Being silent nevermore: I now raise the roof on behalf of those whose voices have been muted
Growing up I was labeled as “gifted”. I was offered the opportunity to skip a grade, which I wisely declined. Teachers in the South Bronx loved me. I was studious. I was advanced against all odds (in their eyes). I was respectful and my mom was highly involved. She would go to the local library and take out ten books at a time for me. She went and bought Spanish-English dictionaries for everyone in my class. Till this day, I have no idea how she managed to pay for that. I do know she took her red shopping cart and walked the 20 blocks to the nearest book store.
I was somewhat precocious in that at home I was referred to as a chatter box. I would go on and on about the latest book or television plot I had come across. I had a rather rich imagination that led to me being a champion story-teller and little Ms. Carvel. I would talk so much that my mom, in the bedroom we shared, would beg me to be quiet for a few. She would drink black coffee to stave off the headaches. I was named class valedictorian in 9th grade. I put together, in my very own words, my valedictorian speech which my English teacher, of course, vetted and had me practice before her. In doing so I came to learn that all along I had been mispronouncing my “Th“. Although, I had no accent, apparently I was a typical Nuyorican in that respect. I was somewhat mortified. After that, while I had been an enthusiastic performer, I became silent.
Because I was so gifted, I received full scholarships to the prestigious Phillips Andover Academy boarding school, a school year abroad, and to Vassar College. I worked hard. I studied hard. I was always hungry for information. I wrote of interesting things and my mind was creative in its prose. However, once out of the South Bronx, although, I knew the answers I hardly ever raised my hand in class. I recall in 10th grade, there was this one time where I was out and about in the town of Andover itself buying a calculator for my extremely demanding math class. As I went up to the counter, the saleslady pulled out a sales slips notebook and started writing out the sales receipt. I was paying with cash, my mother’s hard-scraped cash, but they still insisted on getting my name, address and my plans after graduating high school. I gave them my dorm name as my address: Johnson North. She asked me to repeat it several times. I didn’t get the interaction. She then said are you sure and I nodded my affirmation. She rang it up and placed the calculator in the bag along with the receipt. As I walked back to campus, my 14 year-old self looked at the receipt in disbelief. She had written as my address “Johnson Norf”.
Fast forward many years later. I was finishing up my PhD in record time (for U.C. Berkeley, that is) and deciding between post-doctoral position offers. Many of the positions were focused on lab work where you get to be a tenured professor’s writing and laboratory-operations minion. There was one that while in the guise of being a minion afforded me an opportunity for real-world application; and that was the offer I accepted. I endeavored to do stigma research with real-world application and understanding. I worked with HIV-positive individuals who felt so stigmatized by society and family members, that their voices were often-times muted. I decided, after my post-doc position ended to stay in the HIV field and therein my voice came roaring back.
We are now three decades into the HIV epidemic. During the ’80s it was community activists that raised their collective voices to enhance not only awareness of HIV/AIDS but also to humanize the treatment of those that were infected. By the end of the 1980s over 600 community based organizations sprang up to care for the infected and affected, as well as to raise awareness and demand for the allocation of financial resources to stem the oncoming epidemic. Now in the 2000s, I have picked up that mantle. At first, I was still a bit gun-shy as I was the new kid on the block and my Ph.D actually engendered some skepticism towards me. Many wondered if I was just some book-smart academic removed from the realities of the pain and suffering of not only community members but also of the HIV workforce which as a whole has been showing signs of burnout. I had to prove myself repeatedly the first two years.
Then the big event happened. While providing a seemingly ho-hum conference presentation I was surrounded by protestors. But not what you would think it was about. I was being harangued because I was Hispanic. Puzzled at first, I let the protestors do their thing. Then I remembered I had a voice. My voice steadily rose above theirs and I shifted the conversation. In that instant I became a hero to some, a pariah to others. By protesting me and my ethnic being they gave me a microphone that I have quite effectively used since that incident. I am widely viewed with respect now and in every meeting I participate in people know I have something to say. I do presentation upon presentation where I own the room and am a total diva. Why shouldn’t I be? I know my stuff. I’m articulate. I can weave in pop culture seamlessly to drive home a point. I can be really funny (twisted and dark, mind you). I can relate and I represent! It is my job and my mission to speak up. That is what my mother worked hard for. It is what I worked hard for.
Since my Andover Days, I have developed a fairly flat accent. Occasionally, in moments of rage, I may sound more like a New Yorker. That doesn’t happen often. Well, not that often. I pick up a microphone now and I rock the house even if I still slip and say “norf” instead of north.
Prompted in part by the weekly writing challenge of “the sound of silence”