How the violence of patriarchy keeps me rootless
Every year since my dad died, I check the internet for flights to Trinidad. I’ve never been there before, and the older I get, the more urgently I want to visit. I browse flights to Port of Spain, check my work calendar, brainstorm a budget. And then I hesitate.
Trinidad is my ancestral homeland—it’s my dad’s home country, where he lived until the 1960s (my mother is a white Italian American). I never went to Trinidad as a child, and I cut contact with my dad when I was just 12 years old. Like many fathers, mine was hyper-masculine and abusive. We lost touch because it was the safest thing for me and my family. And so, piled on top of all the other obstacles that keep me from fully knowing my heritage—colonialism and slavery among them—sits the patriarchy.
I say the patriarchy is at fault because it is the father of domestic violence. It’s not quite that simple, of course; domestic violence has other causes, and the patriarchy has many other sons: neglect, infidelity, financial abuse. But without the gendered power structures that allow men to do whatever they like to women without consequence—indeed, that encourage them to do so —this epidemic of mistreatment could not exist.
And for people like me—mixed people, children of immigrants, children of a diaspora—the patriarchy has a peculiar effect. We are not fortunate enough to live in the homelands of our parents or the native lands of our ancestors. We might have only one parent who can teach us all about it. If that parent happens to be a man, well.
When your father traumatizes your family and refuses to change, losing him can only be a good thing. It’s the happiest ending available in an altogether terrible situation. But for people like me, when our mothers flee our fathers, and we never see them again, we are liable to lose entire tongues.
When my dad was around, my connection to the homeland was irrefutable. If I’d had any questions—like what a certain word means, or how to cut up a fruit I’ve never seen, or how to make dumplings—I could have asked him. But it’s been 15 years since I’ve seen my dad. After we lost touch, he passed away early, when I was only 17. My Trini relatives feel a universe away, buffered by the legacy of abuse and the literal seas. I hover my finger over the “purchase” button, text a friend to see if they’d come with me, but I never click.
For its part, slavery obliterated our heritage from the bottom up. Still today, it obscures our ancestors from sight by making it impossible to trace our lineage back further than a few generations. It’s a rotting at the root. The patriarchy, though, destroys not just roots, but entire branches. It forces us to cut our parents off for our own good, losing our cousins and friends in the process. It’s an infectious blight. And here I am, hopeful in the middle, googling “Trini dumplings” and “Orisha,” hunting down sorrel. Checking flights.
I must emphasize this: My father is not unique. It’s overwhelming just how common my story is. There are thousands of men like him on the islands—and in America, and everywhere. My friends and I sometimes laugh about the fact that none of us know anyone with a healthy relationship with their father. The patriarchy is a living beast that re-embodies itself over and over, like a nasty bacteria, and it manifests in many little and big ways: secret families, cruel rebukes, hidden bruises.
In formerly colonized lands like the Caribbean islands, the problem can feel so intense as to be suffocating. Many of these countries have more traditional gender roles, and fewer freedoms for women and LGBTQ people—for which Americans often see them as “behind” or “backwards.” But these attitudes are largely a remnant of colonization, which forced a rigid gender binary and hierarchy upon the black and brown people of these lands. Colonialism and the patriarchy are inextricably linked, and my father’s homeland still bears the scars. Were I to meet a Trini man from my father’s generation who didn’t cheat, abuse, or both, I might fall over from shock. Until very recently, these things were so common that they were not even worth remarking upon.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., domestic violence is also a plague; we aren’t free from patriarchy’s terrifying rule—far from it. And yet, some things do change: where interracial marriage used to be a criminal offense, today those unions continue to be on the rise. As a result, there exists this growing tribe of us who are trying to figure out a way past the familial and ancestral trauma to find “home.”
It’s not an easy thing for any child of a diaspora to contemplate going home. Our ancestral homelands call to us in a voice that can’t be ignored, yet they also feel foreign. When I watched Crazy Rich Asians, I envied the protagonist, Rachel, for her native Chinese mom, who gently guided her through her visits to Singapore (even though she was sometimes off the mark). Sometimes, too, I envy those who, like me, don’t have family members to help them, but can download the app Duolingo and stumble through their parent’s native tongue for free.
Trinidad has so much to offer—it’s an island unlike any place on Earth. Its rich culture is impressively global, a delicate melding of African, Indian, European, Chinese and indigenous traditions. It’s the birthplace of calypso music and the home of the biggest Carnival celebration in the Caribbean. But unfortunately for me, it’s also a tiny place, with a population smaller than my hometown. Afro-Trinidadian culture is not easily accessible from this side of the sea. Trust me—I’ve been trying. But without my family to guide me, it’s hard to grasp onto anything for certain. And after 15 years of life without a Trini relative around, what I do grasp no longer feels like mine.
It’s not just that I have no one to ask how to make dumplings—it’s that, for years, I forgot dumplings even existed as part of Trini cuisine. When I first remembered them, I was already in my 20s, my father long gone. The memory hit me like a wave, the taste suddenly taking over my senses. I hadn’t thought about these dumplings—flat and chewy, soaking up the flavor of whatever soup they accompanied—in years.
At first, after my dad died, I tried my best to keep my connection to Trinidad alive. That was the first year I looked up flights to the island. I telephoned my auntie in Trinidad, struggled through conversations in her thick accent. I found a recipe for roti and brought it to school for International Day. I emailed my closest uncle on my father’s side to ask about my dad’s childhood. He told me a lot of new information about my dad: how he got his first job at an oil drilling company in Trinidad, how he worked his way up to become an engineer. But he didn’t say much about my dad’s early years, which were complicated and painful. My dad rarely opened up about his childhood.
On the island, the wounds of abuse run deep; my father’s violence didn’t start with him. Like my siblings and I, he was isolated from his own family in many ways. With my family’s determination, the legacy of abuse will likely end with us, at least on our own little branch of our blighted, rotted family tree. But this comes with a sacrifice: our branch is all alone. My mother left my father and we barely saw him again.
Recently, I looked up flights to Trinidad for the tenth year in a row. The older I get, the weaker my connection to the island, and the harder it is to fathom going there for the first time. How will I talk to my kinfolk? How will I explain my absence, my ignorance? For the tenth year in a row, I closed the tab.
Lately, I’m trying to be gentle with myself. Lately, I’m realizing that I don’t have to rely on my flawed human family or paper documents to connect to my ancestors. My ancestry is real and can’t be erased, whether visible or not. It’s full of humans who were just like me: women, survivors, queer people, lost ones. I see them every time I look in the mirror or down at my own hands. I share their blood, their bones, their DNA. They are the way in. They are the guideposts to show the way.
Every day now, I consciously invoke my ancestors. I leave them offerings of water, flowers, songs. I’m learning about my ancestors’ spirits, the Orishas, a pantheon of deities who followed the African diaspora across the Atlantic, to Trinidad, and to the U.S. This lineage traces my heritage back beyond where the patriarchy broke it, beyond even where slavery and colonialism broke it. All of this is new to me; it’s something my father himself could never have taught me. Still, it’s familiar, somehow. Maybe next year, it will be enough to take me home.