José A. Colón Vega

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América – Rochester, New York 1969

AMÉRICA –

She always gives away that she likes her name, América. Once in a while, she chuckles at the unexpected grandeur of such a name. Every so often, she also takes to shouting “Washington!” with her sneezes. To this day, it has never failed to catch people off-guard.

She looks like my mother; young, full-lipped, confident, her raven hair in a characteristically sixties’ bouffant. Her double-breasted trench coat hangs slightly shorter than her “mod” length dress showing off shapely legs, accented by stylish leather pumps. I imagine the wide lenses of her sunglasses hide pretty brown eyes lined with heavy black eyeliner and lashes thick with mascara. Barely visible in the faded print, América’s daughter, Crúz, gazes adoringly across the hood of our Uncle Coalín’s “bachelor car,” a Chevy Impala convertible. Say what you will about lower-middle-class islanders, they still know how to look good on a budget.

Behind them, the background is as old and distant as the memory, with a few creeping trees reaching for the sky, their barren branches still sleeping in winter. It’s a family day in the park in a foreign landscape. The snapshot ends.

I can only imagine how cold Rochester must’ve seemed to her in 1969, even in March. It’s another side effect of growing up in Puerto Rico, or, more specifically, in Vieques, the “little island” beside a little island. She lives in New York with her husband, Visitación, their daughter, Crúz, her sister, Vigí, and Vigí’s husband, Coalín.

It’s because of work. There’s not enough of it on the island, and like so many other Puerto Ricans who ride the ups and downs of the island economy, there’s little choice in the matter. One plane ticket later they join the tide of migrants, to and from the island. The only difference is, when the plane hits the tarmac of San Juan, the homesick passengers break out in applause and cheers. Maybe not so much from a lack of faith in aerospace engineering, but because they have returned home safely once more.

Like any young couple, América and Visitación argue. They argue about money, about chores, about Crúz, about their newest daughter Nitza. They argue about arguing which inevitably leads back to the real argument, going back to Puerto Rico, or rather, not going back.

“Work is good, living is stable. We could just stop moving and live here in New York,” América argues. For a woman who’s lived in the poorest margins of Puerto Rico, she knows where the opportunities lie. It’s worth the homesickness, and missing family.

“Your home is where you make it, right?” Visitación speaks against it. He can’t argue the better living conditions and opportunities, but, “There’s something missing here,” he says. And the salary and better living can’t make up for it. It’s the narrow-eyed stares he sometimes feels on his back when people find out he’s Puerto Rican. It’s the stifling, cold and gray chokehold the city slowly slips around your neck. He doesn’t like this place.

One last flight and eventually the land and cement beneath their feet is all their own, nestled among greens of panapen, aguacate, ceiba, limones, plátano and the brilliant reds of flamboyán, paid for by Crúz and Nitza, now grown and with their own lives and homes and families. All those decades of América’s and Visitación’s moving, renting, and living uprooted, were not for the sake of themselves, but for their daughters’. They didn’t stay in the States, not because it wasn’t a good life, but because they wanted their daughters to be where they could grow and flourish.

Intrinsically, I knew that my grandparents were selfless, in the way they raised me, the way they stayed awake with my mother for long, tearful hours over the years our father was away and still had a smile waiting for me when I returned from school. I and my siblings, we glanced over it in every pot of rice and beans they cooked, every story about a time in one of the previous houses, every afternoon in church.

It was a fact, not a conditional truth, one that we took for granted. Plants were green, the sun was hot, and our grandparents were noble. If we’d understood then, we might as well have known the trajectory of the stars or the recipe for a philosopher’s stone. We didn’t know that Prometheans lived in caseríos, that a man named Visitación could be a security guard, construction worker, toll station employee, and soldier instead of just one thing, or that América, in our family, wasn’t a continent, but an elm of a woman always wearing a housecoat, the way she wore her trench coat, dressed for the challenges of living.

3 Comments

  1. I loved it! Is very detailed and helps the reader create a colorful image in their minds.

  2. This is absolutely phenomenal, a true monument to the tenacity and nobility of your grandparents. I also love how this touches on elements of identity and assimilation.

  3. That last paragraph always gets me. Well done. A wonderful look at the importance of family – and the challenges of living in two worlds.

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