Thursday, August 2, 2007

Diaspora Travels: Querido Borinquen

I took a brief hiatus from the blog to take my first trip to one of my homelands: the island of Puerto Rico. And although I have been back for a few days, I have been putting off writing about my trip because I wasn't sure how. What can I say about my eight day stay on a resort where an 8 oz. steak (only the steak, no trimmings) costs $30, only to travel to a housing project in Carolina to visit my great aunt who lives in an apartment with her son the size of our hotel suite? Or the somewhat disconcerting mingling of palm trees, beautiful brown and white beaches, rainforests, mountains, McDonalds, Esso gas stations, and Simon Mall Americas? Or the feeling I felt when I first met my cousin Bea, or my cousin Ana, or my great aunt Nelli who started off our relationship by immediately hugging me soooooo tightly and breathing, “La Virgen te cuida y te bendiga” over and over into my ear.

My God/Dios Mio, I am completely in love with my family and half in love with that island and I've been there only once. Everything about it, all of its complexities, from the worldwide Salsa Congress at the Wyndham San Juan Hotel in Isla Verde to the fast-and-loose driving down Highway 3, to the mountains of Utuado that had our ears popping, to the damn lizards that were everywhere.

Even the class complexities: urban San Juan versus rural Utuado or Jayuya; towns of rust-stained shacks and roadside stands beneath billboards advertising “Rio Grande Beachfront Housing Starting in the $210,000s!”.

Even the race complexities, the color ladder that was obvious even at the resort where the managerial staff was all “white” except for one dark skinned woman that I could see, the hosts and middle management all ranged from coffee to tan to brown, but the cleaning staff was overwhelmingly DARK, black, African.

To the realization that my family's roots are more tendriled than I ever imagined: Taino heritage runs deep in my family, in Utuado, where they have been for generations and will continue to be. Deep. And like any family there is also that trace white ancestor--on my father's side its an Irish McNab. Come to find out, on my mother's side its a Spaniard. And he's only about five or six generations back.

To the “color Matos” on my mother's side. The beautiful deep brown that she's blessed with and subsequently passed on to me and my sister--with the help of an extra bit of melanin from her father, from my father.

To the surprise that my mother's family is a history of teachers. Not academics but teachers. Helpers. Now, some of that is likely the reality of the times--women in the U.S. and on the island were probably most likely to find employ as teachers until a few decades ago, maybe even a few years ago. Especially if the state/U.S. gov. during and post-Progressive era was doing the employ. But perhaps some is not, perhaps it is something else. It wasn't just the women and it isn't just in the past--three of Bea's children became teachers. One is currently a tenure-track biochem professor at Mount Holyoke.

There was/is nothing practical, pragmatic, plain-facts-historical about the feeling of connection that knowledge gave/gives me to that past. My history.

And after spending hours one night with my mother and grandma just talking, politicking, round-tabling, building (as my friend Spokes likes to call it)--and I knew that not just teachers, but scholars, organic intellectuals, politicians, activists, organizers, woman-warriors, all of that is my legacy.

From my grandmother organizing against building of high rise public housing in her neighborhood, to my mother railing against gentrification and the traditions of craftsmanship in housing construction that are being lost in an ethos of greed, to the life histories of organizing family (about 8 or 9 children a generation) that my great aunts told, children they each still ride herd over thus proving that it takes not just Dios, La Virgen, or other religious faith to keep a family takes work and it takes love. It was a woman-scholar-organizer ethos.

“La vida es mas dura,” Nelli said. And I knew when she said it, that she was a holy woman. That I was watching a priestess re-embodied, speaking to me across time. And that she was speaking from a wealth of woman-truth and woman-wisdom I couldn't possibly fathom, but that I need to desperately learn from before it is lost. “La vida es mas dura, es mas dura. Pero Dios nos cuida. La Virgen nos cuida.” And family, the family survives, lives on.

Teachers and fighters. Scholars-activists. Woman-warriors.


I think that is all I can say about it without sounding trite, over-dramatic, romantic, idealistic. I may sound that way already, but I am trying not to be. I recognize the colonialism, the racism, the classism, the machismo. But for me, there is also beauty that is tied up in the women and men, the color, the perseverance, the violent loyalty to familia, the concern for each other, for the island.

And a history so old, a sacred place so ancient I almost didn't feel it at first. It had to grow up in me through the wind, the aguadas, the highways and the graffiti, the starfruit we picked off our cousin's tree. And the yappy little dogs we saw everywhere. Men riding horses along the highway. The mountains that have seen it all, my God/Dios mio what those mountains have probably seen (TainogenocidesugarAfricanslaverymaroonsSpanishdogsandAmericanships). Taco Bells and KFCs like a scar across the landscape....

Puerto Rico is silver-dark beautiful with a cerulean core where the heart and the ghosts dwell.

That ancient and subtlehistorycomplexitylove which is the reason I entered my academic field in the first place.

it is certainly something
live up

1 comment:

Johonna said...

wow! i am so glad for your return home...thank you for sharing it with us. this writing is so very beautiful and breathtaking.

p.s. my new blog is at please change the links on your blog when you get a chance.