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Coming Out to My Latino Family: How I Lost My Aunt and Then Got Her Back

"Tía Dora is not speaking to me now. I used the wrong words. I admitted to kissing a woman."

Photo Credit: Jorge Rivas

Excerpted fromA Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir by DaisyHernández, (Beacon Press, 2014). Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

Qué India

My auntie has stopped talking to me. She hates what I have done, what I have become. No. She hates what I have said. She is upset about the words. She cares about words, about how they sit on the page and in our lives; mostly she cares about what others will say. She wants to be liked, respected. At the end of her life, she wants the village to speak well of her, to remember that she was one of the youngest of twelve children in Colombia, that because her brothers and sisters worked, she was able to study a dead man’s short story.

She studied his vowels. Sitting in Bogotá, she did not analyze Tomás Carrasquilla’s fiction for motifs or metaphors. She was (even at that age) practical. It was the vowels she cared about and the parts of speech and the root words and love. She wrote that she hoped her thesis would awaken enthusiasm for regional dialects.

Tía Dora is not speaking to me now. I used the wrong words. I admitted to kissing a woman.

In Colombia, and other parts of Latin America, a person can be kissed to death. El beso de la muerte, they call it, referring not to a woman’s kisses, but to a parasite. Magnified and photographed, the parasite appears like a pink tadpole with a tiny whip of a tail. Trypanosoma cruzican, however, crawl into a person’s heart and inflate the organ, turning the heart into a time bomb, so that years after the parasite’s arrival, after its beso, sometimes even twenty years later, the heart, engorged like a red balloon, will finally explode, and the person’s death will mistakenly be diagnosed as a heart attack.

In some cases though, the parasite does not plunge into the heart but wiggles instead into the intestines. There, it gnaws at nerve endings until the muscles begin to collapse and the intestines unravel like yarn. The person’s belly swells so that even a man can begin to look as though he is pregnant. Eating becomes impossible.

The disease was named Chagas, after the doctor in Brazil who identified it in 1909, but people being people and needing a name that is more accurate, refer to it as the kiss of the death.

In 1978, it became clear that my Tía Dora had been kissed.

It began like a stomach ache, a fever. Tía Dora’s belly swelled as if she had been knocked up. She was in her late twenties and her brothers teased her. Then the jokes halted, because her temperature did not drop, and she couldn’t eat. The doctors told her mother to make funeral preparations. Nothing could be done. Ice cubes melted on Tía’s forehead.

But it was the late seventies. It was possible to get a visa for medical reasons, and up north, up in Manhattan, there was a hospital, a doctor. He said he would operate.

I want to tell my tía now that sexuality is not an illness. Love is not a parasite. And even if it were, we should speak about it. We should name it.

But she would shudder. She doesn’t want anyone to know that she is sick.

Tía Dora arrived in New Jersey before Christmas. It was 1980. I was five and my auntie was a wisp of a woman with a protruding belly. Her light-brown hair was in ringlets and her hands were so delicate and pale that they looked like white candlesticks. She seemed to float into the room like a piece of silk hilo, that’s how tiny she was.

The image of a fairy comes to mind.

Dr. Alfred M. Markowitz was a tall man with bushy eyebrows and a wide smile. In New York, in 1981, he explained to my auntie that surgery was needed, that it was of a critical nature, that she and her family must understand the risks. He said all of this in English and my auntie probably nodded. She had studied English in Colombia. She knew what he was saying. She could also see that he was nervous. But there was no need to be.

In Colombia, Tía Dora had her mother and sisters and brothers and friends and cousins and nephews and nieces, all of them, a not-so small tribe, praying for her, and so Tía Dora had a faith under her thin feet like a sheet of rock: solid, black, determined. Faith was not theoretical; it was the deep knowledge that she was loved.

Dr. Markowitz had another request.

Surely, he looked into Tía Dora’s eyes. She was lying in the hospital bed at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, the white gown covering her thin bones, her swollen belly. She looked like a fairy resting in a meadow. He stood over her and said, “If, in any way, I make a mistake, I ask for your forgiveness.”         

This is what she noted later on a cassette recording for her mother: he asked for perdónahead of time.

Long before I began kissing women, I was a problem for Tía Dora, and she for me.

At the kitchen table, I try, at the age of six or seven or eight, to grab the ketchup bottle, but it’s too far away. “Dáme elketchup!” I command Tía Dora.

She picks up the bottle. “Excuse me?”

I think she hasn’t heard me. “Give me the ketchup!”

She doesn’t move her hand, and I slightly marvel at her ability to not give in to me until it dawns on me that she is holding the ketchup hostage. “Give it to me!”

“What do you say?”

“Give it to me!”

Cómo se dice?”

Por favor!” I wail. “Dáme elketchup, por favor.”

She places the bottle in my desperate outstretched hands and declares, “Qué india!”

Once a year, children here are told to think about Native Americans. We are instructed to draw them with brown crayons standing next to a turkey and a white man with a funny black hat and a squiggly line for a mouth. But in Latin America (or rather the Latin America that comes to Jersey with Tía Dora), the natives are people you have to think about constantly, because when you behave badly, which is to say when you don’t do what the grown women want you to do, you are immediately accused of being one of them: una india.

If I am remiss in kissing Tía Dora on the cheek in the morning, I am una india. If I don’t say please, thank you, can I help you with that, I am una india. If I lose my temper or want to be left alone with a book, I am definitely una india.

It does not matter how a person looks in this regard. You can have fair skin and blue cornflower eyes. What counts is how you speak, how you sit, how you move in the world. You can be as white as an eggshell and still be una india.

At an early age, then, I learn you belong to a people based on what you do and what you say.

Dr. Markowitz sliced away at Tía Dora’s insides with a terrible American determination to remove the parasite. He sent her home to us. We took her back to him. He cut again, sent her home.

It was the early eighties. The kissing disease had no cure. It was only seen in Colombia, in Bolivia and Brazil, not in New York. The solution was to cut and cut and cut some more.

We took her to the doctor several times during her first two years here in New Jersey. At one point, she spent an entire month at the hospital. She celebrated her birthday there, and that day, she begged God to remove negative thoughts from her mind. She was afraid the stitches on her belly would burst open.

Finally, the kiss of death subsided. It became an embrace and Tía would not die, but she would have symptoms to manage for the rest of her life: belly aches when she ate certain foods, a terrible constipation. She was never to allow an emergency room to take an x-ray of her belly. The technicians would not be able to make sense of the way her intestines looped and dipped like pieces of ribbon that had been thrown recklessly onto a Christmas tree.

The women in my family insist that I translated in those years, that I was the song between Tía Dora and the nurse who came to our apartment in Jersey, that at the age of five and six and seven, I danced from English to Spanish and Spanglish and back again, following the music of questions about what hurts and does it hurt here and tell me about your bowel movements.

But I don’t remember the melody, only that when my auntie called for me, she wanted me to be a lady. I was to answer, “Señora?” or “A tus ordenes,” and when I refused, her terrible charge: Qué india.

The last time we spoke was a day or so after I told my mother I was dating women.

I was on Bergenline Avenue, running errands. I knew Tía Dora’s phone number by heart. I was twenty-five and I had been dialing her number since I was ten. I wasn’t that far from her apartment and called her from a pay phone to see how she was feeling.

Her voice was weak. She had been sick, very sick. “Hello?”

“It’s me,” I said, cheerful and naive and behind me the blare of cars and buses and people shopping on Bergenline. “How are you feeling today?”

Her voice tightened, as if someone had pulled at the end of a very short piece of string. “What your mother is suffering—”

And then my memory blurs. She said, “Don’t talk to me” or “Don’t call me again” or “Don’t call here again.” It is not the words I remember but the high notes, the sense of being shoved out of a room, as well as the distinct feeling that what was wrong was not that I had fallen in love with a femmy butch, but that I had said it. I had spoken. I was worse than una india.

Tía Dora spent three months in the hospital that year, because after twenty years of silence, the kissing disease had returned. Her stomach ached. She refused food and lost weight. Still, she didn’t want anyone to know—not her coworkers at the school where she taught Spanish, not her neighbors—because unlike me, she was a lady. She had manners. She knew there were some things that should not be said.

A woman from Colombia told me recently that this whole notion of not speaking is a very Indian concept in my mother’s country. “Your family’s from the mountain areas of Colombia,” she said.

“It makes sense.” The Indians there are stoic, she added. They would rather suffer in dignity and silence.

According to this Colombiana, then, the real indiais my auntie. But Tía Dora has always insisted that una indiabehaves badly and is loud about it.

It goes on like that, back and forth, none of us making any sense, none of us talking about actual indigenous women, but all of us instead trafficking in a racial specter meant to keep every woman of every color in her place.

When Tía Dora stopped speaking to me, I assumed she would grow out of it. The women in my family are amazingly skilled at shutting the door on each other and on brothers and cousins and friends, insisting on some real or imagined grievance, and then months later or even a year later, some event will happen— a wedding, a car accident, a job loss—and they will swing open the door and invite the person back into their lives, as if nothing had happened.

All I had to do was wait.

Years before she stopped speaking to me, Tía Dora was worried about the Indians.

The United States had funded wars in Central America, driving people north and into our neighborhood in Jersey. Tía Dora saw these immigrants at the bus stop, at first mostly just men, and announced, “The indiosare everywhere”—not because they had misbehaved like me but because they were short, had thick black hair and brown faces, and wore cheap jeans. For Tía, these physical signs indicated illiteracy, poverty, and a lack of cultura.

What makes racism so difficult to eradicate, not from laws but from people’s minds, is how defined it is by contradictions. It is never one fixed idea, one parasite that we can identify and slice away. Racism, in this sense, is always moving. The problem is how you behave. The problem is how you look. The problem has exceptions.

It’s true. Tía Dora married un indio.

José was from Perú. He was dark with a round, almost flat face, like the center of a sunflower. He looked like a man who had been plucked from his village and stuffed into a tuxedo for a wedding in New Jersey. But he was not a real indio.

He wore dress pants.

He took Tía Dora to the movies.

He read the newspaper.

He said, “Señora?” when my auntie called for him. I was about ten when they married, and later Tía would whisper to me: “He’s a good man.”

Hatred requires intimacy. A person has to know a thing well enough to hate it. She has to be familiar with the smell of it, how it walks, how it laughs. She has to know it the way she does the sight of her own hands, thin and pale, clutching at bed sheets in the early hours of the morning.

I don’t know if Tía Dora actually knew an indigenous person in Colombia, but she was intimate with poverty and parasites and alcoholism. To be both poor and sick in any country is to realize at every turn that you are expendable and that this is how the world treats its first peoples. It is tempting to think, to hope, that behavior, ours as ladies, as señoritas, can change this.

As much as I fight my auntie, I am very much like her. I don’t have a problem with Indians. For me, it’s the welfare queen.

She pushes a baby stroller up and down Anderson Avenue. She stands outside our local library, screaming into the pay phone’s receiver. She doesn’t care who knows her business. She is angry with her man. She carries a beeper on her jeans, the little black machine like a piece of dynamite strapped to her hip.

I never ask her name, but she looks like me: thick, dark hair, glasses, full lips, long acrylic nails. She wears large, gold hoop earrings.

Of course, I have no idea if she is on public assistance, but she is my image of a welfare queen, of everything I do not want to become. I don’t want a baby out of marriage. I don’t want a relationship full of argument, had over phones and beepers. I don’t want hours with nothing to do but push a baby carriage and wait by that pay phone on Anderson Avenue.

Coming out of the library, I look at this girl, and her life feels so empty to me that sometimes I think I will cry. But instead I grow angry. I don’t understand yet that I don’t hate the girl. I don’t hate anyone on welfare. I don’t even hate poverty. What I rail against is someone else making decisions about our lives, about where the good schools are placed, where the bus lines will run, who the health clinic can treat, and the shame shoved onto us, how it crawls inside of our lives and eats away at us until all we can do is scream, and it doesn’t matter who hears us. In fact, we want everyone on Anderson Avenue to hear. We want to matter.

Sometimes, Tía Dora called me “indiecita” as a sign of affection, as in “la indiecitalooks pretty today.”

It’s common in Spanish, especially in Colombia, to add “-ita” or “-ito” to a word, even a hostile one, and believe it is made more endearing. A skinny woman becomes la flaquita, a small woman turns into a chiquita, and a black woman into la negrita. A house too small for a family of six becomes la casita, a car that has engine troubles but still bears the weight of your needs is el carrito.

This is what I admire about my people, about our language. We believe there is a way to love what bruises.

José died the year I began college.

It happened so quickly. A stomachache. A doctor’s visit, the cancer diagnosis, and, then, the preparations. A new dresser and bed for their rent-controlled apartment. He didn’t want his wife, my fairy-like tía, to live with memories. She would have a new home, even if she couldn’t afford to move.

The large portrait of their wedding day stayed, though. In the picture, my auntie stands with a raised chin in her white, princess dress decorated with sequins by her sisters. Her small hands are wrapped around a bouquet. She isn’t smiling. She is serious. She is marrying. Beside her, José is also muy seriowith his glorious, dark eyes. And I think to myself that if he were still alive, my auntie would be talking to me now. Her husband would make her. He would lecture her on acceptance and tolerance. He was a good man.

It is hard to say how one year of my auntie not speaking to me has become two and three and four. But it has, and I refuse to call her. I don’t visit. We have both shut the door.

And yet stories of her come to me through my other aunties, my mother, my sister. Tía Dora is sick again, she is doing well again, she is teaching Spanish to a new class of elementary school kids in Jersey City. She is going to Spain. When her husband was alive she was terrified of travel because she hated airplanes. Now she is determined to do what she should have done with him.

My auntie has one peculiar passion. I say peculiar, because it contradicts everything she taught me about being a lady.

Tía Dora loves professional wrestling.

She will spend hours on the weekends in her living room, cheering for men who drool and grunt and fling each other across a boxing ring, their emotions dictated by a script someone else wrote. She will shriek with delight as Hulk Hogan shoves his white index finger into the camera, threatening his opponent. She will giggle and clasp her hands as if he were courting her, because she adores his golden hair, the bigoteframing his thin lips, his body stuffed into what I would describe as an oversized Pamper. Tía Dora, though, will declare wistfully: “Qué cuerpo que tiene el hombre.” What a body he has.

As a child, I used to look at the screen and search for the beauty she saw, the thrill. But each time I only saw fat men in diapers bullying each other, and there, on the sofa, my Tía Dora with her small, thin frame and a wide smile on her face, as if a bird had taken flight, because everything about Hulk Hogan and professional wrestling truly pleased her—the collection of white male bodies, the fitted shorts, the way they took space in the world.

When I start dating a transgender man, I only tell my family that I’m dating a man, because I am tired. Tired of explaining my life to my family and them not understanding, and by the time they begin shifting, the relationship is already over. I have made a secret agreement with myself that I will clarify everything if, and only if, as the saying goes, “Things get serious.”

But Tía Dora hears about my new boyfriend and wants my sister to show her some pictures. His masculinity confirmed, she wants to talk to me. It has been seven years.

Tía Dora does not invite me back into her home for a reconciliation dinner. Instead, when I call Tía Chuchi on her cell phone, Tía Dora answers. “Pick your tía up here.” I arrive and she hands me her car keys. “Do you want to drive?” Before I can answer, she says, “You can drive. Where did you buy that pocketbook? It’s gorgeous.”

“Alejandro gave it to me.”

“Oh, ask him if he’ll give me one,” she teases.

Tía Dora has changed. She talks to me about her illness. She names it. “They tested me in Colombia,” she says. “They say I don’t have Chagas, so then what do I have?”

She has her hair in a bob now and colored a shade that makes me think of copper jars. She is still too skinny. “What did your doctor say?” I ask, as if we have been speaking for years.

She shrugs. “He said they wouldn’t find the disease because of all the surgeries.” It has been almost thirty years since the operations and still her belly swells at times and eating is difficult.

We talk some more, and she tells me she will vote for the negroto become president. “Obama,” I say. “His name’s Obama.”

A few months later, when I tell her about the new man I am dating, a Chinese American, who is sweet and funny, she sighs, “I liked the Mexicano.”

We both act as though the seven years did not happen, as though I never dated women, so that it’s like we are speaking in another kind of silence, and I have agreed to it, because I don’t want to risk losing her again, because I know that it could happen again, that I could walk out into the night and fall in love with a woman and make my life with her, and then Tía Dora would vanish. Again.

She insists on watching the new Woody Allen movie. It’s out on DVD. She asks me to rent it for her, to watch it with her. I have already seen the movie, so now I sit next to Tía Dora on the sofa, and I wait, patiently, silently, for the scenes of Penelope Cruz kissing a gringa. When they begin, their lips and tongues searching each other in a photographer’s darkroom, my auntie gasps and covers her face. “That’s disgusting!” she squeals.

“No, Tía,” I begin. “It’s two people kissing.”

She insists that it’s horrible, and I that it’s beautiful. But I don’t snap at her. I don’t try to convince her. I don’t go all indiaon her, and when I leave her apartment a few hours later, I kiss her good-bye on the cheek the way you’re supposed to, all sweet and formal, like she taught me.

Excerpted fromA Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir by DaisyHernández, (Beacon Press, 2014). Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press. 

Daisy Hernández is the coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism and the former editor of ColorLines magazine. 

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