At the beginning of 2020, I was a 33-year-old writer with an award-winning book living in her childhood bedroom at her parents’ house. In 2019, I had called off my engagement, gotten rid of my secondhand IKEA furniture, packed up my dresses and cowboy boots and fluffy jackets, and moved back home to my mama and papa’s house in advance of my first book, Sabrina & Corina, being published. Debut writer isn’t exactly a steady-paying job, and I had no idea how I’d tour for the book and afford rent in a gentrified Denver, my home, the place where I’m from. Also, I was a little sad. I drove my silver Grand Prix around for months with an unworn David’s Bridal wedding dress billowing inside the trunk.
It worked well at first, living at home in the suburbs with my parents in their 60s. Throughout my life, I’ve desperately wanted one thing: a place to write, somewhere that is all my own. But I told myself that that would come in time. Plus, I wasn’t there much anyway. I was often on the road, giving readings, teaching workshops, visiting communities across America. In Fresno, I went to a museum of an underground compound, dug into the earth by an eccentric genius obsessed with citrus. In Miami, I rented a convertible Mustang and drove down the glistening Keys like I could afford a new car. That year, I hardly unpacked my bags. I said hello to my parents, tossed my suitcases into my bedroom, and carefully hung my sequined Virgen de Guadalupe jacket on a metal rack. I never wrote, and I met hundreds of readers and writers. I wondered if this was my new life.
But then travel ended, for us all.
The morning the national emergency was declared, I crept downstairs and asked my father what this meant for our family: seven adult children, two grandchildren, one more on the way, our elders more fragile by the second. Did we have enough food? Did we have medicines? Could we see each other anymore? He didn’t know. The only thing he said was, “Things change. You wouldn’t want it to stay the same forever, would you?”
I was afraid of our depression then, both my mother’s and mine. It was only a matter of time, but it came. Oh, how we fought, how I tried to control her, pleaded with her not to leave the house.
I had to get out, for us both, and my father too. But I had lost most of my income from speaking events and author visits. So at first, I stayed in a string of Airbnbs, the prices drastically dropped. The truth is, I’d never been able to afford a market-rate apartment in this new Denver, and I was filled with deep sadness and rage at seeing hundreds of apartments go up on Craigslist, fully furnished, short-term leases; pandemic-repurposed vacation rentals. I couldn’t believe how much real estate in the Denver metro area wasn’t used as long-term housing, but instead as cute places for travelers to stay the night. How could the city let this happen when so many had nowhere to live?
For generations, those with power and money told us nothing we had was worth anything. Then they bought it cheap and hiked up the price.
I’m from Denver; my whole family is. We’ve been here now for five generations, and before that, some of my ancestors had been in the greater southwest region since the beginning of time as we know it. My extended family has lost homes in Denver neighborhoods from divorces and reverse mortgages, bad luck, and gentrification. For generations, those with power and money told us nothing we had was worth anything. Then they bought it cheap and hiked up the price (I guess it’s only valuable when it belongs to them). They tried to take it all. Our neighborhoods, our skyline, our ability to maintain a center.
But I found a place, a studio right downtown in a neoclassical high-rise from 1910. My windows were painted shut and my view was of a brick wall with a tiny square of blue sky above multimillion-dollar glass condos, many of their lights gone black. And then, I was alone. No family to control, no mother to beg to stay inside, to stop making so many trips to the damn grocery store. I had no lover, no pets, and no one to hold. And so, I went for long walks in the city, marveling at the way the sun shined like lace on stone pillars. I stayed in a fine hotel, The Brown Palace, a lot like the place where my great-grandpa Alfonso had been a waiter for decades serving the rich. I ran into ghosts in the tunnels beneath Union Station. I watched as cranes continued heaping luxury apartments on top of one another, while down below, the downtown streets grew barren without office workers. I saw the remaining cavity of a civil war statue toppled before our capitol. And I watched from my block as protesters snaked throughout our city grid, demanding justice for Black men and women, those like our own Elijah McClain, his small body pumped with ketamine by police officers until they killed him. I saw the lawn across from our statehouse, where hundreds of houseless citizens had formed a community of tents before they were overpowered by city workers and thick-armed cops in black metal helmets and white paper masks. How they bulldozed and swept, dispersing and displacing, sending human beings into the streets and their possessions into dumpsters.
I saw the lawn across from our statehouse, where hundreds of houseless citizens had formed a community of tents
About a month ago, I took another walk. I had received some good news: A short story of mine was to be published. I wanted to reward myself with a fancy drink, something with tequila on a rooftop overlooking the city. I thought of an elegant hotel, a high-rise with 45 floors. But when I got there, the lobby windows were boarded up and the hotel was closed. I looked upward at the building’s glass metal edge, the way it faded into wintry clouds as if embracing the heavens. Miles of hotel rooms into the sky, their beds made and showers unused, and I ached to think as down below, on the freezing streets of Denver, tent cities lined our roadways as far as the eye could see.
A memory came to me then. I used to drink at a dive bar in my 20s. It was filled with weirdos and outcasts, young and old alike, a cross section of Denver’s humanity. When last call would hit, the white-haired bartender would stand from his little wooden chair and holler against the blinding lights, “Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn!” Together, we’d join him for the final refrain: “You ain’t gotta go home,” we’d shout, “but you can’t stay here.”
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