Mel Maldonado-Salcedo //
What’s in a Name?
I was born in the 1980s, an era filled with excess. Perhaps this is the reason I have always struggled with moderation. My generation was defined by drugs, MTV, and Melissas. From grade school to high school, I was one of a few Melissas in each classroom. For this reason, I felt compelled to differentiate myself early on so I would not be overlooked, ignored, or erased. In many ways, this was all part of my anthropological training. Fitting in was never a realistic goal either. It is not coincidental that I am comfortable on the fringe of most things despite now being the center of my academic explorations. Statistically, the odds were stacked against me as a queer Latina with disabilities, raised in “the hood.” But, I refused to be an indicator, a quota, or “other.” On most days, my temperament is mercurial. I am sure that there is a clinical justification for this given my family history. Though I know the real reasons are complicated and deep rooted, I also suspect it started with my name.
Growing up, the name “Melissa” felt foreign to me despite its ubiquity. It never felt quite mine or right. It was only until I could see myself in a different light and accept my contradictions that I became me, “Mel.” I am a superstitious scientist, an academic artist, and a professional imperfectionist. A diagnosis does that to you. It makes you self-reflective, inquisitive, and relentless in trying to make sense of your ever-changing story. I attribute Melissa’s popularity as a moniker to the television show Little House on the Prairie. The series, which ran for nine seasons between 1973 and 1983, is based on the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was a pioneer (literally and metaphorically) who, like me, wrote about her childhood memories. The Social Security Administration lists Melissa on its top ten names for girls during the 1980s. I must confess, though, that I was named after the actress who played Laura Ingalls Wilder on television, Melissa Gilbert. When I saw her on Cameo, I was very tempted to have her wish me a happy birthday on my 40th, but now I feel that would be bizarre.
Laura Ingalls’s sister on the show, Mary, was played by another Melissa, Melissa Sue Anderson. My mother has clarified that it was the Melissa who played Laura who she named me after because Mary was blonde, had blue eyes, and as much as she would have preferred me to express “those” genes, the odds were slim. Also, Mary was blind, so she feared that would curse my odds of developing my father’s retinitis pigmentosa (an inherited retinal disease that causes progressive loss of night vision and peripheral vision). I am myopic and have started to lose my night vision in the last couple of months. For me, however, the cause is neurological despite resulting in the same visual impairment as my father’s.
My mother loved Little House on the Prairie, and so did my grandmother. She never had a television in Colombia, but she visited us in the United States for six months when I was three years old. When she was not eating my baby food in secret, she was watching the show. It would be the only one she ever saw in her lifetime. I think they both found the depictions of family and rural life appealing above all things. The series centered on “hardship, adventure, and survival,” which in many ways sums up my mother’s migration from Colombia to America (Woodside). Like me, my mother has a penchant for the dramatic and looks for herself in all stories. From the Korean soap operas she is currently obsessed with to the stories she rereads every day in her Bible, it is not a coincidence that these types of sagas which celebrate “family, self-reliance, hard work and neighbor helping neighbor” resonate. Like Laura, she too came from a small rural town which looked very much like the Wisconsin frontier depicted on the show. Both were filled with farmers, big families, and scarcity. Both also lacked infrastructure, opportunity, and stability. Walnut Grove, might as well have been Macondo.[i]
Settling on Conservation: When being Different Stings
My mother grew up on the coast of Colombia without most things I cannot imagine living without, like electricity, running water, and the Internet. I speak from a place of having experienced prolonged lack of these amenities (or necessities, if you will). Remember Super Storm Sandy back in 2012? At the time, I lived in New York City’s Zone A, which was hard hit. The streets were flooded and inundated. Meanwhile, we did not have running water at home. The Lower East Side went dark for days, literally. No amount of wine made whining about the power outage easier to bare. Until then, I had considered myself buoyant.
During one of my summer trips to Colombia, I recall my sister crying that she just wanted to go home “and watch Saved by the Bell.” Even though my mother called these excursions to Colombia “family vacations,” they were not necessarily fun, refueling, or even optional. Imagine the stress of going to Colombia on holidays during the height of the cartels and during a civil war. I still have nightmares of paramilitaries breaking into our house. I still see the blood on the wall from the time a grenade exploded on a guerrilla fighter who was trying to kidnap a businessman two houses down from mine. The splatter was a Colombian Jackson Pollock. My sister just wanted the small, but essential comforts that we had in abundance back home. You see, I grew up in New York City’s Housing Authority public housing, where we did not pay for water or electricity. This was a vastly different experience from the buckets of water we had to fill with rainwater to bathe in Colombia and the bacenillas (pisspots), or gas lamps, we had to light at night.
At home, if you were afraid of the dark, you could sleep with the lights on. If we were hungry, we walked to the fridge, not up a mountain to chop vegetation or to slaughter an animal for a meal. I wonder if that is when I became a vegetarian. Barring the Northeast blackout of 2003, NYCHA (New York City Housing Association) was atypically reliable. As a kid, I often felt like I was on the set of Little House on the Prairie, except we were in NYCHA housing, spoke Spanish, and our family was extra dysfunctional.
As an adult, I had to condition myself to be eco-minded and conserve water and energy. After all, I now pay for my utilities and therefore adult responsibilities and bills are catalysts for critical behavior modifications. I find many parallels with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the women in my family because, like Laura, my mother was always curious, rebellious, and determined. Laura Ingalls grows up to be an educator, a mother, and a writer, which basically sums up my life today. Her stories, like most of mine, are based on childhood memories. Interestingly, Lane, her only daughter, helped Laura eventually publish them, albeit whitewashed for children. The real-life violence of settler society was sanitized to depict life on the prairie as idyllic and wholesome, despite the slaughtering of Native Americans systematically happening in the background.
Interestingly, when you hear my mother speak about Colombia and her childhood, you can also understand how she edits out the hardships of poverty, the machismo, the trauma, and the systemic oppression, and minimizes the pervasive violence that has enveloped the country since its inception. She was not exempt nor immune from it, but I also understand her use of poetic license. The truth lies always between the mundane and fantastic. And yes, this is magical realism in every sense of the word. Like my mother and daughter duo, Lane and Laura had a “complicated” relationship.
In Search of a Hive and Healing
To distinguish the Melissas from each other in class, teachers would often refer to us usually by our last names or initials—“Melissa S.” and “Melissa T.” This made them (and most authority figures who would call me by my last name) sound like wardens or army generals. To this day, I instinctually sit up straight when I am called “Melissa.” It sounds too formal, too serious, too not me. For many years, I went by “M&M” until I decided to add my mother’s last name despite all the weight and baggage it brings. Then, I was “Melissa MS.” Since I am a first-generation college graduate, I wanted to acknowledge my parents’ partnership because I feel I owe who I am to them (the good and bad). On my mother’s side, I come from a long line of evangelicals who believe evolution is a “choice” and preach that illness is a moral failing, a punishment from God. My father’s side: a long line of shameless hustlers. By using Maldonado-Salcedo, I wanted to change it up or somehow merge these two histories into a less violent and more loving one. I wanted this for my only son, Pablo.
When I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in my early 20s, I no longer wanted to see the initials “MS.” When my maternal cousin found out I was diagnosed with MS, she called me to share that her friend “also had it” (as if she caught the MS bug). And that she now was totally blind, but, most importantly, “the Lord continues to bless her.”
To an outsider, the articulation of two letters might not seem meaningful. Those two letters nonetheless shaped me. Still, the ironic coincidence of my last name’s initials and my condition’s acronym both being “MS” does not escape me (cue Alanis Morissette). For many individuals who have a disability, especially when it is (initially) invisible, as in my case, you try to “pass.” You don’t want to draw attention to your incapacity. My father worked as a taxi driver for many years as his eyesight deteriorated. He never wanted blindness to define him despite everyone noticing. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer, who shared his same condition, wrote how terrifying it was to go blind. In his essay on the topic, he highlighted that, despite this, he did not let blindness “intimidate him.” He notes in his essay of the same name, “Blindness has not been for me total misfortune; it should not be seen in a pathetic way. It should be a way of life; one of the styles of living.” At 23, on the brink of starting my adult life, this was tough to see. Melissa MS now had MS.
Redefinitions: You know I’ll have it Made
Etymologically, “Melissa” stands for honey bee. I have always had an affinity for bees and can say that in my forty years on this earth, I have never been stung by one. Even though it was recommended to me early on as a treatment for MS, I was not interested.[ii] Notwithstanding, I feel like honey bees, like me, are currently endangered. If they go extinct, they would take down our entire food system. The world as we know it would end without them.[iii] Remarkably, when they sting, it kills them, so they try to actively avoid it. What happens is that their stingers get torn off with part of their abdomen, thus killing them. So, they can’t be trifling with stinging. While bees are perceived to be dangerous, they present no risk at all (if you do not provoke them).
One of my all-time favorite 90s songs is “No Rain” by Blind Melon. Musically and lyrically, the song is upbeat despite it expressing the many sad sentiments associated with being young and “different.” The social isolation and rejection you experience when you feel out of place can take a toll and weigh heavy. The song speaks about finding that person who gets you and all your strangeness. It makes you feel like “you got it made.” The music video, the song, helped me to see the light. I was the “bee girl” way before Beyoncé. The last scene in the music video shows her, the bee, after being laughed at, shamed, and being alone, finding her place. She sees a group of other bees dancing around. They embrace her. They dance and celebrate together because they found each other and created a community. I am lucky. I found my hive…in the classroom with my co-learners (students). As I often am reminded, they are the bee’s knees. Maybe one day I will also sit on my throne back in my little house in the hood to dance and celebrate…the most important three-letter word, Mel.
[i] Macondo is a fictional town in the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). It draws on his childhood town, Aracataca.
[ii] Bee sting therapy or bee venom therapy is recommended in the wellness community for Multiple Sclerosis. It is a form of apitherapy, which uses bee products to treat medical conditions. According to the online publication Very Well Health, the therapy relies on the individual’s own body to reduce inflammation in Multiple Sclerosis. Interestingly some of the adverse effects associated with bee sting therapy are the very symptoms associated with MS, such as pain, fatigue, and anxiety (Stachowiak).
[iii] A Berkley study found honey bees affect one-third of the world’s food crops (Science Daily 2006).
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Blindness.” 9 April 2010. 12 October 2020. https://danitorres.typepad.com/workinprogress/2010/04/blindness-by-jorge-luis-borges.html.
Stachowiak, Julie. “Bee Sting Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis.” 16 January 2020. https://www.verywellhealth.com/bee-venom-therapy-for-ms-244048
“Wild Bees Make Honeybees Better Pollinators.” Science Daily. 24 September 2006. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/09/060921201850.htm.
Woodside, Christine. Libertarians on the Prarie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books. New York: Arcade, 2017.