In July 2018, Nicole created RWW to eliminate the social, cultural, and financial barriers that often prevent BIPOC storytellers from obtaining top-quality literary arts education. At the time, Nicole was a former NYC public school teacher and decade-long prosecutor. She was also a felon serving out an eighteen-month probation sentence. Tired of participating in writing workshops that centered whiteness and cast aside voices of color, Nicole conjured up RWW. Through RWW, Nicole sought to make literary arts education accessible for BIPOC, poverty-born, justice-involved, and/or LGBTQIA+POC—people who came from backgrounds and communities similar to her own. What started as a one-day workshop with barely ten participating storytellers seated in a cramped Brooklyn office rental grew into an organization that now supports and amplifies the literary art of over eight-hundred BIPOC storytellers across the country. Today, RWW is a literary arts revolution that offers visionary programming including educational workshops, storyteller showcases, publication opportunities, and an annual writers’ retreat. RWW’s storytellers have gone on to establish literary art careers, attend prestigious writing programs, facilitate literary arts education workshops themselves, and to join the RWW team as Board and Executive Staff members. The RWW Board and staff, like its programs, are comprised of BIPOC individuals who also identify as justice-involved, queer, trans, gender nonconforming, and/or poverty-born—the very intersectional identities that Roots. Wounds. Words. was created to center and celebrate.
We are honored to have Nicole help us usher in 2021 by guest curating these Voices on Addiction installments.
I was five, seven, nine, eleven, thirteen, fifteen, when my dad lied to me. “Give me five dollars and I’ll double it, I promise,” he begged while pacing within the hallway’s dirty white walls—the same walls my sister and I scrubbed clean in adherence to our punishment for one minor offense or another each summer. As he picked at his face, spotted with purple manchas, his lanky six feet and bulging eyes pleaded in desperation. At all these ages, I was large-eyed and freckled, with bangs cut straight across my forehead. Long, thick hair framed my face—each year a different hue, reflecting a colorful rebellion that helped me cope with a drug-addicted father and abusive mother whose only outlet for anger when Dad’s tweaking emerged, as it often did, was to take it out on her daughters.
Dad’s addiction began when he was ten years old, when his macho, God-loving father forced tequila shots down his throat to initiate him into manhood. It was around this time that he started stealing cigarettes from his father and tíos, at first in macho imitation.
Later in life came the meth.
In 1994, my parents met through the receiving end of wired wall phones, though, some years before, they eyed each other from afar at the local rollerskating rink. By the time my mom walked the Canadian border into this country, my dad was moving from Chinatown to a suburb that edges East LA. My mom was a sixteen-year-old immigrant teenager from Bolivia with a two-year-old daughter, and befriended my dad’s sister when they met at the continuation school for pregnant girls in downtown LA. My dad was an eighteen-year-old, street-smart math whiz with braces who came from a Mexican immigrant home, where his mother made him her accomplice in retaliations against his father—a man who inflicted violence against them routinely. At the time my parents met, my dad attended a local college where he received a full scholarship thanks to his soccer skills.
My dad fell in love with my mom—his first-ever girlfriend—between phone calls and dates at the roller rink and pizza joints. I was conceived two years into the relationship. My dad’s family, with their traditional ways, wasn’t too happy when he knocked up an already-teenage mom raised by a single mother herself, especially one who wasn’t Mexican. However, according to my paternal grandparents, Catholic morals were law. My mom and dad were forced to wed—my dad at twenty and my mom at eighteen. At least they were in love.
My mom tells me that the day I was born, in January of 1996, my dad had to work. Though he didn’t show up to see me break into this world, he came bearing gifts that my mom holds on to, to this day—a little baby-pink sweatsuit with a pearl lace collar and matching bobby lace socks, my first ever gold-plated bracelet to protect me from mal de ojo. A couple of days after I was born, my dad got blackout drunk to celebrate, and he had a local artist tattoo my name on his upper arm, at the place where his farmer’s tan splits his skin tones from beige to tawny. My birth name, Elizabeth, spelled in blue ink in homeboy cursive, was etched into his flesh in a garage. I was a daddy’s girl and his greatest prize in life—that is, until a couple years after I was born.
I can’t remember much of the man my mother fell in love with—the man before the meth. I don’t know the father who loved me fiercely and tenderly as his baby girl. There’s a picture, just one, of us when I was an infant. In it, we’re taking a bath. I think he’s smiling as I beam all silly and babylike. Other pictures play in my mind—his face, manchada, sunken-in and serious. Him walking me to the school bus stop in the morning and home from the bus stop after school. His hands over a steaming pot when, the one time I had a friend over to our place, he tried to make us sopita de fideo. His frowning eyebrows when he managed to mess up the simple soup made of tomato sauce, water, and noodles. Him begging for money. His constant disappearances. My mom, sister, and I pulling up to random houses and motels in search of him. Us trying to bring him back home.
In 2012, my family moved to my grandparent’s West Covina home—a place filled with junk, and empty of the people who actually lived there. One day, after riding my beach cruiser while sporting beat-up brown leather, hand-braided huaraches and a pink-checkered vintage dress, I pedaled my way home before it got too dark out. The scent of a wet mop smacked my nose as I swung open the heavy front door. There, in the doorframe, I froze before throwing my bike to the side and running into the living room towards Dad. There in the living room, he sat in a white folding chair, beaten bloody and blue, his jaw dislocated as my mom wiped his face with a rag. Her face was flushed with fury as she told me to step away from him, and to stop asking so many questions.
Later that day I learned that a local father, whose daughter I went to school with, was my dad’s dealer. Somehow, the two had gotten into a beef. My father’s dealer hired a group of guys to beat my dad up with baseball bats behind my middle school. I don’t know what the offense was—whether my dad owed him money, or his dealer didn’t like losing a customer, it’s still a mystery. But my dad’s addiction and its repercussions crystalized, not just for him, but for our entire family.
My dad’s dealer had eyes on our whole block. Each time I left or entered my home, someone’s gaze burned into my skin. I felt unsafe in my grandparents’ home. I stopped riding my bike. I came home one afternoon to find a large knife in my bed, tucked under my sheet. Soon after, someone stole our car from out of our driveway. Sometime after that, my dead grandmother’s jewelry was stolen, gone
A couple of months later, Dad’s dealer and his friends crashed my brother’s eight-year-old birthday party. With bulging red eyes, my mom grabbed the same large knife that she used to slice the colorful cake with and held it to the dealer’s face. The crew left. But they weren’t alone. My mom had had enough. We moved out of my grandparents’ home and returned to our little condominium that was in a neighborhood with an even worse reputation for drug and street violence. There was no escaping.
For years, decades even, my father tried to escape meth’s hold. Between his many battles to stay clean were his crutch addictions—alcohol, painkillers, prescription medications, food, and sleep when he tried to stay out of trouble.
Now, my dad is a tired man who works double shifts almost every day of the week to keep himself busy, out of trouble, and to try to make up for what was lost all those years. He’s clean from the meth but still drinks a lot, though not as much as before. I only see him when he comes home at night, or if I can catch him before he heads out to work early in the morning. Each evening, he shows up with his tall cans of beer from the corner liquor store in a small black plastic bag, sometimes already emptied. His black t-shirt is stained with white patches from the salty perspiration accumulated throughout the day. Sometimes, if he goes somewhere else to drink before coming home, I smell the alcohol and sweat seeping out of his pores when he returns.
He tries, but sometimes the temptations are just too hard to fight off.
These days, I still sport my freckles, though I’ve let go of the bangs and the hair dye. My dad’s manchas have faded—faint scars that remind us of our dim past. Elizabeth, my name on his arm, is almost imperceptible, as if it were never there at all. Thin and lanky before, my dad’s weight now nears three hundred pounds, though he seems to have shrunk a couple of inches. His face has been darkened even deeper by the sun and his eyes, always sad-looking, are accentuated by wrinkles from the constant furrow of his brows. Sometimes when he sits on the couch, beer can in hand, I ask him what he’s thinking about. He usually responds with empty chatter and a sigh. There are rare occasions when he is clear-eyed and conversational, when he likes to talk about sports and food and his workday. This is progress.
Now forty-five years old with a little white patch of hair, my dad has two new honorary titles: mailman and grandpa, or Pá—opportunities for my dad to try for a career and parenthood that he couldn’t sustain during my adolescence. Before becoming a grandpa and a mailman, he spent years kicking and screaming and crying all through the night when he wasn’t passed out on his old sweat infused mattress, snoring deep in a drunken state. Walking for more than ten hours a day at his new job has helped, so it seems. I fear what might happen if he loses his job.
I wonder if the spirits of his addictions will return, causing him to sleepwalk and wail around the house in the middle of the night. Though this fear lives inside me, I silence it with enthusiasm for his progress. Every day when I see him walk through that door, his black shirt stained with white salt marks and a little black bag in hand or not, I call out to my nephew, “Pá’s home!” My dad smiles, happy to have made it home to us, too.
Rumpus original art by Cowboy Rocky.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.