When I was born, my mom started taking me and my brother to Puerto Rico. My first memories started when I was approximately four years old; we would arrive in the afternoon, before the sun went down and the Coquís started singing. We’d hop in the rental car and make the 15 minute drive to Carolina, my mom’s hometown. As we got closer to my Abuela’s house, I’d start recognizing the little shops and colorful cement houses that I’d seen countless times before. “Ferdnández Bakery! Please mami, can we get some “pan”?!” “Not right now Gigi, Abuela is waiting for us.”
Mami was right, the “pan” could wait. Abuela was waiting in the same position I’d seen her for years and would see her for years to come. She had painted her small, rectangular, cement house a sickening pea-green, but other than that, not much had changed. There was a short, white iron gate where the driveway started that ‘mami’ had to get out of the car to unlatch, and just past that was the large gate that marked the “marquesina”. The gate was white iron like the little one, but it was heavy and swung open with a mechanic moan. This was the gate that Abuela was behind every time we came to see her. I can still see her now; wearing a floral “bata”, her delicate wrists resting on a horizontal bar of the gate with her ring of keys dangling, eager to unlock the large padlock and welcome her daughter and grandchildren.
My memories of my time at Abuela’s house are shrouded with the smell of “Lestoil”, due to my Abuela’s cleaning habits, and a heavy fog of heat, as the home did not have air conditioning. However, there were moments that break the fog, and remind me of my Abuela’s colorful spirit. There were times when Abuela would turn her stereo system up so loud, I would get nervous that the neighbors would get upset. Daniel Santos, Gilberto Monroig, and Chucho Avellanet’s enchanting boleros and “salsa” poured out of the speakers, and my Abuela would begin to sing. As a little girl, I found it amusing that my usually feisty grandmother was allowing herself to move and sing to the music, as if no one was there. It didn’t take long for my young mind to get bored and wander back out to the “marquesina” to watch TV, leaving my Abuela to her fantasy.
It wasn’t until a year ago that my mom told me about my Abuela’s past. Laura Torres grew up in the depression, the eldest daughter of five kids. When her father died of Tuberculosis at age 40, it was up to young Laura to assist her mother running the household, forcing her to drop out of school in the 6th grade. She had to grow up fast, with more hardship than most people have ever gotten close to. She loved to sing, as that was her escape from her hard life. She took a chance and participated in the radio show of Rafael Quinones Vidal, a pioneer who promoted young singers through his radio singing competition called “Tribuna del Arte”. She impressed the master of ceremonies and won “la pesetita voladora”. Shortly after this, she married and had four kids, my mom the youngest. I have gone through my entire life believing that I was the only person in my family who sang or had any passion for performing. I think back to those times of her blasting her boleros in the living room, her eyes closed and hips swaying, and I know. I know that she was not in that living room. She was on stage, singing an enchanting melody and capturing the hearts of all that watched her.
My “Abuela” passed away from dementia in 2012. She never got to see me perform, hear me sing at my wedding, or get to know the woman I’ve become. The next time I see my “Abuela”, she will be behind a different gate, and I can’t wait to sing and dance with her.