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Articles + Essays
Autumn/Winter 2017

Reclaiming My Journey

by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

Goyita (1953) by Rafael Tufiño

The Debt

Once upon a time, I fell asleep
and while defenseless in my slumber,

my ancestors descended to whisper

their stories in my ears.

Old women
in cracked slippers and ill-fitting teeth

rolled their hips into caned rockers

and settled into my dreams
to gift me their tales.

In the morning,
my rational, well-educated mind
banished them
to a room of night time fantasies.
They shook their braided heads and waited--

patient, serene and sure.

But young and all-knowing,

I had much to do.

And so I dined at foreign tables,
reveling in the taste of the new and exotic.

I danced under Mediterranean moons,

played in virgin sand dunes
listened to the call of doves
soaring over cathedrals of gold.

And all the while, they waited,
chewing tobacco and watching the sunset

over the Caribbean--
patient, serene and sure.

Years passed and I have finally come home,

gray-haired, tired and world-worn.
I fall asleep and there they are,
working their yellowed silk fans,

sipping black coffee

and waiting for me--

patient, serene and sure.

They habitually ambush me in my sleep.

But now, they will not stay
in their appointed places in the dark.

Instead they follow me into waking.

I find them hanging from my curtains,

hiding in my jewelry box,
resting in my dresser drawers,

watching from my mirror.

They disturb my spice jars
and surprise me in my plantain pie.

They reside in my music,
the earthiness of Celia’s voice,
the delicacy of Tito’s xylophone.

Finally, humbled and wiser,
I arise,
darkness rubbing against my window pane,

snow and silence blanketing the world outside.

I take out my pen,
roll my hips into my caned rocker
and write them the stories
that have been waiting--
patient, serene and sure--
all along. 


           It took some time. But I finally came to understand my writing journey and to embrace the process that allowed me to tap into my creative flow and my ancestral stories. My Muses were the spirits of my Afro- Boricua ancestors whom I connect with through daily meditation. Like my grandmother’s old stories, which triggered my imagination as a child, they introduced me to long-gone worlds. They provided the images that helped me when I was blocked and couldn’t find my next sentence. The sacrifices of the men and women who came before me, the strength and resolve that lead them through years of slavery, poverty and hardship, allowed for me to sit and have the power and privilege of becoming a storyteller on a scale they couldn’t have even imagined. And so, it has been my mission to tell their stories which have been silenced for far too long.

            And then it happened. Election 2016. The whole two years leading up to the actual election was a frontal attack on everything I am and believe in. I am a 67 year old, bicultural, bilingual, Afro-Puerto Rican, liberal, feminist, well-educated, overweight New Yorker, who insists on openly embracing all the facets of my other-ness while claiming, no, demanding, no, wresting, her supposedly inalienable American rights. I am the essence of everything this ‘new’ right-wing, supposedly populist, movement hates. The hatred is not new, not to any honest student of American history or any person of color. But the depth and dimension of it in this our 21st century, left me outraged and shocked.

            The Hydra of evils that had been contained was now unleashed to openly attack anything or anyone not fitting their view of Americanism. Perhaps most insultingly, their leader continued to deny to our collective face the reality of his hate-filled rants as what they obviously were—a war against anyone not a straight, White Christian American, the blonder, the better. ‘Taking America back’ meant exactly that, retreating, back to the pre-Civil Rights era, back to canine attacks and water hoses, back to voter restrictions and public lynchings (literal or figurative). And he demonstrated exactly how to do that ad nauseum in 24-hour television news programing.

           The man who got elected was detestable but what was most shocking to me were the millions who espoused his message and voted him into office. The truth is that regardless of which of his many tentacles of hate his legions supported, they were quite willing to sacrifice the rest of us to their disaffection. The enormous wave of hatred that was unleashed threatened to drown the rest of us out of existence.

           I am a wordsmith, a teller of stories. It is my passion. It is how I make sense of the world. It is my mission. But in my despair, I lost my words. My pen stilled, my pages remained blank; my computer keys untouched. Meditation, my conduit to my creative force and my ancestral voices, was no longer viable. I sat under the weight of my sadness and in the tunnel of my silence watching hour after hour of ‘news’. I couldn’t keep myself from witnessing the de-construction of the world I thought I knew, the values I believed in. It was a bad horror movie, except that it wasn’t a movie. This was real.

          As this man concentrated on his image, his underlings began laying the foundation for what would undeniably be the dismantling of all the advances we had made in the past half-century; I imagined the onslaught of violence and brutality about to enter our lives. On some level, those were never gone, now they would explode into full rage on a massive scale. I felt myself sinking further and further into darkness in my waking hours. In my sleep, I found snarling dogs and screaming children and angry white faces—all with an overlay of blood red.

            Having seen the face of long-term depression, I recognized just how close I was to the not-coming- back. I still don’t know how, but after six weeks of silent sadness, there was enough self-preservation left in me to know that I had to turn off the ‘news’ and step away from the discussions and analysis and the vitriol.

            Instead, I turned to those things that have always brought me joy—good friends, music, books, the arts and food. I surrounded myself with people whom I loved and who loved me. I created a gentle, loving environment in my home, a cocoon to sustain me while I healed. The struggle would have to wait until I was nurtured with love. The Hydra would be held at bay until I mended.

           Buoyed by love, I found I could begin to sit in meditation again. There, I found my ancestors standing in the shadows, strong as stone, waiting for me to open the door to their resilience and their endurance. Their unspoken words hung in the penumbra of the universe. We have been through worse and we have survived. Why else are we still standing? Why else are you still standing? In that instant, I knew that the strength that sustained them through the adversities of their worlds was the legacy that would sustain me through the challenges of mine. I have inherited their fortitude to survive the unspeakable. I sat with those old souls every day. They led the way. And every day I moved further from the darkness and closer to the light. And they smiled.

          Your words are your resistance. Find your way back to them.

          Storytelling. The telling of our stories. It is the best arsenal at my disposal. I have come too far, for too long, to allow myself to retreat into silence. My words will disrupt the national narrative that has for too long ignored my very existence. I will not yield. We have been here and not leaving. We are woven into the very fabric of this nation. There will have to be a new definition, one that includes all of us, all the voices of our nation.

              Tomorrow I will sit before my blank pages and start filling them with the words and images of the world as I know it. I will write my stories and I will not let the mean-spirited and the hate-filled rob me of my voice again. It has cost too many, too much, for too long. And I owe them.

We have always been here.
We will continue to struggle.
We will endure the time of these little people.

And yes, this too shall pass. 

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa’s first novel, Daughters of the Stone was selected as a finalist for the 2010 PEN America Bingham Literary Award. Ms. Llanos-Figueroa’s work, heavily influenced by West African mysticism and South American magical realism, is grounded in her experiences in the Puerto Rican communities on the island and in New York City. Her fiction focuses on the experiences of Afro-Puerto Ricans in the 19th and 20th centuries. For further information refer to her website at

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