airport drop off area; people hurriedly walking along the curb area

Social Distancing While Brown

“Come inside child
rest yourself
it’s okay to want to be held
ain’t we all just trying to be
some type of sanctuary for someone?”

From What the Cathedral Said to the Black Boy
Clint Smith

Mi familia ama en los detalles, in between hugs and exchanges of Tupperware filled with lentejas. Just as the global pandemic of COVID-19 was beginning, so too was my data collection for my dissertation research. I had become so consumed by the process of jumping IRB hurdles, passing exams, and proposing that I had lost track of all the time I was choosing to divert from my family and into my work. Two weeks prior to my university going online and before most of us really understood the gravity of the current crisis, I had to travel to California for an academic conference. My father offered to drop me off at the airport. When he showed up, he fidgeted between his hands a face mask and pleaded with me, mamita, pongasela en el avión y mientras viaja. I wore it on the plane through confused tears, that despite my absences he believed me to be deserving of being so fiercely and selflessly loved by him. That he would conduct his own research on each place I travelled to, where I would land, what places I should avoid, y siempre que tenga cuidado muñeca.

A week after I had returned the entire university and school district where I work had gone online. My father and mother have always had an invariably dependable intuition, y pues así salieron las cosas. When quarantining began, it did not take long for me to realize that when my partner, who works as a first responder, goes to work, I am utterly alone. Apart from emails reminding me of my teaching duties and the redundant mass emails about the university’s contingency plans, no one knew my heart like my family did, no one checked in like my family did. The majority of meetings with colleagues and check-ins were more concerned with my productivity and maintaining my schedule than on my mental or emotional health.

My pa one morning called me, after I had spent nearly two weeks in near isolation. He heard my voice and immediately knew all the little things I had been hiding, all the suffering I had been trying to quiet. Because of my partner’s line of work, we constantly worry that he might be exposed to COVID-19. On two occasions so far, he ended up discovering that he had been exposed. So, we waited for symptoms, then nothing. When I told my father about the initial exposure, he immediately wanted to spring into action. Mamita you come stay at the house and I’ll go over and take care of him. Que necesitan? Les traigo comidita. La mami le hizo su favorito, arroz con pollo. Muñequita vengase pa’ ca, no este solita.

They love so deeply and fiercely, that even in a global pandemic they would come to take care of my own partner, in order to protect me. While they did insist, we compromised. I would spend time with them in their backyard, each 10-20 feet away from each other, never going in the house, bringing my own chair, no physical contact, no hugs. During my visits I introduced mi mamita, la reggaetonera de la familia, to Bad Bunny’s new album YHLQMDLG. We also celebrated my father’s birthday, soaked up sun with my sister. Pero no poder abrazarlos leaves a throbbing ache in its place. How do you say goodbye to someone without hugging when for your entire life you have hugged them at least eight times between the kitchen and the door? These visits have brought me the most joy and sense of stability during this time. Sometimes it happens from the other side of windows, or through passing cars, other times we form a work group in the backyard, each trying to find ways to keep their jobs virtually. Other times it is through video, as we take turns telling each other about the tiny monotonous things that happened. We describe in great detail to one another cada cosita that my godson did from his laugh to the cunning smile he had when he learned to throw his toys out of his pen.

Intimacy looks different now. Except, intimacy for People of Color has always looked different. For Black and Brown communities this has been the root of our survival, the well from which we pull new strength to survive in sterile and unwholesome environments. Especially in academic spaces that have historically adopted Eurocentric values of care that demand distance, that condemn proximity, that value respectability and professionalism over humanity. It is clear from society’s reaction to the pandemic that before it concerned itself with student health, it first was concerned with productivity and benchmarks. That in emails where students share their fears and concerns, they are met with critiques of their tone. That when asked, “how have you been kind to yourself?,” some students cannot conjure one example because their professors have occupied every minute of their day with virtual meetings and assignments.

I think about the last time I hugged my mom. It was as I was leaving her house after my godson’s first birthday. She had been running around painting and rearranging and redecorating everything for him to have a special day. Se veia cansadita, and when I hugged her, I gave her an extra squeeze; I tried to transfer what love and energy I had to her. Just by looking at her now, I can tell that we share this ache and longing, for a time when she will get to hold her children again because to her, we will always be her muñequitos. There is much to be learned from her tenderness and from my father’s relentless concern—that they can see me as fully human and worth loving, without any assessment or curriculum vitae outlining my work. These arbitrary structures of meritocracy that we have constructed (and that we reinforce) only offer us partial and incomplete visions of who our students are and what their needs are. How is it that it took a global pandemic for us to realize how little we actually know about one another? That so much of the relationships and communities we are expected to build in the ivory tower are more transactional than they are authentic.

In the wake of a global pandemic, all the letters after our names have become exceptionally irrelevant. Yet, academia tries so incredibly hard to estrange us from our communities. It makes foreigners out of us in the very places we were raised and knights us researchers. Before we even realize it, we no longer recognize ourselves, we begin to believe that who we are and what we do are one in the same. But to believe the lie of meritocracy and American exceptionalism would mean that the fates of our families, whose backbreaking and sacrificial work is unacknowledged and undervalued, is a reflection of who they are. That scarcity is “deserved,” rather than a consequence of a legacy of capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy. No te olvides that you are not much more remarkable than the person next to you. You were made special by the brown hands that raised you, tended to the soft pieces of you and shaped you, that inculcated in you aspirations and possibilities. Acuerdate, that you are strong because of—not in spite of—the community that first loved you, that first held you. How are you holding them in return? How are you holding space for your students? No te olvides, that your community and family were your first teacher, and it is their lessons that will get you through this crisis, and it might just be up to us to show the academy a different way to show up.

About the author:

Marcela Rodriguez-Campo is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her work focuses on understanding the impacts of family separation on Latinx education through testimonio. She is a poet and teacher-educator. Her writing has been featured in the Latino Book Review (2019), the Journal of Latina Critical Feminisms (2019), Medium (2018), Huizache (2018), and Awakenings and Awakened Voices (2018).

Image: “320/365 – 8/24/2011” by GabrielaP93 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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