By, Tina Curiel-Allen
I aM SEnDInG yoU LoVE and light sister, and I hope that wherever you may be reading this from, you are at peace. By peace, I mean I hope you are okay with you, no matter who you are. I write these words as someone who has at one time or another hurt most everyone I was close to, as someone who was labeled a criminal and dealt with the physical (incarceration) and emotional (PTSD, anxiety, etc.) repercussions of that classification. As someone who knows what state surveillance in one’s life feels like generationally, some- one who had to figure out how to be at peace with myself for public and personal reasons.
I knew when I was in county jail one of the first times that the rights I had taken for granted on the outside did not apply the same inside. People were dying around me with no public answer as to how or why. I realized early on that to fight for myself and those left forgotten behind bars when I got out, I would have to appear more credible and impressive than those around me. I also knew early on that I would end up fighting to change conditions for those like me and my loved ones, on both sides of the bars. I just didn’t know how, or what that fight would look like. When I was ready, I had a lot of work to do; both hard and heart work.
That was almost 20 years ago. Fast forward to 13 plus years out and I can officially call myself a formerly incarcerated activist—and get paid for it. I am fortunate enough to work for an organization made up of, founded, and led by formerly incarcerated and system- impacted people of color called MILPA
(Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement). We work on cultivating Change-Makers for the Next Seven Generations by improving the health and well-being of the communities we come from. We advocate for change at both the policy and root levels. I am also currently a transfer student at UC Davis working on a bachelors degree in Chicana/o Studies with a focus on Social Policy. While at UC Davis, I have also co-founded Beyond the Stats: a student- led organization of formerly incarcerated and system- impacted students, faculty, and administration. We have printed zines of our own stories, facilitated a student- led seminar with a syllabus we ourselves wrote, and have advocated for ourselves and others like us. I am part of a growing movement of folks getting out and wanting to get involved to change conditions for the better.
At the same time, I am also a partner, sister, auntie, daughter, comadre (co-mother), j3writer, cat lover, and a bunch of other things. One of them—as I’m sure you can imagine, as I know you have your own list of things you do and are—is busy. Busy and often tired. I drive a lot and stay up many late nights. I commute to school and, at 37, am practically twice as old as most other students. Responsibilities only grow. Our timeline and trajectory is much different than others—traditional—students and activists, but that only makes us more valuable. We know the meaning of struggle on a survival level; beyond the pages and into our lives. That kind of knowledge cannot be taught. While it is tiring work, it is absolutely necessary: We are who will help create new futures for the next generations. That is why we fight; why we must persevere.
Not a day goes by that I am not thankful for the life and community I have been able to build.
I have worked hard to use my pen as my weapon in speaking truth to power and to bring others along with me as I do it. I have chosen as a writer to use my pen and my voice as a tool to effectively communicate to diverse groups of people. The experiential knowledge that addiction and struggle has taught me is beyond measure. Because of my life’s teachers, self-love, education, decolonization, self-determination, and liberation are anchors in my daily life. These anchors came from the colleagues and mentors who paved the way for me and continue to walk the long march for justice with me.
I needed to make peace with myself before any of this was possible. I had to dig deep to discover who the authentic self I wanted to bring to spaces was, and then be willing to grow toward that. I also had to look squarely at the pain that had kept me running for years if I wanted to start putting down roots. A lot of people helped me in this process. Until I did this, new growth was not sustainable or possible. For me, this path started to unfold through a program I was in while incarcerated. From there it has twisted and turned into a life involving ceremony and daily practice. How you begin or continue that process is, of course, up to you. But until you do that, until you learn how to be okay being still and alone with yourself, you won’t be able to manage hustling and being busy. How we deal with quiet is related with how we deal with chaos; that’s just how things go.
And so I write this letter to you, sister, wherever you may be, in hopes that you are on that path toward self-love and care while fighting for and taking care of others around you. I am on that same path and hope to meet you in person someday soon. We are all made better in the struggle toward liberation, love, and self-determination. May we never forget that.