On 8 March 2019, I was the keynote speaker at “Cruzando Fronteras”—an event on immigration and border crossing, hosted by Central Americans for Empowerment (CAFÉ) at California State University, Chico. My speech tackled the role of storytelling as a tool of empowerment that can disrupt the status quo, confront caricatures, change politics by first changing culture, and help shape new paradigms. Below is that speech.
Who here has played chess? Ajedrez? Now, who can tell me what is the most powerful piece on the chessboard? Now here’s a question: How did it come to be that a game played mostly by men for nearly two thousand years evolve to have a woman as its most powerful piece? The answer, I came to find out, wasn’t that surprising all.
According to Marilyn Yalom in her book Birth of the Chess Queen: A History, it appears the modern move of the queen began in what is now known as Spain during the reign of Isabella the First. Her power may have inspired the move, which combined the roles of the bishop and the rook. From here, the move quickly spread outside Spanish borders for two reasons:
First, the Gutenberg press had by this time reached the Iberian Peninsula, which facilitated the printing of new chess books.
Second, the 1492 Alhambra decree ordered the expulsions of approximately 200,000 Jews from Spain, who then carried the new version of chess with them as they departed. This, of course, was also the very same queen who sent Christopher Columbus to the Americas that very same year.
This Isabella-inspired chess became known as the “queen’s chess” to some and “madwoman’s chess” to others. Sadly, but not surprising, though, it appears there was an aggressive response to this new rule that gave so much power to a woman, more power than any other piece on the chessboard. The adverse reaction to this revolutionary change to the game ranged from anxiety to straight-up abuse against women. All over a game. Regarding and accepting a woman as powerful was a threat to the traditional patriarchy.
The first step toward accepting a woman as powerful is imagining her as powerful.
Chess, interestingly enough, may have done more for women’s rights than many of us normally consider because for hundreds of years it was one of the only places where not only did women have power, but men wanted to be them.
Out of the barbarity and evil that came out of Isabella’s Spanish Inquisition and genocide and slavery of the indigenous populations of the Americas during Spanish conquest and the trans-Atlantic slave trade it led to thereafter, this other specific border crossing—of the Queen’s role re-imagined on the chessboard—got me thinking about the power of symbols, the power of imagination, and the power of stories to transform culture. And, once culture is transformed, politics tend to follow.
Giving a voice to the undervalued and overlooked is a very personal thing for me. After immigrating to the US from Colombia as a child, it was very easy to have self-hatred and low expectations. More than half of TV shows and movies represented, and still represent, other Latinx individuals, like me, predominantly as criminals, and the rest as janitors, maids, gardeners, and machos trying to impregnate your daughters. Our intelligence has been judged on our competency of the English language. I cannot stress how important it is to have good role models and people to look up to and to recognize yourself in the stories society and the mainstream deem as good, valuable, and worthy of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We must recognize the kind of damage such racist and xenophobic caricatures do not only to the Latinx community, to BIPOC, to immigrants, to women, foreigners, to all Others, but also to society as a whole. Talented people are overlooked, divisions are drawn, people (including ourselves) stop dreaming, we become scared of our neighbors, hatred sets in, enemy camps are created, and, as a result, instead of working together toward a better future, we (as a society) spend most of the time, instead, afraid, ashamed, resentful, disgusted, angered, and in fear of ghosts that don’t really exist. All negative and debilitating things.
As an immigrant Other, the only show I remember watching growing up in New Hampshire where I actually felt I could see myself in and gave me hope was Ghostwriter. Some of you may remember it. It was a children’s mystery television series on PBS that aired in the early- to mid-1990s set in Brooklyn. With the help of an invisible ghost, a group of close-knit friends solved neighborhood crimes. The group was diverse: Asian, Black, Latinx, etc. It was my favorite show. It gave me the confidence and boost I can only imagine non-racialized minorities, non-people of color—that is to say white folks—in the United States feel daily when they consume most mainstream media. I loved this show. Its last episode aired over 20 years ago, and I still think about it and the impact it had on my life.
There was even a character who was a war vet who was homeless, and he was a poet. He would make money composing poems for people who would walk by. In a way, this show gave me permission to become a poet, to become a writer … a thinker who could solve problems and the mysteries of my own world. I wanted to move to Brooklyn because of it.
One of the producers of the show many years later revealed during an interview that the ghost in the show—the actual ghostwriter—was a “runaway” enslaved person during the US Civil War. He had taught other enslaved folks how to read and write but was later killed by slave catchers and their dogs. His soul was kept in a book until one of the kids in the show opened the book, thereby freeing the enslaved. In an indirect way, this former enslaved Other, this “ghostwriter,” freed me to become who I could be in a way nothing else had at the time.
As I reflected on the show, I realized that one way to empower ourselves is by changing our perspectives and taking control of our narratives, telling our own stories through our voices and not through the lenses of groups who cannot speak for us or who used (and continue to use) us as a prop to either make money, entertain themselves, make themselves feel better about themselves, exploit us, or justify their own prejudices.
The dominant narratives tend to benefit those who have had traditional power and influence over society. Yet, sometimes all we need to change or disrupt power relations is not a new policy or the overhaul of an existing system (which, of course, are highly needed), but also realizing the power those traditionally labeled as powerless have. Identifying these blind spots is crucial, and one of the best places to start is by challenging commonplace and conventional assumptions about relationships, about power. Power in the sense of increasing our relative capacities to generate effective action in our worlds. Ghostwriter empowered me.
With The Nasiona, the social justice storytelling organization I founded and run, we share stories that explore the spectrum of human experience and give us a glimpse into different, foreign, and at times extraordinary worlds. In short, we humanize the Other. The stories I am most interested in amplifying are those of the systematically marginalized … the undervalued, the overlooked, the silenced, and the forgotten. The ghostwriters. I want The Nasiona to have the kind of impact Ghostwriter had on me. I want The Nasiona to have the kind of impact the queen on the chessboard had on the culture and how it allowed those who played the game to imagine, in many cases for the first time, a woman having power. I want it to have the kind of power an honest, vulnerable, courageous, and real conversation between friends who care about each other can have.
I read something the other day by civil rights activist and co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Alicia Garza, that stuck with me. She said that “Every successful social movement in the country’s history has used disruption as a strategy to fight for social change. Whether it was the Boston Tea Party to the sit-ins at lunch counters throughout the South, no change has been won without disruptive action.”
This got me to thinking that if you, if we, the border crossers, the immigrants, the sons and daughters of those who have been Othered, who have been marginalized, of those of us labeled as undesirables from shithole countries, if us Latinx peoples want things to change in this country, in this time in history, it will most likely come through making people uncomfortable, especially when there are so many out there who don’t want things to change. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once stated, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Consider this event this afternoon our list of demands. Demands to be heard. Demands to be centered. Demands to be seen as fully human worthy of the same rights and privileges bestowed upon so many others who reside in the United States.
For many years, for many decades, for many centuries, we’ve been regarded as savages, as beasts of burden, as needing to be purified, civilized, sterilized, and more recently we have been deemed by the current president as criminals and rapists. All of these labels create stories, create narratives in the minds of people that then are turned into stereotypes and caricatures and expectations that we—individuals and communities from Latin America or descendants from Latin America—have to shoulder and navigate.
We come to the starting line without being given the benefit of the doubt, but, instead, are drowning in a sea of fear and hatred, and are, as a result, forced to prove ourselves to not be these negative stereotypes—these criminals or drug dealers—to simply be taken seriously and respected. We are working against institutions, structures, systems, politics, culture, and deeply ingrained prejudices against us that go back hundreds of years. What I am saying, I am sure, is nothing new to you.
If I were to take a roll call to see who here has experienced some form of racism or xenophobia just in the past week, I am sure a wave of hands would be extended in the air. And I am sure there are many of us who have bitten our tongues when we have instead wanted to say, “Fuck you” to, in my case, the English teacher who treated me like and called me an animal, or the football coach who called me a Spic.
“Fuck you” I wanted to say to all of those since my teenage years who have treated me like someone—some thing—lesser because of my brown skin or my surnames or because I was not born here; to those who decided to not sit next to me on the bus, to those who clutched their purses or crossed the street when I approached in the mall or on the sidewalk; to those who have been surprised that I am articulate when I opened my mouth to speak; to those who were surprised to learn I have held leadership positions; to those who treat me as a servant simply because they think that people who look like me are put on this world to serve people who look like them; to those people who have screamed “White Power!” in my face with fists in the air and anger in their eyes, threatening me to not enter a restaurant because people like me, people like us, “do not belong” here.
What I am saying, I am sure, is nothing new to you.
So, the question becomes, how do we change the stories, change the narratives, change the culture, so people hear us, center us, and see us the way we see and want to see ourselves? So we are treated not like humans but as humans, with the respect we so rightfully deserve.
One thing we can do, which may not seem like a big thing but can have a big impact if we all decide today to collaborate on this project, is to no longer hold our tongues and to tell our stories as often and as creatively as possible.
In February of 2019, I interviewed researcher, artist, and writer Mireya S. Vela for my podcast. She said so many things I have thought about daily since I met with her. She said that breaking through some of the stereotypes requires a lot of imagination. She said you cannot have empathy without imagination. She said you have got to be able to imagine people in all of these different roles. How can people say Latinx individuals are not more than what they see on TV if they look around and see that we are also more than the country’s nannies, farmworkers, pool boys, gardeners, etc. More than drug dealers, rapists, and criminals. We are also business owners, doctors, judges, politicians, scientists, professors, lifeguards, engineers, artists, poets, novelists, race car drivers, cowboys, police officers, teachers, students, musicians, and on and on and on.
Ms. Vela said, “You have to be able to imagine this stuff.” She said, “I think one of the things we maybe don’t do because it can be very hard is we do not expose ourselves for who we are. We do not stand in the authenticity of who we are and what we are able to do because it can be frightening. But in not telling people, in not communicating, in not saying something, we are not allowing other people to imagine what those roles could look like.”
Our silences will not protect us.
And, when those people continue with their stereotypes and caricatures about us, and we continue to bite our tongues, and our so-called progressive allies continue to hold their tongues because it’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, or because you or they don’t want to hurt the feelings of the offender, then these silences contribute to our own oppression. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say to another, “Hey man, that’s not cool.” Sometimes all it takes is for someone to be able to imagine that someone like you, someone like me, can be so many other things than what they have been exposed to in the media, in the culture.
If the traditional gatekeepers will not expose us, center us, and represent us with the complexities of the full spectrum of our collective humanity and experiences, then it may be up to us and our allies to do so. We must continue to share our stories, not bite our tongues, and, whenever possible, amplify others and support organizations, politicians, businesses, and entertainment that do not exacerbate what oppresses us. And, if and when we gain some power in the system, we must not forget that such power also comes with a responsibility to the rest of the community.
Politics must change for much of our woes and institutionalized obstacles to fade and disappear, but most politics do not change without disruption, without demands, and without a cultural change that then drives politicians to want to be on the right side of history … a cultural change that proves to those afraid of us that there is nothing to be afraid of, because, though different, we are, after all, just like them. Human. If they could only imagine it.
Let us help them (and us) imagine that we, too, are a powerful piece on that chessboard; and hopefully, one day, they will not only be able to imagine us as powerful, but also want to be like us. Let us aspire to be the queens on the chessboard, and let us spread our stories through arts, through poetry, through any creative pursuit possible so these stories, too, cross the borders that sometimes are the toughest to cross: the minds of those who hate and fear us.
Go here to listen to and read the words of the following five courageous poets out of dozens who took the stage to share their personal stories during the “Cruzando Fronteras” event: Alondra Adame, Eva Gonzalez, Gustavo Martir, David Cruz, and Diana Castellanos.
Julián Esteban Torres López (he/him) is a bilingual, Colombia-born journalist, publisher, podcaster, author, researcher, educator, editor, and culture worker with Afro-Euro-Indigenous roots. Before founding the social justice storytelling organization The Nasiona, he ran several cultural and arts organizations, edited journals and books, was a social justice and public history researcher, wrote a column for Colombia Reports, taught university courses, and managed a history museum. He’s a Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions nominee and has written two books on social justice. Torres López holds a bachelor’s in philosophy and in communication and a master’s in justice studies from University of New Hampshire and was a Ph.D. candidate at University of British Columbia Okanagan, where he focused on political science and Latin American studies.