06: Isabelia Herrera
Isabelia Herrera is a Chicago-born quisqueyana living and writing in New York. She is Remezcla's resident todóloga, Drake scholar, and Music Editor, and was recently listed in the media category for the 2017 Forbes 30 under 30.
Elena Mudd is a New York based visual artist, specializing in photography and video.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on August 14, 2016, in Isabelia's Brooklyn apartment. Elena Mudd photographed and witnessed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
ISABELIA: I was born in Chicago, and I grew up to divorced parents. I luckily had two really wonderful parents who had joint custody, so I had loving families in two different places. I wasn’t breaking gender norms when I was five or anything, but I do feel like a lot of my childhood was informed by spending time with my brother, who is male. And I had a lot of family in the Dominican Republic and I spent a lot of time there as a child, where almost all my cousins are women. A lot of us are similar in age, so we would spend a lot of time together. My grandmother was the matriarch and then I had like five aunts, and then all the children are women, too. [laughs] Spending a lot of time in another country definitely informed a lot of my experience. I have very strong memories of spending time in my grandmother’s courtyard in Santiago, which is the second largest city in the Dominican Republic. And she had this, what is it called? A see-saw? No, not that.
SOPHIA: A porch swing?
ISABELIA: It was a weird enclosed swing. But we would go out there, me and my cousins, who are my age, and sit on that swing for hours and hours and just talk about stuff. And she also had this fig tree in the backyard that was…I’ve just never tasted anything so delicious. I feel like [my time there] defined my womanhood, kind of in opposition to what my cousins were experiencing. Not that the DR is a politically backwards place, but certainly [between my time in each country, I had] different experiences of expectations for what women should do. Even as a kid, I was always told that I never helped with the domestic things whenever I visited. [laughs] I didn't help clean, I didn't do the dishes, and it was always very weird to me.
SOPHIA: Was the anti-domesticity thing conscious?
ISABELIA: I think it was probably a product of the expectations which were different in my mom's house than in my dad's house. I have referred to it as growing up in a mixed-class family because my mom is probably lower middle class, and then my dad is a cardiologist, and [we] definitely have had a lot of privilege from that. In my dad's house I was not expected to do anything, and in my mom's house it was like nah, everybody needs to clean!
ISABELIA: I would like to say that I was like, a five year old feminist, but I was not that woke yet.
SOPHIA: If we're already talking about the DR, can you tell me the story of your relationship to your heritage?
ISABELIA: My experience as a Latina here or my relationship to the Dominican Republic specifically?
SOPHIA: I would say as a Latina here because it's wider.
ISABELIA: I went to school in a predominately white suburb of Chicago. It was a very interesting, weird place. [laughs] And I'm very grateful for it in many ways. I think there was a weird diversity narrative in Oak Park that was very much about celebration and not interrogation of racism —or more like celebrating diversity and not interrogating what brought diversity to the United States. It's taken me a long time to process these things, but I think for a really long time I felt like I ascribed to a lot of respectability politics of wanting to be"better" than other Latinos and it was very [much] internalized racism. I was always really interested in school and learning, and for a while I was always like "I'm not like those other low-achieving Latinos,” and it was such a fucked up perspective. [laughs]
You know, I feel like I can pass as white, like I'm very light-skinned compared to a lot of other Latinas, and that has definitely informed my experience. I think I've benefited from being able to access spaces that other people might not be able to. I think in terms of being a Latina woman, [there were] definitely some weird romantic experiences where I've been sexualized and exoticized, or where people have told me that because I'm Latina, that's like, a reason that they would want to be with me, or that it helps why they're attracted to me.
I also feel like being specifically Dominican and growing up in Chicago where there's not a lot of Dominican communities at all, I almost feel like I've been able to learn more about myself. Perhaps being separate or being isolated from [Dominican communities] pushed me to value that part of myself more, you know? [It made me] want to learn more and celebrate it more, I think. And I'm very glad for that.
SOPHIA: You cited "Mama's Feminism" from the Crunk Feminist Collective as something that was formative to you, and in it, Robyn Boylorn writes: “[My non-academic friends] spend a lot of time trying to resist myths around being black and a woman and don’t have the energy or motivation to also resist myths of feminism…My mama’s feminism is inherited but unnamed.” Can you speak about any kind of silent modes of feminism that you grew up with in any of the spaces that you occupied?
ISABELIA: I think probably the biggest silent mode of feminism that I learned from my mother was advocating for yourself. I feel like a lot of my mom's feminism has been informed by being a divorced woman, actually. Learning to love yourself in your own solitude. She has taught me a lot about self-care and being attentive to your own emotional needs. I feel like women are socialized to be caregivers, and constantly be attuned to other people's emotional needs, and I think a lot of the feminism I've learned from my mom is about learning to care for and pay attention to your own self. If there's anything about my mom's feminism, my mom's feminism is not passive. Even though it's not named, it's not passive in any way, you know what I mean? I think there is a myth that if you're not declaring your feminism to the streets every single day that you're being passive, but I think that there are a lot of ways of practicing feminism that are different than that. I think also specifically in relation to my own romantic relationships, my mom has been very much about making sure that I advocate for myself.
ISABELIA: She's always like "Just...fuck them!"
ISABELIA: She's very very adamant. She's like, "You are too smart and too beautiful to like, let this man ruin your life."
ISABELIA: But she's taught me a lot about really learning to value your own time in terms of romantic relationships, and [asking,] "Is this fulfilling to me?" Checking in with yourself and being honest about that.
SOPHIA: What did music mean to you as a kid, and who are some of the female musicians that were important to you?
ISABELIA: I guess it's cliche, but I really don't think I would be a person in this world if music didn't exist. [laughs] It's...almost everything that I think about. [Especially] in relationship to culture and everything. One of my first memories of feeling like I identified with an artist but wasn't able to really articulate it was actually Beyoncé's B-Day? Like 2006? I remember I was planning my quinceañera at the time. Yeah, it was so bad. It was so embarrassing. [laughs] But I remember I was planning the soundtrack to my quinceañera, and I was like "Ok, these are the songs I want the DJ to play, and B-Day had just come out maybe a month and a half before. So I was planning it, and I remember...maybe it was "Ring the Alarm" that I remember most distinctly, about really identifying with this empowering narrative, but really not being able to articulate why it was so empowering to me. I was fourteen turning fifteen, and the way that Beyoncé used her femininity at the time was something that I had not really felt like I'd seen before, and I was learning to love pop music at the time because when I was really young I listened to a lot of punk music, so I wasn't really listening to like, top 40 radio at the time or anything like that. But I remember feeling guilty at first, being like "Why do I like this? Isn't this lame?" [laughs] I had this like, dumb elitist view of it. But I remember being really empowered by those lyrics and the video and everything, and not being able to explain why, or like…that was feminism to me. I feel like I have learned a lot from pop musicians specifically. Like Shakira? Shakira had a really long career before she crossed over and everything, and she used to make like, sad girl acoustic songs?
ISABELIA: Which I love. I love them; they're so great. But especially when "Whenever Wherever" came out…I have a really strong memory of dancing to that song…’cause it was called "Suerte" in Spanish, and my cousins in the DR put the music video on the TV and I just remember trying to belly-dance with them.
ISABELIA: And that was like…I felt very feminine in that moment. [laughs] I think women musicians were always present in my life? I guess those pop stars that I mentioned were perhaps the first time that I saw them as [specifically] women artists? Because women musicians were always present in my life, I didn't like, see them as a separate thing, or have any feelings about them as women growing up. I think my mom instilled a lot of appreciation for women artists in me. She introduced me to Sade when I was like eight. It was awesome. [laughs]
I feel like all "coming of age" ceremonies are weird in general. My parents asked me what I wanted to do to celebrate, and a lot of people in the Dominican Republic have quinceañeras, but as the generations have passed, people have been less interested because it's like, very traditional, but as I said to you before, I really wanted to have a quinceañera, and was very like, forceful. But yeah, my quinceañera was like, really DIY, I would say.
ISABELIA: You have like fifteen of your friends, and they bring a date or they don't depending on how you want to do it, and they do a little waltz in front of everyone during the ceremony, so you have to practice that for months in advance. And my mom was the one who taught everyone, and she is not a dance instructor in any capacity. Like she would count off during the rehearsals, she would count in Spanish, and people would be like "What are you saying?" [laughs] It was weird because I was very forceful about making sure it was like, the most traditional ceremony possible? There's another tradition that comes with the ceremony where your father changes your shoe from a flat to a heel to represent that you're like becoming a woman, I swear to god. But I was very much like "I want to have everything: I want to have the court and I want to do the waltz, and the little heel thing," and like, "I want to wear the white poofy dress" and my dress wasn't that poofy, but it was still white. [laughs]. It was very stressful to organize, but I feel like...I'm almost glad that I had the quinceañera so I could un-learn what I thought being a woman was from that ceremony?
ISABELIA: You know what I mean? Like I'm almost glad that it happened so I could take a step back and be like, "Wow that is fucked up, I shouldn't have done that." [laughs] Or “I shouldn't have thought that.” It was funny, the music that was played there was like, the most eclectic playlist I've ever....it was pop-punk and then like, Beyoncé, and then like traditional Dominican merengue and bachata.
SOPHIA: Is there anything that you learned about womanhood during your time at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute that you want to speak about?
ISABELIA: Jumping off of what I was saying before about not growing up in a Dominican community…it's weird to say this, but it was a learning experience for me in a lot of ways. I learned a lot about Dominican feminism that I wasn't exposed to growing up in Chicago. I...ok whatever, I'm going to just tell you: I have this specific memory of my boss —this is a scholar, like a tenured professor of Sociology— telling me about how Dominican women have this saying when a dude doesn't go down on you? Like this is in the workplace that she told me this story. [laughs] I remember having an extended conversation about this and how like, that is completely unacceptable in Dominican culture, like women will not accept [that] a dude does not give them oral sex.
ISABELIA: That moment stood out to me. I think I had a lot of learning experiences from [my time there] about what Dominican feminisms are, and I think it also helped me dispel a lot of stereotypes or myths I had about Dominican women. In terms of Dominican feminism, [people] always talk about like, the beauty salon as a feminist space. And I think it's complex, because it's very empowering but I think can also be very stereotypical, because when we talk about Dominican feminism, a lot of people just rely on the crutch of thinking about the beauty salon when there's a lot more to Dominican feminism beyond that.
I think for a lot of Dominican women, perhaps for a lot of American women, the beauty salon can be an oppressive space because it makes you conform to certain ideas of beauty or just having to “be feminine.” But…I think for a lot of Dominican women who have different economic situations than your average middle class woman, beautifying yourself is empowering. Making yourself feel beautiful is really important, and sometimes that's going to the beauty salon. It's not talked about a lot, and I learned this when I was at the Dominican Studies Institute, but the beauty salon is also a social space and community for Dominican women. Like I've seen women encourage people to leave their abusers at the salon. It's a crazy space. It's a complicated space. On a general level, it was a reminder that there are other ways of practicing feminism other than like, academic feminism, so that was really good.
SOPHIA: Just for fun, what kind of services do people go to salons regularly to receive?
ISABELIA: My cousins, for example, they don't wash their hair all week; they just wash it at the salon and get a blowout. I think also getting your nails done. It's also interesting because the price of those services is a lot cheaper in the DR than it is here. It's like, dollars. Like getting a blowout is like two dollars [laughs] So it makes sense that people would do it every week.
There's a saying in Dominican culture that's very anti-black, against people who have coarse hair texture called like, pelo-malo, pelo-bueno —bad hair, good hair— and straight hair is seen as good, and people with like hair textures of African-origin are seen as bad. So I think there's a lot of negative services, like getting a perm and chemical processing and all of that, and many people do that as well. Like, Dominican women have this reputation for making their hair as straight as possible. If you Google it there was a controversy recently because apparently this woman accused a salon of like, sneaking relaxer into the shampoo, which is like, really bad. I don't know if it's true because you can't really put relaxer in shampoo...
ISABELIA: That is the assumption, that this is what everyone wants their hair to look like, and [having straight hair] is the most beautiful way of being a woman.
SOPHIA: Can you tell me about the development of your more “mature” taste in music, what attracted you to those genres, and how female artists figure into those scenes?
ISABELIA: I think the first musical love I had was punk. I listened to a lot of sad horrible pop punk music growing up, and now that I have the distance from it, a lot of pop punk music is really misogynistic, and there aren't a lot of women artists in the genre. It’s a weird thing to have a genre that’s perhaps really negative towards women as your first musical passion. I think a lot of those songs are about like, sad boys, women who wronged them, and calling women whores and shit like that. You know that Panic! At the Disco song?
From there I started really getting into hip hop, and being from Chicago, listening to a lot of Chicago hip hop, which was really important to me. Now that I think about it, I feel like listening to genres that have very misogynistic lyrics was almost like a challenge to me, and an important lesson in engaging with the music that you love. I think it's important to challenge yourself to think about the music that you love. Once I got to that point where I, as a listener, realized like, "They could be talking about me! They could be speaking negatively about me!” When I got to that point, I think that's when I really started to make an active effort to like, try and find women artists that I really loved. And I think that's when I realized how important it is to support women artists in the genres that I love.
After high school and also living here, I started learning a lot more about electronic music, the history of electronic music, and women's place in it, and I think people forget that women musicians like, helped start electronic music? There’s this video of a woman in the 50s or the 60s playing like, the first real synth, and it's like, the size of a room [laughs] and she has like a 60s bob…But yeah, I think I wanted to learn about the history of electronic music as a result of going out more and seeing what was happening, and I think especially in electronic music there's this renewed interest in celebrating women in the genre and I'm very grateful that that's happening. One of the most exciting conversations happening is around supporting female producers and DJs, and speaking about how important mentorship is to women [who want to pursue those careers]. I do think there's potential that it's just like, a trend to talk about women in music, and I really hope that it becomes a long-term commitment in the genre. I don't really identify as like a "journalist," but as a music journalist, I feel like there are a lot of other music journalists who contribute to [female producers] becoming a trend instead of a genuine commitment. I would hope that people who are writers can pay attention to the way they speak about women producers and make sure that they're not just producing trend pieces about them. And maybe engaging on a more critical level with what they're doing.
ISABELIA: When I was sending these things to you and when I was thinking about the texts that have been influential to me, I thought about how a lot of them were about erotics, and at first I was like "Wow, are the texts that have been influential to me just about like, my erotic experience with men? Because that would suck."
ISABELIA: I think, and I think this is the case for a lot of people, I feel like I’ve felt the most empowered when I've been in an erotic space —when I've been with another person. I've learned a lot about my own confidence and my own power in that space, and I feel like a dick saying this, but I feel like I've really become more confident, and been able to value myself more after reading these pieces about women and the power of the erotic and everything like that. I think I've learned a lot about loving my own body, not just because someone else thinks it's attractive, and learning to value it on my own.
SOPHIA: What do you feel women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
ISABELIA: I think women need to perhaps take a step back and realize that their experience of womanhood is different from every other woman's experience of womanhood. [laughs] Like, you know, taking a second to learn empathy for another woman's situation would be really powerful community building. Being in the spaces that I've been in, it's very easy to fell into intellectual debates about feminism, and what kind of feminisms are right and what kind of feminisms are wrong, but I think there's a lot of power in understanding that every woman's experience is different, and that women aren't even tied together by biology because like, that's not what womanhood is. I think that it would be really powerful for people to challenge their framework that we even have anything in common just because we are women. We don't, you know?
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