my mom sent me a link a while ago to a post on some puerto rican tourism site started by white americans who moved there about a gallup poll that determined puerto rico is the third happiest nation on the planet, following costa rica and panama, making it (the puerto rican tourism site started by white americans who moved there was quick to point out) the happiest island on the planet, because of course she did. my mom’s relationship with puerto rico is a fascinating and complicate thing: she never wanted me to grow up there, she told me many times not to marry a puerto rican man, she really loved the beginning of beauty and the beast because she related retroactively to belle, there must be more than this provincial life! but when we were growing up on the mainland, in, generally, aggressively white-american areas, physically and otherwise (one of the partners at my father’s manhattan law firm told my mother they were very proud to have made in my father their first ever minority hire as a lawyer, which is extra hilarious considering that my father had no idea he was a minority until he went to law school), she was always very clear, like, we are not them, they are not us, etc.
a lot of times this came out in conversations about parents, the ann arbor moms who wanted to know what computer program i was using that made me so precocious (my mom: “and i was like, none? i just talked to my kid?”), the prep school college admissions frenzy, her bone-deep horror at the custom of throwing your child out of the house just because they turn eighteen. american parents are barbaric, she’s said over and over, or when i told her she didn’t need to help me buy a workplace wardrobe, it’s what people do, help their kids, only assholes and americans don’t. this is funny because of course her parents are actually barbaric: the reason i don’t speak spanish is because she was so afraid of inheriting her mother’s abusive patterns is that when we moved to michigan she spoke english in the house to force herself to think when she spoke to me.
i think a lot about an eavan boland poem where she talks about speaking with “the forked tongue of colony” and imagines listening to an unbroken irish language: “and i hear it. what i am safe from. what i have lost.” what i am safe from: the violence that led my mother to perceive my father as a safe harbor, and also, you know, not being white. i speak english like any suburban cheerleader. i have a name that actually speaks to some very precise histories of migration (the basque emigration to the caribbean, but even the british part of my name comes from my cailfornia-raised great-grandfather who came over in 1898 to help the united states pretty up their new toy in exchange for citizenship) but doesn’t sound like what americans think latin american names sound like, and skin like rita moreno’s which she had to darken to be “convincing” as a puerto rican in west side story. (i hate that story but i’m glad i know that story. when i think about that story i always hear my mom going, they think we all look like j. lo! and i mean i would love to look like j. lo but we don’t!) what this means is i am safe, even unencumbered, in a way my mother, with an even englisher name and paler skin than mine, and with an accent so light i literally didn’t know she had one until a middle school friend pointed it out, isn’t. (shout out to the professor who expressed surprise to her face, in the middle of class, that my mother, a married hispanic woman, should admire the wife of bath; another story i love to hate.)
what i have lost: it never seems right to feel it, because i know uncompromised safety is so much. maybe this is another way in which i’m aggressively assimilated, along with drinking gringo coffee and not calling her often enough: it’s my instinct to say, what’s a heritage, what are ancestors, why should these things be worth mourning. is there a more american thought process than this? like that goodreads review of oscar wao that claimed the chapters about his grandfather weighed the story down! i can’t carry on a conversation with my relatives, who cares. i can’t dance (this i think my mother considers her greatest failing as a parent, to have raised a puerto rican daughter who dances like a taylor swift gif on loop), who cares. i can’t—this is the only thing i remember ever crying about to a therapist, when i was twelve, before my father threatened her with legal action and she stopped seeing me—i can’t speak the language i was born with, the language my family, i mean my full family, one time in first grade i had to bring in “a picture of my family” and my mom went crazy tearing through photo albums because she couldn’t find one that wasn’t missing this aunt or that grandparent but of course the teacher meant, you know, my nuclear family, the language they surrounded me with in the three years before we left the island which i sometimes think are the reason i am alive, that i (the first grandchild, and a girl at that!) was so, so loved when i entered the world, passed around and photographed and smiled at, i think maybe that was like a charm or a spell, some kind of fortification against my father’s dark magic, who cares if that’s not a world i have access to anymore! (have i ever told tumblr about how much my mom loves harry potter? my mom loves harry potter so much.)
i haven’t ever in my life encountered negative consequences for being puerto rican so it feels nonsensical to say, wow my experience in higher education sure improved by a metric fuckton once i switched to an institution where most of my professors and classmates weren’t white! but it did. it wasn’t something i felt as a lack but it was a relief also to sit in a class filled with mostly latinxs and say “i mean, i’m not religious, but if my grandmother calls me to tell me she had a dream and i can’t take any cabs tomorrow, i am not going to take a cab,” and be understood, and it was also aggravating to sit in that class filled with mostly latinxs but taught by a white american professor and know that she didn’t understand, could only gesture at how “interesting” it was, the perseverance of certain faiths under the imposition of a new religion. i had dinner a while ago with someone who is half puerto-rican and we talked about being the only members of our puerto rican families who have never communicated with the dead, how we’re resentful but it also makes sense because we’d probably flip our shit. i don’t have it in me to take the appearance of a dead relative in stride. once i thought, death is in this house and i came downstairs and my uncle had died, my father’s brother who said to my mother, why are you marrying him? why would you do that to yourself? once my grandmother channeled her grandfather, i think, who came in to settle a dispute about the potential jewishness of his part of the family, and i watched her mouth give her children and her sister advice on how to deal with her own refusal to admit her impending senility. that’s it though. i don’t know if either of those count.
i told my mom i liked the link about the happiness survey because i did even though it’s hard to imagine a methodology for discerning such a metric i would approve of. i like the spirit of it, of her sending it, that she (having taken over my grandmother’s role as the only way to get her to step down despite her increasing mental fragility) would say of course we are the happiest even as she is always the first to remind me of every depressing statistic. she wrote back: We smile. We hug. We help people out without reservation. We party for no reason. And the place is so beautiful it’s hard to be in a bad mood for too long… i always say i don’t care about natural beauty and it’s not untrue but in december we went up into the mountains to spend the day with friends of hers who were trying to organize a day of community art-making to commemorate the anniversary of the deaths of local revolutionaries at the hands of the united states (i mean, a lot of deaths there are at the hands of the united states, but like, physically). i spent most of the day with their four-year-old son, who had learned from a children’s book they had to pipe up when he heard the word marx with MARX ESTABA MALITO PORQUE ESTABA MOLSTO because you don’t need to speak much spanish to be the evil space-ship which spider-man must take down, but at one point his mother took me around the house, built by the children’s father’s father, decorated with her art. we stood on the balcony watching the sun tint the sky orange over a canopy of trees and she told me, apologizing for her english, switching to spanish after i said i could probably get the gist, about growing up alone in the ugly city, about dropping out near the end of a complit degree, about growing herbs and vegetables and giving them to their friends, about trying to talk to her neighbors and almost never being understood, about how even the private schools don’t have art supplies now and her heart ached for teenagers who had never held a paintbrush. about how glad she was to have met my mother. before she rejoined the party she gave me a long hug in the golden light and for a moment i could see it: what i was safe from. what i had lost.