I was lost and frustrated trying to find collaborators who knew this world I was re-creating in Good Bread Alley: a world of dreams, a world of magic, a world that was my childhood where African gods sangs songs in Spanish, English and Gullah. Everywhere I went, people who looked nothing like me were telling me, “This is not yours to tell.” But then, tiny messages would appear that told me the opposite. During a search of Miami’s turn of the century archives, I explained to an archivist what my grandmother’s house looked like. He leaves the room, comes back an hour later and slides a picture across the table. It’s my grandmother’s house in 1916. I start crying and telling him things about the street, where to pay your lightbill, where to get the best Green Apple Now or Laters or Pickled pigs feet. Just laughing and crying and remembering. He steps out into the hallway and calls in the whole office: the secretaries, the archivists and the cleaning lady who’s been looking over my shoulder at my notes for the last three days giving me her running commentary in Spanish. He says, “Yall come in here, she crying now!” Once everybody’s in the little conference room, he says, “Now, you our archivist. Go tell our story so people know we was here.” And all the heads in the room nod, “Gone now!”
So I forged ahead, rejection after rejection. I heard everything from, “Of course, there are no black Cubans. There are no Gullah women who know Lukumi, what are you talking about?” But the living proof was living in me. I remember the music of my childhood vividly, the rituals, the language spoken in whispers to the beat of a drum which was really a box. And so I light a candle to my Great Grandma Celia, brew a Cuban coffee the way she taught me and listen to the music and write. She tells me stories as if she’s sitting in the room across from me. From time to time, Tio Cilo, will interrupt her and correct her in Spanish and then they fuss. And I just listen and write down what they say. I wish I could say I invented the stories, but really I’m just listening to them like I always have.
So I forged ahead and one day when the years of rejection and unanswered emails became too much, I was walking down 125th street with tears in my eyes. And I run into Imani & Imanie, friends I haven’t seen in 4 years who say, “Oh, I know that song, my grandma taught me. No, ain’t nobody wrote it down, chile, but I can teach it.” And the grip of sadness around my heart starts to loosen.
Then, I’m on FB and stumble upon a theatre group and on a whim, go to the event: China de Oro. I sit and a little brown lady in her 50′s turns to me and begins speaking to me in Spanish about her daughter singing that old Cuban music. She and I sing the songs together, hollering and ache’ing form the audience. Then this chocolate brown young girl-child, Jadele, steps on stage and starts singing “Ave Maria” in Spanish & Yoruba. She looks like my great grandma Celia. It’s uncanny. Like a brown girl from the 19th century just walked onto the stage: head held high, voice in the back of her throat singing and calling on Shango and I understand the words. No clue how, I just do. I hum and dream and sway to music that my feet know and my heart longs for.
During intermission, all these fabulous chocolate divas stroll up to me, with afros and tresses that would shame Rupaul. No one asks me, are you Latin, they simply say, “Of which island, hija?” They ask me in Spanish who I’m with. I say, “I’m alone, siempre sola.” And these women turn to me in Spanish and whisper ferociously, “Aye, no, hija! You are not alone, you are never alone. You are with us, always.”
And I tear up, smile and I hear laughter. Grandma Celia and Tio Cilo are falling out…just shaking with laughter…and I know, I am right where I belong.