Long and Winding Bio
a long and winding auto-biografía de la tierra,
with a few significant omissions and many truths
tatiana de la tierra
I was born on the 14th of May of 1961, around 8:30 in the morning in Villavicencio, Colombia. It was Sunday—Día de las Madres—and I was a timely gift for my mother, who says that white butterflies along the riverbank heralded my arrival. I popped right out into the hands of a young nun, an 8 1/2 pound baby girl with ringlets on my head. When the nun saw me she yelled, “¡Ay dios mío! She looks like a pineapple!”
I am the oldest in my family, but I was not the first-born. Luis Alberto preceded me. Yet his presence on earth was faint; he died of septicemia when he was two months old. My mom, Fabiola Restrepo Botero, and my dad, Gustavo Barona Castrillón, were young, hopeful, and poor. When Luis Alberto died, my mom stole his corpse from the clinic and fled with my father; they stayed with friend, pretending the baby was still alive. Eventually my parents buried him properly, with the participation of young children in the procession, as is the custom. Luis Alberto’s death at such a young age laid the groundwork for the extreme distance my father kept from us.
My brother and playmate, Gustavo Alberto, was born in Bogotá in 1962. He was particularly bright—avispado—and, at two, was credited with saving a drowning infant’s life. The parents of the baby rewarded him with a few pesos, which my mom promptly spent on cigarettes. Then came my sister, Claudia Yanet, who sucked her thumb, cried a lot, and took a long time to start talking. After she started speaking, though, it was hard to get her to stop.
Some of my memories as a little girl in Colombia—running through rows of coffee bushes in the mountains, biting into the skin of a red ripe coffee bean, jumping on top of huge burlap sacks filled with dried coffee beans, kicking coffee beans on the sidewalk, riding horses and donkeys, walking over slippery rocks in cold rivers, chasing waves at the beach, watching sailboats in Santa Marta, watching cows get milked, collecting brown eggs from the nests, visiting neighbors with my Abuelita Elvia, going to jazz nightclubs with my Abuelita Blanca, longing for the shiny colorful candy in tall translucent bins in downtown Bogotá, sitting out in the sun in my great aunt’s garden in El Libano, getting woozy from the car rides in the mountains, going to the cemetery on Sundays and cleaning up my ancestor’s gravesites.
We lived in Bogotá during the first few years of my life. My father was in the Colombian Air Force and my mother knitted and sold baby clothes. My family was one of the first to inhabit a house in an experimental and idyllic neighborhood for economically disadvantages (and educated) families, El Minuto de Dios, created by the infamous El Padre García Herrera. We had a skylight and a garden in the center of the living room. But trouble was brewing. My mom was in love with another man—Ivan, an athletic dreamy photographer with leftist tendencies—and she ran away with him into the mountains, only to be hunted down by her father, who forced her to go back to my father and to us. This resulted in the temporary break-up of our family. I was sent to Barranquilla to live with my aunt Gladys and uncle Poncho, and my brother and sister were sent to Palmira to live with aunt Eyder and uncle Marino. At some point we all got back together and were nomadic and homeless in the small town of Palmira. Abuela Genarina, my paternal great grandmother, kicked us out of her house, where we were living at the time, because I was playing with the light switch.
Genarina is not a fond memory. It was said that she was a witch, and I do remember her stirring a cauldron and cackling, though she was probably just making a huge batch of arequipe (that’s a sweet milky thing). But my father swears that she was a medium and that she held séances to speak with the dead. I also remember how cruel she was to Abuelita Elvia, my grandmother, her daughter, who, near the end of her life, starved herself to death so she could get away from her evil mother. Genarina had a lot of fuel; she didn’t die until she was in her 90s.
When she kicked us out, we ended up, all five of us, sharing one bed in a house with many other people. Poor distant cousins, I believe. I remember when Polito answered the door. He heard our plight, and said, “If I have one potato, it is to be shared equally among everyone.” He had a bunch of teenage daughters with long hair and I remember they let me brush their hair. I wrapped white towels around my head and pretended I had a long mane.
Eventually, my father concocted the ultimate solution to the family drama—to get us out of Colombia.
On May 19, 1969, we all boarded a Colombian Air Force cargo plane and landed in Miami, Florida. Abuelita Blanca, my paternal grandmother, accompanied us to the airport and blessed our journey. I said goodbye to a childhood of playing in coffee fields, to quaint towns tucked in the mountains, and to the people who loved and cared for me—my grandmothers, aunts, and my great aunt, Teñito.
My little sister, Natasha, was born a few months after we arrived in Miami. She was a little gringa—her hair was even lighter than ours—and I was soon changing her diapers while my parents worked. My mom began working as a maid in Miami Beach hotels—the Tudor, on Collins Avenue, was the first—and my father worked in factories. We moved around from one apartment to the next for several years until we ended up with a house to call our own (though it never was ours) in Leisure City at 29822 SW 147th Avenue—I’ll never forget this address. This was in Homestead, redneck terrain, and we were the first Latinos on the block.
I grew up in typical Spanish-speaking immigrant fashion—poor and future-less. I spent many summers in Colombia, yet I still grew to hate my Colombian roots. Meanwhile, my mom cleaned houses and my father, even with a Bachelor’s degree, landed jobs as a security guard, as a clerk, and so on. Realizing that the American Dream was not for him, my father tried to get us to move back to Colombia, but we refused. He started an import-export business and went back and forth between Colombia and the U.S., while we stayed in Leisure City. He exported a strange assortment of things—from Bic pens (which we assembled at home between all of us) to pantyhose to refrigerators (new ones, which my parents would scuff up so they looked used and could pay less taxes) to Caterpillar parts (that’s some sort of construction equipment). His business success fluctuated wildly but we remained, in essence, poor.
I graduated from South Dade High School in 1979. By then, I knew that I was smart and talented—I had been in honors programs since junior high—and that I was some sort of writer. The highlight of all my education was always literature and creative writing. Plus, I was a feature writer and an editor of my high school paper, the South Dade Scene, and I loved journalism. But I had little vision and even less hope. I thought that maybe I could become a good secretary. I enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College and lived at home while I went to school. I did work-exchange, at first at the library and then at the Environmental Demonstration Center, where I became a hippie girl versed in solar energy and vegetarianism (and screwed all the male scientists at the Center, and fell in love with Reneé, a baby goddess). I got my Associate in Arts degree without a declared major—I was Undecided. But when my brother graduated from high school and announced that he was going to the University of Florida in Gainesville, I tagged along.
Gainesville, center of the universe, home away from home, changed everything. Education took a back seat while I explored Life. A blue 1971 VW Beetle, a boyfriend, the North Florida woods and rivers and crisp air—everything was new, and so was I. I embarked on a Spiritual Journey that led me to Dianic witchcraft, feminism, and ultimately, lesbianism. Goodbye to a decent boyfriend (he was an engineer who wanted to work for NASA; I didn’t believe in space exploration) and heterosexual society. And hello to the Wonderful World of Wimmin. Flash, Sally, Christie, Joan, Karen, Carmen Lucia, Verdell, Lisa, Maria, Miranda, Yolanda, Teresa, Donna, Gail, Roz, Gloria, Margarita, and others whose names I don’t even remember any more—they became my Meaning of Life. Yet I was in college and financial aid was running out. I had to get a degree so I went through the catalogue to see what looked like the fastest, easiest major and settled on psychology. My penchant for psychology was likely sparked by my being messed up all my life, with many wounds, and I initially sought to intellectually understand my pain. I graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelors of Science in Psychology in 1984.
Then, I followed my brand new lesbian heart and became a massage therapist at Educating Hands, a new age massage school in Miami, in 1986. Bodywork seemed to be my calling; I had a natural power that I could work with my hands. I used crystals, polarity, pressure points, and intuition with my craft. After the massage boards I put my table in my VW and went around the entire United States going to women’s music festivals and getting to know the geography of the country. I met enchanting women at the music festivals and traveled from city to city, staying with this one and that one, a friend of a friend of a friend, along the way.
Meeting Latinas and black women in the festival circuit was the next big awakening for me. I already knew identity politics and had class consciousness, but I had overlooked the way in which race, culture and ethnicity fit into the larger picture of my lesbian identity. Thus, my woman of color consciousness emerged, along with my Latina Lesbian identity, and this shaped my alliances and actions in the years that followed. And this explains esto no tiene nombre, the next cornerstone of my life.
Esto no tiene nombre was a Latina lesbian magazine that I edited with a group of Latina lesbians in Miami. It began as a newsletter for the Latina lesbian group, Las Salamandras de Ambiente. They ousted esto after the second issue for being forthright about lesbian desire and we then took the publication to another level with an increased print run, national distribution, and international coverage. It was a magazine that was a small and precious jewel and the making of esto no tiene nombre was one of the best eras of my life. I was very close with my co-editors—Margarita Castilla, who was my lover; Patricia Pereira Pujol, and Vanessa Cruz, who became good friends. When the esto collective split up, I wasn’t ready to let go of grassroots publishing, so I conceived conmoción, revista y red revolucionaria de lesbianas latinas, a grown-up version of esto. It was another wonderful bilingual, bicultural creation, even bigger and bolder. I still had support from Margarita and Patri (and Amy Concepcion, the new co-editor). But the workload was intense and I could not keep up with it. During this time, I was working full-time in my family’s pawn shop—Miami Cash—and had some massage clients. conmoción-related work was unending, and my health was being affected by all of this work and more. I was diagnosed with lupus then, and had a health crisis.
I went to Colombia to heal. Colombia by then had become my haven, the place where I went to come back to life. I visited my family all over the country—from Barranquilla and Valledupar to Bogotá and Líbano and Dorada. I went for the sheer beauty of the countryside, the volcanoes, the mountains, the ocean. I went to fall in love. And I went there to heal. Homeopathy, oxygen therapy, flower remedies, hydrotherapy—I did it all. And it was during one of those healing sessions that I decided to do something radical, to do something just for me—graduate school. I wanted to give my writing a chance and I wanted to give my life a chance, the possibility of a future.
Soon after, I headed to the University of Texas in El Paso (UTEP), where I went for my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing. I got evicted from my two bedroom apartment in Miami (which overlooked the bay), packed up my life (and left some in storage), and filled up a big U-Haul truck and headed to Texas. Margarita, my lover, drove me across the country. She planned the whole trip, including the itinerary, the stops, and the hotels where we would stay. But it was a bittersweet trip because she was furious at me. The night before leaving Miami, at the request of my close friend Reneé, I got a tattoo on my back—a spiral goddess. She got the same icon tattooed on her sacrum. Not that we needed an in image to be bound for life, but there it was.
Margarita was not happy that I had defiled my body this way. Tattoos were for prisoners and lowlifes, from her point of view. The drive to Texas was long and terrible. We spent the last night together in a king size bed in a hotel in downtown El Paso, which she said stunk of mold. She thought El Paso was the ugliest place in the world and swore she’d never be back. The next morning, we went for breakfast at La Chica Maria’s and ordered soupy huevos rancheros. With hostility to the hilt, I flung a $10 bill on the table and stomped out of the restaurant, spilling our glasses of water and toppling chairs in my path. She ran after me, down the street, grabbed me by the collar and started talking dirty to me, like she used to do. (She loved it when I cried.) And then she left, and I stayed, for my new life.
UTEP was a tough time. I am not a creature of the desert. I can’t stand the heat, and those dust storms and huge cockroaches didn’t exactly win me over. I never found a bakery with good bread. But the real problem was that the program was disappointing and not nurturing. I didn’t get guidance on my writing or publishing. At some point I realized that it was up to me to learn to write on my own.
I started with cunt stories, as I called them then—some of them were sexual and others were more about family (with a cunt somewhere in the story, of course). I interviewed my mom for family herstory to use in my stories. One of the characters in the story “Days of the Dead” (about the death of Chavita and the subsequent excavation of her corpse seven years later) strangely came to life on her own. Up until then all my writing was creative nonfiction. But Leidy Diana Botero grew into herself on my pages in—dare I say it—fiction. Leidy’s stories—“A Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes”—was my creative writing thesis.
I had an ulterior motive when I selected UTEP—to write and study literature in Spanish, which I was able to do via UTEP’s Spanish department. Among the classes I took was Mexican literature. For the final class project I had to write about one of the works we had covered during the semester. In an attempt to avoid theory and also as a way to practice fancy Spanish, I did my project on Dante Medina’s Zonas de la escritura. It was over my head, a challenge. I ended up lesbianizing his concepts about writing and thus wrote “Zonas de las lesbianas” which I eventually translated into English and which were eventually revised and renamed Para las duras / For the Hard Ones. There was a wonderful sense of discovery when I worked on this project. I lived in an apartment with wooden floors and tall ceilings. The room where I had my office was very long and narrow, with thick glass bricks and a skylight. I had my rocks in there (which I collect), and my writing tools, and all that El Paso light.
I learned to teach at UTEP. Up to that point I could barely speak in front of a group of people. But in order to teach I had to get over that. Fueled by nerves, I was quite the Rambo English composition instructor—I used the classroom as theatre, as pulpit, as laboratory, as the place where lost souls discovered that essays also had souls. I loved my students and I forced them to love me. I taught writing with a complicated syllabus I had created and an eclectic reader that I had compiled, with standard writing exercises as well as creative writing exercises. It was a strange mix but for the most part I think it worked. I’d say that my teaching experience at UTEP was really the heart of my time there (along with some significant friends I made there, the ones I suffered with, particularly Olga, Vero, and Lupe). I wanted to continue teaching but then there was that pesky problem—I saw all my friends with MFAs teaching multiple sections of English composition as adjuncts, grinding themselves into dust without benefits. I resolved not to do that to myself. And among my ideas, just about at the bottom of the list, was library school.
My mom went to El Paso and helped me drive across the country in a huge U-Haul, this time to Buffalo, New York, so I could go to library school at the University at Buffalo. I cried every night my first week of library school. Somehow I adapted to the bizarre culture of databases, catalogs, authority control, pathfinders, information literacy, and information storage and retrieval. (Though I haven’t quite adapted to the concept of 9 a.m. library committee meetings.) I hate to say this, but library school made me a Serious Person. Perhaps too serious. Things that occupy my mind now—the politics of information, the way that cataloguing (especially subject headings) affects the visibility of materials in the catalog, the poor attention paid to Spanish-language queer books, collection development of materials by and about Latina lesbians and gay, the tokenism in the field, the homophobia and racism in the field, the threats to my creative persona in the institution of the library.
Gosh, what happened to the days of cunt stories, the days of collecting rocks and loving women, the days of baking real whole wheat bread, the days of mountains and oceans and volcanic mud? My sensuous Taurus self had to learn to love snow and hibernation. Had to become a snow mermaid, a slithery woman who does still do all of the above yet with a fulltime job as an academic librarian. And I had to face the facts—that I am an academic who loves to do research and write it up to share with the world. That I want to use my librarian’s tools to make a difference in the world. That there is still a pagan hippie girl inside of me who believes in social justice. That I am all grown up in Buffalo, with a few fantastic friends who are like family to me, with poetry happening, with books and chapbooks to show, with healing still happening, with conferences and readings here and there, with a little farmer’s market on Saturday mornings where I can buy a house full of fresh flowers for me and my hungry saints.
What the hell. If I can’t live in Colombia, I’ll take Buffalo, for now. The wooden houses are old and pretty, the people are friendly (if I’m in the mood), the good bakeries are plentiful, and the seasons are entertaining, especially winter. I long for that first snow. Then I long for that first day of spring. I figure that if I’m longing for something, I must be alright.
Written mayo de 2001, buffalo, nueva york
Revised 5 de julio de 2004, buffalo, nueva york