You Are Not Safe Mi’ja: Subway Lessons for My Pre-Teen Daughter of Color

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Maegan “la Mala” Ortiz

I live along what is arguably the most diverse subway line, in the most diverse borough, of the most diverse city. This has provided me with more teaching moments than I would like. Lessons that I knew I would have to teach my 10 year old daughter anyway but wish I could on my terms, not as a reaction/defensive/protective move. As a NYC mami, you teach your kid the basics of safety. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t make eye contact. Watch what you touch. But as the NYC mami of a brown young woman, the lessons go beyond that. They go to the core of who she is and her budding sexual identity.

Lesson 1 : Language, Status, and Mami Has More Privilege Than You

When we take the Flushing bound 7 subway home between 5:30 and 6:30 pm, there is a certain fear in my 10 year old’s face. We’ve run into him twice already, a towering white older man who pushes his way into the elevator with us and other mamis wielding strollers, toddlers and shopping bags at 74th Street Roosevelt Avenue. Once on the elevated platform, he continues to push himself through the overwhelmingly brown crowd without a word of excuse me. Instead he yells, “What, people in Mexico don’t have manners? Do you speak English. Do you understand me?” He gets unsettlingly close to a mother with a small girl. The mother looks away as does my daughter, who moves closer to me. He eyes her and me and looks confused, like he’s not sure if she is my child. I don’t look like the other mothers, but my children look like their subway mates, undeniably Latina.

When the train rolls into the station people swarm towards the doors. Again the man begins is tirade, “Esperate!” he says with his New York accent. “Wait and let me the f**k through”. He looks at my girls and me again and when the doors open urges me to go in before him. I take a seat offered by another rider and he gives my 10 year old a push towards me, “Stay close to your mother” he orders her before sitting next to the mother with the young girl. “Do you speak English?” he asks the mother. The mother doesn’t answer with words or gestures. She avoids eye contact.”Do you speak English?” he asks her again, a little louder, a little more threateningly. “Don’t you want to be an American?” He angrily asks her, not really expecting an answer, not really understanding that the Latina mother likely already considers herself an Americana. Centroamericana, Latinamericana. “Damn immigrants,” he spits out, before exiting the train at Junction Boulevard.The scene repeats itself one more time, on another subway ride.

Lesson 2: How to Act Around the NYPD

It is the afternoon after a Latina baby has been left in a cab just blocks from where we live. On my way onto the elevated platform from the elevator I loudly grumble about being pushed around by rude people even though I have a toddler strapped to my body. A white New York City police officer asks me as I turn the corner, “Who’s messing with you?” “No one, ” I tell him and move down the platform a little. “Did you hear about the baby left in the gypsy cab? We think the mother is dead, probably has no papers,” the officer tells me. I nod my head. “It’s a shame really. That mother kept her baby really clean and well dressed. A nice family I’m sure.” He continues. I’m disturbed by the implication of clean Latina babies and pull my children a little closer.

“Did you do your homework?” the officer asks my 10 year old. She doesn’t answer. She’s been taught not to answer police except for the most basic of information. I have too long a history with the NYPD. She has been to enough rallies, marches, and memorials of young men of color shot in the back by officers. It’s not a nice position to be in, to be a 5th grader told in school to confide and rely on police when everything else around her tells her otherwise like the way officers on our block harass a woman selling tamales or check IDs on a bunch of kids only a bit older than her standing outside a barber shop. “Well did she?” the officer asks me. I lie and say she did wanting to avoid him giving her a lecture on the merits of homework. “Good girl,” he says looking at her. As we enter the 7 train, he tells us to be safe. Once inside the train my 10 year old asks, “I thought we weren’t supposed to talk to cops mom?” “Sometimes you have to play nice,” I tell her.

Lesson 3: Public Displays of Affection Are Not Always Welcome

We have just left the 7 train and are on my way to my mother’s, on the R/V line. An express train empties a crowd of teenagers onto the Jamaica bound platform. Among them is a lesbian couple, an African American young woman holding hands with a Latina. The African American girl is crying. “Why would they do that? I’m only 16 and that guy was an old man, telling me that I need a good d**k and not p***sy”. Her girlfriend comforts her suddenly realizing that I am standing within earshot with two children. “Sorry, you didn’t need to hear that, ” the Latina tells me. “No, you guys didn’t need to hear that. What assholes,” I respond. They smile and begin playing with my baby daughter all while discussing the intolerance they face as a young lesbian couple of color.

Maegan “la Mala” Ortiz is a Queens, NYC born and bred radical Nuyorican mami writer, poeta, activista, blogger, and academic coach (trying) to work at home with her two chicas, La MapucheRican (10) and the Poroto ChileRican (7 months) and her very patient partner just known as “el Chileno”. She is an editor at VivirLatino and (poorly) maintains her personal blog Mamita Mala. She wants to write a book or two and is graciously accepting offers for babysitting.

Photo by Lodigs

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