No one can choose where to be born, to whom and in what era of history,
yet we are all shaped by those accidents of birth. Life is a banquet to
be savored and relished, no matter where, no matter when.
I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico on April 11, 1933, but eight years
later on July 17, 1941 destiny brought me to New York City on the
Algonquin. It was a gloomy, rainy day. I had no way of knowing that in
time I would learn to love two cities, two countries, two cultures. I
was born Irma del Carmen Schettini Valladares.
Who could have predicted that I would live through seismic changes,
geopolitically, personally and technologically, that determined the
person I have become? During my first eight years I relished my life in
a paradise, a tropical island where trade winds blew imbued with
perfumed fragrances from the flora that covered the small island. North
to south lush landscapes changed from tended and manicured grounds to
wild forests, from valleys to tall mountains, and from dark red clay to
white sand beaches. My landscapes were unsurpassed. My family travelled
with me to all the small towns that housed the inhabitants throughout
Puerto Rico, which they loved. During my formative years I was immersed
in the Latin American lust for life. We visited people from all walks of
life, all of whom seemed to treat us like family. "Mi casa es su casa"
is not just a quaint cliche: it is a dictate of life. "My home is your
home" is a welcome sign throughout Latin Amerca that invites intimacy.
On the island bougainvillea and flamboyan grew lush, as did massive
banyan trees, pines and various varieties of fruit trees, which bloomed
to form the sweet mangoes, papayas, pineapples, coconuts and bananas
that grew pungent and fragrant throughout the island. Flowers grew
profusely in every color of the rainbow. The fronds of palm trees seemed
to sway with the ever-present trade winds as if the island were alive
and breathing. Although Puerto Rico is a tiny rectangle 35 by 100 miles
encircled by the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean, several million
people live in huts and mansions, in cities and in quiet villages, at
sea level and in the mountains that split the island in half. No matter
how small the town or how large and vibrant the city, my family had
friends and relatives to welcome us.
I was born an American citizen, but during my formative years I
considered myself a Puerto Rican. I learned English in school, but it
was merely a nursery-rhyme English. All over the world schoolchildren
are taught a foreign language, which they soon forget unless they speak
the language on a regular basis. My first language was Spanish, which I
still speak. There are descriptive phrases that cannot be adequately
translated. Spanish is expressive and melodic, and it embodies the
spirit of the people. It is spoken verbally, but eyes, facial
expressions and hands are non-verbal communications that enhance the
words. Without these non-verbal skills, Latinos would be mute.
During the eight years that I was fortunate enough to travel about the
island and experience it through the eyes of a child, my family drove
around narrow, winding roads that criss-crossed the island in a car
without air-conditioning, taking in the sights and looking forward to
discovering byways not yet explored. Colorful houses clung to the
mountains defying gravity. The towns extended down to the edge of a
turquoise sea that stretched to eternity. It was a glorious place for
anyone to live. Even as a little girl I loved the physical beauty that
surrounded me. The warmth of the tropical countryside was a welcome
embrace, but its primary wonder was its gregarious residents, who seemed
to squeeze the joy out of each day as if it were an orange to be savored
down to the last pit.
The sounds of the island were woven into the landscape: music, the
barking dogs, the shrill squawking of parrots and other bird species
that demand attention like insistent children. In every town hens ran
across the country roads followed by their baby chicks. Goats and pigs
communicated with each other and considered themselves part of the
population. Paso fino horses were ridden by their owners, who appeared
to be an extension of the horse like centaurs in greek mythology. Since
the gait of a paso fino is so smooth, accomplished riders can hold a
glass of water on their heads as they ride without spilling a drop. Many
of the horses are part of the legacy of the Spaniards, who brought them
to the New World.
As the sun gets close to the horizon and the mist of night begins to
envelop the land, the coqui (pronounced "kokee"), a tree frog that is
native to Puerto Rico, repeats its own name in every corner. In cities,
in mountains, in valleys and on beaches, it is a welcome sign to the
population that venerates the tiny animals.
Along with the flora and fauna of the island I also remember clearly
many of my early years living across from the Cathedral of San Juan
Bautista in the walled city, which is old San Juan. From the balcony of
my granparents' apartment, where I lived for most of my formative years,
I watched the worshippers who flocked to the cathedral for weddings,
christenings and funerals, as well as for daily and Sunday services. I
inspected the crowd to distinguish their social position by the clothing
they wore to attend church. They were the background scenario of my
daily existence. Rich and poor parishioners knelt in prayer every day
and night seeking solace and salvation from the Church.
A church service was a primary social and religious activity that
adhered to strict rules of behavior and proper attire. Families attended
together. During the 1930s women wore hats to match their outfits, as
well as lace mantillas in muted colors. Men wore suits and ties as well
as Panama Hats, which they removed when they entered the church. The men
often wore white linen suits. Although families of modest means also
wore their Sunday best, their clothing tended to be simpler and made of
cotton. The more affluent women wore linen, silk and crepe dresses,
individually tailored to flatter their diverse figures. Women often
carried fans made of lace or hand-painted with European scenerey. In
church as well as at social gatherings, fans were opened and closed in a
rhythmic hum, creating a gentle breeze by cooling air with a subtle
flick of a wrist, an acquired skill that seemed to improve with age.
The Catholic Church welcomed parishioners without prejudice, but life
was not as kind. The line between poor and affluent was clear and often
a mere accident of birth. In every society throughout history,
influential citizens have wielded power and received respect because of
who they were. Wealth was one of the measures of a man, but family
status was not far behind because it opened doors to opportunity.
Although success was reported to be equally available to everyone, it
was more accessible to those with easy access.
Within the cathedral crucifixes portrayed a bloodied Christ expiating
the sins of the world in contrast to the more peaceful and placid
crosses in the United States. Parishioners felt the guilt that the pain
on those bloody crosses and crowns of thorns communicated. Religion was
an integral part of life. Nuns and priests presided over a predominantly
Catholic society that attended church as a religious and social
obligation : to pray and be seen doing so by the congregation. I
preferred the statues and paintings of the Virgin Mary or of the saints,
who devoted their lives to improve the condition of the populace.
Artists created benevolent images that inspire our goodness, such as the
Pieta in St. Peter's in Rome. I believe those images etch positive
emotions in our hearts.
In contrast to the white facade of the Cathedral of St. John the
Baptist, the patron saint of Puerto Rico, the three or four-story
townhouses that lined our street were painted in pastel colors and
featured wrought iron balconies in the style popular in Europe, similar
to New Orleans. Most of the houses were centuries old, as was the city.
Established as a stronghold for the Spaniards to guard their New World
empire, Puerto Rico was discovered and colonized by Christopher Columbus
in 1493. Spain granted property to those who settled there. The governor
was appointed by the royal family: the government was based on European
The houses , built with thick walls to keep out the tropical heat, were
almost indestructible. It was not the buildings , however, that filled
my heart and mind. It will always be the voices of people who shared
love and laughter. It is the expression on their faces, their smiles and
the kindness displayed by their eyes when they looked at me that I will
remember. I was made to feel special. Puritans repress their emotions. I
am not a Puritan, for which I am unapologetically grateful.
Excerpted from "Two Countries...Two Loves" by Irma Schettini Caiazzo. Copyright © 2013 by Irma Schettini Caiazzo. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.