on translation & colonialism & failure, an unfinished essay

on translation & colonialism & failure, an unfinished essay

    in my broken spanish i ask for directions lost on some sidewalk in cartagena. earlier that day, my partner fluent in spanish advised me not to translate word for word in my head from spanish to english. to simply listen.


  1. in cartagena over ⅓ of the enslaved africans stolen to the “new world” walked through the unesco world heritage wall circling the city.[1] before the wall, the arawak called this land home. at the Museo Histórico Cartagena de Indias signs explain that hamacas are what the indigenous people have given us.[2] a hundred miles away they weave & work. they survive.


  1. wilting like a california poppy in the 100 degree heat, i feel faint. i seek shade in one of the lookouts dotting the wall once occupied by armed europeans now sheltering couples sharing lunch or seeking privacy. safety.


  1. halfway through writing this piece, i stumble. i feel lost. i planned to post this reflection on fb but that felt like a pretence. like really i just wanted permission: for the last year i have been travelling around tracing the roots of colonialism in europe & then following it in relation to my family in the southwest of the united states & the bay area & into the caribbean & south america. as i started to weave some thoughts together, i stopped mid sentence realising that maybe i’m doing the exact same thing as that white woman artist using emmett till’s murdered body to make art.[3] because fuck cultural appropriation.


  1. berlin-based artist Hannah Black shared an open letter on fb to the Whitney Museum curators & staff. “It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit & fun, though the practice has been normalised for a long time….”[4] this is fact.


  1. i listen to the directions from two fruit sellers who point & smile. i nod & walk away. i turn right & then left & end up neither at my destination nor completely lost. i simply arrive someplace i don’t expect to be.


  1. on the street below the wall, taxis & mopeds fly & beep past. the most colourful busses bedazzled & communal bound down the road inches from each other. waves & wind bang the beach. ceaseless & consistent. people play football on the dusty barren land between sea shore & fortress wall. the field’s outline demarcated by rocks centuries old. from one of the lookouts young men freestyle at tourists like me passing by (capping on you if you ignore them). it changes the currency between tourist & local. between viewer & viewed. it’s joyous & uncomfortable. a tension. i find hope in the repurposing of words & walls. of rocks stained ochre in the setting sunlight w/ so much blood. so many stories.


  1. to meander these streets 1000 miles from my home. to be foreign by choice. to walk them at this time of night. male. alone. as mixed race. how to write about otherness? how not to tokenise? exoticise? how to own privilege & lay bare humility? to connect?


  1. i’m asked repeatedly as i walk, de donde eres? argentina? brazil? i respond, de california. ah, they all say like it makes sense.


  1. why do i believe colonialism ended. in oakland the leading cause of death for young men of colour is homicide. in the sf chronicle they write: over the past 10 years (between 02 & 12) 787 black boys & men in oakland were victims of homicide. during that same time, just 802 graduated prepared to attend either a california state university or university of california school.[5]


  1. my children attended schools in berkeley. less than a mile away.


  1. my son in the late 90s walking home in south berkeley carrying his prized xbox home from a friends. he gets jumped. young men snatch & grab. my son limps into our house broken joy & skinned knee bleeding. i feel myself stiffen in anger. desire to chastise. to blame. them? him? i whisper: why would you walk home that late. meaning: how could he be so dumb? so arrogant? are you asking for it?


  1. borders today are so much more than walls. they are internalized like blood, like sickness, like playdates. a few months after my son is jumped a young man is killed by another young man on the same street. a year later another. a decade later still another.


  1. i wanted the painting to be intimate, not grotesque but i wanted to show the brutality.[6] dana schutz on her open casket but sometimes what you want isn’t reflected in what you do. note to self.


  1. while i study colonialism in central america during the spring of 2017 my hometown explodes in a race riot circa watts 65, la 92, oakland 10, ferguson 14.[7] homesick i watch memes of nazis getting punched to music. view videos of violence that i believe in. dare i say that’s necessary. less than a mile from where i live.


  1. one sunday, cars double park & beep alarms along my street for an open house. couples run in & run out. a young man asks me about the neighbourhood. what about the neighbourhood? is it safe? if you just listen, you understand that this is not the real question. how do i respond to a question never asked but only implied?


  1. i want to say what i didn’t to that young man looking to purchase a home: no it’s not safe. there’s the police who murdered oscar grant. there’s occupy oakland & the militarised police crack down. there’s gutted educational programs & blame foisted on students. there’s racist speakers on college campus. there’s nazis in the streets. like it’s an everyday thing. & it is.


  1. son, i wish i just held you instead of offered empty words & reprimands & warnings. i know words don’t always make sense. ring true. but what if i pair the word hug w/ the act? like i pair the word directions w/ the motion of body? can i place the word home between two welcoming arms?


  1. i too want this essay to be intimate. a conversation. not grotesque, not about an other, but about a self othered yet familiar. about my experience w/ room enough for yours. if you want to come in. a reminder about how colonialism = warfare. about the way male violence = capitalism. about how they reinforce each other. i want to be brave enough then to risk making the implicit explicit.


  1. because as writer you work to translate feelings into story. poetry into practice. perspective into voice. you write to exhume or confront. & to twist silence into lovesong or lament or threat. depending. & you write to teach yourself how to arrive & throw a punch & listen w/o translating.

[1] Plaque along Avenida Santander.

[2] Museo Histórico Cartagena de Indias.

[3] Dana Schutz, Open Casket.

[4] “Creator of Emmett Till ‘Open Casket’ at Whitney Responds to Backlash” by Annette Ejiofor, Chandelis R. Duster and Amber Payne.

[5]Even Odds” by Jill Tucker, San Francisco Chronicle.

[6] Dana Schutz interview.

[7] “10 Worst Race Riots in American History” by Flynn Ryder.


TOMAS MONIZ is the founder, editor, and writer for the award winning Rad Dad which produced two literary anthologies: Rad Dad and Rad Families: A Celebration. His novella Bellies and Buffalos is a tender, chaotic road trip about friendship, family and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. He’s the recipient of the SF Literary Arts Foundation’s 2016 Mary Tanenbaum Award, the 2016 International Can Serrat Artist Residency, the 2017 Caldera International Artist Residency and the 2017 LPP+Residency in San Francisco. His first novel, King Pleasure, will be released summer 2018 by Hawthorne Books. He’s been making zines since the late nineties and loves penpals: PO Box 3555, Berkeley CA 94703. He promises to write back.

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