My high school Spanish teacher had played that song for us in class. The song eloquently describes the near impossibility of accessing decent medical care (it's like trying to cross Niagara Falls on bike) in Juan Luis Guerra's home country of the Dominican Republic. A relevant song for these times, when in the richest country my wife has to wait 6 months before a treatment she needs will be covered. And of course, that pales in comparison to the thousands (maybe millions) of more dire situations that so many are hell bent, some against their own interests, on perpetuating by preventing reform.
But I digress. Griselda was a strong socialist, feminist, Puerto Rican woman. She legally dropped her last name because she explained to us that the last name is passed on by men, historically a marker of who owned a woman. No one owned her. She told that to the judge and successfully had her last name removed from her driver's license, social security card and credit cards.
I look up to her in so many ways, and now that I am a teacher myself I look up to her because she was herself through and through every day. There was no doubt where she stood politically, religiously, and on most important topics. And yet, I also do not doubt at all that Mary, the evangelical student felt completely comfortable with her own beliefs in that classroom. Why? Wasn't she brainwashing us with her socialist propaganda? She had a freaking poster of Fidel in her classroom!!
No. Why were all of us comfortable expressing our own views in that classroom? Well for one because she did. She showed us to love ourselves and share ourselves. We knew what her butterfly tattoo symbolized, we knew how her uncle had been killed when Puerto Rican students rose up against the occupying US Army and the twisted irony of when her son told her he was joining the military and would later be deployed to Iraq. She shared her poetry with us and she shared it with so much pride as those words left her mouth. She didn't shy away from herself or controversy and that classroom was alive. It was what learning should be- an outpouring of ideas and opinions and honesty and people just being genuine with each other.
She lead by example and we wanted to follow her lead, not by adopting her politics but by passionately speaking our minds. Also, she loved us. She loved us unconditionally. There was no doubt that me, the punk dabbling in anti-authoritarian politics and vegetarianism, or that Mary the born again Christian were loved by her. Since she loved us, it wasn't our beliefs that mattered, it was how we used our minds. Did we think critically of our world? Did we really analyze the stories we were reading, or were we just falling back on shallow rhetoric?
We watched documentaries about the Sandanistas, read plays on Judas, struggled through a Mexican novel all told in second person. It was incredible.
So, Cambria was reaching up at the tears streaking down my cheeks because Griselda never met my kids. She never met my wife. She died after an overdose of anti-depressant pills. It was that whole situation where it wasn't clear if she was trying to kill herself or if she was just in a dark place and tried to get out or just made a careless decision. And again, the tragic irony isn't lost on me that the woman who taught me to love myself as hard as I could would leave this world because of her own carelessness for her own life.
She would go on to be the most important mentor outside of my family. We marched together in the streets, discussed philosophy with Billy Holiday playing in the background of her flat and argued politics (I loathed the authoritarianism of her socialist politics and she shook her head at my anarchist idealism). Her brujeria nature would come out and she'd always tell me her visions that I'd love three times and that I should end up with the soft-spoken lover because she might not be on the frontlines with me, but she'd always support me. She said I'd grow up to be a lawyer who would ruthlessly fight for justice and even arranged a meeting with me and Ernie Duran (president of the UFCW Local 400) to help that process along.
Well, I did love three times like she said. I ended up with the outspoken woman and I'm not a lawyer (at least not yet). But I don't doubt for a second how proud she is of me. She made that known every chance she could. She told me over and over that I was a wise soul to the point that I would start to think it might be true.
In class that day, when the song was playing, I asked why a song about such a tragic topic would be so upbeat. She smiled and asked, "When life is that hard, what else can you do? You just dance and insist on joy. With death and pain all around, you insist on life."
And that answer came back to me in my chest and I pressed Cambria to that soreness as I danced harder to the words "Bajé los ojos a media asta y me agarré la cabeza porque es muy duro pasar el Niágara en bicicleta."