I was 13 when I got my first period.
It was a cloudy morning in March of 1995. I was one of the last ones in my crew to arrive at this milestone. My family seemed to think, that in being one of the last, something was wrong with me. I felt a sigh of relief when seeing the rusty-colored blob on my panties. This all happened moments before I walked out of the door to head to a field trip with my junior high school's choir. There I was, dressed in all black for the choir, with a blob of uterine-lining lacing my panties. I was a bruja all along.
I had little time to ponder; I immediately created a makeshift pad with some wadded-up toilet paper. I pulled up my panties and carried on to what would become a somber day in my adolescent years. Another somber day would be when I lost my virginity at 16. But that's for another entry.
I don't know why I felt sad, but I did. I didn't tell ANYBODY what had happened, not even my twin sister who had already gotten hers. It's like I instinctively knew the contradictory messages the burgundy blob conveyed. On one end, I was being initiated into a tribe of women who had experienced the same rites of passage before. On the opposite, I was being initiated into a patriarchal game and was automatically playing for the losing team.
Growing up Dominican, my family taught me certain things about la luna, or my "moontime". Some things seemed practical, almost magical. Like getting a hair-cut from a menstruating women promotes hair growth. Most of the ideas, however, were laced in shame. My blood was something I was to keep secret; it was something known but rarely talked about. In hindsight, I know that part of the shame was a result of machista culture. Machismo is a type of Latin-American patriarchy that seeps into every aspect of Latino culture.
Catholicism laces machismo in such a way that women, as a representation of the Virgin Mary, are exalted while simultaneously shamed for being daughters of Eve. Eve's so-called betrayal of Adam in the Garden of Eden pushed God to punish her, and all women, with both menstruation and painful childbirth. Biblical scriptures are therefore references for how women are to be treated within machista cultures in particular, and patriarchal ones in general. Our menstrual blood is often viewed as a curse and not the lifeline from which all of life emerges. Because, if you didn't know, a woman who does not menstruate cannot bear children.
Patriarchy is kept alive because both men and women learn the rules of engagement.
Men learn to shame women for their legacy as daughters of Eve. Women learn to play their position and live in shame for being daughters of Eve. This game is sustained by any means necessary. Both physical and symbolic violence is used to keep women in our place.
As a Latina, I witnessed the symbolic violence that was kept alive through lessons on how to be a "respectable woman". Teaching young women to play small and not make too much noise is an example of symbolic violence. Girls learn to clip their own wings at a very early age. We learn that women who make too much noise are considered whores or, worse, will be cursed with barren childless lives. Their moral transgressions come at high costs.
Later in life, I realized that these lessons, however, did not only come from a place of fear and submission. Our mothers knew that to be a woman in a machista society meant doing whatever was necessary to stay sane and safe. Their lessons were not out of ignorance; they were survival tactics for keeping their life and sanity in tact.
"Ya tu eres senorita, y te comportas como una/ You are now a young lady and must behave like one". Growing breasts, curving hips, and elongated neck meant I'd have to tone down my presence. Rather than celebrate this new stage in my life as a woman, my elders taught me to muffle my blood. So I stuffed my yoni with tampons, said little about my blood, and lived in shame.
A month after the burgundy blob conveyed its messages I garnered the courage to tell my mother. She seemed happy but subdued. She asked if I had pads, I said si. She asked if I told anyone, I said no. Rarely did my mother speak to me or my sister about our moontime unless she was warning us about our need to remain "lady like" and not make too much noise. Making too much noise, I'd learn the hard way, gets women into trouble.
When I was 10 my mother slapped the shit out of me in front of a large group of family. We had been watching the video from the previous night's baby shower and she saw me popping and gyrating my hips. The shame in seeing me behave like that, in public, was enough to make my mother snap.
My mother often warned my sister and I that behavior like gyrating hips in public would lead others to consider us whores, or cueros. Because, within patriarchal orders, sometimes the only thing a woman is left with is her honor. That's why she slapped me. In hindsight, I understand that my mother was protecting me from potential assaults on both my pre-teen body and my morality as a woman.
So rather than teach me to celebrate my femininity, my mother tried her best to keep our feminine power subdued. She came from a culture that, regardless of what happens to a woman in the hands of a man, the first questions asked are often "what did she do" or "what was she wearing". Like the time my twin sister was violently carried out of a club for smacking a dude with her stiletto shoe, after he took his entire hand and cupped my sister's ass like it had his name written all over it. She had the scratch marks on her wrists, from the bouncer's force, as proof that acting un-ladylike comes at a cost within patriarchy. The perpetrator was unharmed and left to party. The day after, my mother and other family members seemed to care less about my sister's well-being and more about what she was wearing to provoke old boy.
Years of denying herself access to her power as a woman wore on my mother's body. Fibroid tumors eventually consumed her uterus to the point where a hysterectomy was the only option. At 48, my mother's womb was removed, which led to a rapidly-induced menopause. I sense that this happened because of the years my mother spent playing small while projecting an image of toughness. She was mistreated by the two men who fathered her three children, yet didn't have time to properly grieve. My mother, like countless working class women around the world, was constantly on survival mode; always thinking of the next move to feed herself and her family. She had no time to sit under red tents and sing praises to her moontime.
What's beautiful is that, via the birth of my twin sister and I, my mother has been able to redeem a lot of this loss. Because, almost as if divinely ordained, my sister and I are reclaiming our blood for all of the women in our lineage who were unable to do so. Our bold embrace of our femininity has been a jagged little pill for my mother to swallow. But, with time, my mother is slowly recognizing that the bold magic my sis and I conjure up continues to live deep in the void that used to be her womb. Her daughters are keeping her womb-power alive years after allopathic medicine considered it useless and removed it. Magic!
I now consider myself an unofficial moontime priestess.
I live for my blood. I follow its guidance and honor it for its life-giving qualities. I've even learned to use menstrual cups as a way to read my blood. Click here to learn more about these amazing cups. Each month, our blood brings tales of the previous cycles. Dark, heavy bleeding implies stress and strain in the past cycle. Light, short cycles confirm that all is good between you and aunt dot. It is amazing to see these little cups filled with your menstrual blood.
I now teach other women how to tap into that moontime power for themselves. Some still cringe at the sight and mention of their blood. I am sure some have already cringed while reading this post. Other women have discovered that they can reclaim their power by embracing their blood. They no longer choose a life of docility and detachment from their moontime.
Honoring my blood conveys messages of defiance and non-compliance. Lord knows the times call for us to be defiant. My moontime is sacred. I do not parade around and broadcast that I am bleeding. Instead, I unplug from the world during the first few days of my cycle. I stay away from harsh chemicals like cleaning agents and nail polish remover. The elders in my family also taught me that, during the first few days of our menstrual cycle, your body is cleansing and recharging. That is why it's good to rest and step back from usual routines. You are helping your body release the old energies it has carried from the previous cycle. Slowing down during the heaviest days of your moontime also helps in decoding the messages encrypted in your blood.
Regardless of their machista conditioning, the women in my family are still connected to a deeper feminine power that lives in their DNA. A power that knows the reasons for women's monthly cycles, which are directly connected to the moon's cycles.
So to my 13-year-old self, I celebrate you. I dress you in red, bake you a red cake, and gather a group of elders to council you. We set some time to sit in a circle, under a red tent, and share stories of menstruation. We offer you an initiation into a divine tribe of women who have embraced their moontime. I hold your hand and remind you that whenever you feel lost you can call on your blood for directions back home.
Love, your older self