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Ode to Mamá

Amanda M. Ortiz


My abuela was a woman of many apodos, but to her children, to her grandchildren, to me, she was and will forever be, "Mamá." Beloved for her unwavering fierceness, her gracious heart, and her radiant beauty, she was equally despised for these same qualities, among others. One couldn’t have just lukewarm feelings towards or about her. Her very existence demanded a definitive stance—a testament to who she was, if there ever was one. As a child I became a collector of shelved trinkets she had once gifted others (namely, my siblings and my mom), that they were unreluctant to part with: a nearly empty, rose-colored ballerina perfume bottle; a small silver ring with a turquoise stone; clip-on, faux gemstone earrings; a black wool beret. These seemingly unremarkable keepsakes took on great significance for me, and became immediate fixtures in my personal trove of childhood treasures. In my mind, the fact that she had purposefully presented these items to others meant that the recipients held a place in her heart. And so, without any mementos from her of my own, I rationalized that me being in possession of them now meant that extended to me. This was but one of the ways she came to define some of my earliest memories, even without being physically present.

I've spent more of my life without her than with her, so she has often felt more mythical than flesh and bone. Barely of walking age when she died, I cannot recall the sound of her voice, her signature scent, or the feel of her hands. I've instead had to rely on photos and the cuentos of others to fill in the gaps. One of my mom's most cherished possessions while I was growing up was a sepia, framed portrait of Mamá that hung prominently on a wall of our living room. I often found myself transfixed in that living room by that photo for long stretches of time, unwittingly seeking answers. Beyond being captivated by how undeniably stunning she was, I was desperate for it to somehow convey insight into who she was. Even in print, her presence commanded a room.

In that portrait, Mamá was a whole vibe: staring assuredly at the camera, a playful smile dancing on her lips that never fully materialized. Her general forma de ser and style gave an aura of effortlessly chic (a trademark of hers, I'm told): a powder blue sleeveless top hugging her shoulders, hair coiffed in a flawless updo, drop earrings adorning her ears, matching necklace resting on her collarbone. Everything from her expression to the circumstances surrounding the portrait exuded an air of allure and mystery. I still don't know her actual age in that photograph, though if I had to guess, I'd say her early 20s. Reminiscent of how others have long described the Mona Lisa, I'm convinced there's much that immortalized señora could have learned from my abuela. Much to my disappointment at the time, the portrait never delivered the answers I longed for. Instead, it sent me on a lifelong quest to glean the real her from the lore, the nostalgia, and, at times, the vitriol with which she's been spoken of over the years. 

So, what have I learned in that time—what rings most true? Demure shrinking violet, she was not. But bold and classy? Always. Vanity was not her vice, and she wasn't one to weaponize her beauty, but many describe her as the type of mujer de bandera who regularly stopped traffic. Her penetrating gaze could communicate whole paragraphs. She unabashedly stood up for and with others—loved ones and strangers alike, even when she stood alone. She faced the future resolutely, with her eyes fixed on what lay ahead, even when she had no idea where the road was taking her. And she somehow managed to do it with poise, never letting on to any ounce of fear that may have attempted to overtake her. "Una mujer con los zapatos bien puestos," as the saying goes. She was a force. She had an inability to sit quietly by and not call out wrongdoing, even in those she loved most—consequences be damned. She had a temper and let her sentiments be known but was quick to forgive. Her love for her family, those who became her family, and for her patria, was fervent and steadfast. And she was a fighter, right to the end. It's inconceivable that she died at just 52, but in that short time, she managed to live so much life—one that took her from her frontera pueblito of Bánica to San Juan de la Maguana atop a burro with one of her siblings at the age of 5, to la capital at 15, and finally to New York in her early 30s in an effort to evade Trujillo's insidious reach. The unthinkable betrayals and loss she endured here are often beyond comprehension. She fought with all she had for the sake of her children’s very survival in the face of sudden abandonment and destitution far from home, defying seemingly insurmountable odds with full decks stacked against her. And in the 35 years she's been gone, those that loved her still speak her name with wistfulness and reverence. I've witnessed some of those same people sob as though suddenly afflicted anew with the reawakened depths of her absence, as if her passing were a perpetual wound instead of mere residual scar. I've heard more than one of no blood relation refer to her as their hermana del alma.

Four of her bisnietas, none of whom she had the opportunity to meet, bear her name. I wonder every day what she would think of what our family has become, of our connections to and dissociations from each other. How different would we be as individuals, as a collective, had she lived? I imagine how her heart would have shattered to pieces witnessing the ongoing ways in which her beloved patria shamelessly brandishes its soiled hands. And not least of all, I wonder if I make her proud.

Loving abuelos have the potential to be the living embodiment of our raíces and can be such an irreplaceable resource for family history and memory. The lack of them in my own life has always been something I've mourned, and a haven I’ve coveted. I've long wished I could feel Mamá by my side. That her survival and, by extension, her intervention somehow could have prevented or, at least, mended the brokenness that lingers. I now know that nothing short of having her here would satisfy me, that my search for her will never reach a true conclusion. My longing to know her and love her in the flesh, to feel the reassurance of her guidance, her wisdom, her presence, will never be fully sated because those circumstances can never be. On occasions I’m told I resemble her in mannerism or expression, this often reduces me to tears. It's difficult to fathom that I could bear any resemblance to such a dama, but it is somehow an affirmation that she is etched in me inherently. And in that way, even in the times it feels less than true, I carry her with me always.

 

Amanda M. Ortiz is a NY-born and bred, first-generation Dominican writer, polyglot, lettering artist, bibliophile, globetrotter, and human rights reformer. Her degrees in International Affairs and Latin American Studies unearthed a commitment to peacebuilding, transitional justice, and remembrance space/recovery initiatives in post-genocide societies, particularly Hispaniola. Her master's thesis chronicled Hispaniola's 1937 genocide through narratives written by Haitian and Dominican authors. In addition to Spanish, she is fluent in Portuguese with a deep love for Brasil, where she aims to relocate and work. She endeavors to nurture the inner light of each of her four nieces, so that they grow to be whole, fierce, kind, and driven human beings. You can follow her creative journeys on Instagram: @amopalabras and @amocaligrafia

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