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Putting Together a Personal Cartography

How to tell a story that is deeply yours and yet a map into questions about identity, self, and community? Attached to that how is the why of telling it. Put Together: A Minne-Memoir (New York: Editorial Trance, 2014) is the result of the experiences mapped out within the scope of the how, the why, the where, and also the why not.

This mini-memoir began as an attempt to thread the story of the two years that I lived as a young Puerto Rican woman in the mid-1990s in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I moved there at age 20 with a sense of adventure and new beginnings, as I would be finishing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota. I was also starting to become increasingly aware of the layers of sociocultural values that informed my upbringing in Puerto Rico. My circumstances those two years in the Twin Cities were nuanced by my being a fully bilingual young Latina who is also an only child raised within Catholic parameters. Not only was I asserting my own sense of place, my obvious inclinations toward the humanities and scholarly endeavors, but also my own appreciation and understanding of being Puerto Rican.

The idea of working on such a narrative was sparked by a former fellow graduate student from UW-Madison, a couple of years after I had moved to Wisconsin. We were strolling around uptown Minneapolis and he made me aware that those two years amounted to a story that only I could tell. As time went on and I worked toward my doctoral degree, I had not forgotten about the possibility of the project, but teaching, researching and the intellectual-immersion process that writing the dissertation entails took priority at the time. It was in 2012 when I attended the Las Dos Brujas Writers Workshop in New Mexico that the mini-memoir project reclaimed my attention and the writing process was set into full gear. At the workshop, I participated in the  Writing from Memory  section, which was led by Denise Chávez.

While sifting through the remembrances, the topic of identity, as a construction, projection, and/or something that is ever-evolving, came to the forefront. It was in the different forms that I had to fill out at the University of Minnesota that I found ways of classifying groups and individuals that were rather new to me. All of a sudden, I became Hispanic, not in the sense I had known the term—as in someone who comes from a Spanish-speaking background or country—but also in the often polemic intertwining of that term with Latino, or Latina in that case, and what it means politically in the United States. Furthermore, as a Hispanic or Latina, I was automatically classified as a minority, a status that sheds light on social struggles of underrepresented members of a society but that also carries the weight of being regarded like a minor, i.e. someone who has not fully grown up and is yet to develop full personhood and autonomy.

As a global feminist Boricua I have no qualms in bringing the wisdom of a broad array of voices such as Henry David Thoreau, Victor Hernández Cruz, Gloria Anzaldúa, Michel de Certau into the cartography of Put Together. My being Puerto Rican cannot be reduced to any particular construction of such identity, as “official” as it may be purported to be. This was an issue that came up during those two years in several occasions, as I found that other Latinos and Hispanics would often judge my version vis-à-vis musical tastes, daily diet, or even choice of dwelling area. With humor, I revisit those instances knowing that resistance to cultural assimilation is key and healthy for the overall Puerto Rican experience. And then again, there is a myriad of individual experiences that contribute to that diverse mosaic. I never felt I had to stop listening to pop/rock music (yes, I grew up listening to Cyndi Lauper and Madonna), start eating rice and beans every day, or not live in a sauntering-friendly neighborhood as a young woman without a car, to know who I am and where I come from. More important, that knowledge, that form knowing—from my very own experiences—has carried me forward to further explore the Puertoricanness put forth by Aurora Levins Morales, among many other writers and activists.

Rebecca Solnit, in The Faraway Nearby, writes about how “one person’s story becomes the point of entry to larger territories” The putting together of the narrative of those two years as a Minneapolis resident and University of Minnesota student allowed me to explore a wider physical and conceptual area, time and space-wise. I found myself threading remembrances with experiences from when I was younger and living in Puerto Rico to when I was already in Madison as a graduate student. Moreover, just as I was rooted in my own sense of cultural identity, I was trekking into considerations about spirituality vs. religion, contextualization vs. labeling, and scripted vs. unscripted ways. At the workshop in New Mexico in 2012, Denise Chávez helped me understand better the notion of “people of color” beyond the labels, the limitations and the tokenism. Without diminishing the complex layers of such expression, I realized that, much like in the film Pleasantville, color is what brings everything to life, and on its own terms—your own story, unscripted from sociocultural default programming—told from your own vulnerabilities. In telling that story through my mini-memoir, one of my goals has been to invite the reader into “larger territories” filled with queries, reflections, and a sense of community.

Part of my intention has been to revisit a place—now in memory—that I cherish as pivotal in my formation when I was a young adult. Places “give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our own lives to remain connected and coherent” Minneapolis was that city that allowed me to roam its streets and to ponder about where I came from and where I wanted to spring forward. But it was more than a mere launching platform. It was also one of my homes, one that existed for a short yet significant period of time. It was the first one where I lived by myself, away from relatives, open to the generosity of friends, neighbors and honorary family. In this sense, a Minne-Memoir from my Latina/Puerto Rican perspective was the best form of gratitude I could conjure, as well as an entryway into a reading of the city and the main patterns of the Put Together tapestry.

Judith Butler, in Giving an Account of Oneself, indicates that: “when the 'I' seeks to give an account of itself, an account that must include the conditions of its own emergence, it must, as a matter of necessity, become a social theorist” (8). In this light, to talk about identity, sense of home, and the ever-evolving process of being, requires valuing and understanding the intricacies of one’s cultural background, the challenges met in asserting a sense of one self, and the lessons learned. Put Together: A Minne-Memoir is a title that combines a Minneapolis landmark—Lawrence Weiner’s poem at the Walker Arts Center: “Bits and pieces / put together / to present a semblance of a whole”—with my own semblance of the time I lived in the Twin Cities.

How? Through memories. Where? In the context of beginning to write it fifteen years after I had left Minnesota. Why? Because there was a time and a place…

© Nancy Bird-Soto. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 1 October 2014.