BY JASMIN AGOSTO
Photos of Abuela Gue Gui, Abuela Pin Pin, Titi Elizabeth, and Abuelo Eat sit on the altar in my living room. I offer them ocean water, seashells, healing oils, light sage, palo santo, and candles. I talk to them, and ask them questions, and when I think of them, I hear their laughter, lullabies, and stories. I’ve written poems and practiced libations in their names. I feel them in my body and wonder about all their secrets, those which were never said aloud, only written in diaries or thought in prayer or stored in the shadow places of their memories. I wonder about all that they held on to, just as my parents and aunt hold on still. I wonder about all they have stored away for so long just to survive.
The things that are unsaid. My mom, dad, brother, grandmothers, aunts, uncle, cousins, and I would gather en la sala. In the kitchen, I watched my mother crush garlic in the pilón and cut up pork and season it. When I was at an older age, she not only ran the kitchen, but also found time to sit with me at the corner table. It was the intimate places in our homes where stories of pain and horror and disappointment were made into stand-up comedy. A way to share without crying. My mother never wanted me to cry, especially in public. And when she asked me why I was crying or told me not to, I always cried harder. It took me so long to understand that she didn’t want me to cry because she never had the space to. Because she didn’t want her mother to experience more pain (or guilt) than she already had.
I can’t help but feel it all. I have always felt the weight of what I did not know. I have always sought any bit of information that helps me understand who my family members were and how they evolved from Puerto Rico to Brooklyn to Boston to Hartford. Especially those early memories and how they shaped my parents and shaped me without my consciousness of them. Piecing together, weaving together scraps of the fabrics of their lives like how my grandmother made my father and his sisters handmade clothes.
My grandmother Gue Gui was such a soothing spirit to be around. I always felt safe with her. I felt a light, sleepy feeling in my eyes watching her sew. When I was older I remember her putting my head on her shoulder as she told me stories of her climbing up trees on her two mile walk to school in Carolina, Puerto Rico. She once left her shoes on the tree roots and went barefoot for a year. My father and aunt talk about how stabilizing she was growing up. They spent every night of the week plus Sunday church time with her, and that kept them away from trouble. But my mother and aunt also talk about how she was a bochinchera, judging those that perhaps presented less holier than her. It was why she didn’t always approve of my wardrobe or hair as a teenager. Perhaps it was her way of keeping control when her husband’s drinking habits left things on shaky ground.
My grandmother Pin Pin was very much a mystery growing up. She was quiet and said very little to me. But when she lived with us for a brief period of time, I would climb into bed with her when I had a nightmare and her warmth would comfort me. I would learn later from my mom that Pin Pin was raped by her uncle at the age of four. After living with this reality in silence, she was considered crazy by the age of fourteen, and the doctors in Puerto Rico conducted electric shock treatment on her. She was set up for a life in and out of mental institutions with her body and mind used as a lab for experimental drugs and treatments. After the man that impregnated her asked her to get an abortion, and her family agreed with him, she chose to give birth to my mother, her only child. It was the one choice she could own in a life that was out of her control.
As a child, my aunt Elizabeth was one of my favorite people. She was vibrant with a laughter that erupted like an earthquake of joy. She would come down to my level and let me play with her in ways other adults wouldn’t. And she was smaller than most adults I knew. She was born with severe scoliosis, her head burrowed in her neck, and one of her arms was tiny and nonfunctioning. Doctors said she might die at the age of two, yet she survived not only through childhood but to earn her master’s degree. She died at the age of thirty-five after she chose to go on a cruise through the Caribbean, where she had to take a smaller breathing tank than what she was used to. My mother had warned her that this could cause issues, but my aunt insisted on taking the risk. She ended up passing from a brain hemorrhage while she was in Puerto Rico, which I would learn later from diary entries, was a place of peace for her.
The one who seems the faintest to me is my grandfather. I remember the smell of his hands, a deep tobacco and liquor, and his pruny toes with deteriorating nails. Much of what I learned about him came from pieces of stories from my dad, grandmother, and aunt Naomi, and from passages in my aunt Elizabeth’s diary. I know he was born en el campo in Puerto Rico. I know that he worked sugarcane and met my grandmother there. He fled to New York City after he was beaten almost to death by brothers seeking to avenge a murder he didn’t commit. I know he lived in a men’s shelter for some time and then managed to get jobs as a busboy in the city. Then my grandmother came up to meet him and they had three children. Everyone talks about his alcoholism like it was a joke. They talk about it like he was embarrassing, and that’s why he didn’t come to church with them often. His passing was connected to his smoking and drinking habits.
The dreams I’ve had of my family members in the days before or after their deaths are sometimes scary and always intense. One of my favorite dreams was seeing my aunt Elizabeth on my parent’s back porch, close to the end of my master’s program. She was tall and straight-backed. She wore a graduation gown. All I could do was cry in her presence as she asked me, “What are you afraid of? There is nothing to be afraid of.”
I still wonder about their secrets. I wonder about what they held on to and never released. And how those secrets ended up in my body; why I fight so hard to find healing in ways they never could; why ownership and control of my own life is so important to me. I can’t help but believe that my life journey is the seeking of freedom for all of us.
Jasmin Agosto is the education and community outreach manager for the Hartford History Center. She founded SageSeeker Productions to collaborate with visual and performing artists to produce public experiences that inspire joy and curiosity with the community.