Silent Dancing

We have a home movie of this party. Several times my mother and I have watched it together, and I have asked questions about the silent revelers coming in and out of focus. It is grainy and of short duration, but it’s a great visual aid to my memory of life at that time. And it is in color—the only complete scene in color I can recall from those years.

 

We lived in Puerto Rico until my brother was born in 1954. Soon after, because of economic pressures on our growing family, my father joined the United States Navy. He was assigned to duty on a ship in Brooklyn Yard—a place of cement and steel that was to be his home base in the States until his retirement more than twenty years later. He left the Island first, alone, going to New York City and tracking down his uncle who lived with his family across the Hudson River in Paterson, New Jersey. There my father found a tiny apartment in a huge tenement that had once housed Jewish families but was just being taken over and transformed by Puerto Ricans, overflowing from New York City. In 1955 he sent for us. My mother was only twenty years old, I was not quite three, and my brother was a toddler when we arrived at El Building, as the place had been christened by its newest residents.

My memories of life in Paterson during those first few years are all in shades of gray. Maybe I was too young to absorb vivid colors and details, or to discriminate between the slate blue of the winter sky and the darker hues of the snow-bearing clouds, but that single color washes over the whole period. The building we lived in was gray, as were the streets, filled with slush the first few months of my life there. The coat my father had bought for me was similar in color and too big; it sat heavily on my thin frame.

I do remember the way the heater pipes banged and rattled, startling all of us out of sleep until we got so used to the sound that we automatically shut it out or raised our voices above the racket. The hiss from the valve punctuated my sleep (which has always been fitful) like a nonhuman presence in the room—a dragon sleeping at the entrance of my childhood. But the pipes were also a connection to all the other lives being lived around us. Having come from a house designed for a single family back in Puerto Rico—my mother’s extended-family home—it was curious to know that strangers lived under our floor and above our heads, and that the heater pipe went through everyone’s apartments. (My first spanking in Paterson came as a result of playing tunes on the pipes in my room to see if there would be an answer.) My mother was as new to this concept of beehive life as I was, but she had been given strict orders by my father to keep the doors locked, the noise down, ourselves to ourselves.

It seems that Father had learned some painful lessons about prejudice while searching for an apartment in Paterson. Not until years later did I hear how much resistance he had encountered with landlords who were panicking at the influx of Latinos into a neighborhood that had been Jewish for a couple of generations. It made no difference that it was the American phenomenon of ethnic turnover which was changing the urban core of Paterson, and that the human flood could not be held back with an accusing finger.

“You Cuban?” one man had asked my father, pointing at his name tag on the Navy uniform—even though my father had the fair skin and light-brown hair of his northern Spanish background, and the name Ortiz is as common in Puerto Rico as Johnson is in the United States.

“No,” my father had answered, looking past the finger into his adversary’s angry eyes. “I’m Puerto Rican.”

“Same shit.” And the door closed.

My father could have passed as European, but we couldn’t. My brother and I both have our mother’s black hair and olive skin, and so we lived in El Building and visited our great-uncle and his fair children on the next block. It was their private joke that they were the German branch of the family. Not many years later that area too would be mainly Puerto Rican. It was as if the heart of the city map were being gradually colored brown—café con leche brown. Our color.

 

The movie opens with a sweep of the living room. It is “typical” immigrant Puerto Rican decor for the time: the sofa and chairs are square and hard-looking, upholstered in bright colors (blue and yellow in this instance), and covered with the transparent plastic that furniture salesmen then were so adept at convincing women to buy. The linoleum on the floor is light blue; if it had been subjected to spike heels (as it was in most places), there were dime-sized indentations all over it that cannot be seen in this movie. The room is full of people dressed up: dark suits for the men, red dresses for the women. When I have asked my mother why most of the women are in red that night, she has shrugged. “I don’t remember. Just a coincidence. ” She doesn’t have my obsession for assigning symbolism to everything.

The three women in red sitting on the couch are my mother, my eighteen- year-old cousin, and her brother’s girlfriend. The novia is just up from the Island, which is apparent in her body language. She sits up formally, her dress pulled over her knees. She is a pretty girl, but her posture makes her look insecure, lost in her full-skirted dress, which she has carefully tucked around her to make room for my gorgeous cousin, her future sister-in-law. My cousin has grown up in Paterson and is in her last year of high school. She doesn’t have a trace of what Puerto Ricans call la mancha (literally the stain: the mark of the new immigrant—something about the posture, the voice, or the humble demeanor that makes it obvious to everyone the person has just arrived on the mainland). My cousin is wearing a tight, sequined, cocktail dress. Her brown hair has been lightened with peroxide around the bangs, and she is holding a cigarette expertly between her fingers, bringing it up to her mouth in a sensuous arc of her arm as she talks animatedly. My mother, who has come up to sit between the two women, both only a few years younger than herself, is somewhere between the poles they represent in our culture.

 

It became my father’s obsession to get out of the barrio, and thus we were never permitted to form bonds with the place or with the people who lived there. Yet El Building was a comfort to my mother, who never got over yearning for la isla. She felt surrounded by her language: the walls were thin, and voices speaking and arguing in Spanish could be heard all day. Salsas blasted out of radios, turned on early in the morning and left on for company. Women seemed to cook rice and beans perpetually—the strong aroma of boiling red kidney beans permeated the hallways.

Though Father preferred that we do our grocery shopping at the supermarket when he came home on weekend leaves, my mother insisted that she could cook only with products whose labels she could read. Consequently, during the week I accompanied her and my little brother to La Bodega—a hole-in-the-wall grocery store across the street from El Building. There we squeezed down three narrow aisles jammed with various products. Goya’s and Libby’s—those were the trademarks trusted by her mamá, so my mother bought many cans of Goya beans, soups, and condiments, as well as little cans of Libby’s fruit juices for us. And she also bought Colgate toothpaste and Palmolive soap. (The final e is pronounced in both these products in Spanish, so for many years I believed that they were manufactured on the Island. I remember my surprise at first hearing a commercial on television in which Colgate rhymed with “ate.”) We always lingered at La Bodega, for it was there that Mother breathed best, taking in the familiar aromas of the foods she knew from Mama’s kitchen. It was also there that she got to speak to the other women of El Building without violating outright Father’s dictates against fraternizing with our neighbors.

Yet Father did his best to make our “assimilation” painless. I can still see him carrying a real Christmas tree up several nights of stairs to our apartment, leaving a trail of aromatic pine. He carried it formally, as if it were a flag in a parade. We were the only ones in El Building that I knew of who got presents on both Christmas day AND día de Reyes, the day when the Three Kings brought gifts to Christ and to Hispanic children.

Our supreme luxury in El Building was having our own television set. It must have been a result of Father’s guilt feelings over the isolation he had imposed on us, but we were among the first in the barrio to have one. My brother quickly became an avid watcher of Captain Kangaroo and Jungle Jim, while I loved all the series showing families. By the time I started first grade, I could have drawn a map of Middle America as exemplified by the lives of characters in Father Knows BestThe Donna Reed ShowLeave It to BeaverMy Three Sons, and (my favorite) Bachelor Father, where John Forsythe treated his adopted teenage daughter like a princess because he was rich and had a Chinese houseboy to do everything for him. In truth, compared to our neighbors in El Building, we were rich. My father’s Navy check provided us with financial security and a standard of life that the factory workers envied. The only thing his money could not buy us was a place to live away from the barrio—his greatest wish, Mother’s greatest fear.

 

In the home movie the men are shown next, sitting around a card table set up in one corner of the living room, playing dominoes. The clack of the ivory pieces was a familiar sound. I heard it in many houses on the Island and in many apartments in Paterson. In Leave It to Beaver, the Cleavers played bridge in every other episode; in my childhood, the men started every social occasion with a hotly debated round of dominoes. The women would sit around and watch, but they never participated in the games.

Here and there you can see a small child. Children were always brought to parties and, whenever they got sleepy, were put to bed in the host’s bedroom. Babysitting was a concept unrecognized by the Puerto Rican women I knew: A responsible mother did not leave her children with any stranger. And in a culture where children are not considered intrusive, there was no need to leave the children at home. We went where our mother went.

 

Of my preschool years I have only impressions: the sharp bite of the wind in December as we walked with our parents toward the brightly lit stores downtown; how I felt like a stuffed doll in my heavy coat, boots, and mittens; how good it was to walk into the five-and-dime and sit at the counter drinking hot chocolate. On Saturdays our whole family would walk downtown to shop at the big department stores on Broadway. Mother bought all our clothes at Penney’s and Sears, and she liked to buy her dresses at the women s specialty shops like Lerner’s and Diana’s. At some point we’d go into Woolworth’s and sit at the soda fountain to eat.

We never ran into other Latinos at these stores or when eating out, and it became clear to me only years later that the women from El Building shopped mainly in other places—stores owned by other Puerto Ricans or by Jewish merchants who had philosophically accepted our presence in the city and decided to make us their good customers, if not real neighbors and friends. These establishments were located not downtown but in the blocks around our street, and they were referred to generically as La TiendaEl BazarLa BodegaLa Botánica. Everyone knew what was meant. These were the stores where your face did not turn a clerk to stone, where your money was as green as anyone else’s.

 

One New Year’s Eve we were dressed up like child models in the Sears catalog: my brother in a miniature man’s suit and bow tie, and I in black patent-leather shoes and a frilly dress with several layers of crinoline underneath. My mother wore a bright-red dress that night, I remember, and spike heels; her long black hair hung to her waist. Father, who usually wore his Navy uniform during his short visits home, had put on a dark civilian suit for the occasion: We had been invited to his uncle’s house for a big celebration. Everyone was excited because my mother’s brother Hernan—a bachelor who could indulge himself with luxuries—had bought a home movie camera, which he would be trying out that night.

Even the home movie cannot fill in the sensory details such a gathering left imprinted in a child’s brain. The thick sweetness of women’s perfumes mixing with the ever-present smells of food cooking in the kitchen: meat and plantain pasteles, as well as the ubiquitous rice dish made special with pigeon peas—gandules—and seasoned with precious sofrito sent up from the Island by somebody’s mother or smuggled in by a recent traveler. Sofrito was one of the items that women hoarded, since it was hardly ever in stock at La Bodega. It was the flavor of Puerto Rico.

The men drank Palo Viejo rum, and some of the younger ones got weepy. The first time I saw a grown man cry was at a New Year’s Eve party: he had been reminded of his mother by the smells in the kitchen. But what I remember most were the boiled pasteles—plantain or yucca rectangles stuffed with corned beef or other meats, olives, and many other savory ingredients, all wrapped in banana leaves. Everybody had to fish one out with a fork. There was always a “trick”—one without stuffing—and whoever got that one was the “New Year’s Fool.”

There was also the music. Long-playing albums were treated like precious china in these homes. Mexican recordings were popular, but the songs that brought tears to my mother’s eyes were sung by the melancholy Daniel Santos, whose life as a drug addict was the stuff of legend. Felipe Rodriguez was a particular favorite of couples, since he sang about faithless women and brokenhearted men. There is a snatch of one lyric that has stuck in my mind like a needle on a worn groove: De piedra ha de ser mi cama, de piedra la cabezera . . . la mujer que a mi me quiera . . . ha de quererme de veras. Ay, Ay, Ay, corazón, porque no amas. . . . I must have heard it a thousand times since the idea of a bed made of stone, and its connection to love, first troubled me with its disturbing images.

 

The five-minute home movie ends with people dancing in a circle—the creative filmmaker must have set it up, so that all of them could file past him. It is both comical and sad to watch silent dancing. Since there is no justification for the absurd movements that music provides for some of us, people appear frantic, their faces embarrassingly intense. It’s as if you were watching sex. Yet for years I’ve had dreams in the form of this home movie. In a recurring scene, familiar faces push themselves forward into my mind’s eyes, plastering their features into distorted close-ups. And I’m asking them: “Who is she? Who is the old woman I don’t recognize? Is she an aunt? Somebody’s wife? Tell me who she is.”

“See the beauty mark on her cheek as big as a hill on the lunar landscape of her face—well, that runs in the family. The women on your father’s side of the family wrinkle early; it’s the price they pay for that fair skin. The young girl with the green stain on her wedding dress is La Novia—just up from the Island. See, she lowers her eyes when she approaches the camera, as she’s supposed to. Decent girls never look at you directly in the face. Humilde, humble, a girl should express humility in all her actions. She will make a good wife for your cousin. He should consider himself lucky to have met her only weeks after she arrived here. If he marries her quickly, she will make him a good Puerto Rican-style wife; but if he waits too long, she will be corrupted by the city—just like your cousin there.”

 

“She means me. I do what I want. This is not some primitive island I live on. Do they expect me to wear a black mantilla on my head and go to mass every day? Not me. I’m an American woman, and I will do as I please. I can type faster than anyone in my senior class at Central High, and I’m going to be a secretary to a lawyer when I graduate. I can pass for an American girl anywhere—I’ve tried it. At least for Italian, anyway—I never speak Spanish in public. I hate these parties, but I wanted the dress. I look better than any of these humildes here. My life is going to be different. I have an American boyfriend. He is older and has a car. My parents don’t know it, but I sneak out of the house late at night sometimes to be with him. If I marry him, even my name will be American. I hate rice and beans—that’s what makes these women fat.”

 

“Your prima is pregnant by that man she’s been sneaking around with. Would I lie to you? I’m your Tiá Politica, your great-uncle’s common-law wife—the one he abandoned on the Island to go marry your cousin’s mother. I was not invited to this party, of course, but I came anyway. I came to tell you that story about your cousin that you’ve always wanted to hear. Do you remember the comment your mother made to a neighbor that has always haunted you? The only thing you heard was your cousin’s name, and then you saw your mother pick up your doll from the couch and say: ‘It was as big as this doll when they flushed it down the toilet.’ This image has bothered you for years, hasn’t it? You had nightmares about babies being flushed down the toilet, and you wondered why anyone would do such a horrible thing. You didn’t dare ask your mother about it. She would only tell you that you had not heard her right, and yell at you for listening to adult conversations. But later, when you were old enough to know about abortions, you suspected.

I am here to tell you that you were right. Your cousin was growing an Americanito in her belly when this movie was made. Soon after she put something long and pointy into her pretty self, thinking maybe she could get rid of the problem before breakfast and still make it to her first class at the high school. Well, Niña, her screams could be heard downtown. Your aunt, her mama, who had been a midwife on the Island, managed to pull the little thing out. Yes, they probably flushed it down the toilet. What else could they do with it—give it a Christian burial in a little white casket with blue bows and ribbons? Nobody wanted that baby—least of all the father, a teacher at her school with a house in West Paterson that he was filling with real children, and a wife who was a natural blond.

Girl, the scandal sent your uncle back to the bottle. And guess where your cousin ended up? Irony of ironies. She was sent to a village in Puerto Rico to live with a relative on her mother’s side: a place so far away from civilization that you have to ride a mule to reach it. A real change in scenery. She found a man there—women like that cannot live without male company—but believe me, the men in Puerto Rico know how to put a saddle on a woman like her. La Gringa they call her. Ha, ha, ha. La Gringa is what she always wanted to be . . . .”

 

The old woman’s mouth becomes a cavernous black hole I fall into. And as I fall, I can feel the reverberations of her laughter. I hear the echoes of her last mocking words: La GringaLa Gringa! And the conga line keeps moving silently past me. There is no music in my dream for the dancers.

When Odysseus visits Hades to see the spirit of his mother, he makes an offering of sacrificial blood, but since all the souls crave an audience with the living, he has to listen to many of them before he can ask questions. I, too, have to hear the dead and the forgotten speak in my dream. Those who are still part of my life remain silent, going around and around in their dance. The others keep pressing their faces forward to say things about the past.

My father’s uncle is last in line. He is dying of alcoholism, shrunken and shriveled like a monkey, his face a mass of wrinkles and broken arteries. As he comes closer I realize that in his features I can see my whole family. If you were to stretch that rubbery flesh, you could find my father’s face, and deep within that face—my own. I don’t want to look into those eyes ringed in purple. In a few years he will retreat into silence, and take a long, long time to die. Move back, Tio, I tell him. I don’t want to hear what you have to say. Give the dancers room to move. Soon it will be midnight. Who is the New Year’s Fool this time?

Judith Ortiz Cofer (1952–2016), as a young girl, emigrated with her family from Puerto Rico to Paterson, New Jersey; when she was a teenager her family relocated to Augusta. Ortiz Cofer was the author of several novels, including If I Could Fly (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Call Me Maria (2004), and The Line of the Sun (1989); poetry collections such as A Love Story Beginning in Spanish (2005), Reaching for the Mainland (1995), and Terms of Survival (1987); a memoir, The Cruel Country (UGA Press, 2015); two essay collections, Lessons From a Writer’s Life (Heinemann Books, 2011) and Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer (2000); and many other works, including three children’s titles with Piñata Books / Arte Público Press—¡A Bailar! (2011), The Poet Upstairs (2012), and Animal Jamboree / La fiesta de los animales (2012). Ortiz Cofer’s work appeared in The Georgia Review, Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, Glamour, and many other periodicals, as well as in numerous textbooks and anthologies. Ortiz Cofer, who in 2010 was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, was the Regents’ and Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.