None of the travel websites include “hang out with a Puerto Rican family” on their “Things to do in New Jersey” lists.
Hmm. Maybe they should.
I should have warned my husband and kids. We were going to spend five days visiting my extended family on the East Coast, and while they were used to my mother’s Latina attitude, they were entirely unprepared for what was to come next – a loud and boisterous mass of relatives.
I spent many childhood summers in New Jersey and New York visiting my mom’s side of the family. As the lightest kid in the family, my older cousins told me to drink chocolate milk so my skin would be as brown as theirs. So I did. A lot. And I peed. A lot. But nothing happened to my skin.
Perhaps it’s redundant to say I was a very gullible kid as well, but my teenaged Uncle Dom had me convinced that sharks from Seaside Heights would make their way through the sewers and bite my butt if I used the toilet in my grandparents’ house. Yeah, I got constipated. Dom also told me about Jersey devil tracks he found in the backyard and how a friend’s friend got his thumb broken off by a praying mantis. Yeah, I was afraid to go outside, too.
It was awful, and it was awesome.
My grandparents made sure every visit was an adventure and took all of us to museums, amusement parks and other attractions. Most of the trips went well, except for the visit to Brigantine Castle, a haunted house near Atlantic City. It was Uncle Dom’s idea; that should tell you something. We made our way through the castle halls as actors popped out from behind walls and mysterious objects brushed against us in the dark. My grandmother, who was screaming and cursing in Spanish, had her face buried in my grandfather’s shirt. I had crawled up on his back. During that time, the actors could touch you as you passed, and my cousin Missy attacked the dude who came out brandishing a chain saw. Her 12-year-old fists of fury wailed on this guy for a good 15 seconds until he retreated back behind the wall yelling, “Get this kid off me!”
Ah, good times.
We also grew up surrounded by Puerto Rican superstitions from our older relatives. Superstitions are a big part of Puerto Rican culture, and many believe the potential for bad luck and evil lurk around every corner. I remember great aunts talking about the “evil eye,” an envious look directed at a person that can cause recurring misfortune. You could avoid becoming a victim if you wore a special charm, or if it was too late, you could rub an egg all over your body to get rid of the ill effects.
My grandmother never spoke much about the evil eye, but she did tell us to never burn colored candles because they summon evil, never leave your purse on the floor because it could lead to financial hardship, and clean your house and take a bath on New Year’s Eve so bad luck doesn’t follow you into the next year. Hence, all my household candles are white, my purse is always on a chair, and I always have a hot bath on New Year’s Eve. Abuelita also kept a bottle of holy water behind the front door to absorb any evil energy that tried to enter the house. As a kid, I once used the holy water as a squirt gun, and I worried for many years about the supernatural impact of my actions. However, I was glad to find the same bottle behind the door during my visit. It looked like it had been refilled.
My husband and children experienced a bite-sized version of my childhood during our visit. My daughter was delighted Uncle Dom left me with lifelong issues about mythical creatures and plumbing, and she greeted him with, “I like your work, sir.” My son high-fived him. They met my grandparents as well as the aunts, uncles and adult cousins. The kids enjoyed playing with their younger second cousins and hearing about how I was as a kid. (In case you’re wondering: shy, sensitive and quiet. And gullible. Very gullible.)
I spent most of the family time sitting right next to my grandparents and holding their hands. The room was loud with conversation and laughter. I placed my head against Abuelita’s chest and closed my eyes. For a brief moment, I was an 8-year-old girl who cuddled with her on the couch and learned how to crochet. For a brief moment, my grandfather’s grip made me feel like I was a 4-year-old girl holding his hand was we walked up to the ocean waves.
It had been more than 20 years since my last visit to the East Coast, and I kick myself for not going back sooner. I had forgotten how much I loved these people, and how much they loved me. I missed out on so much of their lives because I was too focused on school and work. I missed out because I lived too far away or felt my children were too young for that kind of trip.
Through this trip, my husband and children now know what it feels like to have people kissing your face every time they greet you or say goodbye. They’ve seen how people can overcome extreme adversity and create a better life for themselves and others. Most importantly, whether they like it or not, they’ve realized they are unconditionally loved by this loud and wonderfully dysfunctional family.
Yes, it was a great trip. We’ve got to go back next year.
Wanna know why I’m so freaked out about sharks and the Jersey Devil? Because “Jaws” is based on real NJ shark attacks that took place in fresh water, and the stinkin’ Jersey Devil is part of the state’s folklore. Learn more: