For a month now, I have been touring with my first memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, but all I can think about is a teenager I interviewed thirteen years ago. I was in a master's program at New York University, studying to become a journalist. He was learning ceramics in a high school outside of Manhattan. In the studio at his school, he showed me the ceramic bowl he had made. It was shaped like an old man's hands. The hands were viejito, old and strong, and cupped together. These hands had worked.
Outside of the studio, the teenager had fought with his dad. His papi wanted him to leave school and work construction. Neither of them had papers. The boy wanted to make art. Some nights, the boy slept on the bench at the bus station. His art teacher finally took him in and tried to keep his citizenship status a secret. He won an arts contest in town and ended up on a public stage with the mayor. He told me about this in the art studio, standing next to a work table, the two of us surrounded by the messy dazzle of art in progress: tubes of acrylic paints, the half-done ceramics, the canvasses and brushes and manchas of pintura. He had a handsome face and dark eyes, and he didn't have papers but he had his art, which is to say he had a crazy desire to craft meaning from life.
He told me about being on stage for the arts contest with no papeles but standing next to the mayor of a town in the suburbs of New York City. The town, like the rest of the United States, was starting to go brown, and the boy without papers had won the contest with his ceramic of the cupped hands. He walked onto that stage, and for the first time, he mattered. "I was somebody," he said, standing by this work table in a T-shirt and jeans. He said it with such conviction, such insistence -- "I was somebody" -- because he knew deep down inside that not everyone in the world agreed with him. His own papi didn't agree with him. Who had ever paid the rent with art?
I think of the boy often now that I have a finished copy of my first memoir. I turn the pages and examine the binding and study the font type of the words. I scan the pages looking for Spanish words and the names of the women who raised me and who didn't have papers once upon a time. I stare at the book and remember that I grew up feeling like that boy. In the eighties in New Jersey, I was not a somebody. No one who I loved was a somebody.
When people hear me say that I grew up in two worlds, they think I mean white and Latino. Sometimes I do. Most of the time, I mean a world with power and one without it. I mean the lady who approved people for WIC and the women who actually needed the cheese and leche. I agree with the scholars and the activists who insist that people like me and the lady on the WIC line do, in fact, have power. It is just that our power looks different; it's not institutionalized. I also know, however, that you can march in peace or loot the stores all night or write a book, and still you come home and look around and all you see are people who can't find work or can't stop boozing, and you turn on the news and it is another story about how our lives don't matter.
So, for people like me and that teenager I interviewed thirteen years ago, a finished book is not a book. It is an affirmation that our lives matter, that the lives of the people who raised us matter even when we write the truth about those people. We do not have to be perfect to matter.
I am remembering how the teenage boy shaped his ceramic bowl like a pair of cupped hands, and how it was hard to tell if the hands were offering you water or begging for agua. The work was supplication and request, the echo of "your lives don't matter" and the insistence of "I am somebody, look at my hands."