A Letter to My High School Self, xoxo “Mocahontas”

By: Monica Torres
High School Graduation, 2013 (That’s me on the left.)

My photo essay is in a “bio-mythological” self addressing format because I have always witnessed the world in a highly visual, descriptive, photographic, colorful capacity. My imagination has helped me overcome many challenges, embrace my identity, and come to understand the world in my own artistic way.

Dear high school Monica Torres,

I am sorry for crying at high school graduation and leaving you with the most embarrassing photo of your life. I say as I post this for the world to see… #sorrynotsorry.

The year is 2016 and this is Monica from the future, writing you a letter with things that I (or rather you) have learned:

Tip 1: The words that others use to describe you are a reflection of them and not you. You know how your classmates call you “Mulan” and “Pocahontas” to make fun of you? Know that people use mythical characters as a flawed way of understanding your complex Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Chinese identity. Do not let the words of others hinder you or determine who you are. Rather, listen to what others say, process their words, and know that you have the power to take and leave what you want: you have the power to construct yourself.

You might find it ironic to know that you ended up creating a website called mocahontas.com,” a site that pays homage to the women whose art and activism has inspired you: Frieda Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, and Rigoberta Menchu to name a few. This is a space where women voice their truths and empower one another. You embrace the name M o c a h o n t a s #mocahontas because it has become a part of the fabric of your being: an archetype representing the migrations of your ancestors and experiences of being racially miscategorized and misunderstood.

Photographer | Johanna Hassan
I am not your exotic flower.

Angular devastation.

Extraterrestrial resignation.

You have lit a fire within me and that cannot be forgiven.”

You may struggle to know who you are, but you will grow up to be a Feminist-Sister//Intellectual, Flower//Warrior, Queen// Ninja-and yet you are not confined solely to dichotomous categories. You will one day turn to women by the name of Audre Lorde and Bell Hooks and they will help you learn more about yourself and your history. Tip 2: Know your history. This includes acknowledging the sacrifices that your ancestors made for you to exist today.

An ode to my elders:
Photographer | Austin McCaffrey

“bendecida ha sido con unos pómulos de latón, piel de cobre y un corazón de oro, gracias a sus ancestros.”

[Translation]

“Her ancestors gifted her with brass cheekbones, copper skin, & a heart of gold.” — Monica Torres

Tip 3: Apply the lessons that you learn in the classroom to the world outside of it.

I know that right now as a high school student you run a business from your backpack, selling the Pop-Tarts that you collect from your pantry to help Mami and Papi with their financial problems. Papi in the year ’16 has now worked at the U.S. Post Office for more than 30 years! Mami cleans homes on the side. I know that you worry about their health and happiness, this has not changed.

Mami and Papi want you to be like Junot Diaz. He is a Dominican author who they will show you on a tv segment one day after school. They will rave over it because it shows our public library, a place where he would read when he was younger, and a place where you would go to wait for a ride after school. “You will be like him one day!” Thus, the name Junot Diaz becomes a part of the bio-mythology that you do not yet realize that you are living.

Photographer | Natalia Sells
“We are Mythical beings haunting the imaginations of male explorers who etched us in their diaries.
Mocking birds mistaken as nightingales.
We Are Mystical rehistoricizers of our stolen past.” — Monica Torres

I know that your parents do not understand the school system as well as your friend’s parents do. I hate to break it to you, but you will not get accepted into AP U.S. History and this will affect your confidence. Mami will tell you Tip 4: Don’t compare yourself to others. You will learn to advocate for yourself and provide a guide for your parents to help your little brother and sister. I am proud of you for making due with what you have.

Right now you translate your algebra skills to financial literacy and the lessons learned in your marketing class to bettering your relationship with Pop-Tarts lovers, but in the future you will take the research that you conduct in the Institution and watch it transform into activism pertaining to different Indigenous communities.

A guidance counselor will tell you that you will not get accepted into your state school but you will go on to defy this and be a first generation college student. And guess what…you go to Rutgers University, the place where Junot Diaz got his undergraduate education. Mami and Papi are very proud of you. Tip 5: Education is priceless and something to be cherished. You will take it very seriously because education is your freedom. You study Latino Caribbean Studies and Women & Gender Studies at Rutgers University with an emphasis on Indigenous people. You choose this because you learn about the Indigenous people throughout history and present day countries where your families migrated from and you admire their ways of knowing.

Tierra, Sangre, Oro

Rencarnación

Dirt, Blood, Gold

Reincarnation

Tip 6: Ask questions! You will urge your University to reflect on its history more deeply during its 250th anniversary festivities and aim to understand the needs of the underserved Native American student population at Rutgers.

“Reflection is the most difficult of our activities because we are no longer able to establish relative priorities from the multitude of sensations that engulf us.”

Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt

Tip 7: Travel! The girl who could never afford to leave the state of New Jersey will have opportunities to travel by herself! Remember that chorus trip you took to Washington D.C. in eighth grade? What if I told you that you would spend two months studying in D.C. as part of the Washington Internship for Native Students Program with a cohort of Native American students including but not limited to the Lakota, Mohawk, Navajo, Apache, Choctaw, and Cherokee tribes. You will create a photo project that aims to illustrate the multiplicity of experiences and identities within Indian Country. A project featuring resilient storytellers and shares narratives of resistance, family, love, creativity, empowerment, confusion, pain, and healing.

You will also visit the Dominican Republic and Mexico, swapping stories with Mayan locals. You will be a Ronald E. McNair scholar, on the path to attaining a PhD! Dr. Torres sounds nice doesn’t it? Perhaps “President Torres?”

Photographer | Ali Lawlor

The Popul Vuh — The Maya Creation Story explains that the Gods created the Maya people 3 times.

First, they came out of the mud, but the rain washed them away.

Then, they were made of wood, but they lacked a heart to worship the Gods.

Lastly, they were made of corn.

~The Maya live on~
You are intelligent. You are beautiful.
You are seen. You are heard.
You are loved. You are cosmic.
You are life. You are celestial.
You are survival. You are art. 
You are admired. You are appreciated.
You are fierce. You are remembered.

I want to dedicate this piece to my elders and thank “Better Make Room” for the opportunity.

My great grandmother and me, Puerto Rico, 2000.