I’m still unlearning my internalized ableism as a body fat and disability positive activist

Relaciones is a monthly series that helps Latinx people navigate interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships by unpacking the difficult but necessary conversations that arise in our communities. This month, columnist Yesika Salgado writes about encounters with a disability and the unlearning of internalized ableism.

As a teenager, I imagined my future: I would be a famous writer in a big, beautiful house, I would travel, I would have a dog and I would be in love. As life progressed and took its twists and turns, mine changed body. When I was 19, I was involved in a hit-and-run that caused nerve damage to my right leg. Another injury in his late twenties injured the same limb again. Then, in 2017, a skin infection caused permanent tissue and nerve damage to my right leg. I now live with chronic pain and reduced mobility. I use cannabis to manage pain at night and use a cane to help me on long or difficult days. I didn’t see this in my life plan, and until recently was disappointed that when I finally got my life almost entirely on track, I was slowed down – or so I thought.

Last month, my cane made its public debut. I brought it with me on stage for a poetry performance. He also joined me on a work trip, party, poetry open mic, bar, and film screening. Each time, I felt on the verge of tears. I felt vulnerable and raw. I didn’t understand why. I’ve always talked about people who need to have patience with their body and give each other grace and love. Why didn’t I do it myself? I still haven’t taken it with me on a date. Apparently my internalized ableism and fatphobia are okay with me being fat and disabled, but not visibly. I love my body; I do it sincerely. I had to fight years of fat shaming and body dysmorphia to get to a place where I don’t shy away from my fat or worry about how a man would receive it. Yet here I am, having to go through all the unlearning again.

This world makes it difficult to be a graceful fat disabled woman in your own body.

Surrendering to another person is one of the most extraordinary acts of abandonment I have ever experienced. Yet this world makes it difficult to be a graceful fat disabled woman in one’s own body. Dating with a disability is almost like an extreme sport. Not only do I have to deal with all the chaos of being attracted to men, but now I have to ask for more patience and compassion than ever before. I don’t know these straight men to have a lot of both. I should also note that although my physical disabilities are bigger now, I’ve had other disabilities for most of my life. My bipolar disorder and chronic anemia caused by uterine polyps is not usually trivial discussion. Unless someone becomes a fixture in my life, they usually don’t hear about it. I’m an expert at playing cool while doing all sorts of mental gymnastics when dating. I canceled appointments at the last minute because I was in the middle of a hypomanic episode or my polyps were bleeding. I played him as mysterious or incredibly busy instead of a human experiencing human things.

Last year I met someone online. He’s a man who made me laugh so hard I cried the first time we spoke, and I’m a sucker for a funny man. We talked often, and from time to time he invited me to his house. I went through my usual excuses from work and family. Thank goodness for my niece and nephew; these kids unknowingly pull me out of so many things just by existing. The guy eventually gave up and passed out. I was both relieved and saddened. How would I explain that I would like to have sex but that I no longer know what I am capable of? Would he be a kind lover and help me explore my body and its new limits? Could we discover some fun new positions together? Having sex with someone new is awkward for everyone. Sex with someone new when things about your body often scare you is nerve-wracking. Would he be disappointed?

I vowed to keep showing myself in my power no matter what.

The physically disabled women in my life have never disappointed me. I have an aunt who has been using a walking aid for years. Tia Marina is a no-frills badass woman; no one dares to test it. She emigrated to Los Angeles when I was a tiny baby and helped Mami raise me and my sisters. I was in college when she came back to El Salvador to take care of my elderly grandmother. I spent my teenage years traveling to our village and caring for it. She would play me love songs in the bedroom we shared, hide me from parents I didn’t love, and insult anyone who tried to call me fat. I have always been in awe of her and her power. I was honored to be able to buy her a wheelchair with one of my royalty checks. I called it his throne on wheels. For me, Marina Palacios de Quijada is a giant. Why can’t I be one too?

Recently I attended a movie screening with some people I love, but hadn’t seen a walking aid. One friend in particular kept glancing at my rod, then at me. He was worried, and I could see something close to pity in his eyes. I excused myself from the room and cried in the parking lot while a few of my girlfriends held me up. I came home and continued to cry. I was crying for the Yesika I wanted the world to know. I was mad at myself for being so sad. I was ashamed of having so many complicated feelings while proudly touting body positivity all over the internet. Was I a fraud? I sat up in bed and talked to my legs while rubbing ointment on them. I apologized for my anger. I cried again, thanking them for what they continued to allow me to do. I vowed to keep showing myself in my power no matter what.

I’m not the kind of woman who climbs mountains. I teach them to kneel.

Last night I was a guest performer on a variety show. I was worried about the stairs and whether or not I would have a chair to sit on stage. Once under the bright lights, I forgot everything. I gave up instantly. I let my magic fill the room and I felt like I was high. I left the stage to a standing ovation and a very handsome man standing by the bar. He walked over to me, leaned into my ear, and whispered a litany of compliments. I smiled shyly and flirted back. He asked me if I could stay after the show and give him a dance. I lifted my purple cane clutched by my very neat right hand. “Ah, I don’t dance,” I said. “Not yet,” he replied, and then I was swallowed up again by the rest of the show. Then I took photos and chatted with people who had read my work for years before slipping away into the night. On the street, I caught my breath and cooled off on a bench when another man approached me, praised my performance, flirted and walked away, my cane standing proudly between us.

I’m not the kind of woman who climbs mountains. I teach them to kneel. I gave up on apologizing for who I am for a long time. Everything I do, I do with all my heart. I’ve built my career and my life around the idea that love is the true engine of this universe. Romantic love, family love, community love, and self-love nourish and move me. What my leg but a new opportunity to walk my talk? I don’t owe my story to anyone, but I have to free myself from my expectations. Freedom and a brand new dazzling custom cane to take out on the dance floor the next time I get asked to dance. I hope it’s Bad Bunny’s last shot under the Los Angeles sky with a tall, handsome man. When he asks me to come to his house, I’ll say yes, lay down and let him do the glorious work of worshiping my gorgeous body.

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