I was thinking about Taíno identity and politics and my mind started to wander to my childhood…
I grew up traveling the boricua pow wow trail and I remember…
I remember the fiestas patronales and the ferias de artesanía.
I remember singing along with Roy Brown, Los Chicos, Tony Croatto and Andrés Jimenez, among others; and while they performed, Uvita, always well dressed in a suit and tie, danced. I remember being scolded by El Faraón for laughing at a girl that had just finished doing an exhibition danza and tripped on stage. I remember Tony asking after my mom and having me tell her that she should expect him for a cup of coffee in a minute. I remember having to set up the table first thing in the morning and tear it down at the end of the day, every day, for the length of the fair. I remember trying out different crafts under the guidance of the artesanos who specialized in them. I remember the tangles of string I made while trying to tat and how I cut myself while carving a design on gourd, my blood trickling through the zig-zag lines. I remember learning to paint with Manny Sierra and Carlos Mattei. I remember carving wood and never getting a recognizable human or animal shape like Mom, Dad, Elpídio or Genaro did. I remember I excelled in making paper flowers, seashell birds and jewelry out of copper and brass wire. I remember getting into trouble when I wasn’t busy, like the time I was escorted back to my mom’s table by the police, sopping wet, having just been fished out of the Lion’s fountain in the middle of the Plaza. I remember tending the table quite a bit after that, while mom went visiting and had coffee with the other artesanos. I remember I would volunteer as a gofer for the artists and would even take care of their table while they ate or took a break, they always gave me a little something for it. I would earn enough money to get another cup of mollejitas en escabeche– with extra onions. I remember biting into my first peppercorn and picking them out from then on. I remember when the Plaza de Bombas was still a fully functioning fire house and el Teatro La Perla gave free afternoon puppet shows for the kids. I remember a monster puppet that looked like Oscar the Grouch, singing “Bésame Mucho“.
I remember La Feria De San Antón where Bomba y Plena were the music to be heard, where our African ancestry was celebrated with drums, food, gambling, art and above all the recognition of our shared ancestry. I remember the Rulé Sondá, moving my hips and feet to the beat, clapping my hands till they were red and sore, singing at the top of my lungs so I could hear myself above the din of the crowd. I remember feeling part of something bigger than myself- something eternal- knowing I was another link in the chain of life. I remember there were many groups, local and otherwise, exhibiting the historical music and dances of bomba y plena. I remember feet flying and skirts swirling to the beat of the drums- the dancers and the drummers communicating ancient covert messages in both the beats and the movements, while the chorus sang stories of bygone events: births, deaths, life and magic. Los Pleneros de Ponce, Los Hermanos Ayala, Los Cepedas and others were there in almost every feria…
I remember friends stopped being friends and became family, no one was as easily discarded as they are today. People who were never blood relatives became tití and tío, compadres, primos, hermanos… I remember being loved, scolded and taken care of by neighbors and how every feria was just another family gathering.
I remember a “cousin” (the kid of another artesano) made a vejigante mask with a movable jaw that he would make wiggle as he laughed out loud. It was hilarious! I remember yelling “Vejigante a la bolla, pan y cebolla!” and “Toco, toco, toco, toco… vejigante come coco!” to the vejigantes in the street and running like hell so as not to get beat with noisy bladders and plastic soda bottles.
I remember climbing the mango tree in our back yard and eating the fruit while still sitting up there. I remember the neighbors would put the jobos and the guayabas on the fence so that we could take them instead of having us throw rocks into their yard or climb their tree. I remember a group of us were hunting a beautiful bunch of quenepas and a kid fell off the tree and hurt his arm. We felt bad for him so we gave him some of our share in the hopes that the little extra would make up for the pain.
I remember the street in front of my house would flood every time it rained and mom would tell me the story of when a river ran through there but had been diverted for construction, and when it rained, the river remembered who she was. I remember running in the rain, chasing boats I made out of twigs, paper and leaves; playing in the memory of that river.
I remember the scolding I got for carving my name on the flamboyán tree in front of our house that still bears the scar. I remember my mom crying the tree’s pain.
I remember my whole street would be empty by 6 pm. Since no one had a/c, the windows and doors were left open, and if you walked down the deserted street, you could look in and see all the TVs playing the same novela; the neighbors huddled around their respective sets, quietly listening to the story unfold, intermittently insulting the characters and shushing each other.
I remember having to sweep the porch that had become dirty from the black snow- again. And how sometimes cleaning the ashes out was the perfect excuse for us to turn the hose on and play in the slippery terrazzo tiles, my brother jumping around in his underoos. Mom didn’t mind because we would take the screens off the windows and scrub them with a little dish washing liquid and the broom, right after we did the metal window panes of the rooms that lined the porch: the living room and the first bedroom. Mom appreciated the effort.
I remember having to learn how to use a coffee maker when I moved to the US in my 20’s because I had only ever used a cloth colador.
I remember when a day at the beach was a DAY at the beach and you knew you arrived when you smelled nothing but coppertone and salty air. I remember risking scorpion fish, sea urchins and aguavivas just to get wet and I remember seeing baby shark swim among the mangroves. I remember getting so sunburned, I blistered. I remember going to Caña Gorda or Playa Santa in a big group, taking nothing with us but the desire to have a good time, and a fuerza de serrucho we had everything we needed to eat and drink! I remember drinking coconut milk under the tree it had just been knocked out of and cracking it open afeterwards, to eat the meaty insides. I remember falling asleep in the car on the way home, my head leaning against the damp towel, wind blowing through the open window, sand in my hair and everywhere else…
I remember waking up at the crack of dawn, when not even the roosters were up, to pack the car and go to a feria outside of town or to visit family and friends. I remember getting so carsick traveling the piquiña that I couldn’t enjoy the alcapurrias or the piononos from the roadside kioskos on the way. I remember being terrified that we would topple over the side of the mountain when squeezing by a truck loaded with animals or bananas coming down the same tight road. I remember waterfalls and beautiful trees in bloom peeking through the clouds were part of the scenery as we drove, and when we finally arrived, we kids would take off; get lost in the mountain, chase wild quail and ride the sheaths of the palm tree leaves down the grassy slopes. There were plenty of fruit plants to eat from if we got hungry out there. I remember we would start running back home as soon as we saw the first cucubanos light up. I remember finding my way back in the dark, following the lights of the only house on the mountain and the delicious smell of dinner. I remember being chased by a sow who thought I came too close to her piglets and I remember I bawled my eyes out the first time I saw my dinner slaughtered.
I remember climbing El Yunke and hearing all sorts of bird song as well as the river that ran not too far from where we were. I remember finding fool’s gold in the river and hearing the coquí sing the night in as we drove away. I remember getting a ride on the Coche de Garay as a gift for my 9th grade graduation. I remember going to Tití‘s house across the street so as to get measured for a dress she was making so I would look nice for an event honoring my mother. I remember the day of the event: how my mom had tied my long hair back into a bun, how the new dress was all ruffly and stiff and how my feet slipped out of my Buster Browns. I remember how the community center where this event was to take place at, was packed. And I remember how pissed Mom got with Dad that day because, while on his watch, we found a river just down the side of the mountain where the community center was and decided to jump in for a swim- in our new clothes. The fact that we carefully took our shoes off first so they wouldn’t get wet, wasn’t enough to save us from a sound scolding when mom found out.
I remember La Guancha was a stinky beach full of stones instead of sand. I remember seeing the shark fins right off the shore and being told that they fed off the discards of the tuna factory just down the way. I remember going to the fiebre there, on Thursday nights. I remember when they first started construction of the boardwalk and how, even thought there were no businesses there, it became a popular spot to hang out, drive up and down and get pinchos and piña coladas from the street vendors.
I remember the folks from Hogar Crea selling garbage bags to raise funds, I remember the garbage men yelling out for “¡Aguinaldos!” and how the parrandas that were brought for one neighbor’s house became a street party with most of us dancing in pijamas and chankletas.
I remember swimming at La Piedra Escrita; towels, Dittos and t-shirts strewn about, boom-boxes blaring the music of El Gran Combo. I remember running my fingers through the designs on the stones, wondering how the ancestors carved it and wondering why the books said we were dead when I knew Taíno blood ran through my veins. I remember running around Tibes before it had a museum. I remember running around Tibes before it ever had a fence or anything but dirt and grass. I remember finding quicksand and freaking out when I started to sink.
I remember going with Dad to the local pastizal to dig holes where we would find pieces of Taíno pottery and stone carvings. I remember having mixed feelings when that same site was covered over for the construction of the mall that stands there today.
I remember knowing I would move away from my home and taking every tourist tour I could before the time came. I remember drinking in the hand painted wallpaper at Casa Armstrong- Poventud, lighting a candle in the Ponce Cathedral (even thought I am not christian), and taking in the view from the Cruzeta. I remember watching fish peck at my toes, waking up to the sound of birds singing and holding those images close to my heart the first years I spent away from my little island.
I remember on my last visit back home, I was surprised that I was charged to enter Tibes, just to pray. I remember seeing the Coche and the fire house displayed, like relics- no longer in use, frozen in time. Ignored now that they’re obsolete.
And I wonder, what’s to become of us Taíno?
(c) A. Nanu Pagán, June 2009