Saturday, January 27, 2007

Los fantasmas

Her great-grandmother was a medium, not in terms of her size, which was diminutive, but in terms of her ability to communicate with the dead. Doña Carmelita was famous in her small mountain town and people came from all over the island to ask her to communicate with some long-lost loved one. "Does he remember me?" they'd want Doña Carmelita to inquire for them. "Does she know where abuela's gold necklace can be found?" These were the questions that people wanted asked and answered, and Doña Carmelita obliged, never charging a single brown penny for her efforts. Still, people paid in kind, with a plump tan hen ready for a good asopao de pollo or with a gigantic green racimo de plátanos that would yield tasty fried tostones or amarillos en dulce for weeks to come

It was no surprise, then, that she, the great-granddaughter of a medium, could see dead people. Not in the Hollywood rendition of this event where the dead come and speak for some ulterior motive and create all kinds of havoc, but in the real magical sense of her island culture in which the dead just come and go, usually never saying anything, but becoming as much a part of life as the usual dreams and nightmares that populate people's sleep. She knew she wasn't sleeping when she saw the dead, though, because her eyes were wide open and although she spoke to them, they never responded. But they were just like Hollywood portrayed them: fuzzy transparent images, still discernible even in their gossamer-like existence. The dead only looked at her for a while and vanished, or glided on by as if they were on their way somewhere else.

As she grew older and learned about psychology, she figured that as long as she was functional and the dead didn't give her instructions to go kill or maim someone, she was alright. Only her parents knew that she saw dead people and they were largely unconcerned, trusting that it was not so much the symptom of mental illness as the legacy of the many bloods - African, Corsican, French, Italian, Spanish, Irish - who murmured their stories through her veins. On both sides of the family, after all, there were countless stories of what the dead had revealed to a relative in a dream or of the messages brought by a visitation.

Undeterred, the dead even followed her when, at age sixteen, she left her warm green island and went off to college to the cold white winters of the Northeast. It was in college, actually, that she figured out what was going on. In doing research for her honors thesis, which she was writing on the African influences on Cuban and Puerto Rican poets, she read a book about santería, the religious practice that mixes Catholic and African beliefs. The book had a detailed description of the visiones that the santeros have in which they see everything from a sword-wielding deity astride a magnificent black horse to eerie images of future happiness or grief. "Well, that must be it," she thought, somewhat relieved.

Among her Puerto Rican friends, she became known as La bruja because of her uncanny – especially to her – abilities, which she couldn't explain. There was the time when she saw an acquaintance walking out of the health clinic one evening and she conjured the thought that the girl had been raped. When she mentioned this to her friend, who knew the girl, Susana looked at her with spooked eyes. "How did you know?!" Susana exclaimed. "I didn't, I just supposed," she said, almost apologetically. "But why would you suppose that just from seeing her walk out of the health clinic? She was raped a week ago and only told me about it," Susana confessed.

Or the other time when she was having lunch with a friend at a student hangout. Roberto was facing the door and seated across from her as she began chattering about the previous night's dream. "So I dreamed of Alberto, you know. That he came back, that he was with us and we were having a great time. Where do you figure he's gone to? It's been, what? More than a year now, right? That we haven't seen or heard from him?" she chattered on until she noticed that her friend's face had paled. "What is it? Are you alright?" But Roberto didn't answer because his eyes were wide and fixed behind her. Something in their brown irises, something that shimmered like fright, made her turn around. Alberto, with his American girlfriend, had just walked into the restaurant and was greeting other friends a few tables away.

Or the other time when she was hanging out in a friend's room at night and decided to return to hers when it was already close to midnight. They had been idly listening to music, reading, and discussing every possible thing and nothing at all, the way college students can do, which never repeats after you leave college. She got up from the comfy chair to leave when a premonition of impending evil assaulted her with the force of an unexpected wave and made her sit down again. "I can't go," she said, while Felix looked at her questioningly. "You're going to think this is weird but I feel there's something evil out there. That something bad is going to happen to me if I leave now." That was all she could say to explain herself.

At that very moment, as if to give credence to her words, as if to convince a skeptical Felix that she was not inventing things, something or someone outside scratched at the door with that seemed like gigantic claws. Felix stared at her, and she stared back, throat closed, mouth dry, and skin prickled with goose bumps. Both of them wondered simultaneously how this could be happening. No one had overheard their conversation so no one could be playing a prank on them. And if they were, it was an odd prank, indeed. Felix rushed to the door to look through the peephole and shook his head at her, letting her know that there was nothing to be seen on the other side. He looked at her and she nodded and he pulled the door open and there was nothing, no one, nada outside. Without exchanging a single word, they both ran downstairs into the street, hoping to see a common friend laughing, running away, pleased with her or his idea of scaring them shitless. But there was nothing, no one, nada.

She actually never found out what that had been all about. They asked all their friends and no one ever came forward and confessed. She returned safely to her room that night, escorted by a determined, if scared Felix. She still tells the tale occasionally, on ghost story nights, when she can add the turn-of-the-screw comment: "And this really happened to me."

But the dead did leave one day and never returned. That was when she was so ill that she was close to death herself, closer than she knew until a surgeon told her as much. Throughout her long illness and after the disease was bested, the dead didn't seek her out. "They knew you were close to joining them," her father once said in explanation, "and they decided to leave you in peace." That is as good a reason as any she can think of and, truth be told, she can't very well miss the two little boys in blue parkas, one black-haired and one blonde, who looked at her from the foot of her bed, or the old man who stood in a corner of the room, straw hat on his head, in white shirt and overalls, staring at her.

What she still lacks, but doesn't need, is an explanation. Because, even in the harshest light of day, that time around three o'clock when the sun hits the Caribbean in late August, seemingly wanting to roast everyone who feels its pale-angry heat, or in the darkest night when a velvet blackness crawls the heavens to shade the islands in a cloak of mysterious indigo, this story remains forever, and essentially, true.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Magellan and the squirrels

Magellan came by her name the old-fashioned way. She earned it.

A few years ago, while I was silently battling a painful and chronic illness, I also was teaching World History at an English-language high school in Puerto Rico. On that particular day, I arrived at school feeling quite ill and weak, wondering why I hadn't stayed home rather than battle the consabidos tapones and parking woes that characterize daily life in my small and busy island.

As I walked with slow and measured steps into the school building, I saw some maintenance workers removing two tiny kittens from underneath the central air-conditioning system. They placed them in a box and were taking them away.

"Where are you taking the kittens?" I asked, curious.

"We're putting them out in the dumpster," one of them said matter-of-factly.

"No, you're not," I said with a verve I didn't really have in me. "I'll take the kittens this afternoon when I get out of class. If you can place the box in the maintenance room, I'll pick it up later."

That school day, like most days in that unfortunate year, went by in a blur of work and pain, and soon I was done and ready to collect the box and the kittens. I called my husband and told him what I was bringing home. To his eternal credit, he didn't argue or object. He wasn't much of a pet person but he had generously accepted my two old cats, Nube and Lawrence, as part and parcel of our marriage many years before. Lawrence had died that year at age eighteen, but Nube was still her queenly self, if skinny and aged, at nineteen. He'd later also accepted the addition of two rescued street dogs, both of which had been in bad shape when we got them.

Once I arrived home, we decided to take the kittens to the vet because they looked very small and weak. Dr. Trujillo, a young veterinarian who had recently opened his private practice at walking distance from our small and squarish cement house, said the kittens were only a few weeks old and not yet weaned.

"The mother must have abandoned them," he said after examining the pair. "The black one, the male, has to be put down. He's too anemic to survive. The other one might make it, though"

The other one, a worm-bellied miniature copy of a seal-point Siamese, with gummy and cloudy blue eyes, was anemic and near-death, too. But she kept climbing out of the shoe box in which we'd taken them to Trujillo and trying to explore her surroundings.

"She's something else," the vet said. "She's probably as sick as her brother, but she's still going strong. I could probably find someone to adopt her, if you want to leave her with me."

I gave my husband a pleading look and he knew the kitten was ours to keep. I wasn't about to give up on a creature who, pretty much like me, was struggling against illness and bad odds out of the sheer will to live.

"Magellan," I said. "We'll name her Magellan after the guy who circumnavigated the Earth."

I had just taught my tenth-grade students the story of the man who braved bad weather, hunger and death itself to attempt what no one had done before. His crew, hungry and lacking provisions, would boil their leather correas and drink the broth off their belts. That, I thought after I read about Ferdinand Magellan, is truly a will to live.

Unlike her namesake, however, Magellan cheated death and went on to live a long and happy life with us. When we brought her home, she was no bigger than the TV remote. Now, far from the island of her birth, Magellan likes to sit in front of an upstairs window looking out into the cold Ohio winter days. There, she has daily stare-down contests with the gray squirrels, who like to leave their footprints in the snow and thumb their noses at the gorgeous, seal-point Siamese-looking Puerto Rican cat, who glares at and disdains them with her Caribbean-blue eyes.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

El abuelo y la abuela

In Puerto Rico, where the tacky fat man known as Santa Clós arrived shortly after the American invasion, and where he today embodies the strident commercialization of Christmas, the legend of the Three Kings still provides a magical respite.

The Three Wise Men, one of them an African, all of them richly robed and attired, and mounted on the most beautiful horses, are carved into wooden figures by Puerto Rican artesanos with the same reverence with which they carve the images of the saints into painted wood artesanías.

As a child, my abuelo and abuela transformed every Día de los Reyes, Jan. 6, into a magical day. We went to their simple square cement house in Río Piedras on the eve of Three Kings to pick tall grass, the pasto, that we would place carefully in shoe boxes and place on their living room floor. This, my grandparents said, would be the food that would nourish the tired horses while the wise men distributed presents around the room to all of us eleven grandchildren.

"Abuelo," I said with characteristic skepticism, "I don't believe the horses can come through your porch into the living room to eat this grass."

"Well, mi'ja, just wait until the morning and you'll see," he answered patiently.

He then walked me to the front gate and had me look up at the sky where Orion's belt, three tiny, shiny stars in a canvas of dark indigo, was all aglitter.

"Those are the Three Kings and you can see how close they are to Earth now. Tomorrow they'll be here, and then they will go back home," abuelo said.

We would leave their house and go to ours, barely sleep with excitement, and get up to rush my parents to take us to abuelo's and abuela's house. Once there I would rush to the living room to find the shoe boxes empty and clear signs that horses had clopped-clopped tiredly over the gray tiles of the floor.

I was struck with wonder, which lasted a lot longer than any interest I ever had for the ugly fat guy in the tacky red suit and a bag full of loot.

How I loved looking at those three glittery stars and imagining the horses traveling through the sky. Even today, so many years later, I cannot help but feel my heart swell with pleasure and glee when I see Orion's belt twinkling and shining on a cold January night.

A Spik at Harvard

I didn't know I was a Spik until I got to Harvard and an Anglo freshman demanded to see my ID while I was chatting in Spanish with some Puerto Rican friends in a common room in the freshman quad at the college.

We had a meeting there of the Puerto Rican student organization, La Organización or LaO, for short, and we were waiting for others. It was a first-year dorm, so the student in the common room was a freshman, who had been sitting quietly and reading in a large and comfy armchair when we arrived.

We weren't being loud or obnoxious, as we well could be, so I was shocked when he got up, took several decided steps toward me, and demanded to see my ID. I turned toward him, vaguely amused that he had approached me, the only woman in the room (my two other friends were big Puerto Rican men) and the only one who was less than five feet tall.

"Why do you want to see my ID?" I asked in English.

"Because you obviously don't belong here," he retorted, annoyed. "Show me your ID or I'll call the police."

At first, I couldn't believe what was happening. Unlike most Puerto Ricans, I don't show much of my African ancestry (except for my black, curly and willful hair) so that my skin is fair ("strawberries and cream" someone said once to my dismay) and freckled (the requinto of a great-great grandmother who came to Puerto Rico from Ireland).

Thus, it wasn't because I "looked" Puerto Rican that this uptight Anglo kid was harassing me: it was because by speaking Spanish and by sounding Puerto Rican, I wasn't American enough, in his mind, to be at Harvard legitimately.

I eyed him with all the disdain I could muster and hissed: "Call the police, you stupid freshman. I'll show them my ID and then you'll feel as ridiculous as you are."

He hesitated for a moment and then stormed out of the room but not before yelling at me: "You fucking Spik!"

That was my first encounter with the word Spik (a racist remark used by Anglos against Latinos who can't "speak" English) and my initiation into the culture of racism and discrimination upon which this "America," this country that appropriated the name of two entire continents, is founded.

Back then I felt like he had slapped me, like he had confirmed what I knew all along: that I didn't belong at Harvard. Truth be told, I always felt like an outsider there. I actually perfected the art of living as an outsider there.

After my years in college, and after living so many years in the States, I've gotten used to being an outsider. It's part of who I am, of who I became by virtue of leaving Puerto Rico to live here.

That day, more than twenty years ago, I found out I was a Spik at Harvard. Now, more than twenty years after, I am still a Spik wherever I go. But now it's not something I would ever be ashamed of. Today, it's a badge of pride and survivance.