Connecting to the past, one family tree at a time

There are many times, too many to mention, where I wish I could sit with my father and ask him about his family, about the stories he heard growing up, and about the “whore” that made him stop in his research (there’s a note from an uncle that says my father told him so). But I can’t because he’s not here anymore. And I didn’t get the urge to research my family tree until after he’d passed, when I realized the delicate tether between myself and him was becoming much too thin.

And about a year after he died, his brother died.

And earlier this year, in July, my other uncle–the one who was helping me make sense of the nebulous territory of genealogy–passed away. That thread is snapping. Three aunts remain, and I can feel the precarious situation for those memories, teetering between recognition and oblivion.

This found its way somehow into my novel, THROUGH THE WALLED CITY. As I labored through the research, I realized that some of what I was finding–Colombia’s history, old photographs from the late 1800’s to the mid-1900’s–correlated to what my late uncle had been able to tell me about our family’s history. With his help, I had mapped out my family tree on my father’s side to circa 1850’s, when the last known entry is of a woman with a son “out-of-wedlock.” That’s where the trail ends, and if I could go back and ask my father, I’d want to know if that was the “whore” he was referring to.

But it was fascinating, pitching the research against Mica’s story. Seeing the past and the present dance, come to life. Someday, I want to breathe life into that family history. Not only for my son’s sake, so he knows his heritage, but for me, because I didn’t pay attention when I had the chance.

Mama Adela with Children This picture is of my paternal grandmother with four of her six children. My father sits in the bottom, nestled between his older brothers. The three are now gone. I have it tucked in the corner of my dry-erase board (which hangs over my writing desk at home) as a reminder that he’s watching over me. I can’t ask him now all the questions that flood my consciousness, but writing THROUGH THE WALLED CITY gave me a better idea of the Colombia he grew up in, of the stories he heard and the climate of his land. He loved his country, which is why when he died, we took his ashes to Manizales, his hometown, to be buried with his parents. He would’ve wanted that.

THROUGH THE WALLED CITY has been a special story for me for many reasons. This is one of them.

Advertisements

La Mano Peluda–The Furry Hand

I have fond memories of spending the summers in Colombia when I was a kid. I didn’t get to go every summer, but when I did, I spent just as much time in the city visiting family as I did going to the fincas, or farms. I was lucky that some of my aunts and uncles had them on both Mom and Dad’s side. Some had names I remember to this day, like Villapaz, or Villa of Peace, in Caldas, where I have the image of my Tia Ruth sitting on a stone wall, churning butter. Others were so remote that in order to reach them, we had to travel over a tiny, flimsy wooden bridge–the kind made out of logs tied together, so that crossing over it was a bumpy, jumpy affair. Somehow, my Tio German would get his jeep over it, though people would have to help navigate. And still others were in higher, colder grounds, where every morning a curtain of fog blanketed the finca and surrounding land like the mosquito nets surrounding the beds. Most of the farmhouses contained staples of country living: hammocks, open kitchens and courtyards, parrots, roosters, and beautifully crafted wooden beams and burnt brick tile roofs.

They, along with flowery balconies, are epitomized in the many Colombian crafts sold there and abroad.

Those were times of adventures, of setting out and exploring mountainsides, creeks, and forests. They were also times ripe for ghost tales and mysterious legends, especially the kind to scare children into behaving!

One I remember often is the story of la mano peluda, or the furry hand. I don’t remember much of the actual story behind it. What comes to mind is anecdotal. My cousins and I were in a large room with several beds. Dusk had settled and outside, the noises of the country were settling. Inside this over-packed bedroom with cold cement floors and bare walls, however, was full of the sound of children not wanting to go to sleep. With the lights off, we took to telling stories, with local cousins leading while those of us from abroad listened. That’s when someone–who exactly I can’t remember–started tip toeing, grabbing our ankles in the dark saying, “La mano peluda got you!” You can imagine the screams that elicited.

malfoy-screaming

I always remember that night, just like I do waking up in the morning and stepping out into the wet morning, watching the fog lift back painfully slow until the mountainous surroundings were reveals, and just like I remember the scent of dew and grass and the slow chirping of birds as they awaken. To this day, any time I get up early and step into my backyard, I get sent back to that moment in a Colombian finca.

What I never bothered to find out until recently, however, was the story behind la mano peluda. In Latina.com, I found this, though it most likely refers to the legends across Latin America, not just Colombia:

La Mano Peluda

Imagine lying in bed and feeling a big furry paw grabbing at your feet. La Mano Peluda (or “The Hairy Hand”) is said to belong to a man who was killed during the inquisition, and chopped up and buried in an old Indian cemetery. His hand is said to have come back to life to seek revenge on his enemies while they’re asleep. Our advice: Wear socks at night!

Read more: http://www.latina.com/lifestyle/our-issues/scary-latino-myths-read-or-el-cuco-will-get-you#ixzz2Ye9FO6hT

Then I stumbled on a Facebook page for Mitos y Leyendas de Colombia (Myths and Legends of Colombia) and it said this:

Mito o leyenda de la mano peluda

Se dice que un hombre fue injustamente culpado de robo, por lo que su castigo fue cortarle la mano. El hombre con su mano mutilada juro tomar venganza de todos los que injustamente lo señalaron.

Al tiempo del hombre morir, todos estos hombres que los acusaron tiempo atrás, fueron asesinados por una mano peluda, según un testigo que lo vio todo.

That loosely translates to: “There’s say that a man was unjustly accused of robbery. For his crime, his hand was cut off. The man swore to avenge himself of all those who accused him. When he died, all those who wrongly accused him were murdered by a furry hand, according to witnesses.” Kinda gruesome, if you ask me! It’s also said that parents will tell their children this to make sure they behave. Go figure.

And then there’s this, which I found in a forum:

La Mano Peluda

Localizada en México y Colombia. Común en los subterráneos de las casas. Es una mano grande y velluda de uñas grandes que se asoma por las ventanas o los huecos de los muros. Sirve para infundir temor a los niños traviesos, malcriados y callejeros. En México se cree que llega por las noches y te toca mientras duermes.

“Located in Mexico and Colombia. Common in basements of houses. It’s a large, hairy hand with large nails that peeks through windows or holes in walls. It’s used to strike fear in mischievous, bratty, and wandering children. In Mexico, it’s believed that it comes at night and touches you while you sleep.”

Just one of those things that goes bump in the night.*insert wicked laugh here*

Happy New Year!

Technically, I’m seven days late. But I have a good excuse–I was on a cruise, practically without communication, for almost two weeks.

There were lots of firsts on this vacation, and I hope this continues well into 2013.

It was the first time we’ve ever been on a ship for that long. We cruise every year, but the longest we’ve sailed has been four days. Eleven was ambitious–and if I’m honest, a bit too long for me, though that could be because I got a nasty cold half-way in and my son got it two days before we came back. Perhaps if we hadn’t gotten sick we would’ve enjoyed it more. Staying inside a cabin while the weather outside is gorgeous is a bit of a buzz kill. But the other days were pretty awesome.

It was the first time we were on a ship for New Year’s Eve. And it was pretty cool. And lots of fun. Even my five-year-old had a blast!

It was also the first time we take our son on a trip for New Year’s Eve. Hubby and I spent our first NYE as husband and wife in Victoria, B.C. and it was amazing. Since then, though, we hadn’t made it to another trip around the holidays until now.

It was the first time visiting all the ports of call in the Southern Caribbean. Cartagena, Colombia. Oranjestad, Aruba. Willemstad, Curacao. Philipsburg, St. Maarten. St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. I had to miss out on St. Maarten–and was ridiculously bummed about it. But the other cities/islands–wow. Hubby took some amazing pics, which I hope to share in future posts because the abundance of natural and majestic beauty was inspiring!

My absolute favorite, though, was Cartagena, and as mentioned above, it was my first time there. This is probably because A) it’s the setting for TTWC (my WIP) and B) I felt at home with the amarillo, azul y rojo and the sweet, musical Colombian accent. Beyond those two obvious points, the old city–la ciudad antigua–is breathtaking. You literally feel as if you’re stepping away from the present day and into colonial times. A multitude of bright colorful flowers contrast against the deep yellows of the buildings. Balconsitos, the typical colonial balconies which are the inspiration for countless Colombian artesanias, abound, and I could imagine my dad relishing on the intricacies of the detailed columns, the wooden beams, and the enredaderas that wrap around the structures. I hope to devote a separate post just for this beautiful city.

It was also the first time I wrote while on a ship. On sea days (with the exception of one when I was so out of it from cold meds that I couldn’t even think), I got clocked in some good writing hours, mostly done in the library with views of the ocean or in the observation deck with the same views. And while I didn’t finish like I’d hoped, I got a heck of a lot done.

We got back home yesterday, and the swaying of the ship’s still with me (as are the remnant of the darn cold). I’m ready to start a new semester and finally finish the revisions for SOUL MOUNTAIN. And when I’m done with that, I can’t wait to jump back into THROUGH THE WALLED CITY, especially after the inspiration from visiting Cartagena.

So I hope 2013 is full of many new journeys! (But first I hope to stop swaying!)

Happy new year to all of you, and may 2013 bring an abundance of inspiration!

Writing Reflections

Now that I have two projects on the table, one in final stages of an R&R and the other still in the drafting process (20K words in), I keep feeling that sense of wonder at the way the words come together to form these stories. It’s like a drug, an adrenaline high!

But what I find most fascinating lately is that no matter how different the stories and characters and feel of each individual project, I love each one just as much, even if differently. Does that make sense? I wonder if this is how parents with more than one kid feel. I can’t completely wrap my mind around it.

SOUL MOUNTAIN was my first love. I breathed and lived this story, these characters for about two years, from the moment I dreamt it to the moment a former instructor encouraged me to write Jimmy and Emily’s story. I have that email printed and posted where I can see it, for the days when self-doubt rears her ugly head. It took me a little over a year to decide this was something I wanted to do and once I did, I couldn’t stop. SOUL MOUNTAIN tested me. It’s a fantasy, so there’s world-building involved. Quite a bit, actually, and in doing so, I learned so much. But essentially, though there are scenes that take place in the real world, locations with which I’m familiar, a good chunk of it takes place in another level. The process of creating this other world (or rather, this other dimension of our world) was fascinating. It was dreaming put to the max: I am master of this universe and I create the rules. Pretty darn cool! And challenging. But nonetheless amazing. I started Soul Mountain with a feeling, a pair of characters, and a scene. The possibilities grew from there.

For THROUGH THE WALLED CITY, I wanted to turn to something that has always called my attention: magical realism. It was my focus for my MA thesis and I’ve long since admired the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Toni Morrison. So when I set out to brainstorm this story, I started with a setting (I wanted to tell a story in Cartagena, Colombia) and the desire to explore the magic of this city. Then came the main character, Micaela Uribe, who just sassed her way into the story. The rest started coming together as I researched the magnificent, and oftentimes turbulent history of Cartagena. And what a different experience writing it has been! Though there is some magic and I have to work out the myth that is accepted as real, TTWC is rooted in the here and now. And the best part hands down has been getting to write about that which makes me Colombian: the food, the people, the experiences. It’s like tapping into my memories, my experiences growing up while straddling both the Colombian and American realities while molding this story. It’s pretty awesome!

I can’t wait to see how the process evolves into the other stories I tackle. And I hope I never grow tired of it. Ever.

Because it’s pretty freakin’ awesome. 🙂

New Project!

With SOUL MOUNTAIN now officially in the querying stage, I’m focusing my attention on a new project, tentatively titled THROUGH THE WALLED CITY. I have a new cast of characters that are setting up shop in my head, and I’m excited about it! Today I tweeted: Write what you know, sure, but for the real adventure, write what you’ve always wanted to know. And that’s what this project is for me. I’ve always wanted to know more about Cartagena, this gem of a city on the northern coast of Colombia. It’s a current popular Caribbean port, though it’s always been popular–just not always for tourism. This city has such a rich but turbulent history with slave trade, pirates, conquests, and this is the perfect opportunity for me to learn more.

And I’m totally calling in a “research” trip to truly immerse myself in its beauty and history.

Though I’m still working on the details and characters (I’m in the planning/research phase of this project), this is the basic premise as of now. I think (hope?) it will be more magical realism than fantasy:

When fifteen-year-old Micaela “Mica” Uribe is sent to spend the summer with her aunt and cousin in historic Cartagena, she doesn’t expect to literally step into history. She also doesn’t expect to fall for the cute local, Gianluca. But as she experiences the city’s past with Gianluca’s help, she comes to terms with her heritage and her present.

So yeah. It’s vague but I’m SO EXCITED about this new project! =D And I’m choosing songs for my playlist because after I finish grading these sets of papers I owe my students, and after I finish beta reading two manuscripts, I’m going to start writing in earnest!

I’m also scribbling outlines for the sequel to SOUL MOUNTAIN, and that’s what I’ll be working on through my UCLA classes this fall.

Oh my. Two projects at once. Am I crazy? Maybe, but now that I’ve had one book-length project done, I feel more prepared to tackle these next two.

Happy writing (and revising), everyone!

Christmas Eve Thoughts

There’s nothing better than spending Christmas Eve with family, except maybe spending it with family you don’t see often, along with those you see every day, in a manner that reminds you of your childhood.

I was blessed to have that kind of Christmas Eve.

We drove the almost-two-hour trek to my cousin’s house where this year’s celebration was being held. Making this Christmas that more special was the fact that family from Colombia and Germany were joining us. Though we were missing some family, this was the largest gathering we’d had in a while! I sat with my cousins, and we started with the “Remember when?” We giggled and laughed, and I swear time shifted and we were teenagers again, at my aunt’s townhouse, when she lived in Miami, sitting in the front steps and talking about boys.

Once everyone was there, we started novena. Colombians partake in novenas, where, for the nine days leading up to the birth of El Nino Dios on Christmas Day, we gather with family, sing villancicos (Christmas songs), and recall the story of the birth of Christ. The last of the novenas is read on Christmas Eve. Our family is no exception, and though I might not hold onto that tradition every day, I do try to make at least a few novenas, especially if there will be a large group. They’re one of my favorite traditions. This year’s Christmas Eve novena, though, was even more special. My uncles took out their guitars, my aunt passed out the maracas, panderetas, and other noise makers, and the signing commenced. We sand Tutaina, Los Peces en el Rio, Antontiruliroliro, A la Nanita Nana. We ate bunuelos, natilla, empanadas and arroz con leche. Then we passed around the book with the novena readings and those of us brave enough to trying out our rusty Spanish read our part. When it all ended, my aunt read some thoughts she’d penned earlier that day, about love, and family, and their mother (my grandmother) celebrating with us in spirit, and about never forgetting the love that was promised with the birth of El Nino Dios. It was beautiful, and most of us cried. Good crying. We were happy and blessed because we were together.

Isn’t that what Christmas is about? About the love that began because God sent his only Son to Earth because he LOVED us?

And so what if Christmas really didn’t happen on December 25. So what if the celebrating straddles the solemn and the festive. It’s a time to rejoice and love!

Yesterday, I was blessed because it was a day spent with family, first my husband’s, then my own. In each of these homes, the promise of family and love was present, and we enjoyed something more precious than any tangible gift can provide: we enjoyed each other and the gift of family, and love.

It’s days (and nights) like yesterday, when family comes together, that I’m reminded family is the thread that holds our past, our present, and our future together. I am grateful and blessed to have such an amazing family, immediate and extended.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

 

El Niño Dios: A Christmas Reflection

While I was growing up, Christmas celebrations always centered around the coming of el Niño Dios, or Baby Jesus (well, actually, the literal translation would be something like the child God). Presents under the tree would be addressed from el Niño Dios, and, after I found the stash of presents in my parents’ bedroom closet, my father explained that el Niño Dios gave mommies and daddies the money to go buy the presents.

Santa Claus was an American abstraction. I don’t remember him much in my childhood, though I’m sure I must’ve believed in him somehow. After all, I grew up somewhere in the gray area between el Niño Dios and Santa – between Colombia and USA.

We spent the nine days leading up to Christmas Eve, the main celebration, migrating from family home to family home, reciting the prayers of the Christmas Novena (each day, a different prayer in addition to prayers for Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and San José)  and singing villancicos, spanish Christmas songs. We’d bring out guitars, maracas, panderetas and any other noisemaker to accompany the songs: Tutaina, Rin Rin, A la Nanita Nana, Noche de Paz, Los Peces en el Rio and many more. We’d cram into the homes, because we were many and our homes were small, and lay out buñuelos and natilla to munch on after we’d prayed and sung. Then, we’d just talk, laugh, and spend time together, as a family.

(Side-note – this is the bulk of my memories as an older child/teenager/young adult. As a young child, when I still lived in Westchester and my mom’s family was still scattered between Cali and New York, I don’t remember lively Novenas. Instead, I remember my father teaching me to play the piano and then playing select Christmas songs in English and Spanish for my neighbors while reading verses of the Christmas story from St. Luke.)

On Christmas Eve, we’d gather in someone’s house, like with the novenas, and each family would bring a dish. Chairs would line the walls and the furniture would be temporarily rearranged to make room for everyone. When everyone was there, we’d pray and sing the last novena. The kids would run around (and there were always many kids), and the teenagers would meander around the front yard or sometimes sit on the stairs, rolling their eyes at the traditions but enjoying the time with their cousins. Adults would sit and reminisce, as is usually done when they get together, far from their native land. They’d say a lot of “Remember when…” The “party” would start anywhere between 6 and 8 PM, and we’d stay up past midnight. At midnight, we’d exchange gifts and then some would go home, some would go to midnight mass, and others would sleep over and leave the next day. Christmas day was spent quietly, in smaller numbers, with immediate families.

But celebrating Christmas was always about the coming of the Christ child. Baby Jesus. El Niño Dios. While Christmas trees and lights were nice, and we had both, they weren’t the focus of the holiday.

I see my son now, at three, beginning to understand what Christmas is and I worry. I love the “non-religious” associations of Christmas: the trees, the lights, the Santas (and snowmen). I love that it’s a time to spend with family. But I worry because sometimes it seems that’s all Christmas is today. If you go to the store, the commercialization of Christmas is evident. Isles and isles of indoor and outdoor decorations, lights, presents, and knick knacks fill the stores. Neighbors try to outdo each other in decking the homes with “Christmas cheer.” But ask anyone to talk about the real meaning of Christmas, the reason why we celebrate, and people get quiet. They whisper.

Of course, that’s not everyone. I smile when I see nativity sets embedded in the Christmas decorations. It’s a way of saying: I enjoy the outward showings of this holiday, but I know why I’m celebrating it.

My son doesn’t yet understand Santa. When he had his picture taken with Santa, Santa asked him what he wanted for Christmas. My son replied: jingle bells and a star. (That might be because he was watching Mickey Mouse Christmas DVD, but I found it cute that he didn’t ask for presents.) But everything we see on TV about Christmas is related to Santa bringing presents. There’s no mention of Baby Jesus at all. I mean, I like Santa. He’s a nice guy and he’s got a giving heart. I love watching the Santa/Christmas shows that show good values, the “Christmas Spirit,” etc. But what worries me, I guess, is that if I didn’t explain to my son why we have Christmas, all he’d know is that Christmas is a holiday to spend with family and get presents from Santa. That’s certainly part of what’s done in Christmas, but it’s not the reason we have Christmas.

(Side note, I’ve realized I don’t know much about Santa, either, other than what’s been fed to me by the media. I mean, how did the figure of Santa come to be? Why is he known as Santa, St. Nicholas (who was actually a Catholic saint), Kris Kringle? I’ve heard rumors of him being a pagan figure to representing the winter solstice. Someday, I’ll find the time to read about the history of all that with which we associate Christmas.)

But I want my son to know why we celebrate Christmas. It’s because el Niño Dios was born, the first Christmas gift given to a world that was in need. It’s because we’re celebrating the birth of Baby Jesus. There are other good associations that I want him to take from Christmas: hope, faith, love, family. Doing good. Helping others. Of course, many of these should be done year-round, but Christmas seems to be a good time to remind ourselves of those things that are important to us, really important (not the latest video game or gadget – those are nice if we can afford them, but they’re NOT the reason for Christmas). In the middle of it all, though, is that lonely manger where God’s only son was born. That’s why we’re celebrating.

There’s a beautiful section in Epcot’s Candlelight Processional, possibly one of my favorite renditions of the Christmas story, and it says something along the lines of this: of all the kings, armies, parliaments, put together, none have affected mankind the way this one man, Jesus, has for over two-thousand years. Jesus’s birth is the reason we celebrate Christmas.

I’m still trying to find ways of merging the two forms of celebration so it’s seamless for my son. So he can understand. We bought a Christmas flag recently, which I think sums it up nicely:  Santa is kneeling down besides Baby Jesus, his head bowed. Underneath is an inscription: Santa’s first stop.

I’ve made a decision: Santa’s not bringing my son presents this year, el Niño Dios is. But I’m not going to keep Santa away, either. Somehow, someway, I’ll make the two fit together so it’s understandable for a three-year-old.