Juana is a freelance writer typically covering social justice topics such as rape trauma and racism. She also writes reviews, fiction, and parenting pieces on occasion. She’s currently working on several books, among them a book of essays and a dystopian novel. When she’s not writing, she’s usually cooking, baking, or reading to her two littles. You can read her stuff on her blog, like her Facebook page, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram. The best way to support her is to donate to her Patreon.
Juana and I met through a Facebook group for writers when I asked if anyone lives in the Reno area. We've hung out a few times, and I'm pleased to call her my friend. I hope you love this interview as much as I did! We talk about trauma, poverty, and motherhood.
Tell me your story. How did you start writing? Why? What makes you write what you do? And what is it that you write?
So, I started writing as kind of a fluke. Okay, let me back up here: I wrote when I was in junior high as a form of therapy. I wrote poems between the ages of 13 and 16, maybe, and then I just stopped for a long time because I had other things I was doing that helped me cope.
I started a blog in 2014 on a fluke, when a friend of mine invited me to do a 30-day creativity challenge on Facebook. I had already toyed with writing a blog but didn't know what to write about, and I figured this was a good opportunity to get back into writing.
At first, I wrote because I was a lonely, single, working mom. Before I had my daughter, I was active in the belly dance community in Portland and also doing some light acting and some work in film behind the camera. I was doing a lot with myself, and then after I had my daughter, all those things fell by the wayside. So writing became my therapy again, and my creative outlet.
Later, writing became healing. I started writing about my experience with recovering from rape trauma and I found I had a lot to say on it. I started reading a lot about social justice, and I sort of embraced a healing path through reading and writing about social issues like rape culture, immigration, ethnicity, and xenophobia, which are all things with which I have first-hand experience.
So, I write about my experiences and how they relate to the bigger picture of society. And I write those things for a few reasons.
First, like I said, it's healing for me and it's part of how I process things and understand the world.
Second, I know I'm not the only one, and maybe I can help someone who's been there or is there now.
And third, my "greater goal," the "master plan," is to change the world and how we organize ourselves in society. Someday.
I think a lot of us starting writing poetry when we were teens. That's a hard period in life—you're becoming cognizant of so many things and also realizing how much or how little autonomy you have.
It sounds like healing is the ultimate goal of your writing, whether it's healing yourself or someone else. Why do you think you gravitate towards writing (and specifically, writing prose) being that outlet instead of, say, painting or music?
Great question! Well, first of all, I suck at painting. I'm not much of an artist. Second, I actually was really interested in writing songs and playing and writing music when I was younger, but my sister—practical and cerebral as she is—really discouraged me from pursuing that path, telling me I wouldn't "make it." At the time, I believed her to be right, because she was older and I was the youngest, so I must not know any better, right?
Also, my family grew up in poverty, and pen and paper were super cheap. Music lessons and art supplies are not so cheap, so I had to work within the bounds of my resources.
Do you feel like growing up in poverty impacts the work you produce today? How?
Absolutely! It absolutely impacts the work I produce today. It really pushes me to want to do something about the way the system operates currently. It pushes me to really consider the people who are living in the shadows, where I've lived for so much of my life.
To be honest, I'm still struggling financially, and I have been homeless before and on public assistance and working three jobs to barely make ends meet. It really provides for me a backdrop for all the advocacy I want to do in the world, because I remember where I have been and where I am now, and I want people to know that empowerment is the way through a lot of the struggle with self-worth that we face as people who have lived in poverty and been pushed out of society
I know you've told me about that before, and I'm really in awe of you pulling through all that. Homelessness in any context is incredibly difficult, but you had your daughter at the time, right?
Right. Yeah. I struggled so much with being homeless. It was only for six months, and I had a lot of help that I'm grateful to have had. A lot of other people aren't so lucky. But for me, it really brought up so many issues and childhood hurts, and it was hard to work through because of that.
I grew up in a household with a controlling father and a mother who wouldn't or couldn't advocate for herself or her children. My greatest dream since I was a girl was to marry someone who would be my equal, who would consider me his partner and love and care for me and his children in the sweet and tender way I had always missed from my own father.
When I ended up pregnant and alone, with no career or any sort of stability, that dream was completely shattered. I'm actually drafting an essay about it right now. It's been a really tough road and I'm still kind of in the midst of some difficulties when it comes to family stuff, so there is a lot there to process that I'm sure will eventually show up in my work.
Also, my daughter was my first child, and I had always dreamed of having a "perfect" experience of motherhood, and I had to face that the "ideal" was not reality. It was hard.
I don't doubt it. I wonder if everyone who's experienced trauma imagines the "perfect" scenario that counters whatever they've experienced—perfect partner, parent, etc. Having that childhood trauma is something that, unfortunately, you'll carry with you your whole life, even after you've processed it. Do you wonder about your kids reading your work and learning about your trauma, about the things you're trying to process and things you already have? Writing is deeply intimate, but I personally find it easier when I know that strangers are the ones reading it. I know your kids are still little, but is that something that you think about?
Um, sometimes I do think about that, but I think I want to be as open with my kids as possible. You know? I mean, I worry, of course, about what they will experience and if they will know the pain I have, especially around topics that still hurt me, like racism and rape culture. That's part of why I want to do the advocacy work I want to do, to make the world they grow up in a little bit more kind than the one I've experienced.
I don't necessarily worry they'll read my writing and have questions for me, because I really just try to be real with them. They have seen me through the good, the bad, the ugly, the angry, the mean, the nasty, the not-so-super-mom and everything that's in-between. I think a lot of the time, we think of motherhood or parenting as this really sacred thing—which it is—but in thinking of it as "sacred," we sort of idolize it in a way that creates more damage for us as parents. We can be real, that's okay. We're real people with real feelings and faults and blind spots, and I strive to be a good parent, but I also no longer feel horrible about myself if I slip up and lose it sometimes, because that's real life. You know?
As an adult, yes, I totally get that. As a kid, I never imagined my parents as not super-human. I mean, they have their flaws, of course, and I knew that, even then. But my dad always had this "kids first/always" mentality that, to this day, makes it sometimes difficult for me to remember that he was a person before he was a dad. It's easier for me to remember that with my mom, who's been open with me about her trauma. I think part of that openness is what has allowed me to see her as human. But as I've become my own person, I realize the flaw in the "I must prioritize my children before everything else" mentality: you lose yourself. I imagine that this happens way more often in motherhood, especially because so many societies emphasize the selflessness of the mother in her role.
Yes! That's a biggie. My mother was really good at playing the martyr. She didn't have friends, hobbies, or her own world outside of her family. What ended up happening for me, witnessing that, was that I thought marriage and having children was a prison.
I thought of her life and the way she talked about her life often as a child and thought, "I do not want that. Ever." It took me a long time to realize that 1) she was with an abusive partner for twenty years, 2) she had a lot of unresolved trauma and it trickled down to me and my siblings, and 3) I didn't have to have a carbon copy of my mom's life. I could have a different life.
So part of what I do with my work in healing myself is to "invent myself" in the way I want to be. Sandra Cisneros said this wonderful thing about the main character in her book The House on Mango Street, that the main character was looking for "otro modo de ser," which means "another way to be" in Spanish. For me, it was so healing to read that book and to hear her words about it, because it mirrored my own desire to learn "otro modo de ser," apart from what I had inherited, as Sandra said in an interview.
In learning "another way to be," I hope I heal not only myself, but my whole family and the subsequent generations, as I serve as the example for what is possible and what they can achieve.
A teacher of mine once told me, "Why reach for the stars when you can only catch the moon?" and the irony of that is, she also told me I had *so much potential* at the same time she was limiting my potential by telling me that. I want to tell my daughter and my son that they can reach for the stars. In fact, they should. Because if you don't reach for them, how do you know if you can touch them or not?
I love all of that. This is the reason why representation matters! The fact that you read The House On Mango Street and it resonated with you so deeply is why I write diverse characters. I love that "otro modo de ser" has stuck with you, and that it combats your teacher's words. Do you try to channel that in your writing, too?
Thank you! Representation matters immensely! I actually just wrote a manuscript that I'm going to do some editing on that talks about that particular teacher and what that incident was like for me.
I don't try to channel Sandra Cisneros in all my writing, but I have before. In my latest piece that was published with The Acentos Review, Melting in Water, I did take some inspiration from The House on Mango Street and styled it after the book's narration.
I'm pretty proud of that piece.
I can't wait to share it with everyone. You talk in the piece about wearing masks for the world, which I think a lot of us can relate to. (At least, I know I can!) Do you think it's even possible to ever really remove the masks we wear?
Oh, goodness. Yeah, we all wear masks. We all acquire them as we navigate the world.
Honestly, I don't talk about this piece of my work very much, but I also do energy work like Reiki and intuitive healing. I'm currently working with a great book called The Complete Cord Course by Mary Shutan that's been really helpful to me in everyday life.
That's been one thing that's really helped me "remove the masks," although there is a lot more work to be done.
The other piece has been feminism. It has helped me recognize my role in the greater picture and not be so personally attached to my smaller narrative.
Feminism has helped me with that, too. But I think the smaller narratives are ultimately what are powerful. In academia, especially in the hard sciences, you're taught to focus a lot on data, on the larger picture and not individual experiences (in this case, individual data points). But I think stories are what draw us together, knowing that someone else has gone through a specific set of experiences.
Yeah, that's totally true.
I think I might have used poor wording there. I think what I meant to say was that it has helped me recognize that my story is not so unique that I am "so fucked up beyond repair" that no one would ever want to be around me or love me.
I used to think that for a long time, and now, through recognizing that our stories have a common thread and our hurts have a common source, I've been able to really heal a lot of the pain that was caused by thinking I was the only one who suffered through what I did. Does that make sense?
Yes! I definitely think that's why writing can be healing for others, realizing that they're not alone in their thoughts, feelings, experiences.
Is there anything you want to leave the Telegrammers with?
Sure. In my Patreon feed, I do a monthly graphic just for Patrons and I like to share meaningful quotes and things that speak to me in them. My latest one is by Thich Nhat Hanh, and it's: "You must love in such a way that the one you love feels free."
I think this applies not only to the love we give to others, but the love we give ourselves. In my intuitive work, there's a lot said about how we are our own worst enemy, meaning that we think the worst of ourselves and stuff down our brilliance. In my own work, as I've become more comfortable giving myself the love I need and the love I used to seek from others, I've noticed I've also started to unfold a sense of freedom in the way I carry myself.
I'm releasing myself from some metaphorical chains, sure, but I'm also giving myself permission to be brilliant and love who I am, even though I'm not always loveable. But the thing I think I always hid from myself was my brilliance. And now that I'm loving myself in such a way that I feel more free, I'm feeling a lot more brilliant and rooted in my own power.
So, embrace your power. It's there for a good reason and it will enrich the world.
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