Nahir I. Otaño Gracia
Last time I wrote a public piece, I wrote about borders: the borders of my new home state, New Mexico; how I see borders in my research and in Medieval Studies; and how we can dismantle them in my field of study. Now I would like to talk about being an academic and a medievalist, about experiencing trauma and hurricane Maria, about motherhood and uncertainty, and about resilience in adversity.
On September 19, 2017, when we felt the first winds of Hurricane Maria, I was a day shy of turning thirty-seven weeks pregnant. My daughter Enora Maya was born a month after the hurricane on October 18th. I sing to her that she came with the waters and the winds—que vino con los vientos y las aguas y se lo canto al ritmo de “Feel it Still” de la banda Portugal, “The Man”—that she is strong, patient, and brave because she waited for us to get her, and that we had to rescue her. These comments are not exaggerations. But they also downplay everything—just like everything I write here downplays everything. The passing of Hurricane Maria radically changed me; encounters change us, we are not immune to them.
I would like to tell you a memory.
I was watching Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke. The most powerful scene for me was when Lee shows footage after footage of news anchors calling the people of New Orleans “refugees.” The men and women interviewed in the documentary expressed pain at being described in this way because to be a refugee means that you are coming from another country. So, months after hurricane Maria hit my Island home, when I finally had internet and electricity and water, and I was able to engage with colleagues and friends from the United States, I was not surprised to hear people calling the thousands of Puerto Ricans leaving the Island “refugees.” I was not surprised to see friends, academics, and medievalists call Puerto Ricans “refugees.” I was surprised to see how many academics could, in theoretical terms, discuss Puerto Rico and the traumas of the Island while, at the same time, forget that I am one of the Puerto Ricans that was living on the Island—as if trauma is a theoretical exercise and not a lived experience. In fact, I am certain that most academics do not even realize that I, like other thousands of Puerto Ricans, left my home because I felt I had no choice.
Let me make something clear, I am not a refugee; I am displaced. This country in which I reside cannot escape the fact that Puerto Rico was made a colony of the United States, forced Puerto Ricans into citizenship (and into every single US war since WWI), and created the conditions of neglect that led to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. People often speak to me about climate change as if it is in the near future. It is not. I know firsthand what it means to be the victim of climate change— of the greediness of disaster capitalism— and I know firsthand what it means to be dehumanized and rendered invisible. Invisible to the institutions that consistently deny the island aid, and invisible to my colleagues who have made it very clear that they have moved on and therefore I should too.
Most of the time that I bring up the most traumatic aspects of what happened to me, people either change the subject or look so horrified that I change the subject. You see, it is now also part of my job to protect you from my trauma, make it invisible to all of you. And I have always felt invisible as an academic. I have felt invisible because Latinx scholars are perilously underrepresented in academia and even more so in medieval studies; because academia (and medieval studies) has tall walls in place to keep people of color out; because almost every year someone forgets that I sent an abstract for a panel or that I applied for a committee; because I am mis-gendered; because most of the people I meet at university campuses assume I am an undergrad (if they assume I belong in academia at all), and they are shocked to find out I’m a professor (let alone a professor in an English department and of medieval literature).
Now that I am in many ways through the walls that keep so many people of color out—because I made colleagues, because I have institutional affiliation, and because I have found ways to protect myself from racism—I am still invisible because academia is not ready to accept the fact that I am a medievalist, that I am Puerto Rican, that I am also displaced, and that I am displaced because the United States doesn’t give a shit about Puerto Ricans.
I am an academic, a part of the field of medieval studies, and I study the Middle Ages. This should be enough for me to belong, but it is not. I am only accepted conditionally, just like the United States makes Puerto Ricans citizens but not true citizens, I am only accepted if I follow the unspoken rule of making no one uncomfortable and keeping my trauma invisible. But as climate change, disaster capitalism, and anti-migrant policies continue to displace us, perhaps we should expand the tenets of our field to accommodate what makes us uncomfortable and disorients us from our center. I don’t know about you, but that is part of what I love about studying the Middle Ages, that it won’t allow us to be comfortable or settled. It is after all an almost unimaginable past. Perhaps we should allow for that kind of unsettledness to be part of the field and not just of the texts we study.
I woke up on September 20th at 3:00 am to the wind howling! It sounded like a fierce dragon bent on destroying us. I have never heard anything that loud, let alone the wind. The wind screamed at us, the windows opened and closed, they banged at us with anger, they threatened to jump at us as if they were alive, as if they were Old Irish weapons ready to fight against us. And the water was coming in, so much water was coming in.
My family and I spent the hurricane at my parents’ house, and I remember my dad holding the door because we thought it would fly off. The rest of us where trying to stop the water from coming in. My mother says that she will never forget the image of me with my big belly trying to get rid of the water. I will never forget having to climb over downed trees heavily pregnant so that I could get back to my home— just so that I could find all of my possessions wet, just so that I would lose half of it to mold, just so that I would lose the rest, because I had to leave.
But during the hurricane I was calm because I did not want my baby to feel the stress. I managed to keep myself calm that first day, but I was not prepared for the second day. I was not prepared for the wind to continue screaming for a second day. Beowulf did not endure the dragon for two days, at least I don’t remember that he did. And just like Beowulf, I was defeated. On that second day, I started having contractions. They were ten minutes apart and we went to the hospital. I did not give birth that day, but I continued to have contractions every day until my daughter’s birth a month later. Every day I was in pain—feeling my belly contract and relax—and every day that I was in pain, was a day that my baby was safer. I didn’t mind the pain even though I still feel it sometimes.
Yes, the passing of Hurricane Maria radically changed me, and as I write this— in the first week of the New Year— the fires in Australia and the possibility of war weigh heavily on me. A week later, as I revise this, earthquake after earthquake hits my home, my Island. A month later, as I expand the essay, COVID-19 spreads globally. And more and more academics come out with their own fears, pains, and traumas. I am in pain for others, and that pain manifests physically. My sadness pools on my belly, low and heavy, like it did in my pregnancy and at my daughter’s birth. But also, my article “Towards a Decentered Global North Atlantic” was published in a special volume of Literature Compass, “Critical Race and the Middle Ages,” edited by Dorothy Kim. I am so proud and humbled to be in the volume, to see my work alongside the work of such amazing scholars. I feel immensely for the trauma of others, and I worry that their trauma will also be made invisible. I also feel proud to have written and published this article. We are multidimensional after all.
You see, “Towards a Decentered Global North Atlantic” best exemplifies my theoretical perspective; it describes how I see myself as a medievalist. Hidden among my many ideas, I also explain why we should use the passive voice more often (a hallmark of my Latinidad). I write: “A Global Middle Ages approach to medieval Scandinavian Studies reinforces that the Norsemen changed other cultures, but it does not show how Scandinavian cultures themselves were changed” (italics my own 2019, 3).
The passive voice here explains one of the most important tenets of my work. I am interested in difference; I am interested in how we change each other. I am interested in showing that these differences and changes make us better. You should know that the first iteration of the above sentence— the first iteration of the framing of this article, before I even knew it would turn into this article— was written in my house in Cayey, PR when I had no electricity. It was written for the 2018 Sewanee Medieval Colloquium Plenary Seminar titled “Medieval Race and the Modern Scholar.” I actually do not have a copy of the email I sent with the abstract because most of the emails I sent back then were not saved. Even when we began to have access to communication, it was stunted, incomplete. But that is also how the ideas for that paper began. Communication was utterly unreliable for so long, but we would get what my husband calls “Internet breezes.”Sometimes I would open up Twitter on my phone and some tweets would have downloaded. I had access to no images, so I could see peoples’ names but not their pictures. If there was a thread, I could only see the first tweet. I could not open any articles, I could not see any responses—it was all incomplete. And when something new happened to download, everything else was lost. In this incomplete state, with these little pockets of Internet, I was able to feel part of something bigger.
In this incomplete state, with these little pockets of Internet, I found out that all the people in the emergency unit of a Puerto Rican hospital died that night because there was no electricity or a functioning generator, including all the premature babies (I can’t find the tweet, I just remember reading it).
The first month after the hurricane was the hardest month for the Island. No electricity, no Internet, no phones, no cash, no gas, sometimes no food. We were lucky we had prepared very well for the hurricane. We followed the National Weather forecast instructions on how to prepare for a hurricane. We had a generator (but how were we supposed to know it eats up so much gas, too much gas?), we had two gallons of water per person, we had a weeks’ worth of canned food, we had gas and cash. But we were not prepared, because nothing can prepare you for the damage, for the length of time without help, for the pain our Island suffered (a pain that was squeezing me every ten minutes for that entire month).
All the trees were gone, so many houses gone, so many people in need, and then we found out that so many people were also gone. My grandmother was old—my grandmother was encamada— but I still wonder if would she have made it to 100 years old (her goal I believe) if the hurricane, and then the apathy of our second colonizer, had not punched us in the stomach? I remember my cousin, who had a one month old baby, frantically looking for water to be able to give her child formula. There was no formula in the stores. When you’re pregnant and privileged, breastfeeding vs. using formula is a debate. But breastfeeding was no longer a choice for me. “Fed is best” was not a choice for me. Breastfeeding my baby was a matter of survival.
I spent that first month in and out of the hospital. My OBGYN had their office there and I had to go at least once a week. Sometimes I waited for hours to be attended by my doctor. All the pregnant women and I waited up to eight hours there. Why? We were coming from different places, some were sent there from other offices. There were no phones, no way of contacting anybody so we just had to arrive and wait until the doctor saw us. I remember needing to get bloodwork done, and the woman attending me had just received her paycheck. She looked at it and said, “What am I supposed to do with this?” There were no banks open yet so she could not cash her check. She had to do everything by hand because there were no computer systems. She had to do it by herself because so many of her colleagues had left.
You see, very quickly after the hurricane, hospitals from all over the United States came to the island to pilfer us of our professionals. Bilingual nurses that would work for less and had citizenship (Ah, the American dream!). The nurse told me that the hospital-lab was doing the blood analysis of their own patients and of two other hospitals. Sometimes the lights would go out because the generator ran out of diesel and we had to wait for the lights to come back up. They would mostly come back up, except the days they ran out of diesel. The hospital had two generators working. At night, the hospital was a beacon of light in Cayey; the only thing emanating light. Everything took time and everyone waited patiently. We all knew that the hospital was taking care of people from all over the island because it was one of the few functioning hospitals. We all waited, everyone waited.
I gave birth at 41 weeks and my labor was induced. My baby, we did not know the sex yet, did not want to come out. But my body could not take it anymore. You see, my belly was just too big, it was growing too much and retaining too much liquid. I kept being asked if I was having twins. The combination of my new forced diet (too much canned food, and I also lost almost 50 pounds between my pregnancy and Enora’s first month of life) and I imagine the stress, had an effect on me. I was having contractions, I began to dilate but my baby’s heart beat was dropping at the wrong time. I will always remember my doctor’s words: If you try to push this baby out, there will be no baby. So I had an emergency C-section. It was awful, but I owe my daughter’s life to it—so it was awful, but it was also necessary. We then found out that we had a girl—
Enora Maya. We also found out that her cord was wrapped once around her neck. I have never felt so tired and scared and helpless, and I had just gone through a hurricane and a month of its aftermath. The lights had gone out and come back at the hospital twice that day, and I was afraid they would go out during the C-section. They did not. Enora was fine. Enora is now two. Enora is perfect.
Enora liked to breastfeed, fill herself up with milk, and fall asleep in my arms. While she slept on one hand, sometimes I would open up Twitter to see if something new uploaded. Through Twitter I became aware of the Muslim Vikings incident, although I did not have the complete story. As far as I could tell, an exhibition on Vikings, led by a team of scholars, was released in 2017 that highlighted a Viking cloth that spelled the word ‘Allah.’ The cloth signaled the possibility of Muslim Vikings. As far as I could tell, all hell broke loose.
Later, I pieced together the story: that the first comments by white supremacists used a simplistic form of the Vikings and the Global Middle Ages argument to dismiss the claim. They argued that the cloth was stolen from a raid in the Middle East and was kept because it looked “cool.” Once the story expanded, which puported the cloth was made by Vikingsusing silks from Central Asia—suggesting that Islam influenced the religious ideology of Scandinavia— the reaction changed significantly. Not only were white supremacists railing against the find, but academics themselves began to question the conclusions of Dr. Larsson by concentrating on ways to dispute the findings. Several scholars also began to question the credibility of Dr. Larsson as a scholar.
What I remember about the incident, which I got from those little bits here and there, was that Dr. Larsson’s assertions created cognitive dissonance to academics and white supremacists alike by implying that the Islamicate influenced Viking culture. I noticed a tendency to change the conversation back into a Global Middle Ages perspective. It is fine that Vikings traveled to the Islamic world, but it is unacceptable that Muslims influenced medieval Scandinavians. I kept wondering why we see Vikings as having the potential to change others through their interactions, but not that Vikings were also changed by those same encounters. From what I understand, the final word on the argument was that the findings were incorrect. But the vitriol with which the findings were attacked, which then spun into something else, still shocks me. But this incident, which I only knew of from little bits here and there, was key for me to arrive to the theories that I outline in “Towards a Decentered Global North Atlantic.”
I think about this all the time—that I was able to engage with my profession even if my profession did not know it. Even as I felt that every day was an exercise in survival and existence, I was still an academic, I was still a medievalist. I am still a medievalist, just like I am still dealing with the consequences of Maria and its aftermath, just like my cesarean scar hides in plain sight.
My daughter’s birth has marked me like the hurricane has marked my Island. I now have a red scar on my body— evidence of my daughter’s birth, evidence of the storm. And just like how the scar is always covered up but always there, these experiences and the many others I experienced, are always covered up but always there.
Hurricane Maria came and went and we, as the Puerto Rican people, moved; we actively moved and did everything we could. We all worked together, moved trees out of the way, cleaned debris, helped our neighbors, created water holes, did the laundry by hand, watched one another’s kids to get work done. We did everything we could and then we waited. We actively waited for the experts and professionals to do the jobs we could not do because they were beyond our capacity. We actively waited for those in positions of power to take action, but they passively took action to hurt us and render us invisible.
I have heard it explained that we Latinx are lazy (I have been told this to my face, the first time I have a clear memory of it was when I was thirteen-years-old and it was my social studies teacher). We are passive and our use of the passive voice is the perfect example of our passivity. This is our gift from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century racist linguistic bullshit. In the English language, it is hammered into us that we have to use the active voice (you have no idea how much Microsoft Word is fighting me about this essay)— to show that we create the action. Except in cases of sexual assault. In sexual assault, you use the passive to erase the assaulter and make the victim responsible. When it comes to hurting others, English wants nothing to do with action. The U.S. becomes passive when it comes to stopping climate change, when it comes to stopping disaster capitalism, when it comes to acknowledging our wars, when it comes to helping migrant families, when it comes to helping survivors, when it comes to stopping a virus. The U.S. was all inaction when it came to helping Puerto Ricans, and academia is all inaction when it comes to acknowledging and accepting this trauma.
And this is the thing. We are experiencing trauma. The trauma that academia, as it is now conceived, is the product of colonialism and of white supremacy; the trauma that many of our forefathers were bullies and sexual assaulters; the trauma that we have failed survivors and have not protected them from these harms; the trauma that most of us, most of the time, don’t know what to do about it.
Since I am who I am, I will end on a hopeful note. Let me reiterate something, the Latinx passive voice tells us to consider the other side, to remember the other side, to allow for the other side to have agency too. There is nothing passive about the Latinx passive voice. It is the strength of a people lifting themselves up. We Puerto Ricans continue to lift ourselves up, even if we are systemically put down every single day. Let us take a cue from the Latinx passive voice and actively work to help each other, to see each other. The first steps are always the most uncomfortable. But if we lift each other up, we are stronger.
Like most Puerto Ricans, I also experienced happiness and relief— especially when my daughter quickly took to my breast, and I could see that I was producing enough colostrum and milk, and I knew that I would not have to worry about my daughter going hungry. Although this did not erase the pain, fear, and helplessness of the whole ordeal, the relief and happiness of that moment kept so much else at bay. Every time I hold my daughter and she looks at me and I know she is well and safe and alive; it keeps the rest at bay. Just like the people that came to our aid—which was never the government that continues to bleed us to bankruptcy—the neighbors that moved the trees so that I did not have to climb over them again; the trash that was removed right away because the workers did not take the days after the hurricane off; or the onesies, diapers, and other materials that showed up at my house because people sent them by mail and somehow they managed to get there despite it all; these things keep the rest at bay. All of these moments, amplified by the thousands of people that did this kind of work for all of us here on the island, keep the pain at bay. As earthquakes destroyed parts of my Island, and COVID-19 is spreading, I worry for my family every single second of the day. I see Puerto Ricans telling themselves we are scared but we will survive, we will rise, we are strong!
I feel like I embody my Puerto Rico. I feel a little broken and worse for wear, although alive and trying to slowly heal. I saw how everyone else moved on from our pain after Maria and the earthquakes, and I fear the same will happen with COVID-19. I feel nothing like the triumphant pride I felt when I gave birth to my first daughter, but I feel the same love and pride for my Enora Maya as I do for my Violet Mariluz.
I have written before on dehumanization, and on the repercussions of dehumanizing tactics in the Middle Ages and in the present. Our goal—I wrote the article with a colleague—was that if we learn to see dehumanizing tactics in the past, we might be able to see them in the present. As climate change, the US military complex, and disaster capitalism continue to make migrants of us all— and does so by arguing for our inhumanity— I ask that we reject this dehumanization. I ask that you see that trauma does not go away once the news move on. I ask that you see me even if it makes you uncomfortable.
We Puerto Ricans are dispersed—we are there on the Island or here on the mainland— but we are here. Despite the pain, we are here. Less than 24 hours after my C-section, I was made to walk because it would be better for me in the long run. As then, so too now: despite the pain—of being displaced, of being erased, of experiencing racism—I walk every day, I make my family proud every day, I try to make a name for myself every day. And I do it by being fiercely Puerto Rican, fiercely Latinx, fiercely hispanoablante, and a medievalist. Today I am also doing it by showing you that I am also struggling and healing, and that being fiercely myself means that you should know that I carry trauma, and that my trauma is still raw even if my scar is cauterized. I guess my point is that from today on I refuse to be conditionally accepted.
Nahir I. Otaño Gracia is an Assistant Professor of English and Medieval Studies at the University of New Mexico. Her theoretical frameworks include translation theory and practice, the global North Atlantic (Britain, Iberia, and Scandinavia), and critical identity studies. Her scholarship has appeared in Comitatus, Enarratio, and Literature Compass, and her current projects include a monograph entitled The Other Faces of Arthur: Medieval Arthurian Texts from the Global North Atlantic, and a co-edited volume entitled Women’s Lives: Self-Representation, Reception, and Appropriation in the Middle Ages.