After my last essay about Mami my sister called.
“Your last essay,” Joann started.
“Did you like it?” I hurried to ask. Up until this essay challenge I did not share my writing with my sister or any members of my family. I feared my loved ones would think my sentences silly, my metaphors dramatic, my similes forced. My writing was my mirror. I worried my family would turn their gaze at my reflection.
“I did,” she paused, “it helped… I feel like I get Mami now.”
“These essays help me understand myself… I need to tell these stories.”
My sister exhaled a deep sigh. The kind that comes from somewhere deep inside and stored for long.
“I have to tell these stories for us. All the women in our family.” I said. It’s been gradual, but I have begun to realize how much writing can heal and connect.
But in order to tell the full story. I must write about all the characters that shaped me. And this Papi essay began to bud soon after I hit the publish button on last week’s post. My sister’s call confirmed it. And several small incidents throughout the week served as gentle reminders to write this essay. I forced my fingers to hurry and type before I lost my nerve. But memory slowed me down. It does not work on demand like fingers across computer keys. Memory must be wheedled out.
As I wait for the memories to come, I narrate the story that is Papi. But in order to tell the story of Papi I must start with Mami.
Mami, though complicated and with many faults was and is a steadfast in my life. She was the sun. I’d often have to look down or raise my arm to block the glare. At times her fierce boldness blinded me, and I was forced to hide in the dark. Mami raised my sister and I as if life was one perpetual battle. Life, gave Mami no other options, but to focus her gaze, and hunch her shoulders and swing. And in the shadow of her rage, I grew my own rage. Rage was the weight I would bench press to grow strong. But there wasn’t only Mami. There was Papi too. And in the shadow of his absence, part of me grew small and weak. The desire to be noticed was sparked and never rendered. Notice me, became the weight I let drop at my feet, as I glanced for men to take note, and come stand by my side.
Growing up I was surrounded by women. And longed for male presence.
It was during my junior year of high school that I developed my first crush on a much older man. He was in his late fifties or early sixties, nothing striking about him. His eyes on me, well that was attractive enough. He was my humanities teacher, who arranged trips to the MET and to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. And always nodded his head with such serious regard when I answered in class. There was my poetry teacher at Hunter College. He wore corduroy blazers with elbow patches and carried a beat up briefcase. I took his Faulkner class the next semester. I was thrilled when he called me by my name the first day of class.
No consistent pattern to my crushes. Some teachers, but some not. The only requirement was older, and that they paid me attention. My first job ever was a receptionist at a Catholic Church, and I grew smitten with the Irish priest that spoke perfect Spanish, and loved baseball only second to God. He took an interest in my writing and encouraged me to journal in between answering the phone. I was quick to develop another crush at my second job, as an administrative assistant in a technology company in lower Manhattan. An entire slew of technician paraded in and out of the office dressed in coveralls and utility belts. The oldest technician soon became my favorite. He was near retirement and was often kept in the office to perform light service calls. He treated me to lunch and would comment on the latest book on my desk. I kept all these crushes to myself aware that something deeper propelled them.
No surprise, my therapist was an older male with kind blue eyes that settled on my face with wide concern. And as he sat and listened to my streams of consciousness every Friday for four years I felt noticed. Once I began to teach fifth grade I was content to sit in between the two male teachers that made up the rest of the grade. During lunch we would take turns and listen to Cold Play, The Cure, Pearl Jam, there was Bob Dylan of course, and I’d insist on Biggie. I wondered if this was what the warmth of male family felt like.
My husband fell in love with my laugh first. Under the palmeras of Colombia late into the night I’d sit in a mesedor and throw my head back and laugh. He said he could hear my cackle pierce into his room, only a few houses down. “I just wanted to make you laugh even harder,” he told me after we began to date.
“And I just wanted someone to hear me laugh,” I responded.
Though the universe conspired to make up for Papi’s lack of presence with these men. It was not enough. They say a father teaches their daughters how to be treated when they are women. And this was no different for me. It’s simple. I’ve spent most of my existence in search to be seen. So many parts of me have acquiesced to this, despite that I know better. Yet I succumb to all the clichés that label me with daddy issues. There was the row of A’s in college that I waved like a banner at a parade. I dote on and nurture the men in my life, aware that men like to be taken care of, but in turn unaware that I needed that reflected back by my own self. There is my love for: eyeliner, tight pants in which I swish my hips side to side, and fitted tops that show off cleavage. There is my dance moves. I swear rival a fly girl. I close my eyes and channel Iris Chacon as I grind on the dance floor. She was seen by so many men in the 1980’s. I wanted to be wanted. And part of me still does…
This is me. This is Connie. Connie who was unfathered. Those four words I have never written before. And most of my life I’ve ignored it, denied it, excused it, resented it, and become enraged by it. And for the first time this past week I wanted to explore it. I think the need to knead out my emotions into words evolved from that push to get past the layers and go deeper despite the fear in my heart.
While Mami is my muse, Papi is often segregated to a minor character. And sometimes I delete him from my writing altogether, in an attempt to exact my revenge. Erase him from the pages in an attempt to make him unnoticeable. But in my erasure of Papi, I’ve erased my truth. My father did not notice me growing up. I’ve spent most of my life living in the overcast, which that shadow created it. And they are so many reasons why Papi never grew into being a father or husband or a man of the house. But I think at the root for all those reasons is one: el machismo.
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines machismo as: a strong sense of masculine pride. It’s further defined as an exaggerated or exhilarating sense of power or strength. The sentences they provide to help support meaning are about athletic ability and a confidence that exudes take charge attitude in terms of business dealing. The origin of the word machismo comes from macho, Spanish. They also provide a list of synonyms: virility, macho, manhood, manliness, and masculinity. I find the definitions as well as the sentences given insufficient, and lacking. One thing that I know for certain is that everything is layered. And when you think that you have peeled back the final layer you are wrong. There is always something new to uncover.
So, I have new definition for machismo one I created based on what I’ve unearthed. Machismo: do not show any sign of weakness no matter the cost. Note: not just exclusive to Latin men, but males of different race included.
I wish I arrived at this definition long ago. But I was so attached to the heartache Papi created, unable to let go of the narrative, I didn’t consider anything else. That perhaps Papi had a story himself.
If Mami gave me the love of storytelling, then Papi was the inspiration to write it down. Papi was a sportswriter for El Diaro de La Prensa for over twenty years. And before that he wrote for Noticas Del Mundo for a short time. He was a freelance writer before and after his work on both newspapers. Papi spoke community sports on WADO. He’d often record from the home landline. He punched his fist in the air if Joann and I giggled or raised the volume on the television. There would be feedback on his recording, and only his voice was to be heard. The sound of two girls in the background would interfere with the segment. But would also serve as a reminder that he was a father. A fact he dismissed over and over.
Papi by nature was not a nurturer, and when he was home he sat at the kitchen table. His typewriter in front of him, as stacks of newspapers created a fence around him. He kept us apart.
The differences between my parents would make people gawk. It made for a lot of confusion in my mind. I often felt tangled by their contrast. Papi was and is the opposite of Mami. If she smothered, well then he detached. And while she was from a rural part of Colombia, Papi was from the city of Barranquilla. Mami had two left feet when she danced and hid in the kitchen during parties. Papi danced with his soul worn on the outside, and people always crowded to see his moves. And what Mami lacked in education, well he made up with an extensive vocabulary, a great recall of facts, and natural conversational skills.
And they are other great details about Papi. Papi studied in a seminarian in his twenties and hoped to be a priest one day. However, he dropped out after a year. He soon discovered socialism and idolized El Che. I’m not sure when exactly, and even if he himself could pinpoint it, but somewhere along Papi began to drink. His drinking defined him early, that much I know. But it took a grip on him from the start, and never managed to let go.
But the part I want to highlight is my father was and is highly sensitive. Sensitive and male, in a time and a culture, which did not celebrate poetry in your soul. Papi did not shy from weeping in front of Mami, Joann, and I. He cried as he watched telenovelas like Carrusel. https://www.youtube.com His face wet as he watched the young children from the soap opera navigate through the dramas of their lives. My childhood is peppered with incidents of Papi soaked in tears. There was the time Michael Landon died. A beautiful tribute was given to him on television. Papi sat in the kitchen and watched, while Joann and I watched in the living room. As I walked into the kitchen I stared at him stunned, pain fixed on his face for a man he did not know. I wondered why my father a man who refused to soldier on the weight of fatherhood wept for an actor best known for his role as a father. Only now as I write this, do I contemplate that my father was not unaware of the fact that he couldn’t and wouldn’t be the father, I needed him to be.
Music moved Papi even more so. He’d tap his foot to the beat of the song as his eyes filled with tears, and he mouthed the words of vallenatos, boleros, cumbias, and salsa lyrics. The first time he saw Carlos Vives perform Alicia Dorada his tears slipped down his face. He said it was a great remake. It was second only to the original by Alejo Duran. https://www.youtube.com
As I listen to the song and type tears slip down my own face. And I don’t excuse my father for his absence, and I do not absolve him. He chose Budweiser, Johnny Black Label and Aguaradiente Cristal over us. That was wrong, and I bare the scars from it. But the truth remains that my father was born too sensitive. Mami’s sensitivity matched his. And maybe that’s why they fell in love so long ago. But while Mami balled her fists and squared her jaw against the world, Papi did not. He hid behind his fanatic obsession over futbol, his constant entourage of friends, his writing, and el ron. In his constant hide and seek game the real definition of machismo bore down on him. In my writing I refer to him as Papi. I have always called my father by his name. He hid so well, my Papi often felt like a stranger. And still does.
But this essay is my attempt to know him better. And with every essay I come out of my own game of hide and seek.