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Lares, Puerto Rico

Catholic church in Lares, Puerto Rico; this town built on a hill was the site of El Grito de Lares in 1868. My paternal grandparents were married in that same church.

I’ve been too busy building a new business to write a weekly blog. (More on the new business later.) But the equinox and the change of season make me pause and reflect on where I’ve been and how far I’ve come. Some things should always be remembered.

Today, 23rd of September, I fly back to 1868 and a call for freedom and independence that was deferred. It was deferred, but it was not forgotten.

I take my hat off to the people who still gather in Lares, Puerto Rico, to remember el Grito de Lares, a call for independence from Spain. An independence that never came. Nevertheless, that call and that dream has transformed our identity as Puerto Ricans and endured for the last 143 years.

See article in El Nuevo Dia: http://www.elnuevodia.com/elgritodelaresresisteelpasodeltiempo-1073996.html

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After 142 years of Puerto Rico’s Grito de Lares, a few hundred people on The Island got together to remember. Never mind that it was a small revolt against Spain to begin with. Never mind that the last five years have been brutal on the island. I have cousins who work 2-3 jobs just to make ends meet. Crime has reached into areas that we thought were safe. The census shows a decrease in population for the first time in decades — people with college degrees who had planned to stay (no one likes to leave their island and their extended families)  are now  migrating to Florida and Texas in record numbers. Who’s left to carry the torch?

Political disagreements aside, today the torch bearers said “here we are.” Their mere presence says “We still remember September 23, 1868. We remember the revolt, the confusion, and the courage of a few who faced the colonial government alone.”

The anniversary of El Grito de Lares gives us a chance to re-member, as in put a body back together. Each member is a piece of a big puzzle that will take generations to assemble. But we can start now by just remembering.

A Ñeca

 Desperté el cuatro de julio de un sueño muy largo.

 Tú me llevabas por Nueva York, por callejones de Spanish Harlem, por tus edificios, evitando gente peligrosa, saltando sobre escombros, vallas, construcciones de nunca acabar.

Entramos a un edificio a medio terminar, oscuro, tenebroso. Había gente sin autorización de estar allí. Un hombre dormía en el piso. El edificio olía a apocalipsis. Se escuchaban ruidos de máquinas y clamores extraños.

 Subimos unas escaleras blancas y anchas a tientas, sin saber si las luces estaban rotas o si era muy temprano para encerderlas. A mitad de camino, dijiste, Mira.

A través de las vallas de construcción había un ventanal.

Abajo en la bahía se veía la torre de un presidio.  

Más allá de la torre el mar se abría inescrutable.

Pero yo sabía que había algo más allá del mar.

El mar de este mundo terminaba en una isla. La isla del origen. La cueva de Aytí. Donde Iguanaboína recibió a tus ancestros y los míos. Allí era a dónde yo quería llevarte desde un principio. A levitar sobre el sumidero de mis tres pueblos que también son tuyos.  

Pero tú dijiste, No, esa isla es una leyenda. Déjame enseñarte la realidad.

Me arrastraste hasta el último peldaño de la escalera, me hiciste seguirte por un pasillo estrecho que terminaba en una oficina pequeña y sin ventanas. Me dijiste, Tengo que trabajar, busca algo que hacer.

Yo quería salir de aquel laberinto. Creí recordar el camino de regreso, pero me daba miedo ir sola. Tal vez nunca saldría de allí, pero había que intentarlo. No sabía qué hacer en caso de llegar a la calle. ¿Cómo regresar hasta la bahía, cómo volar sobre el océano que me separaba de mi origen? ¿Cómo volver al sumidero de karso, con su foresta circular, con su fuerza de agua subterránea que sigue fluyendo; con su magia misteriosa que el rey de la isla demuestra no entender cuando saca un dedo flaco y denuncia a los que estan “en maridaje con los ambientalistas.” Como si eso fuera una acusación. Tal vez para él, concubino de desarrolladores que quieren tapar el sumidero y construir otro condominio. Yo sé que esto es real y que el presidio es inventado, y los edificios a medio construir son de cartón.  Y la metrópolis toda es de cartón.

Con esa certeza, y a pesar del miedo, logré salir del edificio. Afuera ya era de noche. Pero las calles estaban repletas de gente que vino a ver los fuegos artificiales. Se oyen disparos y pirotecnias a la vez. No sé de qué bando estoy porque los bandos no me importan. Estos bandos no saben que existe un sumidero en una isla. Abro la boca para protestar tanta estupidez. Nadie me oye sobre el tumulto. Titubeo entre regresar al edificio oscuro o proseguir. Prosigo hasta la bahía sabiendo que no hay forma de cruzar el mar. El sumidero me llama. Desde lejos, como por internet, su círculo me muestra imágenes proyectadas sobre la neblina de su pantalla circular. Es una tumbadora gigante con un fino y silencioso cuero de neblina. Veo una democracia golpeada, policías asustados macaneando mujeres y estudiantes, jóvenes tirando piedras, pájaros tirándole a las escopetas. Escopetas teledirigidas apuntando a un hombre desarmado que se asoma a su puerta. Hormigueros bañado en sangre. Mujeres golpeadas por sus maridos, hijos asesinados por sus padres. Puntos peleados en Sabana Seca. Pérdidas vengadas en un río de sangre. Todo se ve en la pantalla circular del sumidero. Todo se ve. Todo se hunde. En silencio.  

Alguien me sostiene la cara para que mire.

Son la manitas de mi hija que me despiertan: “Happy Fourth of July, mami!”

Back to the beginning

…That was the year the Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men who bring gifts on the eve of Epiphany), left a book under her bed. It was big and colorful and it had a sturdy cover. The title was Héroes en Zapatillas (a 1974 Spanish translation of Varona and Olivar’s Eroi In Pantofole, Edizione Paoline, Roma, 1971). Every European hero from Aníbal to Ulises, and with the generous inclusion of Gengis Khan, was there in caricature form. No mention of women.  Still, the book provided hours of entertainment and later she would beg her mother to keep it for her when she went to college. (The book is still around for the granddaughter. It’s yellow, not as colorful, and the pages are coming off the unstitched spine. It will be a supplement to the heroine stories they’ll read.) 

By the time she was in eleventh grade, our girl barely recalled the details of the medical kit from Christmas Past. But she remembered the feeling. Everything started to come back to her as if in a tunnel when her guidance counselor refused to give her an SAT application.

“Una niña como tú debería quedarse aquí (en la isla) con su mamá y su papá.” (“A girl like you should stay here (on the island) with her mom and dad.”) He wanted me (you already knew it was me) to concentrate on taking the College Board exam and forget about the SAT. I guess La Academia (my parochial private school) was more interested in raising overall scores than in placing their students where they wanted to be. I switched high schools my senior year and chose not to graduate with my friends over this. I did great on the College Board, got into UPR Rio Piedras, and Sagrado Corazón just in case, then turned around and left for FSU. It wasn’t easy. No one wanted me to leave. Many said I wouldn’t make it past the first semester. Too young, too sheltered, too attached to family. I went around all objections. Found a friend who went to school at Fort Buchanan to get me an SAT application, took the test at her school without any help. Then I took things one step at a time. My parents saw how determined I was and rallied behind me. My whole family sacrificed a lot to send me to college. Every semester was a small miracle. Twenty-something years later, my life is a miracle. The doors that seem to close just lead me to better things than the ones I imagined for myself. And really, I have a lot of say on which doors close.

So, listen to your children. Pay special attention to the girls and take their dreams seriously. Don’t tell anyone, boy or girl, how to play –let them teach you how to play. And for the record, I don’t want to be a boy anymore. Life’s more interesting as a girl.

All this writing about cross-dressing female doctors from the 19th century got me thinking about another story. Habia una vez una niña que queria ser niño. She did not dislike herself, she just wanted to be more than what people told her she could be.

It started one Christmas morning when she was three. She tore open the last present to find a strange red box inside. It was plastic and it looked like a lunch box, only bigger and with a curved top. Inside the strange red box she found small white instruments. There was a long cord with a plastic cone at one end and two plugs on the other which her mother said went in her ears.  “To listen to your heart beating.” There was a thin plastic cylinder with some lines on it, to take your temperature.

Her grandfather offered himself as a patient and she eagerly went about the task of becoming a doctor. But after she had examined her patient and decided which small bottle contained the right medicine for him, grandfather said “you will be a good nurse someday.” The game suddenly stopped. She wanted to cry, but she didn’t know why. The lump in her throat turned into a yell as she threw the medical bag on the floor and said she didn’t want to play anymore. At three years of age she knew that if she couldn’t play doctor, the role she chose, there was no sense in playing the game at all.

Later, she played Zorro with her neighbor Jorge and with her younger sister. The long pods from the flamboyant tree (a royal poinciana) made good swords and sabres. She didn’t listen when she was told to take the old blankie off her neck. That made a good cape. Zorro made a good role model, for lack of any female ones. There was much jumping off tree stumps and swinging from torn clotheslines, unsheathed sword (pod) cutting a Z in the air. 

On January 6, 1978 she would have been nine…

(Second part.)