We Exist: On Resilience, Rainbow Babies, and La Raza

credit: photos provided by Christine Kandic Torres

“Were you even pregnant?”

I’m on the phone in an empty office on my floor, trying to control the volume and tone of my voice so that co-workers outside the glass walls won’t realize that something’s wrong. On the line is a nurse from my OB-GYN’s office who I called to report that I am hemorrhaging the baby I’d been carrying since Thanksgiving.

“Were you even pregnant?” the nurse asks again, testy, after taking me off hold. My call was third in line.

“Yes,” I croak, thinking back to the glass of coquito I’d relished on Christmas Eve. “I think so?”

I clear my throat when I’m met with silence on the line.

“I have an appointment to come in for an ultrasound next week.”

My OB/GYN’s office, like many others, refuses to schedule your initial well visit until you are ten weeks pregnant. What I don’t realize until later is that they do this because one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage – they don’t want to waste time or money on pregnancies that aren’t viable.

“Well, we don’t have any availability left for the day,” the nurse says. “So you’ll have to go to the emergency room.”

She gives me the address of the nearest hospital which I record under the dim ringing of her question replaying in my head over and over again: “Were you even pregnant?” Not only was she questioning the existence of the pregnancy, it felt like she was questioning my sanity and fertility, too. With a full maxi-pad of baby-making cells between my legs, I am on the defense. Were the three at-home pregnancy tests I took the day after Christmas wrong? Was I crazy? Did I not deserve to identify as a pregnant woman until the second trimester, until the fetus proved itself until I proved my uterus was capable?

*

It was a week and a half before Donald Trump would be sworn into office as President of the United States and would launch an assault on the truth. At the time, he infamously insisted that the crowd at his inauguration was the largest on record, despite photographic evidence and first-hand witnesses to the contrary. It seemed possible that maybe our collective sanities deserved to be questioned. I had plans to travel to D.C. for the Women’s March. I had written an essay on my fears about bringing a child – specifically, a daughter, and a brown one at that – into a world in which Donald Trump was president. It looked now like I wouldn’t need to worry.

*

They don’t take you to Labor and Delivery when you miscarry before twenty weeks. I guess it hardly seems worth the effort; miscarriage is so common, some medical professionals treat it about as seriously as an in-grown toenail. We are considered the same as a gunshot wound or whiplash: freak accidents on gurneys double-parked along fluorescent-lit hallways, each of us a victim of happenstance.

After several bloody hours in the ER, and a grim sonogram conducted by a silent technician, the hospital staff finally locate a gynecologist from my practice that has the time to spare to give me the news: spontaneous abortion.

The words, spontaneous abortion, grind in my ears. They don’t fit, and I don’t feel like I deserve to own them. I am on a bed outside of a curtained area where a man is breathing into a machine that measures lung capacity. There is barely three feet between my mattress and the nurse’s station. I am a sore thumb, sticking out in the hall, waiting for deliverance.

“Wait,” I interrupt the young doctor. A slender white woman with curly black hair.

“So I was pregnant?”

Her eyes go soft and her eyebrows relax. I realize after all these hours, I am still waiting for a professional to answer the nurse’s question from that afternoon.

“Yes,” she says, with eyes that remind me of a time I dropped a full bucket of movie popcorn in front of a crowded concession stand when I was four. “I’m sorry.”

The sore lump in my throat is an anchor I feel I must cling to alone for strength, for my husband, for the perfunctory processing of paperwork, and the cab ride home.

In the elevator of our apartment building, hours past midnight, I kiss my husband on the cheek.

“Don’t worry,” I tell him, toeing away from the nearing fears that maybe something is wrong with one of us, something that will make carrying a healthy pregnancy to term difficult.

“First pancake,” I say, and he grabs my hand to kiss it. He understands.

A piece of my soul splinters as I turn the key in the lock, returning home a different person than I left that morning. It’s not lost on me that, after being poked and prodded all night, sitting high on thick pads soaking up the promise of a new life we’d begun to plan together, my instinct is still to assuage his pain first; to assure him that I am still the strong one.

*

After my husband and I first told my family I was pregnant, my grandmother whispered to my mom: “Does he know the baby could be black?”

She worried that my white husband would be shocked by the appearance of an Afro-Latinx newborn and reject the both of us. I don’t deny that she may have witnessed that happen in her day. As Puerto Ricans, we’ve been coined a “rainbow people” in terms of skin color and DNA, a guisado of both the colonizers and the colonized. The island was a key port in the transatlantic slave trade, and the population remains a mix of African, Indigenous, and European ancestry as a result. For generations, many in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean (and beyond) identified with the colonizer as a means of survival – that’s one of the reasons why so many census records in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic list far more blancos than an actual blanco might count. The shame of internalized racism is a legacy many of us are still dismantling to this day.  

My grandmother was no exception. She had lived for over a century by the time I became pregnant. In Puerto Rico, St. Croix, and the United States, she had seen her fair share of racism and discrimination. On a train ride through Florida in the 1940s, she was terrified when police boarded their car and ejected her cousin, dressed in his Army uniform, into the colored cabin. That doesn’t excuse her mindset of mejorando la raza, or “improving” the race, by choosing fairer-skinned mates with whom to make whiter babies. It doesn’t excuse her anger whenever I wore my curly hair natural, or her admonishments to not rub my nose for fear it would remain flat or to stay out of the sun to keep myself from getting too dark. Growing up, she simultaneously praised my European genes, while reminding me that I would also never be “white.”

She was not perfect. Her first husband was Dutch-Caribbean, born on one of the islands. He swindled her family out of the little money they had and abandoned her with two kids to marry a white girl in New Jersey.

“Yes,” my mother had answered her when she asked about my white husband. “He knows, and it makes no difference. He will love the baby no matter what.”

She straightened the hem of her housecoat and mumbled something staring off into the distance, unconvinced. She knew better than to trust a white man in love.

*

I am still emptying the contents of my uterus when we go to the Women’s March, my white husband, my Puerto Rican mother, and me. The OB tells me that I’ll test positive for a few more weeks until my pregnancy hormone levels dip under nine. I need to come in once a week for a month to make sure that all the tissue has been flushed from my body. What could be left, I wonder, sitting between round bellies in the waiting room when there was only ever a black void to be seen on the ultrasound.

*

My grandmother quietly celebrated her 103rd birthday that winter with Dominican cake and scratch-off tickets. Her memory and eyesight have deteriorated to the point that she’s never sure who is in the room with her, but when I visit, she perks up and comments on my hair even though I know she can’t see it.

“So what’s going on?” she asks me, meringue pasted on her purple lip. “There’s not gonna be a White House no more?”

My mother keeps MSNBC on at all times, and this is what my grandmother has gleaned from the coverage.

“Well,” I begin, wiping the frosting off with a folded paper towel. “If Trump has his way, there may not be a planet anymore.”

She leans back against the red couch, a strongly curved thumb extended to brush where I’d passed the Bounty over her mouth.

“So,” she says with a shrug. “Then we leave the planet.”

*

Much has been made of the resilience of Puerto Rican people in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. How resilient Puerto Ricans have been, living for months under blue tarps, making meals out of tiny cans of salchichas and M&Ms in the dark. This praise for Puerto Rican resilience can easily pave a path toward viewing the inhumane response by the current administration and FEMA as acceptable. In fact, it may already have.

The island has no voice in Congress and cannot vote for president. Its citizens are Americans but have only limited privileges and representation. When Donald Trump denies the thousands of Puerto Rican lives that were lost as a result of the inadequate response to victims of Hurricane Maria by the U.S. federal government, he is capitalizing on a long tradition of colonizers denying the very existence of the colonized. He is repeating the traumas that have plagued Boricuas since Boriken became Puerto Rico.

“The textbooks got it wrong,” my grandmother had said when I told her we’d been taught the Taíno, the indigenous people of Puerto Rico, were extinct, killed by Europeans long ago with disease and genocide.  

“We exist,” she said, reminding me that my grandfather was dark-skinned and indio. “We still exist.”

It’s not lost on me that she never addresses the French slaves from whom she’s descended, though, and that this is its own sort of denial of our own existence, as well.

A colony of the United States since the 19th century, Puerto Ricans are resilient because they have no other choice.

*

I gave birth in January to a healthy and happy baby boy one year after I miscarried my first pregnancy. My grandmother, who passed right before I learned I was pregnant with him, would be relieved to know that he looks just like his father.

He is technically my “rainbow baby,” a common term for babies born to parents who have suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths. These babies are “rainbows” because they arrive after the dark clouds of loss and grief; without the storm, there would be no rainbow. And while I have dressed him in several rainbow-patterned outfits in his first few months of life, I don’t feel comfortable calling him that. I feel he deserves his own existence, untethered to the spontaneously aborted zygote the nurse at my OB’s office questioned even existed.

My son may not be my rainbow, but he is my sun; he is proof that the world keeps turning, that our brightest star will rise and warm us with his light come the morning of our darkest night. He is proof of my own resilience, of the resilient women from whom I’ve come, of the true legacy of Puerto Rico, and women of color: that, despite the world’s best efforts to extinguish us, we persist. We exist.


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