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Editor's Note: "A love letter to Christina Santiago" is being reposted in full from our media-partner GayTravel.com, but it was originally published on Autostraddle by Gabrielle Rivera, an Autostraddle contributor and Santiago's best friend of 20 years since their shared childhood in the Bronx. Rivera's letter is a moving tribute to her lifelong friend, and probably the best glimpse (as well as the original story link she references at the beginning) that outsiders across the world will ever have into the short life of the beautiful Latina LGBT activist, that ended tragically last week when the stage at the Indiana State Fair collapsed in a storm.
So the news people have been all over my momma’s house with their trucks and cameras. I know you’d be so ready to bust their windows and have them towed. Here’s the thing: You got taken out, Nena, by some crazy gust of wind. It’s like a house fell on you and now I’m without my sister and no there aren’t any glass slippers or yellow brick roads. I don’t want to write about what happened to you in the “Sugarpit” because maybe you didn’t see it coming, maybe it just happened and if I leave out the details then neither one of us will have to imagine the unimaginable.
Here’s what I want to share and I hope it’s ok with you. (Right now, you’re still alive to me and anyone that refers to you in the past tense, will be slapped for sure.)
I just want you to know that you have always been the brave one. I’m not just saying that because you’re far away, I’m saying it because it’s true.
When we were fourteen, I came out to you during my brother’s little league game in Coyne Park on McLean Ave. Our arms were linked, I pulled you away from listening ears, trying not to barf and unloaded the scariest secret, the secret that was eating away at my newly teenage heart. I said, “Nena, I gotta tell you something and it might make you hate me.” You said, “Don’t be a jerk. That’ll never happen. Tell me.” With fat tears in my eyes, I said, “I think I like girls.” You grabbed me by my forearms and laughed because you thought you liked girls too. We hugged forever in that A&P supermarket parking lot and then we were inseparable. No one on the corner had swagger like us or secret crushes on Angelina Jolie and Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes.
Then about a year later, something funny happened, you fell in love with me. Full on first love with me. ME! The chubby, nerdy, frizzy haired, bespectacled, goofball best friend, how did that even happen? You were the finest chick on the block with the freshest gear, best make-up, fly body, dope laugh: a dimepiece. And you fell in love with me and one night during a sleepover, you told me so yourself. You said, “I gotta tell you something that might make you hate me.” I said, “Don’t be a jerk.” You said, “I love you like I’m in love with you.” And I froze, I pushed you away. I told you that I didn’t really like girls and didn’t love you and I left the bed we were crashing on and sent you on your way.
I was afraid of what I was and afraid of your love. I shut you out and badmouthed you to my cousin, something like “Can you believe that dyke?” I wronged you, Nena. We didn’t speak for almost two years. My words against you burned in my chest everyday but my pride kept me from apologizing, from reaching out and pulling you close. It kept me from admitting that I really was a lesbian and that you were the brave one. I didn’t have those feelings for you because you were my Nena, my sister, and how could anyone want to make out with their sister? But I should have told you that you were my best friend and hugged you and not been a coldhearted frightened little jerk.
Somehow, you knew that I loved you, you knew how much you meant to me. You knew it enough to invite me up to Albany to visit you in college, even though we hadn’t spoken. You reached out to me and didn’t mention anything of my betrayal. That night in your college apartment, I broke down and admitted how terrible I was for shutting you out of my life and saying horrible things. You kept your arms around me as a cried. You cried too. You said it was ok and that you understood and that we didn’t have to talk about it.
I promised to never betray you again. I promised before we drank all that beer and then wholeheartedly afterwards. I think you even made me do my first shotgun that night …
You trusted me and my word. After that night, our friendship soared like it did when we were kids. We macked on chicks together, drank beer and talked about all the gay stuff going on in the world. Would we ever be allowed to marry our girlfriends? Would Antigone Rising ever have a number one album on billboard? Are dental dams really necessary? (Yes, you always said yes, cuz you were Miz Lez Safe Sex before it was cool.) Our entire lives stood before us and we were together. I saw you through every single girlfriend, and yes Nena, there were almost too many to remember. You never Shane’d them though, you gave of yourself to the women you loved. I always kept my eye on you making sure that no one broke your heart the way I did. No one would have the excuse of being “a scared baby lesbian,” like I did.
I watched as you blossomed in Chicago turning into the advocate/super dyke that you always wanted to be. You became a professional activist badass lesbian and worked for a real company, Howard Brown Health Center and then you started running shit, making a name for yourself. Looking out for you, turned into looking up to you and then came Alisha. Once she was in your life, I knew you’d be golden.
All the other loves in your life came and went with phone calls to me about “Can you believe this b*tch?” and a little of “You know, Gabby, this just isn’t working out with her.” Not with Alisha, my complaint department didn’t receive one call from you. All I saw were smiling lovey faces on facebook and you would call me and gush about how “fucking dreamy and perfect” she is …
Isn’t that what you both called the night? Perfect.
Now I’m here, we’re here, without you and the days look far from perfect. How are we supposed to deal with this, Nena? You were always the one with the answers, the action plan and even the diagram on how to achieve the goal.
An act of God, a gust of wind, a fucking house falling from the sky, whatever it was, it took you from us. It took twenty-nine years of fucking amazing from the world and I am fucking pissed. I wish Sugarland wasn’t a band. I wish you didn’t like to do all the things all the time. I wish I went to Chicago and visited like you asked me to do. Wish, wish, all we can do is wish and imagine what if. But I should end this on a positive note and tell you that everyone is rallying for your causes.
Your Spellman peeps are organizing a NOH8 photoshoot in the BX. (Cathy is as lovely as you always said she was.) Mike Rico made a fly t-shirt in your honor. All of your friends are reaching out to each other across state lines, color lines and that broad spectrum of sexuality to be there for each other.
But you must know that I ache in my heart, that I am cracked wide open and this homegirl from the Bronx won’t ever be the same. We were supposed to raise kids together. Like me and Liz with our scrappy smart mouthed dirty badass little kids and you and Alisha with your super politically aware, well behaved outdoorsy youngins, having BBqs and weekend camping trips. Not this, not nothing … but losing you has already changed me.
Instead of remaining a jaded bitter unimpressed wannabe nihilist NYC lesbian, I might just throw some more smiling into my day and take my girl out for a perfect date so that we can toast to you in the sky because you lived life with joy and there’s no need for us to lose that.
Rivera's Autostraddle bio: Gabrielle Rivera is an awesomely queer Bronx bred, writer, spoken word artist and director. Her short stories and poems have been published in various anthologies such as the Lambda Award winning Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City and The Best of Panic! En Vivo from the East Village. Her short film "Spanish Girls are Beautiful" follows a group of young Latina and Caucasian girls who like girls as they hook up, smoke up and try to figure sh*t out. She also freelances for Autostraddle.com while working in the film and television industry. Gabrielle is currently working on her first novel while bouncing around NYC performing spoken word and trying to stick it to the man.