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Writer's Well Retreat Day 2: The Woman in he Mirror

April 3, 2013 by Norma Iris Lafé

“When I was a youngster, those nimble days of yore in the New York City hood of the ’60s, I stood on the sidelines waiting for my turn, to ready my undaunted stance against the two criss-crossing ropes in motion and with the utmost precision leapt into the jump zone of the BADDEST double dutch played on the streets of the South Bronx. New Yorkers who grew up in the ghetto will remember this ghetto-Olympics sport, a test of physical dexterity, speed, timing, and stamina—the swiftest and most agile Boricua and black sistahs from the block doing ‘the running man’ at warp speed, clockwise and counterclockwise pivots, spins and twirls, gravity-defying moves, breaking out in a cool, cold sweat on the hot summer pavement. In perfect unison with skillfully, synchronized turners rocking and be-bopping to the beat. Cylindrical hoops zooming at you left and right —Smack-Smack! Smack-Smack! Smack-Smack!—punishing the potholed sidewalks. The name of the game was ‘staying power.’ Who could stay the longest and jump the fastest in the jump zone without getting tripped up on the ropes (or breaking their necks, I always feared). Come my turn (a not-so-athletic-nerd-type) I was content to do my little dance in the ring, skip-hop long enough to proudly exhibit my one daring 360-degree turn. That was the extent of my double dutch prowess—my not-so-quick feet, got tangled in the ropes. 

At 12 years old, I much preferred to watch the history unfolding on my black and white TV, the early freedom fighters of the Black Civil rights movement marching for equality, justice and the right to vote for ‘the coloreds,’ the right to live with human dignity, no bigotry, no hatred, and no scorn. I dreamed of the day when I too would grow up to fight for justice, better jobs, and decent housing for my people: Puerto Ricans, the dark-skinned, kinky-haired new kids on the block who spoke the foreign tongue of the ‘mira miras.’ I didn’t know it then, but the trumpets of freedom would go deaf for brown people, mulattos and mestizos of African, Indian, and Spanish blood. Because when Lady Liberty saw US coming, she quickly switched the sign in the window to: ‘Spanish-speaking Immigrants Go Back to Where You Came From,’ to stop the mongrels from taking over.”

 Norma Iris Lafé

I could still hear my words come to life from the above memoir, “Birth of An Activist,” delivered with the intonation and dramatic flair of an actor. I received resounding applause from Hotlanta artist who gathered the night before. It was like an out-of-body experience. I’d died and gone to writer’s heaven. Encircled in good vibes, it wasn’t a bad death. It was like Michael Jackson’s words from the “Man in the Mirror”: “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.” The euphoria of the artistic village gathering the night before accompanied me to the first of my daily writer/coaching tête-à- têtes around the kitchen table.

The woman in the mirror took her first step to make that change. “Be gone,” I commanded the former me, feeling at moments undeserving of recognition, distancing myself from the limelight. In Adilah Barnes, the retreat proprietor and writing coach, I saw a reflection of the true me: humble, huge heart, high aspirations for other women, particularly women writers of color with a story to tell.

“Fix yourselves whatever’s in the pantry and refrigerator for breakfast,” Adilah yelled from her room at the top of the stairs.

Terra, a statuesque—curves to kill—Nubian beauty, whose smile lights up the earth she’s named after, was also on retreat from a busy, passion-filled, film-making Manhattan-style life. “I’ve got a taste for some grits,” Terra shouted back from the living room after a restful and tranquil sleep on the sofabed.

“You makin’ grits, Terra?” Fresh out of a soothing hot bath, I jumped for joy. “I haven’t had grits in ages. I loves me some grits. Can I help?” I offered.

“I found them. I got it covered.” In a New York minute, Terra put breakfast on the table.

Sister bonding and grits, what more could a Boricua barrio girl on retreat ask for? The one-on-one writer’s coaching and 10 page-manuscript critique was also on the menu.

“What are your expectations for your retreat stay? Adilah began. We were face-to-face in the cozy, rustic kitchen.

Outside the window was a view of 1.8 sprawling acres of Georgia pines, oak, and maple trees. We were immersed in wall-to-wall carpeted décor of my favorite autumnal colors, a calming palate of lime-green retro kitchen cabinets, passion red linen table cloth, and gold-accented place mats, luxuriant hardwood floors, and the soft luminescence of brightly-lit candles draping the mantelpiece; a perfect portrait of black and brown woman power and unity in a Norman Rockwell background of country living.

By this time, all the other guests had left the retreat back to their homes. We were alone at last to tap into the hidden wellspring of memories and secrets too painful to reveal, but I knew that I must. I was prepared with a draft of my memoir. “I think I need to write more descriptive passages and dialogue.” I pointed out my weak spots.

“We’ll do a series of writing exercises. Write one page describing the sounds you remember from your childhood. After that, we’ll do the other senses of smell, taste, sight, and touch,” Adilah directed.

I hurried upstairs, alone in my room; I plugged into my early childhood in the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. I conjured up the spirit of my inner child:

The wide-eyed and supplicant 6 year-old little girl with a big Charlie Brown head, bulging brown and beady eyes, beneath a crown of kinky red curls. The child me was yoooo-glee. Everybody made fun of her; but it didn’t faze her because she had the big brains to go inside the big head. Still, it wasn’t fair. Of the four children, she wasn’t Shirley Temple, irresistibly cute. Papi’s recessive genes played havoc with his children. Born negra inside, outside she was a ginger girl, lighter skin, and the face of a chameleon of sorts, who could blend into her surroundings.

“Come,” her forceful little hand reached out for mine. “I’ve been waiting for the longest time. Let’s step into the flood. Come, our memories will wash away the sadness and open the window to a new and happy future. It will be good for you and others,” my inner child reassured me of the journey.

I tied my nervous fingers around her outstretched hand. I was always strong enough to stay afloat, but I never did learn to navigate the rivers of fate without the lifeboat of a safe, sound, and secure childhood.


Boricua Freedom Writer Iris Lafé, a new and emerging writer of the Afro-Latino genre, shares the personal vignettes of a Diasporican in the homeland, bringing readers insider news and the view from 21st Century “colonial” Puerto Rico. A Writer’s Well Literary Competition winner (2012), contributor to “Global Woman,” “Mujeres Talk” and former writer KCBS News Radio Editorial/Public Affairs (SF), she’s a Bronx HS of Science alumna, holds a BA in Black and Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College (NYC). Currently editing her back-to-roots memoirs, social commentary excerpts are available for your blog at

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