(Yellow Towers, acrylic on canvas by JIbanez)

Sometimes I think back on my childhood and I think ‘man, someone has to be making this shit up…’

Back when I was seven (sixty five years ago!), my parents moved us from our little sugar cane town of Canovanas to the capital, part of a huge migration from the towns to the metropolis that would change the whole economic life and the dynamics of our island forever.

It was a new sub-development up by the side of a quaint country road in the outskirts of Rio Piedras, San Gerardo was the aspirational name. So new that we moved into the very first street being developed. Streets had been clearly created all over what was to be our future neighborhood but houses were built as they were ordered with a hefty down payment. Our street ended closed at one end with barbed wires after which you could see the houses popping up all over the next streets over, built as they were ordered.

On the other side of that country road, another sub-development had already completely taken shape, Sagrado Corazón. This one was completed and it was a little more uppity than ours, as I remember. Bigger houses, more modern experimental architecture, nicer cars on the driveways. And a very peculiar landmark, which ours lacked: right at the center of the whole project, surrounded by all this upper middle class and very white neighborhood, a black family that was understood were holdovers from this area’s previous incarnation as a sugar cane latifundio, had refused to sell out. And their little rickety wooden house on top of a low bare ground mound and under a huge mango tree that gave it shade, looked like one of those natural history museums’ dioramas surrounded by a gallery of social climbing newcoming one-uppers and housing what seemed an inordinate number of little kids and one big kid named King, surely not all brothers and sisters, but rather a blessed very extended family of cousins and nephews that loved to hang together. And then, there was King, their collective wellness insurance and bane of the existence of all the white middle class little idiots like me. Behind King, the whole pack of kids were ready to take over the world. Which presented pretty important consequences pretty soon.

The last piece in this set-up is the little chapel by the side of the road, generously known as La Iglesia de la Virgen de la Providencia. It was originally the family chapel of the landowners’ family that used to rule over all this land as far as the eye could see. Sitting quaint by the side of the country road, and with a holdover organist that liked to channel the phantom of the opera when she was possessed by the holy spirit in the middle of any of the holy week masses, it linked our new middle-class arrival to an agrarian past rapidly fading from our island. And, Jesus, you should have seen that lady go! But in any case, a very little and very beautiful, very personable little chapel and the only church, catholic or otherwise, miles around. Which in itself presented important consequences soon enough.

Because, of course, some years passed and San Gerardo grew very fast, all the Sagrado Corazón black kids grew enough to become like all the rest of us kind of curious mischievous annoyances (we were not juvenile delinquents, just mild pains in the ass, you know the age), families grew, and the local priest realized so must the church. So, they built a private catholic school and a small extension to the side of the church, by the altar, to house the mad lady organist and a couple of new pews to squeeze in a couple more alms donating believers. And for that they would need a loan. That is the reason, according to my dad, why the bell tower was demolished and the bell was moved several feet away from the church, to its own ground level niche surrounded by concrete benches, pretty nicely done: the bank would not lend money to the church unless they rid itself of the tell-tale bell tower ‘churchness’, just in case they had to seize it if the priest defaulted in its loan. And that was really the beginning of one of many San Gerardo’s folklore episodes.

The Milagro de la Campana. No one saw that one coming, I bet you.

It was a dark and stormy night (not really, but it was at night, for sure, and this story should really have started that way) during one of those evening masses in the catholic calendar, which this many decades later I can’t possibly remember. The little chapel was packed with very devout believers, many completely pious old ladies, faithful husbands and, of course, the curious or drafted kids (like me) who was by then a newly minted pre-adolescent.

If you’ve been to one of these catholic masses, you know the whole time it goes: you stand up, then you kneel down, and up and seat wait, no stand, now seat now stand and then the priest was turning around very dramatically like priests do (Catholics are masters of drama, I have stories) and just when he was about to either bless us all over or share his wisdom with us the bell outside gave a very single very lonely BOOOONG!

Time froze. The priest looked at us, we all looked at him for cues. He seemed mildly upset, (who was the funny guy?) when the bell again went BOOOONG! He slowly turned his head to look out the window (arms still up waiting to bless…), frowned face and all and then… his jaw dropped. And then, again, BOOOONG!

He turned to look at us and I, in my preadolescent mischievous hopes, began to sense that something was up and fun was on its way. His eyes were popping out of their socket with a joyful ‘what the hell?! Guys this is historic!’ stare when the bell went completely wild banging its shit out like there was no reason to save for tomorrow, and he again turned to look out the window and choked at the sight of the miracle bell ringing its heart out by its very own self and we all (well, the grown-ups did…) turned around to look out the window to see what was it he was looking at in such rapture and the bell ringing itself silly all by its own miraculous self and then turned to look at the priest for miracle handling leadership (“man, what do we do now?!”)  who by now seemed ready to crap on his pants (or his tunic, who knows what priests really wear under their tunics) and, renouncing all semblance of propriety, jumped from the altar and ran down the nave’s center lane screaming (almost screeching…) ‘Milagro, milagro!’ like a teenage girl’s first vision of Mick Jagger.

Well, the whole freaking church ran after him, old ladies crossing themselves over and over (well, it could be a devil’s trap, you know…), out the door and into the parking lot in functional paroxysm and I ran after them not believing Catholics could be this fucking fun and just then, when we all lined up after the priest to be bathed in the light of the miracle, it became obvious something was wrong. Really wrong as the priest slowly lower his arms and King and his minions jumped out of the bushes at the opposite side of the road, still pulling the miracle inducing cord that had been pulling the bell’s clapper and the whole pack ran down the road laughing and screaming ‘MILAGRO, MILAGRO, MILAGRO’ as they passed us laughing their stomachs out

Brother, you can not make this kind of shit up.

And right there, and forever, King earned from me and the ones in the know, the rank of Absolute, the ‘I bow my head to you, you annoying and glorious bastard, I am not worthy’ position. He had chiseled in the communal memory a place in the annals of San Gerardo’s defining moments. Next to the cubano’s misa de aguinaldo’s back pocket firecracker.

I tell you, sometimes I sit and think…

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