© Copyright 2014 by Celeste León
my first visit to Puerto Rico in three decades, I discovered my
family’s history and found a piece of myself. This is my
I look closer on the grassy field bordering the runway and notice a dozen two-foot long iguanas lethargic in the sun. We’re a long way from home.
the terminal, I check the screens to see if Dad’s plane has
arrived from Orlando. Mom issued strict orders to watch over him, to
make sure he doesn’t cheat on his diet. His diabetes is under
control, but he’s been known to falter. Mom will never
me if there are any mishaps. She insists Dad’s getting
forgetful, but I didn’t
notice it when I saw him several months earlier. Brad and I follow the signs to Baggage Claim.
Dad appears within twenty minutes, right on time. Despite his eighty-four years, he bounds over to the carousel with a vitality I haven’t seen in years. “Hey, you made it! Great!” His smile is wider than I can ever remember.
“That’s a nice looking bag, Dad.” I complement his bright blue tote bag after I give him a hug.
“It’s over twenty years old,” he boasts. “It still looks pretty good, doesn’t it?”
I believe his old bag has been tucked in a corner in the back of the closet, waiting patiently for its first trip here—home—in over two decades. Dad made a promise to visit his mother every year on her birthday, Christmas Eve, and he kept it for the rest of my grandmother's, Abuela Chepa’s, life, until her death twenty years ago.
It’s been a long time for me, too. By November of 2006, thirty-five years had passed since I visited Puerto Rico when I was eight. I’d grown up: completed college and graduate school, became established in my career as a physical therapist, married and started a family. Now it’s time to find my roots.
The butterflies dance in my stomach.
We secure our rental car and start off to our hotel in Yabucoa on the southeast tip of Puerto Rico. Mapquest says the drive is 43 miles and should take 48 minutes, but the trip is three hours due to gridlock. I learn in Puerto Rico, traveling is rarely as predicted.
There are four million people in the commonwealth, 3.5 million cell phones (I think everyone on the island has one except infants) and five million cars. There are also four million chickens and as many stray dogs. Perhaps I should try to take one of the scruffy mongrels back to Truckee as a pet because if it can survive Puerto Rican drivers, it must have inherited some brilliant DNA.
Once we arrive at our hotel, I call my cousin, Juan Manuel, and his wife, Neida. Dad will be staying with them. Brad and I barely have time to shower after traveling for over twelve hours before they come to pick us up and drive us to their home for dinner.
One of the first things I learn on this trip is how fast Puerto Ricans talk. And how much. And how much they use their hands. I know I’ve made a few people bristle in the past when I interrupt them in conversation, my hands dancing as if they’re doing the mambo. It’s not that I’m rude; it’s just that I get so excited I have to blurt out what’s on my mind. Now I feel better knowing that there’s a reason behind one of my many vices. I’m half Puerto Rican—I inherited it, thank God!
I’ve just met these people and already feel their warmth. We all pile into Juan Manuel’s van where everyone chatters at once. In a group of Puerto Ricans who squawk like a flock of parakeets, if you want to contribute to the conversation, you have to talk fast. Poor Brad doesn’t stand a chance. “I can’t keep up with you guys,” he whispers to me.
Juan Manual, at seventy-two, is the oldest of my cousins. His father, Juan, my father’s oldest brother, died three years ago at age ninety-seven. Dad and Juan Manuel look and act more like brothers than uncle and nephew.
Juan Manuel and Neida have done well. They own a clinical laboratory in Yabucoa and have a home with a magnificent view of a lush, verdant valley that rolls outward to salute the sea. The one-lane, dirt road to their house is so steep, I’m amazed they can navigate it in a tropical storm. In their warm and fragrant kitchen, Neida ladles asopao into our deep bowls for a hearty dinner of rice gumbo with chicken and vegetables: cabbage, carrots and corn on the cob rich with Adobo seasoning. Her favorite cast iron pot has been seasoned by generations of women sautéing garlic, oregano, and onion. It has served this family well and I am thrilled she has honored us with her time tested tradition. The aromas of paprika, cumin and jalapeno waft through the air and fill me up. Everyone agrees that the California Zinfandel I had tucked into my suitcase is the perfect complement to the meal.
Juan Manuel and Neida, like all Puerto Ricans, are well-versed in the history and politics of the island. We discuss the most pressing issue: possible statehood. Juan Manuel and Neida are part of the New Progressive Party, or PNP, founded in 1967 in favor of statehood. Juan Manuel displays flags of various sizes everywhere. Even the bumper sticker on his trash can proclaims “United We Stand: Puerto Rico #51.” I promise to send a photo of my daughter, Elena, with her red, white and blue stars and stripes swimsuit as soon as I get back to California, where she is now, deepening the bond with her beloved paternal grandmother.
Juan Manuel gives my hand a gentle squeeze. “Ah, I have just the place.” He leads me to a desk filled with photos of families, his children and many cousins, nieces and nephews. He reaches into the drawer and pulls out a silver frame with a delicate scroll design, waiting for its next occupant. “I’ll be honored to add your Elena to my collection,” he says with a smile.
Our talk of the “old days” lasts well into the night while Brad takes a siesta on the couch. Juan Manuel is proud of his musical heritage. He boasts that his father played the trombone and mandolin in the “Caribbean Kids,” a band who played at “El Parque Florida,” a popular dance club in neighboring Patillas. Uncle José Luis played the trumpet and Dad played the harmonica. I’m not surprised—I remember his playing any tune on our organ by ear when I was a child. Juan Manuel is pleased to honor my request to play a tune on his symphonia before we all embrace goodnight.
With a touch of jet-lag that has us tapping the snooze button half-a-dozen times the next morning, Brad and I wake slowly before picking Dad up and driving coastal road 901 from Yabucoa into Maunabo, the village of my father’s childhood. The road scales mountain cliffs that drop off to the sea. Kiosks or “friquitines” selling cod fritters and houses painted peach, green, blue, purple or ochre, reminiscent of a Diego Rivera mural, dot the road. San Juan has its fine homes and sophistication, but out here in the country, there are signs of a land plagued by high unemployment and economic woes. Many of the houses are in states of squalid decay and the roadside is littered with rusted cars and school buses whose only occupants are lizards darting in and out of the broken windows and wild vines and thickets growing over the hoods.
Still, Puerto Ricans have pride in their homeland, and unlike the political apathy or despondency found in some areas of the US, islanders vote at some of the highest rates in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world. Whether in favor of statehood, independence or remaining a commonwealth, Puerto Ricans are passionate.
As we drive, Dad tells me, “Every night before I go to sleep, I meditate. I envision the beach I played on as a boy, the beach you see now. My family didn’t have much, but we were happy, so really…we had everything. The memories calm my mind and body.”
I look out the window at the land he loved. I hear the sounds of a waterfall tumbling down to the sea along the craggy rocks embedded in the mountains and inhale the heady scents of papaya and mango. Towering African palms dance in the breeze. The Caribbean waves lap along the beaches of pure white sand below us. I didn’t appreciate it when I was here as a child. Beauty in the midst of poverty.
It’s worth the trip.
I finally get to meet my second cousin, Nitza, and her husband, Felix. Nitza’s aunt was married to my uncle Juan and I suppose that makes her my second cousin. She loves the Puerto Rican side of my family, and like me, has been researching our history. We’ve been communicating by phone and mail for the past two years.
“Ay—it’s so wonderful to meet you. I feel like I’ve known you forever! You could have been one of my babies!” She envelopes me in her ample arms. Nitza leads us on a tour of Maunabo. The plaza is more intimate than I remember. A colonial church with a simple white-washed façade and bell tower sits at the center. The old clothing store that my grandmother, Abuela Chepa, owned and where my father bought the winning lottery ticket that changed his life is still there. Sadly, it’s now a sports bar with Latin music pumping out the windows.
Dad is tickled to learn his childhood friend, Guillermo, is still the owner of the neighboring store. We head to Guillermo’s house. He has opened two additional stores selling clothing and textiles in the few decades since Dad has seen him, and purchased the only two-story house on the block, probably the only one in Maunabo. We meet his wife and eldest daughter. A few minutes later, Guillermo strolls down the block with a small parcel of groceries. Dad is extremely fond of his old friend, as it was Guillermo, affectionately known as “YiYo,” who encouraged him to follow his gut and buy the famous lottery ticket. YiYo’s eyes open wide as golf balls when he recognizes his visitor. They embrace warmly, a man-to-man abrazo, and reminisce about their boyhoods.
Nitza refers to Maunabo as a “virgin town,” a place that hasn’t been touched. It has kept its flavor. There may be more buildings and more cars (there were only three in town when Dad was a young man), but the feeling of the town is relatively unchanged.
My only surviving uncle is José Luis, age ninety-two. He spends his days at the senior center, playing cards or dominos. Our visit creates quite a stir; turistas are rare in Maunabo. The other patrons soon realize that my father is more than a tourist. Amidst the many hugs and pats on the back, one shouts, “Hey, you’re a León—the one who won the lottery—the luckiest fellow in town!”
All of Dad’s five brothers (I only had one aunt who lived to eighty-five) lived well into their nineties. My grandmother lost her first eight babies in infancy due to illness, such as dysentery or malaria, and after having seven additional children, she lived to ninety-nine. I deduce that once someone the León family makes it past infancy, he or she lives close to a century. In my genealogical research I may discover a link to Ponce de León, the first explorer to Puerto Rico, and his mythical fountain of youth.
That evening we dine at Nitza’s home. I have never seen my father, usually taciturn, so animated. He holds up his glass of wine, declaring, “I have taken you people completely into my heart and soul!”
My relatives have made sure that my stomach is content and my heart is full.
Our culinary experience continues the following day at my cousin Jeanette’s home. She prepared local specialties for lunch: pasteles filled with beef, boiled potatoes, salad with carrots and garbanzos laced with sweet vinegar, pork wrapped in bacon and papaya candy with Puerto Rican white cheese for dessert. She leads a toast. The entire family joins hands while Jeanette thanks us for our visit. We sit for several hours and savor the aromas and flavors of her efforts.
I have been here fewer than forty-eight hours and I feel as if my family has increased ten-fold.
I also learn that if you put a group of Puerto Ricans in a room, they’ll eventually figure out how they’re related. Jeanette’s husband, Alberto, knows the owner of our hotel and tells Brad and me to inform him we’re family so we’ll get the red carpet treatment. The maintenance man at the hotel has such a distinct accent, I think he’s Jamaican but he’s a New Yorker and a Puerto Rican—a Nuyorican, now relocated to the island. He tells us that once he took the job at the hotel he discovered the front desk clerk is his cousin.
Brad, Dad and I spend the next day in the historic village of Ponce, and naturally, get stuck in several Puerto Rican traffic jams. That evening Brad treats the whole family to a sumptuous meal at a local restaurant and I hear more stories about the legendary talents of Abuela Chepa, the curandera who healed villagers with herbs and the laying on of hands.The following day we drop Dad off at the airport in San Juan, getting lost amidst honking horns and bottleneck traffic on the way, of course. Brad and I eventually make it to our hotel in Condado Beach near old San Juan. This historic part of the city is filled with 16th century pastel colored town houses fronted by intimate courtyards, crisscrossing cobblestone streets and the magnificent El Morro Fort, a national treasure. We spend the next two days enjoying the food, shops, vistas and the wild parties of salsa and mambo that spill out of bars onto the street and last until the morning sun starts to rise.
On the way back to California, I can’t help feeling melancholy. Yet I’ve found a piece of myself, my history, who I am. I’ve found a place where I belong, a place I can call “home.”
For that I am grateful.
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