Puerto Rico


Bath time marked the start of the evening during my summer  with my aunt and uncle. In Puerto Rico, most people shower before dinner. (I’ve always thought that savvy burglars could take this opportunity to slip in and out of houses all over the island, while everyone was showering.) You’d wash off the day’s sweat and put on a clean dress. Refreshed, you’d sit down to eat.

Most times, my aunt bathed me. I was barely six years old. Each late afternoon, I experienced a child’s version of the Psycho shower.

In the bathroom’s small space, largatijos—lizards—lurked, just as they did throughout the house. You had to share, and I didn’t want to.

Largatijos were like the cockroaches in our Manhattan apartment, only not nocturnal. At least roaches stayed in the kitchen. These three-inch green-brown largatijos, with slender bodies, appear quietly everywhere. These creatures stand as if frozen on the tile wall for long periods. Eyes wide open. No blinking. Silent. When he moves, he scampers and slithers. Such stealth. Such quickness. One moment he’s on the wall, the next by the door. Some might slip into the shower drain. Others hang out on the shower curtain or pole looking down at me. One might pop out of the medicine cabinet or from behind the toilet tank. Some settled into the folds of towels. Or on the soap, the faucet handle, the showerhead, toilet paper roll. Anywhere. I feared one would jump on me.

But more harrowing still was my aunt’s washing method. She scoured my skin like she did the kitchen floor. The washcloth felt like sandpaper. When washing my hair, she scraped my scalp raw with her nails. Shampoo burned my eyes. I would run out of the bathroom mid-wash, crying, screaming, in pain. Sometimes she’d catch my arm or hair before I fled and yanked me back into the shower. She scrubbed harder, now furious with me. I had no one to rescue me.

After several evenings of this, she opted for bribery. Before my shower, Titi Grace led me to her china cabinet in the dining room. On the shelf behind the sliding glass door, she placed a quarter. If I stood still—no whimpering, no fleeing—that quarter was mine. Fearing her wrath, I bit my lip and endured the pain. For twenty-five cents, I was hers.

1965 Quarters

1965 Quarters

At the end of my kindergarten year, my mother decided to send me to Puerto Rico for the summer, just as my grandmother had done with her when she was a child. My mother would spend part of the time with my grandmother’s parents or my one of my grandmother’s younger sisters, Graciela. Titi Grace, who ran a home daycare, agreed to take me. I also would stay with three of my grandmother’s other siblings—she had 11—and their families that summer. My mother remained in New York to work.

At JFK Airport, I boarded a Trans Caribbean flight to San Juan accompanied by a flight attendant. I was barely six years old and alone. On board, I was given playing cards, wing-shaped pin like the ones flight attendants wore and a postcard. The flight attendants knew my father and watched over me, a little thing—skinny with short brown hair. As for the flight itself, I don’t remember much.

transca021

My memory, though, doesn’t fail me when it comes to the details of my arrival in San Juan. Waiting for me at the airport was Titi Grace and her husband, Tio Pucho. Upon seeing him, I screamed. He looked like Mr. Clean, someone I’d only seen in commercials. Not only was he bald, Tio Pucho had no eyebrows, no lashes, no signs of a beard. His pink head shined in the bright afternoon sun. He looked odd—and to a six year old, frightening—without those thin lines of hair to frame his eyes to make him seem human. His face was an all pink landscape, acres of flesh.

He reminded me of a toy I had—Wooly Willy. See, Wooly Willy was a simple toy, just a drawing of a hairless face, no torso. Between the clear plastic covering and the cardboard that bore his bare face were iron retrowoolyshavings. With a magnet, you could drag the filings across the plastic to make Willy wooly. You could shape a moustache, some eyelashes and even a goatee. But that was just a plaything. Tio Pucho was standing before me, thin, tall and alive. He was Willy in 3-D and had a complete body.

I sat in the backseat of the car, my body pressed into the seat trying to be as far away from Tio Pucho as one could get in a compact. At their house, I was shown the room I’d share with their daughter, who was about my mother’s age. The two of them were close, because they’d spent summers together. At one point, Titi Grace, Pucho and their daughter lived in New York. Titi had worked in the same lingerie factory in the Garment District as my grandmother.

I didn’t want to leave that room. Tio Pucho was in the living room watching television. The first few days, I avoided him whenever I could. But I soon realized that Titi Grace was the one to fear.

I went to sleep each night to the sound of the coquis, their chirps filling the black sky, and wake up to the crows of roosters.

My days there followed Titi’s schedule. In the morning, Titi Grace made me breakfast—a bowl of oatmeal and a batida, a cold brew consisting of grape juice and a raw egg that she whipped until frothy in the blender. I didn’t want it. She’d stand over me and watch until I swallowed every bit of the sweet purple goo. I’d gag on lumps of egg white that hadn’t been broken up by the blades of the blender. Hints of raw egg smell drifted into my nose.

Meanwhile, parents on their way to work dropped off infants and toddlers in the converted carport, which was filled with toys, playpens, high chairs and other kiddie stuff. Titi spent the day changing diapers and warming bottles. In between, she’d wash a load of laundry, run it through the wringer and then hang them to dry. The woman was industrious and particular. She ironed everything—her husband’s boxer shorts, bed sheets—stopping now and again to blot the perspiration off her brow.

After lunch, I’d settle into the canvas hammock, which my aunt had sewn, for a nap. I slept deeply, suspended in that heavy cotton cocoon in the carport. My neck and back of my knees grew damp with sweat, my hair soggy, in the humidity. Once all the children were picked up, Titi moved everything out and mopped the linoleum tile lining the carport.

Then it was time for her other enterprise: selling a line of mops and brooms, like an Avon lady, only with cleaning supplies. This was no ordinary mop. Attached to it was a plastic ring that, when pulled over the fabric mop strands, twisted and squeezed it of excess water. On late weekday afternoons, we’d climb into her VW Beetle, the colored handles of mops and brooms bobbing in the front and back seat, plastic buckets and spare mop heads tucked away on the floor. I sat way back in the compartment underneath the rear window and behind the backseat. I fit perfectly in this little storage area covered in grey wool fabric that was like a flat weave carpet. The wool scratched my bare legs and arms. I enjoyed these rides. I had my own space. And Titi had hers.

On her rounds dropping off orders, Titi seemed less strict, almost carefree—as carefree as someone who is usually uptight can be. In her car, as we winded through San Juan’s suburbs, Titi Grace sang love songs. As she switched from first to second to third, she acted freer. She shifted gears, literally and figuratively. Her favorite song was Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” Over the car’s motor sputtering in that characteristic VW Beetle sound, she’d sing like a teenager: “Hold me in your arms, bay-beeee,” lowering her voice on “baby” like Anka did. I grew to love her singing that song.

My journey to boarding school began because two people were wed and never should have.

parentsHigh school sweethearts, my parents married on a snowy day in mid April 1959 in a Catholic church on the West Side of Manhattan. My mother had just turned 17 that month; my father would turn 19 two weeks later at the end of April. Both of them had grown up in broken homes. My father was in the US Air Force and stationed in Tachikawa, Japan.  (Note: Turn off the sound to avoid the bad soundtrack. These photos are from my early days there.)

Initially, my mother stayed in Manhattan, while he returned to the base. Their plan was for her to join him when they had enough money for airfare. A few months later, her father-in-law gave her money for the flight to Japan. “You should be with your husband,” he said. My mother had never been abroad, and except for a few years, had always lived in New York City.

Hospital, Tachikawa Air Base

Hospital, Tachikawa Air Base

I was born at the base hospital in April 1960 and baptized at the base by proxy. My godmother lived in New Jersey, my godfather in Puerto Rico. They were my parents’ best friends from high school. My mother, who’d been raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools, intended to do the same with me.

Author at 8 1/2 months with Uncle Adam, her paternal grandfather's brother

Author at 8 1/2 months with Uncle Adam, her paternal grandfather

Nearly three years later, my father finished his term of service and they returned to the city. My father took a job with Trans Caribbean Airlines as a flight attendant because he wanted to travel. Trans Caribbean Airlines in its first incarnationMy mother settled in as a housewife and mother in our apartment near the airport in Kew Gardens, Queens. She  looked forward to married life back home and wanted to have a second child.

Their marriage, however, didn’t last. I don’t remember much about them as a couple and living in a two-parent household, but as I got older, I could see they weren’t made for each other. Their temperaments were incompatible. My father enjoyed partying and being a ladies’ man. I guess he wanted the kind of social life he had during high school within his marriage. The roles of husband and father didn’t fit into that picture.

My mother, our dachsund and I moved in with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment on Upper Riverside Drive in Manhattan. Her furniture was piled in the bedroom, along with clothes and boxes. The three of us slept in the living room on two sleeper sofas. Eventually, the dog was given away.

In some ways, my father’s absence didn’t faze me because his job meant he was away often. I missed the dog more than I did him. I saw my father at Christmas and around my birthday and occasionally in between. The divorce agreement required only that he pay child support—if you can call bouncing checks support. When he visited, my mother and he would argue. My grandmother couldn’t forgive his indiscretions. I dreaded his visits, to the point of becoming sick to my stomach and vomiting.

Fortunately, I had school—pre-kindergarten and kindergarten at a nearby public school in our Harlem neighborhood—to add some stability to my life. We went on field trips. I loved painting and doing other crafts. I made a “radio” from a block of wood with two round pieces for dials and painted it orange and blue. I wanted a transistor radio like my mother’s father carried with him at all times. On it, he listened to the Yankees games and broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.

During 1964 and 1965, I had only some inkling of the racial tensions around me. My skin is light brown, somewhere between my father’s Filipino dark brown and my mother’s white skin. At age 4, I’d ask my mother why my skin wasn’t white like hers. I wanted to be white. She said, “Your skin is brown because you eat a lot of chocolate.” I loved chocolate, so it seemed plausible to in my little girl’s mind. In my class, only one other person who had skin lighter skin than mine was an Asian girl—something I’d not realized until I looked at my class photos years later. However, outside of class I heard some relatives, family friends and strangers whisper about my coloring. The wife of my paternal grandfather—his second wife—said to my mother, upon our arrival from Japan, “Too bad she got her father’s coloring.”

The second thing in my life that set me apart was being a child of a divorced mother. In the early sixties, the social stigma of divorce still existed. (I’ll talk about the issue of having a divorced mother while I was at a Catholic school in a later post.) My mother, who had trained to be a secretary at Cathedral High School, ran into problems finding a job to support us. She was rejected multiple times during interviews. Prospective employers told her, “You’re just here to find a husband,” “You’re a single mother,” or “You’ll miss work whenever your daughter gets sick.” My mother was caught in a bind. She was determined to support us and get her own apartment. But she needed to rely on others to watch over me. My grandmother also worked full time. On school days, our downstairs neighbor took care of me after school. Finally, she secured a job in a typing pool at Chase Manhattan Bank.

Our days fell into a quiet rhythm. In the mornings, grandma did calisthenics, put on her makeup, splashed on Jean Nate cologneJean Nate Cologne and got dressed for her job as a seamstress at the Eve Stillman lingerie factory. My mother dressed me in a jumper—usually blue, my favorite color— and gave me breakfast. I drank milk mixed with apple juice—the idea of which now turns my stomach. It was my favorite drink back then. I’d watch her tease her hair, apply makeup, slip on nylons and a girdle, wriggle her feet into pointy high heels. The apartment smelled of hair spray and cigarette smoke, with a hint of perfume. My mother or grandmother picked me up from the neighbors when they came home from work. We’d have dinner in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen and start again the next day.

My little world fell apart the summer between pre-K and kindergarten. My mother had no one to take care of me full time nor could she afford to. She packed me off to Puerto Rico to stay with my grandmother’ sister who ran a home-based day care. During her own childhood, my mother had done time with Aunt Grace, too. And yes, it was like doing time. The woman had rules and kept you in line just with the sound of her voice. She resorted to other means as well. I was so homesick and frightened.

This pattern of being sent off to relatives during school vacations or illnesses and eventually boarding school would govern my daily life for years. I never stopped being homesick.

I have read so much about Puerto Rico in its earliest decades after Spain turned it over to the United States. Poverty was rampant, as the island struggled in its new status as a US territory. My grandmother loved her country and her family, but left in pursuit of a better life in Nueva York in the late forties for herself, her husband and her young daughter.

For a peek into the world my maternal grandparents left behind in Puerto Rico, I’ve posted these two videos. Although I’ve seen photos and know about my grandparents’ lives before they settled in New York, these two photo montages bring tears to my eyes–reminders of the sacrifices they made and the difficulties they endured. They were fortunate to have lived to see that the hard choices they made paid off in their own lives as well as in the lives of their progeny. I am grateful to the two people who posted these on YouTube.