I arrived in Puerto Rico as a 3-year-old Cuban refugee. I have no memories of my first years in Cuba. But the only thing as important to my parents as passing on the Catholic faith was making sure that my brother Ignacio and I grew up knowing what it meant to BE Cuban, so my life was filled with Cuban history classes, learning Cuban traditional dancing, and naturally, regular get-togethers with other Cuban refugees displaced and resettled in Puerto Rico.
Many of my early memories involve visiting the convents and monasteries all over the island where my mother’s friends had been relocated. These hermanitas had not only taught alongside my mom, they had known María de Jesús her entire life—and loved to entertain me with funny and unknown stories about my mom while I feasted on their candy.
My daily life as a small child in the 60s and an emerging teenager in the 70s was immersed and surrounded by all things Catholic in this utterly Hispanic culture. People, places, and things all bore the names of popular local saints or la Virgencita. San Germán. San Juan. Santa Isabel. Escuela Las Marías. Urbanización San Patricio. Repostería San Miguel. Music, traditions, art, was seasoned by religion and religious figures.
Heavily influenced by Spain, we had days off school for holy days I never understood and for saints I never heard of. At sunset on the eve of the feast of San Juan, the city of its name sake shuts down—and everyone heads down to a beach for the ritual of falling backwards in the ocean twelve times, a tradition that is said to cleanse the body from sin and to give good luck for the following year.
I attended my first live concert in the San Juan studio of Telemundo with my cousin Gloria, where we joined the flock of swooning girls to listen and watch heartthrob Raphael–a Spaniard version of icon Tom Jones, twist and shake to the tune, “Tu Cuerpo, mi Refugio y mi Rincón,“ your body, my refuge and my home—followed by his hit ballad, “Le Llaman Jesús,” they call him Jesus. From my live-in grandmother Josefita, I learned by observing that Jones was indecente, but Raphael got a free pass because of his songs articulating the Catholic faith.
[Continued tomorrow: Nuns parte dos]