I was six, or seven. It was a scalding Dominican summer day that began with a hurried packing of bare-essentials— underwear and shorts—as my aunt prepared me for a visit to my grandmother’s in the campo. It was basically out in the wilderness, some miles away from the city. Whilst I was inside, saying goodbye to my cousins, readying myself for the journey ahead, the guagua seemed to appear out of thin air, blasting its horn outside my aunt’s door in a frenzy. I peered outside to see a rusted chassis with a navy-blue coat of paint that was one rain away from peeling off. The four tires seemed about ready to melt in the noon time sun. Each one in a different phase of their lives, three in their respective winters, while one had seemingly just been reborn in the spring. I couldn’t see inside past the tinted windows, but I knew the driver had to be a disheveled old fella of some sort, impatiently tapping his foot wanting to be on his merry-lacking way. Those drivers were always miserable guys and I’m sure the equatorial summer had plenty to do with it. Though somehow, through the rusted disrepair of the bus and the likely irritable driver, I imagined a Magic School Bus adventure with a male Ms. Frizzle at the helm of it all. Needless to say, it was nothing of the sort.
I arrived what felt like days later to my adolescent mind. I was cramped next to my aunt the entire time, who was dropping me off at a stop where one of my uncles would pick me up on his scooter. She held my hand most of the way there, I don’t know whether it was to reassure me she was there or whether it was to reassure herself I was. Everyone worries a little too much in a Dominican family, especially if you come from the States. They always think you somehow reek of New York, even if you’re from Rhode Island and not the famous “Nueva Yor,” the state that encompasses most of North America to everyone there. Caribbean families always think you’re going to get robbed or kidnapped and held for ransom or something. To this day, as an adult, they expect me to take off any jewelry just to be safe. They thought if they got rid of any physical indication that I was from the States that they could protect me, that I could pass for any other island native, but my broken ass Spanish would forever be a dead giveaway of where I came from.
The ride to my grandma’s house on my uncle’s scooter was almost five hours with the midafternoon sun on my neck and back, or at least that’s what it felt like then; it was probably less than thirty minutes in real-time. The scenery shifted from close knit buildings reminiscent of old 1950s sepia pictures to all fields and woods. Eerie little bundles of houses gave way to outpost like buildings, and past that to nothing but dirt road and tropical trees. When we reached another huddle of shabby houses painted in classic Caribbean greens and pinks we stopped; we had reached as far back as my maternal ancestry went.
It was a modest little setup, everyone had just enough room to be ok but not quite enough to be fully comfortable. The community itself stared into the distance at an African grassland. The stalks of grass in front of my grandmother’s house were that tall, giant even. Every strand a part of a place that laid the stepping stones to my existence.
“Bendición mami,” I said with excitement laced in my blessing. Her sun beaten arms wrapped themselves around me like lush brown earth, ready to nourish a seed. Una negra hermosa. She was the color of a warm cup of coffee on a wintry night in the States, with just a subtle hint of cream giving her a chocolatey complexion. Over the years, I grew to associate that color with her warm hugs and her tender forehead kisses.
“Que Dios te bendiga, mi amor,” her cinnamon scented voice whispered down to me. She hugged me tightly, not wanting to let go of her small grandchild the color of caramel coffee with extra cream—the result of her falling in love with a half Italian half Dominican breed of arrogance who thought he could bypass fertility even though he didn’t even use a condom. That visit was one that would forever change me for the better. During my time with her I realized that I am la sangre de mi sangre, the blood of my blood, coming from both conquerors and the conquered of a New World, like all Caribbeans are. It was she who taught me to love the skin of our ancestors, the ebony-ivory tomes of our collective pasts—the pages of our history. And it was she who taught me that love extends beyond what we can see through the flesh. Shit, I wish my grandmother had shown America how to love.