By Victorio Reyes
I didn’t know that I existed until I was thirty-nine years old. Reading We the Animals by Justin Torres—a novel about a young Puerto Rican growing up in upstate New York, raised by an unstable white mother and heavily influenced by his not so present Puerto Rican father—I heard my story for the first time. Does one exist before hearing their narrative confirmed via art? I suppose, on the surface, yes. At least in the sense that we as a collection of cells, breathing and moving, meet the basic criteria for existence the moment we are born. However, if existence is more than simply existing, if it is in part a process that involves affirming one’s own identity through the hearing of one’s own story, then yes, it’s possible to not exist.
In this moment I think it will be helpful for the reader to pause and read my poem “We, Animals.”
This essay will wait for you to return.
If we chose to define existence as the hearing one’s story, this definition might suggest to some that one can only hear one’s narrative and come into existence through literature and the written word. “I detest writing. The process itself epitomizes the European concept of ‘legitimate’ thinking; what is written has an importance that is denied the spoken.” When we read the text from this quote from Russell Means, text he agreed to have written down, we find a critique of writing and an explication of oral culture’s contentious relationship to the written.
You may wish to pause here and read the full text of Mean’s statement.
Means’ argument suggests that the culture of the spoken need not seek approval from the culture of the written. The fact that his condemnation of writing is also written beautifully should not go unnoticed. After all, what Means is telling us is that oral culture, his oral culture, is vibrant, profound, and layered. By uplifting the “spoken relationship” of his people. Means suggests that a people’s understanding of itself, and therefore an individual’s understanding of herself, can be realized through an oral tradition. Means exists. And I would argue that he knows he does because he has heard his story told to him from many different angles, thanks to the vibrant oral narratives that make up his peoples’ traditions.
So, no, one does not need the written word in order to affirm one’s existence; however hearing one’s narrative, via either the written or spoken words, is a primary mechanism for how we affirm ourselves. If we buy this argument, we are faced with two problems to grapple with. First, how does one determine when a story is my story? In my poem, I said that my mother read Julia de Burgos to me before bed, so it is clear that I was exposed to Puerto Rican writers before the age of thirty nine. Additionally, Torres’s story differs than mine in some potentially key ways. He identifies as gay; he grew up in a house with two other brothers; he didn’t live in Binghamton, NY, as I did. A story told from the perspective of one’s culture may not be enough to qualify as my story, and at the same time my story doesn’t necessarily have to be identical to one’s own experience in order to qualify for this designation. It is on the variable ground of these seemingly contradictory points that this essay finds itself.
Before continuing, I must however address another point of concern. I worry that by saying my story had not existed, at least in a form that was accessible to me, I am situating myself as a type of subaltern, a person who is so marginalized that he has no voice. Of course, such a suggestion is fraught for multiple reasons, but most notably, as feminist scholar and literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak teaches us, the subaltern ceases to be the subaltern, the moment that she gains a voice (Spivak 1988, 28). In this sense, my argument would not be that I am a subaltern, but that I was one. I’m hesitant of course to make this claim because I worry that I am suggesting that I am more oppressed than other oppressed people. Yet, I maintain that I didn’t exist, or at least that I didn’t know I existed, until I read We the Animals. If my suggestion is true, then it is also simply true that I was a type of subaltern.
I would like you to take a moment to watch this video by Calle 13.
(Don’t worry if you can’t speak Spanish; you’ll still get the gist.)
In the music video “La Perla,” from Calle 13 and Rubén Blades, we have the fusion of two musical generations, Blades representing salsa, and Calle 13 representing Hip Hop and Reggaeton. In many ways this video should confirm I exist; after all, the video is a melding of my father’s generation with my own—as it is also for the generations of the father and son from We the Animals—a beautiful synergy highlighting the commonalities between each generational perspective and the significance of art as a means of giving voice to generations. And all of this takes place on the legendary shores of La Perla, a small barrio on the northern coast of Old San Juan, not but a stone’s throw from the bay where we scattered my father’s ashes in 1997. Yet, this video, while conveying parts of my story, is not telling my story, at least not the one that confirms my existence.
My father, like the father from We the Animals, was born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Puerto Rican ghettos of New York City. Salsa was of course the music he was raised on. It would be impossible to quantify the amount of times I heard him blasting Rubén Blades in the car, in the living room, or offering his own performances of Blades’s music in the shower. For me, Hip Hop was the closest thing I had to my father’s experience with music. Calle 13, in this regard, represents my generation. A generation who consumed Hip Hop as its soul music, a music that made its way from the Bronx, upstate to my home in Binghamton, NY, and across an ocean to Puerto Rico. Inspired by Hip Hop, Calle 13 developed their unique style of reggaeton, the island’s syncretic, musical amalgamation of Hip Hop, reggae, and salsa. Connecting reggaeton with its generational predecessor salsa, allows Calle 13 and Blades to trace a line that illustrates how music tells our stories. In this way, their video speaks to the stories of me and my father. And yet, I would still say that this wonderful audiovisual composition doesn’t confirm my existence.
I must make one thing perfectly clear: I very much want Calle 13’s “La Perla” to prove I exist. In actuality, the fact that it does not touches on a point of sadness for me. The thing is, for post-colonial subjects, those of us who have been spit to the margins within the colonial structure, far removed from a community of our cultural peers, we do not have a home that feels like home. And therefore, cultural expressions from our homeland often do not fully express our understanding of home and, ultimately, our understanding of ourselves.
Frantz Fanon writes that: “As long as the black man is among his own, he will have no occasion, except in minor internal conflicts, to experience his being through others.” In this instance, Fanon is discussing the relations between Black colonial subjects and white colonizers. In particular, Fanon is drawing attention to the different experiences between the colonized person who spends most of her time among her own people and the colonized person, especially those who attend universities in the colonizer’s country, who spends most of his time among members of the colonizer class. If we reframe his dichotomy into one between a brown colonial subject and the progeny of white colonizers, we begin to approach an important contention of this essay.
Calle 13, Rubén Blades, and Julia de Burgos, were/are all artists that came to being within a Puerto Rican community, and, as a result, often experienced their “being” within a community of their “own.” Their art reflects this experience, an experience that however complicated, is centered in some understanding of community and homeland. Furthermore, post-colonial artists, like Miguel Piñero and the many Nuyorican poets, came to prominence in Puerto Rican enclaves in New York City, just as their kinsfolk did so in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Hartford. In these instances, the art comes from artists who lived in communities where they could nurture their artistic craft within and amongst their “own,” minimizing the effects of experiencing their “being through others.”
But what happens when the colonial subject is not simply removed from his homeland, but born outside of it and also not raised in a cultural enclave of her own?
What I am proposing is a sort of inverse of Fanon’s point. I am arguing that the colonized person, born outside of his homeland and outside of a diasporic cultural enclave, is always having his being defined through others. And so, for me, as a Puerto Rican growing up in Binghamton, NY, I was rarely among my “own.” So how would I be able to affirm my existence in such a predicament? I also think it might be important to differentiate between my experience and that of someone who is say adopted; that would be another type of removal and come with its own circumstances. While I was removed from my culture geographically and materially, I was raised spiritually as a proud Puerto Rican. My negotiation then became: how do I reconcile my day to day experiences, most of which took place outside my cultural origin, with my proud Puerto Rican identity.
Another break, this time, for an online photo exhibit by Farrah Akhtar Billah.
Sometimes it is easier to clarify our points when we can share an analogue. I am not Bengali, nor am I a woman. For this reason, I cannot say that the challenges faced by Desi-American girls are ones I specifically understand. However, Billah’s article/exhibit, “Coriander Cats: Bengali Girls In The Wild,” points to the “tradition clash” that Desi-American girls confront in the United States. This speaks back to my circumstances, having to negotiate the clash between my Puerto Rican identity and that of my daily life in a community that did not reflect said identity. This clash is the variable ground between identity and circumstantial reality for Desi-American girls in the case of the photo exhibit and for me, the Puerto Rican growing up in upstate NY. I imagine for a Bengali girl who has never seen the nuance of this dichotomy of the “clash” explored via artistic expression, seeing Billah’s photo spread might feel like one’s existence being affirmed. Perhaps, there’s a Bengali American woman who will someday say that she did not know she existed until she saw Billah’s photos.
If you are feeling bold, you may take a break from this essay and read the book, We the Animals. However, if you prefer to get to the book later, consider the quote from it below:
Here the book traces the trajectory of the narrator’s heritage via his father’s dancing ability. The dance traced the relationship between Puerto Rico and the ghettos of New York and established the clear otherness of the narrator, not having been born or raised in a community of his own. And so the narrator is forced to reconcile this existential contradiction. He cannot dance like his father because he was born in upstate New York, not Spanish Harlem, not Puerto Rico. And yet, we can tell from the text that the narrator so badly wants to feel the connection to his heritage that his father effortlessly expresses via his fluid dancing. At the same time, Torres uses the double preposition “as if” to signify the futility of this endeavor, the impracticality of trying to capture a connection to his heritage as clear and fluid as that of his father’s.
When I was little, on up through high school, I wouldn’t have dared to dance salsa. I knew from watching various family members that I couldn’t get it right. Also, school dance parties consisted of 80s American top forty or classic rock from Zeppelin or the Dead; Rubén Blades never made the playlists. As I grew into adulthood, I became less shy and picked up a few steps. And, while I don’t completely embarrass myself at a party, no one would ever confuse my dancing abilities with the fluid simplicity of my father dancing salsa. A few years ago, I took lessons and my instructor was impressed with my potential. My father, on the other hand, doubtfully ever took a dance lesson, as if—as described by the father in the passage— being Puerto Rican, and dancing like one, is something that is acquired from birth.
I am not a “purebred” Puerto Rican raised in “Spanish Harlem,” nor was I born in Puerto Rico. Yet always, at the core of my being, I have identified strongly as a Puerto Rican, though I often felt frustrated with my ability to express my identity. My frustrations stemmed from never hearing stories about Puerto Ricans from upstate, NY. Not hearing my story made me a type of subaltern because the process of hearing our stories gives us voice, the way Ruben Blades gave a voice to my father. Still, I am not implying that my life was somehow more difficult than that of other Puerto Ricans like my father; I am simply saying that post-colonial subjects, like myself, rarely hear or see our stories communicated back to us, and this absence of our stories creates a unique type of oppression.
Until I was thirty-nine years old, I had never read my frustrations articulated. It was through the narrative of another post-colonial subject, a Puerto Rican born in upstate New York, that I heard my story. And even though my story is one of nuance, one of understanding my identity but not having a clear medium for expressing it, I found in the text of We the Animals that the nuance is my story. Justin Torres’s exploration of nuance gave me a voice, liberated me, and, in this simple act, Torres expanded the narrative reach of the Puerto Rican story beyond the island and the cultural enclaves of the Diaspora to its more marginal spaces in upstate New York and beyond. Confirming for many of us: We are Puerto Rican. We exist.
Victorio Reyes is an activist and artist living in Albany, NY. Victorio holds an MFA in creative writing from The Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently pursuing a PhD in English at the University at Albany. He was featured in the anthology of emerging writers: Chorus, published by MTV Books. Additionally, his poems are forthcoming or have been published in the Acentos Review, The Mandala Journal, Mobius, Word Riot, The Pine Hills Review, and the anthology It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip Hop. In 2014, Reyes served on a panel entitled "Uncovering Hip Hop Poetry" at the AWP Conference. He explores the role of activism in art evidenced in his essay on Adrienne Rich, “A Personal Journey for Justice,” published by the feminist blog She Breathes. Blending his writing and activism, Reyes served as the executive director of The Social Justice Center of Albany for 11 years.
More of this year's essay series:
Sonya Vatomsky, Mothertonguetied: The Fantasy of Belonging
Ka Bradley, Naming and Its Discontents
Jayy Dodd, The Impossible Outside (or, A Zumbi's Autopsy)
Liz Howard, Naming and Its Discontents
Sophfronia Scott, Of Flesh and Spirit
To see all essays, go here.
To see current news for the press including our next book, go here.