Author, La Mariposa (the butterfly): A Personal Empowerment Program for Adolescent Latinas — Public Speaker — Founder Together for Latinas, Inc., Vice President, One Circle Foundation -photo courtesy of @annamherbst at www.annaherbstphoto.com
Author: Nancy Roldán Johnson
Author of La Mariposa: An Empowerment Program for Adolescent Latinas, Co-Founder of Together for Latinas, Inc., Co-Chair of the One Circle Foundation
It’s been three months since my husband, Craig, and I settled in Manhattan. While I understood it would be a challenge and take time to make meaningful connections here – everyone seems to scurry from one place to the next in hurried determination – I didn’t expect it to be this harrowing.
After all, I had no trouble making friends when living abroad in two foreign countries. I had built-in opportunities through the boys’ schools and sports clubs, my workout groups, and neighbors. It’s true that we are new empty nesters, and our sons are now grown and live in different cities; we can no longer count on the ease of meeting other parents through them. But why am I surprised that I haven’t made a single connection on an island of 23 square miles and 1.63 million residents?
I partially blame myself.
Since our return from Europe (Craig and I lived in Stockholm and London for over eight years), we have been focused on work and reconnecting with friends and family in neighboring states, gathering for celebrations we would otherwise miss if we still lived across an ocean and a six-hour time difference.
I’ve also been spending too much time inside our apartment. I didn’t set out to pass my days sitting at a small desk in the guest room, but I needed a private space, a room of my own if you allow, to establish a routine as a new writer. Writing a memoir is a soul-searching endeavor that requires you to revisit and examine significant moments in the past, some of which can shake and bring you to tears. Until I was more comfortable with the process, I wouldn’t consider venturing out, although I fantasized about living a writer’s life in the city. (There’s also the fact that I often talk aloud. Something about speaking the words makes them real and helps with editing. Not sure the public would appreciate my practice, but then again, this is New York City 🤓.)
My online writing community and work as a property manager and board Co-Chair for a national nonprofit kept me from noticing that I hadn’t yet made a friend IRL. I had grown accustomed to my routine and wondered if I had unknowingly become an introvert. (The answer is brilliantly clear for those who know me well.) I even retook the 16 personalities test to see if my source of inspiration and energy has shifted these past years, especially as I spend a good portion of my days in isolation. But, I am a person who needs the energy of others to be at my best.
So, I searched earnestly for fellow writers and ponderers in local cafés. Many coffee shops I visited did not invite lingering, as evidenced by the limited seating and lines of nomophobics edging toward pick-up counters. Admittedly more of a fan of their community outreach than coffee, I imagined spending mornings in the creative buzz of a Starbucks, fueling on their milder Veranda coffee blend and tapping away on my laptop. I wandered to several of their renovated stores near my apartment and saw similar changes where they notably traded their inviting nooks and tables for the digital convenience of preordering and take-out.
I’m wondering what is left now that this beloved Third Place for writers and creatives doesn’t seem to exist in brick-and-mortar. Surely there is something I’m not considering. After all, this is a major city. If London has local pubs, Stockholm cozy cafés and Fika, undoubtedly something similar exists here.
In the meantime, I want to be intentional about making friends I can give my energy to while discerning the kinds of people I want to surround myself with. I’ve thought about this for some time: how we are the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. In an exciting city like this one, I’ll need to think differently about ways to make connections outside of writing and step out of my comfort zone.
I am deeply grateful for my community beyond state and country lines and virtually, including you, dear readers. Thank you for taking the time to read and share.
In the spirit of friendship, I am curious if there is a facet of your life that can benefit from contemplating or thinking differently. What would stepping out of your comfort zone look like?
With love and this Season’s best wishes to you for a healthy and joy-filled 2023.
The six-month memoir writing course I began in May is coming to a close, and I am feeling apprehensive. While I have a clear view of the end, my memoir is far from complete. I’ll need to create for myself the encouragement, community, and accountability the course and its excellent instructors provide. Even though they are preparing us for this transition, I am nervous.
My final coaching consultation is coming up soon, and I want to take full advantage of my coach’s time and expertise. To prepare, I read my intake form – a series of questions they asked us to complete at the beginning – to remind myself why I chose to take the course and, more importantly, why I need to write my coming-of-age story. In the form, I found a letter I forgot I had written. I wrote the letter to my future self, who, throughout the course, would likely be drowning in self-doubt and the range of emotions writers often feel when they expose themselves to the page.
As keepers of our family’s stories, it’s lovely to capture these memories in a journal to pass on to our children and younger relatives. Our unique journeys are tied to our ancestors and our bloodline and inform us who we are. We can learn so much about ourselves by looking back. We have the opportunity to immortalize the memories that live in us.
Thank you for reading. xo
You are finally embarking on a creative journey to write your coming-of-age story. You thought it was over when you released La Mariposa to the world. I mean, what a challenging pushed-you-to-the-very- fucking-edge experience that was! And you did it. Remember how that perpetually dark month kicked your ass, girl? Sweden in November, especially when the brief sunshine didn’t penetrate the thick, wooly clouds for seven entire weeks, is no joke. Yet, you worked tirelessly through the depression to cross the finish line and accomplish what you believe was your calling on this earth. But after two years of soul-searching for what’s next, you found there is still more to do. The piece of the puzzle needed to complete that mission is your story – the one that led you to create La Mariposa in the first place.
Long gone are your abuelitos and abuelitas whose songs and stories link you to your Puerto Rican tierra and ancestry. Your parents, constantly overwhelmed, never learned them or wrote them down. Soon they will take all remnants of their past with them, save a few photographs that survived the divorce. Your journey, as unique to theirs as it has been, is tied to them and your bloodline. It’s now up to you to preserve what you can for the next generation, lest they forget who they are. You also vowed to help someone like you along their journey so they wouldn’t feel as alone and invisible as you did, abandoned at the dilapidated bridge between cultures. You succeeded in adding a new link to the family chain, but it came at a steep, arguably unnecessary cost.
Expect Imposter to show up at the door often. When it does, tell it to fuck off. We both know it’s not truly going to vanish. But trust that you will do what you always do to forge ahead: remind yourself that you intend to be helpful, that the work is what really matters, not the lies that will inevitably pop up in your head. Silencer will undoubtedly be there, too. It will try to cover up what needs to be said to protect the familia. Take comfort in knowing that you will focus on all dimensions of your characters, including the good, and focus on the reason for the chosen behaviors. That’s where truth rests.
You’ve chosen to work alongside Brooke and Linda Joy because you’ve taken many of their classes, and you believe they want to help memoirists bring their stories to life. You know they will do their part to support and nudge you ahead, but it is up to you to face the intimidating page alone. Take comfort that you will grow as a writer and find your voice with each page you write.
I hope you stretch wide outside your comfort zone and create something you are proud of.
Today is a sad day for women and girls living in states likely to ban abortions. They have been robbed of their constitutional and fundamental right to personal autonomy.
As a female, her right to privacy will be challenged. Before she is allowed to travel out of state, she will likely be required to take a test and prove she is not pregnant. Every time a suspecting neighbor, friend, relative, or stranger turns her into the authorities on suspicion of a planned abortion, she must prove the status of her womb. She will be forced through a pregnancy she did not want or plan for, even if conception is through rape or molestation. She will, in all probability, struggle as a single parent, and the opportunity to improve her life through education diminishes.
More heartbreaking is the fact that these unwanted children will likely feel unwanted.
Predictably, crime rates in these states will rise sharply — up to 20% — in the next twenty years since unwanted children are more likely to become adults who commit violent crimes.
It is a sad day for us all. No one wins when we suppress women’s rights. When women choose if, when, and with whom to have children, they can live and offer the world the best expression of themselves. When women have autonomy, we all win.
From where I sit, I can hear the celebratory sounds in the air. It’s graduation season. Every year around this time, I get a flutter in my belly. And it’s not the good kind.
Years ago, when asked to give commencement speeches as a nonprofit leader working with youth in the community, I made the grave mistake once of assuming the mere five minutes I had to address graduates wasn’t going to count for much. I was sure my message would be washed-out by the slate of speakers delivering their wishes to the Class of 2010 before me.
I had given several speeches by then; for this one, I thought I could easily consolidate my previous addresses. As I stepped onto the stadium stage, I took in the massive crowd packed full with flowers and smiles and people waving to their loved ones in caps and gowns.
My speech fell flat.
The condensed version came across as generic, unlike my other speeches where I had the time to connect specific points and people in the school to the larger ideals that propelled purpose and life.
Talk about regrets!
I assumed the order and roster of speakers would flood the students with advice by the time it came for me to address them, and they would tune out my message.
Here’s what I would say today if I had two minutes to address graduates:
Dear Graduating Class of 2022,
As you think about the future and what you’d like to contribute to the world, remember to be a kind person. Contrary to what you may have heard, and not to be confused with being a pushover, kindness is not a sign of weakness. I would say it is the opposite. Anyone can be mean or disparaging – that’s easy. It doesn’t take much to spew an insult or respond without considering feelings. But anyone who can evoke kindness as a character trait demonstrates empathy, emotional intelligence, and the ability of discernment, all of which are complex and embody strength.
Expressing kindness helps others feel seen and heard. It results in improved connection to others, where the chance of reciprocation is greater. Conversely, being dismissive and aggressive shadows the potential for better understanding, progress, and unity. It communicates narrow-mindedness, unwillingness, and self-service.
Kindness, like a muscle, can be developed when we consciously exercise it. It is a choice – to either build up and empower or to strip down and erode – and a step toward self-actualization where we fully step into our potential.
As you make your mark in this world, choose kindness as a super strength. When used authentically, it has the power to unlock amazing possibilities.
What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?
May this season of hope for our future leaders find you in the warm embrace of the early summer sun.
What message would you share with our graduates if you had the opportunity?
I woke up and realized it had been more than two months since we entered the second lockdown here in the UK. (For those of you who don’t know, it’s been a strict lockdown where not only non-essential shops are closed but we’re required to remain in our homes, leaving only for a limited time to exercise, alone or with our household, or to shop for medicine and food.) My first thought was: Damn that was fast! After all, we had been busy moving into a new house, preparing for the holidays, which in a blur came and went, and settling into our routines. I noticed a faint pressure in my chest, but I didn’t think much of it, so I got out of bed and continued with my day.
After lunch, I watched a Youtube show I forgot I had subscribed to, Ofyr (pronounced oh-fire): a cooking demonstration channel for people who own one of their outdoor grills. This episode happened to be recorded in Stockholm, a city I lived in for over five years. Watching the chef cook Gothenburg’s prized langoustines on the hot metal ring, the old town’s silhouette behind him, I escaped for a moment to take in the crisp Swedish air and smell the fresh brackish waters of Lake Mälaren. A fleeting yet lovely respite and travel back in time to life pre-Covid-19.
I’ve been living in London for two years – the first half settling in and taking care of the required bits of moving to a new country, the second under some version of lock down. There’s a world to explore out there, and I can’t help but feel I’m frozen in a Mannequin Challenge.
It’s been okay though. I’m rather proud at how I’ve managed myself and my loved ones throughout this pandemic, keeping our locked-down lives as positive and productive under the circumstances. (Not sure I could say the same if I had little ones to homeschool. Hats off if that’s you.) I decided that even though I’m in a freeze frame I would enjoy this unique time to self-reflect, focus on health and family (here and distant), and plug away at work, steaming ahead with confidence we’d soon unfreeze and resume a more normal life outside these four walls.
In the afternoon, I joined a zoom yoga class. The instructor, an Australian friend from our Stockholm days, began practice with a question: What does connection mean to you?
We were to take time, sitting cross-legged with our eyes closed, to think about this, to see what surfaced. What I saw behind my black lids were images of people and places that are seared to my heart. As I watched the reel play, my heart tugged and ripped to fold into itself. I used my breath to move through the pain and to acknowledge its existence, until I could return to contemplate the question. Again my head filled with memories that felt warm like the glowing sun these grey skies have hidden.
I sat with the pain, breathing it in and out of my body. Accepting it as loss, as the heartache that comes with missing friends and family. I could feel my heart swell with gratitude for what I hope soon to reconnect with, the simple things in life shared with family and friends: enjoying a long walk along a wooded path; sharing a cup of coffee and diving deep into meaningful conversation; cooking a meal together and lingering at the table hours into the night; the hearty laugh-tears and side-rocking bear hugs that come with a shared laugh or cry; celebrating traditions; volunteering; being trusted with a personal story; the awe of first-shared experiences discovering art, food, wine, a new park, village, or distant city. These are the things that make me feel connected, experiences I look forward to living again. They are the yang to my yin, the yin to my yang. What roots me to the soil and my place on this earth.
The end of the challenge is near. Vaccines are being administered, and there’s a real push to unpause life. In June we will move back to the US and begin another chapter, repatriating after eight years abroad. In the meantime, I will try and savor this experience as much as I can, living in the moment (frozen or not) and ever grateful that no matter where I may be, I’m connected to what matters most.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts. What does connection mean to you?
Thank you for sharing and for listening.
“Only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self. And only through working on the self can we begin to enhance our connectedness to others.”
This week here in the UK, Boris Johnson will announce next steps toward reintegration to our public spaces. This may be happening for you where you live, as we wake up from our hibernations.
I’ve been self-isolating since March 14th and my instinct tells me to prepare for what’s potentially coming in the next few days and weeks: in particular, feelings of grief. I’m anticipating marked changes in my life and in my city that I’ll undoubtedly compare to the reality I put on pause a few months ago.
To hear more about the importance of moving forward with grief, which is to say to experience it fully and ultimately weave it into our story, listen to Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David’s podcast Checking In. In her short episodes, she shares advice on how to cope during these unsure times.
Just after self-isolating, I began recording Journaling Together. If you haven’t followed along, it’s a video blog meant to encourage expressive writing as a way to ease anxiety and improve overall wellness. I wanted to find a way to help and I thought I’d actually do my journaling online and invite others to join me in that calm space. I’ve considered techniques that worked for me throughout my life, which I believe are relevant even in these unsure times.
Before sharing five minutes of timed (and recorded) writing, I provide personal stories and observations I hope resonate with you. Below are descriptions and links for each video.
I am moving from daily recordings to weekly, at minimal. I hope you’ll watch future weekly Journaling Together videos. Your ideas and feedback are encouraged!
* I recently published this as an article on Medium titled DOTS Journaling: Four Steps & Three Questions to MAJORLY Improve Relationships — Reconnect With Yourself And Others During Covid-19 & Beyond. It’s an approach to journaling I developed years ago. (It’s the written version of video Day 4.) I hope you find it helpful. If you do, please share with someone you think will benefit from it. Thank you!
In addition to spending time with my family and connecting with friends across seas and countries, a lot of good has come from my time in lock-down. I’d decided to focus on getting back to healthy eating and to practice mindfulness through meditation and exercise.
As I age, I’m more conscious about food and its impact on health and the environment. I’ve realized how often we’d been eating out and how much salt, fat and added sugar are loaded on to take-out and restaurant meals. I’m hoping to cook more healthful, meatless, home-cooked meals going forward.
I realize there are many who are struggling to keep their heads above water. I am in complete awe of our care providers and the caregivers and parents who are working hard to balance multiple roles of employee, parent, and teacher. Stay strong! You are heroes in my eyes.
What about you?
What positives do you want to try and carry forward as we step into post-lockdown society? I’d love to hear your experience!
I wish you health, I wish you safety, I wish you wellness.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead to an understanding of ourselves.”
Carl G Jung
Let’s face it, there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Sometimes, even the most loving couple can aggravate each other. Familiarity can blur sacred boundaries. We bicker, blame, perhaps even say hurtful things before we pause to consider the consequences. At times, friendships can experience tension, as can relationships with family or coworkers.
Whether we are in a relationship where neither person seems to hear or understand the other or confined to four walls during a restless pandemic, it can be hard to see beyond annoyance or hurt to get unstuck. So, how can we safely manage anxiety, gain clarity, and emerge with next-level relationships?
Fortunately, there is a proven way, and you have probably been doing it already: Journaling.
By expressing our emotions through written language, without pausing the pen or censoring our thoughts, we can get to the heart of the matter.
If you are familiar with journaling, you most likely know its many benefits, including the health improvements that happen when we engage in this process as a practice to combat depression and reduce or eliminate anxiety.
In addition to controlling these diseases, here is a reminder of just a few ways journaling can support us:
Provides relief from racing or disturbing thoughts
Helps organize thoughts
Boosts our mood and positive outlook
Improve self-awareness and esteem
Facilitates personal growth
With so much to gain, it is surprising that journaling is readily accessible and requires little to get started: a pen and something to write on.
While journaling when we are stressed may help relieve tension at the moment, it may not necessarily strengthen our relationships unless we analyze what is happening on a conscious level, making it likely the problem will repeatedly surface.
So how do we get off the hamster wheel and move beyond writing to reconnecting and bonding with others?
The key may be in HOW we journal.
For nearly a year, I found myself journaling about a specific issue in my relationship, usually centered around our different parenting styles. When it came to this situation, we could not communicate well: I would say something, he’d become angry, we would stop speaking, or vice versa. Repeat.
Anger, sadness, or disappointment drove me to the page each time. The relief I experienced was enough for me in those moments. But eventually, the problem would show up on the page again.
Looking back at my journal, I knew I had to dive deeper into a more reflective form of introspection, one that would help me connect the dots and understand what was really at the root of the problem.
I developed DOTS Journaling: a four-step, three-question approach to unpack issues, relate to others, and reconnect relationships in a meaningful way:
Dump, Observe, Time, Synthesize
Step 1 — Dump it all onto the page. Writing to release tension and charged energy — that lion roaring in our head — can immediately calm us and lower anxiety, making space for us to think more clearly.
It’s important to acknowledge how we are feeling and the reasons we are feeling this way. (I feel this way because…)
By detailing what happened and what was said, we can begin to unpack the issue.
Step 2 — Observe the situation by answering three questions:
Q1: What is my role?
Q2: What might the other person be experiencing or feeling?
Q3: How can I help?
“Ego takes everything personally.”
Q1: What is my role?
This question helps identify the specific actions and words we contributed to the event.
How exactly did I contribute to the issue?What could I have done better?
(To help separate the person from the event, try writing in the third person. Instead of using “I” in this reflective writing, use a pronoun, your name, or a friend’s name.)
Q2: What might the other person be experiencing?
This is where we will need to identify and move Ego* aside, shifting the focus to consider what is potentially happening in the other person’s life.
It helps to imagine floating high up in the air, hovering over the person. Looking down, note their relationships, and consider what may be happening for them at work, home, or school. What observations may explain their role in the conflict?
Try to step in their shoes.
* We can recognize Ego’s voice because it is harsh, needy, often negative, and defensive. Alternately, our intuitive inner-voice is calm, gentle, and non-judgemental.
“If you can’t control people, then control your reaction to them. If you can’t control a situation, then prepare for it.”
Q3: How Can I Help?
Here we identify an action we can take to improve the situation – one that doesn’t compromise our integrity, but emulates our values and aligns with our intention to reconnect.
We can ask ourselves if there’s a behavior or action we’re contributing that may need addressing. Or do we need further information to gain insight? Perhaps we can explore this by asking the person open-ended questions.
Might we need to apologize? If so, why?
Step 3 — Timing — Reconnect with the person when the time is right. Knowing when they are most receptive to engage in a conversation could mean the difference between progress and a stales-mate.
Consider the time of day they have the most energy and calming presence. Note the extent that food impacts mood or attention. To ease the pressure, should we consider a neutral meeting space? Does he/she require more time to digest information? If so, might a handwritten note or e-message work best in this situation?
Once we identify the best time and approach for reconnecting, it’s helpful to prepare for a productive conversation. We can do this by speaking from the “I” point of view to create a neutral, non-accusatory tone. While it’s important to share how we feel, the discussion should happen when we are grounded and ready to share facts.
The situation made me feel… because…
I understand these facts about what happened…
I acknowledge my role and understand that I (contributed in this way…)
Acknowledging our role can help build trust and accountability and create a more open conversation.
Avoid directing blame. Instead, state facts and open up the conversation with open-ended questions** that begin with how or what. Closed-ended questions that result in yes or no answers often don’t provide insight.
What would you consider a fair compromise?
What steps do you suggest we take?
How can we support one another when it comes to this issue?
It’s helpful to remember that we can’t control how others react, so offer this gesture without expecting anything in return. Some need time to process. Trust that the words or acts will be received as intended.
**A note on the importance of the pause: the time between delivering a question or message and response can feel uncomfortable if there is prolonged silence. Try to settle into this space and allow the silence to happen. This is critical thinking time. It could be that the person is processing and exploring new territory. If you wait for them to naturally break the pause, you will receive a genuine response.
Step 4 — Synthesize — Reflect on the experience and results of DOTS Journaling.
How did the follow-up conversation go? Was an understanding reached? Did the timing work or might there be a better time to re-engage? What observations should be noted for future reference?
How difficult was it to recognize and move Ego aside? How did its absence (or presence) contribute to the conversation?
Answering these questions on the page makes our reflections tangible, so they are there to revisit and remind us when needed.
Once I approached the conflict in my relationship through DOTS Journaling, I understood that I was carrying issues from my childhood that were no longer serving me. And in the space of our conversation, he was encouraged to consider his actions.
This new awareness helped us formulate healthier responses to some of the parenting challenges we faced. It took time, practice, and patience but we were able to work through this issue and become better parents and better life partners.
Whether we are in the midst of a challenging relationship or simply wanting to improve one, DOTS Journaling can be an insightful way to problem-solve while learning more about ourselves and the relationships we care about.
Things certainly have changed since I last wrote a blog post. We are all sharing this unique human experience as our lives have been interrupted by the unrelenting threat of a virus. My family and I are on day 6 of “Q”, and I need a way to ensure that I journal each day for my own well-being – and to make sure I capture the highlights each day brings in this new reality – because I know all too well the remarkable benefits of journaling. I also want to help others who are looking for a way to ease anxiety, so I thought I’d actually do my journaling online and invite others to join me in that calm space – doing it together could be powerful.
To join me in journaling together, visit me on instagram @nancyroldanjohnson where I’ll set aside five minutes for us to engage in this beneficial practice. I suggest you start with day 1 to get tips on how best to prepare for freewriting.
While I am inviting you to answer three specific prompts: 1) Today I am feeling, 2) My intention for today is, and 3) I am grateful for…, please use this precious time – your time – to let out what needs letting out. It’s not about following rules, it’s about releasing your thoughts directly onto the page or computer screen, without stopping and completely ignoring the inner critic. There is no wrong way to do this. However you do it is perfect and whatever you feel is completely valid.
Please let me know how I can support you in this practice. Leave your comments and questions, as I’m sure you’ll be helping someone who is doing this with us.
I’ll be sharing some of my actual free-writes here.
Food– today is all about fermenting foods, cauliflower. The fermenting process creates lots of microbes and good gut bacteria that we need to fight infection. More good news: fermented foods can sit on the shelf or on counters, saving precious refrigerator space.
Body– today I will cycle indoors near an open window for fresh air. I will also do a free online yoga class with Dad. I’ll end the yoga session with a super simple and beneficial pose that almost anyone can do (see pic below).
Mind– I set the timer for 25 minutes and started reading Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. So far really, really good.
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” Anne Frank
I sat at the corner hugging my legs and gasping for air. My bedroom shrank away from me, taking the oxygen with it. It was an early summer day in 1988 when the oppressive weight of depression settled onto my chest.
To drown out my thoughts, I’d turned on the radio, the fan that rattled on my bedside table, and every light with a working bulb.
After an hour and eternity, a cold rush came over me as if doused with a bucket of ice water – I decided it was the end. I’d lived a full, sometimes agonizing, life – thrust into adulthood in the mere single digits of life. I could go already, I agreed. I wanted the pain to end. I thought about the old bottle of antidepressants in my dresser drawer.
I can still hear myself whimper, “I’m so tired…I’m so tired…I’m so tired…” as I rocked myself. A tired ninety-year-old trapped in a seventeen-year-old body.
Was there a particular incident that drew me to the corner that day? I suppose it could have been the conversation I’d just had with my boyfriend, my first love and best friend, that definitively ended our relationship.
It could have been the fact that my circle of friends was disbanding, not because of anything that happened, but the way friendships end after high school when we reshuffle to new schools, the military, or to Florida, where many of my friends had family and a desire for warm sun and long, sandy beaches.
It could have been that I hadn’t seen or spoken to Mami in over a year. Mom tended to separate from things that were too hurtful. Not long after my parents’ divorce, she joined the Florida migration and moved as far away from us as she could from the Connecticut coast.
Or, it could have been that I suddenly found myself completely lost – alone and invisible between two worlds that couldn’t see me in my pain.
I no longer belonged to my familia. So many broken relationships from choosing sides in the divorce, mine – to live with my father when I was fifteen- was unforgivable to my Puerto Rican family. While I had steadiness and security with Papi, I lacked identity and self-esteem.
“Nena, your Spanish is really bad,” I was told by some in my family. I heard the rumors, too. “She ain’t down with our familia.”
“Yeah, she’s just in it for her.”
“She’s conceited. Thinks she better than us with her white girl english.”
In those pre-AOC, Salma Hayek, and Justice Sotomayor days, I couldn’t see myself outside of my inner-city neighborhood either. That spring, I toured NYU’s Stern School of Business with my prima Wanda. As we walked the campus and visited the dorms, we noticed no one looked like us. “Damn, girl, where are the Puertoriqueños up here?” I asked.
Hello? Am I alone? Where are my people? I felt misplaced and boxy in a world accustomed to people who fit neatly into smooth shapes.
Later, when I received my letter of acceptance and a half-ride offer, I turned it down. I decided my place was at home to watch over Papi. He didn’t push me. I had no plan B.
I didn’t trust myself at that moment, so I called my best friend Lisa. She rushed over and saw me pressed into the crease of the corner like a wet banana leaf.
I’ve seen girls like me get called changa and estupida for showing too much confusion and emotion as if the deal was already sorted for us and there was nothing to feel or figure out. Pick up your pantaletas and join the rest of us who are suffering, en la lucha!
I measured what I shared with Lisa, something I’d become used to doing with people because I didn’t want to freak her out and scare her away.
Later, when she left to go home, so did the sense of relief she provided. I panicked.
What if she hadn’t come over?
What was I capable of doing?
Who could I turn to next time?
No one understands me!
I always thought diaries were reserved for girls who believed their dreams were possible.
The green letters on my monitor screen were twitching. I sat in front of the computer, barely able to see the wavy letters through my tears, and began typing. Like a ravine during a heavy rainstorm, my thoughts screamed down my arms through my fingertips and exploded onto the hard keys.
I wrote letters to two people that day.
I thanked Miguel, the yin to my yang, for keeping our promise to say when another eye caught ours. I gave thanks for our four years of love and described everything I admired about him, everything I would miss about us. My heart ripped through my ribs as I finally let him go.
The second letter was to myself, by a voice I’ve always heard but never understood. This time I let her speak through my fingers. She told me I was where I needed to be, feeling what I needed to – I would grow from all of this, she said – and she assured me I’d know what to do when the time came.
This new self-talk way of expressing myself, translating my feelings into words without thinking or censoring or judging myself, calmed my racing thoughts. The weight on my chest felt bearable.
In front of me, her words unfolded like a present: “Just keep going, Nancy. Just keep going.”
The next day I read my journal as a friend’s note, allowing me to separate from my feelings and see things more clearly. That same week, I enrolled at my local community college.
Still today, as a Latina woman trying to adapt to a new life in London, I journal to relieve stress and to observe my thoughts. I write to get to the bottom of how I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way.
And I began reflecting on what’s positive, things that make me happy, big and small: my bed, my blanket, a good book, the smile from a stranger in passing who sees me.
Over time, I’ve gained confidence in myself, knowing there is good in my life, and believing the voice in my head who assures me I’ll know what to do when the time comes.
How about you?
Is there a letter you need to write? Is there someone to forgive, to let go, or thank? We don’t have to mail these to release the hold they might have on us.
Let me know how journaling works for you.
Latinas and Depression
Recently, I met with a group of young ladies in Ohio who completed the La Mariposa program. As we spoke, they shared how journaling helped them gain clarity and to feel better about themselves.
As bicultural females, young Latinas today have many of the same struggles I did growing up. Yet, anti-immigrant rhetoric adds to their worries and feelings of inclusion and security.
In his book titled Latinas Attempting Suicide: When Cultures, Families, and Daughters Collide, Dr. Luis Zayas, a psychologist who conducted a 10-year study to understand the mystery of the alarming number of suicide attempts by young Latinas*, found that journaling helped significantly reduce attempts among his study group. He found it gave them a voice and an immediate way to express themselves and safely release the heavy pressure they hold inside.
In my late teens, I began to spend more and more time away from my hometown – flipping burgers at McDonald’s on the I-95 highway, attending community college, then working my first corporate job as an office clerk. I noticed there was a big-time gap between my life experiences and education as a second-generation, inner-city Latina and those of my co-workers.
As the new girl in the office, I’d been invited to join a group of women for lunch. After introductions, the conversation naturally moved to current events. Names I’d never head of – captured journalist Terry Anderson, Cormac McCarthy, Follet’s Pillars of the Earth – filled my head with doubt. I folded like origami to fit neatly into the tiny box I believed contained people like me, those who felt stuck in between two worlds: the one they knew and the one they were too intimidated to enter.
I nodded and listened, wondering how I knew so little. I’d been sucker-punched. At first, this realization upset me:
How dare my schools not prepare me enough; students from more prosperous school districts were trusted to take books home with them – to read the classics and spend time with passages and characters, bringing the words and images to life – while we inner-city kids were lucky if we had twenty minutes to read aloud before stacking them into a tower on our way out of class. Do my co-workers assume I don’t understand things because I’m Hispanic? How will I ever catch up? I’m not smart enough.
I don’t belong here.
Then, I feared being found out.
I tired from trying to erase myself invisible. Worked myself sick figuring things out on my own rather than ask for clarification, because I believed asking questions was a sign of ignorance – too slow to get it right the first time.
Shame followed me like a thunder cloud. When I did engage others, I found myself slipping into a dangerous habit. Lying became my umbrella. It felt easy at first. I could walk the red carpet with everyone else: Por supuesto, I’ve been to the new restaurant downtown; Claro, I’ve heard of that bestselling book; Pues sí, we also set the dinner table during Thanksgiving and ate as a family.
The fact was that my family never ate out besides the rare trip to McDonald’s for breakfast sandwiches or Duchess Restaurant for onion rings and vanilla shakes.
I grew up eating at Abuelita’s house where there was always a pot of rice or chicken stewing on the stove. At grandma’s we ate sitting on the floor, if the sofa was full, or on the bed while we either watched telenovelas on full blast or listened to the latest hip hop cassette on the boom box that was glued to my cousin’s shoulder. We didn’t read novels. We lived them hanging out on Caroline Street and Hough Avenue in Bridgeport, and summers spent owning the pueblo in Manati, Puerto Rico.
But the dishonesty only made me feel more anxious about my place in the world. I felt like a fraud.
“The first step to getting what you want is having the courage to get rid of what you don’t.” – Paulo Coelho
One day, a friend at the office said she dined at the restaurant I had recommended. She enjoyed it so much she wanted to hear details of my experience. I generalized, nodded, and smiled nervously in agreement, but as she dug into the details, my reddened face told her I’d never been. She was gracious and moved on to another topic. I stopped listening and prayed that quicksand would swallow me whole.
I made the decision to stop. Both the not asking and the knee-jerk lying. No longer would I pretend to know what I didn’t. And no longer would I agree to have the same experiences when I hadn’t.
Instead, I would find a way to flip my reaction of embarrassment into excitement and an opportunity to learn more.
I created a three-step approach to keep me from falling into my old habit.
Step 1 – Prepare to reply without a fight
I knew I needed help, a sort of break-glass-in-case-of-emergency response, to volley the questions I felt defensive and small answering, so I memorized the following phrases:
“I have not experienced (or visited or heard of, etc.) that. Tell me more.”
“I want to be sure I understand. Will you please repeat the instructions?”
Step 2 – Listen up, nena!
I would also need another trick in my back pocket to keep my shame umbrella tucked away because I knew I’d most likely reply with a “Yeah, I get it” (when I didn’t) or “Yes, I’ve been there, done that” (when I hadn’t).
So I decided that listening would become my superpower. I let go of the need to respond for the sake of looking smart and decided instead to listen and absorb the lessons.
Step 3 – Reflect back
As a sign of respeto, I would paraphrase what was shared with me. For example, if instructions were repeated to me, I would reflect it back: “What I heard you say was this… is that right?“ If a friend shared a new experience with me, I’d tap back with, “It sounds like you really enjoyed tal y tal (at that restaurant, about the book, Thanksgiving dinner).”
I tested my approach for each situation. Here are the three things I learned:
I felt free from shame and open to absorb new things when I stopped sabotaging myself
Most people expressed empathy and were happy to share their knowledge and experience
Everyone felt understood when I validated what was said
People appreciated my eager interest in their experiences, and they became interested in mine.
I described my neighborhood and our traditions like pig roasts in the summer that began at 4am, and parrandas, traveling sing alongs during Christmastime when carolers and musicians showed up at your home unannounced any time of day or night to sing carols and eat and drink.
Once I brought my own lunch to work: chicken noodle soup using sofrito – a Puerto Rican cooking base made with cilantro, garlic, onions and green peppers. Everyone at the table commented on its delicious aroma and asked for the recipe. One woman, who became a lifelong friend, even tasted it. A few days later one of the women slipped me a wink and a post-it with a recipe for her Sicilian family’s sausage soup.
The more we got to know one another, the more we understood that our cultures share similar dynamics and customs. From this respectful exchange of personal experiences, we became closer and more trusting of each other, our perceptions broadened.
I began to understand that my dual worlds – my beautiful Puerto Rican culture where traditions and values ground me and my American culture where my aspirations are possible – could coexist if I propped the door wide open.
Still today, I find planned emergency responses helpful in dealing with difficult situations. For example, people asking me for money or to cosign on a loan: “As a personal rule, I don’t lend money, but I’m happy to help you find resources you can use now and in the future,” or a disagreement with someone: “I want to hear your thoughts. Can you help me understand?” Think for a minute what the conversation might be in these situations if instead I replied, ”Oh, hell no,“ or ”It’s you who doesn’t understand!”
Here are some situations when a practiced response can help:
A troubled friendship: I value our friendship and I miss spending time with you. Can we get together soon?
Pressure to have sex: I don’t have sex until I feel it’s the right time for me. If you care about me, you’ll respect that.
If you’re asked to do something you’re not comfortable doing: I don’t do things I’m not 100% sure about. It’s a rule I won’t break. If you care about me, you’ll understand.
How about you?
When did you last lie or present a false front? What would be gained by being real?
Is there a situation you’re currently dealing with where a planned response can help?
Sofrito is the base for many Puerto Rican dishes. It’s similar to the mirepoix of French cooking, or the “trinity” of Creole cooking. This is my version using items you can easily find in your local grocery store.
Yield: About 1 1/3 cup
1 large bunch cilantro 1 green bell pepper or 3 cubanelle peppers (also known as Italian peppers), chopped 1 red pepper, chopped 1 large Spanish onion, coarsely chopped 6 large cloves of garlic, crushed (and, if you can find them, ¼ pound small sweet chili peppers called aji dulce, sliced in half with inner seeds removed) 1 tbs extra virgin olive oil
Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree, adding a little water or olive oil until it has a thick but smooth consistency.
Storage tip: Freeze sofrito in ice cube trays. When frozen, pop them out and seal in a freezer bag and your sofrito is always ready to use. Usage: There are so many simple dishes you can make using sofrito. I like to pop one or two cubes into my soup stock for a quick burst of flavor and into my pasta meat sauce for a Puerto Rican twist on the Italian classic. Have fun exploring ways to use this simple base in your cooking.
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