Here we are, New York. You and I, five months later.
I could say that I’ve conquered you, but I’d be lying. You are unconquerable. I’ve met masters born and raised in your crowded streets who still feel the necessity to keep trying to figure you out. And, for a newbie like me, “conquer” would be too strong a word.
Yet, I can say I’ve enjoyed immersing myself in your collective misery, the insatiable ambition that your people have instilled in me and the complicated relationship I’ve only gotten to start with you. I can say you’ve brought me to tears and taught me that in every corner there is a new lesson, a new person, a new wall of truth to stomp upon. After years chasing you, I can say we have finally moved in together and it doesn’t look- or feel- as I always hoped. It’s better.
You remember those first few days of me searching apartments online, riding the subway uptown and downtown to end up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a community I did not understand but somehow called my name like a lover that was meant to be, or perhaps a frenemy that would rip me open. Within a month, I was commuting to Times Square from 237 Sullivan Pl surrounded by people with similar backgrounds as me but who did not speak my language or even knew who Pedro Albizu Campos was. I learned quickly that the Caribbean is a vast place, that being Puerto Rican, Jamaican or Barbadian was only differentiated by a stop along the way. And somehow, by finally understanding that Puerto Rico is not an isolated island, but rather a member of a rich non-continent called the Caribbean, I felt a sense of belonging among the West Indian community in Crown Heights. Leaving was a form of acceptance.
Yes, New York. You somehow managed to make me feel connected to my roots, not only in Crown Heights, but across the five boroughs (granted, I haven’t been to Staten Island, but that’s another story). I started to take the train uptown to East Harlem or El Barrio. Let’s not call it Spanish Harlem; I blame you for letting my people be called Spanish when we are far from it. By covering El Barrio as a journalist, I learned to listen to a community I used to despise. Newyoricans in Puerto Rico are discriminated like “Esos no son boricuas ná.” But, New York, only you have seen the way they have tried to remain close to their roots with murals of Taínos, Puerto Rican flags that hang across streets, dancing salsa at La Placita de la Marqueta and fighting to maintain their cultural heritage against the plague of gentrification. They, too, fight. They, too, are Boricuas.
It’s strange, New York, because no one knows better than you that I came here wanting something else. I was the girl who wanted to fit in a European-centered world, who fought hard to get rid of her Puerto Rican accent and who never let her natural hair be. I wanted to be that fashion girl who lived in a chic Manhattan neighborhood, went to dinner parties with Upper East Side friends and said phrases like “I died” or “Literally”. I would be the girl who drank champagne at brunch and denied being from Caguas, Puerto Rico. But, New York, you’ve turned me into something else; something I’ve always been.
You remember that first time I went to the Bronx? I spoke at a panel hosted by Odiosas, a collective of women who aim to create safe spaces for marginalized communities. At that point, I must admit, I still didn’t get it. The women around me felt comfortable with their identities. They knew exactly what pronouns people should use when referring to them. They knew if they were white, black, afro-latinx, native American, Eastern European. But me, I was the epitome of the Puerto Rican identity crisis. I felt strange answering questions about race and wouldn’t admit that I, too, was mixed. But, there was a moment I turned to myself to admit who I really was. Shaira stood at the center of the circle and we all held hands to recite a poem by a Dominican writer. She said something about merengue and salsa and bachata but left out the one genre that I’ve always felt ashamed for: reggaeton. And then, I shouted it and understood that I am also a mixture of adobo, salsa and political activism, that it didn’t matter how indoctrinated I had been to be white, I was also Taíno and black, and that was a beautiful enlightenment.
How did you do it, New York? How did you manage to get a Leo to look at herself in the mirror and be as honest and brutal as she could be to herself? You got an admitted narcissist to look past her own problems to listen to communities whose struggle she had never experienced. You took all her dreams and concepts of the future and dismantled them to make her put all the pieces back together, the right way. You forced her to ask the hard-hitting questions of loneliness and love and made her understand that self-value and happiness don’t come from outside forces. It’s here in her bed with a cup of coffee in hand on a Saturday morning. It’s also in Astoria with Andrea chatting about journalism fails and mid-20’s crises with a beer in hand. It’s the friends you meet and the powerful women who inspire your journey, the everyday superheroes of your reality. It’s also walking through Harlem holding hands on a foggy night. Leaving was a form of acceptance.
You did it, New York. It’s been almost six months, and you’ve managed to bring me back from a living death only a city like you could revive.