Grandma had walked these same streets, viewed these same shops, sheltered beneath these same palm trees. The footsteps I strived to follow had disappeared long before I arrived on the island. At the start of the day, coming to terms with this fact had numbed my twisted insides. However, by the day’s end, after roaming San Juan for hours in search of something I didn’t understand in a place I didn’t belong, I finally found something that pulled at me: an almost black wooden pen with gold accents. The fountain pen warmed in my shaking hand as my brain stirred. This is what I have to take back. I don’t need anything else. Just. This.
Wandering the town’s center, feet padding across the cobblestone paths, my eyes consumed the storefronts cemented to their place by the sidewalk. They looked like piano keys—that is, if piano keys were aqua, yellow, and fuchsia. These buildings stood stark from the parts of the city advertised in brochures: the 500-year-old remnants of statues, turrets, and fortresses worn by time. This town existed as an antithesis to itself. Clubs were placed next to muraled churches, and English and Spanish were spoken alongside each other.
At midday, I had a moment where I felt I understood or belonged for the first time since being here; I successfully ordered a coffee in Spanish. My Rs were almost rolled, and I didn’t pause too long between words. I had actually spoken so well that the barista started a conversation with me as she foamed my latte. Despite the intensive Spanish classes I took in college, I understood maybe two words she said. I paused. My face flushed, and all I could say was “no se.” The barista stuttered in embarrassment and apologized, but that only added to my frustration. “No hablo español.”
Coffee and shame in hand, I continued my search for something that might connect me to Grandma, who died before I was born, who died before I learned anything about being Latina.
Carts and tents parked along a plaza surrounding a water fountain. Sign’s advertising paintings, wooden figurines, and pastelillos covered the fronts of tables and stands. This little market echoed with the beating of barrel drums and the picking of acoustic guitar strings. The conversations of crafters, cooks, and artists moved between the pop-up shops so easily, so quickly. I had hoped my year of Spanish classes would carry me further on this trip, that upon visiting my grandma’s childhood home, I would suddenly understand the words I never learned or regain the ability to roll my Rs. It hit me hard that I was still just a tourist in a space where I wanted to be in the know, in the togetherness, and even in the struggles.
To the left of the water fountain, in the shade of a large palm tree, a cart with large wheels sat stationed for crowds of customers. A short old woman stood behind the cart wearing a loose-fitted purple dress with flowers stamped across the fabric. Despite the hunch in her back and the gentle shaking of her aged body, she moved about her stand with pride and knowledge about her work. Taking in a deep breath, her raspy voice bellowed, “¡Bolígrafos! ¡Bolígrafos! ¡Ven a buscar tus bolígrafos!”
Bolí-what? A ray of sunlight beamed through the tree branches overhead toward the counter, and one particular item caught my eye. I moved closer to investigate.
The label on the item, a fountain pen, read “Cobana Negra.” This tree, I later found out, was a threatened species scattered across the island. Due to the dredging of wetlands and the urbanization of the coast, the Cobana Negra lacked space to thrive in its usual environment. Aspects of various cultures have been lost or taken over time due to colonialism and tourism, and for those reasons, the Cobana Negra was on the cusp of disappearing from the island.
“Puerto Rico only,” the elderly woman behind the stand nodded in confidence, a strand of ashy gray hair falling from the clip on her head. I cradled the pen in my hand like porcelain.
“¿Cuanta?” I tried to ask how much it was. The word I actually needed was “¿Cuantas?”
The woman smiled, the lines around her rich brown eyes growing deeper. She responded in Spanish. I didn’t understand. I wracked my brain, trying to return to my seat in Spanish class. I paused. This caused her to duck behind the counter. After a clank and a clatter, she reemerged with a pen and scrap of paper. Handshaking, she scrawled out the number 100.
The air around me that once swirled with coffee grounds, steamed rice, and the sea had stilled. Disappointment filled my belly; I didn’t have enough money. I placed the pen back on the counter. Pushing through my purse to my wallet, I thumbed through the bills, counting and recounting, both hoping and demanding there be more than there was. I bit my lip. What was the Spanish word for “haggle”?
Defeated, I lowered my wallet back into my purse. I thanked the old woman in Spanish and moved away from the stand. A booming voice behind me asked with a twang, “Do ya need help there, lil lady?”
I spun to face a man in jeans and a blue-striped button-up. He beamed at me, his corn-yellow smile contrasting his white mustache, his white skin, his white 10-gallon hat. He was well over a foot taller than me and appeared even larger with his hands on his hips. I wasn’t sure what to respond to first: his offer or his “little lady.” This man seemed to me like he would know more about a rodeo than anything around here, but I was desperate for this pen. I took a gamble.
I told him I didn’t know the Spanish word for haggle, that I only had $80, that I really wanted that pen.
“Shoot, is that all?” He threw his head back in a hearty laugh, “You betcha I can ask.”
The man sauntered over to the stand. He leaned his whole body onto the counter, his left hand removing the hat from his head. Lulling, lilting Spanish left the man’s mouth without a stumble or hesitation. The woman stifled a laugh, blushing. The old man continued speaking with her as he brushed his fingers through his thinning hair. My mouth fell open.
I couldn’t believe this guy. My nostrils flared before I could stop them. It was bad enough to need help just talking to someone, but it was even harder watching someone speak a language so easily when I had struggled so much to learn the little, I knew. I glared down at the cobblestone beneath me, my fingernails denting the flesh of my palms. Yet again, “No hablo español.”
“Darlin’, come ‘ere,” The man waved me over with a crooked grin.
The gentleman replaced his hat over his bald spot and turned to me, “Y’all take care now.” With a tip of his hat, he stepped away from the stand.
The elderly woman cleared her throat before stretching her shaking arm over the counter with something clutched in her hand. The pen.
“Aquí,” she asserted, her other hand opened for cash. Eyes big, I handed her all of the money in my wallet.
“Gracias!” I smiled, securing the pen in my hand.
In the corner of my eye, I spotted the man walking toward another stand, another person, another possible dilemma. This time though, I saw him more clearly than before when my anger had all but burst out of me. While I understood I needed the man’s help, I still stewed over the whole situation, at this man for speaking such cadenced, faultless Spanish. For knowing more Spanish than someone who technically came from Spanish. For knowing more Spanish than someone who yearned for it, who was not taught it at home, who failed to learn it in school. While I still grieved the loss of learning the language, I couldn’t justify my frustration at a man who was lucky enough to speak it. Without his help, as out of place as he was, I wouldn’t have been able to buy that pen.
Almost floating through the rest of the market, I examined the pen in my hand. I imagined this pen in its previous life: a force tall and thin, bending and shifting with the hurricanes, the wars, and the other various abuses the island has had to endure over the past 500 years. In the past, these now smooth edges were initials carved into jagged bark. Perhaps, in a life not so long ago, my grandma, a child then, would have leaned her back against its trunk. Perhaps she would have placed her palm against its roots, tried to wrap her small arms around its massive center. My fingers curled around the pen gingerly, the closest to an embrace I may ever get to my grandma, my heritage, my home.
“Beacham’s Guide to the Endangered Species of North America.” Encyclopedia.com. 17 Oct. 2020 .” Encyclopedia.com, Cengage, 26 Oct. 2020/ www.encyclopedia.com/environment/science-magazines/cobana-negra.
Born in Seattle and raised in rural Idaho, S. Salazar has always felt at home in the mountains. After graduating from the University of Idaho, she began teaching 7th-12th grade English. Her students’ creativity inspires her to show students that success isn’t defined by background.