Note to Reader: This story takes place in a lagoon village near San Juan, Puerto Rico. The village disappeared over sixty-five years ago; but the memories have not.
It is the church where I pray. It offers me solitude.
I am unaware of things outside of me.
It is my nature-land. I can feel the breezes that bring fresh air.
I can sit in contemplation.
It is the path to my redoubt. It leads to my home for protection.
It leads away from my home for protection.
It is my mode of production. It is my work-bench that no one else owns.
It is my mode of idleness.
It is my strength. It was the strength of my father’s father.
It reeks of corruption.
It is the place of yearly battles. See the blood beside the rust.
It has been dismembered and lost.
I am not it and it is not me. I am tied to it. I am tied to its existence.
Yet it has no pains, pleasures or thoughts.
This is my plank.
My name is Hector Ortiz. I live in El Fangito (The Swamp, The Mud hole). If you will please allow me. I will tell my story for you. It will not be the story found in libraries.. It will be the story told from one to another. And then to another. And then to others.
El Fangito has a place. It is beside Isle Verde, Puerto Rico. It is beside San Juan. My father and his father lived here. My father’s father’s father was driven from Spain. He was driven by poverty. He was driven by the church. He named the evil of the church. Its name was “The Mesta.”
The father from Spain was a farmer. The Mesta wasted the earth with sheep. That is what has been told.
I have another father’s father. He belongs to my Mamacita. He was brought here from Yoruba. Mamacita says we have people in Yoruba. She knows nothing of them. We have cousins in El Fangito. We are generous to each other. We need help sometimes. They need help sometimes. Nature provides for us. Sometimes nature hides from us. We help each other. My cousins are generous.
I sit on my plank. My feet dangle over the water. High tide gives my feet a salty kiss. It feels good. The tide visits twice a day. It brings fresh water on its first visit. Fresh water to wash and cook. On the second visit the tide brings us guava, avocado and plantain peels. This is mixed with human waste. It attracts the fish.
I fish from my plank. The fish are bright. They are yellow and orange and red. Some are brown or black. The fish are tasty. Mamacita cooks them in the steel barrel. She is very careful. The same oil has cooked the fish for two years. We once had a pig. The pig oil was saved. My plank is a good fishing spot. My friends fish with me.
I work on my plank. The tide brings coconuts. I catch them. We own a big nail. We drink the coconut agua. The coconut is finally broken. The meat is a feast. We own two knives. My father has one. Mamacita has the other one. I use my father’s. The coconut halves become masks. I bring the faces out with my father’s knife. My father also has a machete and a wooden mallet. I am forbidden to touch them. I color the masks.. Roots and berries give us colors. Mamacita boils them. This scares the color out of the roots and berries.
My father took me to San Juan once. We sold three masks. People come on ships. They buy masks and flowers. Father bought me a sweet drink. He had an awful tasting drink. The place had a grass roof. The place had a radio. We stayed until the sun was not hot. The radio told us about “El Phantasmo del Real..” The men told each other about Quixote. One man was in love with another. His love was named Zoro.
My father and I returned from San Juan. It was a long walk. First on Ponce de Leon. Then on Borenquen. We left the streets for the flat paths. They lead to Laguna San Jose. This is the place of El Fangito.
We first see the rusty steel roofs of the homes. Then the remainder. Walls. Part steel. Part cardboard. Sticks and boards. All held together with wire. Steel wire. Telegraph wire. Electrical wire. But no electricity. As we get close we can see the planks. They lead from the shore to other planks. They divide. This way and that. Silvestro’s house is on the left. Then Fredie’s house. The planks continue like the paths of the birds. They leave footprints in the mud along the laguna. Criss-crossing. There are too many houses to count. I know everyone. Everyone knows me. We shout across all the planks. We shout around the houses.
Freddie’s house is painted with bright colors. Her father paints buildings. Sometime he will paint the other two sides. Then he will give my father some paint.
My father said he may not accept it. He says “there is no use, no future” in El Fangito.
He does not give up. He remembers the last time El Fangito was torn down. The government came with big machines. They had tracks and big blades on the front. They ran over the houses. The poles supporting them gave way. The walls and steel roofs came down into the mud and water. Men with hooked poles tore down the rest. We had no place to live.
It took one day for the fathers to place the support poles back into the mud. On the second day all the planks were back in place. (I found mine. It had rust on it from the steel roof. There was blood on it. Maybe it was from Seniora Flores’ cat.) The poles to hold the walls went up on the third day. On day four the walls and roofs were brought up from the mud and water. On the evening of the fifth day we had the walls wired in place. On the sixth day we were saved from the rain by a roof. On the seventh day my father and his brothers helped other families.
El Fangito was back in place within a week. The governor came by in a fancy car. The police were with him. They had several cars. He told us that the men would be back to crush our houses. Our men shouted from the planks. They did not leave.
This is my plank.
It is the school were I grow. It offers me knowledge.
I am aware of things outside of me.
Children run the planks. They have no clothes
I am no longer a child.
It is where I sit with Freddie. She holds my hand and kisses it.
Mamacita watches from the door-less doorway.
Freddie and I pretend not to see the naked children.
But we wonder about each other.
Freddie’s father watches from his plank. He talks to my father.
Freddie wonders why.
She teaches me to read. She brings me books from her house.
Norte Americanos gave them to her father.
We talk about leaving El Fangito. We talk of running away.
We have no idea or means for this.
This is my perpetual plank.
Freddie and I visited Isle Verde sometimes. That is where the roots and berries come from. People who live there own land. But not all of it. We harvest nature from the brush. We have no land. That is why we live in El Fangito. I often go to Isle Verde. I find things along the shoreline. Boards. Wire. Baskets. Coconuts.
We found a bag floating in the water. It had three books and a small amount of money. We agreed to keep the books. We agreed to split the money. Half would be for each father. There was a celebration. A chicken was purchased for each family and Mamacita agreed to cook them. We all had a nice supper of arroz con pollo that night.
Freddie and I sat on my plank. We saw the stars in a different way. We held each other. We felt life in each other. Only Freddie had life inside her. I had hope inside me.
The Governor returned with his troops and machines. We have lived without trouble for two years. Freddie and the baby live with us now. We share my father’s house. Mamacita and my brothers and sisters live together. It is not crowded. We stay outside most of the time. My father still has no work. We are OK. The Governor gives us one week. The men talk together. They talk to their wives.
The next day the work begins. When the tide is low the steel roofs come down. They lean against the bushes on the shore. The planks are taken down on the next low tide. They are put on the wooden floor boards. The walls come down. They are placed on the floor. On the next low tide the men gather in groups at each others houses. They lift the floor. They remove the stilts that hold the floor above the water. The floor becomes a raft. The stilts are laid carefully on the raft. Then the roof is brought back. It lies on top of the stilts. The raft sinks deeper from the weight. Each family ties ropes to their raft. The raft is pulled toward were the sun rises.
Hundreds of rafts move together. Sometimes one will sink low. It will get stuck in the mud below the water. We all help each other. It becomes unstuck. The rafts move on. Our feet stir up the mud. It has not been stirred for a long time. The smell makes some of us sick. The rafts move on. Someone in the back asks where we are going. The question moves forward with the rafts. Finally the word comes back. We find out that we are going to Laguna los Corozos. No one seems to know where it is. Someone says “Carolina.” We still do not know where we are going.
We reach our destination. It takes four days. The children are tired. Everyone who walked the shore is torn. The bushes and mosquitoes ate them. Those who stayed in the water are white and wrinkled. Some have terrible cuts on their feet. Shelled fish and glass could not be seen. Some have cuts from hidden wire. The wire is saved for later.
This is Carolina. This is Laguna los Corozos. It looks vacant. It looks like were El Fangito was. In seven days Laguna los Corozos becomes El Fangito. There are fresh berries and fruit on the shore. We make new paths through the brush. We eat. We are refreshed. We are alive. Most of us. Some children and old people are gone. Night comes. There are tears in the darkness. My father and I are very tired. We sleep. Mamacita and Freddie cry together. The morning comes too soon. The children run around on the new plank paths.
This is my plank.
It has been saved from the sea. It has been saved as an icon.
I am aware of another world.
Children run on the beach. They sing and play.
I am no longer a child.
We have built a life together. We have eight children.
Mamacita sits in her chair remembering nothing
The men play dominos, guitars and reed pipes..
We have memories without bitterness.
The plank is an icon, a symbol, an allegory of El Fangito.
Freddie wonders why.
She teaches me of Vijigantes. She brings me books of the church.
We celebrate Santiago Apostol.
We visit Loiza Aldea. We never talk of running away.
We have no idea why.
My plank is now my threshold.
We remained in New El Fangito for three years. We were not threatened or disturbed. The fishing was sufficient. The fruits around the shore were healthy. Freddie and the children survived very well. Mamacita and my father remained healthy for the three years. The government returned. This time they had an offer. Move to Loiza Aldea or Rio Piedras. Loiza Aldea was our decision. Mamacita said that many Yorubans lived there. Maybe we could find cousins.
Loiza Aldea was a good choice. Rio Piedras ended up with much crime. Loiza Aldea had no big apartments, only small houses. The people there loved art and music. We all learned new things. We learned of the Vijigantes. We learned two stories of the Vijigantes. The Spanish people told how the Vijigantes tried to conquer Spain. They were driven back. Santiago Apostol appeared to the Spanish Christian warriors. The Vijigantes were then driven out.
The Yoruban people also told of the Vijigantes. The Vijigantes came to Africa and captured Yorubans. They were shipped across the great lagoon. Sometimes the grand warrior Chango would appear. He would drive the Vijigantes away. Both Chango and Santiago Apostol carried big swords or axes. Loiza Aldea made a fiesta. The fiesta of Santiago Apostol. They now make the fiesta every year. Our church of San Patrick also takes part in the fiesta. The church bells ring for a long time.
Costumes are made. Over-clothes of bright colors are worn to inspire thoughts of the Vijigantes. My masks of coconut have become tradition. Others now copy my designs and sell them. I show them my plank. I tell them of how I made coconut masks when a boy. They want to talk about El Fangito. I tell them what I remember. Sometimes I tell them what I do not remember. It makes them happy. So I tell them. They ask me about my mother and father. They are both gone now. It makes me sad and I remain quiet. The visitors leave. Others will come during the fiesta.
This is my plank. It has many memories.
It has no words on it.
My plank has many words in it. It remembers my father.
It can see Mamacita.
Both of us, my plank and I, remember Freddie.
She was so beautiful.
I remember her warmth. I remember her tenderness.
My plank remembers her flashing dark eyes.
My children are in New York and Chicago. I am here.
I remain with my home.
My plank holds me here.
© Copyright – Waldo Tomosky