Summer 2008 [Issue No. 14]
Taínos at Large ▪► Rosalie Morales Kearns
She makes us laugh.
Look at her, acting the grownup at twenty-two, a baby! She herds the grandpa from arrival gate through baggage claim, through sliding glass doors and out the chilled airtight container of the San Juan airport.
Unconsciously, they sense something’s different. Something new. Not just the usual wave of hot air swirling around, heat radiating from pavement, chaos of taxis and tourists and the constant roar of traffic from Route 26.
To the grandpa, it smells like ripe fruit.
To Remedios (who, sadly, lacks such an elegantly metaphoric imagination), it just seems like more. Of whatever. More congestion, more noise, more humidity.
“Did anyone call Titi Doris or Tío Nemesio?” she says.
“I’m not sure. Someone’ll show up.”
Here is her first failure as a traveling grownup. If she calls her relatives now and they didn’t know from her parents that she needed a ride, they’ll feel obligated to fight their way through traffic and pick them up.
“If no one shows up in twenty minutes,” she says, “I’ll get us a cab.”
“No need for a cab. We’ll get a ride.”
The grandpa shrugs. “We’ll run into someone.”
He sets his suitcase on its side and sits on it, and Remedios finally understands the advantage of those ancient, hard-plastic suitcases over the sleek wheeled modern ones. She sits down next to him.
The grandpa pages through the Sky Mall catalog he found on the plane. He loves gadgets. Here for a reasonable price are electronic locator chips you can put on your keys. (But what if you lose the transmitter base?) And who doesn’t need a travel clock showing a map of the world with all its time zones? Remedios looks through the tourist brochures from the airport, then pulls out her appointment book and planner. She’s taking a class this summer, she needs the credits to graduate, and get this: she’s charted out the time she’ll spend on the paper she has to hand in: so many hours in the library, so many outlining, drafting, revising. This kid slays us.
A figure of speech. We can’t be slain. Not anymore.
The grandpa points to a picture of an electric nose trimmer. “This’ll make me handsome,” he says, and she smiles. Those who don’t know him — tourists, flight personnel, maybe you, walking by — see a short, skinny old man. Black, you’d call him if you’re Anglo, trigueño if you’re Puerto Rican. You’d see weathered skin, gray-wire hair, discount dentistry. Handsome might not be the word that leaps to mind. But the air currents love him, they chuckle along with him and caress his cheek, and his granddaughter sees the face she loves more than any in the world. Handsome, not-handsome has nothing to do with it.
Remedios, now, that’s another story. It makes us happy to look at her. Luminous eyes, dimples, multiple braids with tiny beaded strands of red and white. Radiantly beautiful and she has no idea. She’d rather look in a book than in a mirror, rather be in biology class or chem lab than a clothing store. So focused, so organized. So darn serious.
She checks her watch, stands up to wave a taxi over.
The grandpa tugs at her blouse. “Not yet,” he says. “A few minutes more.”
You keep an eye on him, the grandma had said. Don’t humor him. You have to be firm.
She wants to reason with him. They’re on an island of four million people, at an international airport serving tens of thousands of passengers a day. What are the odds that someone they know will happen to pass by in the next few minutes? He was a janitor in the Bronx for decades before he retired, spent his adult life with modern technology, she’s even taught him how to download plena music from the internet, but he gets back here and thinks it’s 1942, thinks he’s on the dirt road from Jayuya to Coabey and someone he knows is bound to pass by and pick him up.
They’d talked about this in an anthropology class, the migration from rural to industrial, clash of tradition and modernity. Old folks can’t seem to adjust. Sad.
Of course a station wagon pulls up in front of them, a neighbor of Doris and yes, they’re headed for Cayey right now, of course they have room, hop in.
Of course. Shouldn’t she know that?
Dinner that night is at Titi Josefa’s house, crammed with everyone else who lives nearby, the grandma’s sisters, cousins and siblings of Remedios’s mother, some family of her father’s. Remedios is passed from relative to relative for hugs. They caress her face, push a braid behind her ear, pull imaginary lint from her blouse and pat her approvingly, hold up her arm to admire her bracelets. It’s the contact that matters, the loving hands. It’s not enough to look, to speak and listen, we have to touch. We’re part of each other.
Like the grandma, the great-aunts are large, graceful women with voices loud and resonant as cellos. They take charge of their brother-in-law, tell him where to sit, hand him plates of yuca, arroz con gandules, pernil. “You need to eat more,” they scold him, “you’re skin and bones,” as if he hadn’t always been this way, as if he hadn’t been skinny and nervous the first time they saw him, coming round to court their youngest sister. How they’d laughed. “Don’t sit on his lap, Tati, you’ll crush him.” The grandpa dutifully eats the food, answers questions, looks adoringly at the large women looming over him.
Remedios sits outside on the front porch with her cousins. They’re happy to see her but no one seems to know what to say to her, how to bring her in to their jokes and gossip. It’s been five years since her last visit, even more years since she spent whole summers here, the cousins always together in a sweaty, squabbling pack. She remembers them all spilling down the side streets to buy piraguas and popsicles from the colmado near an aunt’s house, or spending all afternoon at the beach, playing in the water and washing off in the outdoor shower. Afterwards the grownups would stop at a kiosk by the road and feed them empanadillas of cheese or ground beef, frituras, alcapurrias, deep fried in vats of oil that had probably never been changed.
Remedios shows them the brochures she got at the airport. The tourism office, the chamber of commerce, a hotel consortium all have their own tourist books, large-format, fifty-plus pages of glossy photos and detailed information, what to see, how to get there, when it’s open, how much it costs.
“Look at this stuff,” she says, “it’s all golf courses and beaches and old Spanish architecture. You’d never know there’s black people here, that Africa had anything to do with Puerto Rico except for music and those vejigante masks in Loiza.”
“I heard most of the people in Loiza are Pentecostals,” says a cousin.
“Well,” another says, “that’s what they tell anyone with a tape recorder and a camera.”
“You mean journalists?” Remedios says. “Or anthropologists?”
“But why? Why bother lying about our ways?”
“Cause they don’t understand. And it’s none of their business.”
It’s a simple project, Remedios thinks. She needs a few non-science credits to graduate, has arranged an independent study, she’s going to write a paper about African cultural influence among Puerto Ricans. For her the most obvious thing to focus on is the spiritual practices handed down through generations. Besides her bio/chem major, she’s taken any class she could on the African Diaspora, courses in art history, anthropology, comparative literature, has read plenty about vodou in Haiti, candomblé in Brazil, regla and palo monte in Cuba, has learned about West African art, Caribbean politics. There were no classes offered on African-based spirituality in Puerto Rico, but she assumes that’s because they didn’t have a specialist on the faculty. She figures the books must be out there, it’s just a matter of reading them.
Her professor has said she can analyze anything, TV shows, songs on the radio, commercials, billboards. But she would rather work with books, preferably something scholarly, with solid data. How can you draw conclusions without evidence?
At the library she finds a couple of books on Puerto Rican pop culture. She figures the professor will like that. She tries to read slowly, carefully, but starts paging through the books impatiently. Nothing useful.
Something more promising: a book on Afro-Caribbean religious practices, though it’s about Cubans in New York and it’s by a white Anglo. He spends months interviewing them, they let him follow them around, sit in on sessions with the babalawo, celebrations for orishas. But here’s something odd. He says “santería” (as he calls it) originated in Cuba, spread to the Puerto Rican community after Cubans moved to New York in the sixties.
The grandpa has served the orishas all his life, he always told her that. Learned it from his parents, and they from theirs, on and on. He has his little altar on a shelf in a corner of the living room, a picture of San Lazaro, Babaluayé, with purple candles, a shot glass he replenishes with rum, a cigar in a glass dish. The grandma has her altar to Aya in their bedroom. Her own parents don’t have personal altars but they go to the big celebrations, know the words to the songs, the dance steps.
When she was little the grandpa was the only adult in the family who worked night shift, so he was her babysitter after school. They would go on outings, the normal things, she thought, that little girls and their grandpas did all across the country. To Orchard Beach or the playground, to off-track betting. Admiring the penguins at the Bronx Zoo, shopping for herbs and candles in the botánica on the Grand Concourse, going to an old man who threw shells on a table and told the future. At his own altar the grandpa would light the candles and the cigar, sometimes take a small sip of the rum and spew it out in a fine mist onto the picture of San Lazaro. Occasionally he had a special request that needed “a bigger altar,” so they went to the Bronx Botanical Gardens and went through the same routine, as far as she could tell, though maybe it lasted longer. Same mumbled singsong prayers, same cigar smoke, but a whole mouthful of rum would get spouted onto the earth and he would leave something resting on the roots of a big tree, a special offering, he told her, that “the tree likes.”
“One of my grandmothers,” he liked to say, “she got off a slave ship the day before slavery time ended,” and he always said this in an odd accent, which Remedios later recognized from her studies was African, what people retained in memory of the pronunciation of parents or grandparents, the bozal accent that they used in special prayers or when an orisha manifested in a follower to speak to the rest of the believers.
She read about all of it, the significance of taking in a special liquid and spitting it out again, the divine energy of trees, the ability to summon an orisha to speak through you. The other students at City College found it exotic; even the African Americans thought of it as something distant, excitingly foreign, as if it didn’t happen on 181st St. or Fordham Rd.
Remedios tries another book. Something about witchcraft, whatever that is. A woman from Argentina has come to Puerto Rico, spends months interviewing people, they let her follow them around, sitting in on their sessions of whatever it is that brujas did. Oh, and here it is: “santería” is “foreign,” looked down on because of the ritual animal sacrifice, and imported from Cuba in the 1960s.
She remembers the day she started ninth grade, going to the Bronx High School of Science. She would have to take a bus and a subway by herself. She was old enough, her mother declared firmly. The grandpa waited till the others were busy in the kitchen, then took her over to his little altar. “We don’t have much time,” he said, puffing on the cigar and waving its smoke all around her. She couldn’t understand most of what he was mumbling, except “Baba, protect this child,” and then he took a sip of rum and she had just enough time to close her eyes before he spat it out all over her, the droplets surprisingly gentle, like she was being sprayed by her mother’s perfume mister, a fine rum mist settling on her hair, her skin. Next thing she knew her mother was grabbing her, swatting the grandpa. “What are you thinking, old man, she’ll go to school smelling like she lives in a bar. You’d think you were straight off the boat.” She shooed Remedios off to change clothes, while the grandpa laughed and danced around and talked about his grandmother and the slave ship. Remedios was still giggling to herself about it when she rushed into the school building with a crowd of other students and into classrooms, into labs, into the life of a mind always observing, questioning. “We’re not judging,” her first biology teacher said, “we’re just trying to understand.” Photosynthesis, ribonucleic acid, cell metabolism, tectonic plates and gulf streams. Microscopes, telescopes, what do you see? What does it mean? What’s out there? She loved all of it.
Remedios stacks the rejected books into a neat pile. There has to be something else. She pulls out a book bound in dark blue leather. It seems to have no title, or else the title faded over the years. She opens it, turns page after blank page, waiting for something to start, a story, a theory, some words on paper. But nothing, all the way through to the end. She puts it back on the shelf, pulls out the one next to it, ah, this one’s by a Puerto Rican woman, studying black Puerto Rican religious beliefs, perfect. The author has spent months interviewing people, they let her follow them around, sitting in on their church services and meetings. All Christians, it turns out. Born-agains, in fact. And yes, she should have figured, santería came to Puerto Rico from Cuba. Imported. Foreign.
She’s tired of reading. “You’re not in here,” she says out loud.
Another thing she figured all little girls did: greet the ancestors at a grownup’s altar, “Hello, ancestors,” she would say, always a matter-of-fact child, nothing ornate like, “I send you greetings.” It’s all right. We understand.
“It’s like you’re invisible,” she says now. “It’s like you’re standing here and they’re looking right through you.”
We know, girl. We’re getting tired of it.
“I thought this would be easy,” she writes to her professor in an email. She tells him about the books, she even mentions the tourist pamphlets. “How can I do research,” she asks, “without data?”
His answer comes back: “Study the absences.” He talks like that in class too, making gnomic pronouncements that Remedios works hard to translate into ordinary English. “How about this?” he writes. “Design an alternative tourist brochure--illustrating the invisible, voicing the silent.”
“OK,” she replies. She’s tempted to write, “Whatever,” but she doesn’t.
The old people have more energy than the young ones, they move around between living room, kitchen, and patio and keep a conversation going the whole time, shouting if they have to. These must be Gladys’s surullitos, she makes the best. Traffic around Aibonito’s getting like San Juan. Who made these pasteles de yuca? I can’t afford to retire. Who can? Genara’s getting worse, she’s going to need one of those oxygen tanks on wheels. Just like what happened with Mari, rest in peace. Have you heard the latest--guess who’s granddaughter is pregnant? Hey, didn’t we use to gossip about whose daughter was pregnant? And before that, which ones of us were pregnant? Wasn’t that just the other day? We’re getting old. You might be, I’m not. We’re the same age. So?
Once they’ve settled down in the living room with their plates of food, they survey the young ones and talk about them in lowered voices. This nena from New York, for instance, Tati’s granddaughter. One day she’s just another loud, popsicle-smudged, constant-motion kid, and you turn around and here she is, grownup and serious. One of the aunts grabs her as she passes by, asking, So what are you doing with yourself, girl, forgetting that’s the question they used to dread at that age. But the girl doesn’t seem to mind, she explains she’s almost finished with college, wants to get another degree, though, and can’t decide which subject, forest ecology or oceanography.
“You’re going for more schooling? What did you study already?”
“I majored in plant biology.”
“Plants? What’s there to know that the old folks haven’t already told us? Don’t worry, I’m kidding, mija, but you know, I bet you could tell me all sorts of things about that houseplant over there”--she points to an aloe vera in a big planter by the TV--“about its roots and how it reacts to sunlight and all that. But the plant has healing power, you have to know how to approach it in the right way, so it’s willing to give you its aché. Learn both, mija, learn all those facts and the larger truth.”
“The old people,” say the old people, “they had a respect for nature. We’ve lost that.” But then they argue over it. Nilda is an expert herbalist and she’s got apprentices. Millo can make anything grow, have you seen what’s he’s done with his garden?
Every so often the old people glance at the muted TV. Pito just got cable and they’re still enjoying the novelty of all those incomprehensible shows. Someone sifts through the channels and picks one where an Anglo preacher is giving a sermon, one of those modern mega-churches with huge windows, glass and steel. He’s strutting across a stage, microphone in hand. Even with the sound off, they can see he’s threatening the crowd with eternal punishment from an angry creator-god.
“He’s probably asking for money,” one of them says. They had learned that when you approach the orishas you always have to make an offering, give something in return for what you're getting, but it can be a single penny, a single grain of corn, if you can't afford good rum or piles of sweets."
“Of course he wants money. Think of the rent he has to pay on that place.”
The preacher is sweating, raising his hands and gesturing at the ceiling.
“That suit, I bet it’s real silk. Probably cost thousands.”
“Must be Italian. I saw one like it at Nono Maldonado’s.”
“Going to buy it, Chalo?”
“Yeah, and be sure to put it on me for my funeral. I won’t be able to afford a coffin, but I’ll look damn good.”
“Brother, when you go I’ll wrap you in plantain leaves and put you under that aguacate tree out back. And I’m keeping the suit.”
“Jesucristo was an herbalist,” Paulina says, and others murmur assent. The more literal-minded are tempted to say that this fact isn’t mentioned in the Gospels, but they don’t bother. It doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Remedios drives around the island in a great-uncle’s rust-brown Chevy. She has a notebook, a camera, plans in her head already for the anti-Fodor’s experience, the alternative to the Chamber of Commerce sunshine and beaches. The Ghost Tour.
She doesn’t know where she got the idea for the name, but she’s pleased with it.
On a walking tour of Old San Juan she listens to the guide describing the ornate colonial architecture.
On the boat tour of the Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve she learns about all the ecosystems in that one small corner of the island: mangrove swamp, rocky beach, sandy beach, dry forest, lagoon, coral reef.
At Hacienda Buena Vista she listens politely while the guide enthuses about their beautiful restoration of a coffee plantation. Teams of scholars studied old documents, photographs, blueprints, and here’s the manor house just as gracious as it was in the 1850s, and this is the actual machinery they used, restored to working order.
Remedios listens, but she hears other voices too. The slave artisans working in the capital, conferring quietly over plans, sharpening tools, calculating angles. In the wetlands remarkable for its mangrove trees she hears the silence of escaped slaves, communicating in touch, in gesture because they’ve quickly learned how easily sound travels across water. At the coffee plantation she hears them conversing as they pick beans or split logs, as they rest in the evening, a few thicknesses of coffee sack between their aching muscles and the packed-earth floor.
She thinks about photos to put in her brochure.
The aqueduct at Buena Vista that slave children had to squeeze into, crawling through the dark, chilly tunnels to remove twigs, pebbles, anything that blocked the flow of the re-routed river water.
Next to a photo of a mangrove will be a map of probable escape routes, and a chart with statistics on how long a human being can survive on only a handful of nuts and tubers a day, how long on no food at all, correlated with variables such as average nighttime temperature and availability of fresh water.
A map of the night sky, so different from the one they saw at home.
A photo of the classic blue-water white-sand beach. The caption reading, This is where, according to legend, the woman known as Conga Maria flew back to Africa.
Beneath a charming shot of the cobblestone square by the Dominican Convent, the caption: At this spot in 1591, four African women were burned to death on charges of witchcraft, by order of the bishop.
A ceiba tree, from its stupendous roots to its magnificent canopy: Some West Africans, the caption will read, had this same tree back home, which they called the kapok. Others met it for the first time and they called it iroko or nkunia nsambi, tree of god. They knew it wasn’t the same tree as the one at home called iroko; the name indicated their appreciation of the tree’s majesty and spiritual power, their understanding that every land has its own sacred tree. Since most native plants in the Caribbean were unknown to them, Africans used their skills as herbalists to acquire a new and extensive body of botanical knowledge, which they transmitted orally to subsequent generations.
In another library Remedios finally finds a book on “santería” that acknowledges its roots in Puerto Rico rather than claiming it came from Cuba. The author, a Puerto Rican woman from a wealthy blanquita family, remembers learning about the orishas from her nanny, an elderly black woman whose mother was from Africa. This nanny, like most servants depicted by the wealthy in their memoirs, novels, and plays, is devoted to her employers and content with her lot, not at all unhappy about the inequitable distribution of education, jobs, and other resources in a racially stratified society.
Remedios is puzzled. This author, now a grownup, seems to be taken as some kind of expert on Afro-Caribbean spirituality, even though she writes in her book that “santería” is primitive and naïve. Even though she admits that an earlier edition of her book contained substantial errors because the people she interviewed had deliberately misinformed her. Even though she’s published a dozen or so books with titles like Use African Magic to Pick Your Lucky Number.
What’s odd is, on that same shelf is a blank book, exactly like the one in the other library, same dark blue binding, worn smooth and shiny with age, same texture of the paper, slightly mottled but opaque, so that when you turn a page it seems like light is shining through it.
Remedios sits down with the book, picks a glowing page, and starts to write.
“Important Concepts in Afro-Caribbean Philosophy,” she puts at the top of the page. Scientist that she is, she’s never been much of a narrative writer. She prefers lists.
Since first grade, her family celebrated her educational accomplishments. From the grandpa especially she got even more than the usual torrent of hugs and compliments for each perfect score on a math test, every A in science class, and the science fair prizes she won each year of high school. She remembers at age nine or ten, sitting at the kitchen table with the grandpa’s arm around her. “This kid’s too smart to be my grandchild,” he said, and the grandma sputtered and fumed. “What does that say about me, malcriado?” and clattered pots and pans around on the stove while the grandpa and Remedios giggled quietly. “Our mailman was a very smart guy,” he whispered. Loud enough, of course, for the grandma to hear.
She continues the list:
Growing up, Remedios had a vague sense that religions contained lists of do’s and don’ts. Her mother would mention them sometimes, especially while talking back to the news on TV. “Thou shalt not steal, it’s the seventh commandment,” she would say, or she’d shake her head at coverage of some criminal being led away to prison, “That’s what happens when you break God’s commandments.”
The grandpa didn’t help her any by quizzing her: “What’s the Third Commandment?”
“Uh, I don’t know. Don’t lie?”
“No, it’s don’t leave the butter out of the refrigerator.”
“How about the Eleventh Commandment?”
She never did learn the whole list, and she still feels slightly confused when she goes into a church for a friend’s wedding or a funeral. She likes the old-fashioned Catholic churches because they have candles that she can light and put coins in a jar. But then she’ll be in a Protestant church and feel totally disoriented. If you can’t make offerings, then how do you connect?
She closes the book, goes to put it back on the shelf, but decides to add one more item.
Next stop on the Ghost Tour: Museum of Art of Puerto Rico, where you can see the work of José Campeche, a free black man who made his name as an artist two centuries ago, four or five generations before slavery was abolished. He specialized in portraits of wealthy Spaniards, bishops and governors, colonists with their little blonde children, elaborate Catholic paintings of manifestations of Mary, Our Lady of Mercy, Our Lady of Consolation.
The one Remedios would like to reproduce in her brochure is Campeche’s enigmatic portrait of Bishop Francisco de La Cuerda y García.
She knows that priests bought slave women as domestic servants, then sexually exploited them just like other enslavers. She knows that a bishop passed an ordinance that said an unmarried slave woman who died in childbirth would not be given a Christian burial, and anyone who tried to give her one would be excommunicated. The ordinance applied to unmarried free black women too, but not white women.
De la Cuerda stands out against his opulent surroundings, which Campeche has lovingly detailed: velvet drapes and upholstery, elaborately carved chair and bookcases, satin vestments in royal purple that matches the stone in his ring. But that’s not what stops Remedios cold as she walks into the gallery. It’s the bishop’s dark eyes, alive and formidably intelligent. He’s looking right at you, you think you see contempt, but more likely he doesn’t care enough about you to despise you. Or no, maybe he’s a man of integrity and what you see as ruthlessness is merely fierceness in the service of the holy, or no, that’s what he thinks of himself, a cruel man but a true believer.
A prince of the church, the caption will read, sitting for a portrait by the son of a slave.
She feels she needs to include an economics lesson, something short and easy to understand. Instead of “Historical Background,” the title will be something like “Did You Know?”
She fears readers’ eyes will glaze over at words like “mono-crop.” Time for an illustration. She’ll sketch a machine, something simple, with a chute labeled “In” and another labeled “Out.” The machine itself will be labeled “Plantation.”
Let’s say you own this machine. You don’t need to understand complex economic theory. All you have to do is feed workers into the machine (step 1, not illustrated). The machine then crunches them up (step 2, also not illustrated), consumes their sweat, muscle, spirit for as long as their bodies can survive, and then (step 3, see above), the machine produces sugar, coffee, tobacco, all the things everyone wants but no one actually requires.
The only thing you need to know is that if you own such a machine, the profits you “earn” are unprecedented in the history of capitalism. No mere factory owner could even dream of the money you rake in on such low-cost investment.
Remedios wishes she could include a sound recording with the brochure. Not of music—if people are interested, there’s plenty of places they can buy or download bomba, plena, rumba. She wants conversations. She can feel their vibrations lingering in the humid air when she looks through the window of the slave quarters at Buena Vista. People huddling there, injured, ill, or at best hungry and exhausted. They managed to learn the language of the profit-hungry sadists who abducted them. They used this language to talk to each other, people of different nations, Ibo, Yoruba, Ewe, Fon, Carabalí, Hausa, Ashante, Mendé.
There were practical conversations, how to treat a fever or toothache, how to handle a breech birth, how to avoid heat stroke. What eases the bloody, oozing welts raised by the white man’s whip. We had a plant we used for headache. We had the same one, with a different name. Nothing like that grows around here.
What lies down that path? Over that hill? Which way is the ocean?
Where are you from? What was it like there? What stories did they tell?
The stories came late at night, when people were too exhausted to speak about their current life, too demoralized to think about escape.
Someone would finish a story and others would say, We have a story like that, only for us the mpungu of lightning is called Nsasi. He must have changed his name when he traveled from our land to yours. Tell us the one we hadn’t heard about, what happened to him when he quarreled with his brother, the mpungu of hunting. . .
Your child didn’t only learn the stories told to you by your elders. You shared those stories, yes, but you also told her the stories you learned from the strangers-turned-friends who shared this terrible life with you. You passed along their ways, their values, their wisdom, along with your own. A culture of solidarity, rooted in Africa but flowering in a different way on each island.
Remedios pages through great-aunt Josefa’s photo album. Most of the pictures are from the last couple of decades, pictures of Josefa and her husband and their siblings when they’re already adults, with children and grandchildren. The ones of the older generation are few and faded.
“Who’s this one?” she asks her cousin Jorge. “And who’s that?”
“I don’t know.”
“She’s our grandma’s sister, don’t you know who they are?”
“You don’t know either.”
“I don’t live right next door.” He’s eighteen and she feels a million years older at twenty-two.
Jorge’s sister Vanessa is fiddling around with a tarot deck. “Who wants a reading?”
“That’s not our tradition,” Remedios says.
“So let’s add it in.”
“You don’t even know what those cards mean,” her brother says.
“Yes I do.” She pulls out a card. “Four of swords. That means taking stock, retreating.”
“Looks like a guy lying on a coffin. This is really morbid.”
“Shut up. And this one is the Queen of Pentacles, a creative, earthy woman. This next one is The Fool, it means—“
“El bobo? Hey that’s you, Remedios.” He pokes her arm.
Remedios jabs him with her elbow. “No, he’s blond, he looks more like you.” Jorge is one of the darkest of all the cousins.
She and Jorge laugh, but Vanessa is annoyed. “In case anyone’s interested,” she says, “The Fool symbolizes someone going on a spiritual journey. And it means openness to wisdom—so that’s neither one of you.”
“She got us, Jorge. The child speaks the truth.”
Remedios turns a page to a photo that looks like the oldest in the book. Its edges are mottled, rumpled with humidity. A tall, solemn-looking woman about Remedios’s age stands in a wooden doorframe in a simple cotton dress, hair meticulously braided. She seems to be scrutinizing the photographer, creating an impression of him in her mind just as much as he’s creating an image of her with camera and film.
“That’s grandma’s mother,” Vanessa says.
Idelisa. Her mother’s mother’s mother. Remedios has seen a few pictures of her among the grandma’s collection of photos, but in those she’s looking distracted or her face is out of focus, and what’s more, she’s never alone, she’s a mother by then, posing for a family picture with a row of sons and daughters, fresh-faced children who are now the older generation, the grandma and the great-aunts and -uncles. Everyone knows that if you’re going to have photos of ancestors on your altar, they shouldn’t include living people.
She hasn’t yet gone with the grandpa to a diviner to find out who her orisha is, but they all know what the answer will be. They tell her stories about herself when she was little, how she was thrilled by lightning instead of afraid. How the grandma had found some beautiful red-glass beads from Africa that she used in an altar cloth to her orisha, Aya, and when she gave the extras to Remedios the child had seemed puzzled, hadn’t wanted the beads to be made into a bracelet till she saw some white ones in the grandma’s bead basket. Can we add these to the bracelet, grandma? How one Halloween she had used a red shawl as a cape and made a sword out of poster paper. Who are you? they’d asked her. I don’t know, but I’m fierce!
She’s heard the stories so often she’s not sure if she remembers the actual events or just the images from the stories. What she does remember is being at a tambor when she was in high school and one of the babalochas went into a trance state. (Spirit possession, it’s called in the dry terminology of the anthropologists. The orisha speaks through you, rides you like a horse, but possession has nothing to do with it. No one owns anyone else. The orisha comes to a person who’s willing and is properly trained, it stays briefly to have its say, and then leaves. They should call it spirit communication.) The entranced babalocha had strutted around and glared. He spoke in a booming voice to the believers who came up to him with requests for help and advice. “Get your act together!” he bellowed at a man who’d claimed he couldn’t find a job. To a nervous-looking young man: “Of course you don’t sleep well at night and you never will, till you give me what you promised. You tell me, ‘Changó, if I get that promotion, I’ll sacrifice a chicken.’ Did you think I would forget?”
Not a comforting spirit, Changó. Not what you’d call a nurturer. More like a hand slapping you awake. Remedios had felt the air vibrating with energy, her whole body stimulated, like sexual arousal, only not focused in any one body part. Like every cell was awake.
So yes, on her altar will be red and white candles, a dish of fresh coconut. She’s made a copy of Titi Josefa’s picture of Idelisa. Back home there’s a photo of the grandpa’s oldest brother, Miguel Angel, who was like a father to him. She’ll make a copy of that, see whether her dad has photos from his side. She wants other pictures, though. There are ancestors she wants to claim retroactively, and who knows, they might be related somewhere way back. She starts listing names in her notebook. Harriet Tubman, intrepid guide to escaping slaves, military strategist and advisor to Civil War generals. Rafael Cordero, a free black man who turned his home in San Juan into a school for children of all races, supported himself rolling cigars and mending shoes, didn’t charge his students anything. Calixta Morales, who shared her considerable wisdom and herbal knowledge with the Cuban ethnographer Lydia Cabrera. Ibrahim Ferrer, the Cuban singer rediscovered in old age and featured in the documentary Buena Vista Social Club. Remedios loved how he insisted on introducing his large wife to the camera crew, looking at her adoringly while she glowered at the intrusive strangers. Si dios y mi mujer lo permiten, he would say of any hoped-for event. If God and my wife permit it. Equal powers in his life, equally revered.
There’ll come a day when the grandpa’s picture will be on her altar. She can’t bear to think of it. When she goes to find him, he’s in Josefa’s backyard with a plate of leftovers that he carefully sets on the ground. “Easier than going down to the alley, isn’t it?” he says. He never would let the rest of them put food scraps in the trash. “Don’t waste it,” he would say. He would pile it all together, bits of meat, rice and beans, lettuce leaves, take it downstairs. She wonders what their neighbors in the building have thought of him all these years, or people in the alley doing whatever people do at night in alleys, money changing hands for furtive sex, for a pill or two, a tiny bag of ground-up weed, something to keep the despair away. No one gives him any trouble, that skinny old guy putting chicken bones out for the strays. A harmless eccentric, they must think. A country bumpkin. “It’s for Elegua,” he had explained to Remedios years ago. “But he lets the cats and dogs eat it. And sometimes he comes along in the form of a dog, so you must never be cruel to them. You never know.”
Next stop on the Ghost Tour: the Cordillera Central, the mountain range that runs across the island. When people managed to escape slavery, this is where they came. You’ve heard the expression, Head for the hills? It’s common sense, really. Hills have forests and caves and if there are roads, they’re not good ones. The hills will hide you.
There’s our Remedios, driving along in great-uncle Wilson’s Chevy. Problem is, she’s not really enjoying herself, she’s frowning as she concentrates on maneuvering that wide old boat around those hairpin turns. The muffler is shot, you can hear her coming for miles. We want her to enjoy the scenery, but, well, this is Remedios. Focuses on a task at hand and that’s it. We’d like her to stop at Caguana, but the best strategy is to suggest that she’s hungry, and sure enough she stops at a little outdoor restaurant for some mofongo and rice and beans, and when she comes out she notices the sign just down the road. Even then she hesitates. Indian ceremonial grounds, that’s pre-African. Not on the itinerary. Luckily she decides she and the car could use a break.
The Office/Museum/Gift Shop seems empty when she opens the door, but a smiling young man bursts in from the room behind the information desk, greeting her and talking nonstop: Here we have a small museum with information about the restoration work and here’s a diagram of the grounds and here’s some books and postcards--
“When’s the next tour?” Remedios says when it seems he’s paused to take a breath.
Remedios looks at her watch. “At 1:17?” she says, but he’s busy setting up laminated plastic signs on the counter: Please ring bell for assistance (though there’s no bell), Please see next cashier (there’s no one else there, and certainly no cash register).
Remedios, meet Matteo.
He makes us laugh. More host than tour guide, one of these days he’s going to start saying, Welcome to my home, I’m so glad to see you. Let me show you around.
You may have come here because you saw it listed in the Chamber of Commerce brochure, you saw a photo of the bateys, clearings ringed by stone slabs, or a close-up of the images etched onto those stones — fascinating, aren’t they? Caguana is known for those petroglyphs. Or maybe you wondered, what were those folks doing all that time before the Europeans showed up with their ominous lust for gold and their equally catastrophic diseases?
And then you come here and Matteo points out the recurring motifs of faces and spirals, and then there are the drawings that look like a swaddled baby but could actually be a bat. Taínos believed the spirits of the dead flew around at night, like bats. But you’ll also hear all about the tabunoco tree, some of them on the island are 400 years old, how the bark of the ceiba can cure headaches and diabetes, how the arbol Indio is a relative of the coca plant and the Taínos chewed on its leaves for courage before battle. He’ll point out the butterflies that land on a stone or a branch as he’s talking to you, Swallowtails and Daggerwings, and that looks like a Milkweed over there. His happiness is infectious. How many people, after all, work at a place that fascinates them, get paid to tell other people about it?
He flutters about Remedios as she walks to the end of a path and looks out at the mountaintops all around them.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he says. “This is what they saw, this view. Isn’t it interesting that the mountain ranges have these sharp peaks and then lower rounded mounds on either side? It’s the same silhouette as the cemís that they carved.”
He’s not even aware how much he wants to impress her.
“You know,” he says, “the Taínos had a reverence for women.”
This brings those dark intelligent eyes to focus on him.
“How do you know that?” she says.
“The cacíques had those duhos, you know, those ceremonial stools that were a symbol of their power. Now, most of the cacíques were men, though some of them were women, but the point is that the duho was always owned by a woman. If the cacique was a woman, then she owned it, but if the cacique was a man, his sister was the owner of the duho.
“And look, in this batey you see these four petroglyphs together that clearly represent women. All the other human representations aren't one gender or another.”
It’s a stretch, Remedios thinks, but she doesn’t want to argue. There’s something endearing about this guy. He’s not her type, she’s never been attracted to short skinny guys, especially one as nervous as this. If she’d met him in New York she never would have guessed he’s Puerto Rican, he’s as pale as an Anglo, he could be Italian or Greek or Jewish. Neatly trimmed beard, long straight brown hair that flops into his eyes. In fact he looks like an apostle. Maybe even Jesus.
The thought makes her smile, and that lights Matteo up. He realizes he’s been grinning so much that his face is starting to hurt.
She kneels down in front of a petroglyph to get a better look at the image of a squatting woman. Atabey, mother of the gods.
“I took an art history class on Africa,” she says. “People there think of themselves as works of art made by the gods.” It made her wonder what would happen to guilt and self-hatred if baptism wasn’t for washing off original sin, but for welcoming the baby into the community as its newest artwork?
“That’s cool,” Matteo says. “Taínos were like that too.”
“No offense,” she says, “but you can't know that. The written records on the Taíno culture were made by the Spaniards. Hostile witnesses. I’m sure they didn’t understand half of what the Taínos told them, and they sure didn’t want the Taínos to look good if their plan was to make them into slaves. And then they were killed off by murder and disease. The culture wasn’t passed down in any meaningful way, from one living generation to the next.”
“They’re still around, you know,” Matteo says. “Taínos. At least that’s how they describe themselves. There’s one who lives right near here, he comes over here all the time. Guarionex. That wasn’t his original name, it was José something, but he had it changed.”
“I’ve heard about them,” she says. People trying to rediscover, or re-create, a Taíno culture. “They’ve done those DNA tests — ”
“Sixty-one percent,” Matteo says. “That’s how many Puerto Ricans have Taíno mitochondrial DNA.”
Remedios suspects that he hasn’t taken any courses in biology, and she’s correct. He’s taken literature, mythology, art history, anthropology. He never finished his degree because he kept changing his major. He loved every class he took.
“Anyway,” he says, “Guarionex is a nice guy and all, but after a while he got to be kind of a nuisance. He didn’t just want to hang out here, he’d trail around the visitors, kind of weird them out. At one point the people at the Instituto threatened to ban him from the park, but he said that was a violation of his freedom of religion. He said this place isn’t some dead museum, it’s a living place of worship for him. So the compromise is that he can hang out here, but he has to leave the tourists alone.”
Matteo is too modest to mention that he was the one to suggest the compromise. Some butterflies, a Cassius Blue and a Leafwing, flutter around him. They’re drawn to him because of his aché, he radiates optimism like a fragrance. As a result, he has a wildly overinflated idea of the size of the island’s butterfly population.
It occurs to Remedios that Oshún is Matteo’s orisha, she of the rivers, of love and light. If a person wanted to give him gifts they should be in Oshún’s colors, a jar of honey or a tin of lemon cookies, a bracelet of copper. She wonders why she’s thinking about this.
“Wait,” Matteo says when she starts to head for another batey. “You can't walk past my baby without letting me tell you about her.”
His baby is a young guayacán tree that he's been watching over. “Do you know how rare they are now?” he says. The wood is so dense it sinks in water. Her resin cures arthritis, cholera, syphilis. Palo santo she’s known as, holy tree.
“The bark seems to be peeling off.”
“That’s how it’s supposed to look.” Like a moulting animal. A snake shedding its skin. “She’ll have gorgeous blue flowers when she’s older. But I’m really worried about her, she’s got these plant parasites, they say it’s happening to a lot of guayacáns.”
“Well, you know when a tree has parasites,” she says, “it means it’s already in a weakened state. Like with the gypsy moths that attacked oak trees, those were trees that would have died anyway in fires if forest fires hadn’t been suppressed. Sometimes it’s best for the forest as a whole that its weakest members die off.”
Matteo looks so sad that she doesn’t press her point. She helps him pick the parasites off the leaves.
After she drives away, he walks out amidst the bateys and petroglyphs and trees. “Please please please,” he says, “get her to come again.”
In yet another library, Remedios decides to look up books on slavery. She sees pages of statistics, this many slaves on that plantation in 1800, this many in 1830. This many tons of sugar produced, this many bushels of coffee beans picked. Census figures, account ledgers, ship manifests.
Some scholars mention that Puerto Rico had an unusually high percentage of free people of color. More statistics, more footnotes, all kinds of political and economic reasons for it. Thus only such and such a number were enslaved, only this percentage, only this many thousands, this many tens of thousands. By emancipation there were only this many slaves.
She imagines a headline in today’s newspaper: Only Dozens Kidnapped Today. Experts predict that this year only 2,300 people will be abducted from their homes and forced to a lifetime of hard labor in captivity to ruthless criminals, a captivity from which they will never be released. This is down from last year’s total of 2,600. Things are looking up!
And here again, yes, the blank book. She turns to the page where she’d started her list,
“Important Concepts in Afro-Caribbean Philosophy”. Beneath her items, someone has added another:
And this, in yet another hand:
She opens another book and finds a photograph from 1904 of a place she saw only last week. There on the left are the former slave quarters of Hacienda Buena Vista, now used for drying coffee beans and storing them. On the right in the background are the grist mill and the building where they roast the beans. In the middle distance, walking toward the viewer, is a tall black woman identified in the caption as Ma Leoncia, a liberta. A former slave.
She uses a cane but her back is so straight, you hardly believe she needs it. She wears a head-wrap, a long-sleeved blouse, a long skirt that grazes her bare feet and billows out behind her. Nothing else in the picture — other people, tree branches — show any sign of a breeze. No, Ma Leoncia is creating her own breeze, she’s striding purposefully, her face dignified and composed, shoulders squared. She has a right to be here.
On another page, Remedios finds a list of fugitive slaves in the Ponce district from 1853 to 1865, columns labeled name, age, where they escaped from, date of escape. She runs down every name, there must be a hundred of them: Tiburcio, age 25, escaped from Hacienda Vayas on April 13, 1853; Francisca, only 14, escaped from Hacienda de Becerra on April 12, 1855; Juan, 60 years old, escaped from Hacienda Destino on September 19, 1855.
She imagines the historian who looked through heaps of old documents, reports filed with local magistrates, notices posted in newspapers. She wonders how he felt, those days, weeks, poring through musty, fragile scraps of paper. Was he imagining Celestino, Ramón, Magdalena, was he wondering how many times old Juan had tried before? Maybe he abandoned for a moment that scholarly training that tells us we’re all separate, observer from observed, living from dead, maybe he spoke aloud in the dusty archive room, a hoarse whisper sent back a century and a half, a wish, a prayer, an exhortation.
They’re tired of going to libraries and finding nothing, going to museums and seeing themselves only in the absences. They want more than the tiny, earnest house-museum dedicated to “Our African Root” (note the singular). They want monuments, historic markers, books and scholarship, large museums curated by themselves. They write in the blank book and fill it up.
They have a convocation at ocean’s edge, Afro-Boricuas and soon others come, from the other islands, from Brazil, practitioners of vodou, palo, regla lucumí, candomblé, macumba, Shangó, Kele. They put their minds together, focus their aché, churn out blueprints, funding plans.
And then people wake up one morning and there it is, Casa Caribe-Africa. Where’d this come from? they wonder. I didn’t see it yesterday. But they start going in, why not, it says right here on the sign, admission is a penny or a grain of corn. And they tell other people, and more people hear about it and come to visit.
Remedios brings the grandpa and as many great-aunts and -uncles as she can fit in the Chevy.
They walk in and greet the Elegua at the door, the first time they have ever gone into a public building guarded by the guardian of thresholds and crossroads, the one whose image they have in their own homes. A small stylized head of cement, cowrie-shell eyes and mouth, positioned on the floor near the entrance. To the uninitiated he looks like a funky doorstop, and that’s okay, he has a sense of humor.
Remedios walks through small galleries. This one has all of José Campeche’s paintings, migrated somehow from their various other locations. This next gallery has the work of folk artists from the nineteenth century who painted Catholic images on wooden panels or small carved wooden statues of saints, only these all depict black figures: the Anima Sola is a naked black woman surrounded by flames, the Mano Poderoso is the hand of a black person, Mother Mary is black as she always is when she appears as the Virgin of Montserrat, raising her hands in blessing or protection, a child not quite in her lap, more like floating in front of her. Other rooms highlight recent paintings and sculptures by black Puerto Rican artists.
And everywhere there are altars, draped with fine cloths that cascade to the floor, laden with candles, statues, framed lithographs, mounds of papayas, pineapples, oranges, coconuts, batatas, yucas, avocados, vases of flowers, glasses of water, jars of honey, plates of cooked food, piles of wrapped candies, cakes with elaborate icing, shiny coins, seashells, cigars.
The uninitiated can press a button on the wall and listen to a scholarly-sounding voice describe how Afro-Caribbean altars “manifest the celebratory, life-affirming aesthetics of abundance” and explain the meaning of particular items (“the conch shell and other objects symbolizing the ocean are often found on altars dedicated to Yemayá. . .” “The food on the altar is always eaten by the participants at the feast, stressing the importance of generosity and community . . .”).
Another room has drums, gourds, and palitos mounted on the walls, but, it seems, nothing in the center of the room, it’s only if you start to move, clap your hands, sway, stomp, that music will start and you realize you’re on a swept-earth clearing and is that sunlight, how is this possible inside a building? Once again the uninformed can press a handy button in the wall and hear a voice urging them to get their whole body moving if they want to get the blood flowing, the aché rising. “Yes,” the voice says, “there is a time for quiet contemplation, but there’s also a time to dance!”
In a little alcove the uninitiated can learn about animal sacrifice. They find out that the chicken ritually sacrificed is quickly and cleanly killed, then cooked and shared at a feast afterward — you know, like you share the meat you’ve bought at the supermarket. The animal’s aché is offered to the orishas, similar to the meat offerings that were so pleasing to the Old Testament God. All food — animal or vegetable — has aché that’s offered to the orishas and then cooked and shared.
In a huge atrium is an entire casita, fully furnished, a small house like the one your great-grandparents lived in. People walk in one at a time and each person sees a different interior. Remedios sees a tiny linoleum-floor living room, cane-back rocking chairs and lace doilies under the saints’ statues, feels like the gracious old lady she knew as a small child is just in the next room, she’s about to come out in her faded housedress and sandals, welcome her, give her blessings. The grandpa goes in and sees the dirt floor, the wood-stove, the dippers and bowls made of hollowed gourd, and starts to weep for the sweet old people who lived there, who had nothing for him but smiles and endless patience.
In a hallway there’s an unlabeled button. Press it, and you hear part of a speech by a governor of Puerto Rico from not too many years ago, only the recording has been speeded up: “To say there’s an African influence on Puerto Rican culture,” the tiny, squeaky voice declares, “is an empty rhetorical gesture.” You silence him by hitting the button again, like swatting away a fly.
In the Gift Shop/Botánica you can buy reproductions of all the artwork, any carved wooden santo or devotional painting. You can buy agua florida, aguardiente, cowrie shells, all the things you need for your altar at home.
There’s a pile of pamphlets for the Ghost Tour. Remedios recognizes her lists, her photos, all the tables and charts she had only imagined but hadn’t found yet, the captions she’d thought of but hadn’t written down. There are unfamiliar things in the brochure too; she loves the Ancestors’ Guide to Tourist Attractions, but she’s a little worried about handing it in to her professor. How will she explain that she’s not even sure who her collaborators are?
Remedios doesn’t know why she’s taking the same route as before along the Cordillera Central. She’s irritated with herself when she pulls into the parking lot of the Parque Ceremonial Caguana, irritated at the way she suddenly feels nervous when Matteo pops out of the office and looks so damn happy.
She wants to think of an excuse. I was in the area, thought I’d drop by? As if this damned place were on the way to anything else.
She looks at her camera and is inspired. “The pictures didn’t turn out,” she says. “Must have been a bad roll of film.”
“You can borrow my camera,” he says immediately, and the flow of words doesn’t stop as he follows her to a bench in one of the bohios. “It’s digital I haven’t used it in a while I won’t even miss it you can come return it before you leave.”
Sometimes Remedios sees a white-skinned Puerto Rican and can’t help but wonder, what if he’d been born two hundred years ago? What would his white skin get him? A plantation? Would he say to his overseer about the latest batch of unruly “workers,” if you have to kill a few, it sends a message to the others, good investment in the long run. Or he could have been a scholar, a priest, he could have tutored the children of the wealthy, said mass for their souls. Lived complacently as if nothing were wrong, instead of sneaking out at night with pliers, cutting shackles, distributing money and weapons and food for the escape.
Matteo is still rambling about camera angles when she cuts him off: “Is your whole family as pale as you?” and he starts realizing that things have the potential to go very, very wrong.
“You know how we Puerto Ricans are,” he says. “Everyone’s a combination, we’ve got European ancestors, African ones, Taíno ones.”
“Yeah, three roots. Three siblings. We’re all one big happy fucking family. Except one of the siblings has been murdered and the other one is ignored. How happy is that?”
Matteo needs a distraction. Ideally he would like an elderly trigueño man to show up right now and claim him as a long-lost relative. I’d recognize you anywhere, he would say, you’ve got my niece’s eyes, and she has straight hair, and the cousins on my mother’s side have always been pale.
“You know,” he says, “you mentioned DNA the other time and I wanted to ask you more about it. I mean, you’ve studied it and all, and it’s always confused me.”
Remedios pauses, tries to think of a way to explain. She forgets her irritation.
“Let’s say you have a bead necklace. Say there’s a hundred beads, fifty pairs, you got one of each pair from one of your parents. So, the bead in position number one on the left side of the necklace is from your mom, and the bead in position one on the right side of your necklace is from your dad. She got her hundred beads from her parents, but you don’t get all of those, you only get fifty, which means half her beads don’t show up at all in your necklace—they’re gone, or they might show up in your siblings, if you have any. If not, they’re not getting passed down.
“So, you have two parents, it’s easier if you picture a family tree, that cedar there, your mom’s on that lower branch and your dad’s on another low branch. They each have two parents, you can picture them sitting in slightly higher branches. Four grandparents. And they each have two parents, so that’s eight. So you go back three generations, to your great-grands, how many ancestors do you have?”
“You have eight great-grandparents, true, but if you’re adding up all your ancestors you need to add in the four grandparents, which makes twelve, plus two parents, which makes fourteen. Go back another generation, add 16 great-great grands, and you have a total of 30 ancestors right there. Thirty people sitting in that tree.”
The cedar rustles its leaves. It likes being used as imagery. Family tree. World tree.
Matteo tries to relate this to the necklace. “So, do I have like, one bead from each of those people?”
“No, see, that’s where you might be confused. It’s much more random than that.
"What that means, is, maybe scientists study the DNA of fairly homogenized ethnic groups, they pick a group in Lapland, say, and one in Botswana, and others in Siberia, Greece, Tahiti, whatever. And they find out that in Lapland over a third of the people have a gold bead in position 3, a turquoise bead in position 4, and a jade bead in position 5. Say it’s 36 percent. Sure that’s a big number, but it means 64 percent of Laplanders don’t have that combination, and people in other groups do have that gold-turquoise-jade combination, just not as many. So a scientist can look at your necklace and say, well, you don’t have gold-turquoise-jade in positions 3, 4, and 5, so there’s no evidence you’re from Lapland, but your granny or great-granny could well be from there and didn’t have that kind of a necklace, or you got the beads from someone sitting on another branch. You know what I’m saying? It doesn’t mean she’s not your ancestor.”
Matteo tries to look thoughtful rather than confused. What’s important is that Remedios is in a better mood. Except now she’s frowning again, looking at something over his shoulder.
“Is that a tour group?” she says.
Admittedly the Taínos might have planned it more carefully. They have only one sign: We Are Not Invisible, and only about a dozen of them have been able to take off work. But it’s a beautiful day, no rain, not too hot. They have coffee in thermoses, some good bread from the Hernández Bakery, someone probably brought a picnic blanket.
They kind of wish there had been some uptight bureaucrat at the park entrance who would try to keep them out, create the right dramatic tension for a takeover. They have to settle for Matteo, who knows most of them by name, who would never lock anyone out unless they harmed the petroglyphs or the plants. He brings out extra coffee mugs and napkins from the office, sits down on the grass with them.
“Did you prepare a statement?” he says. “Did you tell any reporters?”
“Guarionex, didn’t you say you were going to do that?”
A woman named Milagros la Arcáica explains to Remedios how she wants to reclaim the pre-Taíno heritage; by the time the Spaniards showed up, she says, the Taínos were well on their way to establishing patriarchy. She also wants to reconstruct the yuca bread that the Taínos made, she keeps experimenting with different recipes, bringing the results to every gathering, watching anxiously while people mutter excuses about not being hungry, having allergies. She’s vaguely annoying but she does have some good ideas, like liberating the skeleton displayed in the Museo del Indio. They’re still working on the plans for that, it’s sure to get good media attention.
They like the idea of playing some ceremonial soccer in one of the bateys. No one’s brought a ball, though, and Emilia has tendinitis and Chuco would be out of breath in five minutes.
There’s a new guy with them, someone Matteo doesn’t recognize. He’s tall, pale, with a long ponytail and a fringed buckskin jacket. He keeps talking about authenticity, about finding out “how they really did things.” Matteo looks at the jacket and considers telling him there’s never been deer on the island, but he keeps it to himself. The guy seems so happy.
He realizes that Remedios has started to lecture the Taínos. “You put too much emphasis on looks,” she says. “You keep talking about straight black hair and copper skin, like those qualities are the criteria for who you decide to recognize as Taíno.”
“But someone who looks like that, it’s pretty logical to think they’re Taíno. They sure don’t look European. Why pretend otherwise?”
“Then implicitly you’re using those criteria to exclude those who don’t meet them. But the thing is, what you look like isn’t the point. The point is who your ancestors are. If you have some Taíno ancestors, then they’re your ancestors, whether your hair is jet-black or blond.”
“But how can we know that a European-looking person has any Taíno ancestry?”
“You can’t rule it out. If that person is Puerto Rican and can’t trace all their ancestors back to Spain, you have no factual basis to determine that they have no Taíno ancestry.”
Matteo thinks about bead necklaces, pictures a Taíno ancestress handing him beads, but not the ones for hair, eye color, skin color. Those beads he gets from others.
“A blue-eyed blond,” she says, “could have just as many Taíno ancestors as you do.”
Milagros nods enthusiastically. “And so could you,” she says to Remedios.
She hesitates. She doesn’t want to be rude. “In theory,” she says, “a person who looks like me could be partly Taíno, but it’s not true in my case.”
“Why not?” Milagros says, and some others are listening too now, waiting for an answer. Luckily they get distracted, Isidro wants to figure out how their ancestors managed to get those one-ton stone slabs up here from the river. Should they hire an engineer to figure it out? A geologist? How do we know they’re from the river? We should get them tested. You and your tests. On it goes.
Later she thinks about the answer. She’s not part Taína because if she were, she would have heard about it. Because her family has always served the orishas. Because her heart flies over the ocean when she thinks of her ancestors.
But she needs to be logical about this, she needs to be consistent. If she keeps going up the tree she described to Matteo, goes back, what, ten generations, no, it would have to be longer than that, let’s say twelve, and each generation doubles in size and you add them all together . . . She takes out pen and paper. She does the math. Twelve generations: 8,190 ancestors. Someone in there, it’s possible, one out of 8,190.
More than that, daughter.
They meet on plantations, sharers of misery. They meet in the swamps, in the mountains, on the territory of unthinkable loss, ones who will never see parents or homeland again, ones whose homeland has been invaded, whose parents and siblings and cousins and children have been killed outright by violent strangers, killed more slowly by the strangers’ diseases.
Taínos soon notice that the children who seem hardier, who make it into adulthood in greater numbers, have a parent from outside the group. They’re Taíno-African, Taíno-European. Maybe it occurs to just a few of them at first, maybe all of them decide all at once, but at some point they tally up the brutal mathematics of extinction and make a choice: the only way to ensure a line of descendants is to mix with outsiders. The only way to survive is to change.
Near the coast a Taína woman is forced to pan the river for gold, her man and two daughters dead from the strangers’ diseases. She studies an African man who works tirelessly and speaks little, though he watches everything. Her next child will need that combination of strength and patience. On the other side of the island another Taína, a renowned healer, has learned enough of the Spaniards’ language to find out that the man who tends the commandant’s horses has already suffered through most of the hideous diseases. She understands that if she is to pass on her knowledge, her children need to be disease-resistant like this strange pockmarked fellow who’s too proud to let her see his desire. She respects his restraint, forgives his ugliness.
A Taíno man, the only survivor of his devastated village, has made it to the mountains, he’s going to lie low, keep an eye on the Spaniards and go warn his cousins in Coabey. But soon he’s burning with fever. When the strangers discover him and carry him to a cave, his teeth are chattering and his body is clenched in the fetal position.
He lies on a pile of leaves near a fire and watches the strangers. They have radiant dark-brown skin and thick, springy hair. A woman holds his hand, a man lifts a dipper of water to his lips.
Most of them know a few words of the conquerer’s language.
Calma, the woman says. Duerme.
Stay calm. Try to sleep.
He moves in and out of consciousness while the strangers wipe his forehead with damp cloth, pray in their various strange languages. They search fruitlessly for the herbs they’d known at home. They try to find other people who look like him, who may know what to do.
Suddenly he’s alert, though too weak to stand. The woman is there again. She points to the pouch of tabak he had with him when they found him.
Que es? Se come?
No, he whispers. Don’t eat it. He has a few words of Spanish. Between those and hand gestures, he makes them understand what it’s for, how to light it and lay it on hot stones.
“This will call his gods,” the woman says, and they all gather round. They know what a serious thing it is to call a god.
They had drums, in their various homelands. They have no drums now. While one lights the tabak leaves, others stomp their feet, clap hands rhythmically. An older man starts a contrapuntal chant in a language none of the others know, but some try to echo his sounds, follow along.
They are wary of each other still, careful not to give offense.
At first the burning tabak makes them cough and sputter, but at least it makes the stranger smile. They get used to the smoke, they study its pattern in the air, wait to see what it does, how it changes the energy around it. Some of them gently waft the smoke around with their hands, send the puffs in spirals round their bodies and then around the body of the sick man.
The woman takes his hand again. She wants to know where the tabak grows, how tall, what it looks like when it’s ready, how it’s harvested. What color are the leaves? How long are the roots? What moon phase is best for picking it?
Back home she had been apprenticed to a wise and well-respected herbalist. Before the abduction.
The man tries to answer, but his knowledge is limited, as is his Spanish, and his energy. He’s finding it more difficult to concentrate. The woman has both his hands in hers now, she’s trying to give him her strength, she’s willing him to hold on.
When does it bloom? What does the flower look like? Can you use other parts of the plant, flowers, stems, roots? Can you make a tea with it? Or dry it and grind it into powder? Make a paste to apply to the skin?
The knowledge of lifetimes, meant to be transmitted slowly, over the course of a lifetime.
Some of the others give her sharp looks. The time for healing is passed. Time now to ask the hard questions:
How do your people prepare a body? Where do your people bury their dead?
What goes with the dead person into the grave, into the next world?
Okay, class, here’s a quiz:
Insofar as the culture of the Taínos was transmitted — to half-Taíno children, quarter-Taíno children — which non-Taíno people would have carried out such transmission?
Here are your choices:
We learned what we could. There was so little time.
We made sure to tell our young ones, Your father’s ancestors are buried on this island. Your grandmother, may she rest in peace, taught me about this plant, that root. This is how you cook yuca. This is how you weave a hammock.
But the language, the songs, the intricate dances and ritual games? How to make the pottery, how to carve those images in stone and wood and what exactly they mean?
There was no damn time.
An anthropologist from New York is driving around the island, asking permission to film Afro-Puerto Rican rituals. She’s going to film a tambor at Josefa’s neighbor’s next week.
“Should we make something up?” the grandpa says to his sisters-in-law. “Tell her we buried a lizard’s heart in the cemetery?” Everyone laughs, except Remedios.
“You’re not really going to lie to her, are you?”
“Because people are interested in what we do, that’s why not. They want to learn about us. We should help them.”
“Mija, you don’t learn by watching, you learn by doing, being with us, being of us. You can watch as many shows about us, read as many books as you want. If you don’t serve the orishas yourself, you won’t get it.”
They told each other stories from the motherland, tales about Rabbit, Spider, Tortoise. Little outwits big, weak prevails against strong. Like the one about the tortoise and the horse — no, it’s not what you’re thinking. This is no pious fable, teaching, “slow and steady wins the race.” The tortoise tells her friends to show up at different points along the road (“we all look alike to them”), and so the horse thinks the tortoise is ahead of him, keeps putting on speed till he collapses, exhausted.
Then you have the one where Rabbit tells Tiger a hurricane’s coming, convinces him to let Rabbit tie him down so the winds won’t blow him away.
And they could choose their own ending. If a white person was listening, the storyteller might say, “So Tiger never tried to eat Rabbit again,” or if she was feeling really optimistic, “So Tiger realized how clever Rabbit was, and they were friends from then on.” But when they’re alone, the real ending was: “From that day to this, Tiger has been trying to kill Rabbit and eat him, but he’s never been able to catch him.”
A century after slavery is over, you still find black people telling these cuentos cantaos like the slaves did: the storyteller acts out the different parts, it’s very dramatic, the listeners join in to sing refrains at pivotal points. These refrains are in African languages, people sing them but no longer remember the meanings. That’s what they say, anyway. What they want outsiders to believe.
For years, music scholars studied the intricate musical phrasings of Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, the patterns of sound and silence, call and response. Art scholars studied the complex dance steps. Historians noted all those conspiracies, all those escapes, all those uprisings. Only recently did they begin putting it together, that musicians were communicating with their audience, listeners were decoding the drumbeats, reading the movements of the dancers.
Like their cousins in the cold north, communicating with hymns ringing out at odd moments. Someone in the next row sings the call: “Over there,” and further away the response: “I’ll meet my mother” and which direction that singer is facing, well, that speaks volumes.
At another library is a large round plaque on the wall, the seal of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. There are three people on the seal, all men, as if the island’s population sprang from their foreheads. A Spaniard stands in the middle, holding a book, on the left is a Taíno man clutching a stone tablet with both hands, on the right is an African man with a drum. They look happy. Everyone’s getting along.
Remedios would like to redesign the plaque. In her version, the Spaniard would still be standing, but the other two would be on the ground. The Spaniard would have his foot on the Indian’s neck, and he’d be holding a whip upraised above the African.
They didn’t really get along.
By now she’s no longer surprised to find the blank book on the shelf here. She grabs it, feels like she’s ripping it out of that Spaniard’s hands.
Who are the orishas of learning? she writes.
From Oshún you’ll get a love for your subject, happiness in pursuing knowledge.
From Obatalá, patience and wisdom.
From Ochosi the hunter, the skill to track down information.
From Changó and Aya, energy and determination.
From Ogun—are you surprised to find in this list the orisha of iron? Think about what metalworking is: you take ore from rocks, purify it, bend it into any shape, swords and plows and teakettles. Transformation. Ogun will bless your studies because what you learn transforms you.
Remedios has been sharing her cousin Vanessa’s bedroom. When Vanessa found out Remedios had been gathering items for an altar, she cleared off a shelf for her to use.
“You don’t have to do that,” Remedios had said. “I don’t have everything I need yet anyway.”
“It’s OK. Set out what you have. I’m going out tonight, you’ll have some privacy.”
Remedios takes out the shoebox. She has only one candle, a white one, that Vanessa gave her. For now it will have to stand for all the colors.
She takes out a copy of the photo of Idelisa, props it up against the back of the shelf.
Her great-aunt Josefa has given her a smooth black piedra de raya, lightning stone. She sets it down on a circle of red cloth.
She takes out a small circular etching of Atabey she bought at an artist’s studio near Caguana. She knows that Yemayá has a manifestation called Yemayá-Achabá, warrior Yemayá. Maybe it was originally Yemayá-Atabey.
There’s something else in the box, a Tarot card it looks like, but larger than usual, maybe five inches high and laminated in plastic like a saint’s card. The Fool. Remedios smiles. Another gift from Vanessa, she assumes. She sets it up next to Idelisa.
She lights the candle. “Elegua open the door,” she says. “Hello, ancestors.”
Like we’ve said, not the most poetic person you’ll ever meet.
She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. “I greet you all,” she says. “I wish you well.”
Later, when the anthropologist’s documentary is finished, there will be a brief scene of Remedios’ relatives in the neighbor’s kitchen, helping her cook the special dishes offered to the orishas. A lot has been edited out, including Remedios scolding the grandpa when he starts talking about grave dust. There’s a voiceover, so viewers can’t hear that the family is quietly discussing among themselves what it means when a white person becomes interested in their ways. Titi Doris says it’s because everyone can find spiritual meaning in serving the orishas, it’s universal, really, you just make choices about what to call them, how to visualize them and make contact with them. Other people think if a white person is seeking out their wisdom, it means that person has an African ancestor somewhere along the line, a grandparent or great-grandparent. Some of them are commenting about the anthropologist’s hair, it looks pretty curly, and she’s got a nice curvy figure. They’re giggling, and Remedios starts trying to explain something about a bead necklace, which makes them laugh even more. Remedios looks right at the camera and you can see plainly on her face that the anthropologist had better not dare make some comment about how cheerful black people are.
That part, too, gets edited out.
We know it must be hard, to learn to think African, if you weren’t raised with the concept of aché, connecting to ancestors and powers and plants and animals and rocks and streams. And of course you can’t all come out here and be with us, and learn.
Maybe all you can do is hold this story in your hands.
Remedios is alone at an “undeveloped” beach on the northeastern coast. She’s watching the waves, how they break and lose their force, reach in gently onto the sand and then retreat, leaving foam that sparkles for a few seconds and disappears. But then a wave will surprise her, keep its force even after it breaks, rush at her where she’s sitting on the sand.
Only a few days left in their visit.
“Last stop on the Ghost Tour,” she says out loud.
She’s come here for sand, a small bottle that she’ll put on her altar. Ancestral soil.
She feels the presence of the ancestors, gathered at water’s edge. They turned this place into her motherland, but they had another home. Their sadness, their longing lingers here with the salt spray and the wind and the constant roar of the waves.
She wishes she could give them comfort, but what could she say? Some of you will manage to buy your freedom by working every waking minute for decades? Some of you will escape? Things will get better in a mere 350 years?
Something catches her eye in the distance, a person running toward her along the beach. A man. Carrying something, a stick or a pole. She stands up as he gets nearer.
He’s short and broad-shouldered, with straight, long black hair, smooth copper-brown skin unmarred by hair on face or chest or arms. What looked like a bathing suit turns out to be a loincloth. What he’s holding, as far as Remedios can tell, is a spear.
The Taíno runs effortlessly on the sand, runs past Remedios with no sign that he sees her. He’s intent on the far distance in front of him; for all she knows he’s going to run around the entire island.
Remedios catches herself gaping, wonders what the tourists on the beaches in Condado will think when they see him. By the time she looks down for his footprints, the waves have been in and out several times, and all she sees is clear glistening sand.
All along the Atlantic coast, from North America to South, black people pass along stories of an African woman who made her way to the ocean and flew back to Africa. Her name was Maria, or Ana, she left from this beach, from that hilltop, from the top of that tree.
It’s possible you don’t have stories like that, or they weren’t passed on.
Problem is, if you don’t have that link to the ancestors, if you don’t make a practice of thinking on them, remembering them, connecting with them, someday you’ll feel the need to go back, and you won’t know where back is.
Here’s what to do:
Find your way to the very edge of what you know. Then take a leap.
We greet you. We wish you well.
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