The very last drumbeat has left its mark.
Its pulsing rhythm leaves no sound,
like blown-out candles in the dark.
The singing voices muted,
the quiet prayers unheard,
the orishas have retreated,
your shining light now blurred.
¡Pero mi corazón! ¡Mi corazón!
The only music left
against the melody of my own song,
to my sweet Ochún, of love, bereft.
¡Ay Madrina! ¡Mi madrina!
Who will clear these lovers’ paths
to walk these noisy streets
where toppled buildings unearth our wrath?
Newcomers fill these spaces
with shiny jewels and polished stone.
We blacks and browns have surrendered,
while our memory stands alone.
¡Ahora, Madrina! ¡Querida abuela!
This is the greatest theft.
Los antepasados have stolen you
from my sweet Ochún, of love, bereft.
I get applause after reading my poem, the loudest from Colin, who gives a whistle. Every word rolled out of my mouth heavy and hard like the round red-and-white mint candies Madrina used to give me. I take my seat in the front-row pew.
There’s standing room only at St. Martin of Tours Roman Catholic church on Hancock Street, and it’s a sea of all shades of brown people wearing either black or white. The ones who wear black are just following the Catholic tradition. The ones who wear white are following the Santería tradition. But everyone’s here to celebrate Madrina in their own special way.
I too am dressed in all white from head to toe, and Madrina would’ve liked that. My hair is wrapped beneath one of her head scarves. And even though I’m not supposed to wear them because a santera or santero hasn’t blessed them and I haven’t made ocha, her colorful elekes hang long around my neck. Every single one of them. And I’ll cut my eyes at any santero who questions me.
I know almost everybody who’s come to her funeral, including Darius, who walked in while I was reciting my poem. I had to pause for a long second, almost forgetting the words that were right there on the page.
Afterward, Mama opens up our apartment and the whole building for the repast. She’s been cooking for three days, and my sisters and I have been helping her. And when the church doors open so everyone can make their way to our building, I hear the congas. My heart leaps. Bobbito, Manny, and Wayne have gathered about a dozen drummers to play outside the church.
I take Darius’s hand so everyone around can see that we’re together, and we walk toward the drums. The santeras do a little two-step as they lead the procession from the church to our building. They smile at me and Darius as we walk hand in hand.
“Paola has blessed you before she left this side, I see,” one of them says to me. I only smile and glance at Darius.
Janae is waiting for me at the corner on Knickerbocker. She looks at both of our faces, and I can’t tell if she’s happy for us or not. But still, she smiles big and wide when I get closer to her. I let go of Darius’s hand so my sister and I can hug.
Practically the whole neighborhood has come out to celebrate Madrina’s life. And this is almost like a parade for her.
“How you holding up, sis?” Charlise asks when she joins us. “I know Colin is taking it rough. Madrina was like his real mom. I can’t believe she left him the building! And for her to go—” She snaps her fingers. “Just like that.”
I shrug and twist my mouth and look around for Colin. I spot him and Papi having a conversation. Papi’s body language is telling a story. He’s talking with his hands, something he only does when he’s really pissed, and he rarely gets really pissed.
Colin hangs his head low, a stance I’ve never seen him take before. Then Papi reaches out and touches his shoulder in a father-son way. Without thinking twice about it, I start to make my way over there, leaving Darius with Charlise. But by the time I reach them, the conversation is already over.
“Hey” is all I say to Colin.
He’s got a look on his face I’ve never seen before. His brows are furrowed and his arms are crossed. “Hey, Zuri,” he almost whispers. Then he flashes me a half smile and walks away.
“Papi, what happened between you and Colin?” I ask.
He’s running his hands through his thick, curly hair and he sighs deeply. “It’s okay, Zuri. Go be with your friends.”
He takes a look around at all the people gathered on the sidewalk in front of our building and the people walking down from Bushwick Avenue and Jefferson. He rubs his graying beard and sighs again.
“Papi, I know when you’re not okay,” I say.
“Ah, my Zuri Luz, always watching out for your papi, huh?” he says, giving my shoulder a squeeze.
“What are you talking about? What just happened?”
“Let’s go for a walk,” he says, motioning for me to follow him. Suddenly I’m nervous. Papi is not the kind of man to just go for a stroll. We walk down Jefferson as he waves and says hi to neighbors and friends. “She’s singing and dancing in heaven, now,” he says when they give him their condolences for Madrina. We weren’t her family, but besides Colin, we were the closest thing she had.
When we’re past Broadway, Papi sighs for the umpteenth time and says, “Colin’s selling the building. A developer offered him a lot of money.”
I quickly look up. “What?” I don’t understand what he’s saying.
“We have to move, Zuri.”
“Move? We can’t just leave!” My stomach twists as the words come tumbling out of my mouth. Warm tears sting my eyes. I’ve lost my madrina and now I’m going to lose my home?
“Mija, don’t get emotional on me, Zuri. I agreed to the buyout. We need it.”
I gasp and stop walking. Out of all the things Papi could have said, I never imagined those words. A developer? A buyout? Of course, after Madrina died, I wondered who would take care of the building. But I thought Colin would just be our landlord. Not that he’d sell to an outsider.
“Buyout? You sold us out, Papi?”
“We need that money, sweetheart. For our future. I got five of you to take care of. A building is just a building, in the end.”
“But how could you? Just like that?” I mumble, tears now streaming freely down my cheeks. Papi pulls me close into a hug, but I am stiff in my father’s arms, and angry.
“Well, I had to curse him one or two times, ’cause you know how your papi is. We Benitezes don’t take no crap. He gave me a good price. And that was that.” He looks down at me and holds me tighter. I start to relax and use his good white shirt to wipe away my tears.
“But Papi, where are we gonna go?”
He lets go of me and shakes his head. “I don’t know yet, but we’ll find somewhere. This is what happens in life—you take the good with the bad. This money is good. Us leaving is bad. But we’re taking it because it’s a blessing. You know, like that boy across the street.”
I inhale deep, sniffling, and roll my eyes. “You don’t know anything about the boy across the street, Papi. Now don’t change the subject.”
“No secrets in our house, Zuri. You like him, fine. As long as he likes you too, and most important, he respects you.”
“But he gets to stay, Papi,” I say quietly, and I realize that Darius will no longer be the boy across the street. He’ll still be in Bushwick, and I’ll be . . . somewhere else because the rent is too high in my own hood.
“So. And you get to leave. Him and his family are living somewhere new. They get to have new experiences. And you and your sisters, you’ve been in Bushwick all your lives. I saw that look in Janae’s eyes when she came back from college. Her eyes have seen so much more than me and your mother ever have. And you, sweetheart. You were a lightbulb when you came back from D.C. That is what I want for all of you. And myself too. To think, I spent half my life in that tiny apartment. And now, money has fallen from the sky.”
I don’t like what Papi is saying one bit. He makes sense, but I still don’t like it. “What’s Colin gonna do with the money anyway? He’s only nineteen,” I say. A lump is forming in my throat, but I keep swallowing to keep my tears down.