Home: The Hero’s Welcome for the Rematriating Mother

Brooklyn becomes Lotus. The Georgia town of Toni Morrison’s novel Home that evokes muddled memories of misery, of invisibility, of home. Places where Frank and Cee Money and me found ways to sneak love from dark corners, squeeze it from the grieving space between fallen bodies. Homes we flee from that beat us down, give us a swift kick up the ass on our way out then, wrapped around our legs, hold us back as we try to leave.

Self-portrait with my mother
“La Luz que me alumbra”, self portrait with my mother. 2019. CucubaNación series.

There should be a hero’s welcome for people like my mother. Born in Ponce, birthplace of her mother, her parents took her to NYC on an Eastern Airlines flight in October of 1950, same month Puerto Rico rose in revolution from Jayuya to her father’s Peñuelas. One-year old, she was taken, cradled in the arms of her mother. After a short stint in East Harlem, they settled in a still-Italian section of East New York, Brooklyn. There she would discover her love for figs from the Italian neighbor’s tree. The house my grandfather would eventually buy came with an elaborate wooden trellis supporting an abundant grapevine, from which my grandmother would make wine.

Sixty-nine years of a diasporic exile. Brooklyn came with its share of traumas, of lessons, of struggles, of heartbreaks. But I remember her always trying to weave happiness in between. And her father tried to bring about justice and peace working with warrior spirits and ancestors. With plant medicine he harvested from his own Brooklyn backyard.

We probably have more dead relatives than we do alive and I don’t mean long-ago ancestors, but folks of this lifetime.  I still remember mami nervously twiddling her fingers around a tiny gold cross, hanging from a gold chain, never looking up as she mumbled the news that my cousin, her goddaughter, had been shot dead. It wasn’t long after when her own mother, my grandmother passed from heart disease. My grandfather’s spiritual work came to a halt, at least as far as we could see. Who knows what energetic work his own spirit continued?

The list of losses grew, unfurling as a long scroll. Somewhere along the way I think my

My first trip back. Mami and me with my De-debt/ Decolonize piece in the Occupy Museum’s Debt Fair installation of the 2017 Whitney Biennial.

mom gave up on weaving memories of happy moments. I left for Puerto Rico with her grandbabies. When I finally visited Brooklyn three years later, all seemed unwelcoming and cold, even beyond the snow. Unfamiliar even. I sensed a shift in vibration. An uneasy vibration that penetrated my spirit, rattled my bones.

When I returned for a second post-rematriation visit in 2018, nothing seemed the same. Maybe ten days of no word from us post-Hurricane María shifted things. Maybe the arthritis and the three-story walk up. Maybe the solitude from losses.

“Brooklyn Bori y Que?” 2019. Mixed media on bandana. Yasmin Hernandez Art

But like Lotus, in the weeks leading up to her departure, Brooklyn grew warm again, recognizable, even if from afar. Warm memories of places I frequented with my mother as a child. I’ve spent the last year listening to the funk and soul music that surrounded the year I was born. Rooting to a certain sensibility of art, of music, the political realities of those times and the resistance that carried a people. It connects me to home, the place, the time, the energy that birthed me.

It’s interesting that after Toni Morrison’s death and my husband gifted me several copies of her books for my birthday, in these weeks leading to another rematriation, I’ve read Home. I read it slowly but the night before I was scheduled to pick her up, I got to the last pages. I read of big brother Frank, entering that evil doctor’s space, lifting Cee’s almost lifeless body. Rescuing, carrying her back home. Depositing her in the home of a neighbor where the elder women of the community gathered, taking turns treating her with their different remedies of plants, of roots, much like my abuelo would have done. But they do this among stoic orders, devoid of warmth, regimented rituals of healing as survival, as if on a battlefield. I think to that first snowy visit back to New York and memories revealed of my stoic, non-affectionate grandmother. Prior to that, it had never occurred to me that she didn’t share loving gestures.  As a child, I bonded with her through her food. Her pasteles, her asopaos and soups, her arroz con dulce. Reading Morrison, images of elder women healers weaving into my heart, sent my hands shaking, tears streaming.  They were my ancestors. The stoic, stern sisters and tías that resonate in my veins and in my rage. They continue to engage in the endless battle for healing and survival. They manage to squeeze in hugs and love whenever the work allows them to come up for a breath. We are their daughters still existing at this impossible pace, still working to wage reciprocal healing.

Mami and I in Brooklyn where I was born and raised.

I read of Cee healing her womb, legs spread “sun-smacked” beneath its heat. Memories of my post-partum crotch exposed to the light of my Brooklyn/ Queens border window, ordered by my Harlem-based midwife who herself had been born into her grandma’s hands. It was her prescribed remedy for a loosened stitch unhealed. Lotus, Harlem, Brooklyn and Borikén, diaspora converging in the healing remedies and recipes of our elders, our mothers, our abuelas, our ancestors. All of us still carrying our fallen, withered, dried umbilical stumps, hoping to bury them in the loose earth that marks home.

Those last weeks, mom despaired over things still scattered, still unsorted in that apartment of thirty-five years. The space I outgrew and left and didn’t care to return to. We were on two opposite ends of “things”. Of things, of messes, of objects, of papers and pictures and scattered memories. The never-ending labyrinth, of a life in exile, deconstructed and packed into boxes. I suggested that she mainly concern herself with mementos, irreplaceable things. Too many lost items or items left behind from the move and too many items lost to hurricane rains swelling across floors sending mold spreading on the backs of artworks, photos, and much more. Each day since has been a lesson to divorce myself from material things. Carry the memory and lessons only and walk on light, arms swinging.

I picture the spirit of my own big brother, like Morrison’s Frank Money, arriving in that East New York, Brooklyn railroad apartment. He lifts our mother’s almost broken body, drapes it over his shoulder and deposits it onto a seat of a plane at JFK. I’ve spent months preparing with a committee of ancestors and guides. They gather their energy, their recetas and remedios, their salves as she crosses water and trenches, touches down in Aguadilla. I will arrive at the airport, bring her back, deposit her onto the energetic

Mami with my boys after arriving in Aguadilla Airport, November 2019.

laps of all these comadronas, curanderas y ancestras and they, like the women of Morrison’s Lotus will get to work, healing, restoring her body so that it is reborn fully, body, mind and spirit to do the work she was called to do here in Borikén, land of her birth.  As she arrives a crescent moon, Venus and Jupiter anchor themselves in the sky, pulsing their light above the sunset. This is the hero’s welcome we receive when we uncross the journeys of ancestors.

We prepare hibiscus tea/ flor de Jamaica with brown sugar. We chop fresh coconuts off the palm for water. We hydrate, we nourish, we refresh with the vibrations of this land to ground the body, to anchor the spirit home.

Brooklyn-born and raised, Yasmín Hernández rematriated to her ancestral homeland of Borikén in 2014.  For over two decades, her creative practice has been centered on this land, its suppressed histories, healing and liberation practices. She shares her art at  yasminhernandezart.com.

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