From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Vengo del Mar

My grandmother was born in 1880 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. She was the youngest of twelve siblings and the only girl. Her given name was Carolina del Carmen, but because of her extraordinary beauty, she was called la bella, the beautiful one, from the time she was a very small girl.

When my grandmother turned seventeen, her father died. Her mother, who was not in good health and was worried about her daughter’s future, struck a deal with a Spanish merchant who frequented Puerto Rico on his business trips. The merchant, Benigno Saavedra, offered to help support my great-grandmother and her family if she would consent to let him marry la bella. She did.

Although no one really knows if my grandmother’s feelings for my grandfather were inspired by love or obligation, she became his wife in 1897, and he made sure to always keep his promise to her family. My grandfather traveled a lot for business, and the story goes that when he used to come home from his trips out to sea, he would always sing this verse to my grandmother:

vengo yo del mar sólo para verte a ti
y darte un besito en tu boca de corí . . .

My grandfather’s brother, Alejandro, was a jeweler living in Puerto Rico who made very good money for those times. In 1908, he was given a gold medal for being el mejor orfebre de Puerto Rico, the best jeweler in Puerto Rico. That same year, my grandfather died tragically in a train crash in Cuba, and my mother’s family began to suffer economic hardship. According to my grandmother, Tío Alejandro had a wife named Isabel who was very vain and proud. She was also jealous of my grandmother, who at twenty-eight was more beautiful than ever and continued to turn heads wherever she went, no matter that she had five small children trailing behind her.

With her husband gone and her children in need, my grandmother went to Alejandro and Isabel to ask them for help. Although no one really understands why, they refused to help the family. They say that when my grandmother asked him for money to buy food to feed her children, Alejandro said that he couldn’t help them out, blaming it on Isabel’s expensive tastes and the money spent on fabrics, perfumes and other specialties shipped from Spain.

The family struggled on without his assistance. When my mother reached the age of twelve, she passed herself off as a teenager and got a job in a cigar factory. At the same time, my tío Luis got a job as a bookkeeper for a grocery firm in San Juan named Cebollero. Things improved quite a bit economically, and they managed to survive.

Time passed and when my mother turned eighteen, she was invited to a ball at El Centro Español in San Juan. Like her grandmother, my mother, also named Carolina del Carmen, was a dark-haired beauty who commanded everyone’s attention when she walked into a room. It so happened that her tío Alejandro was also present at this ball, and when he saw my mother pass by as she danced with her partner, he smiled at her but then turned very pale—this gorgeous young woman he didn’t know looked so much like his brother Benigno.

Alejandro approached my mother and asked her if she was Benigno’s daughter, and she told him she was. He stammered for a second and then said, “Nena, soy tu tío Alejandro . . . tu padre era mi hermano . . .” My mother was courteous in her reply, but remembering the hunger they had suffered because of his selfishness and neglect, she remained aloof.

Many years later, my mother was living in the South Bronx in New York City. She lived in a high-rise building with a kitchen window that faced the back alley. These were the Depression years, and times were hard. Vendors, ragmen and handymen would come through the alley and shout up to the apartment windows, trying to sell their wares and services. Sometimes musicians would come by and play a tune or two, and people would throw a few coins to them from their windows.

This particular day around dusk, my mother heard accordion music coming up from the courtyard. She thought the tune sounded familiar, but it seemed to weave in and out of range. After a few minutes, she heard the same song again, this time louder, and she recognized it as the song that her father used to sing to “la bella.” My mother thought that a strange coincidence. While she was trying to remember the words, she took a few pennies out of a jar and wrapped them in newspaper to throw them down to the musician. The music went on, but when she got to the window to throw the money down, the courtyard was empty. She pulled away from the window with a chill.

The next day she received a telegram from her sister Francisca in Puerto Rico telling her that Tío Alejandro was dead. My mother, already suspecting the answer, asked my tía Francisca when he had died. She told my mother that Alejandro had died the day before at sunset. As my mother listened to her sister’s words, she leaned against the window and stared intensely into the empty courtyard.

“Dios mío,” she whispered, “Alejandro has finally come to ask for forgiveness.”

Susan Sánchez-Casal

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