Every time I travel back to my hometown, I learn something new about my upbringing and my ancestors. It feels like a piece of the puzzle, that is my life, fitting nicely into its proper place. The dots are easier to connect and I can feel myself closer to becoming whole.
Even though I left Puerto Rico at the age of nine, the minute I step off the plane and into the warm and welcoming ground of this island, my heart does a happy skip and I am where I belong. I feel at home. The smells, the sounds, the people, the music and the food are like no other anywhere. A place where the flavor and way of living are as unique as the people that inhabit it.
As I sat with my dear mother reminiscing about old times yesterday, I learned more about the life she led as a child and the experiences she had growing up.
Her family lived about 2 hours from the metropolitan area of San Juan, high in the mountainous town of, Lares. A small agricultural town in the western part of the island. Her father (significantly older than her mother) owned acres of farm land where he had a coffee plantation, grew sugar cane and raised cattle. His farm was a successful and lucrative business that allowed him, his wife and three daughters to enjoy a comfortable life.
I learned that he housed his farmers and their families on the land, in houses he built for them. As a result, he had incredibly loyal employees that made sure the crops were well taken care of. My mother remembers jumping in her father’s jeep with him as he surveyed the crops and worked along with his farmers. She too would join in to help.
The process of growing coffee was an arduous one that required skill and the proper timing to protect the beans from decaying in too much moisture. Every morning they would spread out the beans on cement glacis (a surface with a slope) to dry them in the sun. They would rake the beans and turn them to ensure that all sides would dry. My mother remembers that almost every day at noontime, it would rain. She would help as the laborers quickly gathered the beans and put them into covered barrels before the rain began. Once the rain would stop they would set the beans back on the slopes to dry some more.
Maintaining the sugar cane and harvesting it was also time consuming and hard labor. She recalls when fires would break out in the fields and the workers would rush to cut the leaves off of the remaining canes in order to save the rest of the crop from burning. Her father supplied the coffee and sugar cane to various manufacturers around the island.
As the youngest of the three daughters, when she was not helping at the farm, my mother spent a lot of time by herself. Her sisters were five and six years older and did not welcome their younger sister to join them in their activities, particularly during their teen years when going to parties and dances was more appealing than playing with their little sister. As a result, my mother had two imaginary best friends. Mary and Bette. She spent hours upon hours playing with them and including them in her daily activities all the while, entertaining herself. A skill that helped her later in life and contributed to her being remarkably resourceful in all aspects of her life.
Her mother was ahead of her time in that she had a vision for the modern and the latest fashions and used her talents to do most of everything by hand. She was a skilled seamstress and would make her daughters beautiful gowns to be worn at balls and grand events. She tells me of days when her mother would wait for her father to leave the house in the mornings, so that she could secretly make her daughters’ gowns in preparation for dances he had yet to give them permission to attend. She kept a hidden trunk filled with her sewing machine and fabrics and would get to work as soon as he left the house. As the event neared and the sisters waited for his permission (sometimes not until the very day of the event), if he allowed them to go, they had beautiful gowns ready and waiting to be worn. An unspoken and unplanned agreement her mother and father had among themselves, each feeling satisfied that they had gotten their way.
Fresh milk from their cows was on their dining room table every day. Unpasteurized and hard to swallow, the sisters would beg to pair their mandatory drink of choice with some sort of a sweet treat. At times, their father would not allow for such sweets and watched to make sure they drank their full glass of milk. My mother remembers being giddy with joy the day her father showed up from a trip to San Juan with a pasteurizing machine to be placed on their kitchen counter for their use. Alas they could enjoy their milk.
As I listen to more accounts of my mother’s childhood, I cannot help but feel a deeper understanding of why I am the way I am. I have a better grasp as to the influences that shaped my mother and in turn, her children. The stories leave me wanting further insight into the lives of my ancestors who left their mark on this beautiful island by contributing to its growth and livelihood.
No place is perfect and God knows Puerto Rico has its problems and challenges, but in spite of the uncertain economic future it faces, there is a past and a present that cannot be overlooked. A land rich in culture and pride where family comes first and where outsiders are welcome with open arms so they can share in the beauty and uniqueness that is, Puerto Rico.
I have another week left of my visit and I look forward to learning more about my past and getting closer to understanding what has made me the person I am.