Voices e / Magazine / Barrios



      Our last night, and just as I’m starting to get my bearings, the whole of our research efforts and time in St. Croix come crashing down. Everyone’s tired and packing up and trying to eat all the food we have left in the dorm. No-one has energy for it, but one thing leads to another, and soon we’re all gathered in the common area having another incredibly stimulating, frustrating, eye-opening debate about what we’ve learned, how it relates to our personal and professional lives, and how all of our interactions in St. Croix will affect the future work we do. It is a moment when everyone is open and honest and incredibly brave in sharing how they really feel. All of us humbled by the amount we still have to learn and understand. All of useager to do more. All of us talking about the people we’ve met and interviewed, the tremendous knowledge we’ve been exposed to as students here—students of Cruzans, Portocruzans, teachers, professors, writers, musicians, business owners, poets, taxi drivers, American ex-pats—everyone who’s talked to us here. All of us admitting our own prejudices, preferences, and undeniable biases. All of us realizing we can’t pretend to know anything about what it means to be Cruzan, Puerto Rican or Portocruzan in this nexus of complexities and specificities. All of us realizing our own barriers. So after countless debates, hours of classwork, numerous interviews, tireless research, archival study and cultural activities, we come, as a group, to this basic conclusion: two weeks of fieldwork in St. Croix can not even scratch the surface of what it means to belong or resist to the nuanced cultural, linguistic and ethnic identifications of this Caribbean island. Whatever we’ve done or said or researched hereare merely observations, fractions, pieces, notes. It is both a relief and a burden to recognize our own insignificance.

      It’s not till I’m coming home from my last night out, after this discussion, that she gets me. Alone in the rental car on a desolate street at five a.m., cautiously navigating speed bumps, I see an old woman’s silhouette, her back bent just slightly, like the curve of the road. The sun hasn’t yet begun to rise; fingers of dark curl around intermittent streetlamp light. Gallos are still sleeping, only the sound of continual grass insect hum, an occasional songbird. She is standing on the side of the road in a light blue t-shirt and navy blue skirt, motionless. She is an old woman, dark brown arms severe and thin as she clutches an open, turquoise umbrella, offered upward. Her arms a perfectly straight, upside down V over her head. I see the colors as the headlights lick over her like a wave—bright, clear. There is not a single cloud in the sky, not a drop of rain, and dry air sucks through the open car windows like a vacuum in the pallor of just-before-light. I’m held in her stare as she locks eyes with me. Then, quickly, she waves the open umbrella up and down, moving only her arms, feet planted firmly on the ground. Her lone shape on the dark road, spindly and stark; a thin, slightly tilted rail topped by the cap of her umbrella’s head.

      Cuban heritage in santería, graduate studies in Caribbean literature, exhaustion from overwork and overplay, and a terrible sense of trespass collide: Oyá? Abaká? La Diablesse? She smiles at me as I pass, waves the umbrella again, up-and-down; as my headlights trace her face, shadows under the umbrella reveal an open smile that breaks into a laugh. My skin shivers, goosebumps rift mountains and valleys on my forearms. Her umbrella slices space between earth and sky, and I read her apparition instantly as a sign.

      A Sign, for sure. But a sign of what? A warning to keep my partying to a minimum (guilt from my Catholic upbringing kicking in)? A message to beware the perils of academic trespass into a culture not my own (that checklist from fieldworker training)? A malevolent spirit out for some mischief seeking easy prey (one too many Caribbean storybooks)? A vision symbolically channeling earth and sky and urging me to rethink the ways I approach this whole experience (my spiritual-literary imagination in high gear)? Or a solitary old lady checking to make sure her umbrella opens on an early morning sojourn to wherever it is she has to go.

      Whoever she is, and whatever she means, this is my parting vision of St. Croix.

st.croix barrios