Carmelo Santana Mojica
(The following was written as an open letter during the days following the events of September 11, 2001.)
Since the fated day, the world has showered acts of love and solidarity upon the most loved, hated and dazzling city in the world; so recent is the cloud of flesh and dust, pieces of bodies and walls, so shattering the pain, that we attend the rescue as we go to the funeral of a near relative, exclaiming: “My God, he was so good!” Even the most critical among us are careful not to place their finger on the dialectic wound of love and hate that the city of steel and gold produces, because truly we are all in pain. My own derives, I confess, from the Christian guilt of knowing that I have always hated New York, and from the human suspicion that under the present pain, my old resentment still endures.
My hatred was born in 1958, when my paternal grandmother died clutching the blinds of her room in the Manuel A. Pérez housing project, crying for the return of my older brother who had left for New York in the first flight out of the recently inaugurated Isla Verde airport. It grew every day. I went to that same airport to say goodbye to my sisters and cousins who left to sew brassieres and pick tomatoes, while my mother’s Singer sewing machine turned rusty, and the plantains rotted in my uncle’s farm. It increased in the funeral home where my cousin Carlos lay in a closed casket, dead from a grenade in the fields of Vietnam. It overflowed and took my breath away when my first love also left for New York. During decades, I blamed New York for the loss of all my loved ones.
Not all of them settled in New York, but the truth is that in those times, the concepts of “getting out,” “go up there” and “jump the puddle” were synonymous with “leaving for New York.” Even today, my 80 year old mother believes that my brother, who lives in Los Angeles, and our neighbor, who bought a house in Orlando, both still live in New York. The love and hatred generated by the city gather around its symbolic value.
My love must have been born the day my cousin Toña returned from New York, beautiful in her fur coat, smelling like the world, like trips, like freedom. It grew every time we received presents from New York: the first plastic Christmas tree, cousin Richard´s used tennis shoes, t-shirts printed with the city´s image. It increased when my cousins returned from picking lettuce and tomatoes as if they had journeyed over an invisible bridge. It crystallized in 1980. My first visit to the Barrio, when I attended a street theater festival, showed me another Puerto Rico, a sad, but also more authentic one. It became real when I escaped from everyone and reached the Cloisters: medieval music, monastic cells, European crosses transported and reinstalled in the great cultural center. All at once, the monster became human, dressed in the finery awarded by museums, music, parks and pleasant dinners.
Love and hatred of New York always exist in opposite and complementary ways. To understand recent events it is necessary to remember the memory of hatreds hidden under layers of love. But not these intimate and domestic household hatreds, but those distant and international ones, global hatreds because the globe extends over cities, islands, countries (whether they call themselves Panama City, Korea, San Salvador, Iraq or Vieques) that have been beaten down in the name of love, liberty and democracy. If we had to learn to love that hallucinating city, what can we expect from those who never had the chance to love her, but who can discharge on its symbolic value, like we did, the weight of all evils?
Perhaps the most terrible consequence of the terrorist acts of September 11 is that they returned to us the obtuse medieval division between good and bad, them and us. If the dialectical relationship between love and hatred breaks, then what remains is only the love of mine and the hatred of others. With the fall of the Twin Towers we lost what we had won by the fall of the Berlin wall. The hunt for communists has come back again, only now we seek them in the transvestite guise of terrorists, and the liberties of the defenders of freedom are now being trampled upon in the name of that very same liberty. If the tree does not straighten its branches, the apples of discord will inevitably fall. If we did not learn anything new during the bloody 20th century, we deserve the present war.