What in the world does it mean when someone says “she’s so strong”? Is it because she knows nice is not enough? Because she dares to speak out? Perhaps because she can navigate landmines, or because she seems loud and hopeful? Is she strong because she starts things? Or finishes them? Or are we Women of Color, we Indigenous women strong simply because we survive? I think Dr. Sonia Rodriguez is boldly, strongly and fiercely claiming her own definition. Sonia, I love you for who you are and who you are becoming.
Kelly Starlings Lyon: How Do Women Use Art As Resistance?
Zetta Elliott: Nice Is Not Enough
Traci Sorell: Why Do You Speak Out?
Justina Ireland: There is A Minefield and You Will Become a Demolitions Expert
Ambelin Kwaymullina: On Being Loud and Hopeful
Cheryl Willis Hudson: Women Lead the Independent Publishing Movement
Laura Jiménez: Static Bodies in Motion: Representations of Girls in Graphic Novels
Maya Gonzalez: What Do I Speak Out? True Power Rises
Sujei Lugo: When Women Speak
Neesha Meminger: I Want to Talk About Power
Don’t Call Me Strong
I grew up witnessing domestic violence at home. The shit I experienced still gives me nightmares. My mother often confessed or threatened that she was going to leave her husband. When she was fed up with his bullshit, she’d say I’m take my kids and go. When she was fed up with us she’d say I’m go and leave you here. When she was fed up with herself she’d say I’m done and I can’t anymore and she’d pray to god to take her. I caught her with a blade only once.
I’m the oldest of four children. At the height of the violence my youngest siblings were toddlers. I was afraid of my mother leaving because I was more afraid of bearing the brunt of having to take care of her children. I was afraid that her leaving meant I wouldn’t have an out. I needed her to stay so I could leave.
And, even after she stayed, I judged and resented her for it. My leaving didn’t result in the escape for which I had hoped. Instead, my leaving for college and then graduate school evolved into festering guilt and self-hate. I left the violence behind but the violence didn’t stop and instead I had left my sibling there to fend for themselves. In undergrad, when I was a three hour drive away, I’d get calls from my siblings in the middle of my parents’ physical fights to ask me what they should do. In graduate school, when I was across the country, I’d get similar calls.
I spent a lot of my college years and early graduate school years trying to name, understand, and let go of the wounds created by domestic violence. I spent a lot of that time as a functioning alcoholic with high-functioning depression in my own unhealthy relationships. I’ve had many days where I believed my mother was the strongest woman I knew and there were other days when I was angry she wasn’t strong enough to leave. Wanting to see her strength was rooted in my desire to see her as a woman, as human. But then I’d feel so hurt, so vulnerable that I wanted her to be stronger so that she could mother me. I needed to not be the strong one. I needed to be vulnerable and to be taken care of. I wanted to run to her and express the problems in my life but I was always overshadowed by her pain.
I had to develop very thick skin to deal with the violence and to help raise my siblings and my parents. When I’m around people, I have a very stoic disposition and try not to be ruled by my emotions. And I often get criticized for that. You’re too cold. You’re a robot. You should be more sensitive. You’re never going to find a man with that attitude. You’re going to end up alone. You’re younger than you act. You’re not as mean as I thought. You’re like a man. You’re like your father.
‘You’re like your father’ was my mother’s favorite knife to stab me with. For some time, I believed it. I believed that my shell, my armor, my walls were what caused my loved ones pain. I was the reason relationships didn’t work out. I was the reason friends left me. I was the reason I felt so alone. I believed I was abusive, and hurtful, and harmful, and damaging. And I’d have very low lows and I’d drown myself in alcohol and self-destruction.
But while all this shit was going on, I was succeeding academically and was a productive member of the communities I moved into. I was getting awards, I was hailed as role model, I was inspirational, I was motivating, I was someone to watch, I was going to make change. I have the resume of someone who has their shit together.
I grew up undocumented, under violence, and now have a PhD. Folks love telling me I’m strong, and brave, and an inspiration. And I don’t deny that I’m these things. But what I feel folks are really saying is damn, how are you alive?, or it must’ve not been that bad after all, or my fucking favorite it was all worth it at the end.
After I got my master’s I called my mother to share in my accomplishment. She was proud of what I had achieved and sad she couldn’t be there for me. But she said that all the shit we’d endured was worth it at the end to see me succeed. Well, that broke my heart. It was not worth it. A fucking piece of paper and thousands of dollars in debt was not worth the violence she endured. And that’s what I think of now when folks say I’m strong, or brave, or resilient. I think of my mother saying my successes are worth every punch, every kick, every cut, every wound, every hospital visit, every drink, every insult, and every prayer for death.
When we tell women of color that they are strong we erase, at least a little bit, the oppression they’ve endured to get to that moment where they showed their strength. Sure, my mother is strong but it’s because she’s had to be. If she had a choice to do it all over again she wouldn’t choose the violence. Although, she might say she’d do it all over again just to have her children. I’m seen as strong because folks see me standing. I tell my story and it reads like the fucking American Dream. Undocumented Mexican Girl Witnesses Domestic Violence and Still Earns PhD. I’d trade in every accolade, every degree, every accomplishment to not have the memories of my mother being beat. I’d trade it all in to not have nightmares tonight. I’d trade it all in to not have to live with this trauma. Don’t call me strong because nothing that I am today is worth what my family has had to endure.
Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at a community college in New York City. Her academic research and creative writing stem from her personal experiences and her desire for liberation.