What my Puerto Rican father has taught me about culture and speaking up
I never understood movies or shows where dads were silent shadows that hardly left the corners of their living rooms. The kind of parent who would respond in one-liners, in syllables, in grunts. My dad wasn’t and isn’t anything like that. Every moment with my father was a lesson — even if I didn’t want to learn, even if I didn’t care, even if I sassed him back and asked him to leave me alone. But in the end, I learned them.
Some of my earliest memories of my father are of me and my siblings climbing on his back or jumping from beds so that he’d catch us. I’d also make pigtails in his hair and see if I could learn to braid it. He was never impatient about that.
I climbed things all the time as a kid. It wracked my mom’s nerves, but it made dad laugh. And when my siblings and I went to Puerto Rico for Christmas to spend it with Dad’s family, he taught us how to climb the quenepa trees. He taught me how to pick the round fruit. He’d skewer it on a fork so that he could lap the pulp off the large stone pit in the middle (until he was sure that we weren’t going to choke on it).
In Puerto Rico, my father had us walk around on the mountain where he grew up after it had rained, and showed me where the spiders burrowed in the ground by the grass, and how to lure them out with a thin stick. He always warned me to run as fast as I could if I ever saw one of the huge red centipedes, and he bought me bars of coco melocochao — caramelized coconut — to make sure that I wouldn’t end up like so-and-so’s children who didn’t like the Caribbean region’s food.
One of his elderly uncles came to visit when my siblings and I were staying with my dad at his mother’s house. We were setting out plates of food for the mountain dogs when the sweet, elderly uncle handed me a $20 bill and said “for ice cream.”
I thanked him in Spanish, and he beamed at my dad, excited that we weren’t monolingual.
Even when I had fought against speaking Spanish and was embarrassed by my parents’ accents, Dad didn’t stop speaking to me in his native language.
He knew I’d need it in the future, and he’d sometimes ignore me if I spoke in English for too long.
He was right. As a student journalist, when I was sent to cover neighborhood stories, I always had decent ideas thanks to being bilingual. Often times, I’d try to get a resident to talk to me by asking a question in English. They’d decline, and if I asked to speak again in Spanish, they immediately wanted to talk and always had a lot to say.
Speaking Spanish made it easier to bond with dad when he noticed that I liked tongue twisters, just like he did. Sometimes he’d throw them at me to see if I could wrap my mouth around them on the first try.
To make him laugh I’d randomly repeat “El continente de Constantinopla se quiere descontantinoplizar.”
Or I’d say his favorite, “Compadre compreme un coco. Compadre, no compro coco, porque poco coco compro, poco coco como.”
I’d even recite them to myself whenever I was nervous, on the way to a job interview, or getting ready to go to an event.
He also taught me how to drink. I remember being at a baby shower, and he came over with a bottle of hard lemonade.
I took a big gulp, and he told me to slow down.
“You don’t swallow drinks,” he told me. “You taste them. That way you only drink a few and don’t lose your keys.”
He’s the reason I like wine, even though I prefer white and he always goes for red. We both give it up for Lent.
Dad never taught me how to speak up. He knew I had to figure it out for myself.
Still, he would encourage me to speak up. I remember him dropping me off one morning during my last year of high school. It had been a rough summer. My grandmother had gotten sick, and I had spent most of my break helping take care of her in the hospital. I had almost no social life, and admitted to my dad that, some days, I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
He turned around in the drivers seat and looked at me.
“Just say hi to everyone, he said. “I know it’s hard sometimes, but just say hi. Just try.
Sometimes we’ll disagree about things, like when he told a kid that he was crying like a girl.
“I’m so tired of the sexism in this family, I said while giving him the evil eye.
He sheepishly smiled, as if he wanted to apologize — but he didn’t. We usually don’t. Still, he never said those words again. His apology takes the form of coming to my defense when I call out other relatives for saying something sexist. He apologizes by taking me to my uncle’s bar in Puerto Rico, introducing me to all of his friends there, and telling them to share stories from their lives so I can write about them. One of those times, my dad told everyone at the bar that I had won a contest after writing about El Cuco, the Caribbean boogieman I had grown up with.
“That was in 2013,” I explained.
“Yeah, but it was the best essay — she won money and everything, he rambled on. “She gets it from me.
But sometimes I wish we spoke more about our feelings.
I wish my parents’ culture didn’t have such a stringent age hierarchy that dictated formal speaking — so formal that sometimes I’m afraid to ask for help.
Formal enough that I couldn’t ask many questions about how my body was changing in my teen years, or how my mindset was evolving as I grew.
When we drove to Trader Joe’s one evening, I tried to tell my dad that I was starting therapy — and I was met with silence. I tried to start a conversation about not being able to sleep — and I was met with silence again. Days later, he brought me some of my favorite dark chocolate almond bark from a bakery we’ve visited since I was little. He said that he hoped I felt better.
Until we learn to open up, we can still joke about politics, drink wine, trade books — and above all, we still have tongue twisters. And that’s good enough for me.