22 October 2010
Introducing (some of) My Tías
I grew up with so many tías, to this day, I don't even know the final count!
Part of it was that I spent my first ten years in the Dominican Republic where my parents are both from. Back in those days, families could be quite large. My father, for instance, had twenty-four siblings. Okay, before you fall over in your chair, let me explain that there were two wives, but not at the same time. My grandfather's first wife had ten kids, and then she died. My grandfather married again, and his second wife had fifteen kids. My father was the youngest of all the kids. So imagine how many aunts -- thirteen, I believe -- just on his side of the family.
The other reason I have so many aunts is that in Hispanic cultures, any close friend of your parents becomes your uncle or aunt. You call them tío or tía. Familias are so important in our cultures that anyone we like, we pull them into the family!
The great thing about tías is that there were dozens of them. You could always find one to talk to about a problem or to help you with a homework assignment. You got raised by all of them, but of course, you had special favorites. This took a lot of pressure off your parents. I know one of the hardest things when we immigrated to this country was that suddenly we turned into a nuclear family: just mami and papi, and my three sisters and me. Papi was busy working, and when Mami was occupied with housework or involved with another sister or in a bad mood, there weren't any tías to turn to.
Back in the Dominican Republic, we grew up in the extended family. Tías were all around me: aunts and uncles lived in side by side houses with my grandparents, Mamita and Papito, in the big house down the street. Every Sunday, our extended familia gathered at my grandparents' house for dinner. It was a huge party. And part of the fun was getting to visit with some of my favorite aunts.
So, I'd like to invite you over to one of those old-time Sunday gatherings and introduce you to some of my favorite tías. But let me say right off that I mean no offense to aunts I don't introduce, because really we could be here for a whole week, not just this one pretend Sunday. As I said, I still don't have a final count, but I'm sure that whenever I do, one more aunt will pop out of the woodwork and say, "¿Y qué? Did you forget about me? Aren't you going to introduce me to your friends?"
First, I'd like to introduce you to my aunt Tití. That's what we called her Tití, not Tía Tití, because she was so young. She seemed more like an older cousin than like an aunt.. She was always reading. She was the only person I ever saw purposely pick up a book to have fun. My grandmother used to say that no man would ever marry her if she kept on reading. Well, Tití did end up marrying, but even better, she kept on reading. To this day, she is one of my favorite people to talk to about books.
Another tía who lived to be 103 years old was Tía Amantina. She was actually a great aunt, my grandmother's "baby sister." Tía Amantina was a tomboy old lady, if you can imagine that. She was always dressed in a jogging suit and wore tiny sneakers. She had dainty feet. In her eighties, Tía Amantina went off to Paris to live in a dormitory and learn how to speak French. She taught me to stay young no matter how old you are, a lesson I appreciate more and more the older I get. On her 101st birthday, we decided to crown her Queen Amantina.
Another aunt, Tía Amelia, was also my godmother. Her family was poor, but Tía Amelia was very beautiful, and a rich man married her. Sadly, he died young, and Tía Amelia was left a rich widow with a big mansion, where she lived all by herself. What am I saying? She didn't live alone at all. She had a dozen servants, and a priest came every day to say mass in her little chapel downstairs. Saturdays, when Tía Amelia was not traveling around the world, she'd send her chauffeur over in her big black car to pick me up, so I could spend the day at her house.
Next, I'd like you to meet my tía Idalita. She was my party aunt. There was nothing Tía Idalita loved more than seeing everyone have a good time. She'd pull people onto the dance floor, the shy ones, the awkward ones, and by the end of the party, everyone was dancing like pros. Good days, bad days, Tía Idalita was in a good mood, smiling, and asking how you were doing. Sometimes I would complain about this, that, or the other. Now, when I think back on how big her problems must have been, living in a dictatorship with friends who had been arrested, and how small my problems were (I wanted a toy my mother wouldn't get for me, my baby sister wouldn't let me have a turn on the swings, one of my cousins wouldn't tell me the secret she'd told my older sister), I think, wow! That smile was an act of strength. Under much less difficult circumstances, I try to face each day with Tía Idalita's and Tía Lola's golden rule in mind. That's the only way you can ever pay back nice things in your life, by passing them on. That's something my Tía Idalita taught me.
If I had to pick the one aunt who was the most like Tía Lola, sassy and magical and full of life, it would have to be my Tía Lulú. I loved to visit with her, because she told the best stories. And her laugh was infectious. You shared a problem with her, and somehow, just talking to her, you felt better. When we first came to the United States, Tía Lulú had preceded us. It was like having a little bit of the old country still close by.
Finally, I'd like to introduce you to the aunt who was like a second mother to my sisters and me, Tía Rosa, whom we called Lala. She was a great cook. After my grandparents died, it was Lala who took up the tradition of Sunday dinners at her house. Sometimes there were a dozen, sometimes almost sixty of us. And there was always enough food. Lala was also a great listener. She gave you the sense that she had all the time in the world, just for you. When we were children, growing up in the Dominican Republic, she lived next door to us. Like Tía Lola, Tía Rosa always had fun projects for us to do. I remember the summer the whole extended family moved out to a big house on the beach that belonged to my grandfather. (The city was so hot that July and August; everyone feared that the heat would bring on diseases.) It rained and rained and rained for days. There must have been a dozen cousins underfoot, and we were all starting to get on our mothers' nerves. Well, Lala told us there was a way to make the sun come out, an ancient magical spell she was going to teach us. She rigged up a big stone with a ring around it on a rope and hung it from the roof of the wraparound porch. We all held hands and chanted:
San Isidro, labrador
quita el agua
pon el sol
Saint Isidro, worker,
take away the rain
bring on the sun.
Round and round we went. But still, it kept raining. "It's not working!" we'd complain. But Tía Rosa, who was in the circle, chanting right along with us, said the sky was far away from earth, we just had to persist and chant a little louder. Finally, we were all dizzy, hoarse, and bored. Anything but chanting around a hanging stone sounded like fun to us. We ended up in the screened-in porch, playing Canasta, Bingo, and dominoes, quiet, lazy games. By mid-afternoon, when the sun peeped out from behind the clouds, the mass of cousins rushed upstairs to get into our swimsuits and dash down to the beach, Tía Rosa was ready in her black swimsuit and kerchief. We all claimed credit for that sunny afternoon. Tía Rosa died two years ago, while I was working on the second Tía Lola book. That's why it's dedicated to her. I still miss her.
I think I better stop, so we can all go down to Sunday dinner!
Photographs courtesy of Julia Alvarez and Bill Eichner
Gracias to Spanglish Baby -- spanglishbaby.com
for being the first to share this essay.
Copyright © Julia Alvarez 2010-2014.
All rights reserved. No further duplication, downloading or
distribution permitted without written agreement of the author
(please contact my agent, Stuart Bernstein).
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