The all-encompassing introduction. Or, a story.

19 Jun

me photographing the print \My great-grandparents Agustin and Antonia, who was also known as “Antuca” lived with my family when I was a kid.  El abuelo Agustin loved to garden, take walks and sing rhymes in the morning.  This annoyed the hell out of la Antuca, who was a bit more gruff and always seemed to tattle on my sister and me.  “Las Chicas,” she would begin, were “swinging from the chandelier” when we would play with the crystals to form prisms, “wasting fabric and lace” when we were making crafts, and “being terrors” when we laughed hysterically at anything we could. 

The kitchen was her domain and she would spend hours cooking and concocting her famous “caldos” or soups.  “La Antuca” the story went “puede cocinar un caldo  sabroso hecho de una media sucia, un hueso y el arroz de ayer” (Antuca can make a tasty soup from a dirty sock, a bone and yesterday’s rice). Indeed, she was good.  A bit cranky, but a good cook nonetheless.

My Antuca died of a heart attack when I was 14 years old.  We cried a little bit as my sister and I kissed her cold, stiff cheek, but we’ve never been the types for public fits of hysteria, so we packed away our mourning for later.  Months later, in the middle of the night in the big double bed that we shared, we began recalling our memories of La Antuca and the way we terrorized her in the way only small children, with just a pinch of malevolence, can.  We broke into a fit of sobbing, recalling the times we made her life difficult, laughing over her exaggerations in snitching on us and just missing the old woman.

El abuelo Agustin slowly developed dementia and we watched him deteriorate into a sobbing, screaming child, recalling his mother, the first “Negra” (my mother is the second negra and I am negrita) and clutching his hands so tight his fingernails cut into his hands.  I avoided his funeral because I had loved the old man so much.  I think I rattled off a list of excuses as to why I couldn’t attend the services such as “my college midterms are coming up” but, really, I just wanted to avoid the hysteria I knew would erupt as I saw my Abuelo in a coffin.  I mourned in private later.

I share these memories because telling stories is what I do.  The print you see above is the story of my great-grandmother, a woman who left her small town only to find a job as a washerwoman in the big city.  She was the victim of a sexual assault that resulted in pregnancy and then had her baby stolen by her boss, who was the assaulter.  After the baby was stolen, Antonia was kicked out of the house and told her services were no longer needed.  She wandered the city of Lima with no place to go.  At around dusk, she ran into a friendly police officer who warned her that at night the city was no friendly place.  She related the fact that she was poor and alone and it touched the man’s heart.  He offered to let her stay at his small flat while he worked the night shift and encouraged her to look for new work in the morning, when he returned to sleep.  This arrangement became the basis for my great-grandparent’s relationship and eventual marriage.  They remain married until the day they died and formed the foundation of the Benites clan.  My grandmother, Yolanda, is their eldest child.

I am the great-grand daughter of la Antuca that washerwoman, the grand daughter of Yolanda, a nurse’s assistant and the mother of nine children, and daughter of Ana Maria her eldest daughter and the toughest lady I’ve ever known.

The print above depicts my story, the story of how I came to be.  In it, Antuca prepares one of her soups, a concoction, much like her life, made up of what life threw at her.  She holds the spoon to stir her pot (I hear she could also give you a good licking with her handy wooden spoon) as my sister and I contemplate the life she led and the woman she has become.  I could go into the symbolism of everything, but this is just an introduction, so I will leave that for later.

I am an artist, an educator and a storyteller.  I consider myself a record-keeper of sorts, always asking questions to make sense of the world, to put these facts in order and to understand why people act the way they do.  I am a sucker for a good story, and my family history is full of them.  My father was a circus performer, my mother was raised by everybody but her own mother and immigrated to the U.S., alone, when she was fifteen in a pair of shoes that pinched her feet. My grandmother was a child bride, pregnant without knowing why when she was fifteen and passing from the hands of her father to her husband and on to her second husband when my biological grandfather, an alcoholic, began beating the shit out of her. My family is made up generation upon generation of babies that were born into the mess that is my family, in order to become a group of the most empathetic, loyal and loving people I know.  

My artwork is an homage to my family, my history, my people and the stories that make up our legacy.  It is not about “mine” or “his” or “her” legacy, but ours, as a family unit, as a blended family made up of half-brothers and sisters, their husbands and wives, our neighbors from here and there, cousins and great aunts and uncles who eventually raise and discipline us. The people that populate our stories.

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2 Responses to “The all-encompassing introduction. Or, a story.”

  1. kathie 3 July 2008, Thursday at 2:33 am #

    i love your family

  2. Ramone 4 September 2008, Thursday at 12:48 pm #

    Gaby, that’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing your gift, your family, your heart and your love.

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