“Now you tell me what am I?”
My abuela‘s favorite question. It came out when she had done something particularly American: “Now you tell me what am I? Puertorriqueño? Or americano?
Now every fifth grader knows that Puerto Rico is an American territory. I’m not arguing with that. Are you, Mr. Cotton Candy-head? But just as Southerners are Southerners and Northerners and Northerners and Californians are really anorexic New Yorkers on Xanax and tanning spray, so Puerto Ricans are Puerto Ricans. Despite this, my abuela liked to make claims about how American she was.
She was about as American as a yuca empanada. Besides “Now you tell me what am I?” her favorite American phrases were “I don’t like you what you say ’cause you fool” and “Hootchie Cootchie.” She dressed like she had wandered into her mamá‘s 1960’s-era closet covered in glue and come out with every paisley scarf and gaudy-as-shit piece of jewelry stuck to every available surface. And she smoked like a blackened hot dog fallen through the grill of a faulty Hibachi.
She was my idol.
But with her shriveled-up face and her bright black eyes and the apartment always smelling of coffee and tostones, the answer to her question seemed pretty obvious to my brother and me. We would joke about it when she wasn’t looking: “Now you tell me what am I? A hot dog or an empanada?”
We both went through a Courtney Love phase and even our dear beloved abuela wasn’t safe from it. My brother bleached his hair. I pierced my belly button. But the worst thing we did was to start eating Americano. My brother spent all his money on Kentucky Fried Chicken. I swore off plantains. I hadn’t trusted them since I was young. Something about the combination of starchiness, the greenish taste of a banana but without the actual flavor of banana, and the funk of sliminess always lurking around the edges. It took me years to overcome my aversion, and I probably don’t have to clarify that it took something Jamaican with Y chromosomes to change that.
But as much as I tried I couldn’t give up the yuca. And grandma knew it. Yuca is inedible until you cook it. It starts out like a tree branch and becomes creamy and delicious when you boil it, like sticky mashed potatoes. When abuela made it I felt a slippery connection with my heritage. So that’s how she got me. That, and the music.
My abuela never listened to much music around the apartment. It was always a surprise when she did, and not just because the record player was more a piece of furniture than a listening instrument. It was always hidden beneath heaped-up newspapers and straggly potted plants and piles of cats. Digging it out was an ordeal. It usually meant sweeping up spilled dirt and surviving a couple of scratches from El Diablo, the one-eyed bastard who loved my pillow but hated my actual person.
There was a cache of records hidden in a secret compartment. If you put the record on without remembering to switch the speed to 78 rpm you would end up with the sounds of a full-fledged demonic possession. But if you put it on the right speed you would usually hear Sylvia, most often singing “Alma Adentro.”
This chain-smoking, bling-wearing, shriveled old apple had music in her soul. In her music, she was puertorriqueño. Somewhere inside that blackened hot dog was a glowing ember, and when we caught her listening to it my brother stopped bouncing his basketball, my mother turned down her Sally Jessy Raphael. A hush came over the apartment like a tacky veil over a fifteen-year-old at her quinceañera. We’d all stop to listen to Rexach’s voice, in that slightly wobbly 78 rpm timbre, and the rattle of the plate used to catch the extra water underneath the geraniums. I could close my eyes and see the tree ferns and coconut palms, and hear the waves caressing the moonlit shore underneath the serious moonlight. And our hard American bodies and souls would become soft, mushy, and delicious.
Even today I sometimes look up “Alma Adentro” on Youtube and play it back.
Now you tell me what am I? A hot dog, or an empanada?