Yamilette Vizcaíno Rivera
Problem Statement, Research Statement, Research Objective
Yeah, I can tell you about home. I’d have to start by telling you about other things first though, tell its origin story before I can put you in it.
First, I’d have to tell it the way my parents would.
Papi would start with that time he was building desks in the back of a classroom and paused to squint past the blinds at the rays of light so bright they turned the crowded street view to ribbons. In that pause he listened to the teacher call roll, heard my name before it was mine and said, That’s going to be my firstborn’s name–he would insist that, had you been there, you would do the same.
Mami would tell you that it starts with being someone who leaves, bearing that label in your family. She might explain that she found her only true solace in the other whirlwind type woman she knew–the fast talking, red-lipsticked version she had never been. She’d assure you that you’d be best friends with this person too. You would love and be in awe of her for dating whoever she wants, for telling your eventual eldest child to do the same, for even suggesting a name for your youngest. If you are Mami, that is how you give my younger sister her name.
Field Site Selection and Justification
But that’s telling. To show, I’d have to give statistics and paint a fuller picture. I’d have to paper you with facts and figures, sharp points sinking deep into soft cork originally intended as extra protection for a tree’s vascular system, but also capable of holding what you need to know in place. And because these sticking points are related to nation-state boundaries and how they diverge and reconverge with geographical ones, they’re bloody, they exact a cost.
And if you are us, then you–we–don’t have much in the way of material things. This means that our first payment is in skin, in shedding the protective layer that comes with knowing exactly what it is that we need protection against. The second payment is the right to fear, as we’ll need to launch ourselves towards land obscured by the bright white fog of the unknown if we want a way forward at all. And we did. So next we paid in blood, in skin rashes sprouting across our backs like weeds, in sensitivity to the new air that makes rest next to impossible; we paid in broken leg bones from falling through infrastructure as dilapidated as the ones we thought we’d left behind, but painted shinier so we didn’t notice until it was too late; we even paid in burst blood vessels–a pinnacle of stress that people like us are twice as likely to reach.
And we got things in return: tiled floors the color of our choosing, non-washable walls, cars that could be traded for other cars, accolades that melt to nothing if they’re left in the rain, a guest bedroom for when others wanted to join us on this manicured corner of suburbia, see the imposing finality of an American lawn, sit in the thrilling, chilling silence which left us nothing to do but reach for our own truths.
Only after all of that could I tell you about home starting with me–not at the beginning because I am not the beginning of anything. But the question becomes: How do I begin? With achievements that aren’t achievements at all? Gold, but the kind that can be scraped away by a careful fingernail? Sunlight, but the kind that enters alley-facing windows at an oblique angle for one hour a day? Or light so uninterrupted and ubiquitous it usurps power, shuts down the biorhythms that your brain finds peripheral, so that it can better protect the essential core?
Maybe heat, light’s consequence, is a better place to start: the kind that sears the lungs on the way in, so dry it removes any moisture, creating a crust of your lungs for a moment. Heat so intense that in the 20 years of life I remember best, it created that same dry crust out of the land in all but two of them; heat that bleaches the sky into this dull dust color, which I don’t notice until I leave. What I do notice is the acute nausea that gripped me when a girl from another school tripped on a hurdle, fell through the noxious waves of heat and rubber smell in the air, and skid–knees, shins, forearms–to a stop on the track. From the top of the bleachers, I couldn’t quite see the way her blood and skin changed the color of the rubber, only the way those pieces of her changed the track’s texture.
Or maybe my story of home takes shape most clearly in leavings–heat’s consequence. That’s an easier thread to follow, with fewer moments as anchors: just a seat 30,000 feet above sea level, and the fuzzy feeling of the air around me, the only true comfort in my world. This is the place that works as both the beginning and the end, where I learn that I am bearing a cross after all–I’ve inherited Mami’s leaving mantle.
Personal Qualifications and Research Collaborations
What came with my inheritance: a mat on the dusty ground outside a blue tent that got too hot, leaving me splayed on my back, observing the southern hemisphere stars, thinking about how I’ve googled this place and found it listed as one of the top 10 poorest places in the world. I’ve seen it left off of map after map, but I didn’t see any mention of the stars, of what it’s like to breathe while you behold them. A slick mud balance beam between rice paddies that I could only traverse with my sandals off, one hanging from the fingers of each arm spread wide, as the green green sea of blades rushes for what looked like miles ahead of me to reach the mountain ahead, which of course, in turn, did its best to reach the electric blue of the sky. And maybe it felt so like home because all islands do, because I’d swipe sweat from my skin and remember a glistening leaf bigger than a spade that seemed even more tropical in its width, in its determination to trap the little light that filters down to it at any energetic cost. And my best friend’s voice calls me further up the mountain, and my tía’s voice calls me back down the mountain, and the coquí’s voices just call and call and call and that moment is a triangulation of exactly where I am in relation to my context, and is that not what home is?
Except that assemblage has had the imperfections leached from it–a diamond already set in gold: the heat, compression, cutting, all forgotten. To tell of home I’d have to tell it all again in pain. Some small ones: the constant throbbing of my finger tips, always bleeding and stinging thanks to my own teeth, the burning at the back of my throat from having taken the less expensive but more alcoholic beverage options all day when I decide that Papi is ready to learn my significant other’s gender; Mami’s hand gripping me a bit too hard when my two-week visit is already coming to a close and it dawns on her again that she’s dedicated every breath to someone even more in love with leaving than she is.
But some pain is paradigm-shifting, like learning that the earth revolves around the sun. Learning that if home is the place that props you up at your lowest, then my chronic illness has made home a stranger’s toilet bowl. A public restroom where I will dry heave on a better day, and on a worse day I’ll projectile vomit before reaching the inside of the stall and have to lock the door with slippery fingers and retrace my steps with 1-ply toilet paper in my shaking hands.
Home will be the living room floor of my first apartment upon which I will slide to my knees before I can even afford its furnishings and cover at least 70% of it in my vomit. And this pain works as a frame because my SO will not only clean it up off of that floor, but also out of their bathtub, off of a public bathroom floor at our place of work, and my own bedroom floor. It would become almost ritual, a joke or two, an efficient swipe of a handful of paper towels, then disinfectant wipe, then a warm hand on my shoulder while I consider the kind of pain that doesn’t let the body nourish itself enough to fight back.
Of course I can tell you what my sources are. It would be terrible science if I couldn’t. But that’s easy–consider what’s harder: admitting that every new source material and piece of evidence only further illustrates that home has no parameters. That it exists even in those deep aching moments when I understand that leaving is an evasion of a mortgage taken out on my future for me–one I want no responsibility for–but that I also refuse to conceive of a reality that doesn’t necessitate it. Consider that I carry all of that, too, wherever I go.
Yamilette Vizcaíno Rivera is a queer AfroLatinx writer and educator based in Brooklyn. She has received fellowships from the HUES Foundation and Sundress Academy for the Arts, and was the inaugural writer in residence at Velvet Park Media. A Tin House and VONA alum, her words can be found online at Barrelhouse, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Watermelanin Magazine, and are forthcoming in a chapbook from The Hellebore Press in spring 2022.