Puffing out his chest with pride my older cousin meticulously ties the corners of the flag around his neck.
“Boricua man!” he shouts to the crammed subway passengers, his breath cloaked with the bitter smell of Bacardi. “Yo soy Boricua man!” he bellows triumphantly, throwing his arms over his head and pretending to fly around the laughing commuters. My cousin isn’t the only one who is drunk on the early eight o’clock train for the parade. Old Puerto Rican men with leathered skin clutch open beers in their hands as they pin fold-up chairs in between their large stomachs and arms.
It wasn’t my decision to go to the parade today. I look over at my big sister. She is sitting with our two female cousins on the other side of the subway car. They’re laughing. All three of them laugh alike: they heave wildly and wheeze, occasionally gasping for air in between bellows. They’ve dressed alike — like all the other high school girls on the train: tight short-shorts, a flag shirt, and shockingly immaculate pairs of white uptown Nike sneakers. I don’t look like any of them: I don’t have curly hair and almond-shaped brown eyes; I don’t sound like any of them: my Spanish and street vernacular are not up to par. My skin creeps and I shrink into the contorted dents of my plastic train seat and try to span across its entirety. My body is too small to fill the space and I feel miniature. I simply don’t fit.
My cousin cups his hands around his mouth and takes a gulp of thick air. He leans back coolly and chants, “¡yo soy Boricua!” the passengers in the subway halt. They stop mid-conversation and chant their memorized reply: “¡pa’que tu lo sepas!”
The sequence repeats several times, until a family clustered in a corner of the train takes out tambourines and cowbells, beginning another island song.
It wasn’t my decision to go to the parade today. I’m small enough to squeeze through the crowd toward the door without any of them noticing. I could get off and catch a train back home, but mom was there. She’s the one who endorsed this trip: the Boricua, a strict Catholic from birth, raised to praise God and deemed a job as a nun as ideal.
My father is the opposite in almost every respect. He is the Jewish one; with family roots rumored to trace back to the infamous Maimonides (also known as Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon or Rambam) and a faith that flatly diminished before his Bar Mitzvah. He grew up in New York City, but his entire family lives in California now. I went to visit them years ago — I was probably wearing a diaper back then.
“Boricua man! yo soy Boricua man!” My cousin continues to shout in the subway car. He’s belligerent by this point, holding his bottle of liquor close to his chest as those he means to salsa with it. Family comes before everything else; always has, always will — that’s what my mother taught me. I’m not allowed to skip family functions like this. Whenever I say I’d rather stay at home the first words to come out of my mother’s thinly pursed lips are, “family comes first.” If I don’t change my mind promptly and apologize my mother would on the rare occasion find it appropriate to speed up the process with a sharp slap to the face. My mother said it was imperative that I go to the parade with my older sister and older cousins: to our people’s parade. I didn’t reject the idea. My face is still sore from yesterday.
I sit on the train and try to relax. I’m probably just freaking out because of all the people. All of their skin sticks together in the poorly air-conditioned train car. I just need to find some air, a big deep breath. Inhale, exhale. My shapeless frame falls into the background of the scene; taking in every accent I begin to find comfort in the tones: low and raspy purring seeps through the congestion train car. I relish the differences between them. None of them are the same, yet they are all similar: they are all my mother.
I wish my father could see this. I wish he could see what it was like to be a mutt. He followed the steps set before: an intellectual hippie who skipped a grade, graduated in the top ten percent of the best specialized high school in the city, and went to law school. He hates his job and has been complaining about it for what he hyperbolizes as “decades.” He is fully and unfaithfully Jewish, but always makes sure to celebrate the holidays out of tradition. He is nothing like the rest of his family in California.
They live in cold modern houses in both northern and southern California. They have manicured lawns, expensive shiny cars, maids, and cooks. I went there four years ago with my parents and sister. We were invited to one of those houses for dinner. My sister and I were introduced to two girls in our age range and we were consolidated and locked into a “playroom” — a concept completely foreign to me. We were left in the room for the entire evening and were fed our meals on a yellow playskool table. The adults never entered, but we could hear them outside socializing. I stuck my thumb in my mouth and started biting at the nail. Who were these kids? Why did their noses seem to jab at the air, sniffing at something foul? Why were we separated from the adults? I thought the whole point of these things was to have the family doing stuff together, right? A family dinner?
“So you’re the Puerto Rican one, right?” I looked up from the raw concrete floors. One of the girls with shoulder-length brown hair and wide hazel eyes cocked her head and released a tight smile. I couldn’t remember her name. Mom would’ve been angry if I hadn’t remembered their names.
I looked at my sister for guidance, but she was off with the other girl, making color selections from an astoundingly large box of crayons.
“Yeah, I guess,” I managed to respond.
“What do you mean ‘I guess’?” I questioned whether the terrible taste in my mouth was from biting my nails. “I’m half Puerto Rican and half Jewish.”
“Exactly,” her head bobbled as she spoke, “you’re Puerto Rican.”
My lips strained tightly and I growled between my teeth, “I’m both.”
The girl shrugged carelessly and walked off toward a television set and turned it on. I put my thumb back in my mouth and continued to gnaw at the nail. The rest of the night was a blur of boredom: drawing, reading, watching cartoons, that was it.
I liked California, but I didn’t like that girl, or many of the other people I met. Only twice were my sister and I welcomed and incorporated into the family gatherings, but this typically wasn’t the case. I felt like there was something wrong with me, something that made them not like me. I never told my father about the encounter with the girl. I feared he might suddenly respond in the way my mother would, by preaching family unity while forcefully raising his paw-like hand in the air. I didn’t understand why I felt like such an outsider. I knew that they were family and that family always comes first, but somehow they seemed to be out of the loop. They were incapable of reciprocating the sentiment. I was too different for them, too much for them to handle. I wasn’t a part of their family, I was just some mutt.
On the subway, Boricua man puffs his chest out once more and pretends to fly over to my seat. “You see Marie,” his words are slurred and heavy, “these are our peoples, prima.”
I give him an assuring smile and nod my head enthusiastically. “Our peoples,” I think, these are my people and this is my culture. The people I had met in California were my father’s family, but this here, on the train, the drunk and loud and proud Boricuas, these are my people — this here is my family.
A third-generation native New Yorker from the Lower East Side, Marie’s writing melds the curious relationship between culture, food, history, and origin.