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Professor Manuel Hernández
Essays Collection

Address: : 2012 Ernest St. Kissimmee, Florida 34741

Manuel Hernandez was born in Sleepy Hollow, New York in 1963. He completed undergraduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus and finished a Master�s in Education from Herbert H. Lehman College (CUNY) in the Bronx in 1994. He has coordinated symposiums, produced and coordinated television interviews on the literature written by Puerto Rican and Latino/a writers from the Diaspora. He has done numerous presentations, workshops and seminars on how to integrate latino/a literature in the English classroom. In 2014, he participated in a TedxTalk (Connections) at Southern New Hampshire University. He is the author of three books, , Latino/a Literature in the English Classroom (Editorial Plaza Mayor, 2003), The Birth of a Rican (Imprenta Sifre. 2008) and Living the Kingdom with purpose (Imprenta Sifre, 2013). He is a Language Arts teacher at Osceola School District in Florida.

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 walking corpse.
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 way.
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.