Bienvenidos a Puerto Rico…

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Everyone clapped as the stewardess announced that we had arrived. It seemed like everyone was happy to be back home. It was such a celebration that I was surprised not to see confetti thrown in the air. I, on the other hand, was away from home.

It was my first time visiting Puerto Rico. I already missed my mom. I held my doll so close to my chest that my sister clawed her way to get a hold of just one hand.  

Stepping off the airplane, though, the air welcomed me with familial hugs. I wasn’t even outside yet but the air really was different. It felt warm. It felt cheerful. It felt nice.

Outside, the palm trees waved in excitement. There was no cloud in the sky but the sun was there. It always would be.

 “There she is,” my sister said as a white car pulled up. 

I always pictured a mob of paparazzi following our driver no matter where she went. She was a woman of class and etiquette. She went every Sunday to el salon to get her wash and set, and her manicure; she always dressed in the best suits. She was my mother’s personal stylist when there was a school dance or when she first started dating my father. 

In my mind, she was like a Puerto Rican Elizabeth Taylor.

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But I also remembered my mother saying, “Tu abuela no se deja llevar por nadie.” She bought her own jewelry and opened her own doors. Abuelita del carro drove her own car.

(I was named after my two grandmothers who share the same name. One drove. The other didn’t.  This is how we distinguished Las Carmens as my father would say.)

In an all-white linen long sleeve and pant get up, Abuelita del Carro made her entrance, “Hola mis nenas bonitas.” She greeted us with the European way of kissing both cheeks, and I felt my back immediately straighten up.

We carried our own luggage over to the trunk as she waited with her car door open, “¿Dónde quieren ir?”

I felt brighter, happier, new. I would return to New York learning a thing or two of myself and the family I didn’t grow up with.

I immediately realized why this was la isla del encanto.

La maca
I just laid there. Pretty much the whole time. Abuelito Ito (my father’s father) and his GMC pickup truck were away at work repairing washers, air conditioners, and refrigerators so there was space in the driveway to hang “la maca.”

It’s where you would find my Abuelita Ita (the one who didn’t drive but, wow, how she got herself to church on time whether through bus or by foot) yelling a los primos to stop fighting, to get on the maca or she would put it away. No one wanted to sit on the cement driveway but we did it if we had to. It was protected by light blue gates.

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As it got darker, I would fall asleep staring at the small lizards on the driveway’s roof, and the sound of el coquí grew louder and louder.

The closing of my Abuelito’s truck door would wake me, “Se está durmiendo La Carola,” he would announce immediately followed by my grandmother’s demands, “Ay no despiertela que le estoy haciendo bacalaitos.”

“Déjala. Traigo el carro mas ‘orita’,” he would say.

And so I continued lying there, rejoicing in those moments where la maca was all mine, with the faint sounds of my Abuelita’s radio praising el señor y las bendiciónes de hoy escaping the window cracks. 

“Toma Carola,” my Abulelito would say handing me my grandmother’s creation.

There, just lying and eating my bacalaito en la maca, I experienced Heaven on Earth.

La vecina
Amidst mammoth palm trees, we lounged on the second floor terrace with our VIP view of the yellow, pink, and light green rooftops. You could see Plaza Carolina, and a nearby hospital, and the school where my mother and father met. In our own kind of secret resort, we got to know each other hidden from the rest of the town.

In a circle, my somewhat extended family’s joy was contagious. It was as if they were on an infinite vacation. In one hour of laughing and remembering the way it was, I felt like I learned more about my mom than I could have ever known in my seven years of living. Our hostess was her childhood best friend, or, as I had grown to know her, “la vecina” who stood next to my mom in that quinceañera photo.

As my sister and grandmother joined la vecina in another story about what my mother was up to nowadays, my eyes wandered off into the chipped away paint of the house. It wasn’t how I pictured the houses of my mother’s childhood. I guess I would have to rely on my imagination to keep them new.

Car and bike parts laid scattered next to cracked open green shells. I immediately looked up to see a vine of intact round shells. “Cójelo” la vecina said, and, like that, I could just take it. It felt connected and included to something larger, having a piece of something some people never have in their lives. The only other time I had seen quenepas was in a white plastic bag my Abuelita Ita took out of her luggage during her yearly trip from Puerto Rico. They were dangerous little treats that could kill you if you didn’t slowly savor every drop of juice it could ever possibly give.

My mom and brother dancing. Legends say they danced a lot.

Just as my teeth cracked the shell, the golden core burst in my mouth immediately sending sweet sensations that were instanly followed by sourness. Eating the cheeky fruit turned into my favorite pastime, as my newly evolved family talked about the dances my mom and her friend would go to with her brothers and how this one who used to live here moved to Florida and that one who used to live there moved to some Toa Baja or Ponce.

I just sat suckling on the plump pit with great diligence feeling like a dexterous expert. I mean, you could only get these in Puerto Rico. These came with a heaping side of caution because Abuelita del Carro finished telling me, “Te puedes ahogar. Cójelo suave.”

One after another, I dug my teeth into the little green pits until my mouth dried out and my Abuelita del Carro announced we were leaving.

“Ya veo que te gustan Carolina,” la vecina said as I just shook my head up and down in agreement.

“No más que no quiero que regrese a Brooklyn sin labios,” my grandmother said as she shooed me down the stairs. Before I made my one and only exit from my mother’s childhood best friend’s home, “la vecina” snuck me a handful of quenepas and said “Esto no lo tienen en Brooklyn.” 

El King
“Es lo más bueno. A ti te va gustar.” 

It was the first time I met my Abuelito Papaleo. My mother’s father was a military man with a crisp blue button up, pressed slacks, and a Korean War Veteran’s mesh hat.

I knew him from the newspaper clippings he sent my mother about political debates in Puerto Rico. His sharp hand written commentary was always sure to be found on a separate post-it providing the date, newspaper name, and a side narrative of his opinion.   

He did the same with all the photos he took and sent us, which my mom kept atop her bureau. There was one in his Marine uniform where everyone said he looked just like my brother, another of him with his hair swept back in dark shades and the one of him and his sister who lived in Florida taking el tren urbano for the first time. He loved his car though. So much so that one time when it rained, he was found outside cleaning his car. It was going to rain again in less than five minutes.

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“Allí es donde vive esta y allí es donde va tu prima.” I sat in the backseat swinging my feet in anticipation as he gave us the tour of Carolina, Santurce, and Isla Verde where beachgoers hauled coolers and hung towels around their necks. I made sure not to kick the back of his driver’s seat. He was a clean man and I didn’t want to leave any footmarks. Not that he said anything, but I kind of just knew.

Wherever it was he was taking us, it was sure to be good. We stopped by Walgreens to get extra film for his camera.

I couldn’t stop thinking. What were we going to get that was Puerto Rico exclusive? Was it an authentic alcapurria? Or maybe a cheesy pastelito? Maybe I’ll get a cheese and a beef? The ones I’ve had at the cuchifritos at the corner of my house were good but from Puerto Rico, it just had to be better. Finally after an hour or so riding in a car and people watching, we parked and got out of the car.

“¿Por donde Abuelito?” my sister asked. “‘Ayí’ mismo,” he said and I turned to see big red letters engulfed in two semi circles that read “Burger King.”

Man, did he love that Whopper.

Me at el grand Burger King de Isla Verde.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 14 August 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.