The Power of Reading About Your Home
Two months ago, I was in Miami, my hometown. But for the first time in my life, I didn’t tell most of my peoples. For the first time in my life, I didn’t see any of them. I was staying with my family, who are all at-risk during the middle of this pandemic. I didn’t tell most people, because even if everyone understood (or would understand), the distance I felt between each other got realer and realer with each telling. So I stayed in my sister’s childhood room, reading and writing on an unfolded dominos table, staring out the window at the naked city that is my home.
I decided I was going to read Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls while I was in Miami. When I took nine months to travel through Latin America back in 2017, I picked what to read based on where I was. In Cartagena, I read Patricia Engel’s Veins of the Ocean; in Valparaiso, I counted to twelve with Pablo Neruda while staring out into the ocean; on a bus that sliced through the mountains between Bogotá and Medellín, I read Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Sound of Things Falling; wandering through the streets of Palermo, sipping on cappuccinos and scribbling in moleskins, I read Jorge Luis Borges. When I got back to my second home of New Orleans, I read Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow; even though the book is set in an “unnamed” city, we all know it—we can pick out familiar faces and places. I never had that sort of book with Miami.
It is hard to explain Miami to people who haven’t put the time in here. Miami was the seventh-largest metropolitan area in the country in 2019. It is also thoroughly embedded in the Caribbean—down south in the Florida Keys, you can see Cuba on a clear day. It has exploded with people over the last sixty years, after every crisis that has happened in Latin America and the Caribbean that exiled their people helped build up the “Magic City.” Most people have seen Scarface or Miami Vice; they may know some locations: “Taking my talents to South Beach” (the arena nor team is stationed there) or Little Havana. Maybe they know something about the Miami Heat or the beach. But none of those things speak to my existence any more than New Orleans is encapsulated by a Bourbon Street Bar barker yelling about “3 for 1” drinks.
Ordinary Girls is a memoir that goes from Díaz’s childhood in Puerto Rico to her and her family moving to Miami Beach, where a lot of the book is set. In it, she documents her drug use throughout her teenage years, her family’s struggles to adjust to life in the mainland, and the trips she took back home to Miami during her MFA. Even though Miami Beach isn’t Miami, even if her hood was over an hour away from mine, I had spent time up there. And what she wrote resonated deeply with me in a way that a bronzed Al Pacino never could.
Sitting at that domino table, I read Díaz: “We kept each other’s secrets, wiped each other’s tears, protected each other.” I think of how secrets, how the rule to “stop snitching,” ran rampant in Miami. How in Miami, my middle school counselor told us to tell our secrets to our dogs, since we would never rat ourselves out to another human. I think of how that shit manifested in all of us. All of us knowing someone who got lost to the bottle or the powder or the pill, oftentimes them not being able to say anything, and oftentimes us not saying anything either. We all know people who came to their end that way, too. I think of how that manifested in my writing, me using so many different names for people that I have to make a Gabriel Garcia Marquez-esque family tree to keep track. How I still don’t name the dead, worried I’ll hurt them and theirs and ours with those words and stories that poke scars into wounds. I think of how that interferes with my writing, not telling those stories. I think of how it interferes with my world. And I wonder how it interferes with so many other people trying to write and heal their world while in Miami. How many of our stories have been mentally blocked by ourselves, before we even get to all the obstacles around us: the poverty, the white gaze, the question of marketability about work set in parts of Miami that never make the postcard, where the gatekeepers get to police and protect the stereotypes they formed for us.
I run past the old block, which is eerily quiet compared to how it was in my youth. I read how Díaz assumed she’d always be with her childhood friend, Eggy. Díaz writes how she and her family moved away, and “Eggy would always be here. We would never see each other again.” I think of how right after I moved away, one of my best friends was caught doing something, and how I never got to kick it with him again. I think of how the last time I saw him, I was in the passenger seat of Pops’s car, picking up a teammate for a basketball tournament, and there were long looks between Pops, me, and my friend, as no one knew what to say in the presence of the others. I think of how I haven’t seen him since. Back in Miami, I ran masked through the old block, masked to prevent COVID-19 transmission, masked to prevent being spotted for the ghost that I am. No basketballs being bounced, no kids running around, nothing but ghosts before my eyes. And ghosts cannot live without their stories.
I sat in the backyard of my parents’ house, reading and writing and watching the rain come in, cradling my stomach while sipping on coffee, my mother afraid of the lightning finding me as I was stuck in my own head. I read as Díaz wrote, “One day, [dad] would tell me all his secrets, all the stories not meant for children . . . And I would write it all down, determined to remember. Prohibido olvidar.” I think of late-night talks with Pops about what was lost and what was remembered, from Cuba, from his family, from his trauma. I think of going home and writing everything down, hoping to remember it, and by remembering, making sense of it, the hopes and dreams. I wonder how much of it all is lost in the time and wounds in our minds. I think of how my father wanted to pass on stories and dreams to me. I think of how we share the same tragedy, having our best friend killed when we were young.
Reading Díaz, reading how her high school partner’s best friend was killed in North Miami Beach, how he was killed five blocks from where my friend was killed, it made me see that night again. The motorcycle that ran my boy over, the body, the police. How I was there for it all. I read that passage over and over again, isolated in my parent’s house, drinking coffee and writing, cooking as they worked, nowhere safe for me to go for fear of me bringing something back to them. I wrote every day, my only escape being the book that forced me to see what I didn’t want to see, forced me to relive a story I can barely even tell. I run masked on the streets where me and my ghost once lived.
Díaz writes about how investigators asked her to repeat the story of a traumatic event that happened to her over and over again, writes about how she “already told the other police officer, you say. I know, but I need you to tell it to me. She doesn’t ask what you want. Doesn’t ask what you need. You refuse to tell the story one more time.” I think about how they cornered my friend, someone good enough to not know that the cops weren’t there to help us, as they told her she couldn’t leave till she told them what they wanted to hear, as they asked her over and over again to say something that didn’t happen happened, trying to shut something down, to use our tragedy against others, even before our wound finished opening. How they tried to separate us and how I started yelling and getting into the cop’s face, rather risk the physical threat than having to repeat that story on that street, rather than having her stay on the street with the body on the ground any longer. How it was the first time I had to fight to keep our story ours. How it was the unintentional beginning of the hiding of the stories, of protecting us from outsiders, of eating it and letting it eat me, from the inside out.
I realized how I avoided these spaces, these streets, these scars, these hurts of home. As my family went to sleep one night after I cooked dinner, I read, “That maybe home is a place. That maybe my mother would never find her way back. That maybe I wouldn’t either.” I thought about the places I couldn’t go to anymore. How I lost a bit of home in each of those shaded in spots. I think of how I don’t feel at home even while in Miami, while away from so many of my peoples and places, but also how so many peoples and places and stories are gone for me. I run down these streets, memories and feelings popping up only to disappear. I read and feel it and run and feel it and then write till I can’t do it anymore.
I run to my friend’s house, the house where we barbecued for all of our peoples, the house where we snuck out at night to smoke, where we ran round the “lake” when he wanted to get into shape, where he taught me how to play guitar, where we balled out after drinks, messing around, where we walked down the road if we wanted better comp. I read as Díaz states how her friends asked her if she needed all the “the fighting, the chaos, the rage . . . because even all those years later, as much as I tried to hide it, he could see it, my whole body clenched like a fist.” I read this and I felt it through my body. How there are happy Miami stories to write, of me and my peoples’ lives, but how I focus on the deaths, on the touch of the dead, on the missing, on our ghosts. I wonder if I need to struggle like this in order to write, feeling sick to my stomach. If I need to write about these deaths that hurt and haunt me. If by writing these things I am just hurting and haunting my peoples. Is Díaz helping me as a writer, a human, or both? Would I be happier, a better agent of change with and for my peoples, if I made money and kept quiet? If I ran by the parts of the beach where I didn’t watch my people die, if I ran in “prettier” parts of Miami, where the memories don’t drown my dopamine? I know my mood sinks when I don’t write, but I also know writing requires me to go to a place where it’s hard to stay sometimes, a place that feels like a stolen home. Reading those words from Díaz made me run through my old streets, pacing our backyard like I did when I was younger, still living in Miami, before any big day.
I think of how much time I’ve spent away from my home, my peoples, and I think of how those stories throw up roadblocks. How it has been years since I had seen the streets my friend had died on, but how clearly I saw them while reading, while stuck in the small box of my sister’s childhood room, just sitting there, with nowhere to go and nothing to touch and no one to talk to from our peoples that all went through that shit. I read about how Díaz felt going back to her old hood in Puerto Rico, and how a kid on a bike told her, “You don’t belong here.” I think of how a friend drunkenly told me outside a bar that he talks to me “like you still live here, but you know you don’t.” I think of how quickly you can drop a home physically, and how quickly a home can drop you.
So when Díaz writes that “Sometimes in dreams, I return to those places where we spent our childhoods, where we started our lives,” I catch myself dreaming too. When she writes about being “back on that dance floor. I will be swaying and the music will fill me,” I think of me and my boys at the club, making fun of pretentious dancers and laughing and joking and drinking and smoking and talking with eyes and hands as the music filled us. When Díaz writes about friends who “hold you at your grandmother’s funeral,” I think of my friends at our boy’s funeral, who put their hands on my shoulder, giving me permission to cry, cause even though I didn’t then, I appreciated it. When Díaz writes about her peoples “who invite you into their home, invite you into their families” I think of those late-night barbecues at my boy’s house, pouring beer on sizzling steaks on the grill, all of us eating better than we did otherwise. When she writes about watching the boys on the blacktop, I remember games where I was playing with my peoples, us playing so much for so long we could play with our eyes closed, games where we knew where everyone was going to be before we were even there, how you couldn’t fake love like that. When she talks of drum circles, I remember going to them and dancing and kicking up sand, and I remember taking over abandoned lifeguard stations in order to play music and drink and smoke. When she talks about who she writes for, I think about Pops telling his old man that he’d never die, cause Pops would tell stories about him forever, and how I still tell stories in the present tense of the dead. So when Díaz talks about returning to her peoples in dreams, I’m already there.
Representation is having someone from your culture, your race, your community, your tribe, your hood, who you can bounce your stories off of. Who you can riff off of, who you can be inspired by. It is being able to read their story and borrow their vision of your shared home, so you can know your story is real too—so you can dream of better futures when the distance and nightmares of our past have made it too difficult to do so on our own. And so that you can do the same for your peoples, and those to come.