Relaciones is a monthly series that helps Latinxs navigate interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships by unpacking the tough but necessary conversations that come up in our communities. This month, columnist Yesika Salgado writes about dating with a disability and unlearning internalised ableism.
As a teen, I used to imagine my future: I’d be a famous writer in a big beautiful home, travel, have a dog, and be in love. As life went on and took its twists and turns, my own body changed. At 19 years old, I was involved in a hit-and-run that caused nerve damage to my right leg. Another injury in my late 20s further harmed the same limb. Then, in 2017, a skin infection caused permanent tissue and nerve damage to my right leg. I now live with chronic pain and limited mobility. I consume cannabis to manage pain at night and use a cane to help me out on long or difficult days. I didn’t see this in my life plan and, until recently, was disappointed that when I finally almost had my life 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. It also joined me on a work trip, a party, a poetry open mic, a bar, and a film screening. Each time, I felt myself on the verge of tears. I felt vulnerable and raw. I didn’t understand why. I’ve always spoken about folks needing to have patience with their bodies and giving themselves grace and love. Why wasn’t I doing it myself? I still haven’t taken it with me on a date. Apparently, my internalised ableism and fatphobia are OK with me being fat and disabled, just not visibly. I love my body; I genuinely do. I’ve had to fight years of fat-shaming and body dysmorphia to get to a place where I don’t cringe at my fat or worry about how a man would receive it. Yet here I am, having to go through all of the unlearning again.
This world makes it arduous to be a fat and disabled woman graceful in her own body.
Turning yourself over to another person is one of the most extraordinary acts of surrender I’ve ever known. Still, this world makes it arduous to be a fat and disabled woman graceful in her own body. Dating while disabled is almost like an extreme sport. I not only 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 do not know cis straight men to have much of both. I must also note that although my physical disabilities are more prominent now, I have had other disabilities for most of my life. My bipolar disorder and chronic anemia caused by uterine polyps aren’t usually subjects of small talk. Unless someone is becoming a fixture in my life, they typically don’t hear about them. I am an expert at playing it cool while doing all kinds of mental gymnastics when dating. I’ve canceled dates last minute because I’ve been midway through a hypomanic episode or my polyps were hemorrhaging. I’ve played it off as being mysterious or incredibly busy instead of a human experiencing human things.
Last year, I met someone online. It was a man that made me laugh so hard I cried the first time we spoke, and I am a sucker for a funny man. We spoke often, and every now and then, he invited me over to his apartment. I ran through my usual excuses of work and family. Thank goodness for my niece and nephew; those kids unknowingly get me out of so many things just by existing. The guy eventually gave up and faded away. I was both relieved and saddened. How would I explain that I’d love to have sex but don’t know what I am capable of any more? Would he be a kind lover and help me explore my body and its new limitations? Could we discover some new fun positions together? Having sex with someone new is awkward for everyone. Sex with someone new when things about your body often frighten you is nerve-wracking. Would he be disappointed?
I promised myself that I’d continue showing up in my power no matter what.
The women with physical disabilities 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-nonsense badass woman; no one dares test her. She migrated to Los Angeles when I was a tiny baby and helped Mami raise my sisters and me. I was in middle school when she returned to El Salvador to care for my elderly grandmother. My teenage years were spent traveling to our village and to her care. She would play love songs for me in the bedroom we shared, hid me from relatives I didn’t like, and cussed out anyone that tried calling me fat. I have always been in awe of her and her power. I was honoured to be able to buy her a wheelchair with one of my royalties checks. I called it her throne on wheels. To me, Marina Palacios de Quijada is a giant. Why can’t I be one, too?
Recently, I attended a film screening full of folks I love but hadn’t seen pre-walking aid. One specific friend kept glancing at my cane and then at me. He was concerned, and I could see something close to pity in his eyes. I excused myself from the venue and cried in the parking lot while a couple of my homegirls held space for me. I came home and continued crying. I was grieving the Yesika I wanted the world to know. I was upset with myself for being so sad. I was ashamed of having so many complicated feelings while proudly boasting body positivity all over the Internet. Was I a fraud? I sat in bed and talked to my legs while rubbing pomade into them. I apologised for my anger. I cried some more, thanking them for what they continue to allow me to do. I promised myself that I’d continue showing up in my power no matter what.
I am not the kind of woman who climbs mountains. I teach them to kneel.
Last night, I was a guest performer at a variety show. I was worried about staircases and whether or not I’d have a chair to sit on onstage. Once I was beneath the bright lights, I forgot everything. I surrendered to the moment. I let my magic fill the room and felt like I was soaring. I walked off stage to a standing ovation and a very handsome man standing by the bar. He approached me, leaned into my ear, and whispered a litany of compliments. I smiled coyly and flirted back. He asked if I’d stick around after the show and grant him a dance. I lifted my purple cane gripped by my very well-manicured right hand. “Ah, I don’t dance,” I said. “Not yet,” he answered, and then I was swallowed into the rest of the show again. Afterward, I took pictures and chatted with folks who’ve read my work for years before slipping out into the night. Out in the street, I caught my breath and cooled down on a bench when another man approached me, praised my performance, flirted, and walked away, my cane standing boastfully between us.
I am not the kind of woman who climbs mountains. I teach them to kneel. I gave up apologising for who I am a long time ago. Everything I do, I do with my whole heart. I have built my career and life around the notion that love is the true driving force of this universe. Romantic love, familial love, communal love, and self-love feed and move me. What is my leg but a new opportunity to walk my talk? I don’t owe anyone my story, but I do owe myself freedom from my expectations. Freedom and a brand-new bedazzled customised cane to pull out on the dance floor the next time I am invited to dance. I hope it’s to the latest Bad Bunny hit beneath the Los Angeles sky with a tall, beautiful man. When he asks me to his place, I will say yes, lay back, and let him do the glorious work of worshiping my gorgeous body.
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