Far from the Tree

Judith Ortiz Cofer

“You will grow up to be just like your mother.” The daughter of the prodigal daughter had the curse laid on her from birth. The memory of the daughter lost to vice long ago hung over the girl like a black invisibility cloak waiting for the one action that would trigger its descent and cover her for life.  I will grow up to be invisible. I will grow up to disappear just like my mother. It is what she heard from the aunt who reluctantly raised her after  her sister took up with the wrong men, and finally just vanished—not dead, just gone. We heard it all, or overheard it from our mothers, who might see the little girl being reprimanded by her bad-tempered aunt (mujer de mal genio), and the inevitable comparison. “Pobrecita, she’s just like her mother.”  It is this girl I was not encouraged to play with, only to pity, that picks me up at the airport when I accept the invitation to celebrate the cultural heritage of the city where we both spent our formative years. I remember her in our class pictures, her head always hanging a little lower than ours. What her body said with its hunched shoulders protecting her vulnerable heart, her hands in the prayer position, was pity me. And we did.  We called her la pobrecita behind her back and never invited her to our lunch table. High School, the cruel domain of the teenager in which social survival trumps compassion—this juvenile’s prime directive ruled our lives in those days. I admit to not giving la pobrecita much thought after I left as a teenager, moved South with my parents where I finished high school, attended college, became a writer,  and reinvented my future. As a writer I get to revisit my old hoods, but now I am driven there by my hosts, people who usually want to cast me in the light of a survivor—I am not a survivor of the mean streets; my parents’ and my life choices changed me, and my destino changed when my landscape changed: the true survivor of a culture is my hostess, the astilla, the painful splinter from the wood of the old tree, who overcame the curse of the adage, and is  now a councilwoman on the rise in a still troubled city, bombed out by drugs and crime, and an exploding immigrant population– a place for a phoenix to appear. And many believe my oppressed childhood friend has broken out in feathers of gold and red from the ashes; she is a political force to be reckoned with, an agent of change in our old barrio.

She steps out of her shiny new official government SUV, dressed for success, and looks at me with just a little hesitation—what would I remember?  But we are both at the distance from the old trees of our sunless past that we need to be. We are the seed carried by a breeze to fertile ground. We are the semilla, not the astilla. We are the seed, not the splinter. We go home because we can, and it will be all right.

Judith Ortiz Cofer’s new memoir, The Cruel Country, was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2015. She has written several children’s and YA books. Her books include: Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer, An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio, The Line of the Sun, Silent Dancing, and three books of poetry.

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