Being a transplant child “ni de aqui ni de allá” (not from here or there) can be a bit confusing. I left the island, my island, Puerto Rico, as a toddler. All I have are hazy memories of living with my grandparents, reddish cement floors, and a patio that doubled as my own jungle with avocado, mango, and guanabana trees. This house was smack dab in the concrete jungle but somehow, I was always surrounded by trees (mind you short toddler legs make everything seem bigger). This house, and my dad having to chase me at the beach (I didn’t care that I couldn’t swim; I was born to be a mermaid) are some of my most cherished memories and links to my culture.
When I came to live permanently in Texas there were things that I missed more than I should have. As a highly empathetic child, the weight of my family’s longing for the island became my own. Hearing my siblings and my mom reminisce about what it was like “back home”, a home that I have only ever remembered in fragmented pieces, made me ache and long to be there and have a chance to make memories.
However, the only thing that was really mine to miss was the lullaby that started at dusk, and along with my abuela’s patio, it was the only thing I could concretely remember. If you’ve ever been to Puerto Rico then you’ve heard it: the mating song of the male coqui frog enveloping everything. The common coqui – about the size of a dime and usually a brown color – is the emblematic coqui in Puerto Rico, and is the species that lives where my abuela lives. My abuela and madrina (god-mother) both had hammocks in their patios, and I would lay out and listen.
The evenings seemed so quiet when we moved to Texas. Here we have the sounds of crickets and the almighty buzz of cicadas, but it just isn’t the same. I’m not the only transplant that feels this way. Puerto Ricans have had waves of diaspora with movies, books, plays, and songs written about the nostalgia that they feel when they leave the island. One such famous hub where a lot of work on the diaspora can be found is the Nuyorican Poet’s Café in NYC. In the larger sense, it makes one feel less small to know that there are 5.8 million Boricuas in the continental US and almost all of us miss this tiny frog. Well, okay the frog is a metaphor…people miss the rain, the beaches, the smell of abuela making coffee on the stove and knowing that there is pan sobao with butter. I missed all these things through the stories my older brothers and my mom and dad would tell. The coqui’s song was the only constant for me, the thread that made their nostalgia real to me.
This experience of the coqui “lullaby” isn’t the same for everyone. Coquis were introduced to Hawaii in the 1980’s through nursery plants and have become an invasive species there. But the coqui populating abroad is not my intended point – invasive species are not a positive – it’s the coqui’s force on Puerto Rico and what it creates and means for those of us that live “afuera,” outside of Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria (I recommend Mariana’s blog), over 23% of the total tree cover of the island was lost. With this loss, the island was said to be covered in silence. Since the storm, the coquis and other creatures that add to the islands’ symphony have started to come back, but stories of the silence remind me of how disturbing it would be to think of a Puerto Rico without coquis. Such a tiny amphibian with such a far-reaching call.
I’d like to think that I take the saying “mas Boricua que el coqui” (more Puerto Rican than the coqui) to heart, and that in carrying its call– and that of the island – with me, has led me to the path I’m on now.
I’ve written about appreciating nature, learning from it, and studying it. None of that would have been possible if it wasn’t for those hazy memories of my abuela’s patio and listening to the call of the coqui. It’s the smallest memories that can in my case set off a lifelong passion for working to understand the interactions of humans and their environment. Obviously, for me my culture is intimately tied to memories of a place. When I think of the experiences that have dominated my existence, there are so many more than those far off dream-like ones, BUT it is those very ones that have been the most influential. What are some of the memories that you have tied to a place and have swayed over your life choices?