My Parents: Two Young Campesinos from Families with Ten Plus Children
We all know the same strong yearning
To leave some good as we go.
(Excerpt from song: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Dreams by Tom Renaud)
When my father was eighty years old and already senile, I was thirty-eight. It was then that, for the first time, I was able to have a brief conversation with him about his life. He was a man of few words and I don't have a memory of us talking to each other in any significant way when I was growing up. Our encounter took place at my sister Manuela's house in South Carolina. Manuela had taken papá out of the Hogar Nuestra Señora de la Providencia, a nursing home in San Juan, where he had been miserable; she was now caring for him in her home. His diminished body curved and receded inside the big leather chair where he sat looking through a glass door at the dry, brownish lawn outdoors. It was the fall season and papá wore his pale beige panama hat, smelling of earthy old sweat, and a heavy flannel shirt, a piece of clothing he never needed in Puerto Rico's warm weather and which gave him a slightly American look. I kneeled at the side of his chair and stretched my body upward to come close to his ear because he had problems hearing, and spoke in a very low voice. He had a flashback about his past and slowly uttered these words:
"I have to go get the horse." There was no horse around. He must have been disoriented and hallucinating.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because if I don't bring it, I'll be punished." Tired tears made a timid presence around his wrinkled, small and sunken eyes. I never saw him crying before, but I was not surprised since Manuela told me that he had cried much over the past year. I remained curious about his sadness, but unmoved otherwise.
"Were you punished much?" Here I got closer to hear him because his speech was muted and then continued my inquiry, remaining neutral, a stance I was trained to take in my profession, clinical social work. I just did not know how else to relate to him.
"I was punished all the time."
"How were you punished?"
"With ropes, belts, sticks, with whatever was at hand." This was sad, seeing him as a little child running away from or submitting helplessly to some merciless authority.
"Why were you punished?"
"Because papá was never satisfied with what I did for him." I was hearing for the first time something so painful to a growing child and crucial about his relationship with his father, yet I was feeling so little, my heart hardened and hid behind the walls I had built to protect myself from him. Nevertheless, I wanted to hear his story, driven by what was at the time an unconscious desire to make a genuine connection with him.
"You must have suffered much."
"I suffered a lot." I could have hugged him then, could have said that I loved him, but I didn't. My heart remained closed, and I vaguely noticed how my muscles tightened and became rigid around him. I continued, now checking his memory, wanting to make sure that he was present and aware, and that what he was telling was true and not the result of a deranged mind.
"How many were you?"
"Twelve." He probably forgot his youngest sister, Maria, child number thirteen, who died from the typhus at age three.
"Can you tell me the names?"
"One was José." He paused, trying to remember, then: "José, Maximino, Manuela, Julián." His eyes watered again, and I asked, why was he crying?
"Because Julián was punished the most." I noticed his compassion, and how much grief he carried; still my emotions remained trapped behind an ice wall. Then he mentioned his brother Pablo and cried some more.
"Why are you crying now, papá?" My voice was a little softer and more tender.
"Because Pablo was the best one to me." I felt a wave of warmth for him now. I knew that feeling of vulnerability when someone recognizes your pain and shows you kindness. I too get full of tears when a person I care about sees my pain. We were both silent for a while when he, with a worried look, went on to say:
"I have to go to work."
"Why do you have to?"
"Because I carry a sacrifice."
"What does sacrifice have to do with work?"
"The sacrifice is heavier if I don't work, people have to work." One thing papá was distinguished for was his good work. Other farmers enjoyed having him by their side when they tilled the land because he was so good at it. Now he was letting me know one of his reasons for being such a hard worker. I also suspected that not being able to work anymore as he aged contributed much to his mental deterioration. Work was so important to him, making his "sacrifice" lighter. I did not ask him what his sacrifice was about. Instead, following my judgment of him as one who throughout his life had misbehaved and consequently must feel guilty, I said:
"You seem to feel that you need to punish yourself."
"Yes, it is good to punish oneself." He was clear. He answered my questions straightforwardly, but I seemed to have fallen into an 'as if' experience. I seemed to have been holding onto the feeling that this moment was not very real, that papá's judgment was damaged by his lifelong and corrosive alcoholism, yet my curiosity prevailed and I kept going:
"I don't understand, papá, I don't understand, why do things have to be that way?"
"Because that is how they have to be."
"Do you feel guilty about something?" I went after his guilt again. I wanted him to confess, to ask for forgiveness, to say to me, I am sorry for all the suffering I caused you and the family.
"Yes," he responded. He said no more. He was not articulate, also unprepared to reveal more. I continued coaching him:
"What is it about?"
"I can't tell you."
"It must be hard to talk about this." He nodded in agreement and went silent, the dull silence I met all the time with him when he was sober, broken only by truculent speech when intoxicated. I interrupted the silence with one last question.
"Papá, tell me, at this point, looking back, what do you think about your life?"
His straightforward answer, "Sin asunto y sin vaina," was at the moment incomprehensible. Yet, I have come to see a profound meaning to his succinct summary of his life, revelations hidden in his words which would come clearer as we journeyed through this family history.
While my father drank alcohol and carried a weight of guilt and the scars of his relationship to an abusive father as well as insufficient attention from his burdened mother of thirteen children, our mother carried the wounds of her family's multiple losses, mental illness and poverty. She had seen four of her sisters die from tuberculosis and two other siblings pass away from unknown causes. Mamá talked about these losses with a blank stare and no emotion, like a Holocaust survivor afraid of approaching so much pain, except when it came to the death of her ten year old sister Sofía. After she married and went to live with papá on the land of Juan C. Morales, she took Sofía to live with her. "Some time later Sofía became ill with cough and fever." With a somber, resigned look and holding back tears, mamá went on: "Don Juan and his family forced me to send her back to my father's. They were afraid that she had tuberculosis. It did not take long for her to die and I did not see her again. I knew already that sending her back to my father was going to be the end of her."
The theme of death was present in my mother's mind as far back as I can remember. When I was a toddler, and everyone else went about their own business, we would be alone in the house. The late afternoon sun would cast a soft orange light through the window announcing the evening, and soon the night darkness. There was a quiet around us, interrupted only by a bird's chirping, chickens flapping their wings, a lazy dog's bark or a pig's grunt, a kind of lonely serenity, that led to my mother's sentimental rumination about death, and bringing me to her lap she would sing:
Oh Heavens, Oh Heavens,
Oh Heavens, Oh Heavens,
What will I do with my child,
If I die, If I die.
Even though I was a small and did not understand the words in my mother's singing, I felt her sadness, a mixture of tenderness and desolation that brought us together under a cocoon of depression; a mood disorder that grew roots deep inside us for years to come.
Mamá's preoccupation with impending death was not unwarranted for there were so many times when her fears matched her reality. One day my brother Antolín returned from a visit to our mother's sister, aunt Rosa, who lived a long distance away in Palmarito, the district where mamá was raised. Barefooted, pants flecked with burdocks and stained with mud, and exhausted he came home and said:
"Mamá, Rosa and her family are not doing well. They have no work. They are malnourished. They have these small twins, so thin and pale" ... He stopped briefly, his face contorted with a spasm of pain and tears, "They look like they may die any moment."
Mother was shocked, her expression turned grim, the blood disappeared from her face and she started to pace around with her hands coming together in a semicircle over her head, a characteristic gesture when she needed relief from mounting distress:
"Oh God, don't tell me that this is happening again. That they have nothing to eat? We can't let them die!" She was resolute, determined, her heart expanded with a flow of compassion ready to do battle with all the elements that gave such merciless turns to the wheels of her life.
My brother was only sixteen, nine years older than me, but he was already considered a man. He spent a couple of years repeating the third grade and finally left school because he could not learn. Yet, he had an inquisitive and practical mind that he aptly and sometimes not so aptly applied to solve problems. Experience and nature's unwritten language became his teachers, and I suspect that mamá trusted his judgment, happy to have a son that became her ally when chaos commanded that she take refuge in someone.
"I think that it will help if they come live near us; if they are close by we can give them a hand," my brother said with the conviction of a grown man.
"We can talk to Juan," mamá said in agreement, seeing a ray of hope and regaining composure. "He has that unoccupied casita where they can stay."
Juan was my mother's brother. He lived with his wife and children in a Parcela, a small cement home he obtained, as did our parents, from a land and home distribution program in the 1940s, a federal program to counteract the Great Depression which hit PR with all its fury. I suspect uncle Juan's hut, made out of straw and wood, was his abode before he obtained La Parcela. Humble and compassionate, he readily offered shelter to his sister Rosa and her family. When our mother saw how severely undernourished her sister's twin infants were, she obtained permission to bring the twin baby Aida Rosa, who was close to a year old, to live with us. In the nighttime, when everyone else slept, mamá was up feeding Aida Rosa ripe tomatoes. It was her mission not to let one more family member die, even when taking on the welfare of others meant giving up part of her own life. Aida gradually gained weight and strength, and began to take her first steps. She became the eleventh child in our family and she lived with us until she became a young adult.
While mamá gave so much, I grew weary of her selflessness and renunciation. I was jealous of the attention she bestowed on our little cousin. I was seven years old and the youngest when Aida joined our family group. Being the youngest before her, I was accustomed to have things done for me by the older ones and did not have experience of taking responsibility for the welfare of others. This made it difficult for me to comprehend and surrender to our mother's example. While her own life reserves were meager, she did not mind spending them to save Aida's life. Looking back I see myself at age seven in a confusing world, pushed to the margins as room was made for a baby girl who was undernourished and at risk of perishing. Her coming into our house was not explained to me and I had no say in the matter. The unspoken demand was for me to grow up and be self-sufficient. It would have helped if my family had sent me to school that year because learning new things and getting the teachers' attention could have compensated for the loss of my position as the little one at home. It is startling that at seven I did not seem to be aware of how old I was. I lived in this agricultural milieu where activities followed the sun's trajectory and changes of weather. Days seemed basically the same and blended into each other except for isolated islands of memory. I always thought that children started school at seven, and took it for granted that I did too. Yet recently I learned that my schooling did not start until I was close to eight. The years of my fledging consciousness appear to me now as barren. I was dazed, enveloped in a thick fog, as mamá busied herself saving Aida's life.CHAPTER 2
Roots of Our Town and Our Family within the Clashing Cultures of Spain and the US
When the Spanish-American War ended in defeat for the Spaniards, on December 12, 1898, Puerto Rico (known also as Borinquen, its indigenous Taino name) ceased being under Spanish rule and became a possession of the United States. Papá, José Inés Rivera Morales Morales Iglesia, born during the war on May 26, 1898, was only six months old. Living in the remote mountains of Maná, a district of the town of Corozal, papá was number nine of thirteen children. Our mother, Narcisa Peréz Burgos Berríos Pagán, from the mountainous region of Palmarito, another nearby district of Corozal, came ten years later, on October 29, 1908. Mamá's name, in its English translation, Narcissus, a daffodil, signals to me her deep love of flowers. She was the eldest of ten children. Four of her sisters, Inés, Luisa, Casilda and Sofía died from tuberculosis, a brother named Octavio died around age twenty-six. When I asked mamá about the cause of his death, her only casually delivered answer was: "He was abnormal." Another sister, Martita, died at age one from an unknown cause. Only now am I beginning to wonder how old our mother was when her siblings died, but more importantly what was it like for her and her family to lose, in what seems to have been a short time span, so many family members. Her kin were more disadvantaged than my father's, and they, like the aboriginal Indians, from whom she was a descendant, passed from the sight of our people, leaving few yet strong and unforgettable traces of their existence.
I have figured out that my parents married in 1925, as their first child, our brother Eugene, was born in 1926. A few years later they settled in Naranjito (a small town bordering their respective birth districts), on the farm of Juan C. Morales. Juan C.'s farm was called El Hoyo (The Pit), a name referring to a land deep down at the bottom of surrounding mountains. My parents were arrendados, or tenant farmers.
Naranjito derived its name from a small orange tree well-known because it served as a reference point for travelers heading north to the coastal region of Toa Alta, one of the more developed and oldest communities on the island. The villagers in this area saw it necessary to split off their region from the town of Toa Alta and build their own municipality to improve commerce, transportation and to comply with the Spanish rule that mandated church attendance on Sundays. Until then, they had to travel by horse or walk barefooted, through muddy trails, up to fifteen miles to fulfill their religious and civic obligations.
When my parents settled in Naranjito, it had been in existence close to a hundred years, and still did not have roads, running water, latrines, electricity, did not have radios or schools or a doctor, and in the countryside the way to make a fire for cooking was by rubbing together two stones. Folks had little schooling, and were barely able to read and write. They lived within the confines of large, wildly forested mountains where farming was the only source of food and shelter.
Travel remained extremely difficult even one hundred years after the town was founded. Heavy rains made the trails dangerous; the horses got stuck and sank into the ground together with their loads of goods. These hardships led to folk stories, such as one about a campesino who became enraged when his loaded horse fell and sank into the wet, soggy soil and would not move. Exasperated, he crumpled and flung his straw hat on the ground and, raising his eyes toward the sky, screamed: "God, if it is true that you exist, please send thunder and lightning and remove me from this life now." The campesino's frustration was so great that he wished to die, but not by taking his own life, which would have been a mortal sin, but with God's merciful consideration of his suffering. Since God did not respond to his plea, he stopped believing. He was pinned down to a container of rustic and unbending life in the mountains that at times became unbearable and made him wish to stop living or to question the existence of a benevolent God. Older people today talk about these stories, letting out some of the sorrows and commiserating with one another about their not too distant past.