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THE NEW YORK TIMES
This Boy's Freedom
By EDGARDO VEGA YUNQUÉ
August 31, 2003
For more than 50 years I have gone back and forth from Spanish, my first language, to English, my adopted one, feeling duty to both and freedom in neither. I love my homeland of Puerto Rico as one loves a mother, yet I am wedded to America as one is to a generous but difficult wife. Racially, I exist in neither a white nor a black world, owing accountability to both and, because of their restrictions, ill at ease in each. I grew up with my heart divided by passion and obligation. The conflict between the two is evident in recalling nine summers, first in Puerto Rico and then in New York, between the ages of 9 and 18.
I am the son of Alberto Vega, a Baptist minister, brought to that religion by orphanhood and the proselytizing of colonialism, and Abigail Yunqué, a delicate beauty who loved poetry and acting. In the basement of their church she performed in plays and hosted poetry readings. Our weekend dinner table was a seminar on politics and literature that drew relatives and friends to long hours of debate. My parents were themselves a contrast. He, a mixture of African and Spanish, green-eyed, broad-nosed and coffee-colored and she, alabaster of skin and Moorish of eyes Andalusian and Catalán Spanish, hence her last name Yunqué. Both were Puerto Ricans and like all ethnics whose identity is threatened, they lived divided in their allegiance. To further accentuate our otherness, we were Protestants in the Catholic town of Cidra, in the central mountains of that small invaded island.
As the minister's son, I was expected to be a model child. I was adventuresome and a bit distracted. Orders explicitly given had no effect on me. My impetuousness caused my parents frequent embarrassment. Unconcerned that it represented the blood of Christ, I surreptitiously drank the Welch's grape juice from the tiny glasses for Communion. Intruding into adult conversations, I mentioned the copulation of animals or the odd appearance of someone present. Several times I went into the church, which was connected to our house, and, wearing only underpants, jumped into the water of the baptistery, fortunately never during services. Because of this budding creativity I lived under severe restrictions. Despite my parents' love and concern, I felt imprisoned for 10 months of the year by the regimen of school and church.
At age 9, fearing further erosion of their patience, my parents began shipping me off for the summer to my maternal grandparents, Suncha and Toño Yunqué. They lived a half mile from the San José Lagoon, on the outskirts of the university city of Rio Piedras. During those summers I went barefoot, did not worry about falling from trees, catching colds from the rain or using forbidden words among my friends. I had two daily chores: collecting eggs from the henhouse, and milking my grandmother's goats and tethering them in a field.
By 10 in the morning I was free. With other boys I played baseball or joined them in making bows and arrows from umbrella ribs and string to shoot, without success, at lizards and small birds. We played tag, tops or marbles, and exchanged wishful information about girls and their uncontrollable desires. At noon I came home for lunch. My grandfather was a shoemaker and had a small shop next to the house. As such he had his own hours. Unlike my father, who belonged to a secret society and had messenger pigeons, my grandfather had falcons. From time to time I joined him in the fields as he hunted for squab.
After lunch I went with my friends to the lagoon. At home my mother always feared that I would drown. But during those summers at my grandparents I dove and swam in the lagoon and never worried about drowning. I made hooks from straight pins and caught shrimp and fish that I brought home for my grandfather. By 4 o'clock I was back to fetch the goats. In the evening I listened to family stories or read novels by kerosene lamp. The only regimen I recall was asking my grandparents' blessing upon entering and leaving the house.
In 1949 my father became the minister of a Spanish-speaking congregation that had purchased a German Lutheran mini-cathedral in the South Bronx, back then an Irish neighborhood. I once asked my father why we had left Puerto Rico. A better education, he said. He never mentioned being a socialist and believing in the independence of Puerto Rico, but I remember his passion around our dinner table on the island. He rarely discussed his life after coming to New York, but I can imagine his own divided loyalties for he also loved this country.
In 1948 the United States imposed laws on Puerto Rico modeled after the Smith Act, influenced by Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. One of these laws, called "ley de la mordaza" or gag law, created repression and terror, effectively destroying Puerto Rico's independence movement. In 1948, my last full year in Puerto Rico, roughly 40 percent of the people voted for the independence party, as opposed to today, when barely 6 percent of the population favors independence.
In May of 1949, at age 13, I was thrust fully into America. I spoke no English. However, the tough Irish kids accepted me because I was big, an average athlete and had an abstracted look that they mistook for fearlessness. That first summer in New York I learned stickball, stoopball, football, Johnny-on-the-pony, box tag and ringolivio. I became friends with boys with Mc and O names who punched you for no reason, expected you to fight back and considered you an ally even while they were spitting out blood from getting whacked in the mouth. By summer's end, because I was a good skater, I was playing roller hockey.
In September I began school for a year of nothing but the study of English. My classmates were children from postwar Europe. The following September I entered high school. During dinner one evening in that second year, my father asked my sister and me if we'd like to go to summer camp. We nodded enthusiastically and when summer came we traveled with other children from Grand Central Station to Golden's Bridge, N.Y., the site of Old Oak Farm, a summer camp for Protestant boys and girls. I was a junior counselor and once again enjoyed the freedom that I had experienced in Puerto Rico.
By day I escorted children to camp activities. At night teen campfires evolved from roasting marshmallows and singing into bundling under blankets, French-kissing and Protestant guilt. I swam in the lake and at night smoked my first cigarettes. I fell in love in the moonlight, never imagining that lunar beauty would be violated by man. In wonder I watched the Aurora Borealis and in the semidarkened recreation hall I held girls close and danced to slow songs.
Nothing about those summers was a duty, for duty implies the future. Summers then did not contain a future, only the next day. It wasn't until I returned home to parental expectations at summer's end that I again thought of duty and the future. As I matured I began to understand the elusiveness of freedom. Those four summers in Puerto Rico and five in New York would later become a source of inspiration to me, for aside from those days, writing fiction is the only freedom I've known.
Edgardo Vega Yunqué is author of the forthcoming novel No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew it Cauze Bill Bailey Aint Never Coming Home Again.