Introduction

Dar A Luz (Giving Light to Birth) is a collaboration among WritersCorps, Ana Teresa Fernández, and me, Leticia Hernández-­‐Linares. The Creative Work Fund supported my vision of developing writing about motherhood in community with young mothers and other women artists. I worked with WritersCorps teaching artist Minna Dubin and her Hilltop School workshop participants over the course of a year to exchange stories and writing prompts about pregnancy and parenthood. Ana Teresa took portraits of the young women writers and created artwork in response to my poetry. Minna, the young writers, and I prepared an event entitled Iron Mom: Not Just a Baby Mama to present our stories, our community, and the artwork. This website serves as a living document of our experiences. The photography, writing, and community pictured here is a portrait of our conversation as young moms of color and a Latina writer becoming a mother later in life, coming together in the Mission.

In Latin America, apellidos (last names) are long poetic lines representing the names of the fathers. I publish my poetry as Leticia Hernández-­‐Linares because the day I became the first in my family to graduate from college, my mother asked me to include her name on my diploma so she could get credit too. In 1993, the same year I graduated from college, I began to write poetry regularly and through that writing, uncovered stories buried under my skin and wrapped around the spinal cords of the women around me. I needed to find and write the names of the mothers.

Popular images of “Latino cultures” often focus on “family” and the same rings true for the connection between Latina women and the role of la madre, the mother. For me, obtaining a college and graduate education, working in leadership, and becoming a writer were all paths that had no road maps, no connections to or expectations of me as a bilingual daughter of immigrant teenage parents.

Through this collaboration, I am interested in unveiling the new roadmaps for motherhood that Latinas are cultivating⎯as a feminist who gave birth to two baby boys, one at 33, the other at 38 years of age. During my second pregnancy, I was leading an organization that employed and empowered low-­‐income young mothers and young women. I struggled to imagine my experiences of pregnancy at the age of 18, as I would talk with our participants. I recalled that my own mother was just that age when she had me. This continuum⎯from my mother, to me and the young teenage mothers in my neighborhood⎯as well as the public comment and reaction to our pregnant bodies seemed ripe for literary exploration. As women of color, we are not supposed to take up too much space, and we are often demonized for the very trait we are often associated with, giving birth. Through our writing, we have begun to expand the understanding of what it means to be mothers, and dismantle expectations and perceptions of our bodies and ourselves.

WritersCorps has partnered with the Hilltop School since 2008 to serve its students. Writer and teacher Minna Dubin welcomed me into the community she has led there to share stories and inspiration and create new work. This project connects the WritersCorps teen mothers’ stories with a wider audience, engaging the community in a conversation of relevance and significance that will challenge thinking and perception of teen parenting and motherhood.

Throughout this project, I have begun a new collection of poems currently titled Pluma: Featherpen. Minna compiled and edited A Few Things I Know, an anthology by the Hilltop School students. We have included pieces from their anthology, as well as ones we worked on together, to construct their performance. Writing together with these young mothers provided me a new level of inspiration and courage in sharing my own experiences. Exchanging poems and ideas with artist Ana Teresa created a wire between her artistic vision and my poetic musings that has tied us together. Patricia, Raquel, Tania, Veronica, Andrea, Yesenia, Malisha, Devi, Jo, Karla, Ana Teresa, Minna, and my two big baby boys helped me find my feathers. I hope you enjoy the recounting of my flight. I hope you see the beauty in each one of our journeys.

How Could You
Yesenia Alarcon, 17

Dear Harlan,

I know you’re my big brother, and I know I used to look up to you, but lately, I’m disappointed. I’m upset ’cause I used to think you were a great dad to Maya and Berkeley, and that it was Amelia who ruined you. She built you up and broke you down. Since you’ve been with her, all you’ve done is destroy yourself even more. I know you love her. I’m in love, too. I know how it is to feel like you’d do anything to be with someone, but abandon your girls with our mom? You know she can’t handle all the stress. Look at dad, he’s been sick for the longest, and he was just in the hospital. Mom and dad don’t have enough money. They can’t take care of two little kids. What were you thinking? Mama y Papa won’t work for very long and then what will you do?

Harlan, do you know you’re 19? Are you out smoking or working? Who knows? I sure don’t. See, next time you get caught for something, it’s no longer juvi, it’s prison.

I’m just telling you what I’m feeling! Think twice about your decision because when you least

expect it, life will come back and hit you in the face. One day when you return, Maya and Berkeley aren’t even gonna remember who you are. Instead of Daddy, you’re gonna be “that man.” See, I’m a parent, too. I got responsibilities, and I have a kid younger than yours! How could you think this is right? What on Earth are you thinking? I guess you’re thinking, “My mom got time. She knows how to take care of kids. She loves kids.” But, no! She has two young kids, a husband who’s sick, and she takes care of people for a living! She don’t got time!

All I’m asking is for you to reflect on all this and think about it, ’cause I don’t wanna be that one telling mis chiquitas that you abandoned them. Maya has that beautiful look that hurts you inside-­‐out if you leave her with a tear on her face. And Berkeley has that killer smile. Mama says she’s pícara, so I shouldn’t mess with her. These two wonderful girls you brought to the world are not just a game, they’re a blessing from Dios and you shouldn’t take advantage of that.

Your disappointed sister, Yesenia

Wait ’Til the Morning
Patricia Duarte, 18

As a little girl, I dreamed
Of love at first sight,
Of one day finding Prince Charming, Growing old together.
But is it real?

Remember the stories we used to read
Of the young girl falling in love,
The girl that finds her prince,
The witch that disappears with water,
Or the fairy tale where the pumpkin turns into a carriage? They aren’t real.

A beauty falling in love with a beast Without the bibbity bobbity boo?
Now I relate.
A beast that doesn’t turn into a prince? Yes, I can relate.

But those old stories make that little girl dream, Make her dreams run wild.
She doesn’t know Prince Charming’s a myth And fairy tales don’t exist.

Shhh, don’t tell her.
Don’t snatch that little girl’s dreams. Don’t tell her there’s fear or hate. Don’t tell her there’s more
To this game called life.

Let her dreams run wild once more,
For old time’s sake.
Let her dream of her Prince Charming.
You can tell her the truth once she wakes up In the morning.

Tell her that her dream was a just a dream. Teach her life is not a fairy tale
Unless she writes her own.

Pumpkin
Veronica Hernandez, 18

At nine months I couldn’t see Past the human growing inside of me. I felt like a man with a huge beer belly. Swollen feet took me everywhere I went. No excuses to miss school, Even with a pumpkin hiding under my shirt. The bus was full of hard stares and whispers of amazement. “How old is she?!” “Is she really pregnant or just fat?” “She’s too young and stupid.” But I didn’t care. At school, it was even worse. “OMG! Can I touch your stomach?” “NO!” And as soon as I walked away, I could hear them say, “What a bitch.” But I still didn’t care, And I never will.

Ode to My Ripped Jeans
Devi Hinojosa, 17

I loved my ripped jeans that I created. They looked so sexy on me.
That was before my belly started showing. One day when I was pregnant I was bored. So I started ripping my jeans.

I grabbed my scissors, Started cutting slits,

Pulling out the white threads
One by one with tweezers.
I wanted to finish them in one minute,
But I ended up not being done until three hours later.
Now my jeans are just sitting
There in my drawer.
They don’t fit me anymore.
After I had my baby, I gained weight,
But I just keep them there
Because I know one day I’ll be rocking them again
With some hoop earrings and a sparkly shirt.
Some people might think ripped jeans are messy or aren’t cute, But when I put those jeans on,
I know I will look and feel fabulous.

Daughter Baby
Malisha Lane, 17

If I had a daughter, I know she’d look just like me. I would try my best to make sure life couldn’t hurt her. She’d be the smartest little girl you’d ever know. I would make sure she didn’t make the mistakes I did, and take life more seriously. I would make sure to teach her the pros and cons to look for in a guy, because no one ever taught me. If I had a daughter, we would talk about everything. I would make sure we actually had a mother-­‐daughter relationship. I would teach her how to play this game called life, and make sure she wins it. I’d show her how to be successful and respectful. I’d show her how to be strong. I’d teach her how to define her own destiny. If I had a daughter, she would know how to be courageous.

Inspiration to a Stranger
Andrea Lopez, 18

For all the soon-­‐to-­‐be teen moms, first of all, CONGRATULATIONS! You probably haven’t heard that yet. You’ve probably only heard how hard it will be and how your life is over. But forget all that. Yeah, it is hard, but it already happened. There’s no point in staying stuck in the negatives; a new life is growing inside of you. You are going to fall so in love, and that beautiful love will get you through everything. Think about it – if we couldn’t get through it, God would have never given us such a hard job. And just because you’re young does not mean you won’t get through it. I don’t know why people criticize us so much. The Virgin Mary was a teen mom and she didn’t have no baby daddy.

So my advice to you is, yes, it’s going to be hard, but more than anything else, it’s going to be worth all your effort. Love and cherish your babies and the time you spend with them. They grow quick! Don’t give up. You are the best person that can be with your baby. Have patience and always have hope. You aren’t the first teen mom. And you aren’t alone. And remember, just because nobody’s told you your child is a blessing, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Grandmother
Johanna Moncada, 18

She was made from strong hands Raised in the ocean’s waves
A small town that looked like halls Of some unknown place

Her heart was taken away
Thrown to the wind
In the direction her mother desired And caught by a man

Thirteen chances to give life But death pitied her enough To give her five
Make her misery better

She gave it her all to keep her angels alive Giving up was not an option
Her heart remained strong
Courage like lions

Faith in her soul

No matter how hectic the life she knew In God she’ll always believe
The scars, they will never heal
She knows the pain was real

Eighty years
She knows her time is almost up
So day-­‐by-­‐day she remembers her past

Her mother she forgives
She regrets but holds no grudge She is now wise and old
Her life has changed
But her heart is still the same

Pregnant in High School
Raquel O’Brien, 18

It was around Thanksgiving when everyone began to notice I was pregnant. Some students would just stare. As I walked down the halls of Abraham Lincoln High School I would hear the same repetitive question, “Is she pregnant?” Some thought my baby bump and being pregnant were cute. I’d hear them say, “Aww, your stomach is so cute!” Then they’d lean over to the friend next to them and say, “I wanna baby.” I guess from the outside looking in, being pregnant is supposed to be the happiest experience in life, but from the inside looking out I felt like a person with my legs cut off not being able to do anything. Life felt it came to a halt. A billion thoughts were doing everlasting relay laps through my mind.

One day I cam in early to my English class and my teacher, Ms. Morris, glanced down at my stomach with some kind of a shocked frown. She said, “Raquel, what is that in your stomach?” I smiled with the quickness, said, “Nothing.” (beat) “A baby.” Ms. Morris asked when was I going to tell the staff. I replied with confidence, “It’s none of their concern, they’ll see my stomach eventually.” Although I was excited about my baby, I didn’t want to tell anyone. I wanted it to be a surprise.

By the time December rolled around everyone in school knew I was pregnant. My

stomach wasn’t humongous, but everyone could see there was a baby coming. Some people still asked me if I was pregnant, which I thought was so dumb, since it was so obvious, so I’d say nonchalantly, “No, it’s just a tumor that’s due in March.” I even remembered a boy at my school saw my stomach and blurted out, “If I got a girl pregnant I would kill that baby,” and then he told me I should’ve kill mine. I could feel each of those words poke me like I just stepped into a bath of ice-­‐cold water. The pain I felt was literally in the pit of my stomach. What possessed him to say something so cruel? Maybe he wished his mom would have aborted him. All I did was look at him with hate in my eyes and malice in heart.

I Know My Daughter Will be Someday Be a Teenager
Karla Rayo, 15

June 2nd, 2012,
A new Gemini was born,
Young and fresh and innocent.
But one day my daughter will be a teenager. Will she be a cheerleader?
Caption of the soccer team?
Will her friends treat her right?

What mistakes will she make? And will she learn from them? Will she sit me down
At the kitchen table

And silently let out the words that every parent fears, “There’s something I need to tell you,”
“I’m pregnant.”

There will come a time
When little footsteps no longer
Fill our homes.
We can’t help but wonder
Who our children will turn out to be.
We sometimes get caught up,
Analyzing every possible scenario.
What we will say
When they ask where babies come from. When they no longer only listen to us.
We can’t stop them from growing up too fast. And we can’t make them someone they’re not. All we can do is enjoy these years.
When daddy is a superhero
And mommy knows everything.

Where Did You Go
Tania Reyes, 16

As a little girl, you would play with me, pick me up and spin me around. You would take me everywhere with you, even to pay your bills on Mission Street. I felt so close to you. I felt happy. You would treat me like a princess. When my mom would scream at me or make me cry, you would always say, “Come here,” and hug me so tight. I can honestly say that you were the best dad. Every time you would come home from work, I would get so happy and jump so you would hug me.

But time goes by so fast.

It feels like it was just yesterday when you held me in your arms, but it’s been almost eight years since you were in my life. Now you’re just a stranger to me, and all I’ve got are some wonderful memories. Every time I think about you, all those memories flood my head, and at times, I feel like crying. As a mother now, I see things, and I know exactly how I would feel without my son. I need my son in my life. He’s the reason why I wake up every morning with a big smile on my face. I wonder, Dad, how you can go around the world pretending like I don’t exist? I don’t get it. You make me feel like I no longer have a father. I wish you could see me, how I nurse Christopher when he’s sick and play with him all night when he can’t sleep. I wish

you could see how I cook such delicious food! Christopher’s favorites are chicken with rice, spaghetti with cheese, and quesadillas. I wish you could see how I want a good career and what a good student I am. Dad, I’m as strong as I can be, because my son will always be my happy ending. Too bad you’re not here to see my little one grow.

Pluma
Leticia Hernández-­‐Linares

They were wrong.

It isn’t lion or tiger or bear or cow or goat.

When the little boy looks up at the tractor, at the bird, are you my mother, are you my mother, yes
I will say, I am your bird mother.

This barrio of colored words keeping record on walls,
of many languages, of calle cracked by historical moments, la Misión, nuestro nido, our nest.

Men in robes sing for penas while I haul a new sky with my beak hands to show you I am naked of shame, that conception is imperfect
and I am growing penna. Feathers in ancient church tongue.

With newly sprouting plumes, I fly new storylines, in fresh ink. Ensuing sermons absolve us all of any pena about a way
to do it right, way to do it wrong.

Con la pluma te escribo que me faltaban. Carrying wings, at birth, but they were bare. No one explained how to use them.

If the point of the feather stains my story onto paper
what does it mean to fill my pillow with them, will I fly in my sleep?

I dream with the bird that let its feathers burn for everyone to bear the sky, its stars, the day.

Featherless, the cold kept me listless for a while, así me querían. Then I grew a baby in my belly, and his extra heart filled
me warm, pinned feather to wings.

I was mother before to dogs and birds. The ones
we kept in cages died, the one who we let loose, decided
to walk instead of fly, she would be the one to love my father. Whistle when he was on approach like a dog wagging its tail. A girl bird, a bird dog.

Brand new my quills, and I am burning them. I used to devour books about birds talking. Now I talk to the birds who yell at me everywhere I go. I am a crazy bird lady.

Looking from their eyes I understand why in ceremony,
I could not offer my hair. My long dark tresses helped
cover my bare. My strands like feather to chorded instrument. There for the plucking, to be the foundation of the song.

Anchor to the history so many hands concealing.
A brown skinned woman from Santa Ana, El Salvador had the audacity to fly without wings, run for president, demand a vote.

No feathers, no tinta, she spit the words out until a puddle showed reflection. Ancestors tied their hair, painted their words on walls and skin, considered birth a battle to celebrate.

From this altitude answers stand out
for the incurable dryness of my skin, hair where magazines show it doesn’t belong. Scrolls hidden on my body,
my impulse to cover up, impeding full flight.

Because of my wishbone and ink filled lungs, they will have to cut the new bodies out.

Please excuse my feathered feet.

The birds brought me these boys, wrapped in black feathers
and a direct line to the spirits residing in bird land, on the other side of the curtain hanging over all of our heads.

Bedtime Tango
Minna Dubin

I never thought I’d be one of those parents who lets their baby sleep in their bed. It’s a little too “all in the family” for me. And, like many people, I worried, “What if I, like, roll over on the baby?” But in December my son Oscar emerges from my body and joins my family, and in no time, our bed. And, surprisingly, I love it. Having him in bed with us is beautiful. It is a picture. Every time he shifts in the night, I open my sleepy eyes, see this sweet warm bundle and think, “There he is.” By week three, Oscar only wants to be on top of me, and I’m so high from the hormones that are still surging through me and from the seduction of his hot little body that needs me, that I don’t even mind. At night we lie tummy to tummy, our joined forms rising and falling with our breath, his body the double-time melody to my deep and steady bass.

Soon Oscar begins to learn skills like smiling and ninja kicking and projectile pooping. Like all mothers I’m sure my son is very advanced. But I quickly learn by the middle of month two that sleeping is not one of Oscar’s many talents. And our picturesque “whole family in the bed” thing wears off. His father, Ben, is a light and fidgety sleeper and unfortunately, it seems, so is Oscar. One wakes up the other every few minutes, making me the buffer between my twitchy boys.

In month three our bed looks like this: I lie on my left side curved into a moon sliver. Oscar is on his right facing me, curled into his own tiny semicircle inside the arc of my body, my breast in his mouth, the top of his head nestled against the soft underside of my bicep. We are two C’s – big and little. Each time Oscar awakens I roll him over my chest to the other breast and we reassume position. We dance this bedtime tango all night long. And on the other side of the bed, is Ben, silently clutching the bit of space we leave him with his long straight body in an elegant and uncomplicated lowercase L.

Eventually, Oscar’s kicking and squirming becomes so strong that between that and the constant wakings and feedings, I am up every other hour, and Ben is lying there, and I am alone, all alone, awake, and miserable! I don’t want this little C between me and my L for even one more night, and in the morning I cry, “That’s it!” And Ben says, a little afraid of me, “Yeah, sure, whatever you want, whatever you need.” So we ship Oscar off to his crib all the way ten feet away in the dining room. At night I breastfeed him until he’s asleep in my arms, then I slowly get up, tiptoe into the dining room and lower him gently down into his crib. And it works! For two hours. And then I try it again, and it doesn’t work. So I bounce him on the yoga ball until he is limp against my chest. I place him carefully in his crib, creep back to our room, close my eyes, and “Waaaaah!” So I try again. Sometimes it takes three tries, which add up to an hour, and if that won’t work, then I breastfeed again, because of course by this time he is hungry again. Now he is only sleeping for 45-minute increments, and instead of getting 7 hours like before when he was in the bed, I’m getting 5 or 4 or even 3.

When friends or family call and ask how I am, I burst into tears. “I’m so tired.” And they nod and tell me “it’s temporary.” Because we’ve all heard it before, right? Being a new parent is exhausting. But none of that talk prepared me for the craziness and total despair I feel. But “consistency is the key” everyone says so we keep it up for a week. One night towards the end of this week, after what feels like a thousand failed feedings and bouncing sessions, we hear Oscar’s cry from the other room. I must have punched my fist into the mattress, ‘cause I hear the soft swish of sheets as Ben turns to me and asks, “What do you need?”

These big questions through the weary fog of 2am darkness have become common. Usually, it’s “What should I do?” and usually the other says, “I don’t know.” We have never said the words, “I don’t know” more than in these first three months. You never realize how infuriating that phrase is until it’s the middle of the night and one partner is feeling totally useless and hopeless and asks if he should _________ and you say, “I don’t know.” And he snaps incredulously, “Well should I,” and you scream, not caring about the neighbors or the baby or anything, “I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know! What do you think?” and he responds, “I don’t know!”

But on this night when Ben asks me what I need, I don’t say “I don’t know.” I know. And quick like a light, I just say it, strong and sure like a thick crack of thunder, “I need to not be his mother.”

In the morning, I awake with that incantation sitting bitter and shameful on the back of my tongue. I’m afraid to look Ben in the eye, not wanting to see his disgust or disappointment staring back at me. When I finally dare myself to look, all I see is exhaustion. I look down at my baby, hoping to show him somehow that I didn’t mean it. That I want to be his mother forever. Oscar looks back into my big, searching eyes and gives me his gigantic open-mouth smile. And I burst into tears, so grateful I haven’t tempted fate or woken the graves of some angry nighttime gods, which I know sounds crazy, but with a week of no sleep, I could be a believer in anything.

The next night, we bring our little C back into bed. And, “He sleeps through the night,” you ask. No, no he doesn’t. He wriggles and kicks, and I flip him back and forth and I groan and sigh and huff and puff, and Ben and I add a few more to the “I don’t know” mountain growing under our bed. But in the morning and every morning, Oscar welcomes the dawn with his twinkling eyes and his erupting open-mouth smile. With the rising of the sun, we lose our letter shapes and become a messy, tired pile, full of yawning and laughter and Oscar’s shrieks of delight, which must have magical powers because every day they erase the night.

Ana Teresa Fernández
Ana Teresa Fernández
Iron Mom: Not Just a Baby Mama

The final performance of our project, which we titled Iron Mom: Not Just a Baby Mama was a powerful evening of poetry, performance, music, and art by and about mothers and women artists. The performance took place on May 14, 2013 at Brava Theater Center in San Francisco.

The program began with an introduction by Conor Hallinan, the language arts teacher at Hilltop School, who opened his classroom several years ago to WritersCorps and then in 2012 to the Dar a Luz project. He introduced WritersCorps artist Minna Dubin, who read Bedtime Tango. This account of Minna’s new bedtime routine since the arrival of her infant son included lovely and hilarious illustrations by Rick Kitagawa. Minna followed her performance with an introduction of the incredible group of young women that she has worked with for the past three years at Hilltop. The young women presented an adaptation of their anthology, A Few Things I Know which included a mix of individual literary pieces and group performances.

I performed Pluma: Featherpen, an adaptation of the poems I wrote throughout this project in collaboration with musicians Peta Robles and Gabriela Shiroma and dancer Zhayra Palma. A song I wrote and later developed further with the musicians, Cihuateteo, (Nahuatl word for spirits of Aztec women who died in childbirth) tied the poems together. The final presentation of artwork and narrative was the result of an organic conversation about my drafts of poetry and Ana Teresa Fernández’s interpretation and inspiration. She created a feathered costume for me to wear during the performance and made a tapestry of my words cut out of animal skin. The backdrop for the show included portraits of the young women and “Holy Sheets,” embroidered and sensualized sábana santas speaking to contemporary adaptations of tradition ⎯ in this case, motherhood.

The community of women artists continued to grow as this project did. Shizu Saldamando created the drawing for the flyer featured above. Amelia Berumen made one-of-a-kind Lucha Libre masks, which we wore for a poem dedicated to the punk band Pussy Riot. Michelle Gutiérrez took elegant photographs of the show included in the gallery that follows below.

Listen to audio from the show.

View footage from the show.

Credits:

Flyer and Program Cover Image: Shizu Saldamando
Exhibit Artwork: Ana Teresa Fernández
Masks: Amelia Berumen
Bedtime Tango Artwork: Rick Kitagawa
Stage Manager: Aimee Espiritu
Project Website: Ben Davis, Words Pictures Ideas
Photography Gallery 1: Michelle Gutiérrez