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[In an effort to reflect on a very tumultuous year, the Mercury asked several Portlanders to look back on their 2020 and share how their lives have changed and what they've taken away from their experiences. Dr. Marisa Zapata the director of the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative at Portland State University. Here is her 2020 story.—eds]

As a child I remember observing the Brown, older women in my life—family, neighbors, teachers, leaders. They stood in such power, and I knew just by looking at them they had endured pain, violence, loss. But they also lived in joy—loving and laughing until I thought they might burst. I was intrigued by them, respectful of them, scared of them, to hold that much emotion, that much intensity, and that much control of your being. I pictured them as curanderas, Mexican healers who drew on knowledge from Spanish and Indigenous medicine. They were, are, the power our communities hold.

In Brown and Black communities across time and geography, I have seen so many people of color do this. Sit in pain and despair. Revel in joy and laughter and love in life. Stand in the power of living, being, experiencing no matter the circumstance. There was no denial of the pain of our lives, the losses, the horror. But, there was the ability to experience the beauty of family, friends, and comadres.*

Now, in 2020, I am starting to feel what I saw in those women.

My country has let over 300,000 people die. They have died alone, and desperately ill, while others just shrug because the victims are disportionately Black and Brown. My country continues to sanction police violence against Black and Brown people. We witnessed the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. He was not the only person of color murdered by police this year. While parts of the country stand up and say “Black Lives Matter,” others brandish signs that read “coming for Blacks and Indians first.”

It’s clear that we're all not working toward the same future in this country. My ideas about what a good democracy looks like, what caring for people looks like, and what it means to end racism and misogyny does not match a huge portion of the country. Despite the death toll, there are those protesting against protecting others’ basic health. What does this mean for those of us working toward a racially just future? How do we show up and how do we stand up together?

First we need to recognize and sit with the despair of the moment and be honest about that. We know that 2020 was a year that brought so much pain, and we can't just push forward without experiencing it.

White people must continue the work that they started, learning from, listening to, and centering Black and Brown lives even when it's no longer a headline.

It’s also lifting one another up and demonstrating love and compassion and thinking about how you're showing up to advocate for your causes. It’s making sure your advocacy doesn’t mean tearing other movements down. To the social service agencies, don't fight against one another. Instead demand more for everyone from your leaders. To businesses, take the long view and fight for you and your customers to be alive in ten years.

When I think back to the women I looked up to as a child, I knew there were things I did not understand about the world. But I could see that they held a power to feel and experience so many things at once, and instead of being overwhelmed, being able to find power in the pain and joy of life. And when you saw them together? Friends, family, strangers—it didn’t matter—it was and is moving to see women of color hold all of their feelings and experiences, drawing on them to push to the next day, the next meal, the next march, the next party.

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I will not know the depths of the pain that many suffered this year. I have not lost anyone close to me. I will never know the kind of pain my elders have, and my white skin means I will not experience some of the same hurt my contemporaries do. But I can reject the cognitive dissonance that Whiteness expects — that I bifurcate pain and joy. I want to be a woman who moves through hurt and joy at once.

I will not pretend that there is a neat bow to tie up 2020, or hope for a rainbow-filled future in 2021. I will get up tomorrow, angry, sad, and filled with anxiety for the next day, week, month. I will also laugh, love, and care with my family, friends, and those who believe in a future where people enjoy basic human rights, where we have the right to live whole lives, and where people of color have a right to live a life that isn't threatened by racism and police violence.

* The words from women such as Anzaldua, Brown, Cisneros, Derricotte, Huerta, and Moraga gave me language to articulate joy as an act of resistance, defiance in the face of power, strength in the power of being.


Dr. Marisa Zapata

Dr. Marisa Zapata is an associate professor land-use planning, and the director of the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative at Portland State University

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