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2020 in One Picture

My husband Julio César snapped this picture while he was driving. It shows 3 traffic signals. Two of them have both the green and red lights on, the other has a red ‘no left turn’ arrow lit up. This picture sums up the year 2020.

The malfunctioning street lights in the picture send mixed signals to the approaching driver. I imagine the Clash song “Should I stay or should I go? If I stay there will be trouble. If I go, there will be double.” The events of 2020 forced questions such as: Where should I go? Should I attend my grandfather’s funeral? Should I stay home? Should I go to the grocery store? Should I go to work? Should I self-quarantine? Should I send my kids to school or keep them home?

Because we know that Black and Brown women bear outsized responsibility and do most of the emotional labor at home and work, this year was especially hard for women of color. Black and Latino communities have suffered almost three times as many deaths to COVID-19 as white communities. The most vulnerable workers whose jobs require showing up to a physical location (think farm workers, meat-processing plant workers, Wal-Mart and Amazon workers), have been deemed essential. Yet they are not receiving the benefits of hazard pay, and many of them are risking their health and that of their own families by going to work. Millions of people who were laid off during the global COVID-19 pandemic, are struggling to eat and pay rent while electeds in Washington, DC dither. Despite all this, women doubled down on what we knew to keep our families and communities safe, and we innovated on the daily as our usual routines went out the window.

The picture at the intersection creates cognitive dissonance. In the same way, the events of 2020 felt simultaneously new and sadly familiar. Never in our lifetimes have schools closed for semesters on end, or families been ordered to shelter in place due to a deadly virus. These experiences were new, calling us to improvise every step. In contrast, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd felt sickeningly familiar, summoning up a gravelly dirge we know all too well.

The mixed messages of the traffic signals result in the driver eventually proceeding through the intersection with caution. This year as I have been sharing the message from my upcoming book Thriving in the Fight: A Survival Manual for Latinas on the Front Lines of Change, I have had the privilege of connecting with hundreds of Black and Brown women from around the world who will not stop. Ms. Rika Tyler helped lead the youth response in Ferguson, Missouri to Mike Brown’s murder in 2014. Six years later, in 2020, she worked as a community organizer for Missouri Faith Voices delivering masks to kids and families who needed them and encouraging people to vote. She did this all while creating enriching space for her young sons to do their schooling online. At a holiday gathering she painted this image that includes the words, “Nevertheless, she persisted.” While this phrase has become popular as having been used by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to describe his attempt to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren on the Senate Floor, its phrasing comes from the Bible. When she was being ignored, the woman in the biblical account kept making Jesus aware of her daughter’s need until it was met.

That is what gives me the most faith as this year has come to an end. 2020 will be remembered for its innumerable obstacles — the COVID-19 global pandemic, white supremacist groups lurking in the background trying to intimidate communities of color, a tattered economy and a democracy teetering on its edge. Yet it will also be remembered by its growing clear, love-focused, youth-run Black Lives Matter movement forcing change; a joyful, strategic movement of DREAMers (young people brought to the U.S. when they were children) challenging the incoming administration to be bold; and Black and Brown women winning protections for everyone like (Medicaid expansion in Rika’s state of Missouri) and fueling historic election turnouts in the process.

For me, 2020 was a clarifying year. As I look back I wonder how in the world I made it through. My mother had three mini-strokes, my 80-year old parents totaled their car in an accident, I relocated to Puerto Rico, lived in five different places in the process, my husband had a terrible bicycle accident, I turned in my book manuscript, and my daughter faced serious health issues. Oh, and I got a promotion and began building a new program at work! The year forced important questions of where do I want to be? What is my purpose in this moment? What will it take for me to thrive?

Stop, go, yield, turn left, turn right. The uncertainty and chaos of 2020 made our choices more consequential than ever before. Yet the most hopeful part of 2020 for me was the determination I saw in the faces of Black and Brown women around the globe.

No matter what 2021 has in store for us, nevertheless, we persist.