Poem by Barbara Jane Reyes
Brown Girl Breaking
Remember when they said, until a boy is born to a couple, they must not stop bearing children. It is tradition. They meant you were surplus. Remember when they said to your face, no brothers, such a shame. It’s too bad you weren’t born a boy. You must then know useful things. Clear the table. Do the dishes. Sweep the floors. Babysit. Cook the rice (measure the water up to the first knuckle; don’t you know that already). It’s too bad you are not pretty; you will never marry a doctor, they said. You will never have mestizo children, they said. Ay, babae, they said. Ay, sayang, they said.
Remember when they said, why can’t you be more María Clara, more true, Filipina. More model of modesty, more model of grace, they said. A fresh rose, opening. A dewdropped angel. More child. More los ojos sonríense. More chrysallis. More waiting for permission, they said. Why can’t you be more blushing, more tremulous. Más tierno el amor. Why can’t you be more weepy, faint, contoured, dimpled. More soft spun silk. Why can’t you be more gazing, solitary, deferent, they said. More brokenhearted. More dulce es la muerte. Motherless, warded, shredded, and wet. ‘Susmarya, they said. Why can’t you be more like that, they said.
Remember when they said, hija, why can’t you be more sampaguita, model of fidelity, model of devotion. More white, more aromatic. More starry-eyed. More versatile. Opened at dusk. May you be farmed, collected, propagated by gentle cutting. May you be susceptible to attack. May dirty hands string you together. May coins exchange hands in the speeding streets for you. Why can’t you be more self-sacrificing. More promise making, sumpa kita. You may be small. You may not be showy. If we may use you in all the ways we wish, then you will be more lovely to us.
Ay, Dios mío, your nose is so flat, your little chinky eyes, your hair like a bruja. Others would bleach and operate to get rid of what you got. Others would die. You’re so awkward and bony. Your children will look like little monkeys. You’re so dark, you look dirty. Just being dark, no one will want you. You’re so ugly. Ay, salamat sa Dios, prize the God-given aquiline nose, the wonder-filled luminous eyes, the soft, baby brown hair. Others would bleach and operate to get what you got. Others would die. You’re so tall and slender. You will have such angelic children. Eternally white, you are confident. Just being white, you win. You’re so delicious.
Remember when they said, you need a man to complete you, to fill you, yes, to fill you till you can no longer be filled. To give you sons. To give you worth. To make you cry. To trophy you. To show you what’s good. If you are alone, people will suspect. They will ask each other why you have been overlooked, sour milk left on the shelf to spoil. They will voice their own theories, why no man wants you. Try not to be so difficult. You need a man to make decisions for you — what to eat, how much. What you must and must not wear (in what size, siyempre). When you may speak, what you may say. Whom you must forgive. For whom you must bend. When you must absorb all the blows. When you must absorb all the blame.
A lady does not open her own doors. A lady does not leave the home without first asking permission. She does not voice her opinions or contradict. She does not frown, smirk, or slouch. A lady does not quarrel in public, place her needs before others, or perspire. She does not monopolize the conversation. She does not invite, initiate, or compete. A lady does not remove her shoes in public. She does not use her hands. She does not laugh, shout, or scratch. She does not swear or smoke. She does not belch, fart, piss, or shit. She does not coordinate her own movement. A lady does not mind. A lady does not eat. A lady does not matter.
Remember when they said, you must never slouch, ladies. You must always bend. When a bamboo reaches its highest peak, it bends back down to the soil. Elegant, effortless. Bend. Slender, there, at the waist, cambré. To bend is an art. Allongé, let wind, let waves pass through the vertebrae, and sway. Bend at the nape with grace. No matter the strain or weight, accept that you must allay. And the body will be a haven they claim. The bamboo bends. It does not break. To break is common. A lady is not common. You must always save face. You must not let them see you break.
When they tell you, you belong by his side. You are his lady. What will happen when you ask for space. What will happen when you try to leave. He will come after you. Yes, he will come. You will be returned to him. You will always be returned to him. Or you will burn. You will always be his lady. You belong to him, belonging. Please do not argue, please do not overreact. There is nothing you can say. You will be OK, if you keep your head down. If you do not ask. If you do not speak. You must stay. You must. Smile. You must smile that lovely, lipsticked smile.
Remember to arm yourself. Remember to make a break.
And by any means necessary, remember to not look back.
Barbara Jane Reyes, adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco, author of Invocation to Daughters (City Lights Publishers, 2017), and four previous collections of poetry, including Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005) and Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010). Letters to a Young Brown Girl is forthcoming from BOA Editions, Ltd., in 2020.