Primas, Primos, and Piñatas

We didn’t know then that these were times in our lives when we were fully alive.

Panama’s birthday yesterday had me thinking of the birthday parties of my childhood in Panama when primas, primos, tías, and tíos were the cast of characters in my life. So I spent the afternoon searching for that one gorgeous photo of my little brother’s birthday party in the carport of tía Connie’s house. Here it is! Come play with me.

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The Woman in the Painting

Happy news!

My memoir, At the Narrow Waist of the World, will be published in August of next year! I’ve known this for many months and have been holding back a little bit.  I’m deeply pleased because something I’ve worked for very hard will be out in the world. The me closest to me will be in the world for others to see. This is a bit scary to tell you the truth.

In honor of your support, now and in the past, let me give you a gift by way of introduction to the book.

Painting by Alfredo Sinclair, Panama

Painting by Alfredo Sinclair, Panama

A man stands on either side of the painting holding the wood frame that sticks out deeply from the wall. They lift up in unison, and the painting is released. They lay it gently on the thick cloth they have prepared. 

“Esto está bonito!” one of the men exclaims. The woman in the painting fills the canvas. Her skin is the color of warm toast, same as their own. She is looking at her fingers intertwined on top of the black of her skirt, keeping her own counsel. Satisfied to be held inside the wood. 

Her bare shoulders and back are angled slightly, directing the aim of her gaze. There are two large pillows at her back. The black of the skirt and the hair, the turquoise and red in the pillows, the gold in her shawl are glazed with the amber of her skin. The hues lock onto one another. They travel on the same journey, altered by the other’s presence.  

“Esos ricos tienen suerte!” the second man tastes the green juice of envy before folding the cloth over the woman in the painting. They carry the painting to the van already half filled with possessions.   

The woman in the painting who witnessed my life from the brick wall in the house of my childhood moves with my brother and me into mami’s new life with her American husband. One of my uncles places the painting on the single wall with no windows in the always-matching bungalow of the American army post.

The woman in the painting is the keeper of my story. 





Soy/Somos: "Good morning America!"

Marlena Maduro Baraf's blog

“Good morning, America!” the subject line of the e-mail at the top of my feed said a cheery hello. The sender was my cousin Ruthie, born in Aruba, daughter of my father’s brother, Monte.

On my visit to Aruba in the 50s. Little Ruthie: brown and yellow bangs, bluest eyes, little Dutch girl in a white pinafore speaking the oddly musical Papiamentu to my Spanish ears, a creole language spoken in Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao (a mishmash of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch). Many years later I meet cousin Ruthie in Amsterdam, now a middle aged woman, tender and private.

“Dearest cousin," Ruthie began. "I enjoy the e-mails from your blog mucho.” She jokingly retitled my recent Soy/Somos post, “I’m Not Yelling! I’m Cuban!” to “We scream! We are all Cuban!” describing in her e-mail how language differences affected her when she moved from the tiny island of Aruba off the coast of Venezuela to Holland, the motherland.

"I felt a  tremendous loneliness in my early years in Holland," she wrote, "spoke a little bit of Dutch with a thick Aruban accent. Later on realizing their stoic character being: 'We don’t need to understand you. You have come to our country, so get on with it.' So rude in my eyes, back then in the 70s.

"My language/Antillano problem--and I speak only for myself and the white friends I know born and raised in Aruba--is that we have three or even four languages to manage. We all have the same weirdness that in conversing with each other we hop from Dutch to Papiamentu, English, or anywhere in between. In 2016 I noticed that Arubans of color found this irritating and would ask me to choose one language. Hah! And they knew all three languages themselves.

“Nowadays my Dutch is pretty much accentless," she wrote, "so my inner world is not noticed much by the Dutch. I cannot express the typical soft, warm breeze, light attitude of the Arubans. Thongs on your feet, short sleeves and slow walking. No complicated issues to work out. You like me or you don’t. It's understood. I miss laughing about nothing. Our humor is aimed at ourselves in Aruba. Here humor is aimed at the other. It's scary, as you need to be Dutch with the will to outsmart the joker. If you ask me how life becomes slightly unbearable to immigrants, it would be this. The missed humor to share.

"It’s a wild world at the moment but still lots of shelter and food on our tables for which I am grateful." Ruthie recounted some of the mother-daughter moments in her life, knowing I'd written about the painful distances between my mother and myself. "We are all in relatively good health with all the quirks and little pains any body shows at this age. Too much richness in foods these days, and we all love the tasty but wrong product. Hey?”

This blog post is for you--dear cousin Ruthie, in the watery city of Amsterdam--you who were touched by my words and the words of people I put on paper, and added your story to theirs. Today the overwhelming majority of people live in a multicultural world. I just learned yesterday that in New York City thirty-seven percent of inhabitants were born outside of the United States. We rub shoulders with others of sharply different backgrounds and oddly musical accents.

Laten wij luisteren. (Dutch)   Laga nos scucha. (Papiamentu)  Escuchemos. (Spanish)  Let's just listen.