Our guest contributor Nicole Capo is from Washington, D.C. and has Puerto Rican roots. She recently set out on Route 66 as part of a promotional trip with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to uncover stories about marginalized communities (particularly Latinx). In this piece, she talks about her thoughts as she visited “Green Book” sites, museums, and numerous cities … discovering that, even with the history of racism against people of color in most of these places, there was always something in every place that made her more conscious of her Hispanic heritage.
The city of Los Angeles greets us from below: we’ve reached the rooftop of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian and I can see skyscrapers in the distance. But even the rolling hills of palm trees — so similar to the ones I grew up with in Puerto Rico — can’t distract me from the scalding heat of the midday sun. They say that dry heat is somehow easier to be in than the alternative, but I’ll take the humidity any day. Give me dewy skin and the constant promise of rain — that’s when I truly feel alive!
I sneak away from the group, back down the endless spiral staircase that feels stuffy and claustrophobic as a coffin, and stop to fan myself at the end. In examining the room I’ve entered, I notice a quote on the wall above the stairwell:
“A casual savage cracked two stones together—
A spark—and man was armed against the weather.”
The casual racism of calling a fellow human a “savage” grounds me, reminding me where I am: this museum was built by a man from Massachusetts who traveled the Southwest and became enamored with the people of color he found there. He collected all kinds of items: pottery, linens, documents, and even human remains, in an effort to document and preserve their histories.
Being here, I am both fascinated by the beautiful art of Native American and Hispanic cultures gathered in one place while also troubled by the problematic nature of a person gathering the bones of brown people for public display. The existence of Latin Americans and other people of color in society has been a theme of my journeys this year, prompting me to consider not only those who ventured through these places before me, but also the fact that I have long considered travel a right when for many it has been, and still is, a privilege and a luxury.
I learned of the Green Book for the first time this year; it cataloged spaces both safe and welcoming to people of color traveling cross-country in the mid-twentieth century. In California, I took my research on the road and searched for some of these places only to be disappointed when we found that many of them had been torn down or converted into something else, with no signs or plaques or any other indication of the events that once took place inside their walls.
Amidst the sadness of this discovery, I realized how much more alike we — people of color — are than we are different, and how our stories are erased indiscriminately. Almost a year after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and the tragic realization that its people, my people, are still considered second-class citizens in the country they call home, I now felt a kinship with those who might not share my culture, but who do share a sense of historic and ancestral trauma. I had never before felt so deeply the connection with my home, and I could see now that the threads of this connection extended far beyond just my island as I know it now, but also back to the native Taínos who once called Borikén their home; to the Spanish who not only contributed to our culture but also erased so much of it; and to the Africans brought over as slaves whose religions, music, and food still live on in our heritage today.
None of us are just one thing; we are genetically and culturally the combination of everything we’ve experienced both personally and in our ancestral past. It is this knowledge that binds us together, that reminds us that, though we are unique in our histories, we are still a single community. That we are more alike than we are different.
And as I flew across the country and beyond this summer — to Los Angeles, Austin, Albuquerque, Boston, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, and Tulum — I carried this knowledge with me in wondering where people like me had been before. In finding bits of myself everywhere I turned and thinking about those who sacrificed their safety, their homes, and even their lives in order to ensure that their cultures lived on.
In New Orleans, the belly-filling comfort food and the Spanish signs of the Quarter took me back to my childhood in San Juan. In Mexico, I heard my mother tongue everywhere I turned; it was the most Spanish I’ve spoken in months. In Los Angeles, after traveling the final stretch of Route 66, fruit and shaved ice vendors on every corner reminded me of the piragüeros back home. And everywhere, the heat — it’s my belief that a hot climate makes for warm people, and warm people never fail to remind me of home.
Yes, the Southwest Museum fills me with a sweet melancholy; I feel close to my roots in this strange space. But I tell myself that, in remembering our histories, we must take the bad alongside the good. It’s how we keep from echoing our mistakes into the future.
All pictures courtesy of Nicole Capo