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Saturday, February 11, 2006My Grandma
I wanted to tell my grandmother’s story but it became apparent it was just too long to post here. I didn’t want to leave anything out because she led a remarkable life. She was the friend, confidant, and co-conspirator of many who helped shape modern day Boriqua history. She went through so much, and yet never lost her capacity to love or forgive. The woman is still a legend in her community. Everything that is good and admirable about my mother, my outlook on life and the direction I have chosen for my life all can be traced back to this woman, she was the one that planted the seeds. She gave my mother a childhood filled with of love and learning. She taught my mother by example.
She taught her to be open-minded and accept people on their merits. She taught her to think for herself never to be a follower but most of all she taught her that we are responsible for those who cannot take care of themselves. These lessons have been passed on to my siblings and I. Twenty years after her death she continues to inspire.
My grandmother was a lesbian. Feeling safe in a family brimming with lesbians my grandmother aka La Negra decided to “come out” in her 14th summer. While her mother had been accepting of her lesbian nieces she was not so open minded when it came to her own child. I guess it’s different when it your child that is gay as opposed to your sister’s. Back in the day homosexuality was not only considered a sin against God but it was also seen as a mental illness. After a lot of family drama over her being gay La Negra attempted suicide she was hospitalized and misdiagnosed as being schizophrenic decades later the doctors would say she was actually suffering from Bipolar Personality Disorder. There is some debate in the family as to if she was mentally ill all along or if she became mentally ill after going through so much crap in her life.
At 15 she had her first child my mother followed by my uncle a year later. She had her children taken away from her and was never able to regain custody of them. The kicker was that it was her own mother and sister who took away her kids. Was she abusive towards her kids? No. Was she neglectful of her kids? No. Did her children ever witness her in a compromising position? No. So why on earth her children would be taken away why would the legal system declare her an unfit mother? She was declared unfit primarily because she was a lesbian and secondly because she was mentally ill. The loss of her children would push her over the edge and once more she attempted to kill herself. She made 10 deep cuts several inches in width on each of her arms starting at the wrist and ending at her forearms. She was found close to death and spent at least another year locked up in a mental facility.
Luckily for La Negra she had a friend in the father of her children and he was able to regain custody of their daughter from La Negra’s sister by appealing to her husband’s sympathies. Regaining custody of the boy from his grandmother would take years. By the time they got him back the damage had been done his mind had been turned against his mother. This was accomplished by the daily pouring of verbal poison into the son’s ear. My mother was raised differently, she was often told by her father just how much she was loved by her mother. He never spoke badly of his wife instead he held her up to his daughter as an example of a righteous woman. Throughout my mother’s childhood my grandmother never lived more than a few blocks away and saw my mother everyday and was free to come and go with her daughter as she pleased. The world La Negra introduced her daughter to was amazing and remained a life long influence.
There were many dark moments during La Negra’s life before being reunited with her daughter. During these moments La Negra was lifted and held to the light by her adopted family within the gay community. They were the ones who gave her the courage to fight to go on and live. La Negra would go on to finish college and through that become active in politics, gay issues and the feminist movement. She was involved with The Young Lords a group of Boriqua college student so instrumental in bringing about positive changes and rights for the Boriqua community in this country. She was involved in the anti-war movement feeling it personally after having lost her beloved older brother in Vietnam. She was not an arm chair liberal, she just didn’t talk about society’s ills she went out there and tried to solve them.
When AIDS was still new and labeled as God’s retribution for the “sins” of homosexuals by the ignorant, when people weren’t even sure how it was spread La Negra was out there tending to those dying from the disease. While nurses were wearing gloves and masks to deal with these patients. La Negra would walk into the room unprotected and hold these people in her arms. She’d caress them and kiss them and for many it would be the first time since showing the symptoms of the disease that they had been physically touched by a human that was not a doctor. She never allowed anyone to die alone, unattended to. She’d sit for hours, days holding their hands talking to them until they left this world.
When the homeless problem began growing in New York long before the politicians recognized or did something about it she was out there doing something about it. She was trying to keep them fed in a time when they weren’t many soup kitchens available. She’d get restaurants in the community to donate food to the local soup kitchen. On Sundays when the soup kitchen was closed she’d spend the day cooking enough food literally for an army. She’d pack the food into containers load them up into her car and go into the park to where she knew the homeless slept delivering food to them. If she saw a homeless person on the street with out a warm coat she’d literally take the coat off her back and give it to them. My mother has often said that her mother never made it through the winter without having to replace her coat and boots several times because she always was giving her stuff away. Sadly my grandmother passed away at the too young age of 37. There was still so much she wanted to do. I can only imagine the changes she would have made in this world. In reading this over I realize there is no way I can do justice to her memory in this one post. She was simply amazing, she was kicked and beaten down in life only to get up and make it a better place for the disenfranchised.
As with tragic event in my family there is always an element of comedy involved. La Negra often joked that that day she died she didn’t want anyone to go to any trouble. She’d say “just put me in a hefty bag and when the sanitation truck rolls by just throw me in. Make sure someone’s playing some music and dance for me cause I’m going to be watching I want no tears just music and dancing.” On the day of her funeral it started snowing as her casket was carried out of the church. Once everyone was situated in their cars and ready to go the hearse wouldn’t start up. Someone joked La Negra doesn’t want to go! As they waited for a replacement hearse to arrive a sanitation truck rolled up in front of the hearse. There was a huge traffic jam so it was just stuck there waiting for the traffic to clear up. Just then one of the cars stuck in the traffic jam started blasting one of La Negra’s favorite songs from legendary salsa singer Hector Lavoe, a friend of La Negra’s.
The moment was not lost on my parents and La Negra’s friends sitting in the limo. Their eyes darted back and forth between the hearse, the garbage truck and the car that was blasting the music. One by one they all started chucking La Negra’s partner of 20 years looked up and said, “We get it Negra we get it” and got out of the limo pulling my parents out with her and they just started dancing in the street. In a matter of seconds all of her friends seemed to get it. The sidewalk in front of the front of Holy Name Church on 96th and Amsterdam was filled with dancing Boriquas. La Negra’s sisters sat in their cars stupefied. They thought everyone had lost their minds. My mother who had spoken sparingly to her mother’s family through out the entire funeral approached her aunt’s car holding out her hand in peace, “Auntie come dance with me. It’s what my mother would have wanted. She forgave you and now it is my turn to forgive you” her aunt didn’t get out to dance, she never did have any rhythm but she did smile. As soon as the song stopped and the traffic jam cleared up the hearse started up and everyone ran back to their cars trading stories about La Negra.
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