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What’s a Matatana? Just Look at My Dominican Abuelita

I recently turned 29, the last year in the chapter of my life labeled my twenties, and I’m finding myself grieving and rebirthing. This isn’t unusual for me during my birthday. I was born on November 2, which in some Latine cultures marks the closing of Día de Muertos, a time when we welcome back the souls of our deceased relatives for a brief reunion and celebration. Each year around my birthday, I feel a shift happen, a sort of thinning of the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds. If I am feeling brave, I ask the universe, my ancestors, and my abuelita questions that have been diligently at the back of my mind. And when I listen intently, I receive their counsel.
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As a new mom, I have many questions and worries. Oftentimes, I find myself reminiscing about my pre-mom life as well as the friendships and lovers I can no longer pour into in the same way. At first, I felt guilty looking nostalgically at the past, but then I was reminded that reflection is necessary for maintaining the lessons from our prior harvests. It is in the history of our own seasons that we learn to yield more bountiful crops in our bright future. My abuelita taught me this. 
Whenever I am in this season of shedding and rebirth, I turn to my abuelita for reaffirmation. My maternal grandmother has always been a fierce example of love personified. At 74 years old, she has lived many lives with several great loves and multiple hard losses. This is why I call her the OG matatana. 

"A matatana is a powerful woman who takes charge of her own life, lives bravely, sheds her own skin, and makes room for rebirth."

Melania Luisa Marte
According to my Dominican family, a matatana is a powerful woman who takes charge of her own life, lives bravely, sheds her own skin, and makes room for rebirth. When I think of the archetypes of resilient, headstrong, and confident women, I always think of my grandmothers. Although matriarchs are often seen as domineering and judgmental, it is because of their nurturing spirits that they are able to pour into their families, friendships, and community. Matatanas love to love, and because of this, they have experienced great loss. 
There is a phrase my grandmother often tells me when we sit in her garden watching the plants sway to the celestial dance of the breeze: “To continue to grow, we must not be afraid to die,” she says. It reminds me that shedding is proof of life. 
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My grandmother has had to heal her own wounds many times. She has had to bury a baby, a mother, a brother, two sisters, and her beloved husband. During each passing, she was swept away by depression that knocked her off balance and shook her spirit. But she returned to a new version of herself each time, brought back by the love of all those dear to her that she has been intent on remaining close to in their afterlife
She reminds me of these spiritual connections every time I bring up the death of my father. Recently, I mentioned to her that I have spent two-thirds of my life grieving his death and that I fear I may forget my childhood memories with him. She responded gently, “the heart will always remember.”

"Matatanas love to love, and because of this, they have experienced great loss." 

MELANIA LUISA MARTE
She would know. After the passing of my grandfather, my grandmother spent her first year releasing the memories of what his last days on this earth were like. Still sometimes she brings up what she remembers of the pain he was in as the cancer began to eat away at him. Her voice shakes each time. She says he is in a better place, and I believe her. I admire her certainty for that which she can see and that which she can only feel. I hope to one day get to be so sure of myself and my life. 
Sometimes, I ask her about her dating and love life. She always laughs. My grandmother has been a matatana all her life. She loved and lived freely. As a young woman of the '60s, this behavior was frowned upon. But that didn’t stop her. All four of her children have different fathers. Abuelita tells me that she did not waste time staying with partners when love had left the room. She tells me that her bones would warn her when it was time to go. The truth, she says, is that our souls need room to grow into exactly who we are meant to be. I believe her. 
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I once had a lover who complained I never wrote him love poems. When the relationship ended, I wrote a poem inspired by the lessons I wish he had learned. Like my abuelita, I wrote about bones, using them as a metaphor for our bodies’ constant evolution and evidence that we have lived. Our bones, our skin, our heart, and every cell in our body evolves with the constellations of our existence. In the poem, I write, “We are born with 270 bones at birth. The total decreases to 206 with the stroke of time, which means I will lose about 64 bones that will melt into me. If I live as long as my grandmothers, I’ll maybe even lose the same number of lovers.” I reference how toxic love — love that wants to shrink and control you — isn't real love at all; it isn't pure. 

"Loving deeply is never a mistake because it is our biggest super power."

MELANIA LUISA MARTE
My grandmother tells me often that you shouldn't love with fear in your heart and that you also should not chase love as if it were a game you wish to win. Maybe love isn't a winning game. Maybe love just is; it’s the reason we are and will continue to be. And if you love, you will lose. But the loss is proof of your win, proof that you were brave enough to experience the full breadth of your unique singular life that connects like a web to all those that felt love because of you. It is in that infinite loop of interconnectedness that love is reborn. In grief, we can learn to love intently, with our spirits and bodies present.
As I trail past my twenties and dance energetically into the beginning of my thirties, I am feeling like a matatana — a brave woman who is holding the lessons the past has taught me near and dear. Loving deeply is never a mistake because it is our biggest super power. Leading with our heart allows us to make space for groundbreaking connections and expressions. With our hearts open and grounded, we continue to manifest the purest form of self-healing. And in our thoughtfulness for ourselves, we can replicate that affirmation to our communities that we are all deserving of love and the grace needed to heal. 
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