This is a weekly installment of Suzette Andujar’s column series, “As I was saying.”
I don’t remember the first time my family took us to Puerto Rico; all I know was that I was just a little girl. My mom has albums filled with vacation photos of me and my brothers sitting atop cannon balls at Castillo del Morro (the famous fort/castle in Old San Juan), El Yunque (the rainforest waterfall) and loads of beach shots. Another picture shows me sitting on a horse in all of my childhood glee. My mother was born and raised in the mountains of Maunabo and she took us to see the trees she’d climbed as a young girl and smiled with pleasure when we chased chickens and coqui frogs in front of her childhood home. Maunabo is gone now. Completely destroyed by Hurricane Maria.
When I learned about the destruction, naturally, I was shocked. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I looked on the internet and saw the pictures. I asked my mother if she’d heard from her elderly aunts and uncles and there was no word; as of writing this article, there still is no word. On my father’s side, he’s heard from a few family members, and that’s a relief, but there is still devastation and I’m sure if you’re reading this, you already know. It’s still in the news and it will be for years ahead.
For the years behind, I still have memories of going to Puerto Rico every couple of years with my family. As my brothers and I got older, the less frequent the trips became. After elementary school, the next time I would go to was when I was a senior in high school. I was so excited because I remembered chasing chickens and riding on horses. But I had gotten older and I no longer wanted to chase frogs. We teens didn’t want to sleep in the old country house, but instead, the swanky hotel in San Juan. I was ready to try new foods and ate this awesome fried flour and codfish combo called bacalaito. I enjoyed eating yellow rice and pigeon beans (arroz con gandules), boiled bananas stuffed with meats and peas (pasteles) and more made fresh by my great aunts, who had gathered in the kitchen to make a feast.
Enjoying Puerto Rico as someone on the verge of adulthood was different than my time there as a child and I cherished every moment. I loved the afternoons when we’d relax on the beach while a live band played salsa with their güiros and timbales. People were always smiling, dancing and just enjoying life. When my great aunts would come to New Jersey for a visit, they’d bring that peaceful island feel with them and I’d show them the treasures of our state like the local WaWa and the highway circles that somehow still exist. My prayers are with my family and the beautiful island where a little girl once chased a frog without a worry in the world.
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