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Childhood in a Puerto Rican Barrio

WHEN people ask me where I was born, I say San Juan, Puerto Rico. But while that's technically true, I always qualify it, and tell them about my spiritual birthplace, in the backwaters of Toa Baja. I grew up in Barrio Mac'un, which lies between Dorado township's high-priced hotels and Bayamon's malls. When I was growing up, the expressway between San Juan and Dorado did not exist. It now cuts right through the middle of what was the midwife's kitchen.

As a child, I spent a lot of time playing alone in the woods behind our house. I believed that all trees, plants, and animals could talk, and that I could understand them.

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My favorite tree was a mango that had never given fruit. It was graceful, tall, with branches that reached out in a wide circle. People said it was a barren ``male'' tree, as it had never even flowered. It stood alone against the tall grass and annato bushes that had overgrown the west end of our land. From the lower branches I saw most of Barrio Mac'un, the dirt road winding its way toward the highway like a red-clay ribbon.

I talked to my tree every day. I rubbed its limbs. I hid among them when my parents were angry, knowing my tree wouldn't give me away.

On my 10th birthday, a single flower appeared on a branch. It became a small nipple of a mango, then grew long, round, and green. Its weight pulled the branch toward the ground. I watched the mango grow, and ripen from green to red, then yellow. I picked it. Straddling a high branch, I sucked the mango through a hole at its narrow end. When all the soft, yellow fruit was gone, I peeled it and sucked at the pit, pulling the fibers out with my teeth to make a golden circle that looked like the sun. I made a hole in the pit, and hung it by a string from one of the high branches.

During the years I lived in Barrio Mac'un we cooked on an open fire in a shed a few yards from the house. We collected rain water in a cement cistern. We kept chickens and pigs for meat. Plantains, bananas, and sweet potatoes grew around the house. So did 11 avocado trees and nine mango trees. Whatever grew wild that was edible sustained us, for neither my father nor mother were farmers.

He was a country boy who worked as a carpenter in San Juan. She was a city girl. They fell in love and he brought her to this isolated barrio in Toa Baja, away from all the conveniences she had grown up with.

She was not happy in Mac'un. She was afraid of snakes, and there were snakes in the hills facing our little house. She was afraid of the dark. The only light at night was that of the moon and stars, and the circles thrown by gas lamps and candles. She liked a neat house. Our house had a dirt floor, holes in the walls, a zinc roof. When it rained, it was like the inside of a drum, the raindrops beating the roof in rhythmic patterns that put us children to sleep but kept my mother awake for hours.

She coped by running away. She learned how to operate a sewing machine, and found jobs in American-owned factories springing up in neighboring towns. When she couldn't stand living in Mac'un any longer, she would pack all our belongings, dress us in our best clothes, and leave town before my father came home from work. Within a few days he would find us in the city, where we lived with an aunt while my mother worked to pay the bills. He would visit us every evening, have dinner with us, and quietly talk my mother into coming back to Mac'un. WHILE he was courting her again, she gained concessions. Over the years he built a cinder-block house, with a cement roof and a high threshold to keep snakes away. He ran a pipe from the cistern to the house so we could have running water and an indoor bath. He brought in electricity, even though it meant paying for a power line from the highway to our house.

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Each time we returned to Mac'un, my mother was pregnant. I had six brothers and sisters by the time I was eight.

Growing up in a large family made me self-sufficient at an early age. I had to do for myself. As soon as I could reach the hearth, which was set on blocks in a corner of the shed, I was taught to make rice and beans, to cook eggs, and to brew coffee.

For fun, I played at Spaniards and Indians. I was a Caribe, one of the fierce marauders of the Caribbean Sea. I put feathers in my hair and painted my face with the dye of ``Don Diego'' flowers and annato. I made bows and arrows, which I carried strapped to my shoulder in a basket made from sweet potato vines. I made a slingshot out of mahogany and rubber from a bicycle inner tube. Shortly after my 13th birthday, my mother left my father for good. She took her seven children to New York. My father wouldn't follow her there. He stayed in Puerto Rico and six months later married a country woman who was not afraid of snakes.

I landed in a new world, without the rhythms of nature to comfort me. In Brooklyn the trees were rickety and leafless half the year. There were no gardens, no wild fruits, or vegetables. The only birds I ever saw were pigeons, ugly fat things that were as gray and greasy as their environment.

I learned to walk briskly, head high, focused on a distant spot, precluding eye contact.

But Barrio Mac'un was with me. All that is good in me comes from the hours spent talking to mango trees and hibiscus blossoms, from the days spent walking in the woods listening to bees, from the dark nights in which snakes slithered over my feet without hurting me.

Coming to Brooklyn marked the end of my childhood. I stopped knowing exactly who I was and how I fit in with the rest of nature. It was in Brooklyn that I saw darkness as frightening, while in Mac'un it had always been a welcome change from the brightness of day.

And even though Mac'un has become just another extension off a highway, it's coming alive again through my words. No, I was not born there. It no longer really exists. But it lives in my head, the place that nurtured the child that I still am.

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