My Work, Writing

False Seeds Don’t Grow: Corrupted Motivation & Honest Intent

unnamed twitter user

Sometimes you don’t have time to read but don’t worry, now you have no excuse not to keep up with the heavy and wordy writing I know you love! I’ve recorded a reading of this essay but listening to my voice is it’s own punishment, so proceed at your own risk.


I am an anti-social social media user. I eagerly share my thoughts while hiding away from the actual socialization. 

I dread Twitter mentions. I just go there to talk to myself, really. Therapy’s too expensive anyway. Short thoughts transcribed and collected are attractive — it’s like a journal, but one that claps for you afterwards. And while a positive exchange is like a pat on the back, the negative is more a push to the chest. Appreciated as the former is, the latter outweighs it.

The truth is I have little faith left in the possibility of quality interactions surrounding meaningful ideas, especially online. I resent social media for many things (maliciously addictive design, one), but I especially resent the thousand banal arguments I’ve been force-fed through the feed. I can’t think of another scenario where a human would be the audience of so much uninspired spite from strangers. Yet I remain, undying optimist (fool?) that I am.

I’ve seen so many of these arguments I feel like the Jane Goodall of social media. I’ve taken my observations and tried to analyze the data — what makes this strange species act so remarkably insufferable about their ideas? The point of study. Do the motivations behind why we argue degrade the argument? The hypothesis. 

Honesty is a concept that’s been present so long in human society we don’t consider it often and we rarely reconsider it. We usually approach it the way our societies always have, making tweaks for morphing cultures and shifting moral values. It’s worth much more consideration than we give it. It’s the most fundamental aspect of any worthwhile and healthy relationship, and what is a society but a giant collection of relationships?

When we think of honesty, we think about whether you are honest with me and I with you. It’s why public figures like Donald Trump are so darkly enthralling. Most of us wouldn’t think to lie to our families and partners, let alone entire countries, so when someone does, it’s jarring and we feel compelled to right their wrongs through our outrage. 

I believe in calling liars liars — we should hold each other to a high standard of honesty. But this honesty isn’t the kind we lack most in our relationships and it isn’t even the kind that’s all that important. The best time to stop dishonesty is before it leaves the origin.

There are 2 kinds of honesty — outward and inward. He who lacks the first always lacks the second. Inward honesty, honesty with the self, is the more elusive and unpopular form of honesty, yet a practiced sense of self-honesty can change your life. It cuts past all the bullshit excuses we give ourselves for why today just isn’t a good day for the gym because I didn’t sleep long enough and…; it transforms our relationships — instead of having a rough day and picking a fight with our partner only to call it an even worse day, self-honesty gives us the awareness to recognize from where our behavior stems.

Yet it’s so, so unpopular. We don’t concern ourselves with requiring this kind of honesty from others, instead we emphasize outward honesty — don’t you dare lie to me while I’m busy lying to myself about why I’m with someone who lies to me to begin with. But I completely understand inward honesty’s unpopularity. If choosing between catching you in a lie and catching myself in a lie, I would rather be right. 

We’re so fixated with catching and punishing other people in their lies we’ve neglected the second, vital half of what honesty is. Without self-honesty, everything we do stems from undefined motivations. If I can’t be honest with myself enough to see my dislike for another person might stem from my own insecurities, what chance do I have at a genuine interaction with them? Worse yet, I lose the chance to recognize and mitigate the damage my insecurity does to my relationships. I lose the chance to develop into a higher self. 

Here’s my own outward honesty; I don’t want to hear about how some public figure is lying again and how these people I don’t know are so wrong about a thing. If it’s a crime, let it be dealt with as such. If it’s a shitty person, deal with them, too, as such. I don’t need any more proof, I know everyone’s usually lying to someone else or themselves in at least some routine way. It’s not that I’m apathetic or cynical, I wouldn’t write this if I was. I believe it’s wasted effort that would be better spent catching that dishonesty before it leaves the source.

When people have reached the level of lying to others, the shame you heap on them will rarely change them; they’ve already lied to themselves about their justifications. The effort is better spent on the self. There’s little you can do to change a dish once cooked, but changing a recipe is an art in itself. 

I avoid debates now, the difference between 2 people seeking understanding and 2 people seeking to be right is the distaste left in the aftermath. Debates are debates in name alone when both sides are motivated by anything other than truth. Instead we dress up our egotistical motivations in ideology and fight to ensure they remain pristine, or in reality, unchanged.

Yet truth is never damaged by change, only the ego is. When we argue for ego, we lose the chance to find truth and instead force a perspective on the world around us. This rigidity of the mind is our obstacle — its absence is what creates the beauty in the way a child interacts with the world from deep curiosity or the one-ness and emotional peace with the world someone experiencing a loss of ego under psychedelics feels.

New environments are left behind by each route we take to a goal and that route differs with our reasons for the goal. If I want to lose weight for the sake of my health or to instead feel accepted by my society, the path I take to obtain the same goal can vary immensely, even dangerously. Lack of self-honesty can cause us pain. Without cultivating a sense of self-honesty, we repeat the same mistakes, needlessly prolonging our own suffering. 

But the damage is not just done to the self. Anyone that seeks to solve a problem must first understand its reality. The farther from reality we stand, the more our accuracy shrinks. Any critique or contradiction should be welcomed, examined, and considered as a chance to see more of reality. Or are we now so frail in mind as to fear being corrupted by even hearing the disagreeable?

Paper by Nora Berenstain on the inherent harm in skepticism.

Information is neither good nor bad, it’s the ego that tells us new information which might render us wrong is a danger. It’s that fear of being wrong that prevents us from seeing the world more truthfully throughout our lives. The concept of a cultivated child’s mind has been considered by those dedicated to life long learning. But the quality of the child’s mind that makes it such a freeing place from which to learn is self-honesty. The child has yet to fully form his ego and retains a fluidity of ideals that allows them to hold any idea and pose any question from a place of true curiosity.

I used to be a very argumentative person, always happy to teach someone how they were wrong. More self-honesty let me see how my arguments never had the goal of understanding, but instead of self-affirming. I wanted to be right more than I wanted to learn.

I hate to think now that I would so prize my ego and feed its love of being right over the chance of understanding, of learning. I don’t want my ego affirmed, I don’t really even want my ego at all, so there are many discussions I just won’t have now. Most of them, actually, I won’t have, because most of them are an egotistical tug-of-war. Yet there are few things more uniquely human than exploring the world around you through honest discussion. Replacing one with the other is like replacing Phil Collins with Ray Wilson — offensive even in theory, disastrous in practice.

Surprisingly, I’m not some enlightened being recounting my wisdoms from on high. I struggle with not telling myself micro lies like “I deserve a second donut” and “I’ll do it tomorrow” daily. I admit my shame: I, too, have an ego, and it demands the ugliest things of me. I can’t tell you how to act from a place of inward honesty, but I can tell you it’s a good idea and how I try. 

Count the number of questions you ask every time you speak, then take that number and double it. Monitor arrogance. The moment you feel pride about the argument you’re making, stop and ask more questions. Ask questions to other people, even if you think they’re wrong, and ask questions to yourself, even if you think you’re right. For now I’ll retain my anti-social social media strategy: observe from a far and flee. Even Jane Goodall eventually left the jungle, too. 


You didn’t think I would praise the virtues of honest discourse and curiosity and then not ask for your thoughts, did you? Yell in the comments, on Twitter or even Instagram if that’s your thing.

My Work, Writing

The Gift of Burden


Sometimes you don’t have time to read but don’t worry, now you have no excuse not to keep up with the heavy and wordy writing I know you love! I’ve recorded a reading of this essay but listening to my voice is it’s own punishment, so proceed at your own risk.


Our parents are the first people to give us anything. This is not meant as a heartfelt platitude. Just as we say life can be taken, it is also given. The giving of life is our first gift from another human. Our parents are the first to give us many things — gifts, warm memories, love. They’re also the first to give us pain. They give us our fears, harsh memories, our traumas. They give us the flawed personalities we spend a lifetime working to improve.

This is not unique to our generation, our parents, or our society. It’s the human experience to be shaped in some way by the people around us and our parents are the first people around. We like to think we’re the arbiters of our lives and the origins of our selves, but spending decades with the same person as we grow through different life stages can mold us more deeply than our conscious efforts later can. 

I’ve found it hard to hold within me these contradicting gifts. How do you reconcile joy and suffering given side by side? With self-reflection I’ve been able to uncover the patterns in my own behavior that add empty weight to my burdens. Living with these hidden patterns is like listening to a new record, unaware it has a few scratches, and thinking the song itself is flawed. It’s not always your life, but from what mind you experience that life, that makes it harder. 

Finding and mending the scratch conjures questions. When did it happen? How did it happen? Bear with my psychoanalysis, but a lot of those scratches happen early — it’s of course, much easier to scratch something that’s still soft and moldable than rigid and guarded.

I’ve had wonderful parents. And thanks to their dutiful and near perfect parenting, one of those scratches I carry is a deep and un-resolving need to repay my parents. But that’s the point here — you’ll always be scratched when you’re soft. Even the pan you pour a cake batter into, safe and appropriate of a vessel as it is, still molds the cake.

Some of us are not so lucky to have had parents wielding a mold that is just right for us. They leave us with more scratches than are defensible, some even intentional. These children grow to suffer the deepest; it’s much harder to accept suffering when it’s given from the same hand that gave you the gift of life. 

I thought about this experience and what parallels it might have. Humans are not the only species so deeply molded in youth. Puppies are only legally allowed to be sold after 6-8 weeks of age because this is when they’re weaned off their mother’s milk. The best breeders keep their puppies longer, around 12 weeks.

While a puppy can be weaned at 6 weeks, the learning it experiences with its siblings and mother has just begun. At 5 weeks and on, they learn when a bite is deserved and when it isn’t, when to heed a growl, how to have fun without hurting their playmates — lessons that will make them better adjusted to life in dog society. From 8-11 weeks a puppy experiences the Fear Impact period — anything that frightens them can become a phobia for life. Much to Freud’s credit, even a dog’s issues can stem from youth.

Yet, some of us may never notice a suffering we experience as stemming from childhood, and maybe it doesn’t. Others of us are familiar friends with our burdens and their origins. 

It’s natural to look at our difficulties and resent their creators, but they should always be framed within the full picture of who we are. You might have anxiety, but you also have a unique sense of humor through which you see the world. You might be depressed, but your compassion and care lighten the lives of those you know. Being hyper-focused on our flaws is water on a seed, they grow and grow, only to become more overwhelming. They become the only thing visible in the frame; it’s no surprise this creates feelings of pessimism, lethargy, and self-doubt. Without a balanced view of the fight, we see ourselves as surely defeated.

I struggled to accept my own gifts of suffering as still being part of myself, not a thorn that if only removed would let my truest self come forth. I felt conflicted; how can my parents who have selflessly gifted to me also have taken from me? Yet, my parents can ask this same question of their own parents and their parents can ask their parents too. It’s knowing I was not unique in this paradox that helped me make peace with the contradictions within. We all live and have lived; whole people, individuals, lives of both beauty and pain, but lives nonetheless.

Instead of trying to surgically remove the parts of ourselves that are discolored, only substituting incisions for bruises, we can take a step back from the mirror and appreciate the body as a whole, bruises and all. Appreciate the shades of purple and blue, consider how the body heals itself as blood collects under the wound. Appreciation for even the darkest of circumstances reframes the picture beyond just the pain.

And who has never had a bruise? We are fetishists for perfection; humans have always tried to hide their flaws like a herd animal hiding its wound, fearful to be attacked or exiled. Ancient instincts do not always serve us in modern society. Now we close ourselves off to the members of our packs that can heal us. We take insult at the idea we might have hurt another or might be ourselves hurt. Instead we conceal the wound, conceal what the animalistic brain deems a weakness and struggle on, festering and risking infection. 

Certainly, living in societies means we benefit in some ways from acting as a herd, but remember that the group will never prioritize the individual’s life. It would be a danger to the group’s survival as a whole. How much are we willing to bleed silently in service of the herd? Look at your bruises, don’t hide them. You only further convince yourself that perfection is the standard from which you’ve fallen and you are uniquely flawed. Every human body can sustain a bruise. Yours are not proof of an unusually weak one. Instead, let them serve as a reminder that your body is whole, living and though some parts are bruised, others are not.

Think of all the dogs you’ve met. The majority of them will also have been burdened with needless challenges that their more pedigreed neighbors were not. Yet, are these bad dogs? Is the dog that plays a little too rough, barks a little too loud, and irrationally fears innocuous situations unlovable? There would not be 90 million dogs living in homes cross this country alone if it did. Their families make exceptions for them where needed, a walk on a route that specifically avoids a menacingly colored car or extra comforting during a thunderstorm. They go on to live happy lives within a family that loves and protects them. How many of us have not joked about switching places with a pampered family pet? 

We are given so many things by other people that never take a material form. We live through infinite generations, each one shaping the next, both for better and worse. Ugly as they might be, you are still of your bruises and they are of you. Just as we are given to, we are taken from. Just as the sculpture requires the addition of clay, it also requires the subtraction. I’ve realized our parents don’t give and take, they give a single gift with two halves; you cannot be given joy without something with which to compare it. You cannot be whole without two halves.

A dog may never be able to overcome the challenges puppyhood burdened them with. It can take years of compassion, effort, training and retraining to give them the same thing other puppies had from the start. What happens in the formative years of life becomes so entrenched in the animal that it can become indistinguishable from their very personality. The puppy can remain fed, clean, and safe from harm during puppyhood, but it can also have been burdened with a severe phobia. The puppy is given a future of both joy and suffering simultaneously. As are we. 


Put your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, Instagram, as you like.

My Work, Writing

Cerca de la Tierra

I was so honored to have this piece as my first printed work in La Yerbera by La Liga. The printed version has now long been sold out, so I wanted to share this very special work here. I wrote this for my abuela, who is a force, a life, a personality to be reckoned with. I’m so lucky to come from a line of women who spit fire and kindness all the same. What a blessing of an existence. I hope you enjoy this ode to my roots.

Cerca de la Tierra (Close to the Earth)

Mi abuela se mudó a Miami desde Cuba, an incredible and immense story all in itself, but a common enough immigrant tale. More common still, she settled in the city of Hialeah, where she’s lived for over 15 years. That house she moved into was a barren lot whose gringuito owners lamented that nothing could be grown there. For them, the soil just wasn’t fertile. 

At the intersection of common life and quiet magic stands la casita del bosque. Today, that same piece of land is a tropical forest in miniature without having changed a thing about it but its caretaker. Every square foot is hidden under cool shade from the mango y aguacate trees towering above. Potted plants line the walkways, walkways that are delicately blanketed from the gentle snow of red Poinciana flowers in late May. 

“Corre corre que te vas a caer un mango encima!” takes the place of a greeting during summer months. As a 12 year old girl who caught lagartijas and parrots like a Latina Steve Irwin, my abuela’s house was a foreign country onto itself; a place that gifted me fond memories of being from the last generation before commercials needed to encourage kids to play outside. To this day, I know there are still parts of that semi-untouched forested land that I’ve yet to walk on. Land claimed by and for the matitas rooted there.

When I wasn’t being carefully watched so as to prevent death by falling fruit (an innate abuelita power is being able to foresee your death coming from even the most innocuous situations), I was sneaking into the vine covered, seemingly 1000 year old rusting shed with a heavy, creaking door that sheltered the altares and food offerings to los santos. When one prospers, so, too, do their gods. 

Upon fleeing Cuba, mi abuela was forced to bring nothing but herself and her children. However, she did manage to sneak out her santos también. Contrary to the stereotypes, not all Cubans are Santeros — and those that aren’t have a tendency to look down on those of us that are. Previously in meager surroundings, los santos have been eating good since they moved to Hialeah.

Abuela at 1 year younger than I am (26)

My abuela would have you believe they are the reason this piece of land where nothing would grow has become the mysterious viejita’s verdant, hidden house on the block. As all abuelitas do, I believe she’s giving away too much credit. 

Now as an adult, I share my home with 13 plants and counting. My table is never without freshly cut flowers to reflect every season. Just as she grew the fruit trees that stand almost protectively around her home, my abuela grew in me a love and fascination with nature. Like an estranged family member only to be visited on occasion, nature has never been something we lock outside. My abuela taught me to bring the Earth inside in more ways than one.

Cuba
Cuba

Cerca de la Tierra

Mi abuela se mudó de Cuba a Miami, un historia increíble y inmensa, pero un historia común también. Mas común todavía, ella se estableció en la ciudad de Hialeah, donde ella ha vivido por 15 años. La casa en donde ella se mudó estaba en el medio de un pedacito de tierra completamente basio, dueños gringuito lamentandan que nada podría crecer alli. Para ellos, la tierra simplemente fue estéril.

Donde el intersección de la vida común conoce al mágica callada se sientes la casita del bosque. Hoy esa misma pedazo de tierra es un bosque en miniatura sin cambiar ni una cosa pero su curador. Cada pulgada esta escondido debajo la sombra fresca de los arboles de mango y aguacate encumbrado. Matas en macetas alinean las pasarelas, pasarelas que están cubierto con nieve delicado de los Flamboyan flores rojos in las ultimas semanas de Mayo. El saludo “Hola princesa” se convierte a “Corre corre que un mago te vas a caer encima!” durante el verano.

Como un niña de 12 años que atrapo lagartijas y loros como un Steve Irwin Latina, la casa de mi abuela fue un país extrañero; un lugar que me regalo memorias lindas de ser de la última generación antes de comerciales que tenían que incentivar a los niños a jugar afuera. Hasta esta día, yo se que hay partes de esa casi-intacto tierra boscosa que yo no he puesto un pie sobre. Tierra reclamada por y para las matitas arraigadas alli.

Cuando no estaban velando me cuidadosamente para prevenir la muerte por la caída de fruta (un capacidad innate de las abuelas es preve tu muerte incluso de los situaciones más inocuos), me estaba metiendo en el cobertizo cubierto de oxida y escondido debajo viñas, apareciendo 1000 años. Detrás de su puerta pesado y crujiente estaban los altares lleno de comida y ofrendas a los santos. Cuando uno prospera, sus dioses también prosperan.

Al huir de Cuba, mi abuela fue forzada a traer solamente ella y sus hijas. Sin embargo, ella alcanzo a escabullir su santos también. Al contrario a los esterotipos, todos los Cubanos no son santeros — y los que no son tienen la tendencia de virar la nariz a los que son. Anteriormente en un escaso entorno, los santos ya están comiendo bien desde que se mudaron a Hialeah.

Mi abuela te haría creer que los santos son la razón que este pedacito de tierra donde nada podría crecer ya se ha transformado a la casita escondida detrás de el verdor, misterioso y abundante. Pero como las abuelitas hacen, yo creo que ella estas regalando demasiado crédito.

Ahora como una adulta, yo comparto mi casa con 13 matas y contando. Mi mesa jamas esta sin flores frescas para reflejar cada temporada. En la misma forma que ella cultivo los arboles de frutas que ahora se paran casi como protectores de su casa, mi abuela cultivo en mi una fascinación y amor de la naturaleza. La naturaleza nunca fue algo que dejamos afuera, como un miembro extraño de la familia que sólo visitamos ocasionalmente. Abuelita me enseño a traer la tierra adentro en más de una forma.

This was an important piece for me to write; I wanted to give my grandma something that could put the feelings of gratitude for our shared love of la naturaleza into words, and that’s what this is.

Abuela

After it was published I brought by a copy of the magazine and we sat in her living room, surrounded by the tiny jungle she cultivated from barren sand in the middle of urban Hialeah. I read her this essay and, woman of few words as she is, all I needed to see was the pleased half-smile on her profile as she looked out the tall windows over her tiny jungle.

Salomé

*This essay get you thinking about your own abuela? You might enjoy my photos and essay from my trip to find family in Cuba. Interested in learning about one of the most significant threats to la naturaleza in Latin America today? Check out my essay on, Paying for our Own Destruction.

Personal

In Memory of My Boy

Writing this is hard. Writing has a way of making things real; even things that are pure fiction, like magic and Middle-earth, can be made so familiar through skillful writing we can find ourselves subtly jaded upon returning to reality after closing a book.

This is one case where I wish writing had no such quality, where I wish my writing would be so horrible there’s no way anyone, especially myself, could believe it. As things are, it wouldn’t matter how many misspellings and cliches I make, this reality remains.

My dog of 18 years left me behind for the first and last time. He died on March 24, 2019, in his beloved little bed, with the hands and love of his family surrounding him. I wasn’t there; I was out of the state, completely convinced he would be right there in his little bed like he’s always been for almost 2 decades upon my return.

I hate myself for not being by his side for the loneliest journey of every animal’s life. By his side the way he’s been by my side for his entire life. He wasn’t alone when he died, but I was alone when he died and that’s my burden to carry. A burden of my choice, of course, as dogs wouldn’t be dogs if they held grudges the way we do.

I’ve written something for Simba and for me. It’s messy, it’s a pile of grief and gratitude and then more grief and gratitude; it’s a bunch of words to communicate my love for a dog that never needed a single word to communicate his. Simba deserved every good thing that this earth could give but there’s nothing else I can give now except my mournful, grateful words.

I look at the ground where you sleep and I have to hold myself back from digging you out, just to hold your perfect, tiny, potato-round body one more time. You were just here and now nothing — no money, no miracle — nothing can take us back to 1 week ago. In a world with so many exceptions and caveats, death feels otherworldly. A punishment from an alternate world. It’s been 1 week since you were sleeping in that little brown bed and I still thought we had 10,000 years left together. The innocuity of an empty bed is so deceiving; an empty bed is loss — loss of sleep, loss of love, and now, loss of life. I never once thought of how painful seeing your empty bed would be.

Now I too feel empty. Worse, I feel robbed. I didn’t know the last time I saw Simba would actually be the last time I saw him. I hate the world for taking someone so pure. What kind of place lets a life so gentle end? I don’t want to spend my grievous energy contemplating the circle of life and accepting our life’s limited time. I don’t want anything except my boy. My small, irreplaceable, fat-bellied, fire-bellied boy of 18 years. I want to tell him how much I appreciate him. How massive an impact this 9 pound being had on me, on my life. How sorry I am for all the times I walked past you without taking 60 seconds to give you affection, attention, even acknowledgement — how sorry I am for how human I am.

Thank you for being my friend, a tiny but fierce blockade against that penetrating sense of loneliness we humans are so sensitive to. I am no exception; without the comfort of knowing you are somewhere in this world at the same time as me, that fearsome loneliness creeps around me. I’d never felt your presence so heavily until I lost it forever. How selfish I was, to take for granted that greatest gift of companionship you gave to me, the loneliest of species. I hope you’re not alone. I’ll try to step away from my humanness just to live a little bit more in the way you taught me; I’ll try to be a better companion to the lonely humans around me, just the way you were to me.

You taught me so much. We shared the simplest, smallest joys that all mammals understand — stepping outdoors and breathing fresh air, skin warming under a mild sun; feeling safe and trusted, the only relationship I knew to have been effortless without language. I didn’t understand how valuable those daily 4 minutes we would both step barefoot onto the damp grass were. I was so impatient. I’m told I was the epitome of patience, of care, but even 1 minute of unappreciated time is too much to forgive now that all our time is gone. I can’t believe our time is gone.

Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for tolerating me. I’m a verbose person and you were of so few words. Just a few words in this world of endless talking and languages — “walk” and your name were the only words you needed. By the end you had no words left, no way to hear those words, relying solely on the bond of trust and care to communicate. I know I gave you everything because you trusted me and felt safe and cared for til the last sigh. It was so easy to give you everything because you never wanted anything more than loving care. It’s that purity, that genuine ego-less selflessness that breaks me apart now. Another lesson you taught throughout your whole life but one in which the student is destined never to surpass the master.

All I can do now is feel the acute guilt of a less than selfless existence, a bond marred by human frailty — the times I was annoyed, the times I was busy. I would apologize, but a dog has no need for this human invention; an apology isn’t love, love is love. So once again, even gone from my side you still teach me — guilt, mourning, apologies — they have no use for those without ego. The only language you understood was love. So I’ll try, though only having a fraction of the vigor your 9 pound body coursed with til the last second, to set aside my self-indulgent grief and give to others in your name the only thing you ever asked of me, compassion and a few moments of gentle, loving care.

Sleep peacefully, little man
(2001-2019)

My Work, Photography, Wanderlust, Writing

A Country Named Mother

I finally took a trip I’d been planning for years. I knew it would be a different kind of trip, more serious and personal. In some countries more than others, maintaining contact with family is difficult. Historically, Cuba has been one of the more difficult countries, as home phones were a luxury shared between several neighbors and communications are still monitored and intercepted as seen fit. Through burgeoning access to the internet, my own family, now living in Miami, was able to make contact with family members still living in Cuba, after 30 years of silence. 

Staying in the home of family members I had only known through my mother’s stories felt like watching figures of the past come alive. In the short week I spent on this tiny island with a massive world presence, I came to know myself through knowing the many women of my family who call this country mother. 

I hope you enjoy this one, one of my most personal essays yet.

Photo from Cuba: my abuela one year younger than me

I wasn’t very conscious of my ancestry until around middle school and I wasn’t really interested until college. While some kids wanted the new Samsung Sidekick, I wanted blue eyes and a French-sounding name (and the Sidekick too, honestly). I can’t say it’s for lack of representation – no, there aren’t any Cuban Disney princesses – but I was raised in Miami where quinceñeras are a weekly event and that’s pretty damn close.

Every year I’d get the same question that only reinforced disinterest in my ancestry. Teachers asked “what makes you special?” and “where are you from?” In an age of misguided philosophies on confidence building, asking me to share my background was supposed to make me feel special; instead it felt like a popularity contest where I got front row seats to watch the interest fade from my classmates faces as I started to pronounce “Cuban.” My conflicted feelings over my ancestry created a blockade to self-acceptance. While these issues might seem trivial now, as a middle schooler, they were a memorable source of shame over identity (or lack thereof).

La calle my family lives on in La Habana

Up to that point in my life, I never felt tied to my identity in any meaningful way, Cuban culture was practically an all-encompassing part of my daily life (if scientists ever want to study the effect of daily cafecitos and pan Cubano, I’m the first volunteer). Even now, as I sit writing in a city and state I’ve never seen, the most assumed parts of my identity are pulled out for display. There’s nothing like leaving home to make you realize how much of your home is twisted up, inseparable from the person you are. Cuba was the setting for family stories told and re-told. I could imagine the small homes, barely able to contain their inhabitants; the hot sun that you were told to hide from lest you grow too dark. It was through shared memories that I spent a small part of my own childhood in my mother’s past; sharing her childhood home, joining her walks to school, briefly inhabiting a different life than my own. I had never visited her birth country, but it was simultaneously as real and imaginary as any other fairy tale. The bedtime stories I grew up on were not only of sleepy Germanic princesses, but of kids growing up on an isolated isla communista.

Cuban art with Cuban resources

There were people in my family stories that lived only in memories recalled. Family members that I knew existed, but had never seen nor spoken to I became curious about mis raíces. Reaching a level of security within myself gave me permission to dive into my own history. I wanted to know what my own personal link to my heritage was, something that couldn’t be measured and deemed common. With my upcoming trip to Cuba, suddenly all the stories my family had told me became possibilities. Where were they now? Could I meet them?

The day of my flight, I anxiously rushed into the airport, doing that belabored half jog, half crumble-under-the-weight-of-my-suitcase gait. All wasted energy as Havana Air left an hour and a half late. Nobody seemed to care though, we were on Cuban time now. I had taken many trips before to countries whose entire population is only a fraction of my city’s, countries that were 12-hours-in-the-same-chair away, yet the anxiety I felt about this trip wasn’t related to the traveling itself, but because I would be meeting family who until just a few weeks earlier, were cemented in my mind as historical figures of the past. I had only glimpsed a few pictures of the family members I’d be staying with; pixelated 300×300 Facebook photos, the type that makes you question the validity of a profile. This family and this country that existed only in my mother’s recollections of her youth were now real and they’d be picking me up when I landed.I walked out of the airport worried I wouldn’t recognize my relatives, but they were already in front of me. They’d picked me out of the crowd like they’d seen me every day for years.

Staying vegetarian in Cuba was much easier than one might imagine!

Riding from the airport in one of the iconic vintage cars Cuba is known for, I noticed a little bump of emotion building up inside me. Every direction I looked in, Cuba looked back. Giant trees let a hot sun stream through their leaves and onto my face, buildings begged for my attention in blends of color that looked like ice cream, bright and summer-y. We headed for La Habana Vieja, where my family lived. A small 1 bedroom apartment shared between 3 people and sometimes 4 when abuela visited, now shared with 5 since the addition of myself. No A/C, just a rotating standing fan that became an alter I was more dedicated to worshipping than any religious deity prior.

Sitting in a humid living room while the heavy equatorial sun cooked the building, conversation floating in and out like the flies we mindlessly swatted at – just 5 strangers who were family. The idea of family evolved to me now, as I stood in the center of this radical experiment. I observed my new family, and tried to soak up years in the few days I had. My tía’s dark, gentle eyes brimmed with a power to calm through just her gaze. She resembled my mother, like the result of an alternate storyline where my she didn’t leave Cuba. A tired yet determined look marked her—the look of a woman playing the role of two parents. You could tell she depended on herself alone, and bore the weight of sustaining her entire family. Her daughter was melting candy; pure sugar and stuck to me at every chance. She had long, thick and wavy black hair, like Rapunzel da La Habana. All my family had much darker skin than me and my new abuela was the first to point it out, almost excited by our differentness. Her own skin was a rich reddish brown, a tone that almost radiated back the hot sun it had soaked up.

Though my mother was born in the city of Guantanamo and my abuela is from the rural town of Mayari, I am Cuban-American and my primo showed me the weight that hyphen carries. He had been sitting on the couch, with a level of tension boiling in him that could be felt from every part of the tiny room we were in. Four people sharing a one-bedroom apartment with no air conditioner and no running water in the summer is a challenge by any standard and I could feel their shame in knowing what was normal for them was rough for me (some countries lack A/C because they experience a mild climate, others are simply lacking; Cuba is the latter). I was about to take a shower and my tía asked if I wanted her to heat the water in the bucket I’d be using. I declined, partially out of politeness and partially out of being covered in sweat

My primo jumped up and went on a tirade. He angrily reminded the family that I was not like them. That I wasn’t used to this situation. I wanted to melt into the couch under the weight of this searing shame he must’ve been quietly carrying since I arrived. He continued, wondering aloud why the family wouldn’t get it through their heads, “where she’s from there’s air conditioning and the water comes out of the shower head.” He shouted a last time, “Somos animals aquí. Compared to what she’s used to, we’re animals.” The intense frustration and bitter resentment born out of a stagnant present and a stillborn future is sharp and current, like a wound in reverse. While my mother’s Cuba lacked TVs and even a magazine was a treasured luxury, Cuba today has TV, magazines and even WiFi access in certain places. Of course he felt this way. Cuba was an island, not a cell block, as some might have you believe.

Land of the mamoncillo

On the living room TV, my primos were watching the same high materialism, low substance music videos that I try to forget exist in the US. No one flaunts wealth quite like someone who never had it so Cuban hip hop is an arms race of boasting. While I can brush the ugliness of consumerism off from the comfort of the US, it’s not so easy to identify the futility of materialism when your food is rationed and your mattress is sweat stained. Yet who is more vulnerable to the poisonous sense of emptiness that chasing happiness via consumerism infects you with than one who’s never even been allowed to participate?

Most of my time in Cuba was spent chasing and consuming every piece of familial history in any form it might take: stories, photos, standing in old buildings and plazas where my own mother and her mother had stood decades before me. I almost want to ask the buildings I saw if they remembered my mother. Did they remember my abuela, who walked on this cobbled path for decades? Silent pieces of concrete, soaking up bits of all the lives around them and selfishly locking these memories into themselves. It was never the buildings I wanted to see so much as the air I wanted to feel. What did it feel like 40 years ago at this exact moment as my mother walked through this plaza?

A Country Called Mother

My abuela’s niece

Traveling to a country when you’re part of its diaspora is more of a journey and less of a vacation. The souvenirs you bring back are in the form of emotional connections that weigh far heavier than any checked bag of keepsakes. Out of the stories of my tía Marta’s cigarette smoking and late night dancing, I found her best friend, who she was unable to contact for over 13 years. Out of the stories of my abuela taking two planes while smuggling a box stuffed with a live chicken meant to feed her hijas, I found her niece, who used to care for those daughters while my abuela struggled to support them. Out of the stories of my mother and her prima who entertained her as a child with an old guitar, I found my tia, who welcomed me into her (now guitar-less) home. I existed in the middle of this surreal web of family ties, aged and stretched almost slightly beyond recognition.

My trip to Cuba revealed a long line of women who were full of life, strong despite the harshest circumstances, deeply rooted trees sustaining all around them. My tía Marta (less formally known as Yaya), came from Cuba, with its slow pace and state of constant lacking, straight into New York City, as a political exile. She’s now one of the most independent women I know with a mouth of candela who maintains herself as a sought after tarot card reader. My grandmother left everything she owned, her friends and even her husband behind, to raise 3 successful daughters as a single mother who spoke no English in the US. My own mother, who had to leave behind her father and integrate herself in a foreign and often hostile country at the confusing age of 15, completed a master’s degree in her second language and now teaches that adopted language to kids born and raised in this country.  

I’d uncovered a line of incredible women spanning across generations, recalling the matriarchal Taino societies buried under colonialism, but not quite buried deeply enough. These women and their relentless and determined personalities left me in awe. I’d found a new love for my Cuban heritage when I realized that the value in my identity was not in its uniqueness or in how other people viewed it. The love for my ancestry is born out of the incredible experiences of the family members who made me the person I am. They are my ancestry. My mother’s passion, my abuela’s independence, my tia’s boldness, my primo’s ambition; this is my heritage, something so much more personal and valuable than I could understand as  a child. Something that flows from a much deeper place than any hollow nationalistic slogan could convey.

The iconic Flamboyan trees of the Caribbean

My trip ended like all my previous trips: a ride to the airport and lots of waiting. My new-found family stayed with me until the last minute. It turns out family is a kind of magic word – a word that can conjure a genuine love born of nothing more than shared genetic material.  What I keep with me isn’t the effort my family made trying to provide the food and comfort they could barely secure for themselves, but rather what they expended no effort over at all. It was only when the time came to turn my back to them and walk away that I realized how final this moment was. As I lifted my arm to wave goodbye, the simple thought that I’d never experience this particular moment again wouldn’t leave my head. With the volatility of the American-Cuban political relationship, so much could change before I returned. Most goodbyes are not truly goodbye, but more of a see you later; it feels different. This was goodbye.

 

The difficult part about following the thread of your ancestry out of the diaspora and into the motherland are the ghosts you bring back, more detailed and louder than the sparse figments you had previously only dreamed up based on a patchwork of family stories. The weight of a history extended and imbued with real breathing life: something you would never wish to be without, but always carrying with it new complexities. Even now, as I sit writing in a city and state I’ve never seen, the most assumed parts of my identity are pulled out for display. There’s nothing like leaving home to make you realize how much of your home is twisted up, inseparable from the person you are. Through the acceptance and love my family showed me, I was finally able to pick up my ancestry and, like a missing button, sewed it back on my dress and felt whole after so many years.

The most photographer-friendly country I’ve been to

These photos and this essay are so close to me, they mean so much for me to share. I know the feeling of being part of a diaspora and tracing your lineage isn’t exclusive to Cuba, so I’d love to hear how you personally relate. I’d also love to hear any and all feelings A Country Named Mother brought you, so share either in the comments or on social media here and here.

Salomé

*If you enjoyed this essay about Latin American identity, you’ll probably want to know about this problem facing indigenous South Americans.

My Work, Writing

Paying for Our Own Destruction

I was recently given the opportunity by the incredible creators at La Liga Zine to write about what I’m terming the New Genocide in Latin America. The New Genocide is colonialism raised from the dead and dressed up no longer in the clothes of conquistadors but in those of consumerism. It’s through this deeply embedded capitalist lifestyle that colonialism has risen anew and is actively exploiting Latin America’s indigenous populations all over again, through a barrage of one billion tiny cuts. 

There is a bright side to this new enemy that’s both its strength and weakness; there is no leader, only millions of individual people who must decide to help. You can see how this new form of war is both an optimist and pessimist’s playground; decide whether you’ll be one more person, or whether you’ll be only one person.  

This essay originally published by La Liga is now home here at LunaGemme. Please share your thoughts and feelings with me in the comments or on social media.

Paying for Our Own Destruction

                               A Guarani woman (Photo courtesy of Sarah Shenker/Survival)

Disclaimer: If you feel that for some reason your situation does not allow you to change any aspect of your diet, even if that is simply a vegan Monday, then use this essay for its educational value to help those who can change their diets and store this knowledge for the day you might be in a situation where you too can change your diet. This statement is not meant to erase the existence of poor vegans, those vegans living in food deserts and all the others who despite a popular narrative to the contrary, still eat with ethics in mind.

Veganism calls to mind white people with dreadlocks who spend their trust fund at Whole Foods and thousands on a trip to India to discover the virtues of poverty. These people do exist, but just as white women are unfairly often the face of feminism, just as white men have become synonymous with rock music, we know that a lack of representation does not mean a lack of contribution.

 The idea that something is not “for” your race or ethnicity is a tool of limitation. One that, once broken down, allows for the creation of a beautiful and unique interpretation of something that previously was lacking, something that was smaller before you took a piece of it, molded it and added your own vision.

Reasons such as environmental destruction, health, and animal welfare are relevant to and can be sympathized with by all identities. To say otherwise is to grossly underestimate a human’s capacity for care. There exists an extensive list of the ways in which animal agriculture exploits not only animals but humans as well, however, I will focus on only one of these ills now: the violation of indigenous rights.

To fill the demand for meat, Latin America is being forced to exploit its own resources once again. While the destruction of one of Latin America’s most precious resources is tragic in and of itself in addition to the loss of animal habitat that leads to extinct species as well as the loss of an important environmental balancing mechanism that mitigates climate change, there is yet another loss in this situation, that of human life.

 

            Vegan Cuban-inspired sweet potato and platanos maduros bowl

Screaming into the void of consumer demand, many distinct indigenous groups have already organized and continue to speak out against the destruction of their homes for pastureland. Consumer demand has placed the value of meat and milk before that of indigenous peoples lives. Both the Yukpa in Venezuela and the Guarani in Brazil have detailed the violence they’ve experienced at the hands of cattle ranchers, who have gone so far as to murder indigenous people on contested land. Murders that go largely uninvestigated and unpunished. Damiana, the wife of the Chief of a tribe of the Guarani people, lost her husband as well as her three sons all to what has been dismissed as “roadside collisions” with the same cattle ranchers encroaching on their ancestral lands.

Activists have called for companies like Starbucks and universities like Harvard to divest, that is, to end their monetary relationship with harmful practices. We cannot hold these businesses to a higher ethical standard than we hold ourselves as individuals in everyday life. For the same reasons we sought divestment from these companies, we must divest our own money from companies and practices that are not in line with our own beliefs.

The act of protest has the power to influence, but only in so much as it controls the flow of money. A protest is effective only when it presents a possible loss of income; this is the point at which negotiation begins. In a capitalist society, money often weighs more than words and acts faster than law. Why then, would we ignore our most constant and accessible form of protest? The mundane act of grocery shopping is the single most politically powerful tool available to the working class, as with every purchase, support is either extended or rescinded. We already utilize this power in responding to new flavors, distasteful advertising, and bigoted CEOs; now is a more crucial time than ever to divest our support for products that are born out of exploitation and cruelty.

As activists and ethically minded people, we cannot ignore our role as consumers whose purchasing choices have consequences. Animal agriculture is a decrepit means of feeding ourselves, propped up by all the ancient methods of unconscious consumerism and violence that we have no choice but to move away from or face the consequences of a world prioritizing cheap perks built on a chain of absolute cruelty. We need to do better; if that means just one meat-free day a week, then repurpose the old business adage and remember, every dollar counts.

Eating vegetarian in staying with family in Cuba

Do you have any tips for cutting down on our consumption of animal products? What do you think is the best way to fight against the usurping of indigenous lands from afar? If you’re in a rough position of your own and unable to make any ethically minded changes, help share this article with others who can!

Salomé

*If you like my work centered around Latin America, you’ll enjoy my photos and essay from my trip to find family in Cuba.*

 
Sources & Further Reading
My Work, Wanderlust, Writing

The Introvert’s Travel Guide – for Travel Latina

I wrote about the way I’ve molded my personal travel routine to better fit my introverted personality; a major change that has improved my traveling experience immeasurably. Though, if I had to measure it, I could probably measure the reduction in stress plus the physical and emotional wearing down brought on by the typical hectic travel plans.

I also shared the new method for traveling I use that cuts down the cost of accommodations to nearly zero! Reject the cookie-cutter model of travel and learn more about tailoring your trips to fit your personality from my featured piece on Travel Latina.

Have you experienced travel burn out? In my article I argue that feeling worn down stems from planning our trips using a one-trip-fits-all mentality that ignores our personal needs. What are some ways you keep travel exhaustion from interfering with your travels? Let me know in the comments or on social media here and here!

Salomé 

*Looking for a travel story to read while you procrastinate? This one might almost make you feel slightly less guilty about that procrastination. Have an interest in personal growth and travel is just one tool in your self-development kit? This thought-experiment is all you

My Work, Photography, Wanderlust

A Week in Naples (The Other Naples)

NaplesI took a road trip by myself to Naples, where I stayed in a house that came with a little dog who, albeit suspiciously, tolerated my company. The house was tucked into a quiet gated community, where I quickly blended into everyday life, taking out the trash and walking the dog as if I wasn’t actually from the chaotic North Caribbean metropolis that is Miami.

NaplesThough it’s only about an hours drive away, Naples and Miami share mostly physical geography and that’s about it. The first sign that I was not in Hialeah anymore was the abundance of those simple flashing lights that save lives: turn signals. People actually used turn signals and moved out of the left lane after passing! I quickly got used to this foreign cultural custom. Now when I talk about visiting Naples, I always mention the regular use of turn signals as if it’s some famous local monument you have to see. Driving on the Palmetto just changes a person.

NaplesIn many ways, Naples is your stereotypical Florida beach town; lots of old people and postcard worthy beaches. It’s quiet, shiny and sandy, making it a popular vacation spot amongst Floridians. Naples has a strange secret though; it’s actually one of the richest cities in the entire United States. Little old Naples with it’s population of less than 30,000 people holds 6th place in highest per capita income and a lot of those 30,000 residents are living in some of the most expensive homes in the country, with some houses selling for upwards of $40 million. Now I understand why everybody seems so pleasant here.

NaplesReally though, the people of Naples are extremely nice and at the most basic level, they actually seem to give a shit about you. Being a semi-introverted inhabitant of a major city, friendliness beyond the reach of general social niceties makes me a little nervous. The people here were so outgoing and chatty it started to ware down my anti-social armor and I found myself being…friendly. I even caught myself stopping to help a family take a vacation photo. Luckily I had progressed to this serious stage only by my last day there and a quick drive through Miami Dade county restored my callous exterior.

NaplesNaples is a strange mix of money, Florida and tranquility. The beach and sunset demand you take the time to really observe the gorgeous shows they put on everyday. My stay in Naples was so peaceful and the openness people exhibited towards me brought me to reevaluate how few words I use in my everyday interactions with others. Things move slower in Naples. At least, the people definitely do. Naples

Have you been to Naples before or are you thinking about going? Let me know what your impression of the town was or why you’re planning to visit in the comments! Start your search for the perfect Airbnb away from home here.

Salomé

Wanderlust

How I Travel (Mostly) for Free

Traveling is really my hobby at this point; I do it every chance I get and it brings me joy every time whether in the form of a lovely experience or a challenging one that helps me grow. It’s something I can’t recommend enough for other people to do if they’re hoping to develop as an individual because it’s the fastest way to become aware of your subconscious worldviews and comfort zone, things that are major obstacles when trying to improve as a person. 

Naturally, something so beneficial and enjoyable isn’t easily accessible. I’m not wealthy by any means, but I’ve been able to do more traveling than most people my age or in my situation. There absolutely are ways to help you afford traveling at least slightly more than you currently do. 

In this video, I explain the one thing I use that completely cuts out the most expensive aspect of traveling: accommodations.

Let me know if you have any questions and what you think of my method in the comments or here and here on social media!

Salomé