Diamond Girls

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Some of the teen girls that I teach and mentor in Miami are classmates of Rachel “Diamond” Jeantel and Trayvon Martin. Many are similar to Rachel, and in fact, quite a few go by the nickname “Diamond,” a popular pseudonym in this bling-obsessed neck of the southernwoods.

Diamond is a diamond in the raw and she knows it. Her spirit is on fire & she lives to stay cool in the heat. At home & in the streets the spirits are sometimes demons & people get shot. Like that’s it, basically.

Sometimes we don’t understand each other: Diamond and me. It might take me a minute to adjust to her accent & way of speaking, as this varies from neighborhood to neighborhood in Miami.  But I’ve been around Diamond Girls for a lot of years now, and I try to keep up with each new linguistic wave: Miami is a hotbed of language evolution.

I ask where her family is from. She answers some island, often Haiti, the Dominican Republic or the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Belize, Cuba or some mix of all of the above. Occasionally it’s some place North, in the Deep South, like Georgia, or northern Florida. Diamond avoids my direct eye contact but I sit near her, touch her hand, and compliment the masterpiece on her acrylic nails. I take a picture of her hands. She smiles at me; I see her eyes grow curious beneath the sweep of eyelashes from Walgreens across the street.  She asks where I am from.  A window is opened.

Though there is still the issue of my color. The question is: which kind of light-skinned Latina is this one…  and how is she judging me?

I open my laptop & whip out Mickalene Thomas, followed by Wangechi Mutu and Lorna Simpson.  Other times, I throw in Ellen Gallagher, Shinique Smith, Kara Walker.  Suddenly we’re just talking & questions are pouring out. Little by little I get to know my group of Diamond Girls.

Diamond is feisty, opinionated, not instantly open, but willing to bloom IF she trusts the gifts you’re offering.  And usually, she likes my gifts: she likes that I’ve tapped into her intelligence, her creativity.  She thinks I might actually be worth learning from.  I’ve won her trust.

Actually, Diamond gets around, knows everybody, saw all kinds of shit first-hand, but is only a tiny bit young and free. She seems engaged in a battle between her desire to express her uniqueness and the pressure to be so many things the Black immigrant experience demands, especially if you are Female. She often emits an essence like that of a muggy & windy Miami sky when a hurricane is approaching.  When she smiles directly at me, it’s like a sun shower with rainbows. Diamond is not soft, but in spite of that, she’s a girl: a Black girl in a White patriarchal world.

Her life is limited. She has responsibilities, sometimes a job, somebody at home who requires attention, devotion, servitude, sacrifice, and discipline, and somebody in the street that she has to impress daily by playing a whole nother character.

Add to that the stress of facebook, fashion, substance abuse, “bitches fucking wit yo man,” a busted economy in a disenfranchised neighborhood severed from the glitzy magic city by a highway that divides by class, and of course, people getting shot all the time.

Usually it’s gangs & street violence.  Sometimes the police attack somebody. A fight breaks out over a drug deal. Somebody got stabbed. Somebody saw or heard something. A lot of times it’s somebody you know.  You saw it from your window.  It was somebody’s brother, your cousin’s ex. It was your neighbor or the friend you were talking to on the phone.  It was that kid from Norland or Edison Senior or Miami Central or Booker T.  It was your friend wearing a hoodie & carrying a bag of skittles.  A rumor started that somebody shot him.

It happens and you just hope you or somebody that you really, really love and really, really rely on doesn’t get hit. You pray. You don’t get involved, mainly, you just pray & hope. Half the time nobody ever gets arrested or goes to court or does time for any of it, except sometimes when it’s the police or once in a while if it’s really loud or there’s a big fight or a drug bust or a drive-by or a robbery. But lots of crimes are going ignored and that’s the way it is in this part of Miami.

When something does happen that gets the police involved, you do your damndest to stay out of it. And if, heaven forbid, it happens to a kid that you’re good friends with, if it’s a national case, and you’re billed as the star witness, if you have to perform for the courtroom, the television cameras and the world, not to mention the memory of your friend and the look in the eyes of his parents…

You do whatever it takes to preserve your inner core, to hold it together for the family that needs you, the brother that fucked up, the cousin who’s doing time, the friend whose Mom got deported, your grandma who doesn’t speak English, your homies, the people who get that you’re really beautiful, the people you love and trust.  You have all kinds of ways to keep yourself under the radar. You know you’re being attacked by a system that takes you for a fool.  You’re pissed as shit, but you play it cool. You have your Miamittude.  You’re all fire inside, but you’ll never let them see you sweat a single hair out of place.  You are a Diamond and you’re going to explode one day in shimmering brilliance.

You stand YOUR ground.

You go, baby.