The Ex-Canonization of My Grandmother Nigela Hernandez

The Ex-Canonization of My Grandmother Nigela Hernandez

I was six years old the first time I saw my grandmother shed any tears. My world came tumbling down on me—for she was the first and only god I knew.

My mother came to the United States to look for a better life for us when I was four and left me with my grandmother, Nigela. Memory is a funny thing, as I had remnants of her being around prior to her leaving to New York City, but I’d forgotten her departure completely.

I remember many things of her and of our time together. I remember her striking beauty and my unreasonable jealousy when any man approached her. I was a mini-terror, down to throwing hands and pulling out knives on men all the way up to my pre-teens. My seething rage and hate for any man who looked at any woman in my family sexually was deep—especially if it was my mother. That wasn’t transferred to my grandmother, though, maybe because men were subtler with her. Childhood is a peculiar thing.

My mother, Miriam, right after arriving to NYC. This photo was taken during the mid 80s in Brooklyn.

My mother, Miriam, right after arriving to NYC. This photo was taken during the mid 80s in Brooklyn.

I was told I cried for days on end when my mother left, but I suppressed that short epoch of my life. I read that children tend to do that with traumatic events. Luckily, my grandmother was there to replace a mother figure, but she was taking care of an innumerable amount of young men and spreading love and attention to all of us, I’m sure, was a herculean task because we were all gifted with different needs and personalities. I know mine was a particular one to put up with despite my blind allegiance to the woman.

I was another man-child, demanding care and attention, but I was obedient and industrious despite my bouts of rage. One has to be, I figured, when one lives with a bunch of young men with raging hormones and streaks of cruelty. I remember a cartoon from a psych textbook that always stuck with me: a character suggested to put men between the ages of 12 and 30 in a state of cryostasis because that’s when testosterone levels peak—and so does violent behavior. One thing that cartoonist didn’t consider was that putting anyone under that state would also delay the aging process considerably. Perhaps we should just be left frozen and reanimated for breeding purposes only, but that’s just me.

Rheumatoid arthritis hit my grandmother at an early age. She was in her 40s when I lived with her. I felt so much as a child that I was having sympathy pains and a doctor suggested I had arthritis too. It’s funny looking back now, but I really felt the same symptoms then. The brain is a mysterious thing. Arthritis and all, she took care of us all: she cooked, cleaned, bathed us, disciplined us with a mystical flying chancleta that never missed, and washed clothes right under the unforgiving Caribbean sun with her bare hands. Speaking of flying chancletas that never missed, it’s hitting me now that there’s a history of pitchers, of baseball players in my family—from her own brothers and a son who reached the minor leagues in the United States—and my grandmother was surgical with her throwing arm. Her entire body, it seems, is otherworldly—not just her hands, but it is real.

She would look at her hands from time to time and see real and imaginary wrinkles. She’d vocalize her observations to those at hearing distance, too. Those hands, to me, were beautiful and magical, and worth more than a fleeting youth—a thing we must learn to respect, but not obsess over to the point of bringing us sadness and pain. But that was for her to feel—not me. Nevertheless, those hands were an army, an armada, the nuts and bolts that kept us together and moving parts that kept us going. We owe the world to those hands.

All that movement brought her considerable pain and I tried to sooth it by giving her massages. Besides going all over town doing chores for her, I’d grab a bottle of lotion and massage her aching joints. Till this day she teasingly reminds me of how I used to sneak up on her and massage her shoulders whenever she was upset with me, but the technique always worked. I was a scheming little bastard. She was kind but easy to upset. Maybe I take after her with that. I remember how she’d send us to get cilantro and if we brought it back with any brown spots, back out again we’d go, but not before landing a “mira muchacho’el diablo” or two on us. I’d walk the entire town looking for fresh poultry and celery for her. Cleanliness is not the only thing that’s godly to grandmothers—freshness is, too.

I know it must’ve been hard on her the day I left. It was hard for me and today I say I lost two mothers to forced-migration, to imperialism, to poverty. I always resented I was brought to the States, to another world, to a land that was unwelcoming of a brown-looking, curious, and naive kid. I went on a hunger strike for two weeks to be sent back, but my taste for Lucky Charms and Pop-Tarts did me in. Besides, I belonged with my mother and she made that very clear from time to time whenever I had the impulse to flee. She also birthed two more siblings in the States and I couldn’t trade them for the world.

Three generations of mothers: Filomena, my great-grandmother, Nigela, my grandmother, and Miriam, my mother. This photo was taken in Brooklyn during the late 80s.

Three generations of mothers: Filomena, my great-grandmother, Nigela, my grandmother, and Miriam, my mother. This photo was taken in Brooklyn during the late 80s.

My grandmother ingrained a sense of justice and compassion in me that I haven’t been able to shake off for my own good. Last December I left her an ode on Facebook for her 81st birthday:

My grandmother turns 81 today. The last time I was in touch with her I told her that it was a mistake I was sent to the States. That if given the choice I would've stayed in my pueblo natal. Now I'm more gringo than a gringo and turning the world into a furnace to feel its warmth, as the saying goes, because a village is too small for the immense insanity that plagues us all who had the misfortune of being forced out of our born lands for whatever reason. She told me to be strong. I am the strongest person I know. I dedicated my short, Dominican Boy, to her, because she gave me an invaluable gift. I never forget how she treated the Haitian construction workers doing backbreaking work for a neighbor: she'd offer them food and water and never asked for anything in return. A servant of humanity since an early age with little recompense. I pray she lives forever but if the good Lord eventually calls for her, I hope she doesn't have to lift one finger, ever. I guess the world needs people like her to keep it from tearing at the seams faster than what it already is: links, imanes, lovers of the good and bad (for she even sees good in bad people). To my grandmother, Nigela: thank you for instilling in me the greatest gift anyone could receive—empathy.

My grandmother’s 81st birthday. She’s surrounded by some of her sons and other family members. This photo was taken in 2018 in Sosúa.

My grandmother’s 81st birthday. She’s surrounded by some of her sons and other family members. This photo was taken in 2018 in Sosúa.

She’s always been a strong matriarch who never showed us any sign of weakness. Except for that day I caught her shedding tears when I was six years old and recently when we had a video call. I never found out why she cried then, but today I know why—for me. She reminded me of those childhood moments in which I’d try to buy her off by giving her massages and how she never lets me live down the one time I uttered “Why do the hens take a shit and never clean themselves?” when I was four years old at her mother’s house.

She always loved all her children—perhaps a little too much to some folks. When a friend of the family, Chita, brought her dulce de maní, she’d wait until she left to cut it up and give each one of us a tiny piece. Chita knew she’d do that and would voice her displeasure about it, but my grandmother’s motherly instincts were too grand for others to comprehend. When another neighbor, Túlio, would bring her a tiny mango from his numerous mango trees, she’d go in on him for being a cheapskate because a lot of those mangos would just rot and she had to feed an entire baseball team of kids.

I always used to say a prayer for her health, but it wasn’t until decades later that I realized she must’ve had dreams. Her brother, Radhamés, used to ask her to sing for him, for she possessed an ethereal voice. Maybe she wanted to be a singer but life made her a caretaker instead. Maybe she wanted to be an entertainer of sorts. She’d become a fixture of Sosúa because of her kindness, off-color humor, disdain for corruption and abuse, as well as her infamous sex tips. She became more than a mother to us all after all. She was, is, and will continue to be a treasure to our pueblo.

The Hernandez: Radhamés, David, Nieves, Nigela, Gura, Papo, Chichí. Photo taken circa 2013, Sosúa.

The Hernandez: Radhamés, David, Nieves, Nigela, Gura, Papo, Chichí. Photo taken circa 2013, Sosúa.

One tends to forget that our parents and grandparents are human, with needs, dreams, aspirations, and capable of feeling and expressing a range of emotions just like anybody else. I sure remember the times I’d embarrass her. Like when I used to pull on her skirt so we can go whenever she stopped to speak with every single person she encountered the few times she went out. Or when I took a dump right outside of a bus, in front of everybody, when we were coming back from visiting my aunt and uncle Chiquita and Nene from Santo Domingo and all she kept whispering was “ay, Dios mío.” Or when I brought home a chicken from Siplín’s store that was clearly a bit too old for her liking so she called him to the house and dressed him down while my stupid ass pinched the chicken. She knew who it was, but asked who was the culprit after he left, perhaps to teach us all a lesson and because she was a bit overprotective of me. One time, her brother Radhamés took the entire family to a río excursion but she forbade me from going. I was a clumsy kid and prone to accidents, but I wanted to go anyway and cried a river to her to let me. I’m sure she remembers I almost drowned in one and almost took an uncle with me, too. Luckily, an uncle spotted us right away and quickly jumped in to rescue us.

I’m no longer that child she mourns and fondly remembers. I no longer have traces on my face of that obedient, curious, hypersensitive, ragey, and out of place ugly duckling patch that she’d sewed on to her falda.

Today, I am a man. A man who has never stopped being in awe of her. A man that recognizes her humanity.

Today, I’m the one who sheds tears for being away for so long in an unwelcoming foreign land.

And today I say to her: Nigela, I’m coming home.

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