Puerto Rico Me Encanto

Story by Jeannie Stone

Puerto Rico me encanta is a slogan coined by the tourism industry and translates to “Puerto Rico enchants me.” 

I know the routine, so I’m not surprised when the entire plane erupts in clapping and the boom of Latin music from a CD player poised for our moment of touchdown on the runway in San Juan. Such is the custom of the natives returning to their homeland, and though I barely speak the tongue, I do as the Puerto Ricans do. I cheer porque yo soy Puertorriquena.

This is my mother’s homeland. And, for nearly every year of my 48 years, I have traveled to the southern city of Ponce, on the Caribbean Sea, to visit my grandparents Abu and Papa, extended cousins and friends.

I am that mixed child with parents from diverse ethnic background — the second generation, once removed, of my mother’s island people and of my father’s Scotch/Irish kin residing in the hills of western Arkansas.

My parents met at a Girl Scout camp near the navy base in Puerto Rico where my father was stationed. She was a camp counselor, and my father had been assigned to lifeguard. He impressed my mother, with his 6’2” physique and his blue eyes, jumping so hard on a diving board that he broke it.

I was the first of four daughters born on a Navy Base in Maryland. Our stay there was short and my father was transferred back to Puerto Rico where we lived until 1964. We settled in North Little Rock when I was three years old.

Hard to believe, but in the 1960s there was a miniscule Hispanic population in Arkansas, even in the most populated portion of the state. Unfortunately for me, because there were no other Spanish- speaking Arkansans my mother could locate in the early years of our arrival, we stopped speaking Spanish in the home.

In my mother’s defense, I was stubborn and so wanted to fit in with my new friends that I became mute when she would talk to me in Spanish. It doesn’t help that my father didn’t speak the language.

Although I can understand some of the conversations around me, I’ve never felt at ease to jump in and speak. I now find that my grandparents and I can’t communicate beyond a few phrases because in their aging they’ve forgotten English. My high school classes and periodic exposure hasn’t been enough for me to regain fluency, yet I still remember the nursery rhymes and songs my mother and grandmother sang to me.

The heart never forgets. Abu likes to hold my hand and tell me slowly and simply, “I love you and I want you to be happy.”

When I was a child, Puerto Rico was every bit the foreign land non-travelers imagine. But today, there is a Burger King and McDonald’s in every town, and my grandparents’ favorite place to shop is Wal-Mart.

UndertheCaribbeansun,dailytasksare in some ways altered. Orchids cling from my grandparent’s trees, mangos and limes hang overhead. A poinsettia bush is in full bloom next to the front porch where visitors drop in all during the day unannounced, but welcomed.

Music punctuates the lives of the residents. You’ve never seen so many happy people. They seem to express any frustrations they have by honking their horns, relentlessly. The police like to drive fast with their lights flashing nonstop all the time. It is a noisy culture, and it is alive. Music and dancing are fast, so are their trilling tongues. “Bomba y Plena” is a uniquely Puerto Rican-style of music often referred as “el periodico cantado” (the sung newspaper).

Puerto Ricans are passionate and intense. Their pursuits are varied. I am the grand niece of Esteban Rodriguez Tizol. He owned Bold Forbes, the winner of the 1976 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

The melodic strumming of el cuatro (a small guitar), the rasping of el guiro (a dried gourd with a scored side), the beat of the African-inspired timbales (small, tall drums), and the shake, shake, shake of the maracas, make me smile.

I am the great-grand niece of the pioneering jazz trombonist Juan Tizol who played in Duke Ellington’s band. It’s no surprise my children sing in the Russellville choir and play in the band.

Religion tied my grandparents and me as my mother made sure we were raised in the Catholic tradition. Religious progress came slowly to the island. I always considered Puerto Rican Catholics as “old world.” There are still plenty of chapel veils worn in church, and I remember Latin masses when I was young, even though it had been years since it was the worship language in the states.

Rum runs through my blood. My almond wedding cake was soaked in rum, baked by my Titi Arnarda. (It wouldn’t surprise me if the traditional wine served at Holy Communion representing the blood of Christ isn’t actually rum.)

Educational forays my mother planned during our childhood visits to the island included the Serralles castle on a hill overlooking Ponce. It was the home of a powerful rum and sugar cane baron. We toured the rum factory.

I have vivid memories of my father stuffing bottles in a suitcase heading back home. The line from Pirates of the Caribbean, “Save the rum” makes me laugh every time I see it because my father would throw away underwear to make room for the rum. When I pack for my return trip, I always make sure to stow a tin of guava paste and, of course, rum.

I grew up a southerner, but I never learned to fry chicken because my mother’s culinary repertoire included flan, paella, rice and beans, bacalaitos (cod fritters), pasteles (savory cakes wrapped in banana leaves) and sweet plantains. In my North Little Rock backyard, we dug a pit every year to roast a whole pig on a spit — much to the delight of our neighbors.

Though my father couldn’t give me the gift of another language, he gave me the best gift of all – my mother. Growing up half Puerto Rican meant I knew, instinctively, how to laugh, how to pray and how to love.

On the airplane, I realize it’s not the language or the religion or the food — what makes me a child of Puerto Rico is my heart. So I cheer. And as my Abu is fond of saying, “Thanks be to God.”

(L to R) Terence Scott, Russ Warhurst & John Pike

 

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