Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The week before my Mother's visit

         Maraval Health Centre

The days before my mother’s visit were filled with challenges. My father’s visit the year before had gone relatively smoothly although the wasp attack was an unwelcomed incident. My father was concerned with all the sting marks on my body of course. We talked, laughed, opened up presents, and generally had a good time. My sister and I never discussed returning to the U.S. with him as we had planned. And to this day, I do not know why. I guess it was a topic that both of us knew the answer to and thus wanted the subject off the table. The days after he left quickly returned to normal. What an anticlimax.

My mother visited around Christmas time and everyone was getting ready for the second most festive occasion in Trinidad. Carnival holds a tight grip on number one.

As with my father’s visit, grandma told us about my mother’s visit a week prior. We sort of knew the routine by now. My sister and I ran around anxious about the impending visit making certain not to kick the ball over by the Guava tree this time.

There was a little more preparation for my mother however. There was more cleaning, painting, buying food, and other cosmetic changes. It was like Queen Elizabeth herself was visiting one of her former British colonies. Knowing my mother as an adult, I could understand why my grandmother would say, “Joan is coming and you know how she is!”

My view on my mother will be revealed over the life of this blog. Therefore, I will refrain from getting into much detail now about my mother’s personality. She was and continues to be an enigma that I am still diligently trying to comprehend.

She was to arrive in Trinidad on a Friday and on the Tuesday before her arrival I spiked a low-grade fever, had a runny nose, and my body ached terribly. I had a cold or so I thought.

As the week progressed, I started noticing red spots on my body much like the wasp stings but tinier, clustered together, and the clusters were spread all over my body. I showed my grandmother and on Thursday was taken to the only medical facility in Maraval – Maraval Health Centre.

Maraval Health Centre stands today as it did 40 years ago, the same building, same facade, on the same grounds, and probably with twenty coats of paint and primer. It is situated on the corner of Saddle road and Morne Coco road just across the street from the Catholic Church where I served faithfully as an altar boy. I was taken there to find out what was wrong with me. Because at this juncture, this appeared to be more than a cold.

Thursday morning, the day before my mother arrived, I found myself with my grandmother at 7am in the morning lined up outside the medical centre waiting for the doors to open. And we were not even the first ones in line. People used to come from miles around to the centre for medical care because it was the only Centre close to many villages in the area.

Days were set aside for certain specialties at the Centre. For instance, Mondays may be for pediatric issues, Tuesdays for OB/GYN or family planning, another day may be set aside for individuals with chronic ailments, and so on. On most days, there would be a period for walk-in patients. Thursday morning, was walk-in patient day. So there I was - a walk-in patient (no pun intended) with red dots all over.

We entered the Centre when the doors opened, signed in, sat, and waited and waited. Going to the Maraval Medical Centre or any medical facility in Trinidad as a matter of fact for any ailment is a test of one’s patience. The opened air Centre had big standing fans that circulated air throughout the facility. Patients sat on long wooden benches with back rests waiting to be called. Some looked like they were about to pass on to another life right there. And more important, no one knew if what they had was contagious.

After what seemed like hours, I was examined by a nurse, ushered back into the waiting room, and there we sat – waiting again. Finally, the nurse called us back and proclaimed that I had German measles or what some people call Rubella.

“German measles? I have never been away from Trinidad!” I shouted. “That is just what it is called,” explained the nurse said.  She suggested that I return home and that my grandmother provide me some aspirin for the body aches and just let it run its course.

The thought of my mother seeing me like this was disheartening. I had red bumps all over my body. What would she think? Worst yet, I had to stay in bed and probably drink some awful concoction that my grandmother would surely put together from roots and leaves that she swore could cure any disease on earth. “If the taste didn’t kill you first,” I would often add in disgust.

Sure enough, as soon as we got home, my grandmother hustled to the back of the house, plucked a few bushes, brought them back to the kitchen counter, filled a pot with water, and lit the gas range. In a few minutes I would be faced with drinking the foul tasting concoction that would make the bravest of boys run like Usain Bolt.

With the stealth of a gazelle, my grandmother came rushing in. Her colorful knee-length dress flowing as she moved into the bedroom hovering over me with a porcelain cup of the steamy liquid potion. “Hold your nose and drink this,” my grandmother said with little elation in her voice. She meant business.

I did what I was told. I held my nose with my left hand and took the cup with my right and guzzled. The faster the better was my motto for these occasions. No sooner was I finished that my grandmother gently took the cup from my hand and asked me to lie down and rest while patting me on my head. I did and drifted off to sleep because tomorrow my mother would be here and all would be right in the world.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The day before my father's first visit

I can only remember my parents visiting from the U.S. on two occasions. My mother visited once and my father another. These memories are vivid because on both occasions I was deathly ill.

My father visited one year and I was so excited. Not because he was my father, but because I was finally going to get to see the person I only knew from pictures as my father.

My grandmother told me a week before he arrived that he was coming for a visit. I felt elated. How should I act, I thought, as the reality of finally meeting him came over me. I must prepare.

Anyone coming to Trinidad from the U.S. was a big deal back then. It meant presents, lots of food, friends would come over, and adults would talk well into the night. Drinking rum and reminiscing about the old days. I would be in the middle of this celebration for certain.

That week was spent daydreaming. I would think about New York and if he was going to take us back with him. I planned on telling him about all my friends, how good I was at football and cricket, and how I wanted to be the next Pele. I would explain to him my love for the guitar and being an altar boy. I would show him the scar on my elbow where I was cut by the metal edge of my book bag. I considered it a badge of honor. I bled so much that day. I swore that I was a goner for sure. I would tell him how I loved all the gifts that he and mom sent. I would tell him about Mr. Orosco and his cane. I found out later Mr. Orosco was my father’s good friend. It certain did not stop the whippings. So many ideas were running through my head. My father was coming to visit, finally.

As the date drew near, my sister and I took to playing in the yard more than ever. My grandmother would point outside and plead with us to go and burn up some of that nervous energy.

It was the day before he arrived and as our grandmother had suggested, we ran outside to kick the football around. It was an exercise we performed many times before with only one incident – that being my cousin getting bitten by the balloon leg snake.

It was a sunny afternoon. A mild breeze blew that aided in cooling us off a bit. Back and forth we kicked the white football. I was Pele, the magnificent footballer from Brazil.

We loved playing in front of the house. But, we were very careful not to kick the ball to the left where waist high bush devoured the ball and made it difficult to find. Plus there were the snakes.

My sister and I talked about the impending visit from our father. We were laughing and smiling like two children fishing in a Mark Twain’s story. With one kick from my sister, the ball flew past me, rolled, and settled under a guava tree filled with low hanging branches and lots of broad green leaves.

I turned and chased the ball. The ball was visible as it nestled at the base of the tree. As I reached the edges of the branches, I ducked to avoid hitting the leaves. Stooping as I moved closer to the ball. Slowly, I bent my waist a bit more, reached my hands out, picked up the ball, and tucked it under my right arm. Mission accomplished, I moved quickly with boyish exuberance.

As I turned and made my way back out from under the branches for an instant I thought I saw a critical mass of Jack Spaniard wasp nests on the back of a leaf right in front of me. Too late! It was what I thought it was.

My face hit the wasp’s nest with force. Instantly cracking open the wasp’s paper thin abode. And then came the pain and the ball dropped from my arm.

Jack Spaniard wasps are ferociously territorial. They will engage in an all out assault if their nest is disturbed. And I had just disturbed their nest. I can honestly say, I thought I heard the word “Charge!”

The wasp stuck to my face as I ran screaming out from under the tree. I felt stings on my face, chest and legs. They continued to follow me as I ran, eyes closed, yelling “Jack Spaniards, get them off me!” I could hear my sister screaming for my grandmother to come.

I ripped at my clothes and brushed my hands over my body to get the wasps off me. Intermittently, I swung wildly, arms flailing to hit the wasps in mid-air. They still were stinging me.

My grandmother came running out of the house holding a sheet paying no attention to the fly armada.  She wrapped it around me and pulled me inside. I was still experiencing the wasp’s pulsating stingers in my flesh. It hurt so badly. But worst, I felt very ill.

The look on my sister’s face spoke volumes about the grave situation I was facing. Her eyes teary and bugged and mouth agape, she looked like she was looking at death and death was staring back. What she was looking at was her brother covered in stings from head to toe – forty-eight red welts in total.

I had stings on my scalp, face, ears, neck, chest, back, groin, knee, and legs. Why would a wasp want to sting me in my groin is beyond me? I imagine it flew up my shorts and said “here is for messing up my house!”  Sting.

I was lying there feeling like my world had come to an end. The light was fading. I thought to myself I need to stay awake. But the pain!

My father!

In all the confusion, I had forgotten all about my father’s visit. Here I am about to die the day before my father arrived, I thought to myself. At best, I would be a red polka-dotted boy in agony. “Would daddy be angry?” I asked by grandmother as she placed calamine lotion over the red bumps?

My sister had taken to pulling the stingers out of my skin as she continued the mantra of “everything is going to be okay.” She was very caring and her closeness brought me comfort.

After being triaged on the couch, my grandmother and sister helped me to the bedroom. And for the next few hours, my grandmother and sister looked over me as mothers would look at their newborn child. Their eyes were full of love and concern. This was my family. These were the two people that were the closest to me on earth as I fell off to sleep.

Friday, May 14, 2010

An update on my Blog

I would like to thank all who have visited this blog. Last week, I reached over 100 unique visitors (based on unique IP addresses) and over 400 visits to the blog. Visitors from 8 countries have viewed my post in the past three weeks.

I also want to thank the numerous personal emails I have received about my stories and writings. I want to express a heartfelt thanks to those who read my postings and find joy and inspiration.

On rare occasions, I may be rushed and accidentally submit an unedited version of a post. Much like I did yesterday. For that, I am sorry. I will try to make certain that these postings reflect the very best I have to offer my readers.

I will continue to travel the corners of my memories to uncover a story worth telling. I hope my story sheds light on how children who separate from their parents at a young age cope with reunification years later.

It is important to note that I am not passing judgment on decisions made decades ago by my parents. I am simply highlighting the consequences of those decisions - whether good or bad. My aim is to understand not indict.

Once again, thanks for your continued support and encouragement.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Rosary Boys RC, corporal punishment and Mr. Orosco

                     Rosary Boys RC School

           Mr Orosco's Class of 1974

Rosary Boys Sports Day  (1974) I am in there somewhere.

Rosary Boys Sports Day Program (1974) with my name in the 50 yard dash. 

Rosary Boys Sports Day Program (1974) running 60 yard potato race

Ask anyone who attended Rosary Boys Primary school located in Port of Spain, Trinidad, who was the most feared teacher and they will respond “Mr. Orosco!”

Rosary Boys is an all male Catholic school. It sits on the corner of one of the busiest intersections in the city. Traffic feeding into Port of Spain from Maraval, St. Anns, Belmont, and Laventille all converge at Park and Charlotte Street.

At the corner of the intersection, stands a two story open-air building. Its tan color making it distinct among the grayish galvanized steel rooftops of surrounding buildings. Rosary Boys lies on a compound that includes a girls school and Catholic church.

The school is about twenty minutes from grandmother’s house in Trinidad. I would get up in the morning, put on my uniform, eat breakfast, grab my book bag, and walk a quarter mile to the junction of Morne Coco road and Saut D’eau Road.

The junction was always lively in the morning - people catching taxis to go to work, trucks transporting fresh vegetable to stores, kids hustling off to school. I would catch the taxi down to school. My uncle Thomas drove a taxi and he would often be the one to get me to school on time.

The twenty minute ride to school often was spent squashed between some grown man and an oversized woman. My uncle certainly made up for the little space I was taking up. I weighed probably 75 pounds at 10. Yes, very skinny.

So after twenty minutes of being part of the car door, I would arrive at Rosary Boys Roman Catholic (RC) School. I was in Standard Five. That is equivalent to the 5th grade in the U.S. My teacher was Mr. Orosco!

Mr. Orosco was a big muscle-bound man with a two inch afro sitting on top of a perfectly round head. He wore glasses that had clip-on shades attached to them. And he wore the clip-on shades outdoor and in. He was and still is to this day, the most no nonsense teacher I ever had. He made me strive to be the best. And he did it with fear – plain and simple. I feared the man. Everyone did.

Trinidad and Tobago at that time had corporal punishment in schools. Teachers were free to whip kids with their hands or any object if they wished. It was common practice.

Mr. Orosco's weapon of choice was the cane. In fact, he had a set of canes. Most were 3-foot long and three-quarters of an inch in diameter. The most feared cane in the set was the Black Mamba. It was a 4-foot long and one inch in diameter cane with black electrical tape wrapped completely around. To me it looked like a black broom stick. And he used it freely and often.

The first day of class I remember sitting wherever. Just the closest seat by the fan. The classrooms were cooled by large fans bolted to the wall that made tremendous noise when rotating. Breeze flowed through the large open spaces in between the top of the classroom walls and the ceiling. In addition to the whirling of the fan blades, noise from the streets could be heard quite frequently. Car horns, ambulances, even loud arguments were privy to our ears.

On the first day, Mr Orosco walked in with cane in hand, picked up the chalk, and wrote the letters ‘GPO’ on the board. He spoke in a loud assured voice, “This stands for Guy Peter Orosco. That is my name. Get to know it very well.” And from that moment on GPO consumed 8 hours of my life, my thoughts, and my actions every day. In that classroom he was God and you did not want to mess with God.

Mr. Orosco had a method for motivating students, he dished out consistent spankings. As he faced the class on the first day, he said, “you could sit wherever you want for now. However, after the first test, I will place the person with the highest grade in the first seat in the row farthest to my right. The next highest grade would sit in the seat behind the person with the highest grade and so on and so on. Got it.”

“On the second test, you will move based on your grades so that the person with the highest grade would always sit in the first seat in the row farthest to my right and the person with the lowest grade would sit in the last seat in the row farthest to my left. You would not receive licks for improving your grade”, he explained.

Then he presented an escape clause. He indicated that no one sitting in the row farthest to his right will ever be given licks. Ok all I need to do is stay in the first row and I would be safe from that damn cane. Hope does exist.

Where hope exists, despair lingers. His next statement would generate sweat beads on the faces of most boys in class. A sweat bead slowly made its way down my cheek, then to my chin, and dropped on my khaki shorts. Mr. Orosco stated that anyone scoring lower on their previous test will receive lashes with this cane equivalent to the number of seats you drop in the order. He said this as he whipped the cane in the air making this whooshing sound. 

So, if based on my test scores the second week, if I dropped three spots I would receive three lashes with the cane. He whipped it in the air again - whoosh. He said the good news is that you all get to choose where you get your licks. The choices are the palm of your hand or your buttocks.

Now I can’t say that I was brilliant as a young boy. But that cane was good motivation to do well. My grandmother never checked our homework or sat with us to go over our lessons. So schooling was not a priority growing up. So given the current state of affairs I was left wondering “how is my ass going to hold up in this class.”

The first test went well. I was placed in the third to last seat in the second row to his farthest right. Probably twelve boys scored higher than me. Not bad I thought. I could slowly improve as time went by, providing that other students did poorly.

I really wasn’t looking forward to the possibility of getting hit by the cane. Especially after seeing it used on one boy for misbehaving. One day all the boys in the school were outside at recess. We were playing, running, shouting, and jostling with each other. 

The teachers had this method to get everyone to stop doing what they were doing. It was called freeze. A teacher would blow a whistle and scream freeze and everyone would have to stop instantly where they were – frozen. It was like the game red light green light. The whistle was the red light. One day this boy in all exuberance kept on running and playing after the freeze whistle. He was in my class.

I thought he was dead meat. Mr. Orosco, the whistle still in his hand, motioned to the boy to come over. And right there on the spot, Mr. Orosco turned into a ninja. He slowly placed the whistle in his pocket with his right hand, switched the cane from his left hand to his now empty right hand while grabbing the boy’s right shoulder with his left hand spinning him around, lifted his right hand with a quick movement and placed two whacks on the boy's buttocks.

No one expects to act like Denzel Washington did in the movie Glory when he was being whipped. Maybe except for the crying part. A boy’s first instinct when getting hit by a cane on the buttocks is to try to get your ass as far away as possible from the next hit. Squirming, turning, and breaking loose and hauling ass are all fair game. But Mr. Orosco had a death grip on the boy and the next swing of the cane arrived nanoseconds after the first.  “I said freeze!”, Mr. Orosco yelled.

Believe me when I tell you, up to that point in my life, I had never studied that hard for a test than I did for Mr. Orosco’s second exam. 

I took the second test and the day he returned it was filled with anxiety. He had already queued the exams in order of the highest grade to the lowest grade.

He started to call the names. “Grab your bag and take your spot as I call your name.” he would say. Names were called, none of them mine. The boy two seats in front of me had to get up and was replaced by an excited boy who moved up. No cane for him. The boy in front of me had already moved up into a higher seat. No cane for him. One last name, I hope it is mine. How lucky could I get. I wouldn’t have to move. Call my name, I prayed as blood drained from my tightly clasped hands. The name. Damn, not mine. 

I instantly had visions of being pummeled by a cane at the hands of Mr. Orosco. The boy whose name was called stood there in front of me saying, “man get up, you are in my seat!”.  Jolted back to reality. I stood and moved to the side.

I heard my name two boys later. I had dropped two seats. That would be two strokes. Here came the sweat again.

Picking where you want your licks was a skill. It depended on what type of material your shorts were made from. How thick was your underwear. Does your ass still hurt from the last whipping and so on and so on.

My choice was the buttocks. The hands never worked for me. I got licks on my hand one time and was unable to write for a week. And I would have been damned if I would cause one spanking to result in another. No writing leads to no note taking leads to  no notes leads to nothing to study leads to poor test grade leads to dropping seats leads to being caned. It was the buttocks for me today.

Starting with the second row, individuals were called up to the board, asked how much and where. One would say, “two on the buttocks.” Two seats dropped and I want my licks on the buttocks. That's how it went.

And that is what I said. I turned to the board, slightly bent my knees, tensed my glutes, and wished it to be over. And in less than two seconds it was. The pain shot through my pelvic region like a wave washing up on a shore line. The wave seemed like it got intimate with every nerve from my lower back to my groin area. The sting remained as I walked by to my seat which wasn’t far - right in front of Mr. Orosco. First seat middle row. 

I had a front row seat to the entire ass whipping session. There was some joy in that.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Our playhouse

           The Family

My sister and I were awoken from our deep slumber in the bed we shared by a loud and frightening scream. It seemed to last for minutes. The undulating yells for help continued as we pulled the covers from on top of us and knelt on the bed to gaze out the window. Something had gone terribly wrong.

Earlier that day, Allana (my sister) and I decided we would build a playhouse. It was to be a place we could hide from the world. Create our own U.S. in Trinidad. I do not know what the impetus for this grand scheme was. I imagine it was some impulsive act that most children do when they are bored. Why not build a playhouse?

We did not know exactly how to build a playhouse. Months before, we did watch with great intensity the building of a small pig pen in the back yard. We knew that you needed string, stakes, a hammer, a shovel, a wheel barrow, and wood. That was the extent of our supply list.

We then considered the location. We walked in the back yard and instantly decided that this was not ideal. Too many chickens running around, the pig pen close by, and the outhouse and outdoor shower made the space congested. No, we needed space, we thought.

So we went to the front of the house where there was an open field. However, the left of the field was waist high grass. And we rarely went into that area since my cousin Greta got bitten by a snake chasing a ball that I kicked over there. Her leg blew up like a water filled balloon. Every pore in the skin of her leg looked like it was stretched to it’s limit. No, that area was going to remain the territory of what became to be known as the balloon leg snake.

We saw another area to the right close to the path that led from the road to the house. We eye ball measured half way between the house and the road and planted a stick right to the side of the path. This is where the front door to our house will be. We will be able to step right into the house from the path. Brilliant!

So we got busy gathering sticks that served as stakes, yarn that substituted as string, a shovel from the back of the yard, a hammer from the shed, and a wheel barrow from the side of the house. We concluded that we will have to get the wood and concrete later.

My grandmother, curious, called out to us asking what we were doing as we pulled the wheel barrow around the front of the house. We replied, “Building a house” with the enthusiasm of a band of kids setting out on an Indiana Jones like adventure. She said, “mind you hit your finger with that hammer” as she returned to what she was doing inside the house.

We agreed that the house should be big enough for three people. “Mama may want to join us for tea”, I remember my sister saying. So we began to stake out what looked like a 15’ x 15’ square. We hammered the sticks right into the ground alternating turns holding the stick and pounding with the hammer. It was a hot morning and the sun was getting high in the sky. “It would be time to stop for lunch soon”, I said as sweat dripped down my face and the initial sounds of rumbling sounded from my stomach.

We decided to tie the yarn from pole to pole. Not really knowing why. We figured it must be an important part in building because we always saw it being done. So we wrapped the yarn around each stakes three times to secure it, stretched to the other stake, and repeated the wrapping. Finished, we stood and skipped to the house. At last, we had accomplished our first goal. Now for lunch.

After lunch we rested and then resumed building around late afternoon. The sun had maneuvered from high in the sky to just atop the trees low in the western horizon. We had to dig a trench running the length of the string so that cement could be poured. Our plan was to convince our uncle to make some cement, pour it in the trench, and place some wood in the cement before it dried. In the end, we would have some sticks sitting upright in the cement. Okay folks we were kids! We were contractors in the making.

We started digging. We loaded the wheelbarrow with dirt and emptied it close to the street. After about eleven trips, a lot of digging, and serious sweat, we were done with the first phase of the project. In front of eyes laid the fruits of our labor – a 15’ staked square that had yarn tied around the perimeter on stakes and a trench running around the entire length of each side of the square. We were finished for the day or so we thought.

That night as we knelt on the bed listening to a woman’s painful screams, watching as my grandmother and great aunt rush outside with flashlights to see who was making all that commotion, the thought of our fledgling house and the way we left it haunted us. We viewed as our mama and her sister walked half way up the path and came to a dead stop. In fact, they stopped precisely where that awful screaming was emanating.

Their lights flashed on what looked like a woman tangled in yarn, laying in a trench, on her back.

“Oh no!” my sister said.

The woman had obviously walked down the path and did not see our glorious project. She obviously fell in the trench and her leg wrapped around the yarn and snap.

My great aunt and Mama helped the woman up to her feet. She could not walk on her own so they helped her to the house, up the stairs, and into the front room. She kept on screaming.

We raced to hear what was being said peeping through the curtain that separated the front room from the bedroom.

The lady was sitting on the couch in a flowery dress moaning something like “I think I broke it!” I was not a doctor but I knew that a leg doesn’t look twisted like the ways hers looked. She certainly was hurt and in serious pain. She also kept asking, “what the hell was that out there?” “My grandchildren are building a playhouse.” Mama replied. The lady frowned and said in a frustrated voice, “I have to go to the hospital. I will miss my plane tomorrow.” We could tell she was not pleased.

The lady was one of mama’s friends who had come by that night to say good bye. She was going to the U.S. to live with her son and daughter. And she was leaving on a flight in the morning. “I guess she will be missing that flight”, I said to Allana who was now making her way back to bed. I followed her sensing that being asleep will be better than being awake when mama came back to bed. So we laid there in the bed and willed ourselves to sleep knowing full well that the next morning we would pay for our playhouse in skin.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The plane will take me there

For a barrel child, the problem with knowing that your parents were living in the U.S. is the constant thought that they were living a life of luxury and you were not. Especially if the city they were living in was New York City!

I can’t remember when we first got a television which beamed black and white images on two channels of life outside Trinidad. Those images told of a wondrous place called America. America had skyscrapers that stretched to the heavens. Green fields of corn that looked like they were meant to feed an entire country rather than a village. There were cars that looked like spaceships on wheels. Houses that were grander than any I had ever laid eyes upon in Trinidad. Indoor plumbing that did not force you to go to the bathroom in a potty hidden under your bed at night. Stories of families with children portrayed a sense of togetherness, happiness and tranquility. Images of white flakes that fell from the sky that I tried to imitate with fake snow from an aerosol spray can during Christmas season.

What a beautiful life in America I often thought. And my parents were there seeing and living every minute of it. I would ask myself on numerous occasions, why I am not a part of that life? What deed did I do to relegate me to such exclusion? Why was that life not good enough for me?

Planes became a fascination with me for some time. I would look up in the sky and think that every plane I saw was going to America. And if I could fly one, I too can travel to America to be with my parents. So much so, that in addition to wanting to be a priest, I longed to be a pilot. I would navigate the plane, cut through the blue sky like a kite on a warm Savannah day, and be in New York City in a matter of minutes. Child minutes that is. The other end would be filled by unimaginable bliss and most of all my parents.

Recently, I read a book entitled Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario. In the book, she describes the miraculous journey of a young man from Honduras as he attempts to reunite with his mother in the U.S. As I read Enrique’s quest to feel his mother’s warm touch and experience her undying love, I could not help think about my yearning to be with my parents as a young boy. 

There is something innate in the desire for children to be with their parents. It’s like if your DNA and your parents DNA were like polar opposites of two magnets attracting each other with unrelenting force.  Sometimes those forces can’t be denied or sequestered in a space between sleep and dreams. Sometimes it is palpable like every time I looked at a plane in the sky wondering will I ever get the U.S. to see my parents.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Maraval RC Church - My first communion and altar boy church

I grew up in the Catholic Church. And for half my life, it brought me immense joy.

My community as a youth was the church. My grandmother went to church all the time and we certainly were in tow. On Sundays, church was mandatory - 12 pm rain or shine. I was in church sitting in a pew next to my grandmother every Sunday.

We attended our Lady of Lourdes catholic church in Maraval. It was the most beautiful church I have ever seen as a child. It is majestic sitting on top of a luscious green hill at one of the busiest intersection in the village. As a child, it seemed that God himself handpicked the site. You could not help but see the church as you entered and left the village. It was like God saying, before your leave this village, the last thing I want you to see is my temple to remind you that I love you now and my love will be here when you return.

I was always excited to go to church. I saw my friends, family, people in the village that I did not see during the week. Paramin did not have a church when I was growing up. So sometimes I would see my father’s family at church on Sundays. They were from Paramin. That was always a joy.

One event in particular got me closer to the church. Catholics go through various sacraments. First communion was next on my list. So I looked forward to first communion where I would be able to receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time.

I always envied everyone who went up to receive the circular wafer and drink wine from a chalice. What was in the wafer?, how did it taste?, and how did one feel after she ate it? I wanted to know and every Sunday I bubbled with anticipation as the day drew near for my first communion.

I attended Catholic school from kindergarten to my first two years at St. Johns University. The only exception was the first year I came to the U.S. All children 6 and 7 in Catholic schools around the world receive first communion instructions as part of their daily lessons. At least I did. I was taught what first communion symbolized and a lot of other stuff that taught me how to be a good Catholic. All I wanted to know was what the wafer tasted like and what it was made of? Too bad that subject was not covered. I was told how to hold your hand and what to say and all the other things you need to do on that day - but know recipe!

The week leading up to the Sunday of the actual first communion, I practiced and practiced. I did not want to muck this up. Left hand over right, wait till the priest says “body of Christ”, say “Amen”, wait until he places the Eucharist in your hand and take your right hand pick up the wafer and put it in your mouth. Do not chew like a cow. Rather, let it dissolve slowly. Make the sign of the cross as you walk to the wine station. When you get to the wine station, stop and wait for the wine lady to say “blood of Christ”. Grasp not grab the chalice as you say “Amen”. Whatever you do, hold onto that chalice, do not be the first to ever drop the wine chalice. This caused me great anxiety! Dropping that chalice was my fear. Wine spilling everywhere and Jesus would not be there to recreate the wine miracle. I would be banished from the church and scorned as the wine spiller.

So there I was on that Sunday. Dressed in a white shirt, black pants, and a clip-on tie, I was anxious and nervous with sweaty palms. This was the event. The church was packed and everyone looked beautiful. The mass started and then it was time. The moment of truth – time for communion. I got in the line to receive the Eucharist. I followed my plan. I got to the priest and said Amen and took the Eucharist and placed on my tongue and closed my mouth and waited to feel what millions of Catholics around the world feel when they did that very same act. I was going to be privy to the secrets of the church – holy communion.

On that day, my Holy Communion was like getting your first paycheck as a teenager and not realizing that taxes had to be taken out and what remained is what you are going to take home. I felt cheated. What a great anticlimax. I did not feel any different. The wafer tasted like a wafer. I asked myself “Did I get a bad one?”, or “Was it a bad batch?” I looked around to see if any other kids in my class had the same “I been cheated expression”. No, they looked okay. Well maybe it has to mix with the wine to have that effect.

I had never had wine past my lips. So that day would have been the first. As I approach the wine lady, I felt her looking at me saying “you better not drop this wine or I will kick you little butt.” Damn, the evil wine lady, I thought. I needed to grab that chalice with all my might. I said Amen, grabbed, sipped, handed it back, and it didn’t fall. Success! I will not be banished. I will not have to curse wine for the rest of my life.

As for the wine, there certainly was a little tingle on my lips at first. But not the sky parting enlightening feeling I thought I would experience. I went back to my pew and I believe I said to my grandmother who quickly shooed me “I did it, I didn’t drop the wine!”

Mass was over and family and friends welcomed us into the family of those who can take Holy Communion. I finally got my holy communion union card. That day was followed by a large celebration. Lots of food and drink were served and laughter could be heard all around.

I fell in love with the church that day. So much so that I went on to become an altar boy for many years. I served many masses, weddings, and funerals. I talked about becoming a priest. That idea waned as I grew older. But that is another blog.

My son is attending first communion classes now. I asked him if he enjoyed the classes and he said yes. I hope he doesn’t have anxiety over spilling the chalice.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

New hope for New York immigrants with criminal convictions...By Anthony Salandy, Ph.D.

This week, the Governor of New York, David Patterson, announced he will convene a five-member Special Immigration Board of Pardons (SIBP). The goal of the SIBP is to accelerate the consideration and granting of pardons to legal immigrants who have criminal convictions. According to federal statutes, legal immigrants with old or new criminal conviction are subject to deportation.

The move is aimed to plug a hole in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) that some see as unfair. The 1996 INA expanded the types of deportable crimes. Legal residents who commit these crimes could face deportation even if they have not lived in their native country for many years. Furthermore, the act provides strict orders for judges in deportation cases. Therefore, judges often are constrained in taking into account extenuating circumstances (married, date and nature of the offense, children) in considering a deportation case.

In the past, legal residents pleaded guilty to criminal charges in exchange for probation or no jail time. Many legal immigrants with criminal convictions assumed that the federal government would not track them down and deport them. Often immigrants would plea guilty to an offense without realizing that it would put them at risk for deportation. So, many legal immigrants who had minor offenses went about their daily lives not realizing that they had a deportable alien status.

Recently, the federal government indicated that they have stepped up their identification and removal of deportable aliens. Individuals who have old convictions for minor offenses are now being located and removed. Some of these individuals are married to American citizens, have American born children, and live productive lives in their communities.

Governor Patterson’s approach provides the state power to wipe the criminal records of legal residents clean by granting a pardon thereby lifting the deportable status. Hence, the federal government cannot remove the individual because he/she has no outstanding convictions because they have been pardoned.

Caribbean countries have been calling for the U.S. to curb its practice of sending criminals back to their native land for some time. They have argued that increasing crime in several countries in the region is a direct result of the influx of criminal deportees from the U.S. However, Caribbean policymakers are slow to acknowledge that a significant number of deportees committed minor offenses in the U.S. and some even committed their offense years ago.

Deportation over the past few years in the Caribbean has been constant. For instance, according to data from the Office of Immigration Statistics at the Department of Homeland Security, Jamaica had the highest number of US deportees in 2008 (1641) in which 76% (1246) were removed from the U.S. for criminal convictions. Haiti followed closely behind with 1570.

However, Haiti’s deportee population is starkly different. A little more than 73% of the U.S. deportees returning to Haiti in 2008 were for noncriminal reasons. Trinidad and Tobago had the third highest number of deportees among CARICOM countries (484) with a little more than half being deported for criminal reasons.

Also, the number of criminal deportees returning back to the region has hovered around the same mark for the past decade. Jamaica received an average of approximately 1400 criminal deportees from the U.S. each year over the past ten years. Trinidad and Tobago averaged 273 U.S. criminal deportees each year during the same period.

Even as there is talk about increased efforts by the government to locate deportable aliens, this does not seem to largely effect CARICOM nationals living in the U.S. Surprisingly, the number of deportable aliens from Jamaica located by U.S. immigration officials has decreased by more than 100% from 2005 to 2008 (1557 and 699, respectively).

Similarly, for deportable aliens from Trinidad and Tobago located by U.S. immigration officials the number decreased from 448 in 2005 to 210 in 2008. So it seems at least INS is being vigilant at locating deportable aliens from countries other than CARICOM nations. Moreover, the number of deportees to the Caribbean region has been decreasing not increasing.

So now Governor Patterson must wait and see if legal immigrants with criminal convictions will come forward to be considered for a pardon. Or, will they fear somehow coming to the attention of the federal government by taking advantage of the Governor’s push for fairness. Only time will tell.  

© Anthony Salandy

Sunday, May 2, 2010

My grandmother (Mama) raised me as a boy

             My Grandfather                        

                   My Grandmother

I have been told that is how Caribbean adults did it back then. Like Argonauts searching for their own golden fleece, they would leave their children behind and travel to the U.S. to find their fortune.

For me and my sister, we were use to staying with our grandmother during the months before my parents left for the U.S. At least that is what I was told. My sister was born less than two year after my birth. We stayed with my grandmother when my mother went back to work. Work was probably a respite from child care for most.  During those days mothers did not stay out from work very long after giving birth – maybe two weeks at most. A dual income was necessary back then.

My parents would drive my sister and me to Maraval from Belmont on Sunday evenings and return for us on Friday afternoons. Travel time from Belmont to Maraval was approximately 15 -20 minutes by car. Probably no more than 30 minutes.  For whatever reason, we could not stay with our parents during the week.

So my grandmother took care of me during the week. From Sunday night to Friday afternoon she would bathe, feed, dress, read, and sing to me. She would put me to sleep, play, and pray with me. She would dry my tears, hold me, clean my bruises, and kiss my boo boos. My grandmother loved me. She was there for me. And most of all, I can remember her doing these things for me.

This is important because some have asked why is it you remember your grandmother doing those things and not your parents. Weren’t they with you during the same time as your grandmother? It is true that for two years both my grandmother and parents shared duties raising me. However, I believe that because my grandmother continued raising me after my parents left, memories of my parents faded and my experiences with my grandmother became dominant memories. There is some research to support this.

I remember mama as a sturdy woman. She was the mother of 8 children, grandmother of dozens, and great-grandmother of many more. She was wife to a husband that was never around. We called him Papa - my grandfather. He was like a ghost coming in and out of our lives. A larger than life figure we knew more for giving us a dollar on his occasional visits than for gentle hugs or loving words. But that is another post.

Mama loved the Lord, prayed, and went to church regularly. At night, she often would hold rosary beads and say her prayers. She often recruited us to join her. Willingly, we would participate.

She was a gardener. She had a piece of land on Mazilli in Cameron high up on the Northern Range Mountains of Trinidad. She planted chives and other green vegetables. She worked that land. And her hands bore witness to the harshness of that land.

Mama also was a caring woman who loved family. She could never say no to any of her children who asked for help in raising their children. She treated her grandchildren like she gave birth to them – with much love and tenderness. I never got a sense that she regretted being in the role of surrogate parents. If she did, she masked it well with a glowing smile and kind demeanor.

This is the woman who started raising me from when I was 2 years old and continued full-time from age 4 to 12. This is who I knew as my mother.

And in a blink of an eye, at the age of 12, I was taken away from the mother I knew and brought to the U.S. to be with parents I only knew through pictures, an occasional visit, and phone calls. Love and separation in the life a barrel child!