I wrote this story sometime last year in response to a prompt about a map and the best trip we ever had. On occasion, I pull it out and tweak it a little. With protests occurring all over the world in support of the people of Puerto Rico, I decided to share it again.
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I’ve ended up where I needed to be.” Douglas Adams.
On a jet plane
One summer as soon as school was out, I found myself on an international flight sitting next to my little brother; with my mom and the twins across the aisle. We were headed from JFK to San Juan. It was the late 1960’s; it was the year my paternal grandfather died two days before my thirteenth birthday. His death was unexpected. I don’t remember him, and I don’t think he ever met the twins. My father didn’t join us on this trip; he had been there in the winter for the funeral. When my father returned, he and my mother started planning this trip for us to spend the summer on the Island.
I was in Puerto Rico as a toddler when our parents returned to start a business. Their venture didn’t work out, but my brother was born there, and as soon as they thought he was old enough to travel, we returned to the mainland to start over again. I’ve seen the photos, but I’ve no memory of being there.
I don’t know if it was my grandfather’s sudden death that created the urgency for my parents then. I expect that while he was there, my father noticed that the Island was rapidly changing, moving beyond his treasured memories. The facts were that every one my parents knew back home was getting older, and we were growing up without them. Things were shifting all over the world, and after so many years, it seemed like it was time to get us over there to meet the rest of the family.
I was apprehensive about this trip. I had a lot going on at thirteen. I had been thrust into a different world the summer before, and I was finally starting to get my bearings. I preferred to be ready for what was coming, but all I knew about Puerto Rico were the anecdotes of people and places that my parents remembered; history lessons tainted with nostalgia. Whenever we got together with my aunts, uncles, and older cousins, they would repeat the same stories of the “good old days.” The trip had always been one of those things that seemed more like a warning from my parents “we’ll go someday,” but now we were actually on our way. “Puerto Rico is a beautiful place!” they said. “You will love it; wait and see.”
In my American History class, all I learned was that Puerto Rico was an island that Spain gave to the United States when they lost the Spanish-American War. Since I grew up in the era before Google, I spent many afternoons at my local public library researching for the trip. The little information that was available to me was exciting but unsettling none the less. I found out the Island sat on one of the corners of the Bermuda Triangle, and there was huge radio satellite telescope somewhere in the mountains, actively trying to contact life on other planets! As a nerd, I didn’t think it was a coincidence, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
I knew from my parents that they were born American citizens. I learned that Puerto Rico became a United States territory in 1898, and the people were granted United States citizenship one month before we, entered World War I in 1917. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Compulsory Military Service Act two months later. Puerto Ricans have been serving in the military ever since, and there were several military bases opened on the Island. That explained why we were “Americans” even though Puerto Rico was not a state.
Who are we?
Adolescence is a time when we are all trying to figure out who we are and where we are going. Things were a bit complicated for me as I started the process of growing up. When relocated to this neighborhood, one of the first things my parents told us before we moved in was that we could only speak Spanish inside our apartment. Understandably that raised a lot of questions for me. At home, conversations flowed easily from one language to the other. I had never given it a second thought. Some of my new friends also spoke different languages at home. It was a blue-collar neighborhood of first and second-generation immigrants. Some kids even spoke two languages in addition to English. Joey spoke Lebanese and French; Barbara spoke Ukrainian and Polish, Anna spoke Italian. What was wrong with Spanish? Should I be ashamed to be able to speak Spanish?
Since I was the oldest, my parents explained that to get this apartment in a “better neighborhood,” my dad had lied and told the landlord that we were Italian. One of his friends from work, who was Italian, had a sister who was married to a Cuban who worked with real estate rentals. That was networking in the ’60s. I remembered going to the office and minding my siblings as we sat quietly waiting for the adults to finish meeting with the agent. As it turns out, all these grown-ups had decided that it was best to tell Mrs. Mary DeVito a little white lie until she got to know us better. Should I be ashamed to be Puerto Rican in this neighborhood?
We are a light-skinned bunch with “good” hair, and my mother had green eyes. We were able to pull it off – we “passed.” The Fair Housing Act was signed in 1968. In my Current Events class, we touched on the Civil Rights Movement that rocked the country at the time; we saw it on the news. One time driving back from my aunt’s house, we saw the multitude marching, but I didn’t make the connection to what was happening to us. When my parents thought it was safe to do so, they told Mrs. DeVito the truth. We went on to live there for many more years as Puerto Ricans (African/European/Taino.)
What a beach!
As our plane approached the Island, I began to feel excited. My siblings and I strained to catch a glimpse through the tiny windows. Maybe this trip wasn’t a bad idea, after all. The colors were the first thing that amazed me. From the sky, we could see the vibrant greens and soft browns of the mountains with ribbons of rivers running through them. We could see the crystal clear turquoise waters and sandy beaches like refined white sugar. There were no boardwalks and no amusement park rides. It was just palm trees, sand, and water. It was breathtaking. The pastel-colored houses and buildings in the cities looked festive from our birds-eye-view. I remembered when my aunt visited us a few years before; she was so disappointed to see the beaches in New York. “You call this a beach? You have to come and see what a real beach looks like.” She laughed. Now I understood what she was talking about. This was a paradise compared to Manhattan Beach, Brighten Beach, and Coney Island. I decided then; I was going to enjoy this adventure.
My mother’s youngest sister, Rosita, still lived at home with her parents. She took time off from work to show us around. Our first day-trip was to the beach, of course. I couldn’t get over how clear and warm the water was. The waves didn’t crash on shore; they gently rolled in and quietly rolled out. We didn’t need a beach umbrella; we had put our things between two palm trees and hung a hammock. To this day, Luquillo Beach is still my favorite, and my go-to mental place is a vision of effortlessly rocking in that hammock and listening to the rhythmic sounds of that beach. On our way home, my aunt took us to the thatch-covered eateries that lined the road by the beach. We each tried something different Rellenos-de-papas, (deep-fried meat-filled potato balls), alcapurias de jueyes (mashed green plantain ovals filled with crab meat), and meat-filled turnovers, to name a few. We were in heaven! Everything was delicious.
Spaceships in the mountains
Our next outing was to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the United States. My aunt said that many people believed spaceships regularly landed on the very top of this mountain. I told her about my research, and she promised to take us to Arecibo to see the Observatory in a few days. I was not worried anymore. If beings from another planet had chosen this place, they were OK by me. We spent the rest of the day exploring the trails and the waterfalls. Before we left, we swam in one of the pools that form along the river as it flows down to meet the sea. I had never been swimming in the river! The water was cold and cloudy after it rained. I was concerned now about what creepy crawling things might be swimming there with us. Fortunately, I couldn’t see any. On the way back, we bought tropical fruit from a stand on the side of the road. They were terrific; juicy and sweet, just as our parents had told us.
During that summer, we traveled around with other aunts and older cousins visiting many beautiful places. We crisscrossed the Island at least a couple of times. There are plenty of travel sites and tourist magazines that talk about the natural wonders of Puerto Rico, but my story is not about the tangible but about perception and self-discovery. It’s about a young girl confronting the unknown to find her truth.
Who are these people?
As we got to know family and friends across the Island, I began to see Puerto Rico different from the images I had formed in my head. We visited my paternal grandmother on her farm just outside of town. We were told that her small farm was a remnant of a large plantation that had been in her mother’s family since Spanish colonial times. From old photos, we recognized her thin figure wearing a black headscarf and dressed in mourning gray. She was waiting for us on her small porch as we drove up the long gravel road to her house. Her eyes, black as coal, glistened as she greeted us. Her skin wrinkled and tempered by the sun felt leathery on my cheek. She was a woman of little words, but she quickly went in to get something for us to eat. We had fresh bread and homemade white cheese from the two cows she kept for that very purpose. We had refreshing tropical drinks from her fruit trees, and of course, the smell of fresh coffee filled the air. As the grown-ups talked, we were encouraged to go outside and explore the farm, but I didn’t know where to start everything was so bright, warm, and impressive.
Nearby, we met our uncle’s children. These cousins were kids our age; boys and girls who laughed and played like our friends in Brooklyn. They used dried palm tree shafts like sleds to go down the grassy hills in the countryside. They confidently ran right by the cows, pigs, and horses as we followed staring and walking cautiously slow, afraid that any sound or fast movement might call the animal’s attention to us. Our cousins shook their heads and laughed at us. I thought it was all fun and exciting.
In Brooklyn, I didn’t know any Puerto Ricans outside of my family. The ones I saw depicted in movies or on television did not reflect my reality. No one in my family had been to jail or belonged to gangs or sold drugs on the street corners. We went to work or school and church. My family in New York was made up of all hard-working folks, trying to survive all the challenges that came their way in this new land. They were printers, handymen, electricians, seamstress, and clerks. I didn’t know of any Puerto Ricans who were doctors or lawyers. In school, we didn’t learn about the artists, poets, musicians, songwriters, and authors.
Here while visiting extended family, we learned that both of my grandfathers had brothers who had been the Mayor of their respective hometown. Our great-grandfather had been a well-known “troubadour” in the region. Other family members were respected members of the community educators, laborers, merchants, and artists, to name a few. It was a life I had seen on TV, but here the characters were real, and they were Puerto Rican!
For the love of art, music, and literature
I was glad my entire family took turns to take us to museums to show us the stories of our people. We saw folk dancers demonstrating the variety of cultural influences from Europe and Africa. We heard traditional music, played on instruments that originated on the Island. We got to listen to some of the Danzas, and ballads that were written by Spanish and Puerto Rican composers.
There was a Symphonic Orchestra! When I was assigned to my school’s strings orchestra the year before, I didn’t know which instrument to choose. I preempted a conversation with my mother by telling her that I didn’t want to play a squeaky violin. I loved the more profound, soulful sound of the cello but was afraid that for cultural reasons, she would think the cello was not an instrument for young ladies and would balk at the idea. To my surprise, she told me that there was a Spaniard that played the cello and lived in Puerto Rico. I was glad to hear it. I chose the cello. Although I never got to see Pablo Casals perform in person, it was great learning about him and knowing he was there in Puerto Rico. I was fascinated to hear about the Pablo Casals Festival established on the Island; maybe next time I visited, I would get to go.
Heart of the matter
I fell in love with Old San Juan and the “fort” that protected it, El Morro (Castillo San Felipe del Morro) where I could look out to open sea and get lost in all the wonder. I felt the strong winds that seemed to gather there, and it filled me with boundless enthusiasm for this adventure and the future. To this day, I can’t find quite find the words to describe what I felt.
Despite necessary modern upgrades, the city was still picturesque and quaint; something that one would see in Europe. It was old Spanish Colonial architecture painted in pastels with cobblestone streets. I imagined the aristocratic senoritas from Spain walking with parasols and chaperones to the Plaza on a Sunday afternoon.
I was amazed at all the cultural richness that I found in this tiny place. By the end of the day, I was absorbed entirely in all of it. I wanted to twirl on the lawn of El Morro and dance down the narrow streets of the Old City like a character in a Roger’s and Hammerstein musical. Picture Julie Andrews as Maria Von Trapp singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music”; now transform the image to a brown-eyed girl singing Le lo lai, and Hector Lavoe’s “Que Cante Mi Gente” while strumming a guiro in her hands. Suddenly I understood why my parents loved to sing “En mi Viejo San Juan” whenever they had a chance. From this day forward, I would sing along with them.
A new me
When school started again, I was excited to share this marvelous adventure with my friends. My aunts had given me books and souvenirs that told our story, the story of my people. I brought these things to school on the first day. My friends were not interested, not even the pictures of cute Puerto Rican pop stars from la Discoteca Pepsi made them look. They were still in seventh and eighth grade, and the world didn’t matter much beyond the pretty boys in the next class.
It hurt my feelings at first, but no one could take away what I had learned that summer. I wrote about my experience in my English class and had a piece published in the school yearbook. I argued with my history teacher and told him whatever he was teaching had nothing to do with me. We talked after class, and he became one of my favorite teachers. It was in his class that I learned to paraphrase George Santayana’s philosophy that if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. I Aced his class. That year in my Orchestra class, I played my cello as if I was playing a solo at the Pablo Casals Festival in San Juan.
The new me was glad we made that trip, and Puerto Rico continued in my dreams for a long time.
“…y asi le grito al villano. Yo seria borincano aunque naciera en la luna.” Juan Antonio Corretjer