Mami Blanca’s house is regal. The road that leads to her house used to be framed by white wooden fences that once held more than eight horses, and today stretches to a small clearing with a fountain at its center. The house is surrounded with brick pathways adorned with flowers. To the right, there’s a tennis court my father built when he was younger, and behind the house, a búngalo, which papi also built when he was a boy. Visiting this ethereal, almost faraway place though, was another story all together. Because even though it was indeed beautiful, when I think of visiting Mami Blanca’s house, I get queasy with childhood feelings of inadequacy. There is a splinter between such material beauty and the reality of my family’s economic situation, the reality of my own home – a garage turned house, and on top, the promise of a “real” one always in construction. And so, Mami Blanca’s house was really the intimidating playground of the imagination, where possibilities were endless, if only you could afford them.
Growing up, the feelings of insufficiency were so strong, that whenever we were going to visit Mami Blanca’s house for a family party, my sister Krystal and I always made an effort to “look good.” We knew that for this family in particular, the way you looked was important and was always always always a point of conversation, and so we tried our hardest to play the part too. For us, getting dressed became a source of stress.
Mami Blanca, like her house, is regal. She is an elegant woman, with a beautiful soprano voice, a big heart, always a full face of makeup, and strong hands. She is a masterful seamstress. Her skill, attention to detail and eye for style made her the best at making and adjusting clothes to her liking. Really, she is the epitome of emperifollá in her time. Dressed to the nines even when she’s going to wash clothes or water the plants.
But money and appearances seemed to make the gap between us so far and wide and deep, that even the idea of crossing it seemed impossible.
Since we couldn’t afford to go to family trips or fancy dinners out, we didn’t participate in a lot of the activities that brought the rest of the Stoddard Latorre family together. This meant that at yearly family parties conversations only revolved around what we’d do when we graduated, how much money that would make us, and getting a boyfriend. And so it was no surprise we felt as though we couldn’t ever relax. I was defensive about the way I looked, the way papi looked in his signature sporty clothes, the way mami looked, the way we moved and talked, and the way they saw us move and talk.
As the years went by, family get togethers became more unbearable (especially after I came out as queer, and the boyfriend question just got a smile and wave, boys, smile and wave). In the same way, they got easier because navigating these spaces becomes second nature: you flip the switch and carry on for a few hours.
It’s no wonder my relationship to clothes and fashion
was is complicated. Between consumer culture and capitalism continuously egging us on with their Yes, of course you need that! Of course! And their, work hard, play hard, jk work hard, pay bills, try to survive and then if there’s change, remember you only live once! In my head, for a long time, I thought that being fashionable and having a sense of style meant I needed to have money, and since my family didn’t have a lot to spare, then fashion and style wasn’t something accessible to me. How was I supposed to afford the things I saw in Mami Blanca’s house and in glossy magazine pages? And if I couldn’t afford them, I thought, “How was my family ever going to accept me?” Clothes, to me, were inextricably linked to money, and money was a source of pain in my household. Alexander Chee says, “Pain is information […] Pain has a story to tell you.” It was the source of anger, resentment and a constant longing for the happiness that would inevitably welcome us if we only had more. It played the main character in most of my parents long-drawn discussions, and it played the main character in more insidious, silent ways in our visits to Mami Blanca’s house and in family parties.
Late high school and college was really the time I explored my style as means of self expression more consciously and seriously, linked to money still, but it felt a little less daunting. I was already working, and my best friend had all the tips and tricks to shopping on a budget. I was very much a dress and sneakers person, mostly because I was in tennis clothes about 90% of my life.
One weekend, during my college years, I went to visit Mami Blanca and after a few hours of playing tennis and conversation, I went to el baño pequeño, which was inside the room right next to the kitchen. Out of impulsive curiosity, after I exited the bathroom and muscle-memory examined the pictures hanging on the wall in the room, I opened one of the closets, and saw an array of beautiful clothes. They looked like they were brand new, but were in fact clothes Mami Blanca used when she was younger. I remember I tried a few pieces on in secret, and for a short while, it felt as though a timeline was crossed and these clothes made me feel closer to her in ways family get togethers never did. I quickly took them off though, and put everything back exactly like it was. I didn’t say anything except, “Oye Mami Blanca, esa ropa que está en el clóset está de lo más linda.”
The next time I came around, Mami Blanca took me to the room. She showed me some of the clothes she was going to donate and asked if I wanted anything. She took them them out one by one: skorts, dresses, blouses with puffy sleeves, suits… You name it and I loved it. She said, “Mídetelas,” and I did. I modeled for her and we laughed, surprised everything fit me – tira’o. And with every piece of clothes I tried on it seemed a little bridge was taking form, where we could eventually meet each other halfway, and talk about the times she wore the clothes, her favorite pieces, and the meaningful occasions for which she had made some of them. To be honest sometimes I wonder, was it that I’d never been so close to feeling acceptance by the very things that made me feel inadequate as a kid or was it that finally we found some common ground in these clothes-relics of another time? Whatever the case, it was quite meaningful to slowly shed those feelings through our mutual love of clothes as self-expression.
And so I learned there was space for love and play in contradiction. That self-worth can never be measured by the clothes on your back, or the things you do or don’t own, or the reasons your family works hard, but can’t really play hard. Now, whenever I wear Mami Blanca’s clothes (and mami’s clothes too!), I remind myself that we have the power to create meaning. I am embodying, deconstructing and mixing their versions of emperifollá with my own. And the world of material objects, which I, in turn, coveted and refused because it made me feel less-than growing up, but that I have access to now as a working woman, suddenly, ironically (and a bit sadly), also made way to the possibility of exploring a deeper, more meaningful relationship with my paternal grandmother. Mami Blanca’s clothes are the physical representation of memories, and I am wearing a piece of the past where I choose, for the first time, to feel like I’m enough. Yes, “pain has a story to tell”. It’s a (bumpy) road to healing.