By Carmen Bardequez-Brown
Al que le caiga el sayo, que se lo ponga.
Puerto Rican saying
The greatest camouflage of all
A web of hearts
My Encounter with Americans
I always had problems with the term “American.” Why do the people of the United States call themselves American when they are not the only people who live in the Americas? How dare they ignore the people living in Central America, South America, the Caribbean and Canada.
I thought that Americans were arrogant. I still think that they are, but I also have discovered through personal experience and their own history, that there is more than one America. American history is incredibly complex. It seems that it’s been constantly struggling to live up to the words inscribed in the second paragraph of the preamble of The Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed way their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
I learned that Americans are capable of the most beautiful acts of compassion but also the most cruel of actions. There are two kinds of Americans, those who support the American Dream and those who support the American nightmare. Two realities, one country
Since 1898, Puerto Ricans have become participants in the struggle to shed light into the American nightmare as we continue to engage in the struggle to create and live our own Dream.
In Puerto Rico, you are always reminded that you are under the American spell. Since Maria, we clearly know that we are second class citizens. We have two national anthems and two flags that are raised in every public building. There are residential and commercial areas like Condado, Miramar and Isla Verde where English is spoken on the streets.
There are also specialized schools with English as the main language of instruction, instead of Spanish. You will meet “American” tourists and few Americans who work in specialized jobs such as in finance and pharmaceutical corporations. Maria brought a new kind of American worker, the FEMA employees. Due to the magnitude of the destruction, some of these employees are living semi-permanently on the island.
I don’t remember seeing so many Americans when I was young, except for traditional tourists in certain well-off areas and every now and then, an expat enjoying the benefits of living in a Caribbean colony.
In school, I learned American History and of course, English. I think I first learned about the Americans through their language.
My two Abuelas
Both of my abuelas were smart and gorgeous. My dear Abuela Concha, who was my father’s mother, died quite young. She had been a teacher and a well-known midwife in Guayama. She passed away when I was seven or eight.
She always encouraged me to pursue my love for music. Abuela Concha was short and had a strong stare. She was famous for her long black curly hair that she later cut to fulfill a religious promise, la promesa. Every year, she celebrated The Three Kings day and had family and guests come to her house to pray the rosaries and prepared a truly Puerto Rican gastronomic feast in honor of the sacred day. She was a devout Catholic.
Abuela Concha and Abuelo Luis were known teachers for many years in Guayama in the early decades of the 20th century until the early 1960s. They both strongly believed in the preservation of Puerto Rican culture and traditions.
My grandmother on my mother’s side, Mamabuela, taught me and my sisters two songs that she had to learn when the Americans invaded Puerto Rico. She took care of me and my younger sister Debbie for a few years, while mom was working.
She and Papabuelo would come every day after we arrive from school. She will always made him coffee which I used to drink a escondidas because children were not supposed to drink coffee.
I miss the way she made coffee. I think my son has taken after her. He is a real barista. You need to have time to prepare a good cup of coffee in order to enjoy its rich aroma and flavor. You know, Despacito like Luis Fonsi says.
I remembered how she used to enjoy watching movies from Libertad Lamarque y Agustin Laraand any Mexican or Argentinian movies. Debbie and I would sit next to her and watch the movies. I found them too dramatic and sad. We enjoyed the experience of seeing her so attentive to the story and the usual sad songs that the protagonist sang. I don’t remember seeing a black person in those movies. I still remember the sad melodic songs that sometimes Mamabuela would hum while cooking the kitchen.
Mamabuela loved gardening. She and Mami planted dozens of rose bushes, herbs and fruit trees like acerola, limon, gardenias, amapolas and guanabana. We also had aguacate, platanos and mango. Mamabuela planted three rose bushes, one for each granddaughter.
She knew I liked pink so she planted a pink rose bush next to my bedroom window. Every morning, I’d see the beautiful flowers when I wake up. We used to have many rose bushes but that one was special because she planted it for me. I still remember what she told me after she planted the pink rose bush: “Carmin, esta es para ti.” What an amazing gift to wake up every morning and see the beautiful roses smiling at you.
Mamabuela was tall and regal. She had the most amazing posture and was famous for her gracious slow walk. Her long and soft curly black hair faded in later years as she persistently wanted to color her gray hair. She taught me to always use lipstick. “Eso es todo lo que necesitas para verte bien”
Mamabuela was in school during the American invasion in 1898. She recalled that the teachers were forced to suddenly teach English and one of the easiest ways to do it was through the teaching of songs. Mamabuela also told us that some of the teachers would teach them songs and pretend to teach in English when they were observed and then, would revert to Spanish when they closed the classroom doors. She taught me and my sisters a few songs that she learned during the early years of the American colonization.
One of the songs praised the mythical heroic traits of George Washington. The first line of the song went like this:
digo una mentira
pues quiero imitar a Jorge Washington…
The song literally translates: I never want to lie because I want to be like George Washington. The idea that this American revolutionary founding father and first president of the United States would be incapable of lying was ingrained in the young minds of children living under the new colonial rule. He was the role model of purity and integrity. Never mind, that he had slaves.
The other song that Mamabuela taught us that I remembered has been in the family repertoire for four generations. I taught the song to my son when he was a child because I wanted him to remember something that was learned in our family and was connected to the history of Puerto Rico. The song lyrics go like this:
y pluma pen
Music played an important role in learning about the American culture. My mother used to play long-playing records every Sunday while everyone was engaged in doing their household chores. From early morning to sundown, we listened to Tito Puente, La Lupe, Tito Rodriguez, Noro Morales, Cortijo, Marco Antonio Muniz, and many other Puerto Rican and Cuban singers and orchestras.
She told me that while visiting relatives in New York she went with them to the famous Palladium to dance. I assumed that was how she developed her taste for Mambo and Cha-Cha. But Mami also played American music and I liked it. I could not understand them because they were all in English. The rhythms coming from the records playing Eartha Kitt, Nancy Wilson, Mahalia Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Elvis Presley and Chubby Checker made me want to learn that mysterious language.
My first memories of anything “American” were mostly learned through the music. First, through the songs that Mamabuela taught us and then through the music that Mami would play on Sundays. It is interesting how music can instill interest in other people’s cultures.
My first real encounter with American people was through my relatives who lived in New York. They were a different kind of American. They were a different kind of Puerto Rican. They were Nuyoricans living in the Bronx.
One day, Mami told me and my sisters that we were going to meet our two cousins from “Los Nuyores” at Mamabuela’s home. I really did not understand why that was special. It was just meeting cousins that I never seen before. I had no idea that it was going to be a special kind of reunion.
I saw my two cousins as soon as we entered Mamabuela and Papabuelos’s home. They were sitting in the balcony. I smiled at them but they were serious. I had a strange feeling that this was not going to be a regular play day with cousins. I remembered my cousin David. He said something almost whispering to his sister, my cousin Donna. That was definitely not Spanish, It was English!
They spoke the language that I could not understand – the language that sounded like buzzing mosquitos flying near my ears. His words were lost in the air. I could only hear bzzzzzz. Debbie looked at me with her big incredulous eyes and I did not know what to do. I was frozen.
We stared at each other. Nobody knew what the other one was saying. We did not know English and they did not know Spanish. Later on, I found out that David knew more Spanish than he first wanted to acknowledge. We looked at each other with suspicion. During that entire afternoon, we were trying to figure out how could we be family when we could not communicate.
I remembered that Papabuelo telling us, “Ay ponganse a jugar.” We respected his command, so we all did our best to play together we use hand signals. We ran and played with small toys, and every now and then laughed and shared a few words.
My cousin recently told me that he used to serve as interpreter for Mamabuela, who was also a seamstress, when she visited them in the Bronx. He told me that she would accompany her to buy “telas” or textiles on 165 and Fox Street in the Bronx.
Mamabuela used to buy telas when in New York for herself and her friend, also a seamstress who moved back to Puerto Rico. That was how David knew a few words and sentences in Spanish. His experience as an interpreter gave him the upper hand in the situation and became the leader on this language adventure of ours.
I became his second in command. We kind of agreed that we needed to get it together and worked it out. So we put our best effort to learn from each other. We started to build trust. He would later become the brother that I never had. Every summer, we shared our realities of living in San Juan and the Bronx.
We celebrated birthdays while dancing to the Jackson 5 and imagined that we will create our own group: The Browns. We listened to the Gran Combo and Cortijo. I remembered listening to “Mataron al negro Bembon” sang by Ismael Rivera and Cortijo and we were like…wow!
We could not believe that someone could be killed because they had big lips. We did not realize that the popular song was indicative of the acceptable cultural racism that existed in the island. The song was written by the famous Puerto Rican composer, Bobby Capo. In spite of the incredible rhythm of the song, it still made me uncomfortable to grapple with the blatantly acceptable racism of the popular song.
Every summer, we would go with the entire Brown family including uncles, aunts and cousins on weekends to the beaches in Luquillo and Isla Verde. Our Nuyorican cousins would also party in our big family gatherings that we always had at our home. We always looked forward to the story time which took place towards the end of the party. Our uncles would narrate stories and jokes about the family. Everyone laughed so hard, young and old, together while listening and learning about our own history.
I think it was on one of those gatherings that I learned that my bisabuelo from my mother’s side. His name was Jim Brown and was not originally from Puerto Rico. He was born and raised in Nevis and according to family oral history, we are related to Hamilton which is one of our last names.
I have yet to research that narrative of our family history. During the mid to late 1800s, my bisabuelo traveled to Dominican Republic where he established an Anglican church. Then he moved to Ponce, Puerto Rico and established another Anglican church.
He witnessed the actual American invasion and served as an interpreter for the Americans. The Americans thanked him by giving him a flag. The flag had 45 stars. One of my uncles is in possession of that flag. That aspect of our family history really surprised me and confused me.
My bisabuelo helped the Americans by serving as an interpreter. I wished I could travel in time and ask him so many questions. He died many years before I was born. I only knew him through a picture and our family stories.
My family history on my mother’s side seems to have a deeper connection with the Puerto Rican-American experience. There were relatives on my father’s side who had move to New York but they were older and I only remembered meeting them once or twice.
My cousins spent many summers with us. We became so close that we always cried when it was time for them to go back to school in NYC. The whole family would go to despedirse at the airport. It was a big event that we all cried. They cried, we cried. He told me how he still remembered those goodbyes and how is one of his fondest memories of summers in Puerto Rico. I wonder why we all cried.
My family from New York City made me aware of another Puerto Rican reality. I learned about “America” through their experience, the Nuyorican experience.
My First Visit to America via The Bronx
I was eight years old when my parents took us to New York City on our first overseas vacation. We stayed with our cousins and my aunt in the Bronx.
It was the summer of 1968, a few months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the weekend after the assassination of Robert Kennedy Jr. We were too young to know and understand politics.
But we knew that something was terribly wrong. Our parents and relatives always said how they were doing things to help real people and how Black people were going to be respected. There was a deep sense of pride, and fear.
I remembered being scared of being in New York. My cousins and I thought that if we stayed near windows, someone will shoot us. I asked my cousin and he confirmed that we all felt that anyone could just killed you for no apparent reason.
I remembered watching TV and seeing the train carrying the remains of Robert Kennedy Jr. We were scared and noticed how our parents and relatives were serious and looked grim as if a relative had died. I will never forget those faces.
While on vacation, I saw my relatives driving nice cars and wearing nice clothes. I also remembered when my parents and my aunts would go into the kitchen to have adult conversations. They spoke in English and Spanish and sometimes I noticed how they mixed both languages.
Us kids stayed in the living room playing. I remembered hearing a word that I did not recognize before: racismo. They said it in English and Spanish. It actually sounds the same: racismo,racism. It was the first time that I heard such word. I never heard my parents said that word in Puerto Rico.
We went to Chinatown, the United Nations, and Little Italy. We visited the Bronx Zoo and the Empire State Building. We saw the many attractions that New York City had to offer, including the people that I saw walking on the streets.
It was the summer of 1968 and we learned about the American way of life through the unique experience of witnessing a political assassination and a word that will start to create a new perspective of how I viewed America.
New York was the most important city in the world. It was the city of the young empire. The Bronx was part of New York, or was it? The Puerto Rican presence was noticeable, impressive.
I did not expect to hear Spanish and a language that sounded like Spanish on the streets. My aunts were from Puerto Rico and now lived in New York. My cousins were born and raised in the Bronx and spent all their summers in Puerto Rico.
I thought that they were Puerto Ricans but they spoke English. They called themselves Puerto Ricans although their Spanish sounded funny. My cousins said that they were both Puerto Ricans and Americans. I was eight years old and I realized that that America was more difficult to understand than the English language.
(Featured photo is Carmen with a big hat with sisters Arlene and baby Debbie.)
(About the author: Carmen Bardequez-Brown is a poet and teacher living in Hartsdale. Born and raised in Puerto Rico and educated in the US and Puerto Rico, she tackles the complexity and nuances of being a creature in both cultures of the East and West, the colonized and the colonizer, in her blog. The birth of this blog is brought about by Carmen’s desire to write and publish which is ushered in by the Aspiring Writers Mentoring Program of 2018. This is her third issue.)