Calladitas No More

My Latinidad Taught Me To Never Discuss Death, Which Made It Especially Hard And Confusing When I Lost My Grandfather

Growing up, I was lucky enough to live with my parents and my grandparents as a child. Being raised by them and under their roof meant that there were a lot of things my grandfather taught me that I know most kids learn from their parents. He taught how me to walk, how to ride a bike, and how to swim. Years after this developmental stage where I learned so many basics, my parents and I moved into our own house that was never too far for a trip to Mama and Papa’s place. In my teens I’d take the train from my university to their apartment, just so that I could spend the weekend with my favorite people on the planet. In my twenties I’d come to stay for good, to work as a journalist in New York. I was never too old to go for a slow walk, carve a pumpkin, or decorate a Christmas tree with my grandparents. I’d do anything for them, just as they had for me in childhood and I loved doing everything with them.

When my Papa passed away in February of 2016, I did not know what death was.

The writer as a baby and her grandfather. / Photo provided by Wandy Felicita Ortiz

Sure, I knew the word, and I knew that it was something that happened–to plants, and batteries, and fictional movie characters, to other people’s family members and grandparents–but not to anyone that I loved personally. It was understood that discussion of death was taboo in my family and in my culture; my grandfather had led the ban on that dirty word. Anytime somebody would try to bring up the idea of death in conversation, he’d dismiss and exclaim “Dying? Let’s talk about living!” He was the epitome of life, earning him the nickname of “the happy postman” during his time as a postal worker in New York City. Everyone knew him for his round rosy cheeks, his chuckle, and his smile. I was always convinced that he carried the sun and warmth of Puerto Rico within his small, stout body. I was happy to not talk about death because of him. Why would you when you had an entire sun in the room that made you want to explore and love life just as much as he did?

This mindset of my grandfather’s, the one that said brushed off death and all that it could mean, meant that my family never sat down at the dinner table and came up with a contingency plan of what we would do if one of us did pass away.

My grandparents and parents never shared with me what it felt like when their own parents or grandparents died, and I was taught not to ask.

The writer’s sister [L], grandfather, grandmother and herself. / Photo provided by Wandy OrtizMy parents always did their best not to bring my sister and me to funerals or burials. Nobody ever talked to me about grief, mourning, or what’s appropriate in those moments.

So, when my grandfather died, I felt lost and confused. It was the first time I lost somebody so close to me and I didn’t know what to do about it. I had been accustomed to this caricature of how Latinx people are supposed to act. I was meant to be the sunny comic relief, the silly clown, the bufón, the woman with a ruffled skirt and fruit basket on her head. I was fun, bright, and jovial, but it kept me from facing something inevitable. I don’t know whether to resent or thank my family for letting me live a life where I was ignorant to the realities of death.

The night I had to say my goodbyes I kissed his cold and bloated cheek, and everything smelled like stale blood instead of his aftershave. I left the hospital after sleeping on a waiting room floor for three weeks and went home to take a shower. I smelled blood for months afterward, and I’d rub my body red with a loofah trying to rid my skin and hair of the stench. For the many months that followed, I was a zombie. I didn’t eat but I did gain weight. I slept all day but I felt like I couldn’t catch enough sleep.  I could never bring myself to speak and yet I couldn’t stop crying.

When I talk about my grandfather’s passing with friends who’ve lost parents or grandparents, I’m not totally sure that even they understand my grief.

The writer and her grandfather/ Photo provided by Wandy Ortiz

Some of my friends have lost their grandparents and even parents, and none of them act the way I do when it comes to my grandfather. When somebody says “You’re grandpa died, right?” or asks “How did your grandpa die,” I cringe. His name and “die” are two words I learned never to say in the same sentence. When I explain that he didn’t survive a heart attack, triple bypass, and valve replacement, they tell me that that’s “normal” and “expected.” They ask me why I’m still so shocked and broken up over it, they say “he lived a good, long life,” and they tell me that that’s what happens at old age.

Many people see moving out of a loved one’s home, or throwing out their belongings or putting them in storage as healthy, helpful ways of moving on. I do not feel as if I am in a positive emotional place where I can do that. The idea of packing up all of the tokens that remind me of my abuelo and storing them away in a dark and dusty corner of my mind is hard to conceptualize. Anytime I see my mother’s face, I think of how her freckles and nose mirrored his. Each time I sign my full name I think of how I was given my middle name because it was his mother’s first.

Instead, of bottling up my grief and diverting my thoughts to something else, the way my grandfather might I have preferred, I  speak to my friends and my family about what loss feels like, and what it looks like. While I’m handling my pain over his loss in a way that is very much unlike what he might have wanted, I still think he would be proud of how I have taken my hurt and turned it into a lesson on how to deal with loss in my future. Instead of shielding my kids from death, I like the idea of having discussions about it with my children when they are of age to understand what will happen when people we love die. I don’t have to stick to the narrative that to be Latina is to always be bright and happy. To be Latina can be to be in pain, in mourning, and at a loss too.

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Día De Los Reyes Was The First Time I Allowed My S.O. To Experience My Culture


Día De Los Reyes Was The First Time I Allowed My S.O. To Experience My Culture

For many who regularly take part in the holiday season, Christmas traditions are strongly tied to religious beliefs and practices. The ways in which the customs around the holiday season are carried out often deeply rooted in cultural rituals and they often vary from family to family. For my Puerto Rican family, the holiday season is drawn out well past the first of January when radio stations reel back on the jingles and Mariah Carey classics. For us, the Twelve Days Of Christmas sales or songs we know of don’t relate to the days leading up to December 25, but rather the twelve days in between Christmas Day and January 6 The Epiphany, a biblical day that marks the final leg of the  Three Wise Men’s journey to deliver gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus Christ.

Día De Los Reyes has always been an especially important day for my family. The fact that “reyes” is my mother’s maiden name has only made the day a little sweeter.

Photo provided by Wandy Felicita Ortiz

A more popular holiday back on the island, my abuela and abuelo Reyes brought their traditions to the mainland with them in the 1950s.

On the evening of January 5, each member of my family from grandfather to my youngest sobrino pull out cardboard shoe and clothing boxes (all marked with our names, drawn on and decorated over the years with crayons, markers, and glitter pens) to take part in a tradition that we hold dear in our hearts. After we’ve filled the boxes with snacks like carrots, lettuce, and sometimes grass for the Three Kings’ camels to munch on as they pass through our town we stick the boxes under our beds. Finally, just as we would with Santa Claus, we write the Three Kings–Los Reyes–a handwritten note wishing them safe travels as the journey to see the baby Jesus hoping that as they did with him on that first Epiphany, they’ll leave a small gift or token of some sort under our boxes.

Dia De Los Reyes functions similarly to Christmas Eve in my family. We all wake up and check under our boxes to see if we were good enough this year to receive any gifts. We’d go to mass together, where as kids we’d hope that maybe Los Reyes stayed in town with their camels long enough that day to be at the church community center to pose for photos. We would visit family and eat pernil and arroz con gandules, dishes reserved for celebrations and holidays.

As I got older I went to mass only sometimes and stopped looking to get my photos with Los Reyes.

Photo provided by Wandy Felicita Ortiz

I never stopped checking my box for gifts though, or remembering each rey by the names older relatives taught me to write in my letters: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. As an adult I focused on new ways to celebrate “being a king,” as my family would say, and took on the role of expert coquito maker.

When I started dating and began wanting to bring boyfriends home for the holidays, part of my new role during the holiday season also unintentionally became one of both gatekeeper and teacher of my Puerto Rican culture. As a sophomore in college, I brought my then boyfriend home for December for the first time. In my household, Noche Buena, Christmas Day, New Years Day, New Year’s Eve, and Dia De Los Reyes were all days set aside for family, exclusively. I knew not to ask for exceptions, and in the past had willfully or grudgingly passed up holiday and New Years parties to honor the expectation of being en familia.

But in my twenties I badly started to yearn for my first New Years kiss and wanted, even more, to share part of my twelve days of Christmas with somebody who mattered to me.

My parents, on the other hand, were hesitant. Dia De Los Reyes was about Los Reyes, as in my family.

My boyfriend was someone they saw a few times a year and knew of only from phone calls, letters, texts, and video chats. Someone so unfamiliar certainly wasn’t considered family, and moreover someone who wasn’t Latino couldn’t possibly understand the sanctity of the day we’d honored so lovingly all our lives.

Most concerning of all, Dia De Los Reyes is also known among some circles as “the poor man’s Christmas,” my grandparents’ explanation being that back in the days of Jesus, being a king didn’t mean wealth like it means today. It meant that the giftschildren and observers receive in their boxes today are small, like a $10 gift card, socks, some mittens, or maybe candy. The last thing my family needed was for some guy they didn’t know to reach into an old shoebox of all things, pull out socks, and think we were cheap. With some convincing and a little grumbling, my family allowed me to write my boyfriend’s name on a box, fill it with lettuce and put it under my bed on January 5.

That night as I lay in bed, I did feel nervous knowing that I was bringing somebody into such a special part of my life that no one had ever seen before outside of my parents. Earlier in the day, I made sure to explain to him how seriously my family took our family only traditions, and how it wasn’t just about the religious holiday but the namesake that ties us to one another. I felt silly as I highlighted decorating beat-up boxes as one of my favorite traditions, something I hadn’t ever admitted out loud. Quiet and reserved, he listened to my stories but didn’t ask any questions.

In the morning, I still had my family only morning mass and our opening of gifts, but later that day my boyfriend was invited over for pasteles, coquito, and the checking of his first and only Three Kings Day box.

My parents observed with critical eyes as he went through the motions of our traditions, seeming charmed by the gifts of a hat and gloves left resting on top of torn up shreds of lettuce, proof that Los Reyes had come through our house. As he followed our lead I sat hoping that by participating in the events himself, he might better understand where my love for my culture comes from, or maybe even briefly feel the same sense of childhood joy I do on that day each year. Admittedly, it was an awkward day for everyone involved and not filled with all the magic I had hoped for. Nonetheless, I still felt proud of myself for being able to break down a barrier that had long existed between myself and not only romantic connections but a friend, too.

I wanted the opportunity to show those outside of my family the part of my identity that I hadn’t always made transparent in my daily life, even if that meant that they didn’t understand or wouldn’t “get it” at first.

Photo provided by Wandy Felicita Ortiz

Even though the person who got to take the test run of my family only traditions and I aren’t together anymore, a few years ago he broke the mold for being able to bring others into a part of my life I was using to shutting so many close to me out of.n Maybe he did think that of us, our gifts, or the day we celebrate as cheap, but after the fact I, didn’t care. In the years that have followed, what has mattered most to me has been that I could start sharing Reyes, this name that laid down the foundation to who I am before I was ever born, and all the nuances that come with it with those I want to know me better.

This Dia De Los Reyes will be one of a few Reyes family festivities that my current boyfriend will be participating in, and another year where my family pulls out his box and welcomes his extra cheer into our holidays. While he’s still learning about my roots, I’m still learning that I can take these moments and use them to bring myself closer to my culture and my loved ones.

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When My Father Started To Die, Teaching His Hermanas and Me How To Make Tamales Was His Way Of Saying Goodbye


When My Father Started To Die, Teaching His Hermanas and Me How To Make Tamales Was His Way Of Saying Goodbye

Food has always had a significant place in my family’s traditions. It was the center of every gathering and what connected us despite whatever differences we had. Whether it was a BBQ celebrating a birthday or trays of Mexican food at a quiñceanera, food was the common denominator. No event combined food, family, and tradition better than our tamaladas.

My dad was the host of our tamaladas.

Photo provided by Samantha Chavarria

Truthfully, he was the orchestrator of most of our family meals. Someone who had already been cooking for other people all his life, my father put himself through culinary school while my sister and I were small. Working two to three jobs while going to school, he was a man fully committed to making a better life for us. Ever the doting Latino son, family was everything to my dad. As such, he also helped provide for his parents and younger siblings on top of caring for his young family.

His investment paid off and he was eventually able to become an executive chef. However, food wasn’t just my dad’s profession. It was his passion. Even when he retired, he was still the head chef of every holiday meal and family gathering. He even cooked at my wedding; baking and decorating my cake as well as preparing an asado to feed our guests. Food was his gift. His recipes were forged by his senses.

His dishes were the highlight of these life moments. They had the power to bring his family together and that was a responsibility he held in the highest regard.

Then he received his cancer diagnosis.

My dad had been sick for a while but the cause was a mystery. Still, even before doctors could pinpoint the cause for his waning health, my dad was certain it was cancer. My family didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. My dad was clearly just thinking negatively. A man as strong as my dad— a man whose personality was always larger than life— couldn’t be that sick. Doctors hadn’t found anything for a reason. We couldn’t allow it to be a possibility.

Soon we learned it wasn’t just a possibility, it was our reality. My dad was finally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; a cancer with an only a 7% survival rate past 5 years.

It didn’t seem real. Personally, I rotated through a phase of straight out denial and painful grief. There was no reconciling it in my mind. My dad handled it much better. Even knowing the survival rates, he wasn’t willing to give up without a fight. He wanted to live and, more than anything, he knew his family needed him.

Still, he knew he was on borrowed time. His diagnosis came right before the holidays so he was deep into his first round of chemotherapy by the time Thanksgiving arrived. My dad still made all of his signature dishes, though the occasion felt strained. There was a certain realization that we were trying desperately to ignore. These holiday meals were my dad’s domain and the thought of this holiday season possibly being his final one was overwhelming.

Halfway through December, my dad decided to have a tamalada.

Photo provided by Samantha Chavarria

Some of my aunts and cousins had wanted to learn his recipe for tamales but this could only be learned by making them alongside him. There was no recipe. The consistency of the masa was the guide. It was measured by the scorched fragrance of the ancho chilis. There were no written directions that could properly explain how to spread and roll the cornhusk hojas.

So, in the house owned by my family since my grandfather’s father first purchased it, we held our tamalada.

I knew what my dad was doing. Watching him instruct his sisters in mixing masa and setting my younger cousin to single-handedly prepare multitudes of pan de polvo, I understood his intent. He was passing the knowledge on to those who would be around to use it the following years.

Anger was added to my mixture of grief and denial. I didn’t want this. These secrets were his and, as long as they stayed his, he’d have to stay here to pass them on another day. Sharing them with others felt like he was acknowledging that he wouldn’t be around; that there was a time limit that he was tied to. I didn’t want to admit that.

I had long ago learned these techniques from him. Years of making tamales alongside my dad as we talked and laughed had taught me.

Still, I wish I had paid more attention to his fast folding fingers. I wish I had been more present on the day of the tamalada instead of trying to swallow the bitter combination of my feelings.

My dad died in August of 2018. It devastated my family. I’m honestly surprised to be as functional as I am so soon after his death but I’m still utterly wounded by the loss. My dad was my best friend. He was my teacher. He was the keeper of my secrets, our family history and the recipes that filled our bellies during times both tragic and triumphant.

It hurts, but I finally see that last tamalada for what it was. Yes, it was an attempt to pass those techniques down to their new keepers, but it was something even more significant. It was my father’s attempt to give us final, beautiful memories that would keep us warmly wrapped in his love throughout the coming years. When we wouldn’t have him any longer, we’d have his memories.

When I look back at that last tamalada— past my anger, grief and denial— what I see is truly priceless.

Photo provided by Samantha Chavarria

I see my dad, watching his family create something that would live beyond him. I see him sitting, arms crossed with a tired yet satisfied smile on his face. In my memory, he’s smiling at me; his grin silently telling me, “Mija, it’s going to be okay.”

This year, we will gather in that same house that my great-grandfather bought. In the house my father spent his first and final days in, we will cook the chilis and mix the masa. We’ll shimmer the pork and roll the hojas. My family and I will tell stories about my dad as the tamales cook. We’ll laugh and cry and drink too much café con leche in my dad’s honor.

It’s never going to be the same, but it’ll be okay. My dad taught me that, too.

Read: My Abuela’s Distaste For Cooking Taught Me To Appreciate The History And Taste Of A Good Mole

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