She said I am no longer the ugliest out of all my cousins. I was about 10 or 11 years old. I said, “Thank you, auntie,” as though she was giving me a compliment.

For the first time, I thought, I must truly be beautiful.

Another person’s recognition fed my sense of self worth. The absence of it made me ache and famished.

Years of yearning for another soul’s approval meant building my dignity out of puffs of smoke — its existence always fleeting, illusory.

It took years of unlearning; it was a painful journey toward self-love.

I have escaped the walls from which she imprisoned my light. Let us plot the liberation of others.

Original photo taken by Kate Blanco at the corner of Stanton and Eldridge Streets, Lower East Side, NYC. Large street art by Mike Giant. Also posted at