Many decades ago, when my grandfather’s employer sent him to live there for a few years, I had the privilege of spending two summers with them, first in their rental house in Bayamón and, two years later, at the house they bought in Guaynabo. These San Juan suburbs were not as built up as they are now. Indeed, I got in trouble for playing in a construction site with the boys. This behavior would have been normal in New York but in that time and culture, it was unacceptable. Grandma preferred that I be more ladylike.
It was common to dress for diner. My routine with my brothers was to play outside with the neighborhood kids — all of whom spoke English — and go inside in time to shower and put on clean play clothes. Grandpa was big on table manners so those clothes remained fresh enough to wear for the next day’s adventures.
We played outside because, unlike back home, it was uncommon to go inside someone’s home without an invitation. One day, my grandmother was aflutter because my friend’s mother called to invite me to dinner at a later date. Grandma was all about which dress I should wear and what to do about my wild curls. I promptly caught some local illness and cried not because I was sick, but because I couldn’t have dinner at Rosa Maria’s house across the street. (The sickness did give me the excuse to live on pear nectar for a while.)
But I was lucky to have experienced the gentility of their time and place in Puerto Rico. My grandparents’ friends made it possible for us to appear on a local kids’ television show, to be the literal “kid in a candy store” when we visited with some relatives who owned an actual candy store, to drive to the Arecibo Observatory while it was still partially under construction. (Sadly, this was before Arecibo was open for tours. We had to view it from the road.)
Many years later, I insisted that my daughter see Puerto Rico for herself. Her father is not of that heritage so my child and I went exploring on our own. When we got off the city bus at Old San Juan, starving, we found a coffee shop populated by construction workers. We enjoyed authentic food there, far from the tourist traps. I loved showing her the El Yunque rain forest where, for old times sake, I drank from a waterfall like the locals. That is delicious water. I suspect I developed immunities to whatever lives in it from a long-ago visit when I frolicked in and drank from one of the El Yunque waterfalls.
How much of this is still standing? Hurricane Maria decimated this beautiful island. I have no family or friends there, just memory and gratitude. Today, I brought feminine and first aid products to a collection site at a firehouse a few neighborhoods away. The donations will be sent to Puerto Rico. I wanted to bring so much more.
I was removed from the culture at some point in my childhood. My cooking is rudimentary. My salsa and merengue skills are awkward and my Spanish virtually nonexistent. (Although, I saw a post from a dear friend begging for information about a relative in Puerto Rico and, although written in Spanish, I easily understood it. Anguish is universal.)
I had a bucket list plan that involved (1) searching for information about my grandmother’s family history and (2) kayaking the bioluminescent bay. The documents I need may no longer exist and I wonder how the dinoflagellates fared in the flooding.
This trip would have been to a different Puerto Rico. Not to my grandparents’ life there, not to a mommy-and-me version of the island, but an almost scholarly journey. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t Just Do It years ago.
I fear that Puerto Rico won’t receive the aid that it needs to rebuild. Florida, Texas and the Virgin Islands also suffered this hurricane season, and we have a president who simply doesn’t like Spanish people. We have to continue to donate whatever it is that Puerto Rico needs to rebuild. It’s our responsibility to keep this treasure alive.