Who am I?
First, I am a child of God—above all else, that is where I seek to center my being.
For the rest: to be something is a kind of solid ground, a kind of epistemological certainty, that is deeply complicated for colonized subjects, even those, like me, born in the metropole, and born of mixed ethnicity further complicates the kinds of identificatory fixity that many take for granted. In a very real way, I could say that I wrote an entire dissertation just trying to figure out my ethnic location.
The simple facts—born in Brooklyn, NY in 1976, raised in the city during the school year and with summers and some weekends in my mother’s childhood home in the Mid- Hudson Valley—barely scratch the surface. My story starts well before my birth, and my own understanding of it grows all the time.
Soon after moving to New York from a small hill town in Puerto Rico, and in the face of the assimilationist pressures of the mid-Twentieth Century, my grandmother, a single mother, recognized her limitations as an uncontrolled alcoholic and turned the raising of her only remaining child over to a convent school. Thus, my young, brown, left-handed, monolingual Spanish-speaking father José, eventually graduated from high school, no less brown—though decidedly right-handed—a monolingual English speaker named Joe. Eventually, he would claw back his language, and some sense of cultural identity, but not in time to pass it on.
My mother is white. My father arrived with his mother, alone in New York around 1950; my mother’s 12X Dutch great-grandfather arrived with his large family into New Amsterdam around 1650. In the intervening 350 years, that original Dutch stock acquired quite a few admixtures, as one group after another entered the Mid-Hudson Valley. Because my father was home quite little, it was my mother’s culture—language, cuisine, emotional landscape—that was ascendant in my childhood home.
The ambivalent trauma that my father experienced: the theft of his culture and language on the one hand, and the gift of rescue from his abusive mother and the love lavished upon him by the sisters of Mt. St. Joseph, Newburgh, NY are deeply constitutive of who I have become. I can now say without shame or prevarication that I am Puerto Rican, albeit of unusual (though not nearly as unusual as I once thought!) experience. I fought my way into the Spanish language. I studied and practiced my way into Puerto Rican cooking. I have grappled every step of the way not to dissolve into a whiteness which, because of my mother’s family, is comforting and familiar, but which, as American society so often reminds me, fundamentally does not value my existence.
By contrast, a lot of the other axes along which people organize themselves have unfolded with remarkably little trauma and complexity. I came out as a lesbian at fifteen, and as bisexual the following year, into a supportive school environment—I was the fourth president of the tied-for-first Gay/Straight Alliance in the country beginning in 1992—and into reasonably supportive home environments: neither parent was thrilled, but I experienced no violence or rejection. Over time, my gender presentation shifted and evolved into my present butch identification. This gender emerged while I was in graduate school among people theorizing gender rigorously, and it was both a socially and intellectually congenial place to revise my presentation. Unless I am under threat of erasure or violence, my gender is a very comfortable place for me.
The vitriol of my parents’ separation (begun in 1985 and not complete as divorce until 2018!) led me to seek escape into boarding school, Phillips Academy. A year at Vassar, finishing undergraduate studies at NYU, and I returned to Massachusetts to earn a Masters and a PhD in English Literature from Tufts in 2010. The intervening 10 years have been punctuated by great love, and equally great loss and having lost a life partner and an ex-husband and best friend in the space of three years: bereaved is a huge part of my identity.
Though I grew up mainly in Brooklyn, in the Mid-Hudson Valley, I was church-raised in the Presbyterian church of my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. It did me little harm, but also fed my soul little. The Presbyterian church camp of my high school summers was where I learned to love and feel God’s presence, and I turned my eye towards the ministry after college. In college, I encountered the Episcopal Church and fell in love with liturgy. I began to study Christianity and was stymied by my investigations. As humorous as it may sound in retrospect, I got stuck on the filioque controversy, and could not see the Western Church’s side of things. After being dismissed by several clergy members and professors as wasting time with inconsequential matters, I left. I felt that if I couldn’t honestly and earnestly say all of the Nicene Creed, I didn’t belong there. I heard what Jesus said about hypocrisy, and thought leaving was, in fact, the ethical thing to do. I mourn for what I denied myself. Twenty years basically unchurched followed.
In the freshness of my grief following my partner’s death, a friend introduced me to the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, I fell in love with their liturgy and thus with liturgy itself afresh, and everything started to change. I found St. Peter’s, where I had previously volunteered at CommonCare, and also went to to spend a year living with the SSJE brothers as a resident while I worked to discern where God was pointing me. As the year concluded, I applied to and was accepted at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and this first year of my MDiv education and has strengthened my sense of being called to be of service to God’s people.