|Rice and papaya in the lunch of a sugar worker, 1942.|
When I decided to participate in Ms. Graveyard Dirt's Holy Supper Challenge, I thought it would be pretty simple. My family has always made traditional foods for Christmas - these things are not a mystery to me - so the challenge for me was simply to try and involve myself more, and to be mindful of everything's importance.
This post is not going to resemble the others in the lot. For me, ancestor veneration is inextricably tied up with my ethnic identity, with my living family, and with the course of my life. I did not have a large feast, or take beautiful pictures. But many things were crystallized in my mind. It's chaotic and guttural and inadequate...but here is what I can say.
Food was prepared by my mother on Christmas Day. I talked with her a long time as she cooked. She started with arroz con habichuelas. (Flavored with garlic and annato, this is a staple dish for us.) I had asked her to let me help her cook, but she was taking care of everything in her easy way, and telling me how things were made. I didn't do anything except listen. I think, that day, it was something that she needed.
This was actually her first year making arroz con dulce, a traditional holiday desert made of candied rice and coconut milk, flavored with nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and ginger. This is usually my grandmother's dish to make.
My mother and my step-father (an Italian-American) were on their way to a friend's house for dinner. Mother made two big batches. One for the household, and one for their host. She and my step-father argued briefly over the portions. This is a dish you only give away to someone if you really, really like them.
She played music in the kitchen. She had recently discovered a favorite album of hers online. I say, "a favorite album," but this does nothing to convey its importance to her. Haciendo Punto en Otro Son was a very influential group in the 70s; they released fourteen albums in Latin America, in a then-popular style of socially progressive folk music, known as nueva trova. When they were young, both my parents were very close to a sibling of one of the band members; they would practice in his garage. For them, hearing these songs are as familiar as their yearbook photos. They were there, somewhere in the background, as history was being made by their best friends.
She played a tune from the album for me, translating aloud the parts I couldn't understand. It was a beautiful song, about a young woman who enters into a marriage of convenience, and pines her whole life for the lost romance she was never able to fulfill. It ends with a plea to the woman to let her daughter have many lovers, because the pain and messiness of love is far better than the pain and loneliness of never truly knowing love at all.
She told me that the song reminded her of herself.
|Lunch of a sugar worker on a plantation, 1942.|
One day, a few years ago, I was eating a meal my mother had made. Rice and shellfish, with lemon, garlic, and saffron. It was early in the afternoon, and I was reading. I don't know if it had anything to do with the content of my text, or the heat of the day, or the way the light shone in through the window and seemed to illuminate the golden, aquatic flesh from within, or the complex aromas that arose thereof. But there came a moment when I raised the fork to my lips, and I thought, "If there comes a day when my mother is gone, and I still don't know how to make our food, I am going to die."
You might be asking yourself what I meant by that, exactly. This is one of those "if you have to ask" sort of things. How do you explain what it means to be an endangered species? To be pushed to the furthest reach, and told to forget? I would forgo any attempt to put words to it, but people always smile their awkward smiles and laugh their awkward laugh, and ask me why I'm not willing to die if it would make them a little more comfortable. Couldn't I just go die in the other room and come back? That would be great.
I wish I could be charitable, and say to myself, "Oh, they just don't know how to relate," or, "Oh, they don't want to seem ignorant, so they change the subject." But the fact is that they prefer not to be confronted with such things. The sight of me as I am, an unknown element, frightens them. Maybe I go about it the wrong way. Maybe I don't have to tip my hand. My people have always been "peaceful and small," using their invisibility to their advantage. Oh, prince with a thousand enemies. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.
* * *
My uncle, by all accounts, was a remarkable man. A cut-up and a mischief-maker. A soldier for the empire, a rebel on a motorcycle, a priest who throws the bones. He died after crashing on his bike. Well, technically. It might be more accurate to say that he died for love. Pulled his own plug, because the woman was gone. My mother was never able to make it to his funeral, because of a canceled flight. But she preferred it that way. In her mind, it's as if he never really died, and they're just waiting to catch up with each other somewhere on the globe, like they had for years. Sometimes, she says, she still hears the sound of his footsteps in the night.
My grandfather was a silent, reserved man. My grandmother's senior by a decade or more. He fought in Korea, and the second World War. He used to wake up screaming at night, tearing at his hair and drooling. (When American doctors first began to observe what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it was mistaken for schizophrenia, before being temporarily dubbed "Puerto Rican Syndrome.") He escaped from his pain with music and women, a bohemian touring the bars with his guitar. In his old age, he fed this need by watching Don Francisco. His anguish subsided with the years, but his quiet courage never left him. His grave is far from the place he was born. But my family was blessed to discover a military plot for veterans of the Korean War, here in the valley. I tasted alcohol for the first time at his wake - a national drink, of rum, cinnamon, and coconut cream. To me, it tastes like a sweet and stubborn flame of life.
I don't know many dead on my father's side of the family. Not because I don't know my father, but simply because he never took the time to introduce me. But one day, his mother told me of a prominent ancestor - a love child born to a laundress, too poor to afford shoes, who spat in the eye of his aristocratic father, rejecting both his recognition and his wealth. This boy grew up to become a civil rights lawyer, and a revolutionary. He was born with blazing red hair that turned dark as night as he grew older - just like me. I suspect that my father's family had a tendency to breed freedom fighters, and this may have been part of why my father never spoke about his family. Somewhere, there is a photograph of a black man in a bow tie, with a gentle, kindly face. He was an activist, my father said, and that was all. What was his name? I may never know.
My great-grandmother was a child of Irish immigrants. She raised tobacco and sugar cane in the mountains, and gave birth to nine children - seven sons and two daughters. I met her once before she died, a slender creature with the most beautiful pale blue eyes. I only know one story about her, in which she escaped into the cane fields in her nightgown, fleeing from her husband's machete. She never went back. The farm belongs to his family now. We still have the small knife she used for harvesting, along with a set of metal canisters used for food storage. "Made in Japan," they all say. It is a common ploy of industry to persuade a nation's workers to produce just a few profitable commodities (coffee, sugar, tobacco), forcing them to import all other necessities. The usual result is poverty. ("But they don't have to pay taxes," my mother says.) I used to envy the descendants of gold miners in California, who got to see their ancestors' faces in my textbooks. There was no book for my beloved dead as a child - I had to hunt for their stories, for the collective history of the people and their land. Everything that happened, happened to them, and every piece of evidence points to that.
I left food for them all, and water, and scotch. They did not drink much of the water. The glass of scotch was emptied in a day.
* * *
Something interesting started to happen, after I began admitting, out loud, that I was Puerto Rican.
As a child, I felt very alone. There was no community of Puerto Rican immigrants where I lived. Mexican-American children generally did not accept me, but as I grew a bit older, I noticed that some camaraderie could be had after certain checks were made. "Have you ever had chorizo?" "Does your mom cook rice with Goya packets?" "What kind of beans do you like? Yeah, I like black beans better too." I had falsely assumed that they were all fluent in Spanish, and thus, more culturally savvy than I. But generally, their Spanish was as poor as mine. Where language failed to thrive, food kept us alive.
This had to be kept secret, however. When other classmates asked me what I had for dinner last night, my answers were not pleasing to them. They didn't know what I was talking about, and my explanation was tantamount to a lesson in anthropology for them. "Oh," they would say, mulling over the concept of eating something unAmerican on a regular basis. "I guess I've never really identified with my culture." I won't go over the double-think inherent in this statement. But it was clear that to them, just like in every other conversation in which my culture came up, my stated identity was some kind of mystifying personal choice. And if I brought it up too much, well...that was bad. Other Latin girls who looked like me - pale and dark-haired, with slender noses - all learned to keep quiet about their origins. Sometimes they invented new ones, or chose to emphasize the heritage of the settlers in their family tree. I also learned to keep quiet, or be subjected to subtle ridicule. But you don't have to be like this, they seemed to say. You can just pretend you're someone else. Isn't that easier? And for them, I did. Not for me, but for them. They just looked so uncomfortable. And I wanted to be loved.
I'm not sure what inspired me - it might have been the afternoon shrimp, for all I know. But at some point in my adulthood, I decided that I wouldn't do it anymore. It was not acceptance or approval that I wanted. It was self-preservation. And with that, the spell of isolation was broken. By mere words. As soon as I started to bear witness, unapologetically, in small ways, to the simple truth. Where I had been alone in an empty sea, other faces appeared. Faces like my own. I had resigned myself to being the last. But they were there, floating on the wave. Alive.
It took me a long time to write this. I spoke privately to a friend about it, lamenting how difficult it is to articulate the experience of living and dying within a diaspora. I used that particular word. And what did I discover the next day? A network for members of my particular diaspora, completely unprecedented in scope, and born in the middle of our winter holiday. There is no one for my family to serenade with drums and lutes in the dead of winter, nor is there anyone to do it for us. But in a virtual space, on a dark and sparkling sea of words and songs, many things are possible.
* * *
One last thing.
In most Latin countries, it isn't Santa who traditionally brings toys to children. It's the Three Magi, who roam the earth on Epiphany. Children leave out a box of grass in the night, for their camels.
As a child, I was devout in my Catholicism. I spent a lot of time thinking about the Saints and their visions, and I harbored a secret wish to experience such heavenly revelations. I always prepared myself, but it never happened. In contrast to the many dreams of elven ambassadors and talking beasts I've had over my lifetime, only once did I ever behold a Christian apparition in my slumber: one of the Magi. He stepped through the doorway of my room, bent down, and took my offering in hand. I could see the shadow of his camel on the wall. Then, he beckoned to his fellows, before disappearing into a haze of golden dust.
I was struck by this anomaly as I was planning for the holidays in 2012. Internally, I remarked upon it to myself. How strange, I thought, in light of how rich and varied my dream life has been, that I have not dreamed extensively of the mythos I was born into and so fervently contemplated. I thought about mentioning it to someone, but I didn't want to be a bore. Maybe the royal magi just meant something special to me as a child - a custom that exalted the traveling sages from distant lands, who would come for me, and me alone. The last.
The following night, I dreamed that I was receiving my Confirmation; a rite I never undertook in life. For some reason, I had been allowed to choose a hymn for the ceremony. It was an obscure choice, about giving to the poor and succoring the weak, and I wasn't sure that the congregants would know it. I took up my hymnal and prepared to lead the song, but the entire church raised up their voices without me. They sang confidently, brilliantly, and in perfect unison. And I found that, in truth, I had not known the words at all.
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