Mexico, Puerto Rico, & the Imagination of Self
The kitchen serves as the central meeting place in our home. It’s where we watch Oprah or Walter Mercado, the famous Puerto Rican astrologer who sits on a throne wearing a royal cape while he spews life gems from a heavily botoxed mouth. I can’t make these things up. We aren’t a superstitious family–devout Christians, actually–but if anyone breaks the silence during his segment on Primer Impacto, they’re asking for a cold side eye.
Growing up, we didn’t have cable, but our three channels were enough for my mom to get her talk show fix and Tía Cacha, her novela fix. Tía Cacha–legally “Maria de Jesus” but nobody calls her that–is one of my mom’s sixteen siblings. She’d come over on Wednesday nights to watch her novela on our black and white portable TV that we kept in the kitchen while my mom and I went to mid-week church service.
Our fridge is plastered with drawings my nieces and nephews gift to my mother. Nesavay once drew a picture of “Grandma Rachel in her favorite outfit: T-shirt and jeans,” the uniform my mom has worn to work for as long as anyone can remember. My mom’s rough and calloused hands with dirt accumulated underneath chipped nails show nearly thirty years of manual labor at the US Post Office, but she prefers that you think of them as the hands that withstand the heat while she’s cooking. She literally touches the bottom of the cooking frying pan without any signs of discomfort while she rolls enchiladas; I tried it once and ended up with blistered fingertips–that was the end of that.
My mom lives for the moments she gets to spend with her children and grandchildren; she’s very much like her own mother in that regard. Her mother Godeleva Gamiño, my grandmother, had schizophrenia. To my mother’s horror, Godeleva once placed her newborn child at the foot of the back seat in the car; on good days, she delightfully watched her children play in the street. That’s how Tía Cacha got her nickname; le gustaba cachar la pelota, or she liked catching the ball. When prompted to correct her children’s erratic behavior, Godeleva would gently respond, “Dejenlos–son niños,” or “Leave them be–they’re children.”
Every week, my mom sneaks off to Ciudad Juárez, the bordering town in Mexico where she’s from. She and her sisters, now old enough for the senior-citizen discount (but don’t tell them I told you), eat flautas at their favorite hole-in-the-wall joint El Cesteo de las Aguilas, where they only serve potato or beef flautas drizzled (or when I join, drenched) in vinegar with a side of shredded cabbage and a Manzanita, or apple soda, in a glass silhouette bottle. They sneak off because rampant female homicides and drug cartel-related murders in Juárez deem it unsafe for them to travel alone, which their husbands, my father included, forbid them from doing. It doesn’t stop Tía Cruz and Tía Cacha from swinging by the house to recruit my mom. “¡Raquel, vamos a las flautas!” or “Raquel, let’s go eat some flautas!” Once they sneak over the border, they stop by Tía Tere’s house, the eldest of the seventeen, to recruit her for lunch. Before they leave, Tía Tere shapes everyone’s eyebrows with her trusty tweezers, and they’re ready to be seen at the flauta joint.
“I’m going to meet a man!” my mom announced the night she met my father. A Latin percussionist, my dad was playing the congas in a salsa band at a Juárez club. He wore a guayabera typical of Puerto Rico and sported a fro small enough to be permissible at his day job as a soldier in the US Army.
The term Afro-Latino only emerged recently, so it’s not something he readily identifies with. If you ask him, he’s Puerto Rican. Still, my dad takes pride in his blackness, he just uses different words. “What happened to your hair? You used to have kinky hair!” my father grimaced when a haircut left me with seemingly straight hair. Once my unpredictable hair started to curl a few weeks after my haircut, he gave me an emphatic “Good.” Without my curly hair that, let’s be honest, rarely approaches kinky curls, I don’t necessarily have noticeable features that identify my blackness, if you will. My mom has straight, flat hair, so my dad proudly passed down the curls that spring up.
My father intentionally displays his Puerto Rican pride. He framed a family crest and shared the story of our last name Paniagua, which translates to “bread and water.” He talks about how that’s what the Paniagua’s were fed as slaves in Puerto Rico, bread and water. During her delusions of grandeur, my grandmother Godeleva often motioned my mother to bring her slave, in reference to my darker complected, kinky-haired father; always gracious, he understood that she was sick. Unashamed of our history–my dad’s birth certificate reads “mulatto” and “mestizo”–negra, literally black female, is a term of endearment for the women in our family.
I used to think my dad was famous. As a kid, we’d go to music stores, and I’d see his initials “LP” on every instrument. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to realize “LP” stood for “Latin Percussion.” That Paniagua pride is generational.
We played every instrument designated as “Latin percussion”–congas, bongos, güiros, cowbells, and even homemade woodblocks of varying timbre–and jammed to plena and bomba, Puerto Rican folklore. In college, I set out on a journey to study these musics, but I found that the Puerto Rican communities I was researching listened to the unfamiliar jíbaro music, another Puerto Rican folklore characterized less by rhythm and chants and more by lyrical improvisation and the guitar-like cuatro. It was in college that I found the term for my Puerto Rican roots and upbringing: Afro-Latino.
Ashley Nicole Soto Paniagua
If I were home, I might be with my 80 year-old Puerto Rican grandma watching Caso Cerrado, the Spanish-language Judge Judy without any judicial validity broadcasting topics you might find on Jerry Springer. We’d watch for hours like it’s Netflix, and I’d laugh at her reactions to its obscenities: ¡Chacho, se puso muy fresco con ella! “Man, he got a little too fresh with her!” Instead, I live by myself in a small studio apartment 800 miles away from my closest family.
“Do what you gotta do,” my mom encouraged me the last time I saw her. As a millennial, I live in a dreamland filled with possibilities and uncertainty, glass half full and half empty. I paint a picture of what I want for my future and go for it. I often wonder if this is how my mom felt growing up. How did she know how to eat at regular times without a mom healthy enough to teach her? How did she pave her way? My dad left an island only to create it elsewhere with his music. What have I brought with me?
When I envision my future self, I think of my mom and her sisters risking their lives and plucking their eyebrows just so that they can eat flautas at the same dingy spot every week, and hope for something remotely close to having sister friends that make an event out of simply being together. I imagine myself boldly defiant, like the time my mother bought me a piano despite the vendors refusing to serve her because she was wearing a t-shirt and jeans and didn’t have delicate, smooth piano-playing hands. I hope to balance my defiance with a gentle spirit, like my dad proudly boasting his heritage while still respecting my schizophrenic grandma. Amidst it all, I hope to treat my life with a similar lightness that my family treated my grandmother’s illness: ¡Andale, Madre, dile a tu amigo que queremos estar en la bola también! “C’mon, Mom! Tell your friend we want to be a part of the fun, too!”
Culture and Latinidad involve more than just a checklist of qualifiers but a way of doing life. I’m tasked with turning that into something tangible and find myself retreating to family values to fantasize about what my life could be. In my attempts to create the future me, I constantly edit my imagination of self based on how my mom, my dad, Tía Cacha and everyone else showed me how to do life. I mean, I gave up Caso Cerrado with my grandma for this, so it better be good.