On the cover North Coast Journal


March 9, 2006

Heading: Living Memory, portraits of women, personal truths by KYANA TAILLON. Closeup photo of woman's nose and mouth.

Women have to work twice as hard to get ahead in a socially constructed man's world, and struggle daily with the dehumanization of abuse and victimization. Often times, the stories of victims are erased from public discussion.

Privilege and oppression are not just a thing of the past. We celebrate March as Women's History Month, but it is not the only time women should be heard.

The following stories are real, from the lives of real women who reside in Humboldt County. Their stories symbolize the living memory in all women and help to restore pride and dignity to empower women whose stories are too often untold, and to encourage others to tell their own stories.

With the exception of "Always & Forever," which is based on letters written home, each woman's story was recorded and transcribed. Statements from the interviews were used to narrate their stories. The women were then photographed.

It was the personal struggles of women around me that inspired this project. It was the connection between these women and the collective violence perpetuated globally by those with the greatest power that encouraged me to want to do something more.

We will not forget our histories.

-- Kyana Taillon

This show will be exhibited March 3-30 in the Student Business Services Building on the Humboldt State University campus. The artist's reception will be held Friday, March 10 at 7 p.m.




Big Knife

I used to dance in the circle to the heavy rhythm of the drums and the songs of the men who beat upon them, my baby blue shawl with pink fringes around my shoulders.

Mom hates going to powwows, and she hates the word "halfbreed." At powwows the halfbreeds stand together. We never lived in one place for too long, but my high school years were spent on the reservation.

Then there are those like me who stand in a group of our own. My grandmother on Mom's side is Ho-Chunk and their family hates me because my complexion is more that of my dad, a white man. They're really angry people. I would be angry too.

A gang of girls jumped me from behind at a party in high school. You can still feel the scar on my head from their brass knuckles and the glass from my car window. I found out later (and so did the girls who attacked me) that we are all related. They are part of my Native family and they ended up apologizing after I got out of the hospital.

Mom is an alcoholic and I have never really known her.

There's so little Native left, and drugs and alcohol poison the Native that is left. Mom drinks because she's sad. The whole Native culture is destroyed because the white man killed it.

Powwows aren't about dancing anymore. Now the powwows exist for the entertainment of white people and money for Natives, not about preserving the culture.

Mahi,xete (mah-kh-day) is the Ho-Chunk word for a white person. It means "big knife."

My dad's brother sexually molested me when I was nine. No one believed me. My mom didn't even believe me, even though she had always claimed that she had once been raped. My aunt came out after I did and admitted that he had molested her for years. No one believed her either.




My sister got mad at me because I laughed when I saw her college graduation picture.

"Why are you wearing that thing around your neck?" I asked.

The colors of the Philippine flag -- blue, red and white with yellow stars and sun draped around her neck and down the front. She looked like the poster girl for the family.

I don't know exactly where in the Philippines my parents came from. They don't talk about it much. They believe the U.S. provides unlimited opportunity, but I don't think they've had a very fulfilling life.

"Is he American?" my grandmother asked me once when she came to visit us in the states.


"You should just marry a Filipino." Grandma speaks English like I speak Tagalog, just to get by. "He'll know where you come from."

"Where do I come from?" I asked. "I've never even been to the Philippines. I come from the states."

People assume that I know the history of "where I come from" or the culture of its people, but I feel bad because I don't.

People have often used the word "exotic" to describe me. I don't picture myself fitting the word -- sexy, on a hot desert island or something. People smile and stare.

"You're so beautiful," a woman at the post office said. "I've never seen anybody like you before." I felt like an alien.

I looked up "exotic" in the dictionary.

ex·o·tic adj. 1. From another part of the world; foreign: exotic tropical plants in a greenhouse. 2. Intriguingly unusual or different; excitingly strange. 3. Of or involving striptease: an exotic dancer.

I remember the time in middle school when two boys pointed and laughed at me when I wore a Willy Santos T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops. (Willy Santos is surfer and skater who happens to be Filipino.) They were dressed similarly.

"Who do you think you are?" they asked. "Do you think you're white or something?"

So, what the hell are Filipino people supposed to wear? Something "exotic"? Should I wear the traditional outfits handmade by my grandmother, the intricate beadwork and sheer material that hangs untouched in my closet? We don't walk around all day with kimonos on, I know that.

My sister was the first in our family to graduate college. She was always proud of her Filipino identity. I went home later that day and cried because I hurt her feelings. It was a huge accomplishment and she considered it a symbol of pride and achievement for all of us.




He kinda made me sick, the way he acted.

He wore a plaid shirt and blue jeans, and introduced himself as a doctor, although he made a comment that the plaques and certificates on the wall "could've been printed out by anyone." My new employer told me I was there for a drug test and "short physical exam" to make sure I was fit enough to lift 50 pounds.

"Now we're going to have some fun," he said as he motioned for me to lie down on the padded bench in the middle of the room.

I wanted to ask him a million times what he was doing. Maybe he was just joking. I didn't know what to say, so I just laughed. That's what people do when they feel uncomfortable.

He lifted my shirt and asked if I had any other tattoos.

"I'm going to put this under your breast and I want you to take some deep breaths," he said.

Then he made me get down on my hands and knees and told me to crawl around on the blue carpeting in front of him.

Maybe that's normal, too. I don't know.



Dead Broke & Blue

I was born with a drug addiction and a 50% chance of living. My father took me from the hospital before I was supposed to be released to punish my mother. He had a big impact over her life. She's illiterate. She has suffered and has brought a crack-addicted child into the world five times. She'll say she only has two kids, but she's got five.

I wasn't raised in a black household. My father gave me and my older sister to a woman who took us to Hawaii. She died of breast cancer a year later and her parents took guardianship of us. We were treated differently than their real Hawaiian/Japanese grandchildren. We'd be called "fucking niggers" and get beat. When I was seven I was held down and had my head shaved completely bald. I was treated like a nigger in a shed.

I might set a torch to that whole island if I had a chance.

Why would any man do that to a young child? My step-grandfather would come into my room, crack the window open and play with me. To my adult cousins -- you raped me. How can that ever be forgiven? I was just a baby.

My sister ran away during our ninth year there. When she came back she brought law enforcement.

But it didn't make me a stronger person. It made me weaker.

When I was 14, I was put on a bus to Oakland. I had gotten into trouble in Monterey and went from one bad situation to another. Abuse became my comfort zone. After the anorexia/bulimia thing, God blessed me by allowing me to have a miscarriage. (I was bleeding when I got to the hospital. Nobody would see me because I was ten minutes late for my appointment.) Later, I was admitted to a mental health unit for three weeks for alcoholism.

Still, I've had a better life than many. My grade point average went from a 2.5 in Monterey to a 4.0 at Fremont High School in Oakland. I got teased because I spoke too properly. They said I was white washed. We didn't have no need for a backpack, we had no books. I had friends who couldn't spell the simplest words. In Monterey there was a curriculum. At Fremont the teachers were like, "Stop shooting dice in the back of the room" and that was it.

I actually had dreams. I wanted to be a basketball player at UCLA. I wanted to be a lawyer, a supermodel and an advocate for children. I still want to speak out for somebody's child because I know how hard it is.

Now I'm a single mother in low-income housing. But I'm not happy. I need to start a family -- have more kids or marry somebody else with kids. Not to say I need a man, but I do. It's funny that in order to not be extremely poor, you need that other person. I don't want to be dead broke the rest of my life. I don't want to be stuck with a son alone for the rest of my life either.



Always & Forever

Well, it's hard to believe I've been here this long. I miss you so much.

So, you probably think I'm crazy, huh? Yeah, me too. This is going to be a huge challenge, but I know if I can graduate from Marine Corps Boot Camp, I can do anything.

Sometimes I just want to get the fuck out of here but then I think about what I have to go home to ... nothing.

A lot of shit's been happening around here lately. Ten girls out of 80 have made suicide threats. It's nuts here because everyone just wants to get back home so they do all sorts of fucked up shit to try and get out. We had to turn in all bobby pins cause one girl was cutting herself with them. None of us have gotten our periods yet. They must've mixed birth control into the meds they injected us with when we got here. They took away our hand sanitizers because a girl drank one. I'm trying to get used to it all.

I guess what I'm really looking forward to is the money! I feel like I've let so many people down lately so hopefully this will make up for it. I'm also hoping it will give me more confidence and pride. I've always wanted to be more like you.

I hate it here but there's really no way for me to get out now. I'm worried about the emotional aspect of it all. I mean, what if I start getting my panic attacks again? That wouldn't be good, especially when I get to the rifle range. I'm really not looking forward to that part of training. Everyone says it's "fun" but I'm terrified of shooting one. It's so strange having one strapped to my bed at night. Last night we all had to recite the "Rifleman's Creed." It's all about how our rifle is our best friend and how we are NOTHING without it. I fucking hate guns!

I have been trying so hard to stay strong and think positively about this whole situation. I just don't know if I can do this anymore. It's never really what I wanted but I didn't feel like I had a choice. I still don't. I have fucked up my life a lot. Sometimes I feel like it's beyond repair. I want to be able to be myself again. I can't stand being called disgusting and a piece of shit. I know they are just words but they still hurt. Please help me! Give me some advice! I feel like I'm going to lose my mind. Please don't tell Mom and Dad that I'm talking like this, but didn't we grow up in an anti-military family? How did it come to this? Even our little brother is in the Army!

Sleep is the only time I can escape this hellhole. I keep telling myself I probably won't have to go to Iraq. (They took away all the news magazines you sent, by the way.) War is a really scary sounding thing. You wouldn't believe it but I've actually been going to church.




"Come sit down," Dad said to me one afternoon the summer Mom finally left. "I want you to try something."

He held an empty soda can sideways in his hand and gestured for me to take the open space next to him on the couch. My best friend sat down across from us. Inside an indentation in the can, small holes covered with black ash nearly covered the red, white and blue Pepsi logo.

Dad placed a yellow rock on the ashes. I looked at his face and remembered what could've been my first memory -- the time when the cops found me and my baby sister underneath a van in a motel parking lot. Dad had shoved us there that night after he jumped into the pool, frantic that spiders were eating him.

The rock melted under the flame.

Mom had told the cops where the coke was hidden to protect herself. "In the baby's diaper," she said. I was about three then, close to the same age my son is now.

"Hurry up, slow down," Dad said as I took my first hit. "Hurry up."

We graduated D.A.R.E. at the end of sixth grade, just a few months earlier. Those fools didn't have a clue how easy it was.

When Dad returned from prison three years after the spiders episode, our parents would fight. Mom would get drunk and cheat on him, Dad would beat the hell out of her, the cops would come and Dad would go to jail. It became routine until Mom finally left.

We saw Dad overdose a million times. He was crazy. I'd throw water on his face, and afterwards he wouldn't think twice about taking another hit. Once we found Dad passed out on the couch with a needle in his arm. Mom scooted us out of the room.

Dad would put towels over all the windows and tell us kids to stay out of the kitchen so the house wouldn't blow up. Our friends were Dad's friends and they would come and go all day, every day. It wasn't unusual for us to smoke eight grams a day together.

Dad has always been a businessman. His power and his money led to the drugs, then he'd blame his kids for losing the businesses. At the same time he was losing his life.

I was an addict in high school. I would do anything to get my hands on it. I'd bust into Dad's stash -- hidden deep in his golf bag, in a shoe in the closet or in one of the few books we owned. (We're all dyslexic.) When I couldn't get it from Dad, school was the second easiest place to score. All I had to do was ask. Drugs were easier to get than food.



Other Shoes

It's dangerous when people become complacent about human suffering and perfectly comfortable about their privilege. You can't help the privilege you're born with but what people can strive for is using privilege for world betterment. Don't assume that you know what it's like to be in somebody else's shoes.

I've always lived my life as "female." Awhile ago I lived eight months as a trans guy, using the pronoun "he." I found that it was an unnecessary transition because I'm all encompassed and that I don't want to be either male or female, I want to be both. I want to be it all.

"All of the awesome feminist lesbians I know are turning into guys," a friend of mine said when I first told her about my transition. She felt abandoned because of my personal identity. It didn't mean that I wasn't a feminist or the same person.

Gender identity is so engrained in our culture that it limits somebody like me. The closest word I subscribe to is probably "gender queer" because that's the most ambiguous. Now I go by both pronouns -- I go by "he" or "she." I also go by "they." I hope to be a work in progress continually throughout my life, staying in the gray area.

When I was a little kid I'd go to sleep at night crying because I was sad, thinking it sucks that anybody else in the world might be feeling the same way. Always in a constant state of insane empathy for the world, any time I have a struggle in my life or any fucked up thing happens to me personally, I don't just feel it for me, I get extremely passionate about it because it's fucked up that anybody has to go through it.

I'm a quarter Arab, something our family is very proud of. In America, we're taught to fear everybody. Americans have been brainwashed to consider themselves victims and it's not right to perpetuate a cycle of victimizing people because there are other victims. The American dream should be opening up the borders and reaching out, realizing that we're a global society. Fuck this self-righteous ideology that America is the leader of the fucking world.



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