I love this word, saudade and feel like in my soul, I get it - I understand that longing for something, that nostalgia for something that maybe never happened or something you didn’t experience. The Gallegos of Galicia, Spain have a similar word: morriña; in Spanish there is also the word añoranza, which is like a yearning or longing.
The millions of Puerto Ricans who were born and stateside might feel the same as me about the beautiful nostalgia of Puerto Rico. I've never lived in Puerto Rico, though I have been plenty of times and have strong connections to family, friends, and places there;. My mother never lived even there either, though she at least grew up in a mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood to Puerto Rican-born parents. They came to New York as “pioneros”, one of the first generations to make the mainland their home. I also lived in Brooklyn and in Queens, but then grew up in mostly white Belchertown, MA. Luckily I had many connections to our culture and to the language, and as many stateside Puerto Ricans, claimed my pride in being Boricua and passed that pride on to my kids.
My real and imaginary memories of Puerto Rico are intertwined with my saudade. Memories of palm trees swaying in the heat, of singing and dancing from one door to the next during the Christmas parrandas. I remember family visits that lasted hours, the adults drinking coquito or Cuba Libres. I remember the warm bath water of the beaches and the thick density of the rainforest. The coqui’s beautiful chirping is music to my ears, and I dream of holding one in the cup of my hand until it leaps away. I see the fruit trees and the jibaros, or country folk on coffee plantations, straw pavas on their heads to shield their faces from the sun. I feel the downpour of rain on my head while my parents and I wash the heat off our bodies. I feel my stomach churning, riding in cars up impossibly steep and narrow roads with breathtaking views and sheer drops off to the side. I hear my Titi Sara stirring condensed milk into my cup of cafe con leche, and when I bring it to my lips it is like tasting heaven. I feel the freezing water coming out of a pressure-less shower head refreshing my sticky body. I can call up the content feeling of rocking in a hammock in my soul. I cook as if the sazon and sofrito come out of my own veins to give my food the rich, unmistakable flavor of our food.
Some of these memories are very real, from many trips taken to Puerto Rico and time spent with family. Some are very real, but are not from time on the island, but time spent with family in Brooklyn. Some of these memories are not memories at all but wishes, or words from books and song lyrics come alive in my head.
My saudade extends to Spain, where my dad’s family is from too. I think I have successfully passed on this remembering and these feelings of both places to my children. Even though they are now 3rd generation Puerto Rican (and 2nd generation Spanish), they feel connected to both places. Thanks to a soul-filling trip to PR last year, and many trips to Spain, they will now have some of the memories, sounds, and sights to carry with them for a long time. On the flipside, they will be like me: always missing the other place.
The recent hurricane and the devastation in Puerto Rico have reactivated my feelings of saudade. I feel deep sorrow, profound sadness and anxious worry for my island and my people. Tears roll down my cheeks when I see what el Yunque looks like post-hurricane. I instinctively want to fly down and help - though I know it is impossible and probably not actually helpful. I feel pain for those here who are still waiting to hear from loved ones, and for those who are suffering, who have lost everything. Rage overcomes me when I see the president of this country lobbing paper towels off to crowds of people, flippantly. Those paper towels can’t come close to wiping the countless collective tears of Puerto Ricans.
I also feel joy and pride when I see how the same people sing and rejoice and rebuild and help one another by cleaning debris, cooking, and serving coffee to their neighbors. I am moved by the strength and resilience of my people. My love for them and Puerto Rico overflows; the giant Puerto Rican diaspora is united as one. My saudade is as strong as ever.