Mariana L. Arroyo Ortega

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“Right here, where you are standing, there was an enormous field full of pineapples. My father, my brothers and I used to work near these fields. None of the houses were here, just pineapples, trees, and cow poop,” says my grandfather sweeping his arm through the air for emphasis.

The landscape he describes is so different from the concrete horizon before us. The street is now filled with houses, doctors’ offices, small commerce, and a police station. Sure, there are still cows, but nothing as real and dramatic as he describes.

1. Enrique’s Shoes

In 1937, Enrique’s family had worked for the Hacienda for many generations. Enrique was small and lanky and only eight-years-old, but old enough to work the sugar cane fields with his father during spring harvest. When lunch hour arrived, Enrique walked barefoot the many miles necessary to fetch his father lunch.

When harvest season was finished, he woke up at dawn every morning to prepare for school. Carefully he pushed his calloused feet into two shiny shoes, his only pair. The shoes were special. With such serious shoes, he could dance at el pueblo, and might even be allowed to dine at the Hacienda.

The shoes were so beautiful that Cirilo, Enrique’s older brother, decided to borrow them for his first date. When Enrique discovered his brother’s plan, he grabbed the shoes and screamed, “No que me los estiras,” and punched Cirilo in the face.

To Enrique’s surprise, his mother banished him to his room for five whole hours, took away his portion of dinner and gave the shoes to his brother for his date, warning Cirilo to never wear them again. After that, Enrique hid his shoes near the lake where no one would find them.

My grandfather is 19-years-old when the flash of a camera surprises him for the first time. In a picture taken at Vega Alta’s Fiestas Patronales he is proudly modeling a new pair of shoes. He told me he had worked hard for them, even kissed Graciela, the ugly neighbor, for ten cents. His defiant stare reflects a man who is driven to accomplish his goals. He says it is his favorite picture.

2. Enrique & María

Enrique & Maria

José, Enrique’s brother, died in a tragic accident the same day José’s youngest son was born. José had just finished giving orders to some workers when a strong current of wind blew him from the seventh floor building where he was working. That day went down in family history as “The Day Happiness and Tragedy Got Married.”

Enrique cried over José’s traumatic death. He offered assistance to José’s wife, María and her two sons. María was nine years older than Enrique and had warmth and strength in her eyes that could hypnotize any man. Enrique was no exception.

Women in Enrique’s neighborhood used to bet who he would choose to be his girlfriend. He had a good job at the new factory at Bayamón and lots of admirers. It was a shock to everyone when Enrique’s and María’s friendship grew into love. That day, when María and Enrique decided to form a family together, chaos emerged. Enrique’s family banished them. The couple gathered the children and their belongings, bought a small house with Enrique’s savings in El Pueblo in Bayamón. Their cramped wooden house was filled with bats and spider webs, but their decision had been made. They were now a family.

It is 1961 and this photograph was taken on Enrique’s and María’s 10th anniversary. My grandfather barely smiles, hiding I think, a happiness that has been forbidden. At that moment he is finishing the construction of a house in Vega Alta for María, a surprise. It is cement, so it will be stronger than the one they live in. His plan for their lives had been flawless so far. The plastics factory had just raised his salary. “Such an honest man. Hard worker; Excellent Partner,” read the plaque they presented him. It was all falling into place and the house would be finished in time to be María’s Christmas present.

3. Enrique & Sonia

Enrique and Sonia


Enrique and María now have three daughters of their own, Rosa, Ileana, and Sonia; plus María’s children, José Jr. and Francisco. When Sonia was about five, Enrique heard little Sonia moan and complain about a stomachache. “Chiquita, does it hurt much?” He asked.

“Awww, papi, it hurts too much” she replied weeping.

Enrique rushed her to the hospital. After the appendectomy, Sonia rejoiced in the hope of knowing she had her father all to herself. It was the best Christmas present for her.

I wonder if in the few seconds the flash of the camera takes to disappear, my grandfather traveled to this memory of almost losing Sonia. After the nearly dis- graceful event, Enrique protects Sonia a little bit more than his other children. He has hopes for her, he knows she will succeed, and if for any reason she doesn’t, he’ll still be at her side.

4. Enrique

Enrique sits on the balcony of his house, staring at the cars going by. A calm breeze brushes through his hair. Often the customers at Mikey’s, a store down the street, try to guess Enrique’s age. As always he refuses to tell. He thinks about how hard he has worked through the years, in the sugar cane fields, at the factory, and doing chivitos once in a while. All of his children are grown with families of their own. He thinks about his usual Sunday game of dominoes with his grand kids. He taught them all to play. He thinks sadly of his wife, María, who now has Alzheimer’s. Getting up from his chair, he locks the doors against a storm rising in the night. He stops at María’s room. She is asleep. Even if she were awake, she wouldn’t know him. He misses her.

Alone in his room the glare of a silver blade blinds him. He waits then for his pain to slide away. But suddenly, María is at his bedroom door screaming that a strange man is lying on the floor with a knife in his belly.

The police come and then an ambulance. Enrique realizes he is not done with his life yet.

The Ortega Family - Enrique - (back left) - Sonia - (back right) - Maria - (center) - Rosa and Ileana

This picture was taken last Thanksgiving. It’s my grandfather with María and their three daughters. When I see this picture and think of what my grandfather tried to do, goose bumps run up my spine. It is hard to imagine what went through his head when he decided take his own life. My grandfather, my friend, is a part of me. I am glad he finally failed at something.


Reprinted with permission. Mancha… © Copyright, Mancha de Plátano, Inc., Cabo Rojo, 2007. All rights reserved. 


  1. It’s really amazing how your words seemed to flow with the narrative. Like you said at the end, it’s hard to imagine what went through your grandfather’s head when he made that decision, but in times like that, one is lost in their thoughts, thinking that these irrational thoughts are the best ones. The twist presented in the story is very effective and captivating.

  2. The way your narrative directly complements the photographs you chose is outstanding. Seeing what would otherwise be a perfectly unassuming family photograph get transformed into something else entirely by the connotations provided by the narrative is quite effective.

  3. This story is very good and yet weighed so heavy on me. I have 2 friends that took their lives in high school and it was very hard for me to try to understand or accept the fact that that had happened. I’m also very thankful that your grandfather failed at his attempt. I’m sure he feels very sad having run away with the love of his life only to come to a point where that love no longer knows him. It’s bitter sweet but i hope things improve for your grandfather.

  4. These words really had an impact on me. I had no idea that your story would take such a twist. You wrote beautifully about your grandparent..I really liked the way that you presented him; dedicated, strong, helpful, caring, and loving. When you wrote about his early years as a child, I could imagine the whole scenario and I could picture him kissing the ugly neighbor. It is sad that his family would not accept the fact that Maria and him were bound to be together. When you mentioned Maria’s health condition, the movie “The Notebook” popped into my mind. Because of this idea, your reality touched me so much. Your grandfather seemed so strong, so passionate about life.. I would have never imagined that he actually tried. But, like you said .. I am glad that he failed. It must have been really hard for you to write about this and i admire the honesty of your words. This story bear’s upon me ! great job

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