by Michele Carlo

Story Summary

Soon after 10-year old Michele's great-grandmother dies, she gets lost at New York City's Puerto Rican Day Parade. What happens next confirms she doesn't fit in with her family or her people. Can you remember a time you felt you didn't belong?

Discussion Questions

  1. Who were John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and why would these historical figures (along with Jesus) be important to Michele's family (and other Latinx families of that time)?
  2. Michele describes a Puerto Rican feast on the table in her abuela's (grandmother's) living room. Does your family cook in a similar way when a significant event happens? What types of food would your family make?
  3. Michele is shown an old family photograph that shows her mother as a child, her abuela as a young mother, and her gran-abuela (great-grandmother) as a strong, vital, beautiful woman. The photo changes Michele's perception of how she fits into her family. Have you ever seen an old family photograph? Did it surprise you? In looking at the photo, what had you never known or thought about before?
  4. In many Puerto Rican (and other Latinx families) it is not uncommon to have varying skin tones, facial features and hair textures among different family members. Why is that? Does everyone in your family look alike? Do you ever think about that? Does it matter?
  5. Have you ever been to an ethnic celebratory parade like NYC's Puerto Rican Day Parade? Did you like it? Did it make you feel like you belonged to your ethnic group and your family?
  6. If you have gone to such a parade, do you remember seeing people of different groups there? If so, what, if anything, did you think about that?
  7. After Michele gets lost at the parade and is brought to the bandshell, she swears she hears the loudspeaker describing her as a ""little redheaded white girl."" Do you think she actually heard the announcement that way? Or do you think her new-found insecurity about her appearance may have caused her to mishear it?
  8. Michele is 10 years old at the time this story happens. How does the perception and understanding of a 10-year-old differ than someone who is a teenager or adult?
  9. Has your perception and understanding changed since you were 10 years old? If so, how (and what) made it change?

Resources

  • Fish Out of Agua: My Life on Neither Side of the (Subway) Tracks by Michele Carlo
  • Foreign to Familiar by Sarah A. Lanier
  • Pioneros: Puerto Ricans in New York City – 1892-1948 and 1948-1998 by Felix V. Matos-Rodriguez and Pedro Juan Hernandez

Themes

  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Latino Americans/Latios

Full Transcript
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Hi, my name is Michele Carlo and this story is called “Spanish on Sunday, Part 1,” and it’s from my book, Fish Out of Agua.

I was 10 years old when my great, when my gran-abuela, my great-grandmother died and my entire family gathered in my abuela’s, my grandmother’s, apartment to mourn. They don’t make apartments like this anymore. It was in Washington Heights in Manhattan. Six sprawling rooms in an old Art Deco building with French doors, high ceilings, a functional dumbwaiter, and a long, dark hallway where there were framed pictures of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and a long-haired, blond, blue-eyed Jesús: Jesus.

And, as always, when there was a family gathering, the kitchen table had been moved into the living room and it held enough food to feed an entire neighborhood. I mean pots of arroz con gandules, rice with peas. Other pots of arroz con salchichas, rice with sausages. A whole perñil, a roast pork, another roast turkey and there were plantains cooked three ways: tostones, maduros, and pastelón, which is kind of like lasagna only with plantains. And many other treats, including my favorite, salujos, which are succulent little fingers of cornmeal that are stuffed with queso blanco and deep-fried to perfection. Ahhh, they’re so good!

But, for once, I wasn’t hungry. So, while everyone in my family loaded their plates and sat down to eat, I wandered off into the long, dark hallway alone and I stood in front of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the long-haired, blonde, blue-eyed Jesús. And I wondered why, why did every apartment that I’d always been brought to have these same three pictures? And I knew who they were: John F. Kennedy. He had once been the President. He was supposed to save the United States, but then he was killed. And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he was supposed to save the Black people but, then, he too was killed. And Jesús…yeah, he was supposed to save all of mankind…and we all know how that turned out.

I stared at Jesús and he stared back at me. He looked like a hippie. My family always warned me to stay away from hippies because they were dirty and they were on drugs. And I may only have been 10, but I knew what drugs were. Drugs were what made people not come home anymore and made whoever was left behind cry.

I tried to knock Jesús off the wall, but he was way beyond my reach. And then I heard soft, slippered footsteps behind me. It was my abuela. She reached up to adjust the picture of Jesús I never touched, took my hand and led me into her bedroom.

Oh, I used to love that bedroom. She had, abuela had, the best bedroom. She had this Art Deco-ish, like 1930s style vanity dressing table with a triple mirror and her bed had this fuzzy comforting pink chenille bedspread, and it always smelled like face powder. And abuela motioned for me to sit with her on the bed and next to her was this cardboard ancient-looking photo album tied with a ribbon.

So abuela unties the ribbon, goes through the pages, gets a photograph and she hands one to me. And she’s waiting there and I’m looking at the photograph, and it’s like she’s expecting me to say something about who, who’s in it, but I’m not sure I know who these people are, so I say nothing. And after a moment, abuela takes the photograph from me and points. She points to a little girl with short, tight braids and she says, “This is your mother.”

And then she points to an adult woman, a younger adult woman standing behind the little girl. And she goes, “This is me.” And, then, she points to an older woman sitting upright in a chair and she says, “And this is my mother, your gran abuela, your great-grandmother.”

And I snatch the photograph from abuela’s hand and I looked at it again. I was like, “What?” I couldn’t believe it. That was my gran abuela? That didn’t look nothing like the shriveled old wizened thing that I had only known from a hospital. A person with sparse hair and clouded eyes and hands that were like claws. So scary, I hated to go visit them because I would just get so upset.

But this woman, this woman’s posture was as straight as the back of the chair she was sitting in. Her hands were not clawed but long- fingered and plump. Her hair was full and you could tell that it was jet black, had once been jet black. Her eyes were not clouded; they were clear. She had the sharpest, most beautiful cheekbones I had ever seen. Her skin was the color of a cinnamon stick. She looked like a princess…or a priestess. She was beautiful.

I gave abuela back the photograph and I walked over to the dressing table, and I looked at my halo of red frizzy curls and my kind of pale yellowish-tingy, freckle-faced skin and I said to abuela, “Abuela, why don’t I look like mommy or you or the rest of the family?”

And abuela says, “¿Perdón?—Pardon? ¿Como se dice?—What did you say?,” because I always spoke English too fast for her to follow. So I tried again and I said, “Abuela…abuelita…por que, por que…por que yo no look like the familia?”

And abuela said, “Oh mija, no, pero you do. Parece como…como se dice en ingles…how do you say it… um, madre de mi madre’s padre, mother of husband…ella tiene pelorrojo tambien y ella tan muy hermosa…” But it didn’t matter, because now she was speaking entirely in Spanish and I didn’t understand her. And I wouldn’t have believed her anyway.

Three weeks later my family went to New York City’s Puerto Rican Day Parade together and I didn’t remember ever before going to this early June, all-day celebration of all things Boricua. Where the banderas—the flags wave, the gente—the people march and the musica—the music plays. And standing cordoned off along the sidewalks are hundreds of thousands of black, brown and beige bodies crammed cabeza to cabeza—head to head, hombro to hombro—shoulder to shoulder, swaying hips, nalgas to nalgas—swaying hips to swaying hips, saying, “We’pa, Boricua! Eso es nuestra dia!” “We are Puerto Rican and this is our day!”

Everyone that is except me, because I had somehow become separated from my family and I was now wandering down crowded 5th Avenue alone, looking for the nice policeman that my mother had always told me to find should I ever become lost. And when I did find the nice policeman, he took me to a bandshell that was filled with men wearing linen suits, traditional guayanabera shirts and ladies with high heels wearing flowered dresses that had flowers in their hair. And they were so nice. They told me, “Don’t worry, your family is going to come. Are you hungry?”

And I said, “Yes.” Because I was always hungry when I was a kid. So they bought me a hot dog and an orange drink. And they told me to sit down, “Don’t worry my family would come.”

And as I sat down with this plump, succulent hot dog and my orange drink, I saw out of the corner of my eye an ice cream truck pull up. It was a Good Humor truck and I thought to myself, “Hmmm, maybe if I eat this hot dog real fast, I can get one of these pretty ladies to buy me…I could get one of these pretty ladies to buy me my favorite, a Strawberry Shortcake.”

But as soon as I put the hot dog to my lips a loudspeaker blared on and I swore I heard this, “Will the family who brought the little redheaded white girl to the parade please come pick her up at the mmm-mmm Street Bandshell.”

What? WHAT? Did I hear that right? I, I swore that’s what I heard. And I turned all around looking to see where the poor unfortunate child that didn’t belong here was. And I only saw the grownups looking everywhere except at me. And then I realized…I was that child.

And, as I sat there holding my not-even-eaten hot dog and not-even-drank orange drink, I started crying for the first time since my gran abuela died. Because I knew that I was not a little girl with tight braids like my mother, or a woman with flowers in their hair like the ladies on the bandshell. And I was not a princess or a priestess most certainly like my gran abuela. It was the first time that I knew I didn’t fit in with my family or my people. The first time I knew that not only was I a “fish out of water,” I was “a fish out of agua.”