“I come from poverty, from El Caserío Padre Rivera… It was a world of men, of violence, a place too often not safe for women and girls,” Jaquira Díaz writes in the introduction of her memoir Ordinary Girls. A story about a Diasporican growing up between two worlds, this book dives into issues of gender, racial and social inequality that exist in our community, while telling a compelling story—one that many of us can relate to.
As a child, Díaz lived with her family in Humacao, spending her formative years playing and conspiring with Eggy, a boy neighbor who “knew everybody’s business” on the grounds of the housing project.
Early on, Díaz detected the gender asymmetries embedded in growing up girl versus boy in Puerto Rico. Her brother Anthony, only a few years older than Díaz, “was never banned from any place, always got what he wanted because he was a boy,” his life completely unburdened by the confines of girlhood. When she complained about Anthony’s freedom, her mother, who “didn’t take no shit,” would “pull me by the arm…”, “her sharp fingernails biting into my skin, and shut me right up,” Díaz writes. Yet, looking for the kind of freedom granted to boys, Díaz spent her childhood as a “tomboy” preferring to hang out with the boys playing outdoor games, running around wild, bike riding, climbing trees, and shooting hoops.
The memoir begins in the Puerto Rico of 1985. That is the year that Díaz’s father, her hero, takes her to the funeral of Juan Antonio Corretjer, her father’s hero. Her dad was her primary caregiver during the day, when her mother was at work at an electronic parts factory, and because he was unemployed, he took care of her, took naps, read books from his days at the University, and spent his time counting bills and handling mysterious baggies.
One of her early missions is to find out what it is her dad is up to in the caserío’s little plaza, and why he went there every evening taking Anthony along but refusing to take her because girls are not allowed in the plaza. Eggy knew what her father did there, he knew because his mother frequented the plaza. One evening, Eggy gave Díaz a ride in his bike so she could see for herself what went on there. That’s when she saw the tecatos in the plaza rotating around her dad as if he was their sun. She did not like what she saw and walked home barefoot, pretending to have never left the apartment’s front lawn.
At 22 years old, her mother had three children and worked at a factory in Las Piedras. She was trying to make a good life for her little family. Born in New York, Díaz’s mother was “Puerto Rican but also American,” teasing “her blond hair like Madonna,” belting “the lyrics to Holiday,” wearing elaborate make-up, skin-tight jeans, and high heels “no matter where she was going.” This woman, the epitome of femininity, was in the prime of her life.
When Díaz describes her young mother, I imagine her as una mami, a Puerto Rican vernacular description for a woman who might or might not be considered beautiful, but who is sexy and desirable nevertheless. In Puerto Rico’s racial universe, where whiteness is associated with beauty, the hottest mamis look like Díaz’s mother: white, blond, with green eyes. Any man would have been lucky to have a mami like her by his side. Diaz’s dad, a Black man born to a proud Black woman, had been studying literature and writing poems about colonialism in Puerto Rico when he met a high school student, an underage girl desperate to escape her own neglectful mother. It seems as if he was “forced” to marry that girl after being caught in her bed. But Díaz is unflinching about who her parents were to each other. After a tumultuous relationship, her parents divorced and she explains that, “My mother loved my father obsessively, violently, even years after their divorce. My father was a womanizer, withdrawn, absent.”
Díaz’s memoir is a great achievement, but among her sharpest reflections are those about Puerto Rican gender expectations and judgments. Like Díaz, I grew up poor in 1980s Puerto Rico, before migrating in middle-childhood to the continental U.S. Growing up girl in Puerto Rico at that time was a claustrophobic experience.
I remember that my mother obsessed with feminizing me, would dress me in frilly polyester dresses, forcing me to wear stockings or socks with patent leader shoes. These dresses were uncomfortable and itchy and my mother would fill with rage whenever she caught me scratching, pulling, trying to escape from these pastel color dresses that felt to me like I was wearing a straight jacket. She would often grab me and shake me, sometimes she would hit me and I would sob mostly in anger. My angry blood-shot eyes look back at me now every time I look at childhood photos of special events, such as graduations and birthday parties.
Gender scholars like myself teach students that gender’s complexity and variability depend on the particular socio-cultural context in which it is lived. We also teach students that even within one society, it is best to think of multiple masculinities and femininities. Part of what girls like Díaz and myself, and I suspect many more, struggled against is a very narrow definition of girlhood which is then followed by a very narrow definition of acceptable womanhood.
Growing up, I was mostly left to fend for myself and I spent as much time outdoors as possible. My clothes didn’t match and I played with dirt, climbed trees, and roamed the neighborhood. I looked like a street kid because I was a street kid. But proper girls were supposed to stay inside their houses, play stationary games, stay clean, wear matching clothes, brush their hair, play with other girls, and stay quiet. Girls who did not follow this prescription of girlhood were labeled as rebellious, un-parented, troubled, or suspected to be machuas, marimachas or patas. Proper girls were warned to stay away from these degenerate and antisocial girls.
In my anthropological work, I have found that expectations of gender propriety shift based on an individual’s socio-economic class. Growing up poor, I was able to observe a range of femininities and masculinities. For instance, my mother has always seemed to me to be a straight soft butch, this is because as a single mother she had to do and be both—a mother and a father. My mother is tough as nails, and it is best not to cross her, even now, in her old age. Also, because we relied on our kin and friends network to survive abject poverty, growing up I was surrounded by family and friends who were known to be cheaters, womanizers, drug addicts, thieves, crazies, and even perverts, who we girls were warned to stay away from if other adults were not around.
Some in our family and friend group were what some called disparagingly patas, patos y putas, trans women and men, but we respected, loved, and accepted them all the same. Similar to Díaz, I learned early on that our family members and friends were complicated people, many of them wrestling with their own childhood traumas and demons.
I have learned that we can love our complicated, sometimes cruel family members from afar, and that protecting our hearts is the kind of choice we are able to make as adult survivors of childhood trauma.
Díaz describes her grandmothers as polar opposites: one white, the other Black. One scarred by a difficult life, the other completely devoted to family but above all to her son and grandson. One who didn’t hold back and hurt without care, the other nurturing, but prioritizing the care of the men.
About her father’s Black mother, who the reader comes to know as Abuela, Díaz writes, “She was easy to love. She loved us all, but Anthony was her favorite… I always wondered why, if it was because he was the only boy, or that he was white, or that he’d almost died when he was born.”
About her mother’s mother, Díaz writes, “Our white grandmother, Mercy, hated that my hair was a tangle of dry frizzy curls like my father’s. Bad hair, she called it.” Mercy’s “worst nightmare, she’d say, had been that her white daughters would end up marrying negros. So, of course, what had my mother done first chance she got? She married my father, un negro.” Mercy was wild, fiercely independent, seemingly free from the roles expected of women but imprisoned by trauma, mental illness and addiction, Abuela was imprisoned by the expectations of mothering and other-mothering, but freed by being beloved and admired in return.
In the 1980s, Puerto Rico was busy ejecting its poor, and Díaz’s family migrated to Miami Beach, where she spent her middle-childhood, adolescence, and (on and off) her adulthood. Nostalgia for what is left behind is part and parcel of the Diasporic Puerto Rican experience. And for those of us who are half-generation, with a childhood spent on the island and adolescence and adulthood on the continent, but still poor on both sides of the ocean, we left behind family and friends, innocence, tropical nature, Spanish, and a way of life and a time, a historical moment, that will never be the same again, no matter how many times we return “home.”
Díaz explains, “We left Puerto Rico that summer, after Papi came back home one night, and both he and Mami acted as if he’d never left. We still didn’t know everything we would lose —the ceibas, the flamboyanes, the moriviví, the coquís singing us to sleep at night— everything we’d already lost. We wouldn’t know it until it was too late.”
Beside the presence of the women in her family, other female ghosts haunt Díaz. There is the ghost of Lolita Lebrón, one of only a few females in the pantheon of Puerto Rican nationalist heroes. She admires and keeps Lolita close to her heart, as do many Puerto Rican women who realize how rare it is, in a patriarchal society, for Lolita to have been able to act with such selfless bravery in the name of national liberation. She stands out as a fearless woman in a sea of male heroes and protagonists of the Puerto Rican political scene. “Lolita standing in front of that government building, one woman among all those men.” The practice of upholding men as main actors in all spheres of Puerto Rican society is not changing fast enough. For Puerto Ricans in the Diaspora, Lolita, like other nationalists figures, stands as evidence that we are not a people without history, as we are often made to feel while living in the continental U.S; that, we too, have our national heroines and heroes.
The other ghosts haunting Díaz’s memoir are those of “monstrous mothers,” mothers who commit the unthinkable act of killing their own children.
Díaz writes: “We’re supposed to love our mothers. We’re supposed to trust them and need them and miss them when they’re gone. But what if that same person, the one who’s supposed to love you more than anyone else in the world, the one who’s supposed to protect you, is also the one who hurts you the most?”
Adolescence is a turbulent time for most young people. For poor youth, it can be treacherous. For poor youth living with a mentally ill, drug addicted mother, whose love comes with bruises and upheaval, life can be unbearable, so much so that some youth, like Díaz did, start to believe that perhaps life is not worth living.
Life was difficult for Díaz, her mother, and her sister Alaina. It was less difficult for Abuela, her dad, and her brother Anthony. This is because her mother forces Díaz and her sister to live with her, often without food or money, in tiny apartments, in hotel rooms, and they had to witness her psychosis, paranoia, and binges.
Anthony on the other hand, gets warm, home cooked meals and a stable household. Anthony had always physically abused Díaz, rupturing one of her eardrums, but she fought back harder each time, until one day she stabbed him with a steak knife.
“I was a runaway, a high school dropout, a hoodlum. I had been picked up so many times, for aggravated battery, for assault, for battery on a police officer,” she writes.
If you are an unparented “Section 8 kid,” and particularly if you are a girl, there is the additional worry of sexual predators who lurk, sometimes in the guise of a boyfriend when you are only 13 and he is 21 years old. In Puerto Rican society it is not uncommon for men to publicly pursue underage schoolgirls. In our day and age, it is time to publicly shame, reject, and put an end to this predatory behavior. As Díaz attests, these men, they offer you rides, buy you food and candy, cigarettes, weed, cocaine, and beer, and are always around you waiting for an opportunity to get more from you than you ever offered.
Díaz tells of enjoying getting into a good fight, never missing the opportunity to give and get a good beat down. Running the streets and landing in juvie every so often, like Díaz did, makes knowing how to fight, and not backing down like a punk, a survival skill. She ran with a group of girls, Boogie, Shorty, Flaca, China, Chanty, and others, and they had each other’s back. She fought one, two, three and more girls if she had to and she also fought boys, having learned to defend herself against her violent brother.
She describes that one must learn to fight dirty, to bite the soft spots on the neck and inner thigh—to pull off earrings and hair weaves. Learn anything can be a weapon: pencils, bottles, rocks, belt buckles, a sock full of nickels, a Master combination lock. Eventually you’ll carry other weapons, brass knuckles and pocket knives, but never a gun, because what you really love is the fight.
This reflection reminded me of a girl whom I will call Tanya, a 17-year-old I interviewed in 2012 for a study documenting the lives and aspirations of Puerto Rican girls in Hartford. The majority of the girls I interviewed were teenagers. They told me that one of their greatest goals aside from “getting an education,” was finding a job and being able to be independent, to take care of themselves.
Tanya was a “Section 8 kid,” who lived with, in her words, “my weed-smoking grandmother,” and whose mother and father were in jail. She had already been in juvie and in the women’s prison several times, and was now studying to get her GED as part of a program to rehabilitate gang-affiliated youth. I asked her if she had been scared about having to go to juvie, and later to prison, and she replied, “Nah, because when I got there, it was like all of Hartford was there. I knew everybody.”
When I asked why she landed in juvie and in prison, she said, “because I have a temper and I fight too much.” I then asked her something she said no one had ever asked her before.
“Do you like to fight? Is fighting something you enjoy?”
Stunned, she looked me in the eyes and said, “Yeah, I really like fighting, I love it.” It seems no one ever considers that some girls like to fight, that they like the physicality of it, and that they don’t want to restrain themselves, that girls, too, enjoy a good fight.
But there are moments in the memoir in which the reader gleans that Díaz’s heart is turning to stone.
“Sixteen. Find a girl you think deserves it, and ordinary girl you were friends with just last month, a girl who spent hundreds of hours on the phone with you, confessing her fears, her dreams. Look at her, see her clearly, see yourself in her eyes before you do it. Punch her in the face again and again, until you are out breath,” she writes.
The women’s world to which Díaz brings her readers is one in which everyone is both a victim and a victimizer. In which everyone is capable of great cruelty and tenderness. It is also a world in which family is at once your closest allies and your worst enemies. Where friends play the role of family, where lovers, men and women become some kind of savior until they get discarded and you move on to the next someone until the day you come face to face with who you are and what it is you want and need. Then there are the matters of the passing of time: the death of the people whom you thought could survive anything, and would never die; periods of euphoria and depression; the moving away from Miami, and the triumph of earning a college degree; the sadness of loss, of aging, of watching the people you love self-destruct and waste away; the moving back to Miami, and always Puerto Rico in the background as a promised land, and the hurricane that leaves it a broken land.
This Memoir Deserves to Be Read
This memoir deserves to be read, taught in high school and college classrooms for what it tells us about growing up girl, black, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and queer in Puerto Rico and later, as a Latinx and so-called minority in Miami, in Florida, in the continental United States. It should be placed in the bookshelf alongside Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets.
The world of Puerto Rican women is often drowned out by the centrality and loudness of the world of men, and by our complicit patriarchal obsession with canonizing, upholding, and nurturing the voices of men at the peril of women’s, and in the telling and re-telling of “our” stories from men’s point of view.
Jaquira Díaz accomplishes having managed to survive to become a writer —a sensibility that Mr. Williamson, a wise public school teacher, first encouraged— in order to tell the kind of life story we often want to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist. The story of women whose lives are messy, who express a range of femininities, who love fiercely and lose their minds in the process, who like to fight, whose minds’ play tricks of them, but who still want a good life, love, affection, kindness, and safety.
I am also a “Section 8 kid” like Díaz, so this memoir is written for me. It is also written for the girls I interviewed in Hartford (and later in Providence), and for my nieces and cousins. Finally, it is also for the lost and angry boys in our families and communities. They too could hear Díaz’s voice and maybe they’ll find themselves mirrored in Anthony, Chris, Kilo, Cheito, Devin, or in one of the other boys and men who crossed the lives of the girls and women depicted in this memoir. About who she writes for, Jaquira Díaz tell us in her own words:
“…for the girl I was, for girls everywhere who are just like I used to be. For the black and brown girls.… For the wild girls and the party girls, the loudmouths and the troublemakers. For the girls who are angry and lost. For the girls who never saw themselves in books. For girls who love other girls, sometimes in secret.”
Hilda Lloréns Ph.D. is the author of Imaging the Great Puerto Rican Family: Framing Nation, Race and Gender during the American Century (2014). Her book, MotherLand: Afro-Puerto Rican Women Forging Good Lives and Fighting for Environmental Justice, is under contract with the Decolonizing Feminisms: Antiracist and Transnational Praxis Series, University of Washington Press. Dr. Lloréns is a cultural anthropologist who teaches race, gender, and decolonial thought in the Sociology & Anthropology Dept. at the University of Rhode Island. Follow her on Twitter @shecoanarchist.