Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: That's been one of the hardest things to really heal from. Has been the grief of knowing that my choices and the way that I live my life, which I love, means that I am isolated from my community.
Helga Davis: What is identity? A name, gender, culture, a job? Webster's Dictionary defines identity as the fact of being who or what a person or thing is. I'm Helga Davis. Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz is a radio producer, host, and one of the founding members of On Being with Krista Tippett. During our conversation, Liliana and I grappled with the idea of identity and its many intersections. We spoke about her relationship to faith, to her work, and to herself. This is my conversation with Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz. Oh, wow. Hi.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: Hi.
Helga Davis: I was thinking about you this morning. Well, I've been thinking about you for longer than this morning. I was thinking about you for this particular reason. One of my rituals is to go out and walk every morning, whatever time I wake up. Usually I have to wait for a bit of sun because we don't know who's outside all the time.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: Very true. It's a reality for all of us who identify as women. It's so true.
Helga Davis: I usually wait till there's a bit of sun, I get dressed and I go. I began to walk and I got to the park, but the whole way really, the wind, you cannot imagine the wind. I'm not a person, I don't listen to the weather before I go outside. I don't want all that information. I want the experience. I don't want that app that tells you when the bus is coming. I want my experience with time, with the world, and with myself to be a thing.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: You want to be present.
Helga Davis: I want to be present. What it meant for me was that I actually had to brace myself against a parked car, and it was so fascinating to see all the people hanging on to bags, to telephones, to hats, to wigs, to the hands of children.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: I'm picturing like a storybook with all these pages of all the people holding on to themselves and each other.
Helga Davis: It was the kids who, as usual, had the lesson. I remembered this Toni Morrison quote, "If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it." I watched this little kid unzip her jacket, and she pried her hand away from her dad's hand and she opened her arms to the wind.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: That's so beautiful. Wow.
Helga Davis: It's such a huge lesson and such a huge metaphor for how I want to be in what I do.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: I'm so glad you were able to witness that.
Helga Davis: I'm asking you to share with me a moment of surrender for you.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: I grew up in a very conservative Christian family. My dad is a evangelical pastor. I don't know if that's how he would call himself to be honest, but now being older and having been an adult in the United States, I realized that really it's evangelical Christianity that we're talking about. He influenced that journey of faith for me so much and the way in which I grew up. It took a long time for me to come to understand what my own definition of spirituality was, and what does God mean to me, and what are the things that I value in a relationship with God? So many questions.
What came to my mind when you were talking, Helga, about that moment of surrender was something that will seem so silly to many people, but was a real moment of surrendering to my definition of faith. I was a sophomore in college and I had discovered in high school the music of Bruce Springsteen, and had become just such a devoted fan of his. He had just released the album, The Rising, after September 11. He was doing this epic tour, which people had described as being this real space of healing. So much of it I think was the intention behind that album and the songs that he wrote.
I knew I need to go to my first Bruce show and it has to be during this tour. I saved up all my money, and a girlfriend of mine whose mother loves Bruce was like, "We'll do it." We showed up there thinking that everything was fine and they're like, "Oh, yes, your tickets aren't valid. You have to get in line and get general admission tickets." I started sobbing. It's probably one of the most public displays of crying that I've ever done. It was so embarrassing, but I couldn't stop. My girlfriend was trying to comfort me, her mom was trying to comfort me. They were like, "It's going to be okay. We're going to figure this out. We're still going to see Bruce."
We get our general admission tickets, but he started playing while we were in line. Finally, we get in and he's playing Waitin' On A Sunny Day, which for anyone who knows that album, knows that song, that it's actually all about the sun coming through on a day that feels hopeless. We get up there and we walk all the way up to join the general admission crowd and I started praying. I said, "God, this is embarrassing. This needs to stop. Just help me to stop crying so that I can just be present and enjoy what I've been looking forward to for six years."
As soon as I did, I feel a tap on my shoulder. A gentleman is there next to me. At first, as a woman, I was freaked out. I'm like, "What's going on?" Then this guy says, "Do you want to get closer?" He holds out his wrist and he has Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band paraphernalia, and he has this whole thing on his chest. He has all the official tour labels. Turns out that he's part of their crew, and he has been tasked by Bruce to bring people from way, way back and bring them to the front. I had read about this for years, that Bruce would always do this, but I never thought it would be me. Sure enough, he brought us all the way downstairs to right in front of the stage.
Whereas I'll never forget Bruce is sliding down as we walk up that stage, and then I'm standing in front of Clarence Clemons playing the saxophone. I think the reason that that moment represents what you were describing is that it was the first time that I thought, "Oh, my definition of faith matters. I do have a connection to God. It's okay that it doesn't look like everyone else's, and it's okay that it may not even be my parents' faith, but this is me and this is important." It was that kind of affirmation that I was looking for, that if I just believe in that and let it go, it's going to be answered.
Helga Davis: It's not a small thing.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: I know. Isn't it funny when I look back on that, I know now that it's not a small thing. At the time, I was embarrassed. That's the thing, the memory, the feeling that comes to my memory is like such embarrassment for crying for that. That is not a person that I normally am.
Helga Davis: Describe a little bit the person you normally are, or the way you see yourself?
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: I've been thinking about this a lot. One of the things I've been noticing is it's really hard for me to cry alone. One of the places that I go to to cry is actually the movie theaters. I think so much of that is because I grew up in a family where we didn't talk about hard things, we didn't demonstrate emotion. I think that as a little girl I always grew up thinking that feelings were something that I had to hold internally inside. Moments of crying in public, that's just something you don't do. As I started to get older and then go into the professional world, that's also what I saw.
Not only modeled from the women that I admired and mentored me, but that's what I was told. To be a woman in a male-dominated workplace, not only that, but to be a Latina, there's a way in which you have to show up in professional. Professional always meant no feelings. Like when I worked in a newsroom, you go to the bathroom and you cry by yourself. You don't bring that into the workplace because people will judge you and they'll think less of you. I think that this pandemic has shown me how deeply I've internalized that. Checking the box of Latino, it felt like someone was taking something from me.
I have to say, I have the privilege and luxury of being a white Latina. I go into spaces and people don't even know that I'm an immigrant, that I'm Colombian, all these things. I know the privilege that my Black and brown Latinx friends don't have with that. Yet every time I would check that box, I felt like you don't get to own that part of me, that's mine. I don't feel comfortable with you using my identity as part of your demographic. That was just my reaction when I was really young. Now part of how I feel is almost like there are parts of me that I want to share at work and there are parts of me that I don't.
The idea of bringing my whole self to work, to me feels dangerous. I think a big part of it, too, is that I want to choose who I share all of me with. Work has never been that place for me. Work has always been, how can I be of service and how can I get shit done? The whole of me, I reserve for the people that I feel safe with. The people that I feel have earned it and that I can be vulnerable with, and not have to worry because we love each other and that's always present. I just feel like that's such a big ask of a workplace. I have a question for you that I've been dying to ask you, but I don't want to derail you.
Helga Davis: No, come.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: I actually think it was either in the Jacqueline Woods or maybe it was the Elizabeth Alexander conversation. You mentioned in one of them being really cognizant of the young person in you. You were so precise in a way that was so helpful for me in representing a feeling and really saying that's the young in me, or that's the young person in me. It almost felt like you were carrying the little girl in you into that moment. I just was like, "I want to hear more about that." It can be really hard, particularly if you've had a difficult childhood, to bring your young self into any moment. Now that you're an adult, there's a part of me that constantly is like, "No, not going to think about it. Not going to go there. We're here now."
Helga Davis: That right there is actually the issue. In that place, I think where we push away these parts of ourselves, we run into trouble because there's a reason that they're presenting themselves in a particular moment. I spent a lot of time alone because my brothers were so much older, and my mom, who I still think of her as a nurse even though she's been retired for so many years, wasn't a nurse then, she was going to nursing school. I was on my own a lot. That meant, too, that there was this huge space for my imagination.
When I think about being a young person, a young Helga, I think about someone whose imagination is active, and alive, and present in a very particular way, and that that young person didn't learn to need other people for her comfort, for her pleasure, and for her curiosity. She also was very lonely and very angry for being left alone and feeling alone, and didn't have many people around who recognized her.
That's one of my mother's famous quotes about me. She said she looked at me and she said, "What kind of a child is this?" She didn't recognize me. I didn't fall into the way she imagined a daughter, or a two-year-old, or a four-year-old. Part of my healing, I think, is to stay in touch with her, and let her know that I see her, that I respect her, that I love her, and that I'm willing to allow her out to play.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: I love the way you said that. I'm realizing that now, and realizing the importance of not just bringing my little girl self into the moment, but also in playing with her. I love the way you said that, and in really loving her. I relate to so much of what you said. As you were saying what your mother said about you, I was like, "Oh, my mother said the same thing, except in Spanish."
Helga Davis: How do you say it in Spanish?
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: [Spanish language] Where did you come from?
Helga Davis: That's your language, but in your body, in the experience of yourself, and you hear that in Spanish. If you don't laugh, what do you feel?
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: If I don't laugh, I cry all the time. The relationship with my mother has been one that has been so informative for me as an adult. As a child, it was incredibly difficult. What you were describing about loneliness is so true. I was lucky enough to have a brother who, although he is five years older, he was everything to me, he really parented me, yet he was five years older. He was having a different experience of our family and of life.
He came to this country a lot older than I was. I came in right about a year before entering kindergarten, but I was right in to the school system. He came in already being educated in Colombia and missing his neighborhood, his friends, his community. His struggle was really, really deep and profound in acclimating to the United States. He was going through his own stuff. I learned to turn to books. Books were my imagination, as you were describing. They were my family. They were my friends. I would go into a book and lose myself.
That was one of the things that my mother would always be like, "Oh my God, another book? You're just constantly reading. What's going on?" She could never get me away from reading books. It was like that door in Narnia. It was like I was able to open up that closet and go into an entirely different world.
Helga Davis: What do you think, if you can remember, your relationship with God was at that time?
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: Very much parental. He was a parent to me. I would pray to him as if I was talking to my mother or my father, or I should say the mother and father that I didn't have. For me, I think that's one of the reasons why I'll always have faith. The language is Christianity just because that's what I've been raised in. Jesus feels really familiar to me. I was lucky enough to have parents who really saw Jesus as a radical, not quite a communist, but kind of. It was a very different view of Jesus in particular.
Helga Davis: Can you say a little bit about what that was, what the definition was, what your understanding was?
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: I think my parents converted to Protestant Christianity in the '70s in Colombia and on a college campus through an organization that was American, actually, Campus Crusade for Christ, which is, to my understanding, I think it's on a lot of college campuses in the US. At the time, they had sent these Spanish-speaking missionaries to the university that my parents were in in Medellín. They were both Catholic. They grew up Catholic.
My dad famously tells a story that the week that he encountered these folks and ultimately became born again, was the same week that he was going to be a leader in the Marxist party there in the student Marxist party. He says that what he saw at the time was that the Marxist party that he was joining was just as corrupt as the Catholic church that he had been a part of. He saw in these folks who were preaching a different form of Jesus and a different form Christianity, what he actually idealized in Marxism, which was an equality for all people. Jesus as a radical figure for those who suffer.
I think that that's really what they raised me and my brother in, was this idea of Jesus as provider, as a sanctuary, as a person who fights for justice, and was such a radical figure in his time. That separation of Jesus from God was always really present to me. When I prayed, I prayed to God, and it was always God as father. It was always God as provider and that parental figure. He was a loving God in my mind as a child. I never hesitated to pray.
I prayed all the time because it felt like I was going to a parent that loved me and that I could turn to without fear, without really fearing punishment, to be honest, more than anything else. That I could just talk to about DNAing things without being told that they were stupid or silly or whatever diminishing additive you want to put in. My relationship with God was a really deep friendship with a parent.
Helga Davis: Wow. I didn't have that. You still feel that?
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: No.
Helga Davis: Oh, no? That actually makes me sad, because you lost something or someone that was really important to you.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: I think instead of lost, what I would say, it changed. I think my needs changed. What I needed as a child was a parent, a loving parental figure. What I now have as an adult, I feel is a partner. When I pray now, I pray as if I'm praying to a partner who's right there next to me.
Helga Davis: I see. Okay.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: It feels like a constant presence, but it's no longer a presence that's needed out of suffering actually. I grew up in a church that was filled with women who served, but it was very clear that the message was that they served men.
Helga Davis: Were you aware of any gay people or--
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: There was one man who there were jokes made about him, and there was one gentleman who never married. When I got older, my mom did tell me when I was a teenager that he chose not to be gay because it's a choice. I didn't really understand what that meant at the time. I've had to do a lot of healing over this. I really still carry shame over believing that, believing that it was a choice. That gentleman, I think about him often because I hope he had a life that he was able to enjoy outside of the church he was part of. I really hope that he had a secret life that was filled with love or he could be who he was because the church that he was a part of didn't accept him and he couldn't be that person.
I have also been so angry at Christianity [laughs] for so long. The Christianity that I grew up in for making me feel less than as a woman, for making me believe that lie of what homosexuality is or isn't. I've had to do a lot of real healing around it to realize that that's not mine and I don't want any part of it. Then also understanding, because it's so deeply embedded in my parents and who they are, that it means that I will be rejecting them and I will be isolated from them as a result.
That's been one of the hardest things to really heal from, has been the grief of knowing that my choices and the way that I live my life, which I love, means that I am isolated from my community, the community I grew up in. It's this constant reminder that the decisions I've made have meant that I've rejected them and the pain that comes from that, too.
Helga Davis: In our life, we leave home many times. If we continue to grow and be curious and make lives that are truly ours, we have to leave home over and over again.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: Home for me is people, the people that I love. I will say Minnesota has been such an important home for me. Growing up in Miami, I was part of the majority. Spanish-speaking immigrants are the majority there. I didn't ever know that that was not the way that the rest of the US was. I just really didn't have an idea until I left after college and went to DC first for an internship at NPR and then went to New York, that that wasn't the case.
Even then, there were so many people from other countries in those cities that it didn't actually hit me until moving here, where the majority was white Americans, who were Scandinavian, German descent and had a very different way of being. It's been such a place of learning and growth for me because of the fact that I had to really confront my own whiteness, what it means to be a white Colombian, something that-- my parents don't even have the language. They have a language for every other color, they got no language for white.
I think there's something about Minneapolis in particular, which is where I live. There's such an openness to the people here. People just, when they love something, they love it deeply. They support it financially. There's such a sense of community here. That's one of the reasons why when George Floyd was murdered, you felt the community grieving. It was everyone. I feel very proud to call this home in a way that, I'll be honest, I never felt about Miami. [laughs] I also just didn't ever fit in there.
I think the redefinition of my identity has been really helpful to me in my work because it has made me more open to learning. I think this has been such a awakening for me of feeling in a lot of ways closer to my Colombian heritage and family than I had when I lived in Miami literally surrounded by Colombians. [laughs]
Helga Davis: You just said something about calling yourself, naming yourself, and your identity. Before, when I would listen to the On Being credits, you were Lily Percy. It's different and I think beautiful to come to this conversation and meet Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz. Talk a little bit about your different names.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: I think using my real name, my full name Liliana Maria, is actually probably as close as somebody get to bring my whole self to work. [laughs] It was something that happened here. I'm not going to lie, it happened largely in anger. A reaction in anger, reaction to white Minnesotans assuming I was a white Minnesotan, because Lily Percy is not a Latin American name. Even though my documents here say Liliana Maria Percy, but when I was a little girl, one of my teachers started calling me Lily and I never questioned it.
I've actually asked my brother and he said, "Yes, one day you just came home and you're like, hey, they're calling me Lily." I was like, "All right." "Then we just went with it and then you just became Lily." What I would do was save my real name for Spanish speakers. I would always introduce myself to someone who was from Latin America, who spoke Spanish, as Liliana Maria. Then for English speakers, I would say Lily. What I realized I was doing was keeping these two identities separate.
I'll never forget my girlfriend Rose, who's a Black queer woman from Mississippi. She said, "I don't think you like white people because you keep being so angry about Minnesotans thinking that you're one of them and that you're white. Also, do you know that you're white?" [laughs] I was like, "Oh, shit, yes. I guess yes. I didn't think about this way." There were all these realizations happening here that were really in reaction to feeling a loss of my identity, of not feeling like my being a Colombian, my feeling a Latina was present.
I talked to Krista and I said, "How would you feel about me using my full name?" She was very supportive and she said, "Of course, of course. That's really amazing that you've decided to do that." I think what's happened for me at work is that it's allowed me to feel like I don't have to keep the Latina, the Colombian part of me outside. I can bring that and that it's safe to do that. It's okay to do that, and I do that on my own terms. I do think it's also what's allowed me to name my whiteness. All of this reflection has allowed me to say, "Yes, I'm an immigrant, yes, I'm Latina, but I am white in this country and I'm white in Colombia."
I feel like being here and using my name gave me permission to start asking all of those questions about myself, about my identity. It felt so vulnerable and it still does. It's funny you mentioned the credits because one of my colleagues here said, "Do you want to update the credits because I still say Lily Percy?" I said to him, and I still feel this way, "I'm not ready yet." It still feels like it's too much to let it into the workplace in that way. [laughs] It's interesting. I don't know why. It just does.
Helga Davis: Well, if you're Lily Percy, you still get to be white.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: Oh, I never thought of it that way. That's so interesting, Helga. I never thought of it that way. In my mind, I thought it's because I still have those I don't want to be used, tokenized in any way, and be part of a demographic, but I've never thought of it the way that you just framed it. Wow. This makes me want to change my name right now.
Helga Davis: It brings up stuff for me, too, that you get to choose.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: Oh yes. You're so right.
Helga Davis: That there's so much privilege in that.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: There is, yes. Thank you for saying that. I wish I could give you a hug.
Helga Davis: You know what? I wouldn't let you, because in part what happens when we hug, then there's something about you seeing the effect of that on me without trying to fix it, without trying to make me or yourself-
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: Feel better.
Helga Davis: -feel better, is where the medicine is. Liliana Maria, muchas gracias and mucho cariño.
Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz: Gracias caria. Thank you.
Helga Davis: That was my conversation with Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz. I'm Helga Davis. If you want more of these conversations, subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts. Give us a rating and share with a friend, and don't forget to follow me @hel.gadavis on Instagram. Helga: The Armory Conversations is a co-production of WNYC Studios and Park Avenue Armory. The show is produced by Krystal Hawes-Dressler with help from Darian Suggs and myself. Our technical producer is Sapir Rosenblatt. Original music by Meshell Ndegeocello and Jason Moran. Special thanks to Alex Ambrose. Avery Willis Hoffman is our executive producer. Citi and Bloomberg Philanthropies are the Armory's 2021 season sponsors. Now, The Coda.
My parents are from the West Indies. When they came here, they had to go to England first because their islands are British colonies. She met Helga from Hamburg in London. She promised Helga that she would name her first daughter Helga, and so I'm Helga. Then there's all the fun of being called Helga because when people say Helga, no one is ever looking for me.
What's interesting about the show being called Helga is that I was in one of those rooms where there was that board with the markers, and there were lots of names on that board. Finally, towards the end of the meeting, someone said, "Well, at the end of the day, we could just call it Helga." I had to really pay attention to my body. That is the thing that makes sense to me. That I can get behind. That I can defend in any room to anyone in any conversation.