8. Snow In The Tropics
**ACTIVE** SNOW SCRIPT DRAFT 10 -- for LA BREGA
Many years later, as he sat for an interview, Ignacio Rivera was to remember that distant morning when his father took him to discover snow in San Juan.
Ignacio: I thought that it was almost impossible for me to have seen snow. But at that time it was something that -- like if it came from the Moon, something strange, you know. Like going to Mars, something out of the imagination.
It had been announced in all the newspapers: snow was coming. It was the early 1950s. Ignacio was around 8 years old, living with his parents in Barrio Obrero.
Ignacio: from watching movies, I know snow was white, but I had no idea of what cold was because I've never been exposed to under 70 degrees in my life. You don't know how it falls how it accumulates. How it turns into ice once it starts to melt.
And it came: Real, fluffy snow -- cold and fresh from the slopes of the Northeast, brought to a city park for a snowball fight.
Ignacio: I simply enjoyed myself. Had a snow fight with my friends. Something that we knew we would never see again. Because, you know, that was, that's a one shot deal.
It actually wasn’t a one shot deal. For four years in a row, kids in Puerto Rico were invited to this snowball fight in the tropics, to see snowmen assembled under palm trees. For a brief moment in the early 1950s, it was a miracle that kept happening.
Ignacio: Magnificent, magnificent. Maybe there was a subliminal message there which I I begin to understand at the at the tail end of my life.
From WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios, I’m Alana Casanova-Burgess and this is a special holiday installment of La Brega. In this episode, snow... in the tropics.
If you’ve read 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, maybe all of this sounds familiar.
The first sentence is one of those iconic lines in literature. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
This happens in Macondo, a fictional town somewhere in the Caribbean. We never learn exactly how the ice got there, or where it came from, or how long it lasted in the tropical heat. In the novel, the ice is a symbol for a kind of wondrous progress, but also for something existing where it doesn’t belong. A kind of dark magic.
And here in the real world, Macondo is shorthand for any surreal place, where the unexplained is routine.
Ignacio: A crazy place where the most impossible things can happen and people get used to it, and they don't even get affected by it.
Ignacio is a defense attorney and political commentator based in Puerto Rico -- which, as it happens, people call Macondo all the time.
Ignacio: If we saw a flying saucer land right now in San Juan, half of the people would wouldn't even blink an eye because we're used to the extreme economic and social collapse of the country.
In Puerto Rico, potholes are so big that people put Christmas trees in them to warn other drivers. Shuttered school buildings are taken over by vegetation, as though by force.
But it’s not quite true that nobody blinks an eye when these kinds of things happen. The absurdity is maddening, frustrating, stifling. There are protests, and a level of austerity that nobody can get used to. And unlike in the fictional Macondo, where bizarre things happen for no reason, Puerto Rico’s weirdness is often a function of a broken government… and of the colonial relationship with the US.
There are people in power who are responsible, who make decisions that affect people’s lives. So even though we never learn how the block of ice came to Macondo, I can tell you how snow came to San Juan -- and who brought it there.
Felisa: My population is about more than half a million.
Interview: More than have a million people just in the city of San Juan?
Felisa: In San Juan, Santurce, Rio Piedras, which composes the whole of San Juan.
This is Felisa Rincon de Gautier -- known in Puerto Rico as Dona Fela, or Dona Felisa. She was mayor of San Juan for 23 years, starting in 1946. And she was considered an incredibly effective politician. For example, she developed a kind of preschool system that was the model for the Head Start program in the states. She also expanded healthcare in the city, as she told WNYC during a visit to New York in 1957:
FELA: “You know I’m working on a new hospital, I have two hospitals, but the physical facilities are not as good as I want and I’m working on the plans for a new hospital.”
But if she was a populist, she didn’t look it. She had studied fashion design in New York and owned a clothing boutique in Old San Juan before running for office. She wore strings of pearls and elaborate gowns. Her long hair -- first blonde, later grey -- was braided and coiled on top of her head, defying gravity and also humidity. She looked like an older Marie Antoinette if Marie Antoinette also wore sunglasses.
Ignacio: like a queen, and imagine in that poor country, when you dress like that, you stand out!
Ignacio remembers her vividly.
Ignacio: People wanted to be like her. And she she played that role all the way until she became extremely old and retired. She was a very elegant woman.
Hilda Jimenez was Dona Fela’s assistant for 20 years. She’s 96 now, and we connected in a shaky Zoom just after a blackout in San Juan.
HILDA: Extraordinaria, no hay comparable con nadie.
She says the mayor was extraordinary, incomparable.
Hilda kept Dona Fela’s calendar and organized official trips. She remembers the mayor going to John F Kennedy’s inauguration. But there was one invitation that would cement the mayor’s legacy.
It was 1952, and an executive from Eastern Airlines asked if she’d come to a big company conference in Florida.
Hilda: 400 delegados y éramos tres mujeres.
400 delegates… only three were women. And Hilda says that Dona Fela would be the keynote speaker.
When they arrived, the executive approached Hilda with a message. The head of Eastern Airlines would like to thank the mayor for coming… with a gift.
Hilda: Quiere hacer un regalo a doña Felisa que se le puede hacer un reloj -- al que no, no me regalen nada porque ella no acepta regalos.
Maybe a watch? Would Dona Fela like a watch? Absolutely not, Hilda said -- the mayor DID NOT accept gifts.
After the speech, she was approached yet again…
Hilda: Pues qué va a ser lo que ella quiere y qué se le puede regalar?
What does the mayor want? What gift would she accept?
HIlda: No, no, no, no, ustedes regalen flores si quieren, pero no le vayan a hacer ningún regalo.
“Give her only flowers, nothing more!”
But she told the mayor: look, this Eastern Airlines guy is being very persistent. Dona Fela said she’d think about it.
At breakfast the next morning, she had a request. Not a watch, not jewelry, not flowers. Snow.
She wanted him to figure out how to bring snow to the Caribbean.
Hilda: Sí, que usted me la lleve nieve a mis nenes, que no pueden salir y cogerla, así como yo la cojo con la mano y chupármela.
As we talked on the Zoom I could see Hilda put her hands up to her face, mimicking Dona Fela holding a ball of imaginary snow, sucking on the cold. The mayor remembered that joy from living in New York. “I want you to take snow to my kids,” she said.
Hilda says she’ll never forget the look on the man’s face when he heard the request.
Hilda: eso fue el sábado que regresamos el domingo y al miércoles estaban llamando, que contaran con eso.
That was a Saturday. They got back to Puerto Rico on Sunday, and by Wednesday Eastern Airlines was calling: they would bring her snow.
Coming up after the break… a snowball fight. This is La Brega.
And we’re back. This is La Brega. I’m Alana Casanova-Burgess.
In San Juan, it was in all the local papers.
Ignacio: my father was a public servant, and he said that they, the mayor of San Juan, Dona Felisa was bringing snow to Puerto Rico.
In 1952 that first year, the snow arrived in March. In future years, it came on Three Kings Day, January 6th -- at the height of the holiday season.
Here’s how it happened in 1953, according to one local paper:
In Pico Peak, Vermont, two tons of snow was prepared for its journey. An article in the Rutland Daily Herald claimed it would be packed by local kids as a gift for the children in San Juan -- snow untouched by adult hands. The snow went into insulated bags that could hold 10,000 snowballs -- no mention of how that calculation was made -- and a snowman in parts, ready for assembly.
Then the bags went into a refrigerated truck bound for a New York airport, where they were loaded onto a four-engine Constellation airplane -- packed into a kind of aluminum canoe:
Ignacio: a big, gigantic -- like trailer truck sized. It was full of snow.
It was attached to the bottom of the plane, a belly boat.
Once it arrived in San Juan, that canoe was put on a trailer and driven just a few minutes to Puerta de Tierra, a strip of land that connects the peninsula of Old San Juan to the rest of the city. Thousands went to a park there to receive it.
HILDA: Llegó al parque Muñoz Rivera y eso fue inolvidable.
It was… unforgettable.
HILDA: Una cosa increíble
Ignacio remembers he and his friends were so excited, they couldn’t wait for the snow to be unloaded …
IGNACIO: I was not that disciplined. So a bunch of my friends jumped inside the container. So we had a snow fight with the guys outside. I began to realize that tennis shoes are not the best thing to be stepping on snow because they tend to get very cold. But I have no idea what cold was. So we had to learn the hard way.
ANTONIO: Oh, you, you learn fast. You learn fast. And I had seen pictures and the movies and whatnot.
Antonio Martorell was 11 or 12 when he made his first snowball from Dona Fela’s snow.
He grew up to be one of Puerto Rico’s most famous living artists. His portrait of Dona Fela is part of the collection in the National Portrait Gallery in DC. And he remembers that she threw the first snowball ever thrown in Puerto Rico --
Martorell: creo que dona fela tiró la primera bola de nieve del país jamás! -- y ahí empezó esa batalla campal.
And thus began a pitched battle… that made for some quirky news back in the states.
PARAMOUNT ARCHIVAL TAPE: It’s a race against time to enjoy this foreign importation, for the mean temperature here is 73 degrees. So gather yee snowballs while ye may, the thermometer is too uncooperative!
In this newsreel from 1955, you can see hundreds of kids packed together with a flurry of white being hurled at short range.
PARAMOUNT ARCHIVAL TAPE: A snowball fight to end all snowball fights for ten thousand youngsters seeing this fleecy stuff for the first time!
The snowball fight isn’t trench warfare, it’s more hand to hand combat. Men with shovels spread the snow on the ground. A boy in short sleeves zooms by on a sled. Dona Fela is tossing it into the air, her updo perfectly intact, enjoying herself.
But the star of the newsreel is not Puerto Rican at all. She’s a tiny ambassador for this white Christmas.
PARAMOUNT: To San Juan Puerto Rico from New Hampshire’s white mountains comes 12 year old Nancy Conway, the snow princess. Nancy is bringing to this torrid zone commonwealth a commodity unknown here but plentiful in Nancy’s home state.
The Snow Princess comes down the airplane steps in a cable knit sweater and a winter hat. Dona Fela and a couple of kids in traditional costumes greet her. Watching it, you wonder how much snow is melting during all that pomp and circumstance.
Alana: Do you remember trying to taste it?
Ignacio: Yeah. I did, I ate it, you know, remember, there was a snow fight and you get snow all over you. And we tasted it -- it was ice, a big surprise. In Puerto Rico we put flavor to the piragua, --
Martorell: the piragua --
Ignacio -- which is a cone of ice.
Martorell: with a syrup with a sugary flavor on top of it, and it's delicious.
Ignacio: And it didn't taste like maybe that was tasted like water, which is what it is.
Martorell: what's the fuss? What's worse? There's nothing to it, it tastes like nothing.
Ignacio recalls the delight of the snow lasting hours, and so does Hilda. But not Antonio.
Martorell: because it melted right away, melted right away. They didn't have much time to enjoy it. I think it was about altogether, about 10 minutes. That was it.
He remembers all the kids showed up wearing white --
Martorell: las camisas, los pantalones, la falda
And as the snow melted, everything turned to mud, and the illusion melted in their hands.
Martorell: we saw that the dream turned into a nightmare, that the snow melted into mud. But the overall view was this wondrous thing this woman brought snow! Made the impossible possible, the dream come true.
The thing is, there was plenty of Christmas magic in San Juan already, even withOUT snow. Street vendors would throw an orange peel up in the air. The shape it made on the ground would be like a love spell:
Martorell: that letter would be your boyfriend or your girlfriend or the one you were supposed to marry. It was great!
And the holidays in Puerto Rico last from Thanksgiving through Christmas, then through Three Kings Day, and all the way to San Sebastian -- a festival in late January.
Martorell : we felt privileged in that way, and we still do because we have not only one Christmas, we have two.
But by the early 1950s, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans had moved to the states -- part of a massive wave of migration. So Antonio and many other kids on the island were already getting reports from cousins about the glories of American Christmas. Of course, those reports were often exaggerations -- nobody wants to tell their family that they’re struggling in some faraway, frigid city.
And yet, to Antonio, it still felt like there was a message about living in the colony: that it was a second-class Christmas. Even down to the weather.
Martorell: the leaves didn't change. It was a little cooler than the rest of the year, but not that much. So we did feel then that it wasn't the privilege to have this tropical climate. We felt really under privileged!
But over the decades, Antonio came to see the snow not as simply a wondrous discovery…
Martorell: Oh, absolutamente. Assimilacion. Intento a assimilacion.
… but as an attempt at assimilation.
Martorell: Era el sueño del colonizado hecho realidad.
A sign that being Puerto Rican was to be less than. What he calls the “colonized mind”.
Martorell: Not only snow was better than sunshine, but also English was better than Spanish. Being white and blond was better than being dark and Puerto Rican. And being in the north was better than being in the south. Of course, it had all had to do with position of privilege, be it true or imagined. see, the colonized world is very polarized. Is that this or that? And of course, you always picture yourself in the bottom trying to strive to get to the top.
But all of this wasn’t only a matter of culture or psychology. It was politics -- and it was brutal. In the early 50s there were severe, violent clashes between the independence movement and the government.
Wheels were in motion to make closer ties with the US seem like the best option, and the snow was literally blanketing over that tension.
The first year the snow came, 1952, was critical. It happened in late March -- just a few weeks after Puerto Ricans approved a new Constitution that would change… ever so slightly… their relationship with the United States. Puerto Rico would be rebranded as a commonwealth, or an “Estado Libre Asociado” -- a Free, Associated State… which doesn’t mean much. Today, there’s widespread understanding that it’s not the same as self-government. Puerto Rico is still a United States colony, regardless of the rebranding. And Dona Felisa supported it.
But Hilda, her secretary, says the snow wasn’t about that -- it wasn’t a political manipulation… it was just that the mayor loved snow, relished that memory from when she lived in New York… of holding a snowball to her mouth, sucking in the cold. She wanted the kids in Puerto Rico to experience it, and if they couldn’t afford to go to snow she would bring snow to them.
Antonio says, yeah… but:
Martorell: All politicians, or at least most of them, are -- are colonized themselves -- more so even than most people.
It’s worth remembering that Puerto Rico in the 1950s was a place of intense poverty (it still is) -- San Juan had vast slums with no running water. Against the backdrop of those urgent issues, it’s hard not to see snow as a corporate stunt.
Martorell: Well, politics is all about fantasy. They are artists in their own Machiavellian way. They try to turn reality into something else for their purposes, for their convenience. I've seen that happen over and over again -- and it's happening now.
The arrival of the snow -- this extravagant fantasy come to life -- was yet another sign of the might and wealth of the US. And it furthered this promise that staying close to the empire would lift Puerto Rico out of poverty. But 70 years later, that’s… still not the case.
When Hurricane Maria tore across the island, it knocked out the entire electric grid. Four years later, there are still blackouts constantly. The system was recently privatized, and the cost of energy is going up while the service is getting worse…
And then just last month there was a headline that seemed ripped from Macondo. The mayor of Utuado, a town in the lush mountains in the center of the island, was going to use one hundred thousand dollars of covid-19 aid for the creation of… an ice skating rink. At a time when electricity is at such a premium and people are struggling to keep their insulin refrigerated.
ATT: when there's another blackout and it usually happens in the middle of the night, you wake up because you're sweating.
Ana Teresa Toro is a journalist and novelist based in Puerto Rico.
ATT: The first thing I do is to take off my baby's pajamas because he's sweating even more than me. I will put toallas -- fresh towels with a little bit of water. And then we wait for the morning because usually you cannot sleep anymore.
She lies awake, her mind turning over the questions. Will daycare be canceled? Did she buy too much food the last time she went to the supermarket? Will it rot?
ATT: Is this going to last a few hours or is this going to last a few days? There's uncertainty. Everything in your in your work week goes off the rails. You feel defeated because you you start thinking things that I don't want to think and and things like nothing works here, so why am I even trying? Why do I even bother? And then you start looking around and you realize that the world, it kept moving and you feel left behind. And of course, you could say, Well, I could go, I could leave.
Ana Teresa lived for six months without electricity after the hurricane. Some people, like my aunt, lived a whole year without it. I remember visiting her and thinking about another part of 100 Years of Solitude. The residents of Macondo -- the fictional Macondo -- are afflicted with insomnia… and they all begin to forget the names for things, so they have to label objects with notes. Like, this is a chair, it is for sitting. This is the cow, you must milk her every morning.
I looked around my aunt’s home and saw the oscillating fan, useless without electricity. This is a fan, it used to keep us cool. This is a television, it used to show us movies. This is a light switch. This is a refrigerator. A washing machine. A cell phone charger. A lamp. And on and on and on.
And when nothing works, people leave. Puerto Rico has lost OVER ten percent of its population in the past ten years. And people wonder openly in newspapers, on the radio, and on Twitter if the government is actively trying to make life impossible for Puerto Ricans… if rich people from the United States are welcome to pay less in taxes and develop the island’s coastline, while everyone else is standing in line waiting to buy bags of ice.
ATT: anyone from Puerto Rico that went through Hurricane Maria will have a different relationship with ice. It changed radically. So maybe I was eight hours waiting for the ice and it lasted three or four because if I got to the ice at three o'clock, well, maybe it will last a few hours to the middle of the night because there was so little ice, so little small amount.
In a Caribbean climate, there’s nothing more delicious than the feeling of cold. Even the memory of cold. And so, there’s a different story about snow in Puerto Rico that has stayed with Ana Teresa -- a story that has shaped her idea of what it means to be Puerto Rican. The big mall in San Juan is called Plaza Las Americas and, every Christmas, it has this elaborate display of fake snow. Eight years ago, she went to write an article about it. And she had a pretty good idea of what she thought.
ATT: look at the palm trees full of fake snow. this is so ridiculous to have fake snow in here and this is stupid. And why are people coming to see this? Oh my god. And there was this woman who came from, Humacao, that's like, Ah, an hour or so, a little bit less than an hour to San Juan. and she was with her two kids and I was like, Look at this woman, How could she come from my car with her two girls? They are supposed to be in school and to see the fake snow? How could people do this?
The woman explained that she grew up in New York, the daughter of that generation of Puerto Ricans who moved to the states in the 40s and 50s -- who would have told their cousins about the beautiful snow at Christmas. In the 70s, many of them moved back to the island and brought their US-born kids with them.
ATT: And she told me, Well, I have no money to take my daughters to New York to show them, how was my Christmas? So this is the only chance I get to share with them this very special memory of my childhood. And every time I remembered that I get goosebumps
There’s a saying, that Puerto Ricans are Puerto Rican wherever we are -- even if we’re born on the moon. It’s a way to bind the enormous diaspora to the island. As long as people have roots in Puerto Rico, Ana Teresa says, as long as there’s a love there.
ATT: now every time I go to Plaza Las Americas, I even stay a little bit. I look at the fake snow with tenderness, with emotion, because I remember that, yes, it's a spectacle. Yes, you could give it the colonial lens to read the experience. But also there are human stories behind that that we have to respect and that we have to embrace as our own because Puerto Rican history has a lot of snow in it.
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