Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'Abuela and Her Gurus' by Margarita Barresi

In the late 1960s my Puerto Rican grandmother, my abuela, found herself a guru. Not, as one would expect, Walter Mercado, the famed and flamboyant Puerto Rican astrologer often mistaken for Liberace. She was not in league with the other abuelas who stopped everything when his TV show aired in living rooms around San Juan. Instead, way before self-help sections existed in bookstores, when you could count the available titles on the fingers of one hand, Abuela found herself an American guru.

He was Thomas A. Harris, MD, author of I’m OK, You’re OK, a book still in print today. Abuela would hold her blue and yellow, dogeared, and highly underlined paperback firmly with both hands as she responded to anything that annoyed, inconvenienced, or angered her.

“I’m okay, you’re okay,” she’d announce loudly in her husky smoker’s voice, which had strangers on the phone often mistaking her for a man. She’d say it twenty or more times a day in her Spanish accent, while her index finger pointed at herself and then at you.

“I’m okay, you’re okay.”

“I’m okay, you’re okay.”

“I’m okay, you’re okay.”

Abuela invented “talk to the hand.”  We all knew “I’m okay, you’re okay,” really meant “I’m okay, you GO AWAY!”

That is, unless she wanted to convert you. Then, her mantra became, “I’m okay, you better stay.”  When she got her weekly wash and set at “el beauty,” waiting in line at the Pueblo supermarket checkout, during society lunches with friends, and most especially when any family member was within hearing distance, Abuela preached.

"This book will change your life. You must read it,” she would urge, gently placing her hand on her victim’s forearm. Then she’d lift her eyebrows, tilt her head to one side and give the ultimate seal of approval, “A doctor wrote it, you know.”

As an adult, I’ve learned Dr. Harris believed most of us become damaged in some way as children, simply by being defenseless and dependent on others. We go through life in an unhealthy state, thinking “I’m NOT okay, you’re okay.”  The goal is to get to “I’m okay, you’re okay” by recognizing and coming to terms with the demons of your childhood.  Perhaps this is why I alone escaped Abuela’s preaching. At eight years old, I still had some demons to collect.

Abuela, however, was apparently repairing quite a bit of damage. She was a bastard child, never allowed to know her mother, raised by her own abuela, and eventually half-sister to three other girls. Yet she was surrounded with love, comfort, wealth and convenience, and her father adored her. What cocktail of “not okay” this mix created is a mystery, but I know years later she found a book that helped her, and for at least six months in 1969 she was okay.

* * *

When Abuela’s efforts to help us find peace of mind failed, she found a new focus: the body. If we weren’t going to be healthy of mind, then we were going to be healthy of body if it killed her. Her inspiration was guru number two, Edgar Cayce, a psychic whose “readings” focused on people’s health. From these he developed enough advice on treating and preventing illness to author several books. Abuela latched onto his holistic approach to health, and particularly liked his dietary recommendations. Liked, however, did not mean adhered to.

Cayce recommended avoiding red meat, especially pork. But no self-respecting Puerto Rican is going to eliminate pork from her diet, especially my Abuela who loved her chicharrones (fried pork rinds) and made special trips for them to a specific friquitin 45 minutes away in Caguas. Friquitins sell street food, but are a step above a cart. They range anywhere from wood shacks with palm frond roofs to concrete block establishments with Formica counters and cushioned spin stools. Fritters made in advance – chicharrones, alcapurrias, surrullitos, and bacalaitos -- stay under heat lamps. Most friquitines are 24-hour establishments, or close to it.  Pork any time, many places.

The pork was non-negotiable, so Abuela opted for another of Cayce’s recommendations:  Eat one meal a day comprised entirely of raw vegetables. Armed with a state-of-the-art juicer, she concocted a liquid version of Cayce’s prescription. Into the gleaming stainless steel centrifuge would go cabbage, carrots, celery, lettuce, apples, bananas, mangoes, and any other type of produce, in any combination. She’d down the resulting frothy greenish brown liquid as if it was the most delicious treat in the world. She’d then smoke a Salem, which was fine, because Cayce didn’t believe cigarettes were harmful to people’s health.

Then Abuela read about the nuts. “Edgar Cayce says that if you eat three almonds a day, three peeled white almonds, you won’t get cancer,” Abuela announced one day.

These were special almonds and Abuela would drag me to the health food store at the top of our street to buy them by the bagful. It was the same store where she purchased her juicer. I was fascinated by the fruit leather and carob candy bars sold there. Fruit leather was good, carob not so much. The powdery smell of the healthy food always made me sneeze, or perhaps it was the freezing temperature. The owners kept the air conditioning so cold that condensation formed on the glass plate windows, trickling down in thin rivulets. I always wondered who peeled those almonds. I also wondered who, besides Abuela, shopped at this health food store in friqutin land.

Every school day I would fish out a small foil packet containing three almonds from my “Sock it to Me” orange and pink psychedelic lunchbox. It was the vertical, oval kind of plastic lunchbox, so sometimes I had to dig deep to make sure I found the packet. I would grab it, get up, walk to the classroom garbage bin, and unceremoniously throw the packet away. I never, ever opened the almonds at school. Being deprived of Hostess Cakes was bad enough. I wasn’t going to advertise Abuela’s eccentricity. In any case, those three almonds didn’t stand a chance fighting the preservatives in my daily thermos dose of Chef Boy-ar-Dee.

* * *

Soon Abuela tired of cleaning out the juicer, which would often get clogged with fibers, causing the motor to run in place until you could smell it smoking. She forgot all about improving our minds and bodies and moved right on to saving our souls. Officially Catholic, I was the first generation in my family to receive very little religious guidance or instruction. My grandfather had been an altar boy, his sister an almost-nun, and both my mother and aunt attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade. By the time I came along, Catholic fatigue had set in and my grandparents had begun to search for spiritual fulfillment elsewhere. For a while they practiced yoga and dabbled in

Buddhism, but nothing had really connected with them until they found the Church of Unity: Guru number three.

Abuela discovered religion at the same time God activated my hormones.  No way was I joining a “Jesus Loves Me” cult at age 13. To this day I really have no idea what the Church of Unity stands for. It could have been the most fulfilling spiritual experience of my life, but because Abuela was pushing it, there was no way I was buying.

I loathed the square, pocket-sized Daily Word magazines she carried around with her. There was a new one each month with a reading for every day, and a muted watercolor of Jesus on the cover. These would be falling apart by the end of the month, just like all her other gurus’ publications. We’d all get Daily Word booklets for our birthdays. I would run around the house hiding them whenever my friends came over.

“All I want for (insert holiday or special occasion here) is that you go with me to Unity,” Abuela would plead in a woebegone tone. “Ay, is that too much to ask?”

 Abuela rationed her guilt-inducing comments carefully, for maximum impact. One of her favorite sayings when a family member disappointed her was “Cria cuervos, y que te sacaran los ojos.”  Translation: Breed crows and they will peck your eyes out.  I still don’t get it.  But it wasn’t the words, it was the tone. And the tone emerged whenever she mentioned Unity.

I finally gave in and told her I would attend a service. When the following Sunday arrived, and she knocked on my locked door repeatedly to wake me up, I pretended to be in a comatose sleep. She didn’t speak to me for a week.

As expected, Abuela’s Unity phase eventually passed and she went back to Catholicism when she began to truly face her mortality. I don’t believe she was ever healthy of mind, body, and spirit, at least not simultaneously. But it was not for lack of obsessing. She certainly tried to leave a legacy behind as she tenaciously shared the “gifts” she discovered.


Nowadays, I’m basically “okay,” I abhor vegetable juice, and regularly attend Catholic mass. I’m in awe of eastern medicine, believe I’ve experienced several past lives, and adhere to strict Feng Shui practices. My husband is tolerant, perhaps intrigued, and my children amused. Do I regale my family and friends with the wonders of my findings? Of course. After all, I learned from the master.