I remember the day we left home nearly five years ago, when mama thought there would be lots of work for her in New York and I had a couple inches on Luisa.
“We are now seating those in Group B. If you’re in Group A or B you may make your way to the gate.” All of the tourists with their “I LOVE SAN JUAN” shirts, iPhones, and fancy, matching carry-on sets stood up, leaving the row Luisa and I were sitting in nearly empty. Luisa moved her bright pink book bag from her lap into the now empty seat next to her. I glanced down again at the boarding ticket in my hand, as if the letter on it could’ve magically changed in a matter of minutes and rolled my eyes: Group C. I looked over at our mom who was finally making her way back from haggling the lady at the help desk for three seats together. She picked up Luisa’s bag and put it by her feet so she could sit, waved a white slip around, and flashed a smug smile that let us know it was handled.
The ceiling vent above me sent icy air down my shirt, but the early morning San Juan sun glared through the clean glass windows of the airport, warming my skin just enough to make it bearable. Luisa yawned and rubbed her tired eyes with the back of hand before readjusting herself in the stiff, blue terminal seat. She neatly rolled up her People magazine, warping J. Lo and Marc Anthony’s faces plastered on the cover, and stuffed it in her bookbag.
“Luna, can you believe in a few hours we’ll officially be New Yorkers?” she squealed, as she moved her hair off her shoulders and stood up to put her backpack on. “I’m basically the Latina Carrie Bradshaw…” She looked at me, paused, and sat back down on the edge of the seat. “You can be Miranda!”
“Who?” I cocked my head at her and squinted. I usually play along with my sister’s fantasies, but the huge knot in my stomach made it impossible to focus on anything else. All the pictures that Luisa shows me of America come from her magazines and TV shows, which are always of rich white people with their fancy clothes and big houses, but I know that isn’t going to be our America. I don’t even see why I have to go. If it was up to our papa, I’d get to stay here with him. He hated the mainland, he always said so.
“Puerto Rico is an island of pride, not some territory to be owned,” he would yell and throw his closed fist in the air after having one too many with Tío Macho. “We’re controlled by the world’s loudest democracy, but can’t even vote in its elections. It’s bullshit!” He’d slam his fist back down on the uneven kitchen table, causing the empty bottles of pitorro to clank against the grainy wood.
“Ay cállate—you’re drunk.” Mama would roll her eyes and yell from the stove with her back turned to him. She always brushed him off, but I never could. How could I? America didn’t treat us like Americans at all. How could there possibly be better opportunities for us on the mainland? I felt my cheeks start to get hot, and warm tears began to well in the corners of my eyes. I pulled my sleeve over my thumb and absorbed every last drop before mama and Luisa could see them fall.
“Those in Group C heading to New York City can now make their way to the gate.” I felt I was gonna yak right in Luisa’s lap. She and Mama rose to their feet, and I reluctantly followed as we lugged our overstuffed, mismatched carry-ons and book bags to the line. Mama gently placed her hand on my back and motioned with her head for us to hand the woman our tickets. She scanned them and gave us a warm, closed-mouthed smile.
Our mother led the way down the humid jetway, glancing back at us after every few steps to make sure we were close behind, just like she has done since we were niñitas. Once we got to the door, Mama whipped out her slip that promised us three seats together and proudly handed it to the flight attendant. Luisa cheesed and grabbed my hand, giving it a light squeeze, like she often did when she was excited. I forced a smile and squeezed hers back, then let go so she could fit through the narrow plane door. I took one last deep breath of the warm, familiar, tropical air before stepping onto the plane, and the pit in my stomach finally rose to my throat bringing a flood of tears along with it.
Janay Wynter is a student at Central Connecticut State University
Header Photo Credit: Emma Warshauer