All of us are connected — none of these words are mine alone

    In an age of egos, individualism and cultural appropriation, the work of reclaiming and shifting narratives is a complex one.
    Image by Mike Kline. (Flickr/MIke Kline)

    The act of writing can be just as excruciating as it can be exhilarating — in this case as part of a process to explore interconnectedness and reclaimed histories as tools we can use toward collective liberation. How often I’ve sat in front of a blank page, the words tangled up in my gut, stuck between tears and broken memories. How often I’ve waited for that thrill when the words are unleashed, when the stories I’ve been dying to tell finally come out in narratives that can be heard and seen by those around me.

    In this era of media stunts, celebrities and executive directors, there’s something fundamental for us to recognize: that none of these words are ever ours alone. I’ve progressively centered more of my organizing and writing on intersectionality, to which many have contributed through their words and actions. There have been many people with whom I’ve worked through entangled ideas and identities, as we’ve attempted to better understand our undeniable connections and what that means within our social justice movements.

    A comrade organizing in the ‘hoods of New York City recently reminded me to show gratitude, to give credit to those who’ve shaped me along the way. In honor of that sentiment, I owe deep thanks…

    to the undocumented sister who shows me bravery with every fiber of her being, with her unflinching integrity, with her every truth that she speaks to challenge the empire’s narrative.

    As anyone involved in organizing and resistance work knows, stories can inspire us and build us up, but they can also put us to sleep and limit us. Stories paint the world in ways that set the tone and shape the expectations for people’s place and perceived worth in the world. The fairytales we grow up with, the messages we’re spoon-fed by mainstream media and the lessons we’re asked to memorize and spit back out verbatim through our public “education” system is straight up brainwashing — it’s what allows those on top to remain there. Domination, of land, resources, minds and peoples, is upheld by stories we’re told and by the values we draw from them. Retelling history from our own perspectives, therefore, is crucial, since history is full of mistruths, omissions and appropriations. The stories we tell will either fall in line with dominant narratives, keeping us boxed into existing structures, or they will challenge these assumptions.

    to the healer who has sat in my kitchen for hours at a time, with cookies and cups of tea, who sat by me when all of the tears flowed of my body, holding all of the things, when I had no words for the incomprehensible ancestral traumas that emerged.

    Growing up, I was taught to be ashamed of grandparents who were illiterate, who built and cleaned other people’s houses, who migrated away from the place that birthed them in hopes of a better future. None of my teachers or the princesses that Disney bombarded me with looked like me. My people were instead confined to the projects of inner-cities like Paris and Marseille. We were depicted as dirty and our religious practices were cast as potential domestic threats. As a youth, it took me years to shed myself of distorted beliefs about the lack of worth of my people. If only I had been told about the heroes, rather than the “poor colonized peoples,” of North Africa. If only Disney had starred an Arab princess before 1992 and more since. If only there had been space for my grandparents’ priceless ancestral knowledge in our schools.

    to the filmmaker who inspired me to stop engaging in professional activist circles, and focus on our people instead.

    As we build power in our communities, those of us who’ve “come up” can’t forget where we started, where and in what conditions our people continue to live, and we must act in ways that honor those roots. My family made sacrifices so I could obtain a college education, so that I could travel and see other worlds, so that I could speak other languages. Those sacrifices brought me numerous opportunities, material resources and access to the job market. Eventually, all of that brought me to this moment: to my words being published and read. But these words are not mine alone. They’re a collection of countless voices, living and dead, that have shaped, influenced and carried me throughout my life. So my journey on this road to liberation can’t possibly end with me.

    to the humble artist working outside of norms, to bring a voice to the street kids whose very existence has gone unnoticed by those carelessly walking by.

    When there’s only a blank page staring back at me, questions about narratives and the role of words in our movements rush to my mind. What right do I have to put thoughts on paper for others to read, when they’re born out of collective experiences? How do I speak of my own journey without saying what isn’t mine to say? How do I use the access and avenues that I was granted in responsible ways? When people’s stories have been stolen, silenced, and re-appropriated as a tool of domination, how do I not perpetuate those same wrongs with the access that I myself have? How do I share what my heart longs to express, while also cracking open spaces for others to step into in ways that are not hurtful, blind or tokenizing? How do I continue down my own path, while honoring that many don’t have access to their own roots and histories as a result of colonization and the kidnapping and enslavement of their people?

    to the poet who inspired me to write in my own way and spend more time acknowledging those who made me who I am.

    In an age of egos, individualism and cultural appropriation, the work of reclaiming and shifting narratives is a complex one. We should grow and learn from each other, but also be cautious not to appropriate what isn’t ours to take. This question hits home for me, since much of my organizing is with other migrants and other people of color, yes, but for many reasons not among “my own” people. Over the years, I have been generously welcomed into homes and spaces that are not mine, fed delicious foods that were once completely unknown to me, invited into ceremonies that I have no ancestral relation to and hosted in lands that none of my people are native to. These moments have been healing and nourishing. They have acted as vessels into the exploration of my own history and age-old truths. They have felt home-like in many ways. And yet, this access comes with a responsibility in how I honor the gifts and cultures that I’m introduced to, in how I walk into and through spaces that are not mine.

    … to the hermano who starts every gathering with a circle and a prayer, inviting us into the work in gentle ways.

    As you may notice in these words, I often find myself with more questions than answers. This is what the Zapatistas call caminando preguntando — walking forward while asking questions.

    Since their uprising in 1994, the Zapatistas, the master storytellers of Chiapas, Mexico, succeeded in making visible realities that have been made invisible since European settlers first set foot on their lands and marked the beginnings of what became known as “Latin American history.” From the movement’s early days, the Zapatistas appointed a mestizo, a person of mixed Spanish-indigenous blood, as their spokesperson, knowing that the world would be more likely to hear him over other voices because of the access and credibility that his identity gave him. It was a strategic decision. But it was only a means to an end. So, when the time came, true to their poetic form, they unveiled what was to be Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos’ last public appearance. Just like that, their spokesperson of 20 years, the man behind the mask whose eyes have now become famous the world over, was killed off. With his metaphorical death, they revealed all of the storytellers that had made up Marcos’ character. And the space was freed up for indigenous Subcomandante Moises to step into. In this act, the Zapatistas showed that it had never been about one emblematic figure. They had waited 20 years for the world to be ready, all the while radically shifting assumptions and reappropriating their own narrative. To me, they are one of the best living examples of slow, responsible and humble resistance.

    to the young sister seeking her voice in her own ways, who refuses to go to college and pushes me to live outside of (conventional) time.

    The more I explore what intersectional organizing means, beyond the buzz word that many of us have come to throw around, the more I realize that finding my voice, relearning and telling my stories, reclaiming confidence in my people and the color of my skin is a reflection of a much larger struggle.

    It is a struggle for collective reclaiming, healing and re-imagining. It is a space that prioritizes those seeking their own voice through writing workshops, storytelling circles, poetry readings and open mics. Hopefully, it is also a genuine commitment to invest time in those who’ve been historically silenced, to set aside personal agendas for recognition and to make resources and opportunities available to those who need them most. In its truest form, it honors the end goal of collective expression, through practices of humility and listening, of breaking through norms of what is “acceptable” storytelling, and of getting out of the way when the times call for it. The path is one of perpetual questions that shape it, one that lives in the flow of people’s stories — through their art, poetry, film, music, the written or spoken word, or whatever their means of expression may be.

    to the homegirl who does the important work outside of meetings, who uses her access to give space to those whose voices are constantly replaced by those of academics studying them.

    As we unlearn imperialist myths and reconnect with the histories and traditional knowledge that have been made invisible and systematically targeted, we also gain a voice for the future. As we shift the stories we tell ourselves, we can move ahead with our heads held high, armed with anecdotes that restore confidence both in ourselves and in the communities that birthed us. This is a crucial step as we speak of our experiences, moving forward with awakened imagination and faith that another world is indeed possible — one that can be just and fulfilling for all peoples.

    to my grandmother, who holds all of the secrets and nourishes my heart no matter how far I’ve strayed. To my beloved ukhti, my blood sister, whose unconditional love keeps me honest. And to all who are too many to name: deep bows of gratitude for making this moment of expression a reality.

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