost half an hour now, and my Dad wanted to stop at “La Ventana del Mundo” monument before leaving Colombia. “The monument is an emblem of the city’s immense talent and potential as the country’s chief cultural hub. It also serves to recognize its exponential economic growth and development over the past years.” Or so the tour guy said back when we first visited. I’ve come to remember it as a glass-made structure, 47 metres tall and bearing the looks of two vertical airplane wings, eclipsing one another. Red. Orange. Yellow. Green. Blue. All in sharp, large squares of glass. Its skirt of colour begins to unfold at the top of its front wing, which is ablaze in fervent red. Below this shade of colour, are glass squares of mellowing orange, yellow, vernal green, and tender blue. And from behind it, on the second wing, which faces back to it, a long slit of blue squares shies in. At the uppermost part of the structure, a cosmic window lies betwixt the wings, revealing a sky of puffed clouds and vibrant blue. Pre-Covid, this monument had always been packed with gruntled visitors and children chasing after huge bubbles that glistened under the blazing sun. With raspao’ vendors in yellow and red carts packed with thick blue, red and purple syrups, paper cones, condensed milk cans, and an ice shaving machine that cut through the gleeful conversations of the visitors. And it was infused with the spirited beats of salsa and vallenato music, that impassioned the dry sultry air, and cast a dancing spell on the tourists.
But sometimes, things change for the worse. I stepped out of the car, and walked towards the yard in front of the monument–my sneakers squelching against the wet pavement. My father was already there, looking up at the derelict monument with his hands on his hips, his eyebrows furrowed in brittle melancholy. Now, the wind whistled, and the final echoes of its unheard utterances settled in the form of dust on its dull veneer. It seemed as though the monument was now a badge not for the growth of the city, but for its descent into ruin. Indeed, the monument’s wings had finally settled, succumbing to the impossibility of flight. “It’s time to go dad. The plane is leaving soon.”
We had no choice. I mean, we were at the airport, a place where we were at an immense risk of contracting the virus, so we didn’t exactly have another option. It was a small sacrifice for a sizable reward. All of this, I recognize in hindsight of course. Because back then, as we unloaded our luggage from the car under three layers of hazmat suits, sterilised gloves, chef hats, knee-high rain boots and goggles, I considered my father to be my worst enemy. In fact, the immigration officers, who couldn’t recognize me under all those layers of clothing, were the only ones that could dissuade him from forcing me to wear those ridiculous goggles (which by now, had made my reddened eyes protrude from their sockets, and prompted my dad to tell me that I looked like a pale iguana). If I wanted to get rid of this Ghostbuster costume, now was my chance: “If you’d like to take a better look, I would be more than glad to take off one of my three layers of hazmat suits”, I told the officer. But he only laughed, turned to our passports, and stamped away.
Four hours later we arrived at Fort Lauderdale. The airport exit bustled with the abrasive beeps of taxis and the cheerful voices of passengers being greeted by their families. We pushed our smarte cartes towards the white Toyota that was waiting for us nearby, anxious to flee the contagious airport.
We were headed to Key Biscayne, Florida, an island paradise detached from the rest of the world. Here, there was no Covid-19—only beaches, sunlight, bikes, and glistening freedom. And yes, there was sun, a potent one at that. But at least here I was a muddy lens that didn’t fit its frame. Here, there was nothing—no culture, or hardship that could link us together. At least here, the sun and I were strangers.
Summer. I’m 12. Sun-kissed cheeks and feet against creamy hills of sand on the Floridian shore; my body embalmed in the salty blues of the ocean. Long bike rides, and dips into icy sunlit pools. Soccer in the park with kids I’d never known, and ice cream invitations I thought I’d never get again. Three-hour Starbucks stays; books read whilst being mantled by the earthy aroma of coffee. A summer, cherished.
Given the virus, school would be held virtually, which meant we would stay in Key Biscayne. The year came and went much like that past summer; soccer, and reading and music and H.W and pedalling away at dusk to catch the sunset at Ocean Drive Bridge. Except now I was alone, distanced from my Colombian friends, family and ostracised by the kids on the island, who hung out with their own school-friends, in lieu of their summer friend-flings.
July 9th, 2022. Once again, we walk past the doors of the Ernesto Cortissoz Airport in Barranquilla. After a year of enjoying the Floridian life, and waiting for the pandemic to attenuate, we’ve come back. It’s time to go back to in-person school. My senses are deluged with familiarity: sun-drowned streets, the earthy smell of leather in our Toyota, driving past the South of the city, the sight of dilapidated homes and bare-foot people, and then a shift—opulent Mormon temples, glass buildings reaching for a blue infinity, with elegant palm-tree entrances. Meticulously manicured lawns set ablaze by the sun, and golden retrievers and park sunshine transformed into the laughter of children and the fluttering wings of butterflies. We were home.
That sunny midsummer day we took a detour the “Ventana del Mundo”, and as I stepped out of our car, what used to be a derelict monument, with its ashen window, and dust mantled glass had transformed into melting-colour wings; a patriotic rainbow against the bright blue sky—the fiery heart of Barranquilla, palpitating to the beat of the city’s cultural drums. That day, the iridescent window of the monument gave me the clarity to see my city for what it was. It was wealth inequality, unending sunny days, and gargantuan mosquitos. But it was also the warmth of its people, 365 days of sunlit pools, the flamboyant festival of El Carnaval de Barranquilla, and an extended family made up of friends that I met when I was 5 months old. That day, I opened my eyes to this truth—one that for too long, had been shrouded under the dingy layers of cultural repudiation.
The truth is: we are light. That’s it. In fact, this in itself, is the premise of Enlightenment: Individualism, and separateness from one another, are illusions to which we’ve been inured. It is a thorn in the stifling vines of existential dread; one of the reasons why we’re unable to disentangle ourselves from them. This is also why we covet connection; why we long for people that mirror the amount of light we are willing to show, because we 7 billion flames that yearn to consolidate into a fervent fire. The sun was trying to connect with my inner-flame, just as light tries to meet light. But it couldn’t do this if I was cocooned under pedals of darkness, denial, shame and my self-imposed cultural suppression. So dear Sun, thank you. For pulling all that I loathed and denied in myself, all the ill-lit dark spots of my soul towards your revealing light.
I wanted to pretend that my identity could exist independently from culture; that I could be myself, without having to be costeña. Indeed, my negative emotions towards certain aspects of my community showed more about myself, than about the culture I grew up in. For instance, my derision for the suffocating “closeness” that characterised my community shed light on my difficulties in connecting with others. My disdain for what I deemed to be “communal close-mindedness”, simply reflected on my inability to appreciate the immense and unequivocal role that culture plays in the way individuals view the world. My people were not close-minded, rather, my mind was closed to the cultural pride of my people. It was me, all along. I was using culture to evade many problems of my own.
Now, I walk towards the light, and face my lively community; mi gente costeña. Now, I honour who I am, but more than that, I honour what my culture has helped me become. Now, I invite the sunlight of awareness to sweep the ill-lit corners of my soul and to demolish my veneers, and shame. So may “La Ventana del Mundo'' forever be the window through which I see the chaotic, yet magnificent world. May the sun continue to bathe it, so that its flamboyant glass structure always scintillates and reminds me of all the good of my city. My name is Isabella Zambrano, and I am from Barranquilla, Colombia, the city that I am proud to call home. The lime that never ripens, the shimmering amber eye that never blinks. The sun that I’ve woken up to 4,380 times still bludgeons me. Except now, I invite it to pull me closer to the light.
Isabella Zambrano is a sophomore from Barranquilla, Colombia. She is passionate about social justice, writing, finance, and entrepreneurship, and strongly believes that literature can be a powerful tool for positive change. In 2022, she founded CASA Inglar---a non-profit organization---with the objective of teaching English to underprivileged girls and young students. Through it, she has developed a keen eye for communication that resonates with diverse audiences, and have learnt the importance of creative writing and language proficiency in self-empowerment.