In This Essay From 'Women Writing Resistance,' Aurora Levins Morales Writes Of The True Makeup Of Puerto Rico

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The essay “Revision” by Aurora Levins Morales is excerpted from Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Jennifer Browdy (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

"Revision" by Aurora Levins Morales

Let's get one thing straight. Puerto Rico was a women’s country. We outnumbered men again and again. Female head of household is not a new thing with us. The men left for Mexico and Venezuela and Peru. They left every which way they could, and they left us behind. We got our own rice and beans. Our own guineo verde and cornmeal. Whatever there was to be cooked, we cooked it. Whoever was born, we birthed and raised them. Whatever was to be washed, we washed it. We washed the ore the men dug from the mountains, rinsed a thousand baskets of crushed rock. We stood knee deep in the rivers, separating gold from sand, and still cooked supper. We washed cotton shirts and silk capes, diapers and menstrual cloths, dress shirts and cleaning rags. We squatted by the river and pounded clothing on rocks. Whatever was grown, we grew it. We planted the food and harvested it. We pushed the cane into the teeth of the trapiche and stripped the tobacco leaf from the stem. We coaxed the berries from the coffee branch and sorted them, washed them, dried them, shelled them, roasted them, ground them, made the coffee, and served it. We were never still, our hands were always busy. Making soap. Making candles. Holding children. Making bedding. Sewing clothing. Our stitches held sleeve to dress and soul to body. We stitched our families through the dead season of the cane, stitched them through lean times of bread and coffee. The seams we made kept us from freezing in the winters of New York and put beans on the table in the years of soup kitchens. Puerto Rican women have always held up four-fifths of the sky. Ours is the work they decided to call unwork. The tasks as necessary as air. Not a single thing they did could have been done without us. Not a treasure taken. Not a crop brought in. Not a town built up around its plaza, not a fortress manned without our cooking, cleaning, sewing, laundering, childbearing. We have always been here, doing what had to be done. As reliable as furniture, as supportive as their favorite sillón. Who thanks his bed? But we are not furniture. We are full of fire, dreams, pain, subversive laughter. How could they not honor us? We were always here, working, eating, sleeping, singing, suffering, giving birth, dying. We were out of their sight, cutting wood, making fire, soaking beans, nursing babies. We were right there beside them digging, hoeing, weeding, picking, cutting, stacking. Twisting wires, packing pifia, shaping pills, filling thermometers with poisonous metal, typing memo after memo. Not one meal was ever eaten without our hand on the pot. Not one office ran for an hour without our ear to the phone, our finger to the keyboard. Not one of those books that ignore us could have been written without our shopping, baking, mending, ironing, typing, making coffee, comforting. Without our caring for the children, minding the store, getting in the crop, making their businesses pay. This is our story, and the truth of our lives will overthrow them.

We were always here, working, eating, sleeping, singing, suffering, giving birth, dying. We were out of their sight, cutting wood, making fire, soaking beans, nursing babies. We were right there beside them digging, hoeing, weeding, picking, cutting, stacking.

Let’s get one thing straight. Puerto Rico was parda, negra, mulata, mestiza. Not a country of Spaniards at all. We outnumbered them, year after year. All of us who are written down: not white. We were everywhere. Not just a few docile servants and the guava-eating ghosts of the dead. The Spanish men left babies right and left. When most of the Indias had given birth to mixed-blood children, when all the lands had been divided, our labor shared out in encomienda, and no more caciques went out to battle them, they said the people were gone. How could we be gone? We were the brown and olive and cream-colored children of our mothers: Arawak, Maya, Lucaya, stolen women from all the shores of the sea. When we cooked, it was the food our mothers had always given us. We still pounded yuca and caught crabs. We still seasoned our stews with aji and wore cotton skirts. When we burned their fields, stole their cattle, set fire to their boats, they said we were someone else. What was wrong with their eyes? We mixed our blood together like sancocho, calald. But the mother things stayed with us.

Puerto Rico was parda, negra, mulata, mestiza. Not a country of Spaniards at all.

Two hundred and fifty years after they said, “Ya no hay Indios,” we had a town of two thousand who still remembered our names, and even our neighbors called the place Indiera. When they wanted more slaves from Africa, they complained that we had all died on them. They called us pardas libres and stopped counting us. Invisibility is not a new thing with us. But we have always been here, working, eating, sleeping, singing, suffering, giving birth, dying. We are not a metaphor. We are not ghosts. We are still here.

Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean edited by Jennifer Browdy, $17.51, Amazon

Let’s get one thing straight. We were everywhere. The Spanish, Dutch, English, French, Genoese, Portuguese took captives up and down our coasts, inland by river, overland on foot. They brought us here through every bay deep enough to hold a slave ship. Legally, through the port of San Juan, all registered in the royal books. And dozens more, unloaded at night, right there in the harbor, sold but not written down. But that was the least of it. We came through Afiasco, Guinica, Arecibo, Salinas, San German. In sloops from Jamaica, St. Christopher, Curacao. We came by the thousands, bound hand and foot, uncounted, unaccounted for, while official eyes looked the other way. And we came as fugitives from the other islands, because the Spanish let the slaves of their rivals live here free. From Saint Croix and Tortola, from Jamaica and the Virgins.

There were many more of us than were written in their registers. Untaxed, unbaptized, hidden in the folds of the mountains, in the untitled lands. There were many more of us than the sugar planters knew or would say, always sobbing to the king about no one to do the work. We were here from the start, and we were here more often. They were always running away to seek better fortunes. We ran away, too. We ran to the swamps and we ran to the cordillera. We ate their cattle and set fire to their cane fields. If they caught us, the judges were instructed to cut off our ears. (Police brutality is not a new thing with us.) Spanish men left babies right and left, cafe con leche children. But in their imaginations, they were all alone in their big white houses, dreaming of Peru or the voyage back to Spain, while on their threshold a new people was forming. How could they not see us, nursing their babies, cooking fiame, frying balls of cornmeal, banana, yuca; stewing up crabs and pork and guingambo. Wrapping cotton rags around our heads. Trowing white flowers into the sea. How could they not hear us, telling each other our stories with the soles of our feet on the clay, with the palms of our hands on tree trunks, on goat-hides. Carrying their loads, laundering for strangers to earn them cash. We have always been here, longer and steadier, working, eating, sleeping, singing, suffering, giving birth, dying. We were not contented. We were not simple souls ready to dance and sing all day with innocent hearts. We were not lazy animals, too dull-witted to understand orders. We were not hot-blooded savages, eager to be raped. We were not impervious to pain. We felt every blow they struck at our hearts. We were not happy to serve. We didn’t love our masters. We were slaves. We were libertas. We were free mulatas. We were poor and hungry and alive. When they needed hands, they brought us. When they needed jobs, they threw us on boats to New York and Hawaii, threw us on food stamps, threw us drugs. But Puerto Rico is African. We made it from our own flesh.

We were not happy to serve. We didn’t love our masters. We were slaves. We were libertas. We were free mulatas. We were poor and hungry and alive.

Let’s get one thing straight. Puerto Rico was a poor folks’ country. There were many more poor than rich throughout its history. More naborias than caciques. More foot soldiers than aristocratic conquistadores. More servants than mistresses. More people wearing cotton and leather than people wearing silk and damask, velvet and cloth of gold. They did wear those things, and they ate off silver plates. But most of us ate off higueras, or wooden trenchers, or common clay. There were more people who ate plitano and cornmeal and casabe every day of the week, with a little salt fish or pork now and then, than those who had beef and turtle and chicken and fresh eggs and milk, with Canarias wine and Andalucian olive oil. Most of us had no money. Many of us were never paid for working. Those of us who owned the fruits of our labor traded it to the merchants for far less than it was worth, and bought on credit, and ended up in debt. We were the ones who cleared the land so it could be planted with sugarcanes from India, and coffee bushes from Ethiopia, and bananas and plantains from Malaysia. We were the ones who grew food. We were the ones who were glad when a store came to the mountains, and then watched our future harvests promised for the sack of beans, the new blade, the bag of rice or corn meal. We were the hands of Pietri and Castafier. We were the hands of Ferré and Muñoz. We washed and ironed the shirts of the politicians. We scrubbed the pots of the governors and their wives.

We sewed those fine christening gowns for their babies and fetched the water for their baths. They said, This governor built a wall, and that one made a road. They said so-and-so founded a town, and this other one produced a newspaper. But the governor did not lift blocks of stone or dig through the thick clay. The capitanes pobladores didn’t labor in childbed to populate their villas, or empty the chamber pots. The great men of letters didn’t carry the bales of paper or scrub ink from piles of shirts and trousers. We have always been here. How could they not see us? We filled their plates and made their beds, washed their clothing and made them rich. We were not mindless, stupid, created for the tasks we were given. We were tired and angry and alive. How could they miss us? We were the horses they rode, we were the wheels of their family pride. We were the springs where they drank, and our lives went down their throats. Our touch was on every single thing they saw. Our voices were around them humming, whispering, singing, telling riddles, making life in the dust and mud. We have always been here, doing what had to be done, working, eating, sleeping, singing, suffering, giving birth, dying. Dying of hunger and parasites, of cholera and tuberculosis. Dying of typhus and anemia and cirrhosis of the liver. Dying of heroin and crack and botched abortions, in childbirth and industrial accidents, and from not enough days off. This is our history. We met necessity every single day of our lives. Look wherever you like, it’s our work you see.

The essay “Revision” by Aurora Levins Morales is excerpted from Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Jennifer Browdy (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.