A project of Brooklyn Historical Society
Writings from Racial Realities
Photo by Denise Hill. Click to enlarge
Going Back by Gloria Diaz


   In my mid-twenties I vowed to start making regular trips to Puerto Rico. When was the last time you went back? Going back is immigrant speak for venturing to the land where your blood is linked to. You are going back even if this current physical manifestation of yourself has never been. My father took my brother and I there when I was two to show us off to his old neighborhood. I know this because when I visit the old neighborhood hopping from home to home of seventy year old teeny-tiny Puerto Rican grannies that are friends of my grandmothers' they say, Ay Dios Mio!! Look at you!! I have not seen you since you were this bigggggg. And then indicate an appropriate height from the ground that represents my once two-year-old self. After their eyes light up and they put their hands to their cheeks and then reach them out to hug me, they force their preteen grandchildren into guest servitude. I wince taking a glass of cold lemonade from a silver tray lined with a paper doily being held out to me by a ten-year-old. Gracias. I hear a rustle and out of the corner of my eye see an iguana scurry past the star fruit tree that is looming over all of us.

   Once I stayed with my aunt at my family’s home in Puerto Rico: a modest four-room cement block house that usually sits empty while the Diazes occupy the mainland. I wanted a shower to cool down after an early morning excursion to the mountaintop town where my mother was born. Standing underneath the showerhead I yell out that the water does not seem to be working. My aunt pops in quickly and says it happens sometimes and that They must be working on the pipes. She instructs me on how to switch the water source for the shower with a push of a lever, from the city water system to the rainwater that is collected on the roof. When I visit the island with my unmarried matriarchal aunt and my grandmother we spend the blazing hot afternoons hiding in the dark shadows of home. Lights off, curtains drawn, with multiple fans whirring to keep the air moving, watching a news show where pressing island topics are candidly discussed by a puppet. This ability to be so candid on the heavy and complicated issues for the island, such as police corruption and drug related violence, combined with my aunt’s patience and nonchalant attitude towards water service disruptions, all makes me feel so naïve and bratty. Nothing makes you feel more American than going back.

   More than Puerto Rican or American my mother identifies as an Army Brat, making me second-generation Army Brat. Like myself she would grow up in mobile existence within many countries, terrains and cultures on Army bases around the world. I was born in Columbus, GA, but where my human memory begins is Panama, where my father was stationed 1980–1984 with the School of the Americas. Here all of our neighbors spoke Spanish whether they were Latino or not. My brother and I would play in sugarcane that grew behind our home and reached to the sky several feet above our heads. We had created a path that weaved through this sugarcane to the nearby playground and would chase armadillos if they came across our path. In Panama my parents were young. They would host raucous parties at our home that exist in the memory through the half-open eyes of my five-year-old self. As my parents would on occasion wake us up to say hi to all their drunk friends who were laughing and bobbing and weaving, holding drinks and cigarettes in one hand at the same time. They would say Ey Mami! and would pat my belly, tell a joke in Spanglish and say, Hay que linda tu stas! Even then I thought, I know. In Panama my parents would laugh hard at each other’s jokes and chase each other around our home in battles involving cans of shaving cream. Even then I thought, Get a room. Between the times of shaving cream and armadillos, my father was training Latin American soldiers for Latin American conflicts. These conflicts were largely hidden from me on the day to day but when you grow up on a military base words associated with international conflicts buzz around you as does the risk of your parent being sent off somewhere. I remember I would catch images on TV, particularly at the time of El Salvador’s civil war on the one English channel we had: ABC World News Tonight hosted by Peter Jennings. We existed in an international multilingual multicultural front line defensive fight for Democracy against Communism ordered by Ronald Reagan, that in reality most Americans only caught faint glimmers of on their nightly evening news. On army bases multilingual and multicultural are common as America’s soldiers have traversed the globe and intermarried. Spouses and children are multihued and multitongued. Our enlisted parents work to maintain a docile, peaceful and stable America back home while they and their families live in a highly diverse and adaptable military culture that is constantly in flux. My mother identifies as an Army Brat because when you’re in the Army you are more American than American and less so at the same time.

   In the state of Huila, Colombia in the village of La Jagua, I sit on a curb with three attractive teenage boys. Here is where I have ended up after a nearly two-month-long Latin American excursion that began in DF (Mexico City) and was completed inch by inch by busing through the Isthmus and taking a boat through the San Blas Islands. The trip was prone to a lack of hot showers that repeatedly reminded me of that one trip to Puerto Rico. On my way down I had stopped in San Salvador, El Salvador for two nights. The stay was guarded and brief as all travel guidebooks and my Costa Rican sister-in-law warns to be wary of its gang violence. I visit museums: El Museo de La Palabra y Images, Museo de Arte de El Salvador, Museo de Arte Popular. They all address the war repeatedly and intentionally. The memory of the conflict hangs in the air of the city in a country that survived nearly thirteen years of civil war despite now having jumped into full Western capitalism mode. I enjoy the juxtaposition of war skeletons against large malls and Univision ladies with their tight jeans and tetas pushed up, scuffling along in their high heels. Walking the streets of the Holy Savior amongst postwar sentiment, I am face-to-face en vivo nearly thirty years later with the El Salvador I had only seen on the television screen.

   The boys I am with in Colombia are the sons of the family who is hosting me during my stay in La Jagua, thanks to my friend Jonathan. All of them share one room in which to sleep and listen to Calle 13. The street of the curb I am sitting on is made of bricks. Not cobblestone but like big-ass grey stone bricks that have been there forever and are rumored to have witches buried underneath them. We talk about America vs Colombia. There’s more money but less quality of life, people from there seem unhappy, here we have everything we need. We talk about punk shows and cool tourists vs not so cool ones that pass through their town. They come in here like we owe them something, like we are a show. They don’t try to really get to know who we are. These are rural Colombian teens. While they talk I think of what they have seen. Families affected by the conflicts between the paramilitaries, the militant militias and el ejercito nacional of Colombia. I think of them being part of an indigenous community fighting the building of a dam upriver so that their whole town is not underwater within the year. I had been sitting there feeling sorry for myself about one thing or the other and they had joined me one by one, offering cigarettes and conversation, intentionally trying to bring a smile back to my face. In two days I would be going back to America, where I would have to readjust to English, first-world sterility and readily available hot showers.