I was waiting to move to Puerto Rico to be an artist in residence at La Rosario in September 2017 when an unexpected surgery delayed my departure and Hurricane Maria made landfall. I write about this in a piece called the Puerto Rican Diaspora is Emotionally Flooded that was published on NPR Latino and Rest for Resistance. This piece broke the record for most shares on the NPR Latino website to social media which went relatively unnoticed among peers in journalism. It was picked up by the Puerto Rican syllabus while I slept on my friend’s floor on a futon pad, eagerly waiting to go Puerto Rico, and slowly coming to terms with a crime against humanity disguised as disaster capitalism.
To be in a newsroom, one must adhere to a very specific format and sexist culture (especially prevalent in the Spanish-speaking news networks) that rarely combines first-person narrative with research. Even if you don’t insert the “I”, society will do it for you especially if you are a writer and/or journalist of color. Jorge Ramos’ first encounter with 45 as a presidential candidate in 2015 and the conversations that followed, suggesting that Latinos couldn’t report with accuracy, prompted me to rethink my proximity to the news during my graduate studies at Harvard University. This attitude, that Latinos can’t report on Latinos is reinforced by CBS reporter David Begnaud, recipient of George Polk Award for Public Service while Puerto Rican journalists are actively censored by the Puerto Rican governor.
My narrative and current project, a mixed genre book with working title, “Casualty of the American Dream,” focuses on displacement from one’s native land and body caused by colonialism. It is a deconstruction of many of the tools that I learned at Harvard which also made me a better writer. When I revisited this piece during a reading for the writers in residence at Vermont Studio Center, the largest international residency in the America, I realized how the discomfort of displacement yielded a very necessary change made possible by my return to my body. To be displaced by Hurricane Maria state side would appear to one as reverse displacement, yet in the case of reverse discrimination there no such thing. Displacement from colonialism is not a single moment as a disaster would imply, but rather intergenerational. The fact that I was displaced while working to embody my trauma, in the context of a movement culture that at times puts our own needs last, was a critical experience that informs my work.
While in residence, the following Facebook memory popped up from graduate school. It was a brief snapshot of my experience with my Program Director in Journalism Studies.
Program Director: Cassandra, I was shocked when I watched Café con Cass. It was compelling, well organized and not like your writing in class.
Me: I’ve been told my writing and speaking are very different.
Program Director: Were you ever diagnosed with some type of ADHD?
Me: Yes, but I’ve always needed to reinforce learning with audios and visual elements, not just from the written word.
Fast forward to Vermont Studio Center where 15 writers in residence share meals, housing and a small three-block radius with 54 visual artists in residence. Many of the writers notice how much time I spend in the visual art studios and the visual artists take notice as well sharing how they too writer and are confused why writers think they don’t read. My reading includes a slide show of images in Puerto Rico. Someone comments on the simplicity of one of my slides to convey the complex and I hear poetry coming out of a painter’s mouth. After the reading, a sculptor and multiple visual artists note the performative aspect of reading vs. the text as it to be read. She tells me that witnessing the reading reminds her of the work of installation and the relationship to space her pieces has. My multidisciplinary heart swoons with this interaction.
The first week and half has been dedicated to conversation on process. The creative process of visual artists and their commitment to research and embodied practice where their hands touch every crevice of their pieces as an extension of themselves is one that I relate to more so than the process of writers. Perhaps it it the isolation that research requires and the teaching to fund our craft that creates this dynamic however, I am most inspired by James Baldwin and Joan Didion when it comes to narrative non-fiction. They were their own subject or fully emerged in the spaces that they wrote about. Yes, my sticky notes are on the wall. Yes, I am both open and guarded with my process because my materials are my words, but finally, this embodied knowledge that I had no community to show for, is emerging in the light of a new iteration of my work.
I suspect one day, I will miss the time where I created when no one was watching. This is beginning to change, and I am remind myself to make space to receive.
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