Authors: J.L. Torres
a novel by
The Accidental Native
is made possible through grants from the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Recovering the past, creating the future
Arte PÃºblico Press
University of Houston
4902 Gulf Fwy, Bldg 19, Rm 100
Houston, Texas 77204-2004
Cover design and art by William David Powell
Torres-Padilla, JosÃ© L.
The accidental native / By J.L. Torres.âFirst Edition.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â p.Â Â Â Â Â cm.
ISBN 978-1-55885-777-3 (alk. paper)
Â Â Â Â 1. ParentsâDeathâFiction. 2. Traffic accidentsâFiction. 3. BirthmothersâFiction. 4. Puerto RicansâUnited StatesâFiction. I. Title.
The paper used in this publication meets the requirements of the American National Standard for Information SciencesâPermanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1984.
Â© 2013 by JosÃ© L. Torres-Padilla
Printed in the United States of America
13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Many thanks to the Fulbright Program for granting me an opportunity to teach at the Universidad de Barcelona and Universidad AutÃ³noma de Barcelona. While on the Fulbright, I was also able to work on this novel. Special thanks to the Departments of English and German Philology in each institution. My Barcelona colleagues and friends, Cristina Alsina, Rodrigo AndrÃ©s and Raquel Serrano, I owe you so much for your hospitality, companionship and encouragement.
Thanks to my stateside friends and colleagues, Michael Carrino and Elizabeth Cohen for your insightful, thorough reading of early drafts of this novel. Your feedback helped tremendously; your encouragement and advice lifted me in moments of doubt. Thelma Carrino thanks for being such a great supportive friend. My colleagues at SUNY Plattsburgh, thanks for providing me with a wonderful, relatively sane place to work and grow.
I had the opportunity to receive encouragement and advice from Diana LÃ³pez and Selena Mclemore at the National Latino Writers Conference early in the process of writing this novel. Thanks to both of you and to the conference. David Powell, thank you so much for your artistic vision, designing gifts and patience. Lisa SÃ¡nchez GonzÃ¡lez, Joanna B. Marshall, JosÃ© Santos, thanks for your cover art feedback. My most appreciative thanks to Judith Ortiz Cofer, Ernesto QuiÃ±onez, Ilan Stavans and Esmeralda Santiago for graciously offering their thoughts and comments on the novel.
This novel is set in Puerto Rico, not only geographically but emotionally. To my homeland and compatriots: I anguish with you until the decision that frees us. To those friends and colleagues who befriended me while living there, my warmest appreciation.
To those agents who passed on this novel but took time to offer constructive criticism, my sincerest thanks for your genuine comments that I incorporated into my revision.
My most profound gratitude to Arte PÃºblico Press for supporting Latina/o writers so they do not have to write to Peoria to be heard. To NicolÃ¡s Kanellos, your comments and edits made this novel better, and for that I am forever grateful. Un millÃ³n de gracias for having faith in my work. Gabriela Baeza Ventura, thanks for your meticulous reading of this novel and your spot on recommendations. Adelaida Mendoza, thank you for putting up with all my questions and anxieties. To the marketing and publicity crew at APPâMarina, Ashley and Carmen: you are the greatest; thanks for helping me to get out the word.
To the growing Latina/o reading population, thank you for supporting the literary voices of our communities.
As always, mucho amor y cariÃ±o to my wife Lee and sons, Alex and Julian, for your unconditional love and support, and for keeping my uprooted spirit grounded.
My deepest love to my mother, Marcelina Padilla, for always guiding me with her strength of character and moral fortitude; and my sister, Gladys and niece, Yari, por ese apoyo, siempre seguro. Thanks to my second familia: Celia LÃ³pez Vera, Ev, Big E, Lil and Mikey for the laughs, the big hugs and all that good food and love that goes with it.
For every returning Puerto Rican;
and to those who remain unhomed.
Home is where one starts from
Sometimes your life runs like a film with a damn good script and you're the lead. You're hitting all your marks, and you're not even finished with act one. That's how it felt for me until she entered the scene like an extra gone rogue. After her, everything was upended, and I realized my entire life up to that moment had really been more like a movie about deception which had hit its major twist.
It all started with the violent, freakish deaths of my parents. They both swore they'd be buried in Puerto Rico. They belonged to that generation of Boricuas who grew up on equal helpings of rice and beans and nostalgia for Puerto Rico. They believed in the Puerto Rican Dream, which meant work in the U.S. to live your golden years in the island. So, they slaved to buy a house there but never returned, and they never did get around to buying a plot. Why would they? They were years from retiring, and too preoccupied with living. But I knew, because half-jokingly they made me promise, that if anything happened to them I had to step up and grant them that wish.
The funeral home in Jersey held them in their private morgue until I could buy a plot in BanÃ¡, their hometown. Erin drove me to the airport, where I made the classic request for “the next plane out”âin this case, San Juan. I had only opaque memories of Puerto Rico from a childhood visit, knew only the little my parents spoon fed me about it. How appropriate my journey into this new life of deception should start there. The Enchanted Island.
Picture a tropical paradise. Warm sunshine on happy faces focused on making you comfortable, accommodating your every whim. By the beach the ocean laps the sand as you drink the cool rum-spiked milk from a coconut dropped down to the ground by a sultry breeze. Everywhere you see bronzed, curvaceous women and Latin Lovers strutting half-naked along the inviting, turquoise water. Life is wonderful, swinging in your hammock, listening to the steady afro-Caribbean sensual rhythms stirring your loins.
Okay. Now, let's take ourselves out of the tourism commercial and talk reality, or as the natives say, “vamos a hablar inglÃ©s,” let's talk English. If you look at all the important national statisticsâfrom unemployment to mortality ratesâPuerto Rico persistently ranks low. And then you have the power outages, water shortages, work stoppages, the corrupt governments, the high crime rate, the lousy service you get most places you go, the horrific traffic and drivers, the increasing water and air pollution. Yet, every year Puerto Rico comes out in the list of the top five happiest nations. Puerto Ricans consistently say they are happy. The Puerto Rican avoidance strategy is to create a fantasy world and call it enchanted. But I didn't know any of this. I was just going down to this tropical Disneyland to bury my parents.
The only place I could find to stay in the area at the last minute was a “fuck motel.” A place where you drive into a garage, out of nowhere someone closes the garage door, and you walk through a side door into a room without windows. The bed vibrates with a few quarters and if you want a “night pack” with toothbrush, toothpaste, condoms, you call and a few minutes later there's a rap at the sliding window. It was half an hour from BanÃ¡.
At BanÃ¡ Memorial Cemetery, the director told me that he had a few plots in the cemetery's new extension, Monte ParaÃso, and threw in a discount because he knew about my parents. He handed me a business card with the name of a local tombstone company. After I signed the paperwork and paid for the plots, he grabbed the phone to call the nearest funeral home. “I'll take care of everything,” he said, patting me on the back.
My parents came from small families, and death seemed fond of both sides. Most of my few aunts and uncles had already passed
on. Both sets of grandparents: gone (or so I thought). The one remaining uncle I knew, from all accounts was ill and feeble, suffering from Alzheimer's. Cousins, I didn't keep track of, couldn't care less about the extended family thing, anyway. There wasn't anyone to contact on the island other than my sickly uncle, Mario. No wake; they had waited long enough. So, I stood alone, dressed in ritual black, sweating like a pig over a roast pit, without as much as an umbrella for shade. My head was throbbing, my shoes sinking into mud.
Four cemetery workers lowered the caskets with canvas rope, one at a time, on top of each other, into a hole dug by the towable excavator parked a few feet away. Behind me, the director's assistant held a corona, a complimentary crown of plastic flowers, which would be used again for another hurried ceremony later in the day.
Past them, under a large tree about a hundred yards back, a woman dressed in a smart pantsuit, appeared to be watching me, the entire scene, although I couldn't tell for sure because she wore sunglasses. Even from that distance, she was the type of woman who stole your attention. But I didn't make much of it. I just thought she was waiting for another funeral.
My mother often referred to Puerto Rico as “this little piece of
.” I thought of that as I tossed a handful of dirt over their remains. The “house priest” had his concerned face on when he told me, “They're in a better place.” I didn't know about “better,” but they now slept in eternal peace in the muddy, undeveloped and barren extension of the municipal cemetery of this raggedy-ass town in central Puerto Rico. Right next to their neighbor for life, “MarÃa Lazos, 1920-2009.”
“Welcome home,” I whispered, shaking my head.
I shook the priest's hand, thanked the assistant. Wiped the sweat trickling down my face, took one last look at the gravesite. The church bells rang three times.
Game over, I thought
Not knowing what else to do or where to go, I wandered into town.