By Jose Rodriguez, MD
A few months back, I felt the need to record my life’s story for my kids, so they could know who I am, and what parts of them came from me. I started writing this as a book, but I got bored, so I tried making it a book of verse. I started writing this as a bilingual poem, but because not everyone understands Spanish and English, and because I find myself speaking more and more English to everyone I am related to, I switched to a monolingual American-English poem. The poem starts with the first memories of my life: my parents’ attempt at re-creating their vision of Puerto Rico in the Hudson Valley of New York, and the hard work I faced every morning (I never got to sleep in for any reason
This reflection tries to take the negative out of the immigration experience that my family endured, and to highlight the conflicts of identity as well as what has turned into our saving grace: work.
Identity, impossibility, and farm animals
I was born in a small New York town— un lugar muy triste
I remember its ugliness, que ya no existe.
My parents were new to New York in a way
My dad had lived there many years before that day
That I was born in the winter of ‘70
It was cold, it was dark and a little bit empty.
I was born in a hospital, in a small urban center
I was the first of my family to be born into a snowy winter.
They had left the Puerto Rico, 4 years before
And for many, many years, I wished they had stayed there more
Years so that I could have been born in Puerto Rico
To avoid this identity problem, and not be confused with “Chico”
From Chico and the Man, an old TV show
About a New York Puerto Rican, also born to the snow.
I lived in upstate New York for 14 years
We had a good time, lots of sweat, tears and fears.
For example my parents, who left the farm in PR
Wanted to create a new one, didn’t matter how far
We were from their homeland. We raised goats, rabbits and chickens
And I hated taking care of them, especially when they were stricken
With animal attacks or frostbite or starvation.
It made me feel bad, as I felt humiliation
For not doing my job, or not feeding them right,
Or for leaving the gate unlocked overnight.
We worked all of the time, and we had no days off
It didn’t matter if we were sick, “who cares about a cough?”
So for most of my childhood I worked every day
And for decades I thought there would never be a way
To please my parents, and live up to their expectations
They wanted perfection in our animal’s preservation.
My dogs, my goats and my rabbits all died;
And despite those failures, I tried to keep the others alive.
Those deaths were very hard, but from them I learned,
That I could be successful even after getting burned
By fruitless efforts at raising helpless farm creatures.
I guess after all my parents were teachers.
They wanted to teach us that work would take us far
And work we did, it didn’t matter how hard.
It was to be responsible at such a young age.
Now looking back, their advice was sage.
Jose Rodriguez, MD, BA (Hons) is a Professor (Clinical) in the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah, School of Medicine.