When I Was Puerto Rican

When I Was Puerto Rican 10. Dreams of a Better Life Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Mami returns for Negi at Tío Lalo's house, she tells Negi and Angelina that when she returned from New York, she found the house locked and learned from the neighbor that Papi "packed off the kids" and went back to Macún. Negi thinks that there's something different about Mami. She came back from New York with painted nails and a haircut, but she also seems prouder and more confident now. Negi is simultaneously frightened and enthralled. She thinks Mami looks more beautiful than ever.
Papi truly did disconnect from his family entirely. Negi doesn't offer her perspective, but Mami seems wholly betrayed by this. This continues to build the sense that the family is struggling to stay together. Mami seems to be creating a new identity for herself in New York, notably one that's entirely separate from her relationship to Papi.
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As Mami and Negi walk to the bus, men stare, whistle, and catcall Mami. Mami ignores them. Negi is both proud and afraid: she's afraid that Mami has become public property and that one of the men is going to take Mami from her forever. Negi wants to punch the men and spends the entire bus ride miserable.
Negi realizes here that Mami is sexually attractive to men other than her father. This is terrifying, as Papi's relationship with Mami is relatively predictable (if heartbreaking and difficult), while these men represent a complete unknown.
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Their new home is near a golf course and next door to an aunt and uncle with a television set. Negi and her siblings watch Tom and Jerry, Mickey Mouse, Superman, and Tarzan. Rather than watch television, Papi spends his time in a shed reading. He becomes withdrawn and morose. Negi sneaks into Papi's shed one day and studies the books written in formal Spanish. She sees a bottle of amber liquid and a bowl with ashes, and leaves the shed scared and chilled.
Papi continues his process of separating himself from the family and their lives. Negi is disturbed to see that Papi is turning to substances and solitude, as this suggests that he's not getting any happiness or fulfillment from Mami or his children with her. Though the cartoons are in Spanish, they introduce Negi and her siblings to American characters.
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Negi gets her own room in the new house, which she's allowed to decorate with cut pictures from food packaging. The first night, Negi struggles to sleep totally alone for the first time. She gets up when she hears the rooster crow and tiptoes to Mami and Papi's room. She walks in to find her parents sitting in bed naked, and they blush, pull their covers up, and send Negi back to bed. Negi sleeps on the couch and falls asleep to the sounds of her parents having sex.
Though Negi is old enough now to get the privacy of her own room, she's still enough of a child to not be entirely ready to accept it. She still needs parental comfort. Sleeping on the couch where she can hear her parents recalls how she and her family lived in Macún with only a sheet separating the adults from the children, though now Negi knows what she's hearing.
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Negi tells the reader that love makes people do crazy things, and lists some violent newspaper headlines. The radio, however, is different: the men are decent and the women, though often downtrodden, are optimistic and cheerful. Negi comes home from school daily to sit and listen to romantic radio programs. She imagines that she looks like the heroines. At night she daydreams her own fantasies of being rescued by an Armando or Ricardo. According to these soap operas, Negi will fall in love at first sight and will have to suffer, and she dreams of the suffering road to happiness every night.
Rather than look to Papi for an idea of what men should be like, Negi begins to look outside her family and to media to give her an idea of what relationships can be. This allows Negi to learn that not all men are sinverguëznas; Armando and Ricardo certainly aren't (though whether men like them exist in the real world is yet to be determined). This also gives Negi a way to think about her own suffering and provides a script for the end of that pain.
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As Negi dreams these fantasies, Mami and Papi's relationship gets even worse. Though they've been together 14 years, they're not married. After returning from New York, Mami began insisting that they get married, and they fight about it constantly. When the fights start, Negi goes to her room and imagines that men and women can be gentle, kind, and loving to each other.
The fact that Negi waits until now to tell the reader that her parents aren't married indicates that it either wasn't a problem before, or she simply wasn't aware (remember Negi's early assertion that only wives and future wives lived in Macún).
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One day, a boy named Johannes Vélez offers to carry Negi's books for her. Negi snaps at him, even though she likes when he looks at her and wants to give him her books. She fears that letting him carry her books will mean giving him more, even though she's not sure what "more" is. She tells him he can carry her books tomorrow and walks home angry that she didn't let him carry them today.
After Negi's previous sexual experiences, she's understandably afraid to engage a boy in romance as she's very protective of herself and her body, and has learned to see men as aggressors.
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Negi asks Mami what to do if a boy offers to carry her books. Mami says to let him, and asks who wants to carry Negi's books. When Negi mentions Johannes, Delsa, Norma, and Alicia taunt Negi about having a boyfriend. Mami doesn't recognize Johannes' last name and Edna and Raymond join to taunt Negi even more. Finally, Mami sends the children away and turns to Negi, who's embarrassed and confused.
Negi's coming of age is novel and strange for everyone in her family. Mami sending the children away, however, shows that she cares for Negi's comfort and wellbeing during this confusing time. This strengthens the relationship between Mami and Negi.
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Mami tells Negi to invite Johannes to the house, but Negi starts to cry when Mami mentions that Negi is “casi señorita” (almost a woman) and needs to make boys respect her. Negi asks when she's going to be a real señorita, and why she should do all these things because she's casi señorita. She breaks into heaving sobs. Mami comforts Negi and sends her to her room to lie down instead of go to school. Negi undresses and feels as though the world is cruel and horrible, and Mami asks God to help her get through her children's puberties.
This liminal space between girl and woman is supremely confusing for Negi, particularly when Mami links it to how Negi interacts with boys. This shows that even if Negi's identity is in many ways solidifying, the primary split now is between child and adult. Negi continues to humanize Mami, too. This isn't just hard for Negi; Mami has to parent a sensitive preteen and that presents its own set of challenges.
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Negi describes the space under the house, which she and her siblings divide up into clearly defined play areas for each of them. Negi spends a lot of time there and takes special interest in a nearby gardenia bush that has never flowered. She asks Papi and Mami how to help the gardenia flower, and she begins pruning and watering the bush. One day, while Negi waters the gardenia, Johannes appears at the gate and greets Negi. Negi is furious he came uninvited.
When Negi has something to care for, she's calmer and feels far more adult, perhaps because of her early childhood experiences mothering her younger siblings. Johannes sets Negi entirely off balance, then. Notably, his sudden appearance exists in a similar realm as Papi's unexplained disappearances and appearances, though Negi is unable to formulate a response when the person appearing is her peer and not her parent.
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Mami appears with the rest of Negi's siblings and greets Johannes. Negi is embarrassed and, at Mami's prodding, asks Johannes in. He sits on the sofa while Negi's siblings arrange themselves so they can watch Negi and Johannes. Negi asks Johannes where his "funny name" came from. He blushes and says he was born in Kentucky. Negi persists in this line of questioning until Mami calls her into the kitchen and tells her she's being rude. She suggests Negi take Johannes outside.
Again, Negi simply has no formula to go off of as she tries to interact with Johannes. Armando and Ricardo are poor role models at this point because neither Negi nor Johannes are particularly suave with their interactions, making this whole situation both awkward and amusing.
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Negi reenters the living room and asks Johannes if he'd like to "see a tree." Mami rolls her eyes, but Johannes follows Negi outside. She asks Johannes what he's doing at her house. They stand by the creek and Johannes talks about his father. Negi feels that she can't compare Johannes to her adult male soap opera lovers and doesn't want to listen to him. Negi steps towards the creek and falls in. She emerges, covered in mud and crying, and tells Johannes to go home. He leaves laughing.
Negi is entirely disenchanted with this whole flirting and romance business when it doesn't fit the idea she has in her head. However, trying to separate from the present and daydream has disastrous and embarrassing consequences here, which shows that Negi splitting her identity as she did when she was a child isn't as useful now that she's growing up.
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One day Mami leaves Negi at home to watch the children while she takes Edna and Raymond shopping. Negi reads a romance novel instead of doing what Mami asked. A man comes out of a nearby house wearing a straw sombrero. Negi thinks he looks like a Mexican movie star and thinks his name must be Ricardo. Her heart skips a beat. She wills the man to look at her and fall in love, but he sits by the stream and stares into it. Negi goes inside, brushes her hair, and unbuttons a button on her dress to show off her not-yet-developed cleavage.
When confronted with a real-life Armando or Ricardo, Negi feels far older and more mature than she actually is. This muddies the state of Negi's identity even further: though she's still very childish and Mami wants Negi to act like an adult, sometimes Negi feels particularly (and hilariously) adult. This is indicative of her sexual coming of age as well.
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When Negi goes back outside, the man is lying down with his sombrero over his face. Negi cuts a flower from her budding gardenia bush and buries her face in it. The man stands up and looks at Negi, and Negi feels older and bold and stares back. The man tips his hat at her, and she puts the gardenia flower in her open buttonhole. The man laughs and Negi moves the flower to behind her ear. She leans against a mango tree and puffs her chest out as the man watches, until Mami interrupts Negi's reverie.
The man sees the humor in 12-year-old Negi's flirtations, though Negi is entirely blind to how silly she looks. The way that Negi moves her body shows that she's learning from and internalizing what she's seen on TV of female movie stars. Negi can experiment with being adult by copying their movements.
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Negi buttons her blouse and the man walks back towards a rich man's house. Mami asks who the man is and Negi feigns ignorance. Mami sends Negi inside, telling her the romance novels are trash.
Mami is still protective of Negi and sees this man as a threat to Negi's safety. She understands that Negi feels the way she does about the man because of what she's learning in the media.
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The fighting between Mami and Papi escalates even further. Negi hears them breaking things as they yell, but she finds no broken pieces when she wakes in the mornings. She begins spending time in the library to avoid being at home. One day, as Negi helps Mami butcher a chicken, she sobs that nobody loves her, and laments that Mami and Papi keep fighting. Mami wrestles with the chicken as Negi keeps whining, and Mami finally tells Negi that her relationship with Papi isn't Negi's business. Negi cries that life isn't fair, and Mami finally comforts her on the steps. Negi notices that Mami is both crying and laughing, but Mami won't explain why she's laughing or crying.
Being as old as she is now, Negi can escape her parents' disagreements simply by removing herself from the vicinity. Mami demands that Negi treat her as an adult and respect that she's not a part of Mami and Papi's relationship. She asks Negi to keep doing what Negi has already begun doing, and treat Mami as an independent person and not just a mother. It's apparent, however, that Mami and Negi are becoming closer as Negi gets older.
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Papi tells Negi that she'll be a teenager next week and explains how Americans came up with the word "teenager." He tells Negi that she'll like rock and roll, even though Negi insists that she doesn't like it. Papi seems happy and Negi pouts. Papi tells Negi that Mami is talking about moving to New York, shocking Negi. Papi calls to Mami to confirm. Mami tells Papi she has no choice and he's cruel for what he's doing.
Papi's emotions and motives as he talks to Negi are very unclear, though it seems he's using her to provoke a fight with Mami. This is a betrayal of his family, as he's destroying Negi's sense of security and trust in her parents. Mami tells him this.
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Papi insists that he doesn't know what Mami wants. Mami says she wants him to marry her, but Papi insists that he's done everything he should. Their fight gets louder and angrier. Negi crouches against the wall and watches them fight. Her siblings join her and watch their parents. Negi says that in this moment, her parents were only real to each other.
Mami wants Papi to acknowledge and legitimize their relationship with a marriage license. This suggests that Mami is insecure in the foundation of her relationship with Papi and that she may indeed be an "other woman."
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Mami begins to prepare for the move to New York. She buys suitcases and decides that Negi, Raymond, and Edna will go with her, while Delsa, Norma, Héctor, and Alicia will stay until Mami can afford to send for them. Mami and Papi both refuse to talk to Negi about what's happening, but Papi does tell her that he'll never go to New York. Negi doesn't see how Mami can think that Papi is a good man when he won't fight for them.
Negi sees this as a major betrayal on Papi's part, which will work to turn Negi even more towards Mami's side in this argument. Both parents refuse to engage with Negi as an adult and instead force her to remain a passive and powerless child as the family breaks apart.
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Papi drives Negi, Mami, Raymond, and Edna to the airport. He unloads their bags and kisses them goodbye. He tells Negi to write and Negi follows Mami to the plane. She turns around to look at Papi and her remaining siblings, but Mami ushers her onto the plane. Negi tells the reader that for Mami, New York would be a twisting adventure. For Negi, the move created a hybrid, and she'd never fully forgive this move.
Negi's identity had just begun to solidify prior to the move, but she suggests that being in New York undoes or alters much of the work she'd already done—she now must become a “hybrid” again in a new and foreign environment. Papi continues to act as though he's not particularly emotional about the situation, which drives home the fact that he's fully checked out from the family.
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