BY GABINO IGLESIAS
Sometimes the drums beating in my blood get too loud. They take over and silence all the other nonsense, all the other things trying to distract me with their immediacy, their apparent ties to the apocalypse, their loud, obnoxious wrongness. When that happens, I close my eyes and listen to my blood, and when I do that, this is what I hear:
I hear the drums, the stretched skins of animals, thrumming powerfully, undeniably through my veins, carrying with them the songs of lost people, mixed cultures, and a plethora of angry gods hidden inside the new deities the Spaniards imposed on two thirds of my DNA.
I hear the strength of my great-great-great grandmother, who escaped slavery across a deadly river that poetess Julia de Burgos later loved with her cuerpo y alma. I hear her voice in my blood say that no person should ever be owned and that laughing in the face of death is better than having to live as abused property.
I hear the labor and the love and the blood and the patience of generations of women who fought for better days and more opportunities and less hunger and more justice. I hear the soft rasping sound made by the callous hands of men who battled to put food on the table and did all they could to make sure their kids grew up knowing the difference between right and wrong. I hear them all saying I need to remember everything, especially because I am the migrant son of an migrant.
I hear the world spinning as poems are written and babies are born and bullets fly and music is made and jobs are lost and spells are cast and cars crash and alcohol disappears down gullets and leaves fall to the ground and alley cats sing to the night with voices they borrow from depressed demons and hatred tries to win the battle and inspiration vanishes and a kid becomes a walking miracle as she crosses the border without being raped or abused or denigrated and an angry lover puts his vengeance inside a sharp blade and water flows full of memories from its eternal recycling and some nameless bird bathes in it before a homeless man drops a cigarette butt that will end up in the creek, mixed in with all that eternal return.
I hear the obscene screams of angry gods who were forced to dress their black skin in whiteness to survive once their devotees were brought to the Caribbean. Their strength is there, coursing through the streets like the blood courses through my veins, because we still call their names, pray to them, light candles, offer them tiny deaths and food and fire and dreams.
I hear a special kind of magic that has to do with the earth, with everyday occurrences, with wisdom and pain. I hear the silence of decapitated chickens and photos left in water overnight and the black insides of an egg after a limpia and the shipering leaves of rompe saragüey and ya tú sabes que con los santos no se juega.
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I hear a whole house shaking and groaning as a train to who knows where rattles by on the too-close tracks as my grandmother pets an unnamed cat and adjusts her glasses on her almost useless eyes with hands covered in a mixture of lines and scars that heal you with their touch. I hear her spirit hovering above me, raining love down on my head, reminding me that wounds become scars that become stories that become herstory.
I hear my other grandmother saying that the bathroom in the hallway belongs to the spirits, a los muertos, and the saints. Never blow out those candles, she says. Never forget your prayers, she reminds me. Never let the women in your life put their purse on the ground. Never take a pregnant woman to a funeral, mijo. Never leave your milagritos at home, she repeats, pulling her dress to the side to reveal a hundred tiny pieces of metal pulling at her bra. I hear her laugh and I hear here telling me to let dogs lick my wounds because that worked for San Lázaro and thus it will work for me. She tells me this as the huge statue of San Lázaro looks on, black, tall, emaciated, and surrounded by a pack of skinny dogs I’ll never forget.
I hear the aching eloquence of my father’s silence as he drinks in the kitchen, cloaked in darkness, a million miles from home, probably regretting passing on to me the invisible gene that makes us nomads, hardheaded hustlers, beautiful, flawed creatures that are too quick to love and too quick to anger.
I hear my mother crying after calling the cops on me and then laughing after lying to the cops for me and crying because my sister is doing things that never lead to good things and so am I and, carajo, she tried with all she had but sometimes all you have is not nearly enough.
I hear an endless succession of planes taking off and landing and more or less creating the fabric of life with their constant motion, their incessant pregnancy with all of us, their hunger for goodbyes and tears and promises.
I hear an old lady saying "Que Dios te bendiga, mijo" while another says "Tranquilo que Elegguá abre el camino." And then comes the holy music. Rubén Blades. Héctor Lavoe. Roberto Roena. Frankie Ruíz. Eddie Palmieri. Y después el gran Maelo, reminding me I’m still alive:
"De las tumbas quiero irme
No sé cuando pasará
Las tumbas son pa' los muertos
Y de muerto no tengo na."
I hear salsa and flamenco, reggae and merengue, rock and bachata, nueva trova and jazz.
I hear the streets of Rio Piedras dancing to their own hot rhythm, the cobblestones of Viejo San Juan cracking under the weight of history and oppression, the cries of a pueblo that grew up as a colony and stayed there like a useless son or daughter who lacks the strength to move out, to learn that some things are better left in the past. I hear Yukiyú screaming and floods and crying and parties and dominoes clacking together and violence and beauty and hurricanes and that thing in my chest that calls me home every day.
I hear waves and sweat and drunk afternoons and meat sizzling on a grill and someone vomiting out their pain and someone praying as they yank the head off a chicken and my grandma asking for blessings for the dead as we drive past a cemetery and a chord on a guitar with one finger in the wrong place and brakes screaming in the distance and the laughter of my friends at home, their skins and hair and eyes of every color imaginable and then the song of the coquí signaling another trip around the sun and finally guns going off in the Luis Lloréns Torres projects as I drift off to sleep. I hear someone explain that the things you lova can haunt you and vice versa.
I hear a young woman rezando un Padre Nuestro as an old man dressed in white sends his own prayers to the sky: Obatalá obá layé ela iwo alara ache.
I hear "Where are you originally from?" and "Where is your accent from?" and "Wow, you’re so eloquent!" and "Are you Mexican?" and "Are you Italian?" and "Nice Jew-fro, man!" and a million other dumb comments that scholars say I should call microagressions but that sometimes feel anything but micro.
I hear my own anger claiming I am a son of Changó while the sound of a bagpipe reaches into my DNA and threatens to put tears in my eyes and I want to stuff the whole world inside my heart and keep it there, next to that feeling I get when I read Langston Hughes or when I listen to Sabina or when the creek outside my window tells me to be like it, to carry on regardless of what others are doing and to teach them to fear my wrath.
I hear the cultures that came together to make my blood scream about the fact that no one wanted things to turn out the way they did. I hear them loud and clear in the faces that inhabit my memory, in the voices I carry in my heart, in the color of my skin and the irresistible pull of some spaces, some songs, some poems, some chunk of sand seldom visited by people.
I hear all this and more, and then I open my eyes and read about others wanting "pure blood," wanting to keep their racial purity, their god a blue-eyed hipster, their language intact. That makes me laugh with closed fists. You don’t know the beauty of flavor, pendejo. You keep your dumb ideas of purity and I’ll revel in the music of my mixed blood, my mutt blood, my earthly blood, my multitudinous blood, my brown and Rican and black and European and white and African blood, my eternal, magic, ancient blood.
Yeah, when nothing makes sense, I close my eyes and listen to my blood.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. He is the book reviews editor for PANK Magazine, the TV/film editor for Entropy Magazine, and a columnist for LitReactor and CLASH Media. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other print and online venues. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.