My Story

Moving to Puerto Rico | telling my story series | Ruth, Writer

In Latino communities, the term “gringo” isn’t necessarily derogatory….. It’s what they, the Latinos, call the Americans – the outsiders, the white folks with their bad Spanish accents.

It’s what they called us, when I finally got old enough to pay attention.

I was born in New York to a Latino father and an Irish-Italian mother. I already had an older sister, Esther, and two half-siblings from my father’s previous marriage. And another half-sister on the way.

My father’s simultaneous marriage with J, as we’ll call her, was what the world today calls polygamy. It’s the one topic I have avoided writing about on this blog and it’s one I am hesitant to address even now.

We are not Mormon – gather from that admission what you will. They – my parents and J – simply obeyed the call they felt the Lord was making on their lives. With this call – as with most calls the Lord makes, I would think – came the loss of man’s good opinion. It came with much persecution and censure. It came with much suffering. It is the undercurrent to nearly every event that has transpired in my life. Easily understood? Never. Of great responsibility? Always. But Jesus Christ has been the center and the mainstay.

I think when people first hear about my family, they might wonder what rock we climbed out of under. Do people outside of the openly Mormon Sister Wives still live like that? It seems both too strange and too antiquated of a concept to fit into today’s society. And I get it. I do. I will say this, however, that nothing about my family seemed strange to me until I got old enough to notice how strange it was to other people. This was around the same time that I caught on to the gringo label.

My younger half-sister and I would tell people we were twins when we were little – it saved us the difficult task of explaining that yes, we were only eight months apart, and yes, we had the same father, and yes, we grew up together, but no, we had different mothers… Being that my father was a distributor for a multilevel marketing company, we were always around people – but not everybody knew. Though a great deal suspected, I’m sure. The neighbors who would eventually wind up calling social services on us certainly did.

When we left New York to settle down in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, I was just under two years old. I don’t remember the snow-lined, sooty streets of New York City or the small, wallpapered apartment where I learned to take my first steps. But I remember the burning sun that baked the streets of our new neighborhood, the heat of the sidewalk beneath my bare toes, and the long walks to the supermarket to get our groceries before we could get a car.

Our life, in the late 90s and early 00s, was relatively normal. My childhood was idyllic compared to other kids – especially the kinds of kids I’d get to know as I got older. We were homeschooled. My dad worked from home. We weren’t well-off but we had enough to get by. My sisters and I shared a room; my mother had her own, which she shared with the little girl who came along soon after our arrival to Puerto Rico; J had her bedroom with her newborn boy; and my father had his own. We were a small but well-functioning family. Both my mother and J were in their twenties – young, bright-eyed, and intelligent. My mom handled the groceries; J supervised our preschooling. My father knew Spanish and my mother and “step-mother” picked up on enough of it to handle small talk. We played at the local playground and took plenty of walks to keep ourselves busy. We made a few friends in the neighborhood – one even undertook the task of teaching J how to make proper arroz con gandules.

As a kid, my world was full of books and games and movies and the occasional loud-mouthed child that raced through my house – ours to entertain while my father pitched healthcare products to their parents. Occasionally, that world contained business meetings in lavish hotels back-dropped by glittering casinos and scores of well-dressed customers. Other times it was not so glamorous – we went a month without electricity when I was about six because of a backed-up bill we’d been unable to pay.

Our neighborhood was suburban and jammed between another, fully crowded urbanization and the bustling, over-packed city of Bayamon. We lived next door to a well-to-do dentist and across the street from a middle-aged couple that gave us the kinds of sideway glares reserved for brothels. We got our fruit from street-side vendors and spent our spare quarters on limbers.

And yet, there was no doubt about it – we were the outsiders, the weird Americans, the gringos. And we weren’t like everybody else. We were a gaggle of little girls and a solitary boy – a sweet, wide-eyed, fragile tot – a dad, and two moms. And our incredulous neighbors weren’t having it.

And so, sometime in the middle of 1999, I met my first social workers.


why I disappeared

When we started out the year, I set my sights high. Life had been painful for awhile and I was looking forward to a new start, a new season, a new chapter. I made my resolutions, wrote optimistic blog posts, and tried to fill my mind and heart with anything bright to mask what had become a constant depression.

And then came February.

Hardly two months into the new year, my worst fear was realized when social workers appeared at our front gate, their white car’s ominous insignia igniting the dread and fear that had colored the years of my childhood and early teen years. I wrote a blog post on it but later took it down. I’m not sure why – only that I’ve found it easier to write about what’s already dead and gone than it is to write about what’s alive and pulsing.

The following weeks were everything you can imagine them to be. We went into hermit mode, so concentrated in our own pain and memories that we could nothing but think, suffer, and pray. A week after that first visit at our gate, another catastrophe unfolded – no less painful… I gave up trying to blog or update my Facebook page. It felt like everything was in pieces. There was now a case in court and every time the dogs barked it meant that they were there – the social workers, the court marshals, the police. If we didn’t immediately attend them, they would turn on this whoop of a warning sound. My heart would fall through the floor. I was convinced I was developing some kind of long-term stress disorder because of the frequency of my heart racing.

The days crawled by, each presenting some new challenge or trial. Somehow we made it through. It’s a blur to think of now. There was a lot of praying. A lot of crying. A lot of pain. Shame, too – I never meant to cry the day the social workers brought court marshals and insisted upon being let into our home to interview the kids, but cry I did. They filled the living room and watched in confusion as I sobbed on the couch like a little girl. It’s a memory I’m still trying to repress. To the social workers (and police) that watched me cry that day – I hope one day you stumble across this post. Then maybe you’d know that it wasn’t forced or fake – that when I saw you fill my living room I was suddenly in another time, another place, where social workers and police equated removal, a nightmare I went through when I was a little girl – a nightmare that trails me to this day, even as I cross the threshold of adulthood.

My father requested in court that the judge would order social services to refrain from more visits to our home, that it scared his children. The judge assented, and I haven’t seen a governmental car at our gate since. It was a relief. There is a reason that an entire chapter of my memoir is titled ‘Strangers at the Gate.’ It was the event that triggered the nightmare.

The whole of the experience lasted about three months. It felt like longer. And yet, I can hardly believe that we are in July – the year is flying by so fast. It has held so much unexpected pain. But it has held answered prayers, too. The archiving of the case last month was an actual fulfillment of a word the Lord had given us. The gifting of a new car was a much sought-after blessing. My heart has stopped racing and I no longer jolt with fear when the dogs start barking.

And so my heart has turned to writing once more – to chronicling the stories and the thoughts that tumble about my psyche. My striving to see my book published has been laid to rest, much like my fears. It will happen in its time – in God’s time. In the meantime, I want to write. I want to fill this space with evidences of myself as I am now – because I won’t always be a twenty-one year old girl navigating the fuzzy realities of looming adulthood. One day it could all change and I will wish I had left more traces of myself to remember.

It has been a year full of the unexpected so far. But God has a way of bringing beauty from the ashes, so I’m looking forward to the beautiful things He will do in the coming months. This year may not have been what I was hoping or looking for, but God knew what it would hold, and if it has done anything, it has shown me that God has not forsaken my family, no matter what some people may think. Only He knew how much I needed to know that.

Only He knew.