Meet the woman who uses Art as a weapon

In a society that wants to arm teachers, this Puerto Rican woman is using poetry as a weapon.

Boy,

my body is not your home.

You are a guest.

 

These powerful words fill the room of Bowery Poetry Slam on a cold New York Monday evening in February, words of toxic masculinity, female empowerment and the pain of abortion fill the air.

How dare you tell me when it’s right to touch me?

Don’t touch me.

The way people can’t touch my hair but want to,

men can’t touch my body.

Don’t touch me.

Meet Denisse Michelle Cotto-Reyes, a spoken word poet from San Juan, Puerto Rico, raised in Bronx, New York.

She captures the judges with her powerful performance and she goes through to the semi-final for a chance to perform at a national competition in Chicago.  

Her art began with an organisation called DreamYard Project, she tells Words in the Bucket (WIB).

Cotto-Reyes’s mother brought her and her brother to New York when she was four years old, in search of better mental healthcare services for her brother.

She remembers how freezing it was at the airport in New York the first time she stepped foot in the city, wearing her spaghetti strap top and clutching her doll to her chest.

When they first arrived they stayed in a cramped public shelter in the Bronx as her mother searched for housing, “we had to sleep on sheets on the floor, our feet were touching someone else’s head” she remembers.

Discovering a love of poetry

DreamYard Project was established in 1994 and collaborates with Bronx youth, families and schools as the largest arts provider in the economically poorest Congressional district in the United States.

While Cotto-Reyes was in fifth grade, a teaching artist from DreamYard Project came to teach poetry to her class, and this was her first exposure to the art.

She laughs that she “hated poetry before” but then she realised that “there were no rules” and that it provided a form of expression and healing for her.

By seventh grade, she had started performing her poetry at poetry slam competitions and from there she never stopped.

Inspiration

She tells WIB how her writing has developed in phases.

At first, she was most inspired by her mother. “She’s been through a lot in life and she’s still here, strong, able to laugh. Seeing her so resilient, how dare I ever think of giving up? She told me recently “You know you’re strong right? You know we’re warriors. You’re my daughter, we’re warriors.” I thought that was the sweetest thing”. Her mother’s sense of pride is clear, as Cotto-Reyes describes how her mother watches her perform and cries, even if the poems are not written in her native tongue.  

The second phase was about male influence in her life and the pain she had experienced with men. Initially, this manifested itself as an expression of the domestic violence she saw within her home at the hands of her stepfather and then more broadly as a mistrust of the men in her life. “When my mother married an abusive man, I became very quiet, and shy. Teachers complained that I didn’t talk much in class. Then when poetry was introduced to me, that was my way out, my therapy.”

We don’t need you at the dinner table.

You’ve left us bare

sucked the meat from our bones

squeaking life out of us

paraded our skeletons like it’s halloween.

Left us starving

scraping after your crumbs,

breaking wishbones

to make you come back

to make you come back

Left us desperate when our children ask for you

excuse me if we don’t trust

your offerings.

Later on she felt compelled to write about her father, who still lives in Puerto Rico. She speaks of how romantic with his words he is, as a Church speaker, and wondered if she inherited her own way with words from him. The last time she saw him was two years ago, though they talk on the phone almost every day.

“I’m thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had here but I didn’t choose to be American.”

 

America and Puerto Rico

Her writing is now currently focused on the country where she grew up, of her experience in the U.S., the treatment of immigrants, and the country’s dark past and present behaviour towards Puerto Rico.

“I’m thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had here but I didn’t choose to be American. To call me American would be a betrayal to the Puerto Rican people who have been murdered by the U.S.”

In an extract from her poem “Portrait of a Real Cabron”, she explores this further.

 

The graveyard of Puerto Rico

La Princesa

A Spanish castle in 1808

A morgue by 1950

How do you want your colonization Puerto Rico? Do you like it Spanish? Or American?

There is no freedom for us.

White framed windows nestling behind “Palm Sunday Massacre” trees

A U.S Flag

Never gets left behind

A house slave knows where to eat

who to leave in the back of the bus so it can survive.

La Princesa de Puerto Rico

Designed to break us

Kill our spirits

All six hundred prisoners

Leaving us crippled, amputees, deformed, blind, bathed in urine and faeces til death.

Never call me American.

Don’t you dare

 

Further injustices to the Puerto Rican people are portrayed in her poetry. Like the forced sterilisation of Puerto Rican women between the 1930s and the 1970s funded by the U.S., and the small island of Vieques being used as a bombing range and site for military-training by the U.S. navy for over sixty years.

She also talks of  Pedro Albizu Campos, the leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement who spent over 26 years in prison for rising up against U.S. colonial rule. Campos attested that he was the subject of human radiation experiments at La Princesa Prison in Puerto Rico, which has ironically been refurbished today as the “Puerto Rico Tourism Company”.

Don’t call me American

When they’ve killed us

For sport

Exploring identity

Cotto-Reyes now works for the DreamYard Project herself. She works with young people to develop their own poetry, the most popular themes that she sees develop from her students are poems about identity, police brutality and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Her students are a source of inspiration for her, she told WIB, and sometimes she translates their work into her own poetry. In the poem “Myth of Stereotypes” for example, she explores her own identity, her Puerto Rican heritage and American upbringing.

I wish you’d realized

If you are so quick to judge the immigrants,

the Indians should’ve been quick to judge the Pilgrims.

I firmly hold on to these words as this poem crawls all over me.

I am that Puerto Rican that Americans call Goya beans, spick.

I am that Chinese man that is mistaken with Karate kicks,

slanted eyes, and shrimp fried rice.

America,

I don’t want to go through public doors to read you poetry

if I am going to be mistaken with waitresses.

Not that there is something wrong with that.

But it is wrong when your T.V. shows

show that that is all we can be.

This tares in me like the visa that was ripped in my face

because it said I had a place.

Again, because it said I had a place in America.

This place with that silent window that whispered immigrant

But it said I had

a place in America.

As the news is filled with discourse on gun control, and the US president suggests arming teachers as a solution, using Art as a weapon could be a more positive and long lasting solution.

Visit DreamYard Project, I, Too Arts Collective and Project X to find out more as well as the Denisse Michelle Cotto-Reyes’ pages to see more of her work: Blogspot,  Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Facebook video.

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FeaturesGender
Isobel Edwards

Isobel has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and a master’s degree in Emerging Economies and Inclusive Development with a focus on gender from King’s College London. She has worked in various areas of international development including cooperation and development for the EU in China, peacebuilding and statebuilding for the OECD and in environmental affairs for the UN, both in Paris. She now works in Geneva mainly on UN affairs relating to peacebuilding and the prevention of violent conflict, the human impacts of climate change and food and sustainability.
2 Comments on this post.
  • Keenan Coppin-Thom
    22 March 2018 at 3:19 am
    Leave a Reply

    Awesome!

  • Lisa
    29 July 2018 at 1:24 pm
    Leave a Reply

    Inspiring work, and words.

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