Matú Feliciano is an elder. She knows it, claims it, understands it. The weight of it, the mass, the influence - the experience has power.
We live in a society that is phobic about the aging process - an age where “older” women are praised only when they look “younger.” The lost spirit and the forgotten homage and powerful dignity of those two syllables, elder, in the instant that Feliciano utters them, is remembered. Though she’s a born nurturer, she demands and commands respect. She’s not gonna let anyone disregard her. I can sense that.
Feliciano is an Oakland resident and a lifelong advocate of women’s issues, gay liberation, Puerto Rican independence and worldwide human dignity.
“All of the islands that have been colonized by the United States should stand together and say, ‘Hey! You can’t afford us anyway! Give us back our land.’ That’s it. And walk away, and go about your business. Let them run their own people. America is in too many places. The greed and the power of imperialism is so strong in this country,” she said.
Feliciano worked with Ma Revolution, La Gente, the Inez Garcia defense and the food system of the 1970s. She is a musician, a drummer. She studied acupuncture and was a member of the National Acupuncture Detox Association. She traveled to Native American reservations and helped people there gain control of their lives, through the use of acupuncture.
She‘s also been on the lesbian scene long enough to see ... long enough to keep from getting caught up.
“The women’s community is set up to become sick," Feliciano said. "You have pockets of people that don’t know how to think. Those are the people that get damaged the most. But the ones that know how to think, and re-think what they’re doing, they grow. There are those who see it and those who don’t. You have to accept that. Each generation has that same thing happening. It doesn’t change.
“You can bring people to the water, but it doesn’t mean they’re gonna drink it. You can provide opportunities, workshops, talks and get-togethers. But it doesn’t mean everybody is going to do it.
“You can’t just rise up and be disappointed that nobody is rising up with you. You have to build people. People have to build themselves inside. And you have to have compassion for other people. If you don’t have compassion, you’re not gonna do nothing! Except go out and buy some sneakers and sh--. Stuff that doesn’t mean anything. All of that is a diversion, to keep people away from doing the right thing.”
Here is the part of the story that I was trying to avoid. It was not in the first cut. I met Feliciano through Facebook. (That's not the embarrassing part. You are all on Facebook, don't lie.) Though I didn't know her and had never met her, Feliciano popped up and commented when I was, how shall I say … showing my ass. My status was raging. It does that sometimes.
Feliciano saw something else though. She felt what I was going through, because she'd been through it. She listened, asked me to express myself. She got it.
Feliciano was born in the South Bronx, in New York City, where she spent most of her childhood. She learned to play drums by listening to records, to the radio, to other drummers.
“Back then you couldn’t find a lesson. From anybody. There were no schools. If your family was musicians, you were a musician. My father was a musician, so we were musicians.
“We used to drum in the schoolyard in the summer. You could hear it from 10 blocks away. You brought your drum and went towards the sound of the drum. If you didn’t have a drum, you brought whatever you had. A pot, a box, sticks … whatever you had. If you didn’t have, you didn’t complain, you just found something. Banged on that.”
Feliciano played with BeBe K’Roche in the 1970s. She recorded with them for Olivia Records. She’s drummed on the street in Venice Beach, in Puerto Rico, in the Bronx and with her own band, Rumba Mezclao. Feliciano is featured in the award-winning documentary, "Butch Mystique" by Debra Wilson. She contributed to the soundtrack for Women’s Power, a film by Max Dashu.
“Matú is a master drummer who grew up with the music in New York, immersed in la rumba,” said Dashu. “Back in 1976, she created space for women conga drummers: Matú and Sandy Ajida and Butch went up to Sproul Plaza and showed their chops. There was an all-male drum circle there every weekend, until these women came in, who could really play. So they opened that up.”
Feliciano is also a mentor. She has provided space and opportunity for young people to self-reflect.
“Somebody mentored me. I believe in giving back. I had good mentors when I was young, guys in the Bronx. They didn’t try and rape me or molest me, they were genuinely interested in my well being," Feliciano said. "There’s a principle about mentoring. You don’t touch young people, you don’t try to seduce them. You don’t use that position that you have to violate that person."
Feliciano's mother, Juana, was a mentor and was raised by a mentor. Juana, despite having 10 children of her own, took in kids that needed more care. Juana was born in Honduras and was sold into labor and brought to New York in the early 1900s. A Puerto Rican friend’s mother helped her escape her enslavement, then took her in. Feliciano’s father, also Puerto Rican, met Juana through this family. Until Feliciano was 24, she thought her mother was Puerto Rican. “Ma! What part of the island are you from?”
“What island?” Juana answered.
Feliciano laughed when she told me about this. When I expressed surprise, she reminded me, "Ten kids."
Feliciano is emotionally generous. That's the best way I can describe it. But she isn't playing around.
“I think that (I don’t know if they’re gonna like this) butches need mentoring," Feliciano said. "They are acting out of male thinking and attitudes - that’s not what a butch is. If you want to imitate somebody, imitate a man that has some goodness. Stop imitating these people that drag women around by their hair and beat them up and treat them like they’re objects. I can’t believe that it's happening in the women’s community, but it is.
“I used to mentor young butch women. I had meetings at my house on Fridays. We played games, dominos and talked about women. I didn’t allow them to put their women down, to talk about bitches and all that. We were meeting because we wanted to strengthen our relationships. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but we would discuss issues. All of the women who came to those sessions have grown up, and they came out all right, they are thinking right."
Feliciano’s life is full, multi-faceted. I am in awe of all that she's done. It’s just that I value her even more for who she is. Recognize … Matú Feliciano is an elder. She’s a vibrant strength in a world of moral weakness. She’s an eternally loving force in a society of instantly gratified hatred.
She is a soft respite, on a planet of hard knocks.