On the last trip with the Puerto Rican National Team, the topic of family came up. A few girls shared some of their stories about growing up on the island or with parents from San Juan and other cities. My stomach immediately sank when some girls asked me if I knew my family in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, I never knew my father, who served in the U.S. Army, or anyone on his side of the family and he passed away when I was 11. A few years ago, I would have been choked up about telling the story, but now I have a neutral feeling and finally understand why certain things happened the way they did.
Going to school in California all my life until finishing my bachelor degree, I always felt too “brown for the white girls and too white for the brown girls.” My birth certificate, last name and hair proved I was Latina, but I could never speak fluent Spanish or sing the latest Latino hits on the radio. I had a great, memorable childhood and never went without thanks to my mom, grandparents, aunts and uncles; however, I always felt like something was missing. I always gave Father’s Day cards to my grandpa because he was a wonderful father figure in my life. Some things were still awkward, though. Saying the word “Dad” to my father, playing sports with my father in the park, having my father protect me from danger and being daddy’s little girl were all foreign to me. Even reading the word father to this day feels foreign to me and brings up empty memories. I always looked at my friends with father-daughter relationships and saw how they interacted. I feel I turned out great, just the way I needed to be, but a father’s love I guess is something you cannot replace.
When I was around 18, I started growing resentment toward my father and his family for not even trying to contact or visit me for 11 years. I kept asking myself why and thinking of all the possibilities. Was he disappointed in having a girl? Was he annoyed my family lived in California and not somewhere closer to Puerto Rico? Was I not pretty enough? Was he ashamed I did not learn Spanish growing up? Did his own family put pressure on him not to contact me? Why would he not want to at least get to know his only child?
Perhaps the inner discord between my 2 nationalities (USA and Puerto Rico) led me to discover all cultures, countries and cuisine. I can honestly say I felt like I never fit in anywhere, which made me somewhat anonymous in a way. Then, it did not really matter where I went – all that mattered was my individual growth, journey and experience.
Getting back to when my teammates asked about my family, I was no longer hesitant or shy to tell my story. I began with when I found the book.
Several years back, I was helping my mom organize some things in a small storage outside on the balcony. She walked away to get something from inside the apartment and I suddenly heard a loud thump from inside the storage room. There was no wind, no bump from me, no earthquake and no other interference. I was extremely startled at the time because I used to watch ghost movies and instantly thought it was a spirit trying to tell me something. Oddly enough, I think that is truly what happened.
I walked slowly toward the door opening and peek far enough inside to see what fell. Nothing. I slowly opened the creaking door and peeked around some other boxes in the front. Still no sign of anything falling. At this point, I grew some balls and blasted the door wide open “to startle” whatever was in there. Still nothing, except there was a yellow and blue book with some papers piled in it. I thought it was a normal book from my mom – maybe a yearbook or memory book, but I was wrong.
My blood turned cold and my eyes grew big as I turned the book around to the front cover. It was the Army book from my father! Inside was a full-page picture with a hand-written note on the back to me and many letters to and from my family in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. I was shocked. I had remembered some papers my mom had showed me a few years back, but was still unsure. I felt bad keeping it from my mom, but at the time I could not bring myself to tell her. I felt it was something I had to do on my own – search for my family and try to make a genuine connection without any help. Finally, I felt like I could prove why I loved salsa music or why I have certain personality traits. I felt like I would finally have my own ethnicity and not have to feel “too white or too brown.” I thought I was going to find the culture and family I thought I was missing my entire life.
I was lucky I did not get any tickets driving home because I was so excited to start examining every word and symbol in the book. The second I got home I opened up the book and started my plan to find my family. There were names! And addresses! And letters! I organized all the addresses and names and prepared a list. But the more I started organizing, the madder I became. There were names in Miami and I had traveled to Miami with my mother a few years back, but I did not recall seeing any family members then. There was a second address in the San Francisco area, but I did not remember meeting my aunt or uncle or distant cousin my entire life. So, what was really going on?
Despite my immediate cluster of emotions, I prepared around 25 letters to send to various distant relatives and army addresses in the continental U.S. and Puerto Rico. I wrote a heartfelt letter and included army pictures of my father, birth and death certificates, pictures of my father holding me as a baby and marriage certificates. After 1 week, several letters came back. My hopes shrank and bit, but my determination and will was still strong to find more. After 2 weeks, even more letters came back. After 4 weeks, I started to receive a few letters from the U.S. Army – including a full-page picture of my father in his military attire and a validation that a department would look into my case. Was it Eureka? Almost, but nothing was confirmed.
The real eureka came several weeks later when I received a small, handwritten envelope from Puerto Rico. It was the mother of my father! I could not believe what I was seeing and tears started to pour down my cheeks. I ripped it open – almost destroying the address on the front. She started explaining how she was sick and could not write to me sooner and how thankful she was to find her only granddaughter. That day I went to Michael’s and bought 3D stickers, a photo album set and more accessories to begin making a 35-page book to show her and my family in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico my entire life.
We sent a few letters back and forth until I arrived in Puerto Rico for a National Team training camp and games. We were in the Albergue Olímpico Village on the top of a mountain training for our Olympic qualifying games. I remember we were staying in dorm rooms and I walked outside to the end of the pathway overlooking the entire southern Salinas region in Puerto Rico. I telephoned her for the first time and it was a joy for me. I was only 20, I think, at the time and was at training camp, so I asked if she or one of my aunts could drive to meet me 45 minutes away. She said she could not make it. During the next two years when I was in Puerto Rico, I called and wanted to meet again, but nobody wanted to come.
Why did they not want to meet me? Were they ashamed I was not raised in Puerto Rico? Or, that I was not fluent in Spanish? Were there other reasons that I had no idea from? I was frustrated at my family for not telling me the entire truth and explaining who I was. I was mad at relatives in Puerto Rico for not racing in their car to meet me. I was mostly mad at myself (in the moment) for believing in someone that did not believe in me.
After those trips of heartache and not meeting my Puerto Rican relatives, I let everything go and was finally at peace. I was no longer searching for something that maybe did not want to be found. My family provided me with a beautiful childhood and gave me more love than I could handle, which I will forever be grateful for. In my immediate family, I had my mom, grandparents and 8 aunts and uncles. I was shown love, humility, peace, strength, success, gratitude, struggle, perseverance, growth and courage.
Instead of searching for answers, I am glad that I learned on my own what it is to be Puerto Rican, American, Italian, Polish, German and Irish. All cultures are beautiful and the more I travel and discover them, the more I realize how I am a bodacious blend of all of them. My go-getter, American mentality will keep the fire burning inside. My curly locks I will forever love, regardless of how much detangler I need. My passion for good cuisine will keep my stomach full. And my love for beer will keep my friends laughing and smiling.
A couple quotes have gotten me through some tough times. One in particular is “travel far enough until you find yourself.” I say this over and over again to people and it is so applicable to many aspects of life! I traveled to 3 continents, 13 countries and countless cities. The more I don’t fit in, the more I feel at home. The more uncomfortable I am with not knowing a language or my way around the train station, the more I am in my element.
A second quote – “sky above me, earth below me, fire within me” – also helped me in more ways than one. Besides being a fire sign, having passion for everything you set your mind to is something I say all the time. I learned it does not matter what you are, where you come from or what you did. What matters is where you want to go, what kind of person you want to become and what you want to accomplish. I was too hell-bent on finding out the other half that made me me, that I forgot to look around and realize where I was.
Not knowing my Puerto Rican side growing up was the worst thing (I thought), but now figuring out what I relate to in every corner in the world is a gift I would never give up. The only thing you need is peace and love in every footstep you make in life, and then everything will fall into place.