My husband has made his peace with my not-so-secret love affair, the one I have with books. I read to learn. To escape into other worlds. And to breathe in the satisfaction of those moments where I finally find the right combination of words to express something I’ve always felt but never had the language for. Good books don’t just give, they take too. They take moments out of the dusty shelves of our memory and help us reflect on how those stories shaped us as people.
Lorraine Avila’s debut collection Malcriada & Other Stories is a good book.
I found myself walking and reflecting through shelved recollections of my girlhood as I read her novel, especially the story centered around a young girl’s relationship with her own name. In the first short story, “Malcriada,” the main character is called Malcriada so many times, she does not know her given name until the tail end of her journey across an ocean when she finds a handwritten letter from her grandmother tucked into her pocket. Avila writes:
“Girls, good girls, talked in whispers. And in the best-case scenario didn’t say a word. They sat. Their legs pressed against each other even when the inside of their thighs peeled. They piled their hands on their lap even when they wanted to reach for something. They walked into a room and said hello to every adult, even the ones who looked at them in a way that made their stomachs turn. Good girls besaban la mano and understood they had to ask for blessings even from the ones who had never been the recipients of any themselves. Good girls looked down on the floor because that’s where they belonged.”
Malcriada was not a good girl because she had too many questions, too many opinions and she dared to verbalize her needs, wants and desires. I was reminded of what it cost me to be a good girl. I was reminded of how I never learned boundaries for fear of what people might say or think. I am reminded, how even today at thirty one years old, I have to be intentional when checking in with myself about my own emotions because I am so consumed with concern for the feelings of others.
My parents like to joke that I wasn’t always an easy child. Back before the world took its toll, I was what some might call, adventurous. At three years old, I left the block on my dented tricycle without anyone knowing and decided to explore the neighborhood. Mami and Papi were about ready to call the police when I peddled my way back up the block twenty minutes later, a big old smile plastered on my face.
At four, I locked myself in the bathroom and cracked my nose open on the corner of our porcelain sink. Mami and Papi said when they finally broke open the bathroom door, I was so drenched in blood, they couldn’t tell where it was coming from. They made their way to the hospital barefoot and hysterical.
I don’t know how old I was when I slammed a hard-plastic play phone over the head of the boy that had been bothering me. I cracked his face open just enough for a few blood drips to trickle down the side of his temple. I know Papi had to come in for a parent conference and he scolded me publicly even though years later he would tell me how proud he was of me for standing up to a bully.
Like Malcriada, I too acquired a nickname before I learned how to be a “good girl.”
Spanish for tremendous. But the weight with which Mami would spit out my name before grabbing a chancleta, or a belt, or a rolled-up magazine stayed with me way past the beatings. It wasn’t good to be so much, to take up so much space or think that I could navigate the world freely as a brown girl without repercussions.
Maybe if I had been a boy, being called Tremendo wouldn’t have bothered me so much. Maybe my curiosity would have been laughed at instead of beaten out of me. Maybe the beatings wouldn’t have been as damaging because boys will be boys and violence is natural. Maybe if I was a boy, my older cousin wouldn’t have asked me to sit on his lap in that dingy basement all those years ago. Maybe.
But I was a girl, and so I learned to be good.
Over three years of consistent therapy, lots of journaling, a spiritual reawakening and reading the stories of others have taught me a lot. Stories have helped propel this healing journey back to myself. And if you are anything like me, this is what I have to share with you:
- Somewhere along the way, you lost your voice. You are needy because you have needs and wants and that is OK. It is more than OK. It is natural. The first step is identifying what you need and want. The second is verbalizing those desires to the people you love if you want to have them met.
(P.S. Someone recently reframed neediness for me in a way that I needed to hear. It’s said in point one, but in case it didn’t hit home the way it should have – let me try again because language matters. You are not “needy,” not in the way society tries to make you feel bad for. You HAVE needs and they are not being met. Read that over a few times until it really cements.)
- You deserve to have your needs met, especially the burning desires to be seen, known, and loved.
- The people that matter, the ones that want to see you flourish and grow, will respect your boundaries when you learn to set them.
- Names matter. Reclaim what you have been given or change it. Either way, know that your destiny is in your hands now.
When I was twenty-one years old, I chose my new name. Nia meaning purpose in Swahili. We are called to live purpose-driven lives. Ita meaning “don’t know” in Taino. The wisest people know they know nothing at all. Both names paying homage to the parts of my culture that have been either whitewashed or completely erased from the written records of my parents’ island.
Within the past few years, I’ve started reclaiming my nickname Tremenda. One of my coworkers joked when she saw my personalized shirt and said she couldn’t believe I was “one of those girls.” To which I winked and responded, “You’d be surprised.”
Tremenda. Sinverguenza. Malcriada. They have so many names for us curious girls growing up with big eyes and loose tongues that don’t know anything other than speaking the truth. Names that were prescribed to us for breaking traditions of silence. Names meant to tame us, whiplash us with a quickness back into good and proper. But the same way I believe in healing, I believe in reclaiming. Turning words around and walking in their power.
I’ve been doing the reclaiming. I am proof of healing. You can be too.
Without Shame (Sinverguenza) Badly Raised (Malcriada) y Tremendamente Suya,
*** Sunday, September 27th 2020 marked the one year anniversary of Lorraine Avila’s “Malcriada & Other Stories.” I am incredibly proud of this woman and friend for her courage and craft. Please join me in supporting the Kickstarter for her next project “Celestial Summer: A Graphic Novel.” CELESTIAL SUMMER is an intimate exploration of Black love, intimacy, sexual healing, and vulnerability in a world where deceiving others and building walls to keep people out is the norm.