Papi’s Acceptance

This last year I avidly took strides to stop internalizing the microaggressions I have experienced throughout my life. I can’t control what others say and do, but I can control how I react. Instead of letting the words hurt me, I let them fuel me. By the end of my freshman year, I developed a profound passion and pride for my culture that even when I lived in Puerto Rico, I did not feel. 

I realized the beauty to be found in culture the summer before my freshman year began when I started the six week preparatory program for HEOP. I was surrounded by people who took pride in where they came from and they made sure everyone knew. They proudly blasted their music and wore their flags. They ate their food and talked in their languages and they didn’t care what others thought. It was beautiful; they were a melting pot. That was when my mindset began to evolve. I did not actually want to be like my peers in high school. My culture made me different, yes, but it also made me unique. We all came from varying backgrounds in HEOP, but we complemented each other. 

I took the next step of accepting my culture again when the academic year began. I decided to take Spanish classes to relearn my language. I placed into the third level and I took the class seriously. I went to office hours and started writing some of my daily journal entries in Spanish as well, despite the numerous grammatical errors. While my mother and I were still speaking, I began calling her each day to practice speaking in Spanish. I also started practicing with the workers in the dining halls since many are Hispanic or Latinx. With all the practice, the errors lessened. The workers treated me as equals. I felt like I was making my dad proud. 

My friends also began speaking to me in Spanish, but I felt most prideful when I could speak to their parents. The most crucial part of reclaiming my cultural identity was relearning my language. After that, everything else followed smoothly. I started dancing bachata and salsa with my friends at parties. Vivid memories of my father spinning me across the room while we danced to Aguanile always flashed through my mind. I also started watching Keysha cook classic Puerto Rican dishes so that I could do the same in the fall when I move into a residence hall with a kitchen. No one will ever match up to my father’s cooking, but she got pretty close.

The Puerto Rican Day Parade was a pivotal moment for me during this process. My beautiful younger cousin Dareylis accompanied me. I wore a strapless black dress with tropical red flowers on it. My hair was in two braids under a red bandana with my baby hairs smoothed down and I wore bright red lipstick. My skin was tan and for once, I loved it. I felt at home in my own body. The people near us during the parade spoke to us in Spanish. Marc Anthony blasted through the speakers and I sang along to every word. Every so often, someone with a microphone passing by on a float would yell yo soy boricua and we would shout back ‘pa que tú lo sepa! It didn’t matter what anyone said anymore after that day because the feeling I had during that moment is one that will never escape me again: pride.

The most crucial change facilitated by this process was that I no longer kept my voice low in public when I spoke in Spanish like I used to when I was younger. A lady had quieted me for many years when she yelled at my father and I to go back to where we came from in our local supermarket. I didn’t realize that that was a thing that people actually say. What she failed to realize though is that this, America, is where I come from. I was born here, I have just as much of a right to live and prosper here as anyone else. At the end of the day, we have no right to this land; it was stolen. We were nearly all immigrants at one point, whether it was us or our parents or our ancestors. You could tell us all to go back to where we came from but then the same people yelling those slurs would be gone too. While it’s no ones job to be a historian and explain their culture and history to others, I believe we must attempt to combat ignorance with knowledge. That woman was clearly unhappy and unfulfilled in her own life, but I can’t help but wonder how that interaction might have gone differently if we responded with love and intelligence instead of anger and ignorance.

 

~~~~~~

 

Father’s Day is always a difficult day for me. Especially before, because I had already felt so disconnected from my father and our culture. I sometimes wondered if he had ever even existed or if my vivid imagination dreamt him up. That’s the thing about dreams though, you always wake up.

Without me even needing to ask, Keysha offered to drive all the way to Newburgh to pick up my little brother so we could be together for that weekend like we had always been. His hardened shell to the world only cracks for me, my sister, and my mother, but Keysha has love to share for everyone even when they don’t outwardly reciprocate. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t seen him either for many years, she wanted to help him as much as she had helped me. We all went to Six Flags together on the first day of the weekend to keep our minds off of the solemn significance of the day. My brother began to feel sick so I stayed off the rides with him and we played the smaller carnival games. At the end of the day, Keysha, my brother, Dareylis and her boyfriend, and I all crammed into a hot photobooth. We did not fit, but we pushed in anyway. We made silly faces as we sweat in the cramped box and carnival music drifted in through the curtains. I carry that photo booth picture in my wallet with me everywhere I go.

The next day we went to Yonkers and visited the cemetery that both my father and his mother are buried in. Rain drizzled down as I walked up first and placed my hand on my father’s headstone. I kneeled into the muddy ground. ROCKY F ORTIZ. BELOVED FATHER, SON, BROTHER, AND FRIEND. DEC 14, 1966 – MAY 4, 2014. It’s funny, I never really thought of him as others saw him. SON, BROTHER, AND FRIEND. In my eyes, he was always just my dad. He was mine. I wondered if he viewed me the same. The sound of soft whimpering pierced my ears. It had been there the entire time, but it were as if my television had been on mute for years and I finally turned up the volume. I could finally hear them. I could finally see them. Each of us were crying, but it was a mutual mourning— a comforting mourning. I’m not a religious person and I don’t know what I really believe in, but I always pray when I visit. I always speak to him. 

Te amo papi. I’m sorry that we weren’t on good terms when you died. I hope you’ve forgiven me. I have forgiven you. I am trying desperately to keep your memory alive. Every day I think about how proud you would be of me if you were here today. But a part of me believes that you already are right now. That you see me prospering and are telling everyone up there about it. Roberto Clemente and Uncle Freddie and Abuela. I don’t know what up there is. I don’t know if I believe it actually exists. But I believe you hear me and that’s what matters. I am doing my best, for you, for Shoopy. I want to continue to make you proud, I just need you to continue giving me the strength. Your motto was “never give up.” And up until your last breath, you never did. I intend to do the same. Te amo.

I kiss the headstone, then walk back to the car.

The air around us was somber as we returned to Keysha’s house. We walked in one by one. I pulled up my laptop and we all squeezed onto the couch. I have home videos saved on it of us back in Puerto Rico with my dad. They had originally been tapes that I had converted to DVDs, downloaded to my mom’s computer that had a dvd player, and then emailed to myself so I could download them onto my Mac.

 

 

My dad is the recorder. He records the house he helped build from the ground up on his father’s land. He records me and Dareylis dancing around in an attempt to get his attention. A chicken runs around our ankles. He records Keysha standing in the garage while her step-dad cleans our car. He records my baby brother running around in a diaper. At one point, my adorable sister takes the camera. Me, Dareylis, and Keysha stand with my father. We hug his tall legs and smile, as if a picture is being taken. I take a mental one. The years of feeling rejected and rejecting my culture dissipate. None of them matter anymore. Because in this moment, I am transported to Puerto Rico. I am hugging my father’s legs with my tiny arms and a cheesy grin is plastered on my face despite my two front teeth simultaneously missing. I am surrounded by my family. I am surrounded by love. All of the slurs, the invalidating comments, the fetishizing, the whitewashing, become nothing more than dreamlike memories that can’t hurt me anymore. They float away. My dad accepts me. Keysha accepts me. I accept myself.


By Jaelynn Grace Ortiz

Jaelynn is a rising sophomore at NYU majoring in Journalism and Social and Cultural Analysis with a focus in Latino studies and is minoring in Creative Writing. The list of her hobbies is almost as drawn out as her majors are. She writes poetry, essays and stories, she dances, mentors high schoolers in the Bronx and often plans environmental events in NYU Residence Halls. She has a poem published in the introspective study Inside My World by the Live Poets Society. Despite vehemently condemning social media, she ironically has instagram which you could follow her on. 

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