It has been a while since i have last posted a blog. There are two reasons for this hiatus. It is certainly not because I don't have stories to share. First, I am currently moving the site from Weebly to another platform and have been working to edit and add content. This has been a slow process as I am probably trying to add too much. Second, I post pictures to the Instagram account and articles to the Facebook page and it is easier to keep it brief than posting my thoughts here. Puerto Rico has undergone so much change since September of 2017, physically, politically, intellectually, and emotionally. Once the new site is up, the website followers will be informed for test-run and then this site will redirect to the new one. There, I will continue to post blogs. Until then...
Last March, my Abuela decided her extended stay in the states was over and she wanted to go back to Puerto Rico no matter what. So reluctantly, my mother and I hopped on a plane and took her back to Cidra. Upon landing, the electricity was out in the airport. At the baggage claim we bumped into a friend from home and wished each other well on the adventure into the unknown. The sides of the road were littered with scattered debris: palm fronds in piles, trunks precariously horizontal against two stumps on the side of a mountain, wires dangling in in the air high above the autopista. Just as we came around the bend near Caguas, my playlist hit Almost Like Praying and my eyes welled up as I took a deep breath. All those months waiting for news and worrying what the new landscape would be. But there we were. The island was still there, a little bare, a little tattered but there were signs of rebirth all around. Buds on trees, shoots growing on tree stumps... And now one could see homes that were previously hidden behind the flora.
The air was fresh and delicious with scents of mangos and hibiscus while the people were cautiously optimistic while telling stories of the struggle to return to normal. In my abuela's house there was only electricity in the bathroom and luckily there was an electric socket and the her neighbor brought over a long extension cord. We connected one small lamp and put it on the dining room table. We had a dull light that spread into the bedrooms, enough to climb into bed to be serenaded by the symphony of the coquís. After a night of laughter and café con leche, it was all we needed. I only wish my daughter had been with us to complete the quartet of mothers and daughters we had been when my abuela was with us in the states.
It's been many months since my trip and things are still not quite back to as they were and I suspect that Puerto Rico won't ever quite be the same. Whether that's positive or negative remains to be seen and will probably be debated for a generation. As for now, esperanza is what I keep in my heart for Puerto Rico to emerge from the darkness and create a light that shines brighter than ever.
In this awful time in Puerto Rico's history, beauty came from tragedy. Manolo Ramos wrote and recorded this ode to his island and it has been calming to my soul. I hope you find inspiration from it as well. I will post a link at the bottom. Here are the lyrics:
Abriendo camino voy pa casa
pa encontrarme con lo poquito que quedo
con el pecho lleno de esperanza
y el machete que maria no se llevo
pongo mi islita en tus manos señor
y que el miedo se vuelva valor
pa que mi tierra no se caiga
abriendo camino entre estos palos
me tropece con un vecino y me conto
que ayer hablaba con otro vecino
ahora somos 3 amigos y es mejor
pongo mi gente en tus manos señor
y que la lluvia no me llegue al colchón
pa que mi niño no se se asuste
Lo que el viento no se lleva
es mi bandera y mi canción,nuestro guerrero corazón ya ves
Lo que el viento no se lleva
es la certeza de saber que somos mas fuertes que ayer
Lo que el viento no se lleva
es este nuevo amanecer, son los guerreros de mi patria boriquen
Abriendo camino entre este fango
ahora me acuerdo de tantas cosas que ignore
y hoy como un loco las extraño
pero a mi nada me robara la fe
Pongo mi angustia en tus manos señor
secame el llanto y alivia el dolor
que mi familia sienta calma
Yo Yo amo a mi tierra y quiero respirar si sol su paz
sueño que mis hijos regresen a la tierra de papa,
regresen a la tierra de papa
Ay sangria...one of the many special gifts Spain gave to the world. Most people never think about the name of their favorite summer drink of red wine prickled with the flavors of oranges, plums and nectarines. But I can't help but think of the name every time I I take a sip and the flavors enter my mouth. Sangria - of the blood, of course referring to the deep color of the Rioja. Yet, without the oranges, plums or nectarines, it is just wine. The fruit must sit over night and let its juices seep out and integrate with the fermented grapes to create the new creation... distinct in flavor from whence it came yet the flavor of the grapes, the wine, is inescapable.
My love for the summer drink aside, the very concept of sangria...of the blood... reminds me of my Puerto Rican DNA. I have traced both sides of my family back to the turn of the 19th century with ancestors born in the late 1700s. To my utter surprise, every single ancestor I have found was born in Puerto Rico. Not one of the 50+ ancestors on the furthest branches of my tree was born off the island. I find it so amazing that in the year 1800, there were only 155,426 people living in Puerto Rico and my ancestors were among them. I often find that people from the Caribbean islands are eager to find ancestors who immigrated from somewhere traceable. I admit, I thought that is where my research would take me also. But no, my roots run deep into the montañas, below the sugarcane, below the sand. My ancestors came long long ago on ships, some on deck, some in chains to meet the others already living in Borinken - never knowing they would create an entirely new culture, an entirely new group of people with mixed blood, mixed genes - a beautiful people - distinct from whence they came. My sangria has a deep red wine base from shores of España with a mezcla of flavor from Italy, Ireland, Africa, France, Borinken, and the Middle East. My genes have been swirling around the island for hundreds of years creating this new, distinct sabor that is way more satisfying. What began as sweet Spanish wine became a jubilant, refreshing sangria with a character unlike any other.
"The quality of a father can be seen in the goals, dreams and aspirations he sets not only for himself, but for his family." - Reed Markham
I sent the above to my papi this morning. It certainly hold true for my father. His family is EVERYTHING. He remains calm in a firestorm, he holds steadfast when everyone is wavering and he is fastidious in his correspondence. He welcomes family from near and far into his home for a night, a weekend, a vacation and in the 80's even turned the basement into an apartment for family to come to study and live. It occurs to me that a man learns how to prioritize goals and create dreams from his father.
This leads me think about my ancestors. I spend so much time researching my past of men... fathers, grandfathers I'll never meet. I'm left to imagine what they were like... what were their goals, dreams, aspirations? As I look on the census in my family in the 1900s most often it lists agricultor. Yet there is something unsatisfying about seeing that. Men who worked the land, cut the cane, picked the platanos - I wonder, did they have big plans? Did they imagine life outside of the island? They were after all the descendants of explorers, maybe conquistadors, at the least, they were adventurers who sailed across the ocean to another land far from what they knew. But were they plunderers looking for fortune? Were they simple men looking for land for their families? I know some were slaves, yanked from their homes probably always yearning for the family they lost. I know some were Tainos wondering what their future would be as these intruders came ashore. Yes, a genealogist wonders these things.
I can only be satisfied that the generations begat my grandpa who was dedicated to providing for and encouraging his children to succeed and loving his grandchildren. He gave me my father who has been the most amazing... with goals, dreams, and aspirations for not only himself but his family which includes his grandson who looks up to him with unwavering admiration and respect. I may not ever know the men of the past but I am blessed to see the present as it is being passed to the future.
When I was a little girl, a few times a year, my mom would get hands on some pasteles from the island. She would unpack them from the box and pull them out excitedly. Wrapped up like little presents for your senses in wax paper and a simple string bow. She would then place them carefully in her pressure cooker, close the top and warn me to STAY AWAY... if I got too close it could burst and burn my face off. (Well at least that's what came to mind from her warnings.) I can still remember the sound of the cap bristling from side to side and the whistling of the condensing steam seeping out. And so I did. I stayed away but I also stayed away from those pasteles. To think back on all I missed by avoiding that pressure cooker makes me wince a little bit.
Puerto Rico now is that pressure cooker. The pot of boiling water is full and so so many are backing out of the kitchen. Puerto Ricans are leaving their homes and cars and family to fly to the mainland United States to find jobs that pay a good living wage and schools for their children. For all the years that Puerto Rico has belonged to the US, people have been flying back and forth with some who stay and many who return to live, to retire or just for summer vacation. But with the older, land-owning generations dying, businesses and the military leaving the island and jobs along with it - it seems that many are no longer going back. On the streets of Bayamón so many vacant houses sit...paint peeling, driveways crumbling, weeds overgrowing the shuttered metal window shades. Medical professionals are leaving for better pay and opportunities, college students are leaving to American universities and staying... the island is sitting, waiting for something to happen. My heart hurts watching my cousins leave and begin new lives in Florida, Texas, Massachusetts while their mothers worry on Facebook missing their grandchildren, wondering how their family disappeared. The issues plaguing the island are many and the politics of it can be heated, the solutions are not simple yet I feel a sense of responsibility to those who are sticking it out, those who are in for the long haul, and those who are choosing to stay until their end because that is their home, their land. I'm still figuring out what it is I can do, how I can support the island in its time of crisis. This time, although I hear the whistle of the pressure cooker, I feel called to go in with no fear but of what I might miss if I ignore what's inside.
Oh how I love the 12 days of Christmas. No, not because my true love is going to give me 12 drummers drumming but because the Three Kings arrive! While Santa Claus is long gone taking his winter’s nap perhaps, in my home, the tree is still lit each night and the holiday spirit continues until January 6. During my childhood, my mother abandoned the tradition of attending church on Nochebuena and waiting until Three Kings Day to give presents. As grateful as I am that the jolly old elf in the red suit didn’t skip my house on December 25, I was always excited to leave grass and carrots outside for the camels as Tres Reyes Magos came to visit me every year stuffing my stocking with small goodies and gifts. I continued this tradition with my own kids. They too left the grass and carrots outside our door when they were little. Always wondering how the camels traversed the sky. They, like I, loved to tell their friends about the gifts from their special holiday in which the 3 Kings travel the world to find all the Puerto Rican children. (That was my mom's and my story.) As an adult, I teach in the Latino community and the 3 Kings always come to visit and deliver books for our students. It is magical to see the children light up as the Reyes arrive. It is amazing to be able to celebrate this holiday as a community in the middle of a city that has no clue. I admit, I cringe as I see the valentine decorations at the Target just days after New Years because in my Puerto Rican family, we are still in the midst our 12 days of Christmas.
For at least 30 years I have been asking questions, jotting down notes, taking pictures, and listening to stories about my ancestors, about their neighbors, about the land, about Puerto Rico. I never imagined back in the 80's that my curiosity would ever be something that I'd share with the world. It never occurred to me that all the connections I was making in my mind after pouring over my notes was something that anyone else would be interested in. And the reality was, no one was...until the internet. This tool has been integral in being able to search deeper, to record better, to organize, but most importantly to share with others that also have that same curiosity and the same passion for making connections. So to all of you reading, I say "Mil gracias", a thousand thanks to you for being interested, for asking questions, for sharing your a-ha moments and discoveries with me! I love to read the messages you send through this website or through facebook. Every few weeks, I have a new last name to research or add because of your correspondence. So I hope you continue to send me ideas, questions and of course, names. :)
One week ago I was on the back of a pick-up that usually transports cows with my family traveling to what seemed like the tip of the earth. So high up that it seems like I could just reach out and touch the clouds that encircle El Yunque, Puerto Rico's amazing rainforest. There in Rio Abajo, Ceiba, (or was is Chupacallos as my iPhone indicated?) we spun around in awe, my children, my parents, and I. Amazed and mesmerized at the beauty of this remote spot that once held the scrappy wooden house that my Great-Grandmother, my Bisabuela Luisa raised her family, where my grandmother grew up walking down to small river to get water, carrying it back on her head...the place that my father spent the first three years of his life. It was an experience that will be etched in my mind and my heart forever. Although the house no longer stands its ghost was ever present in the space. For a brief moment we were all transported to another time full of the spirits of those who came before without whom we would not exist. It is experiences like this that make this ancestry journey come to life and create new quests for more information. The view will take the breath away of anyone who sees it yet still I wonder how it is that my ancestors ever looked up from the shore and thought it was a good idea to travel to the tip of of the mountain through the thickets of trees and vegetation to make a home just below the clouds.
In 1929, my grandfather was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He was known by so many names over the course of his life: Jose, Quique, Jimmy, Pop, Papa... His life was so complicated; full of loss and sorrow yet blessed...even when he didn't recognize it. I was his only grandchild for 23 years. We didn't speak much for the last few years of his life because I couldn't reconcile how I felt about who he was and choices he made. Now that I am almost 40 I wish I could sit with him one more time and tell him that I forgive him because I just never understood why he was so very very sad. He died in 2009 with 3 children, 4 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren. It wasn't until that last year that he really realized what he had created by giving life - a family.
At the age of 7, Quique lost his brother to a rusty nail in the campo. Not long after, he lost his mother to breast cancer. He was 14. He was shuffled around ended up with an aunt in Las Marias. Eventually summoned to Manhattan at the age of 15 by his father who had left to find work in el norte. He left his beloved orphaned siblings behind. In New York he washed dishes in Mid-town and became Jimmy with his light skin and acquired his soft Spanish New York accent. He met and married my grandmother, baptized my mother and was shipped off to fight a war in Korea by the age of 21. Always a stranger in a new land. Upon his return from the war, his love for rum among other things had already gripped him...it wrapped his sorrow of years of loss. After 1964, he only saw his daughters when they came to visit for the summer from their new home in Puerto Rico. That lasted until I was born. My mother, newly married, moved back to the States, not far from New York. I grew up loving to walk around New York with my Papa. He would tease me, tell stories and jokes and make me laugh. He loved to eat in Little Italy and stare at the skyline of New York. He spoke too loudly and used words that made me furious. He detested just about everyone but loved a party. Nights at his house always ended with music and dancing and his laments. Eventually, as my eyes drooped, the rum would take over his stories and I could feel the sadness creep into my dreams with the melancholy in his voice. He'd play his favorite song over and over on the record player as I fell asleep...
"But it's a rainy night in Georgia, baby, it's a rainy night in Georgia I
Feel it's rainin' all over the world, kinda lonely now And it's rainin' all over the World
Oh, have you ever been lonely, people?
And you feel that it was rainin' all over this man's world"
My bisabuelo (great-grandfather) Leonardo known as Don Leo, lived a long life... about 100 years give or take. I was 15 years old when he died. I remember going to his house in Ceiba next to the Texaco station (as seen in the picture above) with the sweet smell of mangoes that had fallen in his back yard. Everyone would gather on the balcon outside and spend hot summer days. He was missing a finger and would play that game with me that my dad also played: he would bend his finger and use his thumb to pretend his finger detached except Don Leo didn't actually have the other half. It was fascinating and weird at the same time. I don't remember how he lost it but I imagine it was with that machete he used every day, even into his old age, to go up to the campo in Rio Abajo, to cut sugar cane.
He was a tiny little guy but handsome as all get out. Golden tanned skin, most often with a hat covering his hairless head. I wish I had known him as a young man to tell me the stories of life in the montañas of Puerto Rico. Raising a family, living off the land beginning at a time when horses were the only mode of transportation until the time that his offspring flew back and forth to the United States. He was born a Spanish citizen and died and American having never left his island in the Caribbean. He watched the world so drastically change around him first from his hut on the side of a mountain road and then from his concrete house next to the American gas station.
He really was a caballero in every sense of the word; a gentle man who rode a horse, took care of his family, and always wore a shirt and slacks even in the hot island sun. He had so little but left so much: 9 children, 15 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, 9 great-great grandchildren and counting... This is the family in the picture below that I speak to every day and are such an important part of my life. Four generations removed from him and ever so grateful are we all.
I wait 360 for 5 days a year; the day before Thanksgiving until the Sunday after. These 5 days, my family gathers at my parents' house. The diaspora being what it is, we have become spread out in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan, and many remain in Puerto Rico. One can never be sure exactly who will be arrive because every year it's different. This year, all of my papi's sisters decided to come. This would be the first time they all came at the same time. It was also the first time that the extended family of siblings and cousins would be after my abuela's passing. There were so many hugs to give and memories to share. As my family always does, we also spent much time living in the present, giving thanks for the opportunity to be together and laugh and share each other's company. All 18 of us sleeping in blow up beds all over the house slept so soundly knowing we were together and knowing it would end soon. We ate, sang, drank, played games, took pictures, played instruments, ate again, told jokes, painted ornaments, drank coffee and ate some more. There was so much love and kindness shared that it seemed like a dream. We all know how blessed we are to have and enjoy each other but we do so by putting forth the effort and energy it takes to make these reunions happen. Everyone makes a little sacrifice for the good of the group. Amazing family I am a part of. <3
"Family is not an important thing. It's everything." ~ Michael J. Fox
My grandma, Abuela Tita is now at peace. She was blessed with 90 full years. She affected many lives and gave life to 3 generations that she lived and laughed with and loved. What a woman she was! She was born in Ceiba and traveled the world. She scolded me but made me laugh. She let me rummage through her closets and take her pictures. She made coffee with a sock and always had it ready with warm sweet bread and butter. She made chuletas that made my mouth water and she always got on a plane to Philly or Texas to be present with her family. She was pint-sized but so full of energy...like a firecracker. She always loved the rainstorms. She loved so hard, she gave so much. I am grateful to have her blood running through my veins. ❤
I made a photoshow last March for my abuela's 90th birthday. I wish I had been there to see her watch it. Living across the Atlantic...instead of an enchanted island...far away from my family made me learn to cherish photos...they were all I had as a little girl to feel close to them. Maybe it was my abuela's wall of photos in the dining room with the faces of her parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren watching as I ate on her white and pick China that gave me the notion that I could keep people present the same way. My father reminded me yesterday how being an army wife kept her far from her family too... Here are photos of her beloved family, the family that she created...
My abuela Tita celebrated her 90th birthday last March. She stands about 4'10" in her little tacos. She swears she was 5'2" when she married my grandfather in 1950. (yeah right!) She is quite adorable with her little feet at the bottom of her little legs adorned with her knee highs half way up her calf. Attached to her little round torso are her little arms that end with tiny hands and stubby little fingers. At the top of her head is her dyed-red hair that frames her round little speckled face and an amazing smile around her perfect set of teeth. The only thing big about Tita is her personality. Being a twin and an Army wife may have worn any other woman into becoming mild but not my grandma! I wonder what she would have been like in a classroom because she was a spitfire as an adult! She's bossy, opinionated and hilarious - cracking jokes in Spanish and English when you least expect it...sometimes way naughtier than you'd imagine would come out of this tiny lady's mouth. Her laugh is accompanied by a slap on her knee. She lives to talk - to her grown children gathered in her kitchen, her grandchildren who are visiting, to her neighbors through the porton, to her siblings on the phone, to herself in her mind when no one is around I imagine. She always knows a better way than you, no matter who you are and she always has a story to back it up. For way longer than she should have, she sat on a thick pillow and drove her Toyota back and forth to visit her siblings who she loves so dearly. She loves to sit and watch the rainstorms from her porch. She was born in the mountains of Puerto Rico and shlepped her five children all around the United States and Europe at a time when travel was difficult and always managed to buy a plate from each place to adorn her walls and remind her travels. She loves cooking for her six grandchildren and countless nieces and nephews, making café with a sock, and sitting on the floor with her eight little "stinkers" of great-grandchildren. She probably has so many stories she's never going to tell... I wish I was closer to her now. I don't talk to her as much I should. She's thousands of miles away, maybe nearing the end of her journey but her big presence is ever felt.
Results are in!!!!! Well...at least for one of the ladies tested. My abuela's test had a glitch with the sample so she is doing it again. My mother's however, did go through and it was a BIG surprise! My hope was that getting her results would help me narrow down the DNA already shown in my test results to distinguish which DNA came from my mother and father. Which it did. Even though both of them are from Puerto Rico, each side of my family has very different physical characteristics. They are also from different parts of the island so I knew the ethnicities would vary.
As I suspected, I could clearly see where her genes were passed on to me and make general assumptions about what my dad passed on to me. But that would have been boring and nothing in my life is ever boring. So instead of just telling me what I thought I knew, my mother's results added a totally new ethnicity into the mix! She apparently is 10% Irish! Imagine everyone's surprise. My results showed not even a hint at any Irish ancestry. That DNA wasn't passed down to me. Its one of the funny things about conception, all the genes are not split evenly 50/50. My mother was shocked and delighted (she has always loved St. Patrick's Day). As for fitting in with family lore, there had always been a curiosity around the light skin and blue eyes that speckle the Laboy family and now it seems there may be an explanation. My abuela's results are now the hot ticket!
When looking at physical characterisitcs it is always fascinating to see how a large nose or red hair, a birthmark or blue eyes will pop out in a generation far removed from the origination. My eyes are hazel, both my parents' brown, both of my abuela's green, and several of my bisabuelos had blue. Imagine my surprise when my son came out with stunning blue eyes. Genes are a funny thing indeed.