By Tiffany Marrero
I remember the time when I was little, before I had a degree or the knowledge to verbalize that something was wrong: All I knew was the feeling of suffocating. Continually fighting to breathe, fighting to get through, fighting to wake up each morning.
I am not sure whether I was angry at nature or nurture. Whether I was angry at my inability to never fit in, to never seem to know how to shut up or just fold. My inability to accept a “yes” and just swim along the tides. Would HIV have been more bearable if I simply knew how to assimilate? I get a house with a white picket fence, monogamous sex, church three times a week, stay at home? Would it have been more bearable if I had known my mother, black HIV-positive woman, before she gave me up?
Why is that? Well, I think it’s because I didn’t grow up in a black household. My adoptive mother was a Boriqua queen who ran the house and the heart of my father (both were born and raised in Puerto Rico). I was black and, back then in 2000s when everyone my age thought being “Spanish” was looking like JLo or Pitbull, I wasn’t allowed to claim what my Afro-Latina stepmother did. (She often told me she was black, and once, that my white-passing father’s family did not want my caramel-toned stepmother in the family.) While I value her experiences, I needed to see other little black girls with Latinx last names and who loved merengue just as much as I did. There was no “Afro-Latina” then in the South Florida where I grew up. I had no right to be as proud of my parents’ culture as they were, although I was raised as stereotypically as you can get: loud bilingual momma, yuca and yellow rice on the stove, a mechanic father with plenty of machismo. There was no one to help me navigate the world as a black woman. Maybe my anger came because I understood things I couldn’t yet speak.
Stories of my biological mother are few and far between, pieced together and passed to me by the nursing staff of my former hospital in Broward County, where I was born in 1991. I know she was a woman living with HIV when there was inadequate treatment. I know she was black, a mother of at least nine children, dealing with drug addiction and HIV, and she never got to know me. I assume she used drugs because I was born with drugs in my system. I read my hospital report, which says that this beautiful black woman had more demons than I could ever come to understand. Before black spaces, I would have assumed she was doing drugs, running around sleeping with folks to fuel her life. Before black spaces, I would have read my chart and hated her more for passing so much onto me with little support — for making me deal with the so-much before I even learned how to walk. Truth is, black spaces helped me realize that she could only do as much as her chains would let her: I lived. I’m here writing and excelling. A black momma did that, not only did she, but with the weight of oppression on her shoulders. Mission complete. I think she did exactly as she was supposed to do with all against her.
The story was that she named me and that was it. Did she plan a name in the midst of her heightened addiction? Did she pray for forgiveness? To die? To separate from her blackness as I did? Was it her blackness that aided in her losing me to another momma? For a black women with HIV and children in the midst of drug addiction, police and jails and judgmental doctors and child protective services in the 1990s demonstrated a lot of disdain for her, her choices, and the children she birthed.