Jasminne Mendez is an award winning author, performance poet and educator. She received her B.A. in English Literature and her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston.
Mendez has had poetry and memoir published both nationally and internationally by presses including Arte Publico Press, the University of Chester, and Telling Our Stories Press. Her first multi-genre memoir Island of Dreams was published by Floricanto Press was awarded Best Young Adult Latino Focused Book by the International Latino Book Awards in 2015. Recently, her personal essay El Corte received honorable mention in the Barry Lopez Creative Non-Fiction Prize in CutThroat, A Journal of the Arts and is published in their Best of CutThroat edition.
Mendez has shared the stage as a performance poet with world renowned authors Taylor Mali, Sandra Cisneros, Dagoberto Gilb, and Aamalia Ortiz. This summer she will begin her MFA residency in the creative writing program at the Rainier Writer’s Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.
Shades of Red
The first time I wore red lipstick I was 27. A few short months after the miscarriage, Mami told me to get pretty.
“Ponte bonita,” she said. “It’ll make you feel better,” she said.
So, I fumbled through earrings, and faded jeans, and worn out clothes, and shoes that didn’t fit my hypertensive swollen feet and stopped to catch my breath between a sudden hot flash and a spontaneous dizzy spell. I wanted desperately to look effortless but didn’t know where to begin. I found a black top and black pants and black shoes and decided red lips and accessories would have to do.
Red lipstick is for cual quieras… whores. Women of the streets. Mujeres de la calle. Red is a scandalous color. Not meant for proper señoritas and housewives.
Before 27, red frightened me. I was afraid of el “que dirán.” Of what others would say. Of what Mami would say. Of what everyone would think. But eventually, I realized that if I was strong enough to survive the loss of a child in my womb, then I was woman enough to be dangerous. Woman enough to wear the color of blood and fire without fear and without trepidation.
I chose a cherry red liner and a matte scarlet lipstick. Hands shaking, mouth stretched, I inched closely to the mirror and began. Left to right I drew in a line. Bottom lip first. Good. Top lip next. Ok. Then I filled in the rest like a child completing a color by number painting.
I smiled. It smeared on my teeth. I sighed. Suddenly it felt like I should have a cigarette dangling from my mouth. I wiped my teeth and dabbed off the excess. I smiled again. Better. I took a picture. The room began to spin. I felt sick. My meds. Or my blood pressure or something else. I tried to smile. I tried to feel pretty. Lipstick smeared again on my teeth. I only felt objectified.
Despite the nagging voices in my head that told me it was too early in the day for red, that told me I looked trashy, that reminded me that lipstick wasn’t a cure, I was determined to wear it out of the house. And I did. I wore it to the grocery store and no one gave me dirty looks. I took a picture and flaunted it all over my social media. It stained my lips and refused to come off when I washed my face later that night, and I almost didn’t care. I wore it like the woman on the Si se puede poster. Resilient and rebellious, I wore it as a sign of defiance against Mami’s conservative nature and Papi’s strict rules of order and tradition.
My papi, a Latino military man whose main rules for me growing up included:
- Do well in school…always
- No shaving or make-up until 15
- No dating or boyfriends until 18
- No sleep overs at anyone’s house…ever
I broke rule # 2 at thirteen when I was tired of being bullied for my hairy legs. I often tricked Mami into letting me break rule # 4 and in high school I regularly broke rule #3, but never got caught. If and when I did get caught breaking any of these rules, Papi would react harshly and without remorse. One of these such times involved red lipstick.
At the pre-pubescent age of ten, I walked out of the shower half dressed and bumped into Papi in the upstairs hallway. I looked up at him and tried to scurry past so I could go to my room and get ready for bed. I was dripping wet and it was cold in the hallway. He grabbed me by my arms.
“Look at me,” he said.
“Que? What? Que paso?” I said trying to gently shake him off like the water that covered my small and shivering frame.
“Mírame, look at me.” I jerked my face in his direction and looked him squarely in the eye. “Are you wearing lipstick?”
“No,” I said earnestly.
“Let me see.” And he put his thumb on my mouth and started rubbing my lips as if he were wiping dirt off the bottom of his combat boots.
“Papi, stop. I’m not wearing any lipstick.” I pulled away from him abruptly this time, trying not to drop my towel and lose the last shred of childhood decency I had left.
“Go show your mother.” He needed more proof. My soiled word and his clean thumb weren’t enough.
“Dad, I’m not wearing any lipstick…” I attempted to scream but my voice cracked, knowing I had already crossed the line.
“Go. Show. Your. Mother. Sonia!” He yelled across the house. “Mira, look and see if this girl is wearing lipstick.”
“Papi, please.“ I smacked my teeth and pursed my lips.
“Go. Now. I don’t want to have to say it again.”
The tears welled up. The one time I was actually innocent and I was still being punished. Truth was, it was winter in Tennessee and my lips were chapped. As a compulsive perfectionist, I had spent my time in the shower biting my lips raw. I hated the thought of my lips looking scabby. Between the heat, and the cold, and my lip biting, my mouth had swollen up red like ripe strawberries.
I wanted to use what words I had left to stand up for myself. To prove that I had done nothing wrong, but because I feared Papi’s strong arm more than I cared about my own weak pride at age ten, I walked begrudgingly to my parent’s bedroom where Mami lay in bed reading the Bible.
“Papi wants you to check that I’m not wearing lipstick.” I awaited her judgment.
Mami looked me up and down. Unlike Papi, she didn’t have to touch me to know my lips were clean. She was a woman. She knew the difference between chapped lips and make-up.
“Dile a tu papi que no joda,” and she looked back down at her Bible. She wanted me to tell Papi to fuck off. Wide-eyed, I stared at Mami.
“Ma….” I shifted my weight, trying to stay warm.
“Ella no tiene na’! Leave her alone!” She yelled across the house. “Now go get ready for bed.”
I left the room rubbing my lips and choking on rage. I went and put on my PJs and with sleep now only a distant memory, I decided to go to the living room where Papi was lying in his recliner watching for the hundredth time The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on the History Channel. He squinted as I walked past him to the other sofa. Surveying me up and down like a drill Sgt during formation he said: “You sure you’re not wearing any lipstick? You know you’re not allowed to wear make-up yet.”
“Yes, Papi. I’m sure.”
“Don’t let me catch you wearing any make-up. You know the rules.”
“I know Papi.” and I picked at the scab on my arm. I didn’t like the way it looked. I wanted it gone.
“Hand me the remote,” he said after a few minutes. “Y vete a dormir. You have school in the morning.”
I sulked for only a fraction of a second, and like a good girl, biting my lip and holding my tongue, I followed his orders and went to bed in silence.
I’m staring at myself in the mirror. And the room is spinning. And I’m hungry. And I’m tired. And I know that red is the color of blood and of love and of fear and of danger and of fire and of roses and of hearts and of my other organs and of apples and of womanhood. Womanhood. Womanhood. Oh, how I miss being a girl.
Text copyright Jasminne Mendez (2016)