Moving Margins from Humboldt Park to the Desert Floor

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By: Yovani Flores

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Photo: Josh Koonce, Flickr

Do you recognize my voice? The stories I told about knowing something, something written in the margins. Do you recall los relatos about carving lines as hard as the desert floor like borders positioning movements, fences pushing the backstories about my gente, mi cuerpo and especially, my feet. Webbed lines carved in my soles like root systems buried under sheets of frozen glass below the Windy City floor. They soften and melt on the breast of spring mothering leaves of every tree from Pilsen to Wicker Park. From a Little Village on 18th Street to the mist of Lake Michigan spraying over Lakeshore Drive, from every house on Mango Street to my house along the edge of Humboldt Park.

Everybody played in Humboldt Park: we were mesmerized by conga sighs and salsa rhymes that filled every space in the park. I played marbles with Pedro and the boys on a small mound of dark-gold sand overlooking the dingy beach water. Clumps of black dirt hid under my fingernails after every high-speed roll down a damp grassy hill, I felt bad for the helpless daisies clinging to my curls. Salty beads of sweat burned my scabby knees from all the crab apple trees I climbed while the hazy air swallowed Papi’s warnings, “Hey mona. Bajate de ayí quete va’ caer.”

I couldn’t wait for our early release days from school to sneak off to the park with Cuca where we invented ridiculous contests like running backwards as fast as possible or climbing trees with one arm. Nobody ever won. Then we’d race around a listless pond holding reflections of an old boathouse leading to a circular garden. An old bronzed statue of a giant bison watched over endless rows of lilac eyes and trailing vines with white tiny blooms. I named her Ola. She carried a set of giant hips as wide as North Avenue beach. Her glossy bronzed skin shimmered like the morning waves I saw in Puerto Rico.

Cuca hated Ola’s name, she complained about her all the time,

“No offense, but that’s a really dumb name. She needs a high-class name like those novela stars “she said.

I played along. “You mean a fancy name like Cuca?” I said. Cuca’s glare toasted the side my face.

“No dummy, I mean classy like Josefina o Esperanza,” she replied.

“Well I‘m not changing her name, Cuca. If you like the names so much I can start calling you Josefina,” I said.

Cuca stood pouting while silence hovered between us. I perched myself on Ola’s back until Cuca touched my hand and I reached down to pull her up behind me just like the white cowboys do when they steal women and vanish into the sunset. Our bare feet resting on Ola’s thick shoulders as Cuca wrapped her arms around my waist leaning into my neck she whispered,

“Tell me the story about your first trip to Puerto Rico.”

“Okay…as long as you don’t fall asleep,” I said.

Abuela took me to Puerto Rico when I was six years old. I was happy when she encouraged me to wear my favorite khaki suit which Mami didn’t like because it made me look machua – and too boyish. Mami tried to push me into an itchy purple dress, but I wore my suit anyway because Abuela was the boss of us. My khaki suit pants were like Pap’s Sansabelt pants, but mine had more pockets: two in front two in back and a little one over my right hip bone. I wore my white Fruit of the Loom shirt under a matching jacket, which had two more pockets and a wide lapel. Me and Abuela pierced chunky clouds without raindrops, or rumbles. Veils of glittery stars hovered around our window, Abuela’s hands caressed my face, stroking my hair until my eyelashes got heavy making me dizzy with sleep.

Once we landed, I was off on my first road trip. Two hours on the road from San Juan to Abuela’s pueblo in Agüada; my hands weaved in and out of the window mocking birds with my fingertips, slicing through a thick salty breeze. Abuela’s chestnut eyes got lighter and lighter as we headed towards the open road. She smiled at me from the side mirror, where I watched lines surround the corners of her mouth; strings of veins curved over her chocolate knuckles when she pointed out a guayaba tree directing our driver to pull off the road. My feet scaled up the tree as quick as a little monkey. I shook and jiggled branches until yellow balls of fruit finally threw themselves at Abuela’s feet. She pulled with her long blouse up to her belly, plucked them off the ground dropping each one into her improvised apron. The driver handed her a pocket knife. And like a well-trained surgeon she cut through its thick skin and placed a dripping wedge in my palm. My head spun with delirium the second my mouth slipped between pink and reddish slopes of that syrupy guayaba heart; my tongue crowned with scented seeds shaped like starfish.

We arrived at Abuela’s little wooden house, her eyes confirmed the stories she told about years of hard work at Ramey Air Force Base ironing military uniforms to feed her six children. By the time Mami was seven years old she was ironing T-shirts for soldiers returning home for weekend visits. Abuela held my hand during my first walk into the ocean, foamy waves whipped and dipped between our brown toes catching Abuela’s laugher when I gagged on a mouthful of saltwater. Then we found coconuts scattered around waiting to be claimed; spent our first day chewing chunks of coco, gathering seashells running from blankets of glittering Olas, “And that is why I will never change Ola’s name, Josefina!”

       Summers at Abuela house went beyond my tenth birthday – our days ended      too soon. That was the year the Caribe sun marked me, left me marcada by a mass of freckles shaped like scattered islands. Stained my skin from my fingertips to my bony shoulders. A mass of disconnected earth formations separated from      their land of origin, suspended between margins in search of new terrains –         reforming, reclaiming y mestizando.

Cuca rested her chin against my neck then we kissed while Jose set the sky on fire,

           You know that it would be untrue, you know that I would be a liar. If I was          to say to you ehhh girl we couldn’t get much higher. Come on baby light my fire, Come on baby light my fire.”

Then her dreamy eyes got serious, “You’re not going to go around telling everybody at school, right?” “No way, that stupid head Pedro would make fun of me forever.” I replied. We laughed and stumbled down Ola’s back like pair of snails, watching the Sears Tower scraped horizons swaying like trees con el tumbao de Celia gotiando del cielo,

Cucalaaa, cucalaaa, cuca cucala que’ella sale. Cucala cuca-cuca cucala que se hace….”

Shortly after that kiss I met faces of rejection for coming out too soon. I lived in that space of otherness in a community I adored – and the walls of my own home. Mami went to great lengths to get us registered in a predominantly White high school on the North Side. For us it meant two long bus rides which only got longer and colder in the winter. Eventually, the North Side white boys shattered every window on our bus as we made our way out of their neighborhood. Once spring arrived, we just walked home.

During my first semester at the White school, I discovered a group of gay Latino students. Back then we weren’t even queer yet; “loh gays”,  that’s all we were. We even spoke our own language: between code switching, our Spanish contractions, and our inventive gay code which included assigning male pronouns to my girlfriends. I told everybody I spoke three languages. Poor Mami. I was sure she already knew I was destined for gayness but, she still managed to get hysterical. Especially when her circle of gossiping lotería attics started making up stories about me because I was a Tomboy; stories which happened to be true.

Well, Mami quickly got religion which I recalled her losing somewhere between Santería practices and taking on selective Católica traditions like cameo appearances at Saint Marcus Church on Ash Wednesday, and Easter Sunday. She cried and yelled, forcing me to my knees en el altar de Yemayá. Mami wanted to hear me say I was not gay, that none of it was true if said in front of Santa Barbara. I lied, and cried on her porcelain feet while María’s voice (from West Side Story) echoed in my head, “Make it don’t be true, Pleez, make it don’t be true…”

The gay circle claimed me. Together we healed, claiming place on Belmont rocks along the edge of Lakeshore Drive where my lágrimas stained pages of my journals. And I… began to breathe. And words became my life and breath.

In 1989 I pulled my root out and left my Chicago community for the desert landscapes of Phoenix, Arizona. The desert taught me something about losing raíces, about the constructs of homophobia, polite racism intellectualized. I was unidentifiable like scattered bones waiting to be recognized and found. I was thirsty like a desert waiting for July monsoons, storms washing over margins, scattering lines, exposing the roots of my voice. But I already knew something about crossing thresholds and, re-moving margins.

Originally published in Ana Castillo’s La Tolteca e-zine in 2012.

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Yovani Flores is a Boricua from Humboldt Park now living in Phoenix, Arizona. She has published works in La Tolteca eZine, Accentos Review, Latino Perspectives, PHX, MALCS-Journal of Chicana/ Latina Studies (UCLA), Kalyani Magazine, NPR, and Drunken Boat magazine. She is also a founder of Mujeres del Sol and Las Pilonas Productions and is a creative writing instructor for La Phoenikera Writers Guild. 

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