When I was six, restlessly whiny and stuck at my grandparents’ apartment for the day, I made the mistake of begging to go home. Struck at once by my thanklessness and my absurdity, my Nana jeered, in her particular way, “Why don’t you fly home?” Her mouth was heart-shaped, a Cupid’s bow giving way to the soft curve of a constant pout, and it betrayed the intensity of the words that came out of it. From my grandmother, I have learned a great deal about the falsely perceived softness of women.
She began to fashion wings from my Poppy’s notebook paper, folding them into origami shapes and pinning them to the back of my puff-painted shirt, from which they accordioned out, crumpled and pleated and listless. It’s confusing when the physical exigencies of an emotion don’t align with the actual feeling—when sharp, sudden annoyance gives way to careful craft-making. She didn’t chide me; she instead took up a project, transforming what might’ve been an angry tirade into an object. The wings were a strange combination of cruelty, nimble craftsmanship, and fairytale play. They were, to be clear, the result of both the resourcefulness engendered by growing up in rural Puerto Rico and, especially, of Nana’s power, a force that always felt dark and light, equally ostentatious and invisibly simmering. I didn’t want to wear them, but I didn’t want to throw them away, either, imbued as they were with her magic. They could make me fly.
Nana was born Elba, the oldest of three children in an Afro-Caribbean family. They lived in Guayama, a city on the southeastern coast of the island. Now, when I look at photos of her, I search desperately for hints of my own face. It’s a fair observation that the women in my family are more pleasant to look at than I am, but because of our different skin, Nana’s beauty eludes me most. All complexity aside, I’m white, the whitest woman on my maternal side, and so different from my grandmother, mother, and sister (with whom I share a mom but not a dad).
Nana married my Poppy, Irving, in New York; he was fair-haired and blue-eyed, the son of Jewish immigrants from Galicia in Eastern Europe. They had two daughters, of whom my mother, born in 1948, is the first, and neither of whom were taught fluent Spanish. Instead, Nana, in a strange, impossible move of self-erasure, began—slowly and then abruptly—to pretend she wasn’t Afro-Caribbean, that she wasn’t black. In hindsight, it reeks of hysteria; there was nothing “passing” about her. She converted to Judaism, got a Hebrew name: “Leah.” She insisted she was not Puerto Rican, that she was actually an American Jew, effectively trading her marginalized identity for another, feasibly whiter one.
In his book Colonial Subjects: Puerto Ricans in a Global Perspective, Ramon Grosfoguel, a professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, writes:
Latinos are a subordinated group in the hegemonic, and still colonial, imaginary of the United States…. The designation of ‘laziness’ is a typical racist stereotype used by ‘white’ imperial elites in the United States and ‘white’ creole elites in Puerto Rico to dismiss subalterns struggles for equal rights.
My grandmother knew this instinctively, and often reminded me, anxiously, that Puerto Rico was a U.S. territory—implying, naturally, that she was deserving and whole. In the wake of Hurricane Maria’s destruction of her homeland, Nana’s perpetual apprehension would’ve been reasonable. Donald Trump’s callous disregard of the island, of the domestic citizenship of its inhabitants, only seems jarring because of his unique brand of cold and stupid insouciance. His sentiment isn’t new, and my grandmother’s understanding that Puerto Ricans, particularly brown ones, were sub-American—sub-human—was precisely the point of the island’s colonization. A permitted genocide is to be expected; Nana chose to commit her own self-annihilation.
She couldn’t get rid of herself, though, not completely. Everything she did, even the surreal punishments she inflicted, were, my sister Jessica describes it, “saturated in Puerto Rico. She played a role till the day she died, but could not let go completely. She added Latin magical realism to every story she told. Like an Isabel Allende character.”
Our mother, who’s light-skinned but rarely presumed white, has three names: Elena, in Spanish; Helen, in English; Hannah, in Hebrew. She represents the repetition of ancestral narrative better than anyone I know. Her first husband is Afro-Caribbean; my dad, her second, is Polish and Jewish, the son of two concentration camp survivors. Jessica and I were born ten years apart, have different surnames and skin colors and, as it were, different ways of facing the world, none of which occurred to me as matters of significance during my childhood. I was cloaked in my whiteness like a safety vest, and though I didn’t see it as a cultural default, I didn’t yet know its significance.
Eventually I’d pray to look like my mother and older sister. My Jewishness seemed shameful, an entire religious sect acting as eraser, taken to my maternal mother tongue and replacing it with my gawky nose, my pale skin. Judaism, of course, is not the culprit. “Converting was just a way of shedding,” Jessica says. “‘I won’t even be Elba. I’ll transform.’ Her whole life was about fighting for her place at the table. She had to deny herself.”
The villain, instead, was the mechanism that creates the “other,” a poison leak that trickles down, like a dripping faucet, into the bloodstream, creates mental illness and shame, gives birth to words like “ugly.” I don’t know if there’s a way to heal from self-inflicted cultural erasure; I don’t know if it’s ever, in fact, really self-inflicted. Think of the cellular effect of racism—how it fosters hurt in the bones, disease in the brain, a staggered reproach at one’s own reflection. It’s completed its task once it no longer has to do much at all—when the victim finally hates themselves the most.
Three days after my mother was born, her young Aunt Carmen died of rheumatic fever. She hadn’t yet met my mom but, shortly before she passed away, she allegedly whispered to my grandmother, “Don’t worry Elba; I already saw the baby.” Moments prior, while she lay sleeping in her crib, my infant mama turned bluish-purple. She cried and bellowed, but the attack came on just as quickly as it then disappeared.
Though she suspects it was grief over Carmen’s death, my mother is still not entirely sure why, exactly, her parents left her in Guayama. “Imagine what I feel like now, knowing only pieces of my life,” she tells me. I can. I can imagine her past, too, closing my eyes when she describes her early childhood. The memories are pure but fragmented, small shards of something broken and precious: my great-grandma Isidra’s hands, soft and warm; her dark hair a curtain billowing from her scalp, filtered streams of light. Every Sunday, the smell of charcoal and incense in a Catholic church. The cloaked, chanting figures my mom watched on the beach, the Caribbean Ocean thrashing and lashing at their feet like foam. The papery crust of healing herbs on a scraped knee. Elba makes little appearance in these memories, and Irving is never there.
After Isidra died—she was still so young—my mother was sent to New York. It was 1953, eleven years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. When she met her father, she was terrified. We recently discovered that he kept my grandmother and their children a secret from his parents for nearly a decade. He dated other women to appease them, promising he’d marry, until he finally admitted that he already had. Half-invisible, withheld like unsavory information, stowed away like cargo, my mother and grandmother and aunt’s Afro-Caribbean blackness and half-blackness made all the more visible in its attempt to be hidden. Surely this is why my mother, who is beautiful, thinks she’s hideous, picks apart her features, bemoans them like an adolescent.
She’s unsure about the details of Nana’s eventual conversion. The variegated stories from this time have been collected by multiple relatives, shaken clean from their consistencies, fallen back down into half-truths that barely resemble their prior realities. “My mother used to tell me that my dad would say, ‘Don’t worry about what people think about us,’” says my mom. “But at the same time, he didn’t want his parents to know. I guess the bottom line was: you don’t marry outside of your race.”
Whether for love or shame, Nana was converted by an Orthodox Rabbi. Poppy moved the family to Howard Beach, Queens, where neighborhood kids called my mother the N-word, ran from her. My mom recalls, “people would tell my mother I was so pretty. When I got to Howard Beach, I wasn’t pretty anymore. It started the moment I got there, and didn’t end until I left. I receded into myself, didn’t accomplish or become who I was supposed to. I told my mother I didn’t want to go to the pool: ‘They make fun of me, they say I’m black.’ My mother said, ‘You’re not black.’ When I said, ‘I am; you’re black, too,’ she slapped me and said, ‘Don’t ever call me black.’ I was befuddled.” I’ve not heard my mom use the word “befuddled” before or since. I imagine her, quite literally, receding into herself, folding her body like crumpled paper, like flightless paper wings.
I don’t know what it’s like to be unsafe in my own skin. I know plenty about hating it, but that’s not the same thing. In a world so profoundly xenophobic, when racism comes both in the form of youthful, torch-toting neo-Nazis and the white girls who flippantly deemed my predominately Haitian high school in Florida “ghetto”—how do we heal each other, recognize each other? As a white woman, I’m still learning how to do it, how to deeply implicate myself in my history and acknowledge my whiteness, and feel, most of all, the responsibility that comes with having a privileged safety my relatives did not and do not.
In the essay Getting In and Out, Zadie Smith discusses Dana Schutz’s controversial painting of Emmett Till, and asks, of her own children (the children of a biracial mother and a white father), “When exactly does black suffering cease to be their concern? Their grandmother—raised on a postcolonial island, in extreme poverty, descended from slaves—knew black suffering intimately.” I wouldn’t paint black suffering; it’s not mine, I feel, to depict. Instead, being the white child of somebody who isn’t white breeds a peculiar and unified dichotomy: you must know your privilege and you must contend with the pain of your ancestors in ways that don’t exploit it. It is work often done alone.
There is, my sister suspects, another narrative in Elba’s story—one about erasing yourself for a man. “Imagine being dark, of African descent, not speaking English,” she muses. “This man keeping you a secret. Of course she thought it was easier to become somebody else.” It’s a special kind of self-loathing, patriarchal and subservient and yet—surely she made her own decision in confidence, stepped into the mikvah not to drown but to cleanse herself, born anew in a wet womb big enough for her to swim in. It is what she felt she was cleansing that unnerves me, that makes me nervous all the time. “I can’t claim Puerto Ricanness,” I tell my sister on the phone one evening. “I don’t look it. I don’t speak Spanish. I want it, I want it so bad. But it’s not mine.” It’s like describing a fleeting lover. Jessica is aghast. “Why would you erase Nana? Why would you perpetuate her erasure?”
In a TED talk on women and creativity—Tales of Passion—Isabel Allende says, “There is a Jewish saying that I love: ‘What is truer than truth? Answer: the story.’” My grandmother’s experience isn’t mine; her pain doesn’t belong to me. But it’s in me, in my cells—the hurt a story in my heart, a book I hold tenderly as a baby, the words never about me but, instead, my inborn, fated duty to read. Read it, read the story, over and over, ad nauseam, alone; repeat it to yourself so much that when you see it elsewhere—when you see the aching, the trauma, and its perpetuators—you are compelled, not by wit but by blood, to try to stop it.
My favorite memory of Nana, a chapter near her story’s end, is of her dressed in dark purple, dancing with Poppy in our living room. Her smile is the kind compelled only by music. They were the kindest, most loving grandparents, and I danced with them that night, spinning dizzy. I can’t remember if it was a Catholic holiday or a Jewish holiday, but I don’t think it matters.