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Critic's Picks: MEMOIR

When I was eight years old and did not speak English, I thought there was nothing better than going to this little third-world town in the middle of nowhere, walking down its dusty streets, and buying an ice cream for 15 cents. I would until the night to lie down on the terrace floor and watch fireworks until three in the morning. Sometimes I still feel I am eight years old; my only way to reconcile such memoirs with the present is through writing something like “Vueltas” that helps me crystallize a cherished and pivotal period in my life.

Editor’s Comments:
In this inspired memoir, Jessica Colom travels to a small town in Cuba — the home of her legendary, late grandfather — and finally begins to understand her father’s obsessive nostalgia for the past.  Jessica gathers these indelible impressions and carves out vibrant memories with her words.


by Jessica Colom
age: 18

“Jutía. You have to be Jutía,” he punctured the silence as we entered the legendary town, shrine of my bedtime stories. “All the women in the family have been Ñañacas, but you’ll be Jutía like the men.”

Sticky with enthusiasm that first year, I arrived and the west, the north, and the east switched directions — giggling. I was to be the youngest in the Jutíos community, the granddaughter of the renowned artist and town idol “Cumba” Colom. My dad’s obsession with his natal town, Vueltas, had always been an amusing mystery for my 8-year-old, city-girl rationale, but the simplicity of it began unfolding in the gold paint vapors and scented sawdust erupting in joyful euphonies out of the warehouse, where the exotic float was being built. As we went downhill, I looked up, squinting my eyes in the morning shimmer, and admired, through my rainbowed eyelids, the fantastic adobe palace crowning the village. Squeezing our way through the miniature road, strange, tanned faces on terrace rocking chairs acknowledged me warmly, as if my surname were clearly spelled in the crevices of my eyes. I embraced the temporary life bestowed on the town by the festivities.

The house was white and high-roofed; grandmother almond trees grew behind it to indicate the way home, to indicate the right door otherwise undistinguishable from the continuous row of cottages, now blue, now white, now covered in mildew.  I swung out of the car and ran into flaccid arms and a cotton head not much higher than mine. My grandma’s.  She was a small white mouse, scurrying to mend, prepare, secure, and hold together the country house with the blue glossy ceiling, the house with the cracks between the white wooden planks through which the light flooded the bustling, summery atelier.

Luggage in one hand, my own hand on the other, my dad cooed to the limping parrot who pirated the shiny, paper-bag colored floor of the patio and threw my possessions between the two red columns with hanging pots of yellow poppies. We had to go “downtown.” We walked for two blocks in which he solemnly presented me to each of his half-centennial friends as “la nieta de Cumba Colom.”  They replied with reciprocal solemn interest. It was a peculiar place in the middle of nowhere, where people seemed to have a common understanding of things conveyed by the position of one’s shoulders, where foreign things were worshiped, where I obtained my one superstition: I’ll never get married if my feet are swept on.

The chassis of the float was placed on the main street, encircled by steaming kiosks selling bread with pork and tamale, and crowded ice cream machines that trailed melted pink and brown. Echoes of hammers, sweaty men laughing a sugar-cane laughter, and the exclamations of the people, as piece by piece the exotic float was assembled on the chassis all at once, reverberated on the 300-year-old church’s walls, threatening its existence with zestful, folkloric vibrations. A hundred meters apart, down the same street, stood the enemy float. They had been rivaling for 97 years then. For the Jutíos, the Jutíos always won. The Ñañacos, for their part, asserted they had been, undoubtedly, the winners every year. It did not even matter. Although comparsas flip-flopped through the streets representing their neighborhood, and shiny posters with insignias like “Ñañacos are going down,” or “Fear the Jutía” hovered above us, the crowd joined either of the groups joyfully.

As I was led away from this circadian scenario, we passed the desolate cemetery. My dad seemed to know no one in there. He smiled in his enthusiasm and got submerged in a conversation about how, as a kid, he used to steal cupcakes from the Chinese baker “el Chino Pinto” who didn’t know his way back home because the north, the west, and the south had switched places for him, too, when he arrived in the town. We passed the precarious houses with red roof tiles, blackened by past stories of led astray, descending remnants of fireworks. He showed me the white sand road that led to “The River of the Mocho” where so many times el Mocho, a very short, one-armed man who decided to own the river and make its bushes his home, chased him and the rest of the candy-and-pie-stealers gang, shrieking in his purple fury: “It’s you with your dirty feet who are making the waters turbid!!” We passed by silent streets where famished dogs were overlooked because the boastful crowd, carousing two or three blocks away, muffled the wails of their hunger. He showed me the place where the church of his infancy had been, reminiscing with cheerful nostalgia about the day he entered the raw oak doors, his hat folded in his 18-year-old hands, to ask God’s forgiveness for the last time. He said: “God, forgive me, but from now on I can’t believe in you anymore or I won’t be able to study.” The Revolution had triumphed then. Surely.  We passed by white walls cornered by black-mold-covered houses, spelling in red letters falling apart with the whitewash: “Socialism or Death.”

We went back home as the night dragged and some fireworks, in the rising heat, could not resist the temptation to ignite themselves. “Do you want to go on the float?” They had prepared a disguise for me that fused with the other exotic visual delights. Long white-tulle tails embroidered with golden-vinyl trailed all around the house, the auric makeup scattering in the floor, bathing the soft dainty feet of the beautiful young women. Striking, sumptuous masquerades lost in feathers, rhinestones, and amalgams of glitzy colors, promenaded amongst manual Singer sewing machines, oil paintings of the defunct grandfather “Cumba”, with the float masterpieces of his creation spread out on the laps of reminiscing viejitas captured in photo albums dating from 1937 through 1991 like little bits of miracles. I could not understand at the moment why such a bright mind, autodidact pianist, autodidact English and French speaker, architect, painter, thinker had chosen the life of this town, to exist with it solely in the month of August. I could not understand these people, how they spent a whole-year’s saving on one night of luxury.

I rumbaed with the others out of the house toward the dazzling float that featured the theme “Una noche en el paraíso” (A Night in Paradise). The Ñañacos displayed an ice castle in a wintry, iridescent landscape. Lifelike characters that motioned arms, hips, and legs in a majestic fashion adorned the 30 meters of the gargantuan floats. From there I gaped at the crowds, not knowing which spectacle was more extraordinary, theirs or mine. They were glazed for an instant under the splendid light of thousands of handmade fireworks, installed in firework standers cramming four entire blocks by the valiant children who did not care to be blown to pieces by the gunpowder as long as the firework effect thrived. This was life. This was grandeur. No matter where you belonged, nothing could seem more lively and intense. Nothing was more worthwhile. The roofs were immersed in the balmy light of the fireworks, the houses elated by the explosions irradiating the commitment and effort of the people… He did well to stay there veiled by anonymity.  Maybe the enchantment of the town was what spurred his genius. At 5:00 a.m., exhausted and overjoyed, I understood my father’s obsession. I welcomed the madness of every August.

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