by Alison Smolinski
Older, more strange, reclusive and a fundamentalist— I prefer to romanticize the woman I knew before than the one in front of me now. “She’s the shortest, dark haired, white skinned Puerto Rican you’ll ever meet,” those were the first words I used some fifteen years ago to describe Wilda Perez-Smith, mi abuelita, to my husband. They ring just as true today. Wilda ventured from la isla pequenita in 1946 at seventeen to attend George Washington University. Her older sister was living in Northern Virginia, having just finished nursing school. She was to marry a white southern man and start the American dream.
Abuelita de una pequenita isla en centro mundo. One thousand miles separating the familiar and the foreign. Wilda walked into the wilds of Washington, replacing the plagues of home with bigotry and a constant desire to be accepted.
To become a mother after she and her sisters had no mother of their own must have been terrifying. Celia left when Wilda was three. Three girls, left with a drunken shoe-store owner and rum-runner who had been hustling his entire life. The drunkard’s younger sister raised his children, all while he increased his bankroll through a myriad of shady transactions. Titi, as she was affectionately known, was the only reason Wilda, Elsie, and Selenia turned out as they did. At different points in their lives, they all struggled with madness and melancholy.
Elsie developed melancholia, also known as Caribbean Fever, in her thirties. Papo, her devoted husband, never sent her to an asylum. He lived with her incoherent state for over thirty years, in a secluded corner of the western Puerto Rico mountains. In the only memory I hold, she is in an ancient rocking chair on the porch of their home. My grandmother warned me to stay quiet, to let tía speak first. She never looked at or talked to me. I’m not sure if she knew we were there. I chased chickens, and mi abuelita spoke with Papo. The thinly framed woman, rhythmically rocking in her chair, seemed a million miles away. As a child, I had no desire to follow her to where she was, or inquire why she was there.
Wilda’s madness developed more quirks and OCD-like tendencies over the years. Her father, Constantino, shot himself in 1950. She was pregnant with my dad at the time and couldn’t make the flight to attend the funeral. “A great shame, suicide. Not being buried next to people you love.” She said this to me one day a few years ago when we were looking through yellowing photographs. My great-grandfather is under an almond tree near the end of San Sebastian’s old plaza.
With jet black hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, my mother’s mother exclaimed at my birth: “She’ll be exotic and beautiful like Wilda.” Little did she know, my hair would fall out and lighten to strawberry-blonde. My father’s darker complexion, like his aunt Selenia, is more visibly recognized as Latino. However, his mother’s fairness can be mistaken for a variety of other cultures. My husband noted when first meeting her, “If you told me she was Japanese, I’d believe you.”
While living in late 1940s Washington D.C., the signs of segregation were unavoidable. Even when going shopping or riding public transit, it was felt. The Latino community was small but visibly other: not white but not black. My grandmother recalled a trip on a city bus where an older white man asked her sister Selenia, who is much darker, if she “could read the sign?” He did not say anything to my grandmother who passed whiteness threshold.
As a young student at George Washington University, she went to a jazz club on a whim. At the club, she lit a cigarette in a red velvet covered booth and waited to order a drink. Then, a skinny, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, white WWII veteran from Arlington asked if he could sit down and buy her a drink. Thus began a sixty-five year relationship.
Interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia until 1967. Fred and Wilda tried unsuccessfully to marry until they eventually found a Mexican priest in Maryland. He agreed that my grandmother was blanca not negra and performed their wedding ceremony on September 21, 1948. This would not be the last time mi abuelita experienced bias or prejudice, however. “I was still home with Mariel, in ’54 or ’55, and a census worker came to the door. He asked me if the owners were home. He assumed I was the help.” She went on, laughing, “It had to have been a dusting day, with my head covered in a bright scarf. I must have looked very island.”
“Looking island” is always a bad thing. For my entire life, the mantras of assimilation and acculturation have echoed from abuelita’s mouth into my ears. “You want to look like everyone else, sound like everyone else, be like everyone else, nieta.”
“Pero hay una problema abuelita – tu no eres como todas. Tu eres una Latina, una Latina moderna con una educacion. Tu eres otra. Yo soy otra porque soy como tu.” [But there’s a problem grandma, you’re not like everyone else. You’re a Latina, a modern Latina with an education. You are other. I am other because I am you.]
The mask you’ve worn for nearly seventy years is a lie. You always told me, “We are Spanish,” with a forceful, militant tone so I would not question you. I know the truth. All it took was a simple spit test, motivated by the beginning of another generation, by the combination of cultures, and the beauty I see every time I look at mi hija. The actual DNA you passed down to me allows me to unravel a thread of self. You can no longer say we are only Spanish, because science tells me your grandparents were African. The actual story of la isla pequenita becomes more clear. A lost past, an inability to reach beyond the grave— the shadow of the almond tree, the mountain home filled with melancholy madness, the shades of sisters living in segregation. All of this shapes me as other.
I know myself by understanding what I am not, or what I thought I was, or what I’d been told I was. Not just Spanish, not just white. Not just one thing. Something undefinable— a thread that connects me to you, you to your grandparents, and us to others. I will never know their names, their faces, their hopes, or their fates, but I know I am theirs. My mask may appear white but there are deeper shades. Hidden beneath the surface, I show a woman divided by confusion of self-identity. I show someone who is always called to protest, to fight, and to relate with other.
Do I know your struggle? Is it written in my DNA? Along a weaving band of Senegalese, or Ghanaian, does your voice sound like mine? I feel a homecoming, an awakening, a connection to something that appears foreign but is at the core of my being.
A complex struggle over self and an acceptance of other. A combination of heritage, culture, and science— all bringing me closer to the truth. My truth. A truth for my children. A thread, connecting them to la isla pequenita, to the madness, to the people whose experience made their existence possible.
Alison Smolinski is a Communications graduate student. She resides in Lancaster with her husband and two children. One day, she won’t be an exhausted working mom — one day.