Jamie Figueroa describes the tension between ancestral memory and contemporary forgetfulness.
Recently I heard Vandana Shiva, the East Indian visionary, political activist and great thinker of our time, quote Czech author Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being): “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
I remember lots of things: the yellow plastic strainer that followed us from kitchen to kitchen for nearly twenty years; the sucking sound Spam makes when you free it from its can; the grainy dark grey of my skin in the black and white school yearbook; the endlessness and promise of a plowed field in Union County, Ohio. When I was growing up and was asked what I was, where I was from and/or who my people were, I grew quiet. I had little information to pass on and instead of sailing out into the vastness of my identity determined to find answers, I tried not to draw attention to myself. I dodged the questions as best I could and if that failed, I hid out.
The problem with familial and ancestral forgetting is that you can go for decades, lifetimes, generations without knowing what there was to remember in the first place. There is a problem when living in a (relatively young) country where the two driving forces are Christianity and capitalism (or should I say consumerism?). In a country coined “the melting pot”--don’t boil it too long the eggplant will disappear!--if you’re not being born again, shopping or becoming a new, improved, better you, chances are, whatever you’re doing, it’s not acknowledging that the past is alive and well in the present. I mean, who has the time for such a concept? It’s so inconvenient. (Let it be known I love my country--‘tis of thee--however, I will exercise my freedom picking through its shor comings with a fine-toothed comb.)
Let’s pause for a moment of silence commemorating all that has been lost in the name of the American dream, where in the land of opportunity, the immigrant (or anyone else for that matter) can make herself anew. Where you can trade in your roots for a social security card and a line of credit. Change your name to something that a population of John and Jane Does can recognize and pronounce.
Two years ago, I went home to the motherland--or perhaps more accurately, my mother’s homeland. La tierra madre. If I use Boriken (as in pre-colonization), will you know what I’m referring to? Let me be clear: Puerto Rico, that small island (shrinking measurably each year, as in those waters they are a-risin’) bobbing in the Caribbean between the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands. My grandfather’s family is from a town located in the northeastern part of the island, Loíza. I came upon this information a little over a year ago. It was around the same time I learned my grandfather and I share the same birthday, May 10. He died when I was nine. I never met him.
As I continue to get to know myself (going on thirty-some years now), I have come to understand that crucial to my wholeness as a human being is an awareness that must extend beyond a reduction of only me for today. A large part of this understanding is the continuation of my family’s past present in me. Loíza is a large part of that. But what’s the big deal about Loíza?
Stay tuned. Next week, part two.