homepage logo

Mama Carmen Suite

By Staff | Aug 7, 2009

Language (Lenguaje)

She was less than five feet tall

and plumper than a calabaza,

yet she could touch the floor

with the palm of her hand

and chop a roasted pig

into a hundred pieces

while chewing a cigar stump

and saving the crinkly cuerito

skin ears and tail

as candy for her grandchildren.

I met her when I was four

on the island of Vieques

just before the Navy came

to protect the island

by taking over two thirds

of the land and removing

one third of its population.

She was milking a goat

in the yard behind

the shack of planks

and scrap corrugated iron

that served as home

and centerpiece

for her animals and plants;

sent on ahead by my mother

I introduced myself to her

in my best broken Spanish,

and when I asked her

what she was doing

and pointed to parts of the goat

she immediately enriched

my Spanish vocabulary

with the words

for udder and vagina.

It was love at first sight:

the first Americano in the family

became her favorite among

the 42 grandchildren

whose names

she couldn’t always remember

and she moved up instantly

to number one

on my list of grown-ups.

When four years later

my mother told us

she was coming

to live with us in New York City

because the Navy

needed the land

on which she had lived all her life,

I could not have been happier.

My memory of her,

ruling and protecting

her ramshackle kingdom

of chickens, goats and pigs

scattered among

the makeshift orchards

of orange, banana, avocado,

mango and almond trees

was still as fresh and warm

as the rich flow

of Spanish language and expletives

that had poured from her.

On a cold winter’s day

we went to the muelles (piers)

in Brooklyn

and I watched her shiver

down the gangplank

wearing a burlap brown coat

someone had given her

for her journey to the frozen north

of New York City,

but that day the temperature

was 50 degrees colder than

she had ever experienced

in her 72 years,

and frightened

by seeing her own breath

for the first time

she greeted us with demands

to be returned at once to Vieques,

demands accompanied by descriptions

of the weather and her discomfort

that made my mother, my aunt

and even the crew members blush.

(Editor’s note: Poem will be continued in an upcoming edition of the Islander)