All words and artwork by Julia Rocha, a senior in high school. Scroll below for an exclusive interview.
Self Portrait Along the Borderline between Mexico and the United States
Daughter of Frida
Daughter of Diego
Thought to have been born
a mess of mangled appendages,
Years later, she reassembles herself.
Sewing together baby arms
She emerges fractured and triumphant.
Digging herself out of the ground–
Her skin covered in chocolate dirt,
Finding herself in a desert,
She takes after the cacti that grow around her:
Never succumbing to thirst.
For five years she walked
Tiny feet encrusted
in burning sand
She did not plan to stop walking
Until one day, a fence sprouted like a weed:
Wrapping itself around her.
A metal barricade
Tear streaks of rust engraved on its surface
She finally stops walking
Curled up in the shade of the wall
She sleeps for the first time.
The first few nights she dreams of sunflowers,
Dreams of yellow petals towering over her
Covering her like weightless blankets.
One night she dreams of calla lilies:
Bunches and bunches of them tied to her back:
Each flower made of lead,
Keeping her where she stands.
In the haze of a desert day
She sees a strange thing:
A white car, promising
To get her to the other side of the wall
To get her to where the flowers of her dreams grow.
In the car sit three strange men:
The laborer offers her a straw hat
To keep the sun from her eyes
The farmer offers her a watermelon
To eat on the other side
The earth offers her a handful of seeds
Telling her it would be her duty to plant the sunflowers.
She curls her toes in
Callused toes on leather feet
Feet too small for all the miles they’ve traveled.
She holds her fingers over her mouth
Bleeding nail beds
She hasn’t figured out how to stop biting.
She holds her tongue in her teeth
Crooked teeth that dangle by a string of flesh,
She can’t wait for them to fall out.
She stays quiet as the officers peer into the backseat
At the age of five, she becomes an expert
At pretending she doesn’t exist.
On the other side stands a place
Calling itself the city of Angels-
A place where trees stop digging towards the earth
And rootless buildings reach for a sky they’ll never touch.
Like the desert plants that raised her,
She tried to dig her fingers in the soil
dry and loose
Gave her nothing to hold on to.
This was only place she had ever seen to crumble upwards,
Where buildings don’t erode and collapse back into the soil,
Where the perspiration of exploited workers
And the fumes of stolen resources
Float towards the sky;
A sacrifice to the Angels.
A city where the touch of the sun is no longer personal;
Where light consumes everything in its path.
Nothing is the color it was intended to be–
The sun robbing every wall of its identity.
But she is not like the walls—
Her skin grows darker with every walk in the sun.
Every sunburn bringing out
The red crimson and burnt umber she was painted with.
Hanging from sides of concrete giants
Stand impossibly tall men
impossibly tall women
Their skin: white and seamless.
She stares down at her own body-
Brown patches of desert dirt caked on her skin
Red patches of sunburned flesh.
Thinking of herself as a bastard quilt
Dreaming of being seamless, cream silk.
I woke up to his startling touch
I pushed him away but he held me like a doll he couldn’t sleep without,
Loving and sweet, looking at my young body
Firm grip as if I belonged to him
I inched closer and closer to the edge of the bed
But he reached out with his spider hands and whispered:
“I’m just a man, I’m just a man.”
When I told him to get out his eyes were so wide
Circle inside a circle inside a sphere
Sprawling tears leaped out of those round eyes
Tears he hoped would give back the illusion I once had.
The way he closed the door left me shaking all night,
He left as if he had the key and could come back anytime
The sun was rising by the time he walked out the door
I walked around that sunny day in December
Feeling neither the sun nor the cold
I thought: even if he knew he had to leave,
He could never understand the feeling of hopelessness he left me with
That day the bustling city seemed silent.
I didn’t believe the footsteps, or the raindrops or the car horns
Because his words, his predictable syllables,
Were the only rhythm my eardrums remembered.
“I’m just a man, I’m just a man, I’m just a man…”
He could’ve been a conversation, a friend, an inspiration,
But he burned it all in sacrifice
When I was born a baby girl they gave my father a gift:
A pink box no bigger than the palm of your hand, adorned in the softest pink ribbons
Growing pains came and I hugged my knees and arched my back
I screamed at my round body, blaming it for my muscle cramps
I took the satin ribbons and bound my body with them
But never did I question the cardboard walls I’d grown up staring at
For years I sat on that shelf, lined with pretty boxes
For years I sat on that shop window, for passersby to gawk at
But nobody talks about what happens when the shop lights turn off and the businessmen leave
Few talk about the screaming and the crying
The orchestra of shame and fear
The orchestra of our joint pain
Cutting ourselves up into little pieces
For the sake of not taking up space.
When he was born a baby boy they gave his father a different gift
Towering walls of firm cardboard he could crush anyone with
Inside the spacious box he had all the room to stretch his growing limbs
But at the sight of a single tear the cardboard could dissolve
Leaving him stranded and shivering
I remember the conversations I had with him
The way they jetted in all directions
Unselfconsciously squirming about
We walked through walls that seemed indestructible
I really did look into his eyes to see how deep they ran
His perfectly round pupils seemed perfectly infinite
In his sprawling tears lay something untamed
Something I couldn’t believe he sacrificed to be nothing but a man
In that bed he put on his cardboard armor
In that bed he wrapped me in soft ribbon, all too familiar
In that bed I wondered if everyone’s vision was rectangular, capable of seeing in only one direction
But in that bed I punched a hole through the pretty prison
And I write to you with bloody knuckles hoping you too can be free.
Julia Rocha, a senior in high school, is a writer and visual artist based in Southern California. She was kind enough to have a chat with us about her lovely work, more of which you can see here.
Talk to me about the writing you sent to us!
Sure, it’s funny actually. “Man Box” was the first real poem I ever wrote, and “Self Portrait Along the Border of Mexico and the United States” was really recent; I wrote that over the summer. It’s interesting that those are the poems are the ones I sent because they’re very different. “Man Box” was about something that was very real, something that happened while I was in Paris with a friend, and we were in a hotel room by ourselves. We invited somebody over and they ended up having very strange intentions and we were just very confused; we spent the whole day after that incident just talking and being really upset. I mean, it brought us very close together. We were on the bed and we were just trying to understand how it is that people can behave this way. And, you know, even if it’s a very sophomoric view of things, you know, just thinking about the idea of boxes. It’s not necessarily anything new, but that was the way we saw it together. It was a conclusion that we came to at the same time. And for me, that was really exciting.
After having that conversation with her, I gave my first shot at poetry because I really wanted people to experience that same sort of connection that me and my friend felt. I want to say that we wrote that poem together because she would say one thing and I would say another thing and we would come to the same conclusion and it was so exciting, coming from this really horrible thing that we went through and making something out of it. That’s actually how I got into poetry; I wanted people to feel like out of their really shitty experiences, they could feel some sort of catharsis with someone else and feel that kind of connection with someone else. So I read that poem, and I read it in front of my school and I got a really great reaction! People just sort of really followed through with it. With my poetry, I’m not trying to, especially at the time, I was not trying to do or achieve any sort of technical success. I was trying to make something that people could follow and really understand – something that would make sense. And it made sense. People would come up to me and tell me that they could really follow it, and that it meant something to them. That is really what I try to do with my work and that’s why that poem is really special to me. And then the other poem, that’s kind of a much more different approach.
I was born in Mexico City and I came to the US when i was five, and I came here legally. And I didn’t have the same experience that I had in the poem, because I describe sort of crossing the desert, but I guess some of those poems are very political. Those are two things, feminism and sexual violence/any sort of violence against women, and immigration, immigration rights, those are both things that I’m sort of very involved with. And that’s what inspired me to write those two poems. I guess with the second poem I was trying more to, instead of capture more, big ideas, to really be able to paint a picture. And, I mean, in the worst case, it sounds kind of ekphrastic — that’s when a work of art is based on another work of art — but its title is actually the same title of a Frida Kahlo painting. She’s just been a really huge figure in my life. She just has such a precise vision, especially since she’s a surrealist, I feel like I know what her dreams look like. That’s what I wanted that poem to be like. I wanted people to see how I saw the United States The actual story that I tell is not mine. These sort of dreamy images that I describe, I wanted to be able to have that same sort of effect.
The second one, to me, seems very like…visceral and sensory.
Yeah, the self portrait one is a lot more refined and is a lot more, sort of closer to where I am now with writing poetry and the first one is very very raw. Yeah, it’s interesting, to think about how I wrote a year ago.
What else were you doing at the time? You said earlier that you are/were very involved with like, immigration and feminism.
I started the feminist club at my school, and school is kind of just consuming my life right now, because I’m a senior. But, I don’t know, I feel like it’s really important. I try my best not to be an apathetic teenager. It gets so tempting, at times, and it seems like a lot of people at my school have given up and whatnot and want nothing to do with it, and as much as I understand where some of that comes from, I’m trying to take a different approach. I’m trying to really care, and like, some really fucked up shit goes on at my school at my school, as with any other school.
When I was in my sophomore year, I started our club, called Feminist Activists, and at first, we did not know at all what we were doing. We kind of went through learning as we had these really awkward meetings like “Okaaaay what do we do now let’s start a conversation!” except nobody’s talking. We’ve really learned, though, and we’ve become a really strong presence on campus. One of the really cool things the club has done is talk to the middle schoolers.
Oh, that’s super cool.
It’s one of the things that’s really important to me because I so wish that I had known what feminism was when I was in middle school. Like, I went to a really, horribly rigid, bougie, gross private school in middle school. I got 27 detentions in middle school because I really liked to express myself through clothes but I would get slut shamed every other second by faculty. One time they even held all the girls back after assembly and told us the way we were sitting had become a problem and then held a demonstration on how to sit like proper ladies. It was really gross, and it wasn’t until I got out of middle school and learned about feminism that I realized that their behavior wasn’t justified.
We’re just really trying to be a resource for people, like being a resource to the middle schoolers and like, being able to compile information about reporting sexual assault. Nobody knows how to do that; I didn’t know how to do that. It’s a really daunting experience and we’re trying to make people feel more comfortable and safe at school, or at least feel like they have people to count on.
That’s very cool. I feel like a big part of being involved in activism, feminism especially, is this negative perception of it. I feel like what you’re doing by talking by middle schoolers really helps dispel that. How do you feel like you get past that in your other work, like writing or with your club stuff, or generally interacting with people?
I feel like my interpretation of feminism is just like fervent… anger and unwillingness to accept the patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that I want to shoot down men. I hate the patriarchy, and I think it fucks up men also. It’s frustrating; I’m totally with you there. For example, I was abroad last year, and I would talk about feminism with my host family a lot, because I started a feminism club there too. My vein of feminism is always just kind of like, caring about the people around me. I can get kind of caught up in global issues, but I think more than anything, I can be very grounded to what I can do to help the community around me. And I think usually, that is really not controversial at all. It’ll be like, ok, I really want to bring this speaker and talk about this and have this discussion because I know that a girl in my class is not eating, or I know that someone has been sexually harassed or I think that somebody’s self esteem is really low and that makes me sad, I just want to make them aware of how much they can do with themselves and how great they are.
That’s what I would talk about with my host family and that’s how I always defined feminism for myself, and yet there was this one day where my host sister asked me like, why are you a feminist because feminists don’t want equality, y’know, they don’t want to go 50/50, they want to go 75/25. I was just like…whoa! Literally, what in anything that I’ve ever said has indicated that? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing I said indicated that, and it’s really hard to dispel that perception, but I feel like — and I’m not saying that this is the right approach or anything, I just feel like I don’t go out of my way to say that “Feminism is not this!”. I think that a better way to do that is just to care about the people around you, and show that feminism is exactly that. And then, yknow, people want to have whatever. People can have weird views about feminism, but as long as they care about the people around them, if they can do that, I’m happy.
What about immigration? That was another thing you mentioned.
Actually, I’m not as active with that as I’d like to be. I don’t have a club for that or anything, but it is a big part of me and my belief system. My dad is a cinematographer and he’s made a lot of documentaries about immigration and everything that happens getting from Mexico to the United States, and what these people go through. But, like, I think more than anything, what I try to fight for on a personal level is just having an inclusive vocabulary, because it’s really strange, like… This is a country of immigrants. Immigrants literally built this country. Quite literally, the Chinese built the railroads and Mexicans immigrants built the infrastructure, and the Middle Passage and all the slaves that were brought over. Like, are you fucking kidding me? We literally built this country, and by having this eurocentric dialogue all the time, it creates this really weird psychological thing where I feel American, and yet I look at the history textbook and I don’t see myself. it’s like if you look in the mirror and you don’t have a reflection. It’s really really troubling, just on a psychological level. I’m currently writing about that, and that’s how I show my support for that. I’m not as active as I’d like to be, but I definitely sort of stress psychological problems that happen from our country’s sort of…
I think about Donald Trump, and like, where his money comes from and then about the things that he says about immigration and it’s just so frustrating.
Ahh! Oh my god, I know! That man is such a clown! He is such a clown and I’m so sad that I have to take him seriously just because he has so much power now. He’s just a clown! He’s just like twelve years old and I’m like “What? Why am I here watching you? I have so many better things to do but I’m just wasting my time! Why are you making yourself an issue?”
I feel like someday we’re just going to find out he’s just a piece of really elaborate performance art. He’s going to take off the hair and there’s going to be normal hair underneath.
Oh my god, forreal.
Alright, thanks so so much. This has been wonderful. Thanks for letting me/Tunnel pick your brain!