Wednesday, August 15, 2012

On Becoming a Writer by Odilia Rivera-Santos

Odilia Rivera-Santos was how I was born. Mine is a musical, elaborate name and I love it.
Like many artists, I found my art served as a means of crawling out of a dark space. My family migrated from Puerto Rico to the Mainland when I was six. We left my dog Astro, my beloved grandmother Mamá Cruz and my favorite aunt - Vije. There was also the sunshine and sand and delicious crab meat, the respect of our neighbors who knew my parents to be hardworking even if they were poor, and my monolingual mind.
In New York City, in the South Bronx -- where we first landed, everything looked dark, people didn't smile and strangers' eyes looked closed even though they were open. Their selves were clearly sealed off to the outside world. Each person appeared to be his or her own country or island surrounded by moats full of alligators.
I was terrified of the dark night in New York City and the garbled language my family called 'Ingleesh.'
It sounded impenetrable with barbed wire to block what any outsider might perceive as a possible entry way. My first scribbles were letters to God asking why the hell he had sent me to the South Bronx of all places. It was too dark and the colors were bland. People didn't paint their little houses wild colors and the palette of the sky was limited to a pale blue and dead-fish gray.
I wrote in Spanish at first and battled with the English language until I realized we really really would not be returning home to Puerto Rico, and this realization was a great disappointment when I was eight.
It was also clear even if we returned, I would not be the same girl. I walked differently already -- bossy and defiant down dirt roads to buy candy near my Mamá Cruz's house. I hated to admit how thrilling it was to escape my very traditional claustrophobic culture on the island.
I was the person in the middle of the riot who reached out to get the most valuable light-weight items and this is how I left my country behind to misbehave in my absence. I took the language, sense of humor, integrity, work ethic and the best recipes and left the bulky items behind: machismo, the pressure to have children, and the idea of myself as a pretty object to be in someone's possession.

At eight years old, I called myself an intellectual when asked to sweep a floor.
My most valuable possession was whatever book I had borrowed from the library. The library at Fordham Road smelled of wood and damp paper and I got my mother to sign the permission slip stating I could take books out from any section of the library.

I would keep Book Books to write about books that had meant a lot to me in a particular year.
At nine, I read Alive, a book about a soccer team whose plane crashes in the mountains, and to survive, they eat their dead friends. I thought I might want to be a psychologist for such people -- your plane crashes and you have to eat your friends. and then, you're in a regular five-star restaurant in the U.S. slicing into steak tartare acting like nothing happened . . . not thinking about the friend's arm you gnawed on.
Pretty soon, I saw such a career would have its limitations.
I kept journals to record daily meaningless interactions, to describe the weather or the stresses of life in the new ghetto with new crime and new attitudes.
Methodone clinics and fatherless children were new experiences I'd not asked to witness but I did write about the men who sat on air and kids who ran to the door at each bell's ring with the hope.

My parents read the newspapers and voted for everything. My father had a fifth grade education and my mother a sixth grade education. In their time and place in Puerto Rico, you worked to eat. Education was for other people with more money.
My father worked in the sugarcane fields and my mother worked in a wig factory. They built the house in which we lived on the island. Everything was simple on the surface as things often are.
I became a writer to understand life and to be able to understand other writers and philosophy. Philosophy always seemed a great reason to wake up in the morning . . . to wake up to think and enjoy the roads to which a thought might lead always enthralls.
I guess you have to be there to be there.

This post is subject to change, so don't get too attached to the ways in which I've organized the alphabet just now. Just now, I wanted to communicate a few things simply and to be thought simple even if for a moment.

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