Lessons from my final days in Spain

Greetings! Thank you for following my adventures so far. It’s hard to believe that I’m already five months into my Watson year?!

This long entry is going to deviate from the usually upbeat and optimistic tone of my previous posts. I‘ve been wrestling with whether I should be honest with myself and others about the fact that I haven’t been doing well lately.

Movement has always been a source of healing for me. Yet this November, my body finally collapsed after years of pent-up frustration, all-nighters, forced smiles, and internalized guilt and shame from my years at Macalester. Even when I tried to get outside and move, everything – skateboarding, dancing, running, eating, meditating – began to feel forced and unfulfilling. At first, I responded to my burnout with impatience and anger: pinche pendeja, don’t you know how lucky you are? How dare you waste such an incredible opportunity and disrespect your ancestors by doubting yourself? After months of continuous growth, I felt ashamed that I was suddenly and inexplicably back to this version of myself I thought I’d outgrown.

At first, I wasn’t going to write about mental illness, or depression, or loneliness, or imposter syndrome, or survivor’s guilt. I decided after some consideration that it is worth sharing this part of my journey, because all too often the rosy veneer of social media pressures us to only celebrate positive moments. We grow attached to the story we are telling about ourselves. Before long, we lose sight of what really matters and our lives become a performance for others on- and off-line. Those long, lonely nights become a source of shame rather than an opportunity for growth.

This is my story…

“Saudade vem correndo”: For the tangled phone lines that untwist heartstrings

The night before my appointment to extend my visa in Spain, my beloved friend Ayaan called me. Her voice a much-needed breath of fresh air, I ignored the fact that it was already 1:30am and I had a legal appointment first thing in the morning. For two hours we checked in with one another, swapping stories about our time abroad. We opened up about our struggles with mental health, the challenges of managing a large budget as a low-income person who grew up without much financial guidance, and the significance of our world travels in the context of our social and political identities as queer black women. With her, I was finally able to discuss how mental illness (I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 16) influences the way we approach opportunity, banality, trauma, relationships, and our sense of purpose in life.

Something about our conversation that really stuck with me was when she described imagining her own funeral and what people would say. Her realization was that at the end of the day, relationships matter more than accolades, and it’s important that she be the light and share that light with those around her. Yet she is also cautious about who she shares her time and energy with. She recognizes that not all are deserving or even interested in getting to know the versions of us that aren’t just concepts or caricatures. Most poignantly, she reminded me of the importance of treating myself as a friend and committing to my most authentic self.

Ayaan is definitely one of the guiding lights of my life. Our conversations about walking into the sun together and seeking the light inspired my Watson project Skate Into The Sun. When I look at her, into her eyes, I see so much power, wisdom, love, vulnerability, and purpose. I feel she is one of the few people in this world who sees me, I mean really sees me, listens to me, loves me. She reminds me that there is always someone watching over you, thinking of you, be they your friends, parents, ancestors… I am not alone, but it is true that my breath, my suffering, my dreams belong to me and that I must always come back to my breath, my body, my soul. Talking to someone who knows and loves me about things I’ve struggled to be honest with myself about helped dislodge a ball of anxiety that was beginning to make a home out of the back of my throat.

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” (Albert Camus)

Visa appointment

When I woke up the following morning for my visa extension appointment, I felt completely at ease. I entered the foreigner’s office calm and collected. Que sera, sera. For the first time in some days, I felt I could truly trust myself to make the most out of any outcome. I waited patiently, was called after about 20 minutes, and made a convincing case and had all of the appropriate documentation. Within an hour, my fate was sealed: my extension request was approved, and I would be permitted to remain in Spain until the 15th of December.

Walking out of the office for foreigners, I felt victorious!!! I did it!!! I called some friends, messaged my roommate, arranged to celebrate that evening. By the time I arrived to the train station, however, the feeling of joy fizzled out ever so slightly as I realised that life was going to carry on as usual. I remember feeling somewhat disappointed that it was so easy for me to extend my visa. It felt as if I didn’t learn my lesson about not putting all my eggs in one basket, about not trying to make a home out of a house, about listening to my intuition and going to South Africa…

The following weeks were filled with a sense of deep ennui as I tried to forge deeper connections with those around me. I used my home as a Couchsurfing place and met some nice people, but I was beginning to feel too attached to Barcelona. I wanted it to pan out the way I had planned. I continued planning my “Dreaming the World Forward” exhibition and reached out to my friend Antonia Pérez of Brujas, a feminist collective in New York City that uses skateboarding as ones of its means of expressing and building community. Antonia gave me some valuable feedback regarding how to organise events that are intentional and inclusive. However, most of the people who expressed interest in co-creating art pieces for the event stopped responding to my messages and/or decided they were too busy and/or not committed enough to participate. Within two weeks of being approved to stay in Spain, I lost my sense of direction and my solitude transformed from a positive guiding force into a grating sense of loneliness and purposelessness. These negative feelings were exacerbated by the fraught political situation in Spain due to the Catalan Independence Movement. The cooler fall weather drove familiar faces into hibernation and transformed MACBA into a space were there was more smoking, drinking, and drug use than there was skating. I felt discouraged and lost.

Losing myself to dance

In order to realign my actions and emotions with my goals, I decided to focus my energy on getting more involved with Barcelona’s hip-hop dancing community. Together with some of Marissa’s friends from Madrid, I went to a dance festival in Zaragoza called World of Dance. It was brilliant! I felt so inspired watching all of the performances and loved how passionate, talented, and dedicated everyone was. I could really sense that the dance community in Spain was a family. Yet there was a part of me that ached with loneliness, vestiges of the depression I’ve dealt with for over half of my life but thought I had finally healed from, that little voice in my head that still sounded like my father but was beginning to sound a lot like me. I felt sad. Why didn’t I try dancing instead? Why didn’t I get into dancing, skating, ____ sooner? Why don’t I love skateboarding the way these people love dancing? As I watched the dancers battle in front of me, my joy turned into judgement. Why do people appropriate black cultures, arts, styles when they want to feel cool and sexy? Why do I think that being from the Bronx automatically means I “know” hip-hop? Why am I so attached to owning this art form that isn’t even mine? Within minutes, I spiralled from bliss and appreciation into a tunnel of sadness brought on by comparisons, bitterness, and self-judgement. I shared my feelings with my friends, and although they hugged me and tried to talk me into feeling better, it only exacerbated the feelings I had of being different, left out and misunderstood.

That night, I missed the last bus back to Barcelona and wasn’t allowed to stay at the house some other friends were staying at due to space issues and not knowing the hosts. I spent that long, lonely night wandering around Zaragoza until dawn waiting for the first bus that would deliver me to Barcelona. My chest was tight with anger. Why didn’t _____ fight harder for me? How could she sleep knowing I am out here alone in the night with nowhere else to go? Of course I knew that there was so much outside of _____‘s control, that at least a dozen other people were staying at that apartment, that since the hosts didn’t know me they wanted to charge me more money than I was willing to pay to sleep on the floor. I sat down underneath a streetlight somewhere I don’t remember and cried until I couldn’t.

Am I doing the right thing?

Am I with people who are looking out for me?

Is skateboarding my passion?

What seeds am I planting?

Am I doing enough?

Am I enough?

Am I even asking the right questions?

What am I really about?

Who am I?

Why am I?

Home is where the love is

When I returned from Zaragoza to my apartment in Hospitalet, my roommate Ámbar instantly perceived that something about me was off. She made me homemade pumpkin soup, I made lemon-ginger-hibiscus tea, and we spent the afternoon talking about our struggle to remain committed to our passions (she is a photographer, I am a skateboarder), our struggles with gender (she is trans, both of us struggle with heteronormativity and performativity of gender and especially femininity), and our experiences as Latin-Americans and queer people of colour in Europe. Our conversation was so healing in that I felt I was finally opening up about the fact that my project wasn’t “going” as well as I had hoped and how those feelings of inadequacy were being exacerbated by constant travel (instability) and my years-long battle with bipolar disorder.

Through conversations with people like Ámbar, Ayaan, and my friend Thiago, I realised that part of what was fuelling my depression was the fact that I expected too much. I was acting like a someone who invited themselves to a party and then got mad when no one really cared that they came. This is not the kind of person I want to be(come): the kind who gives expecting something in return.

Engaging Catalan Feminism

Later that first night back from Zaragoza, I attended my first event dedicated to discussing gender in Spain. The event was hosted by Tamaia, a Barcelona-based organization dedicated to reducing violence against women and children through hosting events, panels, and sharing information designed to expose the pervasiveness of violence in our communities and come up with ways to act and communicate in non-violent ways. Tamaia recognises that sexist violence is pervasive yet invisibilized and normalized in all aspects of society, and thus works with women at an individual level, with multiple social groups (young people, professionals, media, institutions etc.) to educate, prevent, and cultivate a new sensibility and responsibility around the promotion of a healthier, more inclusive, non-violent society. The event I went to was called “La practica que coloca a las mujeres en el centro” – the practice that places women at the center – was an informative way to engage with feminism in Spain and learn about the specific issues facing Catalan women. The entire event was in Catalá, which was surprisingly disorienting for me because I speak Spanish, French, and Portuguese – all languages with close ties to Catalá – yet found myself lost at times. This was a reminder that language barriers challenge our capacity to build sustainable social movements across borders. Still, the experience of meeting and connecting with some of the women here – in Catalá, no less! – was profound because it was an opportunity to stand in solidarity with comrades in a global resistance to patriarchy and sexist violence.

Thanksgiving

Three days after returning from Zaragoza was Thanksgiving Day – my first one in my conscious life that I’ve spent away from the USA. Though I don’t respect Thanksgiving for its roots in genocide and revisionist history, it’s one of the most tender, unifying experiences I experience with my family(ies) and friends. Spending it alone in a country in which no one cared for or observed Thanksgiving made me reflect on the relationships and people I cherish. My loved ones are scattered across the globe; at times my journey through this world feels aimless and untethered. Is this where I was going?

This Thanksgiving, I learned that at the root of my heartache is the fact of feeling incomplete, invisible, and misunderstood. I tend to feel this way when I do not have affirmation from loved ones, for they are the people who encourage me to believe in myself. My inability to physically experience their love, laughter, presence hurts because despite all my talk about self-love and being my own friend, I am too afraid to share my soul and be my true self with most people, even myself. I am tired of introductions, explanations, the same conversations with different people.

The thing is with meeting new people all the time is that you forget that your life isn’t a performance, that the world isn’t a stage. You forget that these people may not care where you’re ‘really” from or what you’re “really” about. Even if they do, who you are to them is only a fraction of who you know yourself to be. In Spain, I tried to embrace this self-as-performance to catapault me into communities of skaters and artists with whom I wanted to connect. I wanted Spain to be *the* defining moment of my project, the place that would catalyse my evolution as a skater, activist, artist, and Watson fellow. I felt inspired by the Catalan independence movement to learn more about urban social movements, be they a protest / resistance against something or demand for something. I thought, maybe I can contribute to this movement that I learn and benefit so much from. Maybe I can become a part of something bigger.

Soon enough, though, I had enough. I was tired of trying to make reality fit my expectations. My break down in Zaragoza, my lonely Thanksgiving, and my failed attempt at organising an art festival were signs that it was time to move on. I was forcing things and even then they werent working out. I booked a flight to Granada and decided to treat myself to some travels in the South of Spain to close this lonely chapter of my Watson year.

One cannot pour from an empty cup.

Escape to Andaluz 

Upon arrival to Granada, I instantly felt at ease. From the moment I stepped into Makuto Hostel, I could sense that this was exactly where I was supposed to be. Before I’d even set my bags down, I extended my stay by one more day and managed to book to only remaining bed. That afternoon, I walked around Granada and watched the sunset from a cave looking over the city from the hills with Ansel, a friend from Macalester who was studying abroad in Granada. Our brief reunion provided an opportunity for us to catch up on life as well as talk about our experiences abroad. We shared our feelings of disappointment and disillusionment with Spain and with travel in general. Expectations don’t always match up with reality, and social media doesn’t always reflect the loneliness and aimlessness that travel can evoke. Confiding in someone familiar and being able to hold space for them to be honest about their experience was really healing and I’m grateful to have had this opportunity in Granada.

The following morning, I bumped into Jodi, a substitute teacher at a middle school I used to volunteer at in college. During college, she and I would frequently work together and we ate many a pad thai while discussing the challenges of working with young people in urban, under-resourced communities. It had been three years since we saw each other last but I know that voice and wild curly hair anywhere! We were so happy to see each other and spent the morning walking around and catching up. We split up for some solo explorations in the afternoon, during which I enjoyed visiting churches, fountains, shops, street art, and simply enjoying the warmer weather and embracing the elation in my heart. This was exactly what I needed!

On my way to meet up with Jodi at the caves for sunset, I slipped and fell into some cacti and got stuck, being pricked all over as I tried to free myself. I pleaded for help from two passersby they proceeded to question/critique my decision to take that path and refused to get any closer to me or offer any help. A wild dog was barking ferociously at me and instead of helping me, the strangers just watched me struggle for a few minutes (!) until I finally set myself free. Blood on my hands and arms, I shove past the couple and spit “thank you” at the woman who, unreflective and unperceptive, said “you’re welcome”. I was blown away by these people’s lack of compassion and felt anger rear its ugly head. What is the lesson here? Is it the one that says “don’t ask for help”, “pick yourself up”, or “let it go”? Simmer. Sunset. Solitude in a crowd. Return to hostel, work, rewind. Dinner at the same places. Circles. That familiar ache in my chest, that lump in my throat, returns.

It is almost time to move on, my body feels the pull elsewhere, but one more thing awaits. Jodi and I decided to treat ourselves to a night at the hammam, or “Arab bath”. Neither of us had ever been to a spa, and we were ecstatic at the opportunity to relax and unwind in what felt like an exceedingly luxurious way. A man tries to flirt with me and asks if Jodi is my mother. We look at each other with a knowing smile. Who picks up girls at bathhouses? I could feel this man’s desire to engage with me and took comfort in my ability to perceive that and decide “no, thanks” in a peaceful, self-assured way. It’s one thing to receive energy, it’s another to absorb it. Letting go into the water. Water. Massages that dig deep into my back, the weight of my own expectation caving my spine in. Alignment. Release. Relief.

That night, I stayed awake until 4am making plans instead of resting and completing the time of healing I began at the hammam. One step forward, ten steps back. Felt the effects of this decision all day. Said see-you-later to Jodi. Gratitude. Tried to take a bus to Seville but my purchase never went through and the bus was full by the time I arrived at the station. Frustration, tears. This is part of travelling. Not everything will work out the way you want it to. I reminded myself of this while seated at the McDonalds near the bus station. Managed to book a Blablacar in the nick of time. Nice trip, nice people. Exhaustion. Sadness, frustration kicking in. Lack of tact, grace. I take a cheap taxi to my AirBnB and am grateful to meet Lourdes and her daughter Lia, a kind and humble family who made sure I was well-fed and rested.

Went out to Real Alcazar and got lost in all the incredible architecture. I found myself reflecting on the land, on how much history space holds, how many civilisations lived and fought and flourished and died here. This site of worship was a symbol of a seemingly eternal struggle for supremacy between the Muslim/Arab and Christian/European worlds. Coexistence, cooperation, communication: how? Time transforms. I am moved by the fact of faith moving people so deeply that they build these incredible structures in honour of faith, of god(s), of life.

Night in Seville. Solitude. Music. Christmas lights. The smell of roasted chestnuts filling the air. Bar, alone in a room full of people. Flamenco fires up my spirit and I dance along in my seat. An attempt at friendship ends with me alone on a stoop eating a pizza I bought to share. That moment alone was oddly peaceful. Treat yourself as you would a friend. Home to Lia and her friends, all kind girls who were so genuine and warm. Goodbyes. Gratitude for a room of my own. Grateful for the strangers who make their house into a home.

Awoke in Seville feeling better than the day before. Still tired. Grateful for solitude. Lia made me breakfast – pears and apples, toast, coffee, juice. Went for a brief skate and had a nice taxi driver tell me some history about the city like, for example, the impact of the 1929 world fair on the neighbourhood it was concentrated in and on Seville overall. He dropped me off at Plaza de las Armas skate park, where I spent a few hours alone trying out new tricks, practising old ones, and watching locals skate and bike.

That afternoon, I took a rideshare to Cordoba, where I spent the day walking around the city. Stopped at a fountain next to a woman with a nice, calm energy and watched the doves – the most I’d ever seen in one place – fly around this quaint fountain in a park near the bus station. I visited the Mezquite, an incredible space of worship whose architecture reflects centuries-old struggles between Islam and Christianity. Visiting this monument made me think about history and the dominant narrative of coexistence with Islam despite the fact that Muslims aren’t allowed to pray there. I want to appreciate the churches but am turned off by the opulence, the exclusivity. I appreciate the circles and domes and arches of Moorish architecture. Extremism in every religion, though, is enough to keep me at a distance. For now, observe. Absorb. Marvel.

“Nothing ever goes away without it teaches us what we need to know.” – Peña Chodron

Letting go

During my last few days in Barcelona, I spent most of my time by myself or with close friends skating around the city and saying my “see-you-laters”.

Many times in Spain I thought I made a mistake, a result of poor planning and eagerness to find stability and make a home out a place before determining whether it was truly the right choice. I didn’t follow my instinct, got attached to outcomes, and ended up wasting a lot of money and time just to leave the best skateboarding nation in the world feeling unaccomplished. I appreciated the time to journey into myself, but in terms of my Watson project, my relationship with skateboarding languished in Spain despite the fact that I skated almost every single day there.

In retrospect, everything in my spirit was telling me to go to South Africa after Germany. Instead of leaving Spain, I denied my own instinct and tried to make it work. Like being in a relationship with someone you don’t connect with but stay with because they’re a good catch and you’re scared you won’t get anyone better. Part of this indecision was fuelled by something I’ve been hesitant to open up about since leaving the safe space of my college campus: mental illness. Since Spain (or perhaps I only noticed it in Spain, though I’ve struggled with depression, addiction, and destructive behaviours in the past), I’ve had this deep sadness inside of me that has transformed into a guiding force in the absence of confidence and peace in my self, spirit, and decisions. As I balance my repulsion/confusion with the rest of the world and its vanity, materialism, and addictions, I am disappointed in the presence of these vices in me. I find that when I surround myself with people who embody characteristics and values I seek to emulate, I live a more enriched and fulfilling life. My lack of purpose (outside of my Watson project) these past few months is an indicator that I have not been my own best company and this shift in thinking patterns and overall habits have been chipping away at my self-esteem, relationships, sanity. I am isolating myself and now am struggling to truly be alone. Even my eyes, mi mirada… ni con mi mirada podia contar. What happens when you become the toxic person?

That all being said… The most difficult and beautiful thing about suffering is even though we can share with others, it is mysterious, overwhelming, unique, ubiquitous, and ultimately experienced alone. Spain has perhaps given me the spiritual lessons that would allow me to enjoy what I desire but handle it too. Spain was a two-month long moment in which I found myself constantly frustrated with others, myself, and the universe for not giving me what I (thought I) want(ed).  I judged myself for not being as happy, productive, or successful as I thought a Watson fellow should be. When I finally gave my spirit time to process the pain it was feeling, I made some important observations about how I live, feel, move. My days of solo travel in the south of Spain reacquainted me with my solitude after weeks of resigning to my loneliness. Solitude, unlike loneliness, doesn’t involve wallowing. Rather, solitude is healing because it brings me back to the original language of silence. In time, I realized that the universe was just trying to protect me by giving me the space and time I needed to reflect on and process my past, force me to be present, and respect that my Watson year isn’t just about skateboarding with women, that in order to sustain my energy and my passion for my passion, I must set aside time to breathe, meditate, sit in my suffering.

After all, November – autumn – is the season of purging. I entered the fall in full bloom, limbs ablaze with color and potential. The cold weather is a reminder to return to the foundation, to allow the shedding skin to wilt away and reveal the glowing growth underneath, to recognise that the leaves burn bright but are fleeting, that life is a cycle, that everything moves in cycles.

“We have ourselves and we have each other”

In Spain, I have experienced joy, awe, triumph. I met many amazing women and people and had many sunset skate sessions at Mar Bella, Barceloneta, Universitat, El Prat, MACBA…  I expanded my project so as to include other elements of street culture – dance, street art, protest – and found ways to connect them all back to skateboarding. I did a lot more reading into academic literature about skateboarding and urban youth culture, feminism in Europe and Spanish-speaking contexts, and what intergenerational unity/protest/civil disobedience can look like. I met some gem humans who cared for me and opened up their arms and homes and hearts to me. I look forward to carrying that love with me to South Africa, where I will meet Dallas Oberholzer, Kelly Murray, Chonga Pessane, and others with whom I can grow and build around our mutual love for skateboarding and faith in its potential to transform the lives of women and youth. I am excited to learn about how the relatively small but mighty women’s skateboarding scene in South Africa is taking shape, and use my experiences in Spain to add new perspectives.

“The way to happiness is to be a fountain, not a drain.”

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