The Revolving Door Chapter 2: Growing up
in Two Worlds
by Manuel Hernández
In 1974, the year of the Watergate scandal, my parents moved
back to their homeland, Puerto Rico. Mrs. McGrath had frequently
mentioned a homeland, but I never thought I had one. I thought
Tarrytown was my homeland. It didn’t make sense. My Puerto
Rico was all in telephone calls, home movies and pictures.
It was a fantasy island that was about to become concrete.
The more my parents spoke about The Island, the more I hated
leaving my birthplace and friends behind. I felt as if Tarrytown
and me were one. The sole thought of living elsewhere made
me feel unhappy and angry.
The people at church gave us a nice farewell party. There
was a lot of food and laughter, but I was sad and angry about
my parent’s decision. My life at Tarrytown was coming to an
abrupt end, and I felt confused and weary. I said goodbye
to Freddie, Luisito, Juanito, David and Nephtali. Karen didn’t
even seem to care when Mrs. McGrath, my homeroom teacher,
announced that Manuel was moving to Puerto Rico. There were
no farewell parties at school. I walked through the Winfield
L. Morse School hallways for the last time. I felt like a
I had been to Puerto Rico several times on vacation, but this
was a permanent move. I knew my mother wasn’t happy, but my
father stressed a marriage meant personal sacrifices from
time to time. I confronted my mother a few days before we
took off to Puerto Rico.
“Ma, do we have to move?” my mother took a few seconds to
answer the question.
“Well, tu papa thinks it’s the best thing for us.”
“I don’t want to go to Puerto Rico.”
“Who are you going to stay with?”
“I can stay with Titi.”
“Titi lives in the city.”
“Come on, mami, I wanna stay.”
“Your father will not allow it!”
Having just finished her statement, she stood up and ran and
locked herself up in the bedroom. My mother had had a fourth
child, Cindy, and she had constant mood swings. My father
and Elbita went to the so-called “Island of Enchantment” first.
We waited a month until my father found a job and an apartment.
It was a cold gray autumn afternoon when our next-door neighbors
and babysitters, Ariel and Jenny drove us to the airport.
The leaves fell off the trees faster than usual. I reluctantly
got on the car. My heart sank to my feet when we drove along
the Tappan Zee Bridge. I looked back and observed my father’s
ex-working place, General Motors. He quit after fifteen years.
He sometimes worked three shifts, and his health had deteriorated.
He had asthma and his doctor had recommended a warmer climate.
It was just the right excuse, in my opinion. I was quiet and
thoughtful. My mother was pretty much to herself. My sisters,
Lilly and Cindy made my mother’s life miserable along the
The plane ride to Puerto Rico was rough and bumpy. My baby
sister cried all through the flight. My mother complained
about the blazing heat on the plane. I observed her pain in
silence. Right before the captain announced the landing, Cindy
vomited on my mother’s brand new dress. I looked the other
way. Mother almost lost control of herself.
Home. I was going home. Home to the sugar cane and banana
fruit. Home to the tall skyscraper trees and the mirror blue
green sea. These were the images that I had from recent photographs
sent back with my father and Elbita eating a long piece of
wood called sugar cane. There were other pictures of my father
and sister on the beach. They had these huge smiles. It looked
like they were happy.
I remember getting off the plane in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico.
It was a hot, humid and sticky afternoon. The sun penetrated
like fire on my skin. Temperature was ninety-eight degrees
and climbing. I tried cheering my self up by thinking I was
going home, but I was sad, depressed and uncertain of what
the future had in store for me.
We moved into a second-story wood apartment in a barrio of
Luquillo, a small beach town fifteen miles from the capital
of Puerto Rico, San Juan. I finally had my own room, but it
was full of mosquitoes, flies and bugs. We had to use mosquitoe
nets on top of our beds so that the flies would not attack
us during the night. You could hear the zooming, zooming sound
of the mosquitoes trying to land on our flesh. The nights
in Puerto Rico were stormy, and it rained every day. One calm
summer night my father beat the daylights out of me because
I drunk my sister’s milk. This was not home.
Our landlord enjoyed turning the water off every afternoon.
While our neighbors had water, we didn’t have enough for a
shower. National Car Rental at the airport hired my father
as a mechanic. The money was not enough to support us, so
he took a part-time job during the evenings and another part-time
job as a mechanic during the weekends. My mother complained
that the money coming in was not enough and applied for food
stamps. Things were so tough that I had to sell my trumpet
so that my sisters and I could wear clothes to school. I spent
the summer of 1975 working in construction, and I used the
money earned to buy clothes for the up-coming school year.
My father ended up working harder than he had ever worked
in his life.
My mother registered me in the local public school. It was
a five room building in a rural barrio called Juan Martin.
There was no gym. Students had to wear uniforms, and teachers
were allowed to use corporal punishment. Even the name of
the school sounded weird to me, Carolina G. De Veve. My first
day in school, and I was called “gringo”. Others called me
“nuyorican”. I felt like a stranger in my parent’s homeland.
I thought of my Tarrytown friend. She had called me a Puerto
Rican a month before. Who was I? What was I? Where was I?
My confusion grew worst with the further development of puberty.
I was five feet eight inches tall and twelve years old, and
my body was developing fast. My father was too busy working,
so I learned about the facts of life through my newfound boricua
friends. They helped me open my eyes to the world. We enjoyed
swimming naked in the rivers of the barrio.
Mother wanted me to speak good Spanish. She said that I had
a nuyorican accent. My homeroom teacher, Mrs. Tapia, told
me that she would test my abilities to read in Spanish. If
I failed, she would place me in a lower grade. The evaluation
was done exclusively on a reading of a paragraph in Spanish.
Thanks to my education at home and church, my Spanish was
even better than those who had been in Puerto Rico all their
lives, and I was allowed to stay in the sixth grade. I still
don’t understand how, but I adjusted rapidly and made friends
fast. For wanting to compete and get good grades, I was nicknamed
“soberbia”. For speaking English, I was ridiculed and made
fun of, so I decided to hide my English. Although I spoke
Spanish well, my Spanish teacher stressed that I had an American
accent and classmates laughed out loud, so I decided to keep
quiet. In spite of all that, I graduated with honors in my
sixth grade graduation.
I entered junior high school feeling like a hero. My hormones
were running wild. I was twelve, but I was almost five feet
nine inches tall. The girls in high school showed interest
in me. All of a sudden, I felt unique and special. Seventh
grade was my worst academic year ever, and I almost stayed
back. My temper grew side by side with my body, and I became
a bully. I fought constantly, and teachers took me to the
office every day. I barely passed the seventh grade.
My parents moved from Luquillo to Rio Grande, a town just
a few miles from Luquillo. My father worked for the Agricultural
Department as a diesel mechanic. The Agricultural Department
gave him a house and a pick-up truck to take home. Elbita
and I were adolescents. Lilly and Cindy were running around
the house, and my mother made an effort to keep us well fed
and in good health.
My mother went back to school to finish her high school and
graduated in 1978. She was accepted as a part-time student
at Puerto Rico Junior College in San Juan. I admired her efforts.
She was part of a unique academic program where students took
classes at home through their television sets. When she sat
down in front of the television with a notebook, books and
a pen, I often made fun of her. Every three weeks, I accompanied
her to San Juan to take her unit exams at the home campus
in San Juan.
We nicknamed the house in Rio Grande, “La Colina”, because
it was way up in the hill and stood all by itself in a two-acre
property. It was a lonely house, and I spent endless hours
yearning for New York. I remember watching the 1979 NCAA championship
between Indiana and Michigan State from “La Colina”. I used
to drive my father crazy by singing “Bye Bye, Miss American
Pie” every night. I never went to sleep before listening to
the Star Spangled Banner and “La Borinqueña”, the Puerto Rican
national anthem on television. I lived in Puerto Rico but
dreamed constantly of going back to New York City.
My father was laid off in 1979. I immediately felt the change
of attitude at home. I was the oldest and was very observant
of my father’s behavior. There were no more long conversations
between my parents. My mother was taking extreme measures
with the cooking. She’d open a can of Spam and would cut it
in the middle. Then she would cut the half in hundreds of
pieces. I started feeling out of place. I had three sisters,
and I had to do something about the situation at home.
In the meantime, a new school turned me into a shy person.
It was difficult for me to take new friends. There was a new
system in school called “quinmestres” where students were
allowed to take as many credits as possible and pass to another
grade ahead of time. I saw it as an opportunity to get ahead
in school and have more vacation time. Plus, there was also
the possibility of going back to New York and help my parents
out. I completed my junior high school credits in March of
1978, two months ahead of time. I secretly wrote a letter
to Aunt Isabel in New York, and she sent me a one-way airline
ticket. When I sat down with my father to explain what I had
done, he looked down at the floor and said nothing. My mother
later told me that he had given me permission to go.
When the day arrived for me to go to New York, my mother locked
herself up in her room. I said goodbye but only heard her
sobbing. It was a black stormy day when my father took me
to the airport in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. He was dead silent
during the thirty-minute drive to the airport. I had mixed
emotions. I wanted to go back to New York, but it was the
first time I was moving out of my home. But I swallowed hard
and kept quiet. Finally, after four years, I was going back
to New York. When my father hugged me before I entered the
plane, my heart was shattered and torn to pieces, but I held
back the tears.