I was taught that I wasn’t better than anyone and that no one was better than me. Yet as I was growing up, I also wondered why my skin was a different color than my birth mother’s skin. This started when I was maybe 5 years old. My mother asked me if anyone ever made fun of me for the color of my skin. That’s the first time I noticed we were different.
From that moment on, I wondered why people were treated differently, and somehow I knew that not every body counted the same as others, but it would take me years to have an embodied awareness of this wisdom and the analysis to support it. Poco a poco, I say.
As an adult who has lived through the Ferguson uprising, the Black Lives Matter movement (ongoing), and the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, among other protests and uprisings, I worry about the ways that structural power keeps some bodies down, on the underside of history. I worry about immigrants and refugees and the policies that the government has or doesn’t have in place to protect these vulnerable populations. Their bodies count too, don’t they?
Having lived in a time of a persisting global pandemic, I’ve seen the health disparities revealed in new and staggering ways. Why have Black and Latinx people been at higher risk of COVID-19? Why has the coronavirus seemed to more aggressively attack these communities? Whose bodies really count right now?
I know that I’m not the only one asking these questions. To myself and to others, I ask if we can steward a politics of being en conjunto — and really invest in a world where togetherness can create a politics of what is possible for each of us, all of us. The term en conjunto is not easily translated into English. The best translation is “together” or “being together,” but it is a richer, more robust phrase suggesting something beyond just togetherness. It’s like a ride-or-diepartner! Can we have that kind of political orientation in our world today?
When we do the work of unmasking whose bodies count and build the en conjunto relationships, we can begin to repair what’s broken. And I want to start with my own body and the ways my body has counted and not counted. My story and the stories that have shaped me point me toward a better body politic that can create conditions for an embodied life. My story begins with knowing I am an imperfect being who is — each day — becoming. As my story adds to other stories, I trust they will point us toward the imaginative possibilities that the beloved embodied community can be and become. Another possible world, if you will.
I don’t know why my dad married my mother; I don’t know if he thought about the racial implications of himself as a white American marrying my birth mother, a Mexican immigrant. But I know this: My mother did. Marrying was her way out of dysfunction and poverty, though as with the things we all hope to leave but still carry, I have seen how dysfunction and poverty have followed her.
In the mid-’70s, when I was born, the world was a different place than it is now — or at least that is what I was taught. My paternal grandparents showered me with love — a love I experienced, an embodied love. They were amazing, these white-bodied folks. My grandfather was a white man from Texas who dropped out of law school to marry my grandmother and farm on her family’s land; my grandmother was a demure West Texas woman and a school nurse. They held me with a fierce sense of love.
Until I was 12 years old, I lived with a single parent. And in those 12 years, I learned hard and difficult things, among them that my body wasn’t important. While I loved my grandparents, I didn’t live with them, and learning how to be in this world at an early age without secure immediate attachments to caregivers and without appropriate emotional support likely caused me to disconnect from my body. I moved up into my head, where I was able to imagine a different and more secure life.
At that time, we mostly had our basic needs met, since my birth mother worked for Sears, Roebuck and Co. and my grandparents helped us out a lot, making sure I always had access to my Catholic school uniforms (even if they were from a secondhand shop). Despite this, my body felt the lack and the loss. On top of that, I experienced physical and emotional abuse from my birth mother. She didn’t know how to handle her anger then; she still doesn’t. As a young child, I didn’t know how to create boundaries. Now in my adult life, that is the work that I continue to do with my biological family: I create boundaries, and I go to therapy every week to stay sane in a world that discounts people who look like my birth mother. Trauma is a nightmare when you’re a kid. I live with the scars to this day.
Oppression is unprocessed trauma on a collective scale. Isn’t this the reality of our culture and society? Isn’t this the reality of our democracy?
This is the road I’ve taken in the work I’ve done. I left my birth mother at age 12, moving in with my white father in the Hill Country of San Antonio. The electricity was always on, and affluence and privilege and power were in abundance. Realizing I couldn’t embody the kind of power my father expected me to embody, I left him and went to college in West Texas. To become my own person. I started therapy and came out as Queer and then Transgender.
I’ve done a lot of leaving and coming into myself.
Discounting the body is prevalent in families, cultures, governments, and politics. Even Christian theology discounts the body. The body was written out of the faith and then further demonized by Greek thought. Early Christian thinkers picked up from there, shaping Christian tradition. So no wonder we don’t know how to have a relationship with our bodies. No wonder we don’t have a body politic that nurtures a healthy democracy, offering emancipatory policies.
When we tell the truest truths about what bodies count and learn to flip the script on the racism, misogyny, and supremacy cultures that keep the narrative in place that only dominant bodies matter, we move toward a cultural body politic that counts every body — and I mean every body.
This requires that we stop fighting the poor and fight to eradicate poverty, creating a better body politic. When we shift toward governance that values American difference, multiplicity, and all that is emerging, we call forth a different body politic. This does not happen in one election cycle or from a unilateral vote for change. This happens when we repeat the intention until we reach a different body politic. It takes practice, and practice can make a more perfect union.
In leaving the church, earning a Ph.D., coming to terms with who I am as a NonBinary Transgender Latinx, dosing testosterone each week, deepening my antiracist awareness, and learning about embodiment, I’ve encountered a lot of change. And becoming is never easy. Becoming is the work of inner and outer mechanisms. Becoming is our invitation for a new humanity. Becoming is the work that creates conditions for answering the question, “Whose body counts?”
Excerpted with permission from Body Becoming: A Path to Our Liberation by Robyn Henderson-Espinoza copyright © 2022 Robyn Henderson-Espinoza. Published by Broadleaf Books.