Despite my tireless feminism, which often makes you roll your eyes to the back of your neck, somehow I overlooked, perhaps because of its brutality, to celebrate and honor the women in the family. I often tell the story of the grandfathers who always won battles, the famed General Francisco Estrada of the War of Independence, who just fathered 51 children… don’t ask.
From the series, Painful letters to my beloved Carmen.
My daughter Carmen is far away these days. She is in a beautiful place, recovering, getting stronger and more beautiful, if that’s possible. She is there because a teacher sexually abused her. He has already pleaded guilty and his sentencing hearing was today. With an infinite courage, Carmen told me she wanted me to give public testimony at sentencing, despite the fact that we could do so anonymously. I wanted to do it, because we have nothing to be ashamed of; and sexual predators prey on the shame of their victims. But in this case, I needed permission from Carmen, as she is the most affected.
Her courage inspired me to tell my own story of sexual violence, to be coherent. And, also, to tell the story of our ancestor – the grandmother of our grandmothers.
En español: Las mujeres de la familia
The women of the family
However, the heroine of our lineage is a black slave whose beauty, legend has it, would have stopped traffic in later times, but back then incited lust and whip. The whip was instigated by the frigid Mrs. Zulueta; and unbridled lust by her husband, Don Zulueta, whose surname the family still carries.
Unfortunately, I only inherited from the beautiful Maria Zulueta the hips where the chocolate is stored. However, my mother and you and your sister are the repository of all her splendor… and, apparently, her bravery.
María had her daughter, the first mulata of our family, very young. Her name was also María, daughter, obviously, of Don Zulueta. Childbirth apparently enhanced her beauty, widened her hips, and deepened her courage. The first two did not go unnoticed by Don Zulueta Junior (“el niño Zulueta.”) It was his misfortune that he did not notice the third.
Maybe he needed to prove something to his father; perhaps he was avenging his mother. They said one night he possessed her so savagely that María bled for days and could barely nurse her child. But she healed. And the incredible beauty that was her downfall was also her ruse.
María wore a large, metallic crucifix, a generous gift of Don Zulueta senior. The previous Sunday, the slaves had “worked on” the crucifix. (I imagine that you will laugh, Carmen, as you see me allowing for the magical powers of religion to have some effect; but if María’s beliefs in the African saints helped her lose the fear, may evolution bless Oshun and the rest of the pantheon.)
One day, after work, she went, beautiful and seductive, dressed all in yellow, to see “el niño Zulueta.” He was not surprised. We, black women are never really raped. We, black women love to be had like wild animals and that they rip apart our bodies and our souls. That, he knew. And María knew that he thought he knew.
María could seduce with her mind. A swing of her body was enough to move mountains. That little man had no chance. I do not know what happened between the moment the door closed and the moment María ran outside, still naked, laughing loudly. The crucifix was smeared in blood.
María’s laughter was suffocated by the screams of “el niño” Zulueta, whose now empty eye sockets were dripping blood.
María did not get far, but her daughter had escaped the night before in the arms of another slave woman and her husband. She was raised as a Maroon. Perhaps that is the origin of our Gypsy soul.
I told you that, at age 14, I was almost raped in the hallway of the building where I lived. The steps of a neighbor, who usually would have scared me but that time was a godsend, interrupted my rapist. Mami never told my brothers about this, because they are troglodytes when it comes to protecting me and probably would have moved heaven and earth to find him and tear him apart. I, fortunately, did not know him and never saw him again. That was good, because back then I was even less civilized than I am now. I had not yet thoroughly assimilated intellectual notions of not taking the law into one’s own hands. Cutesy stuff like that was not exactly my neighborhood’s cup of tea. So, I would probably have told my brothers anyway, and stood there watching while they kick his teeth in. I have never said this in public, but I do now, because I have nothing to be ashamed of. He does.
And I healed. Now I even remember that blessed hallway fondly, because that is where a once and future lover waited for me the first time. I imagine that his loving kisses exorcised the place.
You are going to heal. You are going to bloom, my Carmen. Not because you are Estrada or Portales … those are the names of the men in the family, and, at the end of the day, they were all a bunch of sexist pricks…lovable and all. You are going to heal and grow because you come from María – from the lineage of the Scheherazades of history – women who have used their charms, their fierce spirit, their intelligence and the prejudices of men to subvert the order and make a little history. The history that is written in lower case…the history we women make.