On the Bridge

Nydia Garcia-Preto
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From the July/August 1994 issue

IT IS STRANGE TO HAVE LIVED IN THIS COUNTRY FOR ALMOST 40 years and have someone I’ve just met ask me, “Where do you come from?” as if I had just arrived from the island. At those moments, 1 feel a sudden split in my being. How do 1 explain that I come from two worlds, and that most of the time I feel I am on a bridge shuttling back and forth between them? Despite my lush memories of growing up in Puerto Rico the smell of the ocean, the sound of the breeze rustling through the palm trees, the feel of the tropical sun on my skin and the taste of cornmeal with coconut milk and ripe plantains sometimes it seems 1 have become a gringa in the way I think and live my life. Yet, that question about where I come from always reminds me that others see me as a foreigner, as someone who doesn’t belong.

As I move between my worlds, I constantly hear the echoes of conflicting cultural messages, especially when I walk into my house after a long day of teaching, telephone calls and working with clients and their families. “Hi, abttela,” says my son, as I walk into the house. He has that familiar teasing look on his face that reminds me of how my brother and father, who are now both dead, used to joke with me. He is tall like them, and his skin color is a shade of brown lighter than my father, and darker than my brother. He is lighter than me, and darker than his Italian father. I go to hug and kiss him, and he stiffens up, and holds me back, only letting me touch the side of his face lightly with my lips. I look around for my daughter and husband, see the messy house, and know that I only have a few hours left in the evening to catch up with what is going on in their lives. I fed guilty that a part of me is so exhausted that I just wants to go upstairs and relax. I find my daughter doing homework at the kitchen table and my husband trying to get dinner together.

This is so different from family mealtimes back in Puerto Rico when 1 was growing up. My mother didn’t work outside the home, and there was always the smell of her rice and beans at dinnertime. She hardly ever sat with us, always standing, serving and urging me to eat more. By the time she was ready to sit down, my rather and brother had left the kitchen, and I would stay with her to do the dishes. Like me, my mother would complain about the unfairness of the men not helping out, but she believed that was just the way it was. Her resignation would make me fume inside and I would tell myself that this is not the way it would be for me when I got married.

After the dinner that my husband has cooked which lacks the strong, reassuring taste of oregano and garlic that my mother’s meals always had my kids start to clean up. I feel the pull of wanting to be both a good mother and spend time with the kids, and to be more giving to my husband. What would my mother, who always put the family’s needs in front of her own, make of my lifestyle, which takes me out of home so much and breaks so many of the rules that guided her life?

Latino literature and music cast a spiritual aura around motherhood, and the Catholic Church has reinforced the image of mothers as spiritual icons to be revered. I want my own children to feel the total nurturance and safety that I felt in my relationship with my mother. Her memory is a powerful force that draws me to the edge of the bridge, as if my Latino world were calling me home. But with that call comes the fear that if I become like my mother, the bridge will collapse, and I will lose my connection to my independence in this “American” world, where I can have interests and other priorities besides motherhood. But as I recoil and move across the bridge toward my gringa identity, there is the complementary fear that my professional life will cost me the love of my children and family. So over the years, I have learned to stand on the bridge between my worlds, always trying to find ways to hold on to my independence without losing my family.

r ROWING UP IN PUERTO RICO, THE only woman I knew in my family who had a career she valued and enjoyed was my godmother, who wrote poetry and hung out at bars and baseball games with male friends. She never married and had no children, which led to suspicion that she was a lesbian. Instead of being a mother, she took care of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt until they died. She told me later in life that she could not tolerate the idea of men dominating her, and chose to have her freedom at the cost of not having her own family. As a child, I used to go with her to work sometimes. I would recite her poetry at neighborhood meetings where she talked about health and hygiene. I wanted to be like her, but I also wanted to be like my mother and my grandmothers. My maternal grandmother, Tasi, worried about my being too skinny and cooked special foods for me. She would boil ripe plantains and peel them when they were cooked; then she would mash them with milk and feed me. I loved their sweetness and texture and I still find myself longing for them when I am feeling blue. Mam, my paternal grandmother, was a spiritist, and I used to love the cornmeal she cooked with coconut milk. 1 used to eavesdrop by the door to the room where she consulted with people. I suppose she was the first therapist 1 ever knew, but believing that her spiritual powers were a gift from God, she never charged the people she saw.

I remember the shock of leaving Puerto Rico in 1950 when I was 12, and moving with my father, who was in the U.S. Army, to the segregated southern town of Columbus, Georgia. My family was interracial, as are many Latino families our ancestry is a combination of Spaniard, Corsican, African slave and Taino Indian and we didn’t know how to fit into a racially divided society. My mother and brother were fair, and my father and I were darker. I remember a black man escorting my brother to the bathroom labeled “white” after he had mistakenly gone to the one labeled “colored.” While for most Latinos, being white is associated with having a higher social status, the boundaries between race are not as rigidly demarked. In Puerto Rico, I had never been exposed to segregation.

When we moved to Georgia, the army found a house for us in a white neighborhood. I guess, to the army, we were not black enough for the black neighborhood, but I’m sure that to our neighbors we were not white enough. This is still the position that Latinos have in this society, especially those of us who are mixed racially; we don’t fit into the racial duality of this culture. We often stand on the periphery, invisible when our issues are not acknowledged or addressed in spite of the fact that our ancestors have been here for centuries and our population keeps rising.

I can only imagine what it must have been like for my parents when they first came to the mainland, and now I wish that they were still alive so that I could ask them. 1 remember my outraged father screaming and yelling in English and Spanish at two white women in front of a shoe store when one of them frightened me by grabbing one of my braids to feel the texture of my hair. We were an oddity, neither white nor black, and speaking a foreign language. As a result, our family became closer than ever as we tried to create a safe haven at home while adjusting to living in a new society.

As a young girl learning to negotiate a new culture while staying loyal to my protective Latino family was a difficult task. My parents felt that the new culture, which now surrounded us, was in direct opposition to their most fundamental values-respect for parents, obedience and female modesty and the last thing they wanted was for me to behave like an American girl. That meant no makeup, no tight clothing, no dating, no answering back to parents and no hanging around in the street. But I was drawn to the freedom that American women seemed to have, even though my Latino peer group was not accepted as part of the mainstream. I used to sneak out and wear lipstick, and once I tried smoking a cigarette in the back of the bus, practicing being American in the outside world, while following my parents’ rules at home. Unknowingly, I began to construct a bridge connecting my two worlds, trying to take what I needed from both.

:T WAS NOT UNTIL I WAS 26 THAT I finally realized that much of my life would not be lived full)’ in either world but on the bridge. Most Latinos marry early and have children right away and that was what my Puerto Rican fiance wanted. Instead, I decided to go to graduate school, even though that meant ending our relationship and breaking all the rules about being a Latina that I had learned growing up. Despite the shame I felt admitting to my fiance and myself that I did not immediately want children and my mother’s life, my choice marked my liberation from the world of my childhood and my embrace of the pan of me that had become a gringa.

While my mother’s sudden death from a cerebral hemorrhage the year I left for school felt like my punishment for breaking with tradition, it was also an opportunity for me to feel less bound to the world she represented I chose to continue my studies instead of returning home to take care of my fether, as a good Latina daughter should have done. I became even more committed to thinking of myself as an independent woman earning the credentials 1 needed to achieve my goals in this “American” world It was only years later, after marrying my husband, a second-generation Italian, and having my children, that I made my peace with my mother’s death and fulfilled her legacy, but in my own way.

While I can’t remember experiencing outright discrimination as a professional because of my race or culture, I have felt the subtleties of prejudice and the discomfort of tokenism. When 1 am asked to present at national conferences, or to be active in professional organizations, it is never clear to me whether I’m being asked for myself or because I represent a “minority” group. Recently, while giving information about my professional experience over the phone to someone from a national professional organization, I had to explain over and over that my work as a family therapist wasn’t limited to Latinos, and that! gained my expertise working with adolescents and their families while directing an adolescent day hospital at a major mental health center. What did I mean by “director,” they wanted to know, and what type of facility was it? What did I mean by “day-hospital” and what types of families were treated there? Was it really a hospital? Part of me couldn’t help but feel that these questions came from a disbelief that a Puerto Rican woman could hold such a position.

At such moments, I can still feel caught between my two worlds without a secure foundation in either. But the times when I feel most solid, when my professional and private worlds come together, are when 1 encounter other Latinas in the field. Without having to explain it to each other, we know what it’s like to move into the gringa professional world without having had role models in our families and what weVe had to do to negotiate the restrictions of Latino culture to forge new identities for ourselves.

This past spring, I was elated to find two women from Puerto Rico in a workshop I was giving, a rare experience for me in this field. Afterwards we ended up talking for an hour. I felt our sisterhood in the warm smiles on their faces, the fluid way they moved and the ease with which they reached out to touch me as we talked There was an almost indescribable joy in being with people who shared my knowledge of the struggles and rewards of being a Latina in this profession. For once, 1 did not feel alone on the bridge.

THIS PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE OF what it means to live between two worlds is a major part of what I offer my Latino clients. It is what enables them to trust me with their struggles and to look to me for guidance. It is what helps me to understand the experience of Claudia, a 30-year-old client born in Puerto Rico, who at nine had been raped by her 18-year-old half brother. She remembers her aunt and uncle taking her to the doctor for an examination to determine whether or not she had lost her virginity, and her uncle threatening to shoot her with a pistol if she didn’t tell him who had done it. I know what it is like to grow up in a culture in which the loss of virginity is so fraught with shame that an act of abuse can propel a nine-year-old into premature adulthood, forever robbing her of childhood in her family’s eyes. Although she has told a previous therapist about this experience, Claudia describes her relief at sharing it with me, a fellow Latina, feeling both my outrage at what she has gone through and my support for her moving on in her life. We talk about how coming to the United States gave her an opportunity to mourn and to let herself feel the indignation, pain and anger that her family had pressured her to keep inside. I am able to share the metaphor of the bridge as a safe place to understand both the world in which she grew up and the possibilities of the new world she has entered.

When Ana, a 26-year-old Puerto Rican lawyer, who is a closeted lesbian, speaks about her terror of coming out to her mother, I understand the almost spiritual desolation a Latina can feel for breaking the rules her mother lived by. 1 can hear Ana’s fear and sadness as she envisions her mother’s horror, and I am reminded of how, 25 years after her death, I still catch myself imagining the dismay of my dead mother’s spirit at how I live my life. Again, I used the metaphor of the bridge to help Ana find a way to stay connected to her mother in Puerto Rico and the parts of the Latino world that still nurture her, while also validating her life in this world I am exhilarated when Ana is able to write a letter coming out to her mother while expressing her love and inviting her mother to visit. Although I see the fear in her eyes, I also see the glow of liberation.

Even after living here for decades, some Latinos are still struggling with cultural shock. My job is to help them understand, often for the first time, the cultural journey they are still embarked upon. What 1 offer beyond my skill as a therapist and my own experience of immigration, is my optimism. While never easy, I know it is possible to shuttle between these two worlds. When 1 help people construct the bridges they need for this journey between cultures, my own bridge becomes sturdier and wider.

Nydia Garcia-Prelo, M.S.W., is the clinical director of The Family Institute of Hew Jersey.