Survival Kit
// by
Kassandra (K.) Piñero

 

 

Growing up in New York City with a mother who was born and raised in Brooklyn during its worst times, I was kept away from most of the madness. My mother refused to put me in housing projects or shelters and instead chose to bust her ass working as a hostess so we could live in a one bedroom in a quiet suburb on Staten Island. I grew up feeling disconnected from everything: from my Nuyorican roots to the kids I went to school with. I was sheltered in an odd way. Kept hidden from the beautiful mess that is urban living. Who I was, racially, sexually, and mentally, made my teen years hell to survive. New York City, as complex as it is, made my life a hell of a lot easier as I grew older. I finally learned to embrace my racial identity by discovering art centered around the same things I used to struggle with.

 

Three Pieces of Art

1. Drown, Junot Diaz:
Drown is the first piece of literature I have ever read that portrayed the life of latinx living in New York City. I first read his book of short stories in my senior year of high school, a school that was known for being incredibly racist toward its black and latin students. Until Junot Diaz came along I had harbored the bitter belief that I couldn’t write about life as a nuyorican and spent years getting no writing done because that was the only life I knew. I wasn’t aware my people had any part in the literary community at all and Junot was my stepping stone into discovering what is called the Nuyorican Literary Movement of the 1980s. Drown made me feel validated in my culture, changed the style in which I wrote and helped me along the path of learning to love myself.

2. “Riding With Death,” Jean-Michel Basquiat:
There was an article I read once discussing how whiteness played a part in the death of Jean-Michel. He is the first afro-latino artist I have ever come across and that is part of what made his existence resonate so heavily with my own. Riding With Death is one of his final paintings, in his final art show, and this piece, and the well-documented ending of Jean-Michel’s life are part of what helped me cope with the aftermath of living my most developmental years in an all white suburb. Riding With Death represents everything I do not want to become and helped me embrace the multitude that is my racial identity and to start seeking criticism from my own community and not the white one.

3. Miguel Piñero and Sandra Maria Esteves shot by Bolivar Arellano:
I’ve been doing a lot of talking about my Nuyorican heritage lately and it’s because I had such a hard time accepting it when I was a young girl. When I started Sula Collective I realized I needed a pseudonym so my writing wouldn’t be accessible to my family and possible future workplaces online and Piñero seemed perfect for me. He was the first Nuyorican writer I had heard about and had been part of founding the literary movement for us, as well as the Nuyorican Poets Café. I stumbled upon his documentary on Netflix and was hooked instantly- I’m obsessed with old new york and he embodies everything I wish I could be. This is a photo of him on the 3 train, which I used to take from my father’s job to get to school during the Winter when it was too cold for me to take the bus.

 

Two People That Make You Feel Less Alone

1. Miguel Piñero:
      “perspiration insultin' poets / pride / words stoppin' on red / goin' on green / poets' dreams / endin' in a factoria as one / in a million / unseen / buyin' bodega sold dreams . . .”
      “I don't wanna be buried in Puerto Rico / I don't wanna rest in Long Island Cemetery / I wanna be near the stabbing shooting / gambling fighting & unnatural dying / & new birth crying / so please when I die . . . / don't take me far away / keep me near by / take my ashes and scatter them thru out / the Lower East Side”   

2. Junot Diaz:
      “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”
      “If you didn't grow up like I did then you don't know, and if you don't know it's probably better you don't judge.”

 

One Thing You Carry With You

Photo by Arlene Gottfried from series Bacalaitos and Fireworks

Photo by Arlene Gottfried from series Bacalaitos and Fireworks

The older I get, the more my mother opens up to me. My favorite memory of hers is how she used to play in the abandoned lots full of rubble in between buildings in Brooklyn when she was younger. Everything was so chaotic back then and every photo I see of 1980s New York is a piece of history I will never get to see or hear about because of my family’s secrecy. I look at these images online obsessively for hours and weeks at a time trying to grasp at some of the only documented history that I have. It makes me smile when I think about all of the photographers who recognized our people as history in the making. For once, we were worthy in the white man’s eyes. There was some validation amongst the suffering we endured. New York wouldn’t be anywhere without black and puerto rican people. These images help me feel like a real person, not just some caricature in a political cartoon. My body is full of more pride now than it has ever been so I carry New York City in my thoughts daily and the fucked up history that comes with it too.

 

 

 

Kassandra (K.) Piñero is a writer born and bred in New York City. She is the co-founder of Sula Collective, an online magazine for & by people of color. As someone who struggled with mental illness, being raised by a single mother, and facing racism in New Jersey suburbs, her work centers around life in New York City, gentrification, and resisting academia. Some of her work can be found on her portfolio, instagram, and tumblr.


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