Read an Excerpt
From First Born by Esmeralda Santiago
I was her first child, born feetfirst, the umbilical cord snug around my neck. My father's mother delivered her of me. I fell into Abuela's hands, a blue baby, and Mami thought I was dead. Abuela slapped me hard, and when I wailed, she returned me to my mother's body, to the full, soft warmth of her breast. Maybe it was that perilous beginning that bound me to her at the moment when she sent me forth. Since that rainy Monday morning, whenever I'm breathless and abused, I return to her bosom, hungry.
She was sixteen when I was conceived. My father was twenty-eight and already had a child with another woman. I've never asked her how they met, how he seduced her, how she managed to evade her mother and brother and the house full of aunts and uncles with whom she lived so she could be with him. Whenever I ask personal questions, she says she doesn't remember, but a few days later she'll volunteer what she wants me to know. That's how I found out that, around the time they met, she worked as a clerk in her uncle's pastry shop in Santurce. Was it there that Papi first saw her, dark-eyed, fresh-faced, eager for adventure?
It was August when they made me, the middle of hurricane season. I imagine a hot, dry day. Or had the sky rumbled and cracked in one of those unexpectedly violent summer storms that break over Puerto Rico with no warning? She's afraid of lightning and thunder. Perhaps he held her in his arms to calm the trembling that accompanies her fears.
I was a fussy, sleepless infant, dark and hairy, given to fits of rage that ended as suddenly and inexplicably as they began.
I slept in a hammock that Mami swung rhythmically in an attempt to soothe the colic, heat rash, mosquito bites: the irritants I couldn't name but that made her life miserable. Years later she'd wish for my children to give me as much trouble as I had given her, and the possibility kept me childless into my thirties.
Before I was two, I had a baby sister. We lived in a one-room house on stilts over muddy water. Wobbly planks led to the street. When we walked across them, Mami clutched my hand and held Delsa against her bosom.
"Don't let go," she warned. "Be careful, or you'll fall and drown." As we reached the street, her grip eased and my fears melted, to be renewed again on the way back over the long, splintery boards that creaked and groaned with every step.
"But you can't possibly remember that," Mami challenges, and I ask, did we live in a house over muddy water? Were there planks leading to the road? She admits that yes, both things are true, but refuses to believe I can remember that far back. "I must have told you about it when you were older," she claims.
On a sleepy afternoon, Mami and I sat at a table near a window, listening to the water slap against the pilings that held up the house. I sucked my thumb while, with my other hand inside my panties, I bothered the place where pee came from. When she saw what I was doing, Mami flew off her chair, grabbed my arm, and spanked me, screaming that I was never to do that, it was dirty, girls shouldn't touch themselves down there.
That's the first beating I remember, the sting of her hand against my buttocks, the strong fist around my wrist, the flat sound of her fingers against my skin.
She was not the only mother to hit her children. Una pela was a common threat by parents then still is and it was not unusual for parents to peel skin off with a nubby guava switch or with a stiff leather belt. Papi used his belt on us. Mami used her hands, a rope, a shoe, a frying pan, whatever was closest.
In spite of the many pelas I endured, I don't think of myself as a battered child. That term didn't enter my vocabulary until I was in my twenties and newspapers and television broadcasts were filled with stories of children burned with lit cigarettes, tied up to bedsteads, clubbed with broomsticks, locked up in closets, left to starve. I remembered my mother's rage, her violence, and was ashamed that she'd ever raised her hand to me and my siblings. I couldn't excuse it, but I forgave it. I forced myself to look beyond resentment to who she was when she, and we, were growing up. And in looking at her life I found lessons. Chief among them: don't dwell in the past or you will drown in sorrow.
Norma was born when I was four, and while she was still a toddler we moved to Macún, a barrio in the municipality of Toa Baja, where Papi owned a parcela, a plot of land which boasted eleven avocado and five mango trees, pigeon pea and annatto bushes, wild oregano, and a spiny lemon tree. The ramshackle house on the parcela had no electricity or running water. Barrels under the corner eaves collected rain. There was a pond down the road, the scummy, green surface broken by bubbles that Mami imagined were the breath of creatures in its depths. Pregnant with her fourth child, Mami stayed home while Papi spent most of the week building or renovating houses in San Juan.
In the last weeks of her pregnancy, the barrels were empty and the sky cloudless. Delsa, Norma, and I whimpered from hunger, but there was no water to cook the rice. The louder we cried the more desperate Mami became, until finally, she walked to the pond and drew a bucket of water.
"I strained it through cotton, then let the water boil a long time." Her face twisted into disgust as she told me the story years later. "The white rice still came out green. I sobbed as we ate it. I figured if it was poisonous, we would at least die together." As she spoke, I was filled with compassion for her as she was then, twenty-one years old, with three toddlers and another baby on the way, a city girl stranded in the wilderness of a barrio in el campo, alone.
After my brother, Héctor, was born, Mami and Papi seemed to fight more. She accused, he defended himself. She cried, he sulked. She told him to leave her alone, he disappeared, to return days later as if nothing had happened. My sisters and brother and I cowered in our hammocks, or stayed clear of them when Papi was home. We watched her face for signs that a fight was coming, listened to her tone of voice and whether she set the pots down gently or banged them upon the cooking stones. If she was in a dark mood, we were silent and watchful, subservient to her whims.
When they were getting along, they worked at opposite ends of the parcela. As she collected gandules for dinner, he built sturdier walls. His hammer kept time to the Mexican rancheras he sang in a clear baritone, she moved her hips back and forth as she hummed boleros and dropped the fat pigeon pea pods into a metal bowl. I've always thought that words belonged to him, but music has always been hers the wordless hum of effort rewarded.
With four young children to take care of, Mami had little time for socializing. But when the public water fountain was installed about a mile from our house, she met some of the neighbor women. Several times a week, we walked over to collect fresh water. While Mami and the vecinas stood around the fountain filling their buckets and jabbering, we stomped on the mud from the spillover. From time to time, one of them looked in our direction and yelled at us to stop. But as soon as she turned around, we went back to smearing ourselves, and each other, with mud.
After her visit with the neighbors, Mami filled two large pails, then carried them down the dirt road, her arms straining. We trailed her, each with our own can filled to the brim, arguing about who would spill the least on the way back. Once home, she stored the water in huge square lard cans topped with a wooden cover. This was our drinking, cooking, and teeth-brushing water, boiled daily before use. For washing, she still poured buckets of rainwater into the tin tubs.
Sometimes I still catch Mami scrubbing a blouse by hand in the bathroom sink, her fingers fisted around the garment, her knuckles rubbing the fabric in even, confident strokes, as sudsy bubbles drip down her wrists to her elbows. There's a slight smile on her face, and stern concentration the triumph of will and strength over dirt.
While I didn't understand it then, it now appears inevitable that Mami would want to return to the city. Life in Macún was hard; and with my father gone most of the time, and in spite of the visits with the vecinas by the public fountain, she was lonesome. One day she picked us up from school and moved us to Santurce, closer to those of her aunts and uncles who had not fled to the United States in search of work. They dropped in on Sunday afternoons to share the letters received from their siblings in New York and to gossip about them over endless cups of sweetened café con leche.
In Santurce Mami smiled more. She knew how to handle herself in the city, liked the convenience of a couple of blocks to the store instead of a couple of miles to the cooperative that might or might not have what she needed. On lazy evenings, we walked around the plaza, where she bought shaved ice in paper cones with sweet jewel-bright syrup poured over it. Sometimes we caught a bus at the corner near our house and got off in front of her uncle's pastry shop, where we chose a tembleque or a square of coconut rice. While she talked with her aunt and uncle, we played with our cousins in the porch, every so often returning to stare hungrily at the cool glass cases filled with more sweets than we'd ever seen in one place.
Mami was in her early twenties then, and, in spite of four pregnancies in less than six years, she looked good and enjoyed dressing up. Instead of the cotton shifts and bare feet of Macún, she now wore stiff starched and ironed blouses and skirts, high-heel shoes, hair curled or twisted into a bun at the nape of her neck. She wore rouge and lipstick, too, and powder on her nose. She constantly told us to speak softer, to stop running, to sit still, to keep our clothes clean, and to wash our feet and scrub under our fingernails.
Papi came to see us, and eventually to stay with us. Soon after Alicia was born, he convinced Mami to return to Macún, and we did, with city manners and clothes ill-suited to the country. The vecinas criticized her for acting as if we were better than everyone else in the barrio just because we'd lived in Santurce. At the water fountain, they looked away when we approached carrying our vessels, no better nor worse than theirs.
It still hurts me to recall how hard it was for Mami after we returned. The look on her face as we approached the water fountain was a lesson in quiet dignity. Her lips tight, her lively eyes focused on one of us or on the task at hand, she asserted her dignidad as the neighbors turned their backs on her or made comments that she was sure to hear but pretended not to. It took weeks to win them over again, as if we had to prove we would stay this time before they could trust us.
Like most of the women in Macún, Mami made all our clothes on a black Singer treadle sewing machine. She also cut and hand-stitched the cotton diapers and baby blankets of which there never seemed to be enough. For everyday wear she made me and my sisters sleeveless cotton shifts out of fabrics stamped with tiny flowers and vines. For special occasions, she sewed dresses with rows of lacy ruffles, itchy cancans and long sashes that tied into bows at the back.
She liked to dress us alike, and tried her best to make us look like triplets, even though we were all different sizes and skin tones. I was brown, skinny, taller than Delsa or Norma. Delsa was darker, petite, with slanted onyx eyes and wavy black hair that Mami shaped with her fingers into corkscrews around her head. Mami called Norma "la colorá" because of her rosy skin and curly hair that framed her narrow face in fuzzy red-brown ringlets.
Unlike my sisters', my hair was too straight to stay in any of the shapes Mami tried to impose on it. Sometimes she cut squares of paper that she folded around locks of wet hair before I went to bed. When she took them off the next morning, the limp spirals lasted just long enough for her to see the potential.
One day, she washed my hair, trimmed it, then dabbed on a liquid that she swore would curl my hair. It smelled like burning rubber mixed with lemon juice, and it tingled my scalp as she put it on. She rolled strands of hair tightly around pink plastic bones. She then had me sit in the sun for the time it took my shadow to crawl from my right side to my left. "The permanent has to set," she said.
When she unrolled the bones, my scalp felt as if it had separated from my skull, and my hair smelled burnt. She handed me Papi's shaving mirror, where I saw a black, frizzy halo around a scowling face. "You look like a startled monkey," she laughed.
Every time a feast day or other special occasion approached, she came home from the cooperative market with a new permanent kit. I hid behind the oregano or annatto bushes, but she called me back with threats that I was afraid to ignore. After many attempts (to this day she says she only did it once), she agreed that my hair was never going to be like Delsa's, Norma's, or baby Alicia's, so she stopped trying. I have an aversion to hair salons and treatments that I trace to those hot afternoons in our yard while the smelly permanent solution set and Mami promised Shirley Temple curls if I just sat in the sun a little longer.