After a late-night supper and Spanish chatter garnished with English, the women of my family would retire to the bedroom where my grandmother would be transformed from an old woman with wobbly arms into a seer who could shine light on the present and tell you about your future using the Baraja Española, the Spanish cards.
This didn’t happen often and there didn’t seem to be any notice that my grandmother would be doing readings, no announcement at dinner, no tip-off in the kitchen. There just seemed to be some silent agreement that after the dishes were dried and the counters wiped down we would make our way to the back bedroom.
It’s only in pictures I notice the rust on the awnings that hung outside her window and the creep of mildew on white stucco that thrived in the Miami heat. To my young eyes those flaws faded behind pie-sized, crimson hibiscus flowers and fruit trees in kumquat, grapefruit and mango. This tropical palate was like my grandmother’s signature and it looped into the house from the lush, overgrown plants outside onto everything from her floral housedresses to the orange tasseled pillows, to the avocado and amber mugs we filled with café con leché and drank with fresh Cuban bread in the mornings.
She and I were the early risers of the family and I was all of maybe four when she began serving my breakfast drink just the way I liked it, Cuban espresso mixed with steaming milk and pyramids of spooned sugar. As a parent, this high-octane brew strikes me as crazy, not too far off from the wisdom of using bourbon to help a teething toddler, but for my grandmother, babyhood was an inconvenience to us both, something to be skipped over quickly. Besides, if a person wanted something, my grandmother believed she should have it.
Her cards were kept in a perfumed bath oil box fastened tight with a rubber band that rested in the drawer of her night table where it kept company with a set of rosary beads and laminated prayer cards of the Virgin Mary and the Niño de Atocha, the Cuban patron saint of travelers and protector against danger. As soon as my grandmother opened the drawer, the faint smell of rosewood drifted through the room as the rosary beads released their scent. Mary’s presence is said to be accompanied by the smell of roses and my grandmother wasn’t one to leave divine guidance to chance.
In the eyes of the Catholic Church the Spanish cards were, at best, an unapproved extracurricular activity and, at worst, a full-blown heresy like voodoo or Santería, two other Caribbean spiritual practices, so the contents of the drawer were an odd mix. But in the same way my grandmother tucked the pendant of a gold horn she wore to ward off evil spirits under her blouse before entering church, I knew to tuck any mention of the Spanish cards away to all but a select few in my own family. What I didn’t know then was how many other things my grandmother kept hidden.
Hers were not tarot cards with pictures of Judgment or The Hanged Man on them but the tradition was just as old, first appearing in Spain around the Middle Ages. They were similar to a traditional deck of cards, except the suits were different and there were no queens. Clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds were replaced by cups, coins, swords and sticks. One by one we took our turn near the foot of the bed as my grandmother shuffled the cards and split the deck. Making a bridge with her hands, she arched the two stacks of cards applying gentle pressure so they’d rattle into single pile. Then she split the deck again and again, pressing the halves into wholes until they were ready to be presented to the person being read. When I was old enough to have a reading, I knew to cut the cards only once and place them between us. The spot I chose to make the split revealed the first of my cards. Then, my grandmother would gather up one of the two piles I’d made and fan them out so I could pick my remaining cards.
She didn’t look at the cards a person chose in a vacuum. A Two of Cups wasn’t an entity unto itself. It had to be read against the backdrop of the cards around it. If it was near a male card like a Knight, it meant fertility, but if it rested near a Seven of Coins, it spoke of other things that could be born, like creativity. My grandmother knew just where each card should go and her gifts were considerable, something I discovered when I got older and had more to hide.
In my early twenties, I moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill. Our office was small, just six people, and we worked incredibly long hours. The sun sometimes eluded me all day, as I’d pull into the dark underground garage before the sun rose and pull out long after it set, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when a recently divorced co-worker and I began dating. We decided to keep things professional and didn’t tell anyone about us including my family; at least that was the plan. New love’s vibration tends to follow a person like a hum and I don’t know why I thought my grandmother, of all people, wouldn’t feel it when I paid her a visit not long after my relationship was getting started.
I didn’t get to see her very often anymore but when I did our time together was a collection of every warm memory I had. We shared café con leche in the mornings, only we both took less sugar than before, and she’d make ropa vieja or arroz con pollo for me for dinner, even though she didn’t like to cook, something I never knew growing up. I could also count on at least one session with me sprawled out on her bed with candles lit and laminated saints propped up and keeping watch from the table while she read the Spanish cards for me. On this night, she got right down to business with the very first one.
“Ah….look at this. There is one boy who work by you who likes you very much,” she said in an accent so thick my high school friends couldn’t tell her English from Spanish.
“Oh,” I said, pretending I didn’t know who that might be. I chose another card.
“And he has light hair. He is one blonde,“ she said this pronouncing every letter in the word blonde so it came out blond-ee. I held my breath and drew again.
“Sí, and you like-ee him, too.”
I said nothing and pulled a fresh card from the deck.
“Oh…….. I see… he has a child…a little girl.”
The words didn’t bother wasting time traveling up to my brain to be filtered. Instead, they spilled directly out of my mouth.
“How in the hell do you do that?”
“I hear,” she said as if it was the most obvious answer in the world, “and I know you gonna marry this man.”
It never dawned on me to ask her to teach me how to read the cards and she never offered. In retrospect, this was odd. In my younger, rebellious-about-religion days I dipped my toes into astrology and palm reading. I even spent a day with a horse whisperer who only accepted me as a student after asking his angels. He taught me how to use divining rods to find water and took me to the stables at the local racetrack to see if I could find the underground stream that was bothering the horses. There it was running right down the middle of one of the stalls. This explained why horses bucked when they had to go into that enclosure and why they hugged the walls when the door was closed. I paid the horse whisperer $300 to be his student but I didn’t keep up with my practice. There isn’t much of a need for finding water anymore and I’m not interested in being a horse whisperer, not that I have the particular talent for that. Maybe that’s why I never asked my grandmother to teach me the Spanish cards. Maybe I knew it would come out the same way. I couldn’t see myself telling fortunes even on those days when I wished I knew what my future held.
Until just a few months ago, I would have said I didn’t know how she learned to read cards and I would have been telling the truth, but then I dug up a VCR tape I’d forgotten about. Seven years before she died I borrowed a video camera and for nearly two hours my mother, sister and I asked her questions about Cuba, my grandfather who died when my mother was a baby, and my great grandparents. For years, the tape kept company with family photo albums no one looked at in a cabinet no one opened until the day a cleaning binge took me back to that corner of the house. I got a guy who worked out of his basement down the street to transfer the VCR to DVD so I could watch it again. And then, there she was. My grandmother whirred back to life on my computer screen, her familiar bottle blonde hair lacquered into a confection on her head, brown eyebrows drawn in pencil into a subtle arch and two red gumballs for earrings.
A few months before the interview, I opened the silver slot of my apartment mailbox and found an official white envelope with a U.S. Census form inside. Being counted was a rite of adulthood and I wasn’t so long out of college that I didn’t appreciate a bubble-in test when I knew all the answers. After darkening in circles next to female, white and never married with my #2 pencil, I came to question seven.
Is this person of Spanish/Hispanic origin?
Yes. I would bubble in yes. But yes alone wasn’t an option. I had to choose Yes, Mexican; Yes, Puerto Rican; or Yes, Cuban and the instructions were clear: Fill ONE circle. They wrote the word ONE in shouty caps. I thought of my Mexican American father and my Cuban born mother and didn’t want to choose between them on that form any more than I’d wanted to do it after they divorced when I was in elementary school. I would have tossed the suddenly difficult test in the trash, but that wasn’t allowed. The first paragraph said by law (Title 13, U.S. Code), you’re required to answer the census questions to the best of your knowledge.
My job as a legislative aide came with a handy, slim, white phone book with numbers to liaisons in each federal agency who were tasked with helping Congressional staff, so I dialed up the U.S. Census Bureau and talked to someone named Dave. I told him question seven needed some work. Everybody isn’t just one thing. But Dave missed that point and went in an unapproved direction.
“Were you born in Cuba or Mexico?” he asked.
“No, I was born in Florida.”
I felt a faint, cold stream of doubt trickle through in my stomach. My parents, who each spoke Spanish as their first language, made the decision a lot of recent immigrants make, Americanize yourself and your children as fast as you can. My mother, Ana Teresa, became Terry and my father, Guillermo, became Bill. I asked my father to speak to me in Spanish so I could learn it better, but he said I didn’t need to know it. I had my mother’s fair skin, but my nearly black eyes and hair identified me as something leading to regular questions from strangers and sometimes acquaintances asking what are you? They guessed Italian, French and Iranian. On a high school trip to London, a shopkeeper didn’t just sell me a postcard of Big Ben, he surmised I must have one English parent and one Indian one. No one ever guessed Cuban or Mexican.
“Wait. Are you saying you don’t think I should check that I’m Hispanic at all?” I avoided using Dave’s name right then because other four letter words were circulating in my head and I didn’t want to blurt the wrong one.
“Well, I guess it depends” he said, “on whether you live the life.”
I didn’t know what that was supposed to mean. After we hung up, I ignored the printed instructions on the form and bubbled in two boxes; Yes, Cuban and Yes, Mexican. About a year after that, when I was home for a visit, I pulled into a photography shop in a strip mall and rented a video camera.
The story I grew up knowing was this—with few prospects for work in 1940s Eastern Cuba, meaning few options for supporting her baby on her own, my young widowed grandmother decided America was a better option. With a $50 loan from her brother she traveled to Miami. There were no other family members already there to help her. Even though she didn’t speak any English, she found work as a seamstress in a garment factory making men’s suits and after a couple of years, when she had enough money, she sent for my mother. She could have stayed in Cuba and moved back home with her family, but that wasn’t the life for her.
We started the interview with the big question.
“Why did you decide to come to America?”
My grandmother looked directly into the camera and said, “Because I lose my husband so I no wanna stay in the country.”
There was a momentary pause and then she gave the follow up. For me, it was the money shot.
“I wanna get out of there, so I do it.”
This resolve, and maybe even defiance, was what I loved. It was what I needed and what I called on whenever I was in a bind. Lots of people’s ancestors came to the U.S. to escape a dreary existence wherever they came from. You didn’t have to come through Ellis Island to share that story. Only for most it happened too long ago to know any of the details. But I knew mine. Our story was sitting right in front of me and I was recording her telling it in her own words. I could show this interview to my future kids and tell them this strength is in our DNA.
On that day in the fall of 1992, I learned my grandfather was handsome and not just smart, but a genius. She told us she got her American citizenship quickly because she contributed to the war effort during World War II when the factory she worked in transitioned from making men’s suits to making military uniforms. Her story was so great, I wanted more and over the next 20 years I’d get it. I’d travel to Cuba and pore over historical records and family documents, and jog my mother’s memory to shore up the foundation of our shared history; only what I’d find was not what I was looking for. I’d learn my grandmother’s skills weren’t limited to sewing and reading cards. She was also a talented teller of tales.
Rewatching the tape, I first notice the small things; I see my grandmother stumble when she cites the year of her birth because she altered the truth so often it took effort for her to remember the real answer. I wince just a little when she claims a high school diploma I know she didn’t get. And then there are the omissions that cast shade like a palm tree arching over us that’s grown tall in 20 years.
My grandmother doesn’t mention what I learned from my cousin Emiliano on a trip to Holguin in 2001, that the handsome genius was an alcoholic she kicked out of their house after my mother was born. His death certificate shows he died in a Havana hospital, more than 400 miles from their home in Holguin, most likely from tuberculosis, not at home as she claimed.
Or Henry. There is no mention of Henry. I learned about him while helping my mother pack for a move. In an old shoebox, she found a picture of herself at four years old with a man in a pinstriped, double-breasted suit and white shoes who crouched down to her level for the benefit of the camera. While she was looking at it, her memory blinked and she said, “I think my mother may have been married to him.”
This rattled me because in my telling, my grandmother never got over the sudden death of my grandfather. A second husband wasn’t possible, because she pined for the first. I don’t know where I came up with that, but it was always there, a juvenile notion that never got cross-checked in adulthood. This would, however, explain the gaps in paperwork in my grandmother’s life, especially in those first few years after she arrived in the United States. I hadn’t been able to find the one thing I wanted to see most, her naturalization papers. A marriage and a different last name could be the reason, but I didn’t know how to find a person with only a first name to go on, and that was the only thing my mother could remember about Henry.
Growing up, I watched my grandmother light a candle and ask the saints for help when she needed it, but I’m not Catholic and it didn’t seem right to use what she taught me to find out things she didn’t want me to know. Still, help came anyway. At a writing conference two weeks after my mother shared her information, I sat by a retired professional genealogist during lunch. She was kind enough to offer to look through some ancestry websites for me and by dinnertime that same day my grandmother’s naturalization papers glowed on my computer screen.
There wasn’t anything in them about patriotism or helping with the war effort, instead they show her citizenship was granted based on a marriage to a Mr. Henry Taulbee only three months after she left Cuba. My grandmother was the second of Henry’s five wives. His third marriage was recorded two weeks after he and my grandmother divorced. It turns out that Wife #2 and Wife #3 had a lot in common. Both were new Cuban immigrants working in a garment factory who would get their citizenship after a few years based on their marriage to Henry, an American citizen.
And then there was Sonny, a man my father says was in the Miami mafia. He shows up everywhere except in my grandmother’s voice. His name is next to hers on old airplane passenger manifests between Cuba and Miami, including one from the mid 1940s while she was still married to Henry. He’s in a picture of my sister’s baptism in the 1960s and in the scar above my mother’s lip. Sonny gifted her with this lasting reminder when he flipped the dining room table in a fit of anger and dishes rained down from the ceiling. He followed up by breaking all the furniture in the house that night, but sent an apology over the next day with a truck filled with brand new things.
My mother held the picture of the two of them like it was wet. She and Sonny were standing on the sidewalk after her First Communion. His thin hair was neatly parted to one side and slicked back, but his white shirt was unbuttoned at the top, rumpled and gaping at the buttons over his protruding belly. He held a half-smoked cigarette in one hand and draped the other behind my young mother in white patent leather shoes and bobby socks. Her white dress matched a veil that reached below her knees and she held a single lily in her hand like a bride. The black and white photograph must have come from my grandmother’s things after she died, because my mother would never have kept a picture with Sonny in it. She dropped it into a box of things she didn’t want, but she wasn’t through remembering.
“I was in the car with him when he did a hit and run one time.” Her eyes stared off at some distant object that wasn’t in the room. He’d picked her up from school, or maybe church that day. They were driving home, mostly in silence except for the pounding rain, when a man with a black umbrella stepped off the curb.
“Do you think he hit the guy on purpose?”
At first I wanted her to say no even if it wasn’t true. I didn’t want to know my grandmother left her only child with someone like Sonny. But this was the false thinking that hung like cheap tinsel on the family tree. A no wouldn’t erase the echo of the thump in my mother’s ears.
“Maybe…probably…I don’t know. I only know that we didn’t stop.”
For years, she begged my grandmother to leave Sonny, but even after he married someone else, they stayed together. And if he didn’t come around for a few days, my grandmother would get into her car and go looking for him.
Through the magic of video, my grandmother and I have this conversation about her life in an endless loop. Forever and ever I ask her to tell me about her life and she tells me the varnished truth. It’s hard now not to keep a mental count of her missteps even though I don’t want to. Trying to parse the laser thin difference between an omission and a falsehood becomes too cumbersome, so I stopped making that distinction. I’m not judging her actions. This is not a moral test; it’s a math test. I’m calculating distance and each answer takes her farther away.
I don’t blame her because my voice is on the tape, too. I only ask questions I know will yield good facts, steering the conversation to my great-grandfather’s coffee farm and my grandfather’s siblings who were poets, musicians and painters. There is a moment on the tape when my grandmother gives some dates that can’t be right and I recognized it right away. I hear myself say in a low voice that only the camera picks up, “That math doesn’t work.” But I didn’t follow-up, I didn’t ask for clarification. No one digs into their family history looking for decay, you dig for diamonds.
The interview is almost over but I suddenly think of one last question.
“How did you learn to do the Spanish cards?”
“How?” She repeats the question like a student buying time to think of the right answer.
“Yes, how?” For a moment, it seems like she won’t answer, but she does. She always does.
“Some night I dream I see a gypsy,” my grandmother’s face is suddenly alight, “and the gypsy say ‘why you no see your future?’ and I say, ‘I no know how,’ and she say ‘ok, you take the cards and I tell how your future is.’”
My sister, who is asking questions with me, laughs at this even though my grandmother wasn’t trying to be funny. My grandmother’s forehead creases for a moment and she shrinks just a little into the cushion of her seat. My sister never liked the Spanish cards. She never came to the back room after dinner and if she ever needed guidance, the only place she wanted to get it was from a standard Bible or her pastor on Sunday. She only had room for a traditional grandmother, one who would take us to the beach and give us the best presents at Christmas and my grandmother could be that person, too.
She thinks for a minute and then tosses a thin, veined hand back, waving the subject of reading cards off as a hobby. “It’s something to pass the time. I gotta pass the time anyway and I no do it for nobody else.”
Except for Mary. I remember Mary the hairdresser who used to come by the house with dollar bills folded up in her hand. I only say that now, but no one hears me.
I rewind the tape to watch this transaction over again. For me she is the soothsayer touched by something otherworldly, for my sister she is an old, embarrassing grandmother who isn’t so good with English and must have meant god or angel when she said gypsy.
“You do it for me,” I say on tape.
“Sí, I do it for you and I do it for her.” She points at my mother. “I never do it for you,” she says turning to my sister. “Listen, you no believe it, I don’t know why, pero sometime it come very true.”
With that the interview is over.
A few weeks before we flipped the century calendar from the 20th to the 21st, my grandmother died. My mother and stepfather built a garage apartment at their house, and that’s where she spent the last few years of her life. When I came into town a few days after she passed away, I went into her bedroom just like always and sat on her bed. Some grandmothers you find in the kitchen, but mine was in the bedroom, and I lay across her bed like I was there to get a reading.
Boxes were already scattered in the tiny kitchen and bedroom, filled with things to be taken to the charity shop. If there was anything I wanted, my mother told me to take it. And there was. I found the Spanish cards still there in her nightstand tucked neatly into the bath oil box.
I keep them in a drawer next to my bed now, with a stack of prayer cards of the saints she gave me over the years. She sent St. Camillus to help me recover from a bad cold, St. Joseph to protect me when I moved into a new apartment, and St. Anthony, grantor of miracles when I thought I needed one. Her rosary was gone, but on a trip to Italy once, I found a set of rose scented beads at a street vendor’s stall outside the Vatican to take its olfactory place. My own things are in there too, a long feather I found on a walk in the country and three miniature pendant coins on a chain, a Mercury dime, a Buffalo nickel and an Indian Head penny. Each of these things is said to bring luck and good fortune. On days I am weary, I take everything out, arrange them on a table with my grandmother’s picture and light a white candle like she did, okay with the fact that my future will remain a mystery.
Rituals like this are performed all over Cuba, especially by those who follow Santería. For a time, I wondered if this was really what my grandmother practiced because the gypsy who spoke to her in a dream didn’t come from a Church of the Immaculate Conception or the King James Version of the Bible and neither did the Spanish cards. A uniquely Caribbean religion, Santería was born from necessity after slaves from West Africa were brought to Catholic countries like Cuba and weren’t allowed to keep their own religion. They never abandoned their beliefs, instead they hid them and learned to adapt. Parallels between some of the Catholic saints and their own gods made this easier. Saint Barbara was not so different from Shangó who embodied strength; Our Lady of Charity was similar to Ochún, the goddess of the river; and Saint Lazarus and Babalú-Ayé both healed the sick. Like my grandmother, some Santería priestesses tell fortunes, most often by throwing cowrie shells on the ground and interpreting them, but there were, and still are, some who work through cards instead. But I couldn’t remember my grandmother ever doing any of the other things important in Santería. She didn’t dance, collect strands of colored beads or perform rituals involving herbs or blood.
Still, there is something very Cuban about the way Santería developed. It’s sometimes described as a blend of two religions, but practitioners will tell you that isn’t right. Saint Barbara is not Shangó, and Shangó will never be Saint Barbara. The key to understanding Santería, and maybe the Cuban way of being, is that when difficult situations arise you find a way to make it work. Strength is embodied by strength no matter what face you put on a laminated card. Contradictory beliefs can coexist in peace, because sometimes they must. As long as you can toss saints, gods and goddesses and all their inconsistencies in a drawer together, everything will be fine.