The Right to Write

by Neira Ortega

I often wonder why I write. I know I’m not alone; others ask why too. I try not to question whether or not I’m a good writer. I just know it started when I was a little girl and learned to read at five years old. My family was surprised, and my mom said the book, First Words, the one we used in our kindergarten class, taught me how to read.

I’m not sure if it was that book, or if it was because I spent so much time reading everything I saw around me—from the title covers of my dad’s records to the newspaper. My dad liked to read La Alarma, a magazine about police activity in Mexico, and I would read that too. I had an intense addiction to comic books, short stories, novels and any type of magazine. My mom had a small bread shop in the market which made it easy to find reading material. Without much access to books, I read whatever I could get my hands on.

Since I read so much, it occurred to me, why not try to write? I began to write short stories where I was the protagonist. Stories of a young girl rejecting her family—her alcoholic father and parents so busy with their bakery that they didn’t have time for their daughter. I wrote stories of a young girl who was adopted and sent to live in another country. This girl was very happy with her new family. I even invented the name of the city and exact street address. I was captivated by writing these stories; I escaped and was transported to another world for those brief moments.

A world where I was happy in another country, like the U.S. Where another language was spoken and machismo didn’t exist. Where mothers were free and didn’t get beaten. I imagined I lived in a big lovely house with a beautiful garden and that my parents were with me playing in this garden. I talked to myself, pretending to be on the phone with my grandmother telling her how happy I was in this big house. How my parents were happy with me and they didn’t fight. I wrote these stories with accompanying drawings and lots of colors.

I left my stories everywhere, I didn’t care who read them. Unfortunately, my mom didn’t like this. She said what I wrote could only come from a deranged mind and she thought I was crazy. I couldn’t process all of this at seven years old and I started to get scared. Still, I continued to write, even when my mom used to tear up all my writing in fits of rage. One day I felt so terrible. I thought I was bad and convinced myself I was only writing to embarrass and anger my mom. I promised myself I would never do it again.

I got along with only reading up until middle school when I started liking boys. I wrote poems of love and my friends made fun of me. I fought with one of them when they laughed at the passionate poem I had written:

 

You are my ignited passion

That fulfills my desires

You are discovered magic

That inspires my desires

You have arrived in my life

Filling my emptiness

You are a lit candle

Among my nights without brightness

My love, since we met

I realized I already loved you

Our encounter is the culmination

Of our past love

 

I laugh at this poem now, but back then I was angry, upset that my friends had pried into my intimacy, misinterpreting my simple poem. I think that’s why it’s so hard to read what I write in public today. It’s a challenge, difficult, but not impossible.

Now I think writing is a right. My will to tell my story is greater than the frustrations I feel about my writing. When we write, we transform our feelings into words. I remember the letter Gloria Anzaldúa wrote to women of color, “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers,” in the book, This Bridge Called my Back: “I write because I’m scared of writing. But I’m more scared of not writing.”

These words have been engraved in my head. As a woman of color, Latina immigrant, feminist, activist, fighter for women’s rights, how could I not write? Like Anzaldúa said, “In that very act [of writing] lies our survival, because a woman who writes has power.”

In this patriarchal society, what more can we do than write, to give value to our voice, capture who we are on paper? It’s an imperative necessity for us to create consciousness in this society where we are always on the worst side of inequality.

I go back to the times of Sor Juana Inés, the 17th-century Mexican feminist, writer and philosopher, and the challenges she overcame to write. The right to write didn’t exist for women, especially a poor “illegitimate” one. It didn’t matter that she created famous phrases like, “Send me to the fire pit, make me a martyr, let all watch me burn for defending the right to think.”

A brave woman with an incredible strength and talent. Now, we have the right to write, to call out oppression and demand our rights as women. As Assata Shakur says, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Writing breaks these oppressive chains, a way to free ourselves, like when the bird sings to liberate herself from the cage, and as women we must support each other, accept and love one another.

Just like my little seven-year-old girl, who naively resisted being part of the family she was born into, writing stories of a better world for her. Now I can write and resist in a society where a woman of color suffers from oppression. I write to create a better world where we can all live in peace, with dignity, equity and love.