Qui - October 17th, 2019
Nancy: So, who am I here cross from? Can you tell everyone your name and where you’re from and what brought you and your family to North America Qui: My name is Qui Alexander. I am originally from Buffalo, New York, where my grandmother came as a young person trying to find a factory job work after working on a farm basically her whole life. My family’s from Puerto Rico, specifically Arecibo. And I think it was very much coming to the U.S. state-side was very much about economic opportunity. My grandmother only has a 3rd grade education. And so she was trying to figure out how to support her family, and also be working actively because she was working on a farm before that. And so my mother was born in Buffalo, and my grandmother was pregnant with [her] before she came here. So [my mother] was born in the [United] States, but to a person who is pretty new to the U.S. Nancy: And have you returned back home? Qui: I’ve been home once when I was 15 years old, which is the first time that I went to the island. And it’s really complicated I think because Puerto Ricans are granted U.S citizenship. That kind of complicates the narrative of why do people go home. And there’s, you know, not a restriction of movement in regards to, you know, “I don’t need to have paperwork or a visa to go or anything like that.” But then also like, it makes it complicated because so many people have left the island, especially now after Maria, and after all the economic opportunism that’s been happening on the island that there are more Puerto Ricans on the mainland that they’re on the island now. And so home has always been a really complicated thing. I also didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. So part of that was, I think, not necessarily. I mean, I have friends whose parents deliberately said that they didn’t want to teach their kids Spanish so that they wouldn’t have accents. And that wasn’t necessarily my mom’s story, but she didn’t want to send me a bilingual school because she didn’t think the education was good enough. And so she really, really was like really intense about my education and wanted me to go to school and do the things she didn’t get to do. So because of that, she sent me to a magnet school instead of the bilingual school. And then I just like lost the Spanish that I had because it was so focused on English only. That also had made it complicated about going home because lots of people speak English on the island, but there’s still this barrier in communication and my grandmother doesn’t really speak English very well. So that’s always been kind of barrier to us communicating more.
"I MEAN, I HAVE FRIENDS WHOSE PARENTS DELIBERATELY SAID THAT THEY DIDN'T WANT TO TEACH THEIR KIDS SPANISH SO THAT THEY WOOUND'T HAVE ACCENTS."
"IT MAKES IT COMPLICATED BECAUSE SO MANY PEOPLE HAVE LEFT THE ISLAND, ESPECIALLY NOW AFTER MARIA, AND AFTER ALL THE ECONOMIC OPPORTUNISM THAT'S BEEN HAPPENING ON THE ISLAND THAT THERE ARE MORE PEURTO RICANS ON THE MAINLAND THAT THEY'RE ON THE ISLAND NOW."
Nancy: Yeah, like, my dad is from Uganda, and he speaks English fluently, but the thing about translating languages you lose a lot of the emotional nuance behind it. Like, if you can’t communicate emotionally with someone, more than likely you won’t be able to get to really know who they are.
Qui: Absolutely. Yeah, for sure. Like, feeling like there’s lots of things that I thought about, especially as I got older about, like, what does it actually mean to be Puerto Rican? And like, you know, some people say it’s the language or even just like what it means to be like Latinx in general. I think people are like, ‘Is it the language, is it food, is it ethnicity?’ is there all these different things? So, I think also race makes it complicated because my dad is African-American, but I didn’t grow up with him and my mom’s side of the family are white Puerto Ricans. So, I was the darkest person in my family and I’m not particularly dark. Yeah, exactly. I know. It’s funny.
Nancy: Let the record show I am definitely giving hard side eye right now.
Qu: I know, like I am high yellow. Okay! High yellow. For real, my muffin is browner than my skin. And yet, I was definitely marked visibly the darkest person of my family. And my hair texture and things like that just made me completely different from my family. So I always knew I was Black in that regard. And it was interesting too, because then, my mother had grew up with the other family, my mother had dated this guy, this other Puerto Rican guy for about 10 years. And I was kind of raised with his family and his family is so interesting to me, because there’s 10 siblings, and one of the grandparents was Black and one of the grandparents were white. They’re both Puerto Rican, but half of the kids are like Black and half of the kids are white, but like nobody talks about their identity in those terms. Like, none of them would ever say that they were Black, even though they’re Black, you know. I grew up with other dark skinned Puerto Ricans and more Afro Latinos, but people never call themselves Black. And part of that, I think, was the narrative of when Puerto Ricans came here [to the United States].
They ended up in communities alongside Black folks, and I think it was the first way that Puerto Ricans were pitted against Black people. I think that’s something, that anti-Blackness is huge in different Latin cultures all over the globe. And so, I think there was a lot of ways that it was both. My grandmother flipped out when she found out that my mother was pregnant by a Black man. There are all these ways that my mother experienced racialization that was really different than the way I experienced racialization. Because she was like, “Well, you know, the white kids didn’t like me because I was Puerto Rican, but the Black kids didn’t like because I was Puerto Rican, too.“ So, then it just left me in this place where “What was I supposed to do? Who was I supposed to hang out with?” So, then when [my mother and grandmother] ended up hanging out with more Black folks, it was looked down upon. And there were definitely words in Spanish that people use to refer to Black people that are not slurs, but are also not good words. See, you know, that was something that was also ever present. Was this kind of like, model citizenship. Like, “Okay, we have citizenship now.” And so like you are American, and you can go to school with white people and do everything you gotta do.
So that was just like really interesting to think about: how that set the tone about why people came here, and how it was manifested through me. And then like, the lack of really learning about anything that had to do with Puerto Rico, as a kid, I never learned anything in school. And because there was a language barrier with my grandmother, I didn’t really learn about a lot about her life, a lot of the things that I learned were like, secondhand through my mom. And then, my mom also has her own complications with my grandmother. My mother has her own trauma with her mother. And so we have a lack of being able to communicate the things I know about my grandmother through my Mothers lens. I think that’s another way that language impacts the ability for me, as an adult, to make authentic relationships with people on my Puerto Rican side of the family; to find out about our history and our culture and our family lineage. Because, just the trauma of, you know, my mom was the only girl in her family and she’s got 3 brothers. And so there’s these very gendered expectations about how she was supposed to like care for the family. My grandmother was always working, and working in factories. My mother got these kind of like Puerto Rican ideals that she really resisted around because they were so gendered and it was like you are responsible for taking care of these kids that are not yours. They’re your siblings. And then you know, if they did something stupid, she would get punished for it. You know, it’s kind of interesting, because she was really upset that I left for college. But, I had been preparing for college since I was 12. But she was like, but you know, “Why can’t you go to college here?” So it was an interesting kind of play on how their kind of desires for being here and making it work. And my mother, like barely ever went back to the island either. And part of that was like, “What is there? You know.”
"I THINK THAT'S ANOTHER WAY THAT LANGUAGE IMPACTS THE ABILITY FOR ME, AS AN ADULT, TO MAKE AUTHENTIC RELATIONSHIP WITH PEOPLE ON MY PEURTO RICAN SIDE OF THE FAMILY; TO FIND OUT ABOUT OUR HISTORY AND OUR CULTURE AND OUR FAMILY LINEAGE."
Nancy: Thats a good transition into my next question. So, let’s talk a little bit about borders and how they can change the definition of home. Can you describe what a world without borders would look like for a person like you? If you want to describe who you are, to give context to what that world looks like, feel free because that also transitions into the next question.
Qui: Yeah, so I identify as a Queer person, as a Trans person, as a Non Binary Trans person. And that has been when I think of borders, I am not only thinking about countries and kind of, like, physical borders, I’m just thinking about the borders around what a good Puerto Rican looks like. And part of that was really gendered. I was supposed to grow up to, you know, cook the food in my house and take care of my husband. When I came out as Queer, that really like, smashed that ideal for my mom. And then when I came out as Trans it complicated even more, because my mom was like, “I just got over you being gay, you hate men, why would you want to be one?”And I was like, touché, you know? So it was really, I feel like even when I think about borders about what the model citizen is supposed to be, I think is caught up in the notion of borders for me, right? And so like, part of it is feeling like because of the way citizenship works, like I can go to Puerto Rico like there’s no hang ups. Like, if I was undocumented and I lived here, and I couldn’t leave the Continental U.S.. But I do think that there’s these economic things that come to play, right? Because my family that’s still there live in the fucking middle of nowhere, you know, going to the fucking campo in Puerto Rico. I’ve never lived in a rural area, that’s not my existence. We lived a very urban life here in the [United] States. So, going back would be like, “What would I be going for?” Like, I don’t have relationships with these people. I don’t speak the language. And so the first time I did go to the island, my mom was going to a conference and was like, “Do you want to come with me to this thing?” And I was like, cool. So we stayed in a hotel in San Juan, right?
"WHEN I THINK OF BORDERS, I AM NOT ONLY THINKING ABOUT COUNTRIES AND KIND OF, LIKE, PHYSICAL BORDERS, I'M JUST THINKING ABOUT BORDERS AROUND WHAT A GOOD PUERTO RICAN LOOK LIKE."
Nancy: So, you were staying in a rural area?
Qui: Exactly where I’m staying and we don’t have family who lives in San Juan. So it’s not like we’re just going to a different city to visit family in a different city. It was never like that. So there’s a rural/urban border that I think about that shows up around who gets to have access to what. And so like an ideal world, I think about [how] I would have loved to be able to learn my language alongside like, I grew up speaking just Spanish. And then my mom tells these stories about going to daycare and not being fed, and like having an accident because I had said I had to go to the bathroom in Spanish and nobody knew what I had to say. And [things like] being hungry, and people didn’t know and things like that. And so like, ideally, I would have learned Spanish alongside of learning English and being able to travel back and forth. And just talk and build relationships with people. So I think that’s a big thing.
"THERE'S A RURAL/URBAN BORDER THAT I THINK ABOUT SHOWS UP AROUND WHO GETS TO HAVE ACCESS TO WHAT."
Qui: And yeah, I think also too, there is this double edged sword of silence around Queerness that I think creates a barrier and a border for me to be able to access my family, because there’s been this kind of silencing of my identity, like we just don’t talk about it. And my grandmother would like, touch my beard and be like, “What is this for?” And you know, she just like, “what is this,” she just didn’t because we did have a language barrier. I couldn’t describe what was happening, like, this is what it means for me to be Trans. This is what it means for me to be Queer. Like there’s no translation. So it’s just like, “We don’t talk about it.” And I’m just like that person who doesn’t really come home because of that. So that’s also an interesting kind of ordeal. And I also think, too, like, I noticed that when I was growing up all the Latinos in my community were either mostly all Puerto Rican, a couple of Dominicans, but mostly Puerto Ricans. Like, I didn’t meet somebody who was Mexican until I went to college. So there’s also this kind of like, larger narrative around immigration, particularly around Latino folks that is very Mexican-centric, that is very South American-centric, and I think Puerto Ricans get left out of that conversation, because we’re technically American citizens.
"THERE IS THES DOUBLE EDGED SWOARD OF SILENCE AROUND QUEERNESS THAT I THINK CREATES A BARRIER AND A BORDER FOR ME TO BE ABLE TO ACCESS MY FAMILY, BECAUSE THERE'S BEEN THIS KIND OF SILENCING MY IDENTITY, LIKE WE JUST DON'T TALK ABOUT IT."
"THERE'S NO TRANSITION. WE JUST DON'T TALK ABOUT IT."
Qui: But I think there’s a nuance around how Puerto Ricans have always been treated as second class citizens, whether they actually had documentation or not. And so while people are not like ICE is not necessarily something that I have to think about, there are all these ways that I have been positioned as other for being Puerto Rican. I mean, to the point where like, even people just calling me Mexican, you know, or things like that. And it’s also really complicated because when I started my transition, and I started passing more as male, basically my Blackness started to be read more. Like, I was only read as a Latina woman when I was younger, but then as my masculinity started to kind of take center stage, I was only read as Black and so there’s like this racialization around my gender to that when I think about borders and thinking about the ways that I’m always in between, I think about [Gloria] Anzaldua talking about Borderlands a lot because it is kind of like you got one foot on the side and you’re never fully one thing or another. People would tell me that being Queer is like a white people thing. Or, you know, [ask] why would I want to be Black creating borders around me about like, you can’t go here. So for me, it’s not just about being able to travel to my homeland. It’s about being able to be who I am. And being seen as fully who I am and not having to like compartmentalize myself, to be able to connect with people that are parts of various different parts of my identity and communities.
"SO FOR ME, IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT BEING ABLE TO TRAVEL TO MY HOMELAND. IT'S ABOUT BEING ABLE TO BE WHO I AM. AND BEING SEEN AS FULLY WHO I AM AND NOT HAVING TO LIKE COMPARTMENTALIZE MYSELF, TO BE ABEL TO CONNECT WITH PEOPLE THAT ARE PARTS OF VARIOUS DIFFERENT PARTS OF MY IDENTITY AND COMMUNITIES."
Nancy: Thank you. That was amazing. I love the way you describe borders. So I want to talk about what brings people away from home. You know, the economic opportunity and the attraction to America is one thing, but when you’re pushed out because of economic devastation, climate change, war and conflict, so on so forth, but driven by these countries that you’re going to, etc. Talking about that and what has kept you here?
Qui: Yeah, for sure. So, I think the thing that’s really interesting about Puerto Rico is that it is still an active colony. And I’m glad that more and more people are using that language specifically to describe it. Because, you know, Puerto Ricans don’t actually have any political power inside the U.S. machine, right? Like, we can’t vote for president. We have government that’s essentially appointed from the United States government. And it’s not serving people. And there’s been this big talk about, because we’re a colony, like, oh, should we continue? You know, we’re technically what they call a Commonwealth, right? And so, there’s this conversation about like, should Puerto Rico be independent? Should Puerto Rico be a state? Should Puerto Rico just keep its status as a Commonwealth and the Commonwealth status really only benefits the United States War Machine, right. And so, having an army base on the island and doing experiments in that regard around, you know, military equipment, things like that. In the 60s, they did all these birth control experiments on Puerto Rican women that were testing out these birth controls. Like, they were trying to offer to women in the United States and tested on all these Puerto Rican women, often without consent. And there’s like a whole generation of folks with birth defects and issues from that [experience].
There’s all these things that have been done to the Puerto Rican people that a lot of people don’t know about. And I think now, also the climate change conversation is really big in Puerto Rico, particularly post [Hurricane] Maria, where the island is really still experiencing the consequences of these hurricanes and lack of infrastructure, right? But I think that there’s something about, I think liberation doesn’t come easily, you know, and I think the Puerto Rican people are willing at this point to do what they need to do to save their land and their home.
And so, that’s been something that’s really, really interesting about my political analysis and development around what Puerto Rico is in relation to the United States. We have to think about colonialism actively and how it is still a place that operates like a colony. You know, Americans like coming in and buying land and just making a profit off of the way that people live. So that’s been a big thing. And since I was younger, I definitely am more in favor of independence for sure. And I think we’ve seen that Puerto Ricans are wanting that, particularly after a bunch of the protest recently, and I forget what the dude’s name because everybody was like “fuck him.”
Nancy: The president, right?
Qui: No, he was like, the governor or something. So they’re just like, he needs to go. There’s all this corruption. Puerto Ricans are in the streets for days, you know? But then [Puerto Rico’s government] want to replace him with somebody else who’s in that same circle, right? And so, it was also really interesting for me, because when that was happening, there was also protests happening in Hawaii. I think about [how] they wanted to build this giant telescope on this sacred land in Hawaii. And there were also all these protests happening at the same time in the streets of Hawaii and others, and indigenous Hawaiians, and in Puerto Rico at the same time, and I thought that was really, really telling. I went to Hawaii for the first time last year and I learned so much just recognizing the ways that, for indigenous Hawaiians, and Native Hawaiians, they feel like they’re a colony. You know, they’re a state, but like, the queen of Hawaii never, never surrendered her kingdom, right?
So I don’t know if it’s better to have freedom of movement amongst nations when [nations are] constantly extracting the resources, and allowing it. It’s actually very difficult to live on the island still, which is why more people live on the state-side than an island. And we have a couple pockets like New York, Chicago are huge, big pockets, but like, literally anywhere on the East Coast, you’re gonna find some Puerto Rican. And coming to the Midwest has been a big deal for me, because I haven’t had a Puerto Rican community the way that I did on the East Coast. I can’t get Puerto Rican food here. The closest place I have to go is to Chicago. There’s a couple Cuban places here. And while they’re similar and a similar Island, I think every Caribbean island loves a fucking plantain, you know. There are Puerto Ricans in Minnesota, don’t get it twisted, but it’s a very small community. And I haven’t met very much Queer people who are Puerto Rican.
So all that to say that that has really made me think about this conversation about immigration and borders from a really different angle. Because I’ve been thinking about how that shows up. And, you know, I don’t want what happened to Hawaii happen to Puerto Rico in that regard of like, becoming a state and indigenous Hawaiians are really, really struggling to be able to get their needs met, being able to get decent education, things like that. And I think Puerto Rico is experiencing that because they closed a lot of schools you know, they’re just like selling schools to private investors, have turned them into condos and shit, you know, so it makes me think about that from a really different angle.
Nancy: So I was gonna ask you what essentially keeps us away from home? I mean, what prevents people from being safe in the world? What prevents people from being home with their families or living fulfilled lives back home?
Qui: Yeah, for sure. Lots of big, big things here. One thing, home for me, as a Queer person, [has] been something that I’ve really, really struggled with. Because I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, in a Puerto Rican community on the West Side of Buffalo. 716. I didn’t know any Queer Puerto Rican people growing up. I remember my uncle was driving me to a game — I played sports and the local Pride Parade used to have a thing like right in front of my high school. There’s a little parklet that happened. And he was like, “What’s that like, blah blah blah.” And I’m just like, I think it’s a gay pride parade. And he was like, Oh, you know, said something stupid homophobic shit. I was just kind of like, well, I have friends that are gay and that’s that’s their business and they do what they want to do. It has nothing to do with me. Side eye. So, later that night when we were driving home, I asked my mom, I said, “Mom, do you have a problem with gay people?” Because my uncle just said these things and she was like, “Not I don’t have a problem with gay people” and like, named some people in her life growing up that were Queer and blah blah blah. She’s like, “yeah, you know, I never had a problem. I mean, I wouldn’t want you to be gay.”
Nancy: How’d that make you feel?
Qui: Oh man. It was just very, you know, like all the color left in my face. I was just like, okay. It was very clear that I was taught I should not bring this up to you, right. And so, and when I finally did end up coming out to my mom, which was like the summer before my first semester in college before I left for college, my mom confronted me about being gay because someone saw me hold my girlfriend at the time’s hand walking down the street and called my mom. That’s the kind of small last place I’m from. And so it’s fascinating too, because Buffalo is the second largest city in New York State. But it’s got 250,000 people. It’s small, but it is very urban. But anyways, someone called my mom like, “Qui is out here holding hands with this girl.” My mom was like, “What the fuck are you doing?” And I like totally used my friend and like threw my friend under the bus to be like, “Well, you know, this person who you think is really great, they’re gay.” To my mom was like, “God, do you have to do everything she does, like she jumped off a bridge would you jump too?” You know, like that kind of stuff.
"HOME IS LIKE A FEELING AND EXPERIENCE OF THE PEOPLE THAT I CHOOSE TO MAKE FAMILY WITH AND CHOSEN FAMLY HAS BEEN A BIG PART OF THAT."
"SO THAT HAD ALWAYS KIND OF SET THE TONE OF WHAT HOME MEANT THAT I ALSO HAD TO FIT INTO THESE PARTICULAR IDEALS ABOUT WHAT IT MEANT TO BE A WOMAN WHAT IT MEANT TO BE A GOOD WIFE."
Qui: And I was just like, Whoa. So for me, home had suddenly become this hostile place and I had always been hostile because my mom had been in abusive relationships with men and she was a teenage mom when she had me. So I had been around these men who were super patriarchal, super abusive and so all that to say to say that kind of set the tone of model citizenship, what does it mean for us to be here? Like [immigrants are] supposed to be focusing on when you get a job and you get married and you do all these things that are part of the American dream, right? So why would we want to go back to Puerto Rico because there’s nothing there. There’s no opportunity there, we can’t get jobs there. San Juan was seen as this Metropolitan that other places on the island weren’t. So if you couldn’t make it there, that’s why there was more opportunities in the United States, it is so much bigger. So my grandmother, when she first came to the states moved to New York City, and then eventually made her way to Buffalo because there was lots of factory work, she didn’t need to have any type of education or anything to get there. And she could actually get a house, she could actually like, get these things that like she couldn’t do in New York.
"IT'S JUST PARADISE FOR THESE WHITE FOLKS, BUT FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE FROM THERE, IT'S ONLY A STRUGGLE."
Qui: And so that had always kind of set the tone of what home meant that I also had to fit into these particular ideals about what it meant to be a woman what it meant to be a good wife. And so home has always been precarious for me for that reason, because that’s not who I am. And so for me, I’ve really had to do a lot of [self reflection on] what is home as my culture? Home is like a feeling and experience of the people that I choose to make family with and chosen family has been a big part of that. I often think of Philadelphia as my home because that’s the place where I really grew into myself. I spent 10 years there, 15 if you include college and everything, and I have my chosen family there. So I think about that. And then I think now there’s always been this rhetoric of people are poor in Puerto Rico, and people are struggling and people can’t afford food and people can’t. You know, they’re farmers. I didn’t know anything about farming or anything like that. And so it was always this narrative that we’re so much better off here, because we are here, and nobody wants to go back to the island because this is like a move up. And, I think then the like colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico feeds that narrative. And then [home] becomes this place where rich people go to vacation. It’s just paradise for these white folks, but for people who are from there, it’s only like a struggle.
So that kind of had always prevented me from going home. Then there was like all these like economic things that came up and I actually had an opportunity to go to Puerto Rico last year, and I didn’t end up working out with funds and everything, but there’s this moment where I was very, very nervous about [it], like, “Can I go back there?” Like, “Can I try to learn Spanish? If I just spend a month there, will that like, help me enough?” I can generally understand Spanish pretty well. Puerto Ricans talk ridiculously fast. So that’s also another thing. We skip letters and shit. So, I was like, “oh, maybe I just need to be in it and you know, blah, blah, blah.” And I realized that I just had so much fear about being inauthentic. People telling me, “You’re not Puerto Rican because you’re from the States. You’re American.” And then constantly told that I’m not American because I have a racialized body, you know? And then I had the opportunity to connect with some Queer people on the island.
And that was really exciting because it was like, “Okay, cool. I don’t have to fake that either. I could, meet these people and be genuine in that regard.” But I did always feel like I didn’t really remember when I met other Queer Puerto Ricans for the first time. I was in college, I was probably like 19 or something. And just like, like, Whoa, like, when I first came out, I was convinced that I was going to have to be with a white person. All the Black people I knew, Black and Brown people, the very few people that I knew who were Queer, all had white partners. I just [assumed] part of being gay is that you date white people. And so that has been a narrative that has really shaped [me] as I got older, just realizing all the ways that there’s this toxic narrative that has then created anxiety for me where I stopped myself from pursuing opportunities to go there because of my own anxiety and imposter syndrome around that. So, that’s what I think about when I think about home.
Nancy: Well, I’m gonna pivot to something a little more happy.
Qui: Okay, great.
Nancy: What gives you joy?
Qui: What gives me joy? This muffin. What gives me joy. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Because you know, I’m in grad school. So I’m reading all these fru-fru things about my identities and I’ve been thinking a lot about them, particularly as a Trans person. So, I just read this article that was about a Queer reading and understanding of the Middle Passage. You know, there are all these ways that history tells us that we can’t believe these accounts unless we can prove them to be real. And because so much of our stories had been taken from us through the Middle Passage, there’s now a lot of Black scholars doing these kind of like speculative studies of speculating what it might have been like, or, any type of Queer intimacies that might have existed between people who had this experience where they were put on a boat together.
The thing that stuck out to me in that article was this current manifestation for me where I’m [understanding] that’s why my relationship with other Black and Brown Trans people and Queer people is so sacred to me and feel so different from my relationships with other people. Because there’s all this potential [of] what could have been in any of our interactions. And so when I think about what brings me joy, I think about spending time with other Black and Brown, Queer and Trans people, where we get to just celebrate ourselves, we get to be present with each other. We eat together, we get to dance together, we get to laugh together, we get to do the things that were often taken from us. And, and that we can think together and be productive together without having to work all the time. You know. And so that’s something that brings me a lot of joy. And I do think about that, you know, my, my partner is also Puerto Rican [and] is also Trans.
"WHAT BRINGS ME JOY, I THINK ABOUT SPENDING TIME WITH OTHER BLACK AND BROWN, QUEER AND TRANS PEOPLE, WHERE WE GET TO JUST CELEBRATE OURSELVES, WE GET TO BE PRESENT WITH EACH OTHER. WE EAT TOGETHER, WER GET TO DANCE TOGETHER, WE GET TO LAUGH TOGETHER, WE GET TO DO THE THINGS THAT WERE OFTEN TAKEN FROM US."
Qui: And so that was something that was really huge for me. I had never met somebody else who had my experience, you know. Both of our moms are Puerto Rican, both of our dads are Black. We grew up in post-industrial towns. We went to boogie liberal arts schools, he went to the island for the first time last year. You know, there were similar narratives growing up, like, why would you go there, you don’t need to go there or like, or now, like going there is about like, you have to have the money to afford to go there. You know. So just think about the kinship that we have about this shared culture. Like drinking [and eating] the same food or using the same slang or just like these feelings that happen to that brings me such deep deep joy because I don’t find that. I’m really good at people-ling; I like people, I like connecting with people, but there’s something about that shared experience that just fills my whole body and makes me be like yes, I love everything about it.
Nancy: You are doing all the work [of answering my questions before me asking them!]. How do you define community? You kinda just started talking about it.
Qui: Yeah, I mean you know for me you know that imposter thing that I talked about right was community for me is when I can show up who I am and not have to feel any of that am I good enough? Am I Puerto Rican enough? Am I Queer enough? Am I Trans enough all those things. So community is about seeing myself reflected in other people who share my commitments to joy, my political commitments, my dreams, things like that. And people who show up for each other, and I really believe in interdependence. So, for me, my community, are the people that, if I’m sick in bed, I can call somebody and they will bring me some soup, right? Or they’re gonna make sure I’m doing okay or call to check on me or want to hear about the weird nerdy shit I’m learning about in school or those things like that are just like, caring for my well being and rooting for me and wanting me to do well, that feels like community to me. People who are invested in my success or whatever that looks like for me, that’s what community is for me.
Nancy: And why do you think people need community?
Qui: I think particularly for people who are of diasporic lineage, community is so important. Because I do think so many of [Queer and Trans people] struggle with where home is. I found a way to come home to myself. And like, you know, be able to [affirm] who I am and this is what I care about. These are the things that make me happy and inspire me. And that feels like home to me, like a place where I can be my full self, I can drop my shoulders down a little bit. And it’s really interesting to me because when I moved to Minneapolis, I remember going back to Philadelphia for the first time and literally feeling my body go “Wow, I feel a little closer to the ground. I feel a little bit more in my skin. I feel like I just like I know how to interact with the bodies that I’m walking past on the street. Is this what being home feels like?“
That’s because when I was in Philadelphia, Buffalo was home, you know, but I never went there and every time I would go back there, I feel like I’d be confronted with a reality of mine that I don’t live anymore. You know, people still fuck up my pronouns. People still, you know, call me by my old name or like, I would go and people would reintroduce themselves to me because they didn’t think they knew who I was, or they [not recognize me at all] and so to be just like, not seen in so many different ways. And then also being a Trans person who’s often cis-passing, [it was hard] being invisiblized by even my own community in that regard. So for me coming home to myself was like being able to see myself reflected in other people, for them to be able to [feel like] I don’t have to pretend to be with you. I think it’s so important, that’s why people need community, to just inspire them and lift them up and hold them accountable and know that we all make mistakes. And so [community is] going to love you and care for you through that. So you can change and letting yourself just be comfortable with that. And I think that’s why people need community. I think it’s especially why Black and Brown Queer Trans people need community.
Nancy: And I think we already talked about this, but I just want to make just make it more explicit. How do you define Queer? And I intentionally ask this at the end because I feel that your identity is more expansive than just what the western notions of Queer might classify you as.
Qui: Yeah, I really like that. I think for me being Queer is so complicated. I’m sweating a little bit. For me, it’s about this norm of what the ideal citizen is supposed to be. You’re straight, you’re white, you’re cis, you’re able-bodied, you get married and have two kids, you own a home, you have a good job — all these sorts of things. Being Queer is intentionally saying, 'No. My life and my purpose on this Earth is bigger than that’. It’s bigger than just being part of a capitalist machine. Because those are all capitalist values, right? Of being a model citizen to help the economy keep running. So for me, being Queer, is also not just about my sexuality, I think for me its very deeply embedded about my sexuality and my gender. And I think I learned a lot about my sexuality through my gender, and I learned a lot about my gender through my sexuality. And I think we live in a time where we believe gender and sexuality are different things, like, you have to separate them. And those things are actually deeply, deeply contextual. And so we actually have to be while they’re not the same thing, we actually have to hold them close to think about how they like are entangled, and how they like inform one another.
And I think the same thing about race where my Blackness absolutely informs my Queerness you know, and there’s these academics that argue that Blackness is inherently Queer. Which I agree with to some extent and also like, what does that mean for actual Queer bodies who are also Black? Right? So, for me, it’s about choosing to make decisions about how to live my life, how to present myself and also how I am in relationship to other people. How I choose to have relationships, how I choose to build family, have chosen family is huge part of my Queerness. I wouldn’t say a position, but I think for me it is driven by nuance. So I really liked that you were saying it’s usually like, Queer, we’re fitted in this “thing”. And then we give context to that and it’s just like, “No actually, like, my Queerness was probably and particularly my Transness was probably the last part of my identity that I really needed to solidify. And through that all they were entangled because part of that too is because I didn’t grow up with my Black family.
I actually wasn’t really in community, and in my neighborhood had Black folks in it, but I lived on the West Side of the city, which was mostly Puerto Rico folks, and 'ethnic’ white people so like Italians, things like that and really working class. So I think that I also discovered more about my Blackness when I got to college. I also had come out right before I left for college. These were new identities, being a Black Queer person. And I started meeting all these Black Queer people and being like, holy shit, right. And so for me, it was about the freedom of expression, people being authentic, and who they are and knowing that their desires that were constantly policed and told that they shouldn’t want those things are at the forefront of their lives. And that was just so inspiring to me. I remember meeting Ignacio Rivera when I was like 18, 19 years old. They’re Queer, a Black, Boricua poet and artist educator. They’re like an elder in my life who is also a gender fluid, Queer Trans person. And is a kinkster and does really amazing work. And I remember meeting them when I was like 19, and I literally had never met anybody like that. And it was the first time that I saw someone who was a Black Puerto Rican, someone who was visibly Queer, someone who was playing with their gender. I also met them before they started going by Ignacio and so I remember, they were a poet and they did college circuits. And I remember someone I went to college with was like, “Did you hear? Ignacio is now Ignacio.” And I just remember that they were like one of the first Trans people I had ever met.
And so it was this thing where I had never seen anybody being unapologetic and being like, I’m queer. I like to fuck. I like to do these things and my gender is fluid. I was like a possibility model. You know, like, I could do that too. And so, so much about Queerness for me, too, was about teaching and learning and that’s actually something I’m interested in exploring with my work and my scholarship: how do Queer people learn to be Queer? How do Trans people learn to be Trans? There’s all these unspoken ways about how we navigate staying alive. And that has been a big part of Queerness to me. It’s like, resilience and survival, particularly when it comes to Black and Brown folks, because you kind of get it from all sides, you know. And so, for me Queerness has been about that, that resilience and like, fuck you to what you say that I’m supposed to be and I’m supposed to live my life. And so and that, you know, is informed by my sexuality and my gender, but it’s definitely not reduced to that, you know?
Nancy: It’s an amplification. Clarifies it.
Qui: Absolutely. Absolutely. For sure, because for me, when I first started identifying as Trans, I had always I felt lucky. So it was a kind of a double edged sword. When I first started meeting Trans people. I was meeting Gender Queer people before the language really got popular. And then I ended up being in this support group for Trans men of color who are all Binary Trans men, were all straight. And were all like, this is how you are man. And I was just like, YIKES. And kind of being like, Oh, “I actually want my Transness to be about transcendence. I don’t want this to be about limiting. I want it to be like, I’m actually going bigger and beyond what you think my gender is and could be.” And that is inherently Queer to me, how I love and who I love is going to be bigger than the bounds of what you say I’m supposed to do. And so that has been incredibly freeing. And is also being incredibly challenging, but I wouldn’t have chose anything else… Did I make you emotional?
"I ACTUALLY WANT MY TRANSNESS TO BE ABOUT TRANSCENDENCE. I DON'T WANT THIS TO BE ABOUT LIMITING. I WANT TO BE LIKE, I'M ACTUALLY DOING BIGGER AND BEYOND WHAT YOU THINK MY GENDER IS AND COULD BE."
Nancy: No I feel so affirmed right now. Last question. This is more about policy. If you can address the most influential public figures and decision makers in the state, what would you say about improving the standards for people like yourself, particularly as it relates to, you know, the quality of life as an American citizen?
Qui: Okay, so this feels complicated because I don’t want to talk about policy. When we want to talk about how do we make a better quality of life for people, we’re like, “okay, policy,” right? But policy are just words. We also live in a time where we can see policies can easily be taken away, right? So I’m like, I don’t ever want to talk about policy. And growing up as a young organizer, one of my mentor teachers told me, “Listen, when you’re doing organizing, you’re changing hearts and minds.” Right? And like, that’s actually what this is about. And if you don’t actually get to, if you don’t change someone’s heart and mind, they can give a lot of lip service around policy and what this could be, but nothing is enacting past it. And makes me think about that James Baldwin, quote, I literally just shared this with my students this morning. It’s like “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted my oppression and denies me my humanity and right to exist.” And so, for me, I think something that makes think, Queer and Trans folks of color need to be humanized, need to show that our lives are important, and who we are just for who we are good enough and that we have a lot of things to offer. Our perspective is really different when you see the world in a way that is driven by nuance and driven by blurring binaries, you think about the world differently, right? Yeah, get to know Queer and Trans people. Break bread with Queer and Trans people. Love Queer and Trans people, you’ll see that the love you get back is something you probably never imagined could happen. I think the beautiful thing about Queer people is that we have these different type of intimacies that there’s this underbelly of desire under them, because we’ve been constantly told that we can’t have those things.
And so when we do get to express our love, it is just so embodied and so full, that if we had more people who are willing to actually be in real relationships with us, you would see that, you’d feel that, it would shift you. I was thinking about when I hear people say transphobic shit, the first thing that comes to my mind is like, Oh, you just don’t know any Trans people. You know, like, you don’t know anybody who has that impact. And that’s a real thing. I think Trans people are everywhere. We’re often hiding because it’s not safe to be out. And so I just ask for the people who are out here making laws and things like that, don’t make a law about a community that you actually don’t have experience with. And I think that goes for any type of civil rights legislation and things like that. It’s just all these white men making laws about people that they never interact with, or like making laws about women’s reproductive health. Like, you literally don’t know what it’s like to deal with any of those issues. And now you’re making policy on it. Right.
And so, I think, yeah, building authentic relationships with Queer people is really the way to go to seeing and hearing people’s stories, people’s efforts, the way they think about the world. I think its huge’s that it’s like the ideology and the logic behind it, right? I’ve done a lot of teaching and training about Trans issues. And when you first meet someone, especially the older they get, the harder it is. It’s just you’re literally exploding their mind to say that this could exist. Right? And so, if we don’t, and the farther you are, the more you resist it. That’s the thing that has to happen is actually like people breaking open to be like, Oh, this is actually way different way more than I thought it was. Then it’s okay to [admit] I’m was less informed and so I was wrong. You know, and I think people don’t people want to know. It’s been wild to watch these LGBT debates. These Tom Saul’s, just really like, you can see the ways that people are pandering, to decide this is the thing that I should do. And this is how I should say it. And this is what I should care about it. And these are the policies, but I want to know, can you actually talk to a Trans person? Like, can you actually build and connect with someone on like a human level besides talking about the buzzwords because you don’t know how those buzzwords actually impact my everyday life?
So getting to know the everyday lives of Trans people and the things they have to deal with. And I think about that a lot like, you know, I think I’ve gone through enough in my life where sometimes I can talk about really fucked up things in really nonchalant ways. Because it’s just reality, my experience, and that’s what I got to go through and if I got emotionally upset every time, I’d be a wreck. And how that does me a disservice and a lot of ways because it numbs out my own humanity and my own compassion for myself. So, really building, building what compassion really is. And I think that starts with self awareness and understanding. What threatens you about my existence? I work with teachers, what’s the best way to work with Queer students? But really, my focus is, what does the presence of Queer students bring up for you? What does it challenge for you and how are you then policing their behavior based on you’re uncomfortable with what this presents for you? So, my hope would be that people who really do the work to recognize, what the presence of people just being kicks up for them. And oftentimes when it comes to gender, people police themselves around gender so much that they end up taking that hate on Trans people because they had the audacity to be free. You know, and so I think that is a huge thing. It’s like, getting to know us and building authentic relationships with us and knowing what comes up for you when you see somebody being free, and know that you can do that too. You just have to be willing to be open.
Nancy: Anything else you want to share?
Qui: Thanks so much for inviting me this project. I’m really excited to see how it becomes and you know, go kiss a queer today and you know, and just shout out to all the homies and yeah, I’m really glad you’re doing this.