Jibaros and Muddy Shoes

A father, a farmer, and a fondness for new clothes

He was the middle child of twelve children — thirteen, if you count the one that didn’t wail or breathe when she came out of my grandmother. But apparently that was normal in the southern mountains of Puerto Rico, at least according to my dad.

I knew he was raised on cane fields, rolling hills, tamarindo juice, and hand-me-downs. But I never knew how his lifestyle affected him academically. I learned about that one morning while I was standing at the counter pouring almond milk over my cereal. My father was sitting at the table telling my mother’s friend that he had never done homework as a child.
“There wasn’t any time since I had to help out in the fields.”

He proudly managed to pass all of his classes in spite of the ever-demanding fields and his parents who pulled his older sister out of school to help raise the other children. His afterschool obligations were to his father’s fields alongside his brothers and uncles, along the rows of yucca and calabaza. In school, the best he could do was pay attention from the very back of the room and try to memorize all he could for the exams.

“I’m sure participating in class helped your grades too,” said my mom’s friend.

“No, I was too embarrassed to participate. I didn’t sit back there because I wanted to… I was hiding.”
She looked confused. 
“If I would volunteer to answer a question on the board, everyone would look at my dirty shoes and laugh. They’d know that I was a farmer’s kid.”

I’ve seen my dad’s walk to school. Down the mountain, a winding road, El Puente Español or the old Spanish bridge that hangs too low and would often be inundated during the crazy rain. The road leading to it and after it would be slicked with a layer of sticky mud. Mudslides were common in the fickle Caribbean weather and so my father and his siblings would trudge through the slick muck in hopes of getting to and from class.

I’ve lost flip-flops to Puerto Rico’s mud. I remember hopping up the pebble-studded driveway up to my grandmother’s house and hearing my father yell and ask why the hell I was barefoot. 
The walk from where my father used to live as a child to his school was a long walk that was only made longer if the weather was bad. And since Puerto Rico is an amazingly humid island, the weather is usually very fickle. Severe rainfall would cause mudslides from the mountains to cover several roads and the rivers would swell. Then my father and his siblings had to trudge through muck in order to make it to class.

So to preserve what his childlike mind understood as dignity, my father would sit at the very last row of his classroom. He wouldn’t raise his hand and he didn’t receive any extra credit.

The unforgiving middle school students would hurl the word jibaro at him. Google taught me that it was the indigenous word for “forest person” or “hill farmer.” A unique breed of Puerto Rican that has been immortalized in songs like “Lamento Borincano” or in island folklore. The ever-toiling backbone of the country that spoke in song and sang in tongue twisters.

I never knew it could be used as an insult. It was a label that my dad had worn with pride for as long as I could remember. But the kids in his class hurled it at him along with words like campesino or country bumpkin. They spat it out as if it meant “ignorant and dirty” instead of “hardworking and humble.” 
“Whenever a classmate would call me or my siblings a jibaro, we’d end up fighting after class,” my father laughed. “But now I like to joke around that I’m a jibarito stuck in New York.”

The newfound pride was one of the reasons why my aunt called me over to the kitchen in the family home in Puerto Rico and pointed to a bowl of fruit. I adequately identified everything: mamey, corazon, tamarindo, and malanga. She wanted to be sure that my New York City upbringing hadn’t ruined me too much.

Esta jibara sabe… this jibara knows,” she bragged.

When I was growing up, my father always had strange tendencies to avoid used clothing. Shoes had to be scrubbed and mud was a capital offense in the house even on the rainiest days.

Right before traveling down to the Caribbean to see family, he’d always go on unnecessary shopping hauls even though a lot of clothing in his closet was practically new. He refused to repeat too many outfits. It was as if he were trying to purge the poverty of his past with a new leather belt or yet another package of socks.

The habit infuriated my mother. She would look at his receipts and show them to me.
“Look at this one, over a hundred dollars,” she’d grumble, “Honestly, does he think his relatives are going to shun him if he wears the same pants twice?”

I remember all the arguments he had with my mother whenever she made me use my older cousin’s worn out sweaters or have my brother wear someone else’s sneakers.

“Don’t I work hard so that he can get new shoes?” my father fumed. “I’ll just buy him new ones; it’s not that big of a deal to pay for shoes.”

Every time I think about complaining that my shoes are worn out or that I haven’t bought new clothing, I remember my dad’s treks up a mountain in the omnipresent sludge. During the last year and a half of graduate school, I’ve lost pairs of shoes to wear and tear, taping the insides to make them last longer but then eventually letting go. Some of the seams of things in my closet are splitting, and there are holes in socks that I haven’t gotten around to sewing yet.

But I think I’ll keep those things for a little bit longer. After all, I’m a farmer’s kid.


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