Updated: Apr 10, 2022
By Nivi Canela
She braided red ribbons into my hair.
Normally when I visited Mama Sula my older cousins, Mariel y Jenny, watched me on Sunday mornings.
But today was special. Today, Mama Sula would take me to her iglesia. I wasn’t allowed to wear anything red when I went to church with my mom back in Jersey. Going with Mama Sula somehow felt more holy. Out of all her grandkids, I got to see how this montaña of a woman worshiped.
She balanced me firmly between herself and the moto concho driver as we zipped through La Vega, my vision a blur of dust, palm trees, blue skies, and red ribbons.
She lit a candle at the entrance of this little chapel filled with the smell of palo santo. Inside, everything glowed scarlet and gold.
Mama Sula was a teacher in the campo. Birthed six babies, including a pair of twins: my father, who lived, and his brother, who didn’t. She said somebody gave him the evil eye because they envied her twins.
Always stern, this mountain. Only seemed to smile Sundays after church when her children drove in from across El Cibao to see her.
But here in her church, she sang and clapped. She smiled down on me, and it felt like a blessing.
The bigger blessing was her laugh - the one time I heard it, more than ten years later.
We were sitting by her dining room table while Tia Nora and my dad prepared the café. Tia Nora insisted I was old enough to enjoy coffee with the adults now: nineteen, a mujercita. My dad said no, held me tightly in the palm of his hand, ever a frangipani. The siblings compromised - the “real” adults would drink their coffee from big white cappuccino mugs, and I from a small lime-green espresso cup.
Dialysis was draining Mama Sula’s energy, and she sometimes had to be hooked up to a machine. It seemed to lower her guard. Maybe that’s why she said what she said.
She looked me up and down - much like she had when I turned eleven and began to grow tetitas. She took me in, a quick-witted brown pear-shape so much like Tia Nora, so much like herself, and said,
“Cuando yo tenía tu edad, las señoritas no tenían las opciones que tienen ustedes.”
When I was your age, young women didn’t have the options you have now.
My brain started to list things I had that she couldn’t: free public education, access to a four-year college on scholarship, even grad school if I wanted to go, the job market -
“No teníamos la contracepción.”
We didn’t have contraception.
She grins - the mischievous twin of her church smile.
“Si yo la hubiera tenido -“
If I’d had it -
A giggle from deep in her barriga bubbles up and explodes into a guffaw.
My father stomps into the kitchen doorway,
“No! She can’t have novios until after she graduates college.”
I hear Tia Nora cackle as if she knows all my secrets. She pokes her head between my father’s arm and the doorway.
“Mija, have all the novios you want. Travel the world, live your life - then, if you want, get married.”
My father’s tongue is as tied as the day he caught Tia Nora leafing through a sex toy catalog with Tio Fabio’s girlfriend.
Mama Sula sweetened her coffee amply despite her diagnosis.
La profesora, a devout Catholic until the day they laid her down, insisted on enjoying life. She insisted that I do, too - wanted me to live freely, wear red ribbons in my hair, and enjoy all the sugar I wanted.
Nivi Canela is a queer BIPOC writer, performer, and creativity coach from Union City, NJ. She is the creator of Happy Song Time musical improv and Naked Broadway Cabaret, a virtual musical theatre-themed cabaret centering LGBTQIA BIPOC performance art. She currently lives in New Orleans.