My name was supposed to be Imani Angelique, not Angelique Imani.
The story my parents tell me is that my father begged my mother after she gave birth to me, tears in his eyes, to give him the honor of having his daughter named Angelique.
And so she did. She gave him the honor and kept Imani for herself.
Imani was always my mother’s name for me. She is still the only one who calls me Imani and nothing else. And when someone does actually call me Imani, it often comes as a surprise to me, almost a “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” surprise.
They have no idea what a privilege it is to call me by the name my mother gave me on the day I came into the world.
It is August 29, 1954 in Barrio Anones. The barrio of Anones is one of eight barrios in the town of Naranjito, Puerto Rico. Naranjito is located in the mountainous interior region of the island, named for a small orange tree that travelers once used as a reference point on their way to the bigger town of Toa Alto.
My paternal grandmother is pregnant with her third child, my father. At the time of her pregnancy, she has been staying with the family of her children’s father, while he has gone to New York City, presumably for a better life than the difficult and poverty-stricken life they have been living in Naranjito. Today, she is in labor and there is no one to help her to the hospital, so she begins the long trek herself.
Dressed in a simple bata, slippers, and burlap panties, my grandmother slowly makes her way down a mountain, stopping to rest on rocks when the labor pains overwhelm her.I imagine, that at the moments the pain is searing through her, she is pissed off that she is alone, that the father of her children is in New York City while she traipses down a mountainside to give birth to his third child. I imagine her as a young, beautiful woman, legs streaked with amniotic fluid, worried and in pain, surrounded by the lush green of the mountain side of Naranjito, her stomach curling into itself with hunger, her womb stretching with her son. I imagine she is scared for her life and that of her soon-to-be-born child, scared for the two children she has left back at her in-laws, scared that if she dies, they will be left without her.
I imagine it is the thought of her children that compels her to continue this trek.
When she reaches the bottom of the mountain and walks into the valley town, she catches the hour-long bus ride to the sole hospital in town. She makes it, I imagine in tears and sweat and fluid, the August heat of the island like a shroud around her. She arrives at the hospital and gives birth to my father, Angel Ruben Rodriguez,the first of his name. They allow her to stay in the hospital overnight and then discharge her in the morning because the need for a bed is so high.
Unable to go back up the mountain, my grandmother reaches the valley town and asks for help. Someone in the town uses a horse to go back up the mountain to get Don Chago, my great grandfather. Hours later, Don Chago arrives on a horse of his own. My poor grandmother, exhausted and hungry and clinging to her crying child, asks how she will be able to get on the horse after just giving birth. Don Chago and some of the men of the town create a makeshift bed with two branches and a sheet, lining it with leaves. They attach the makeshift bed to the horse and the trek up the mountain begins, my grandmother and father in the bed, dragged along slowly over land.
While my grandmother waits for Don Chago, she tries to breastfeed her newborn son, who is shrieking in hunger. She is so malnourished, she cannot produce milk for him. His shrieks pierce the air, oppressive in the heat. She walks into a colmado and begs the owner to give her something for her child. She has no money, so he turns her away. She continues to beg and my father continues to cry. The screams of hunger finally get to the colmado owner and he thrusts a can of pear juice towards my grandmother.
My father’s first meal was a can of pear juice on the side of a road in a valley town in Naranjito, Puerto Rico.
When he tells me the story, my father laughs and says, “And you want to know what, Angie? I fucking HATE pear juice.”
“The rhythm is in your blood.”
On the night of my birth, my father threw a jam session in the house. He tells me there was a full orchestra in their Sedgwick Avenue apartment in the Bronx. They jammed for hours, music celebrating my birth, drums and horns and piano welcoming me, his only daughter, into the world. My father prepared a grand meal for all the men that came that night, some of whom included both my father’s best friend and my godfather, William Everich and Baba Femi, my father’s mentor and spiritual father, two pillars of his existence in this world.
He tells me that Lucy, my mother’s best friend and our next door neighbor, would always say of that night, “It sounded like the Palladium in there!”referring to a famed Manhattan mambo club.
“It did though, Angie! It was a beautiful time. We sounded great!”
In African tradition, the drum is not mere entertainment. It is conversation. It is the sound that marks all stepping stones of life and one that represents unity and heartbeat. Drums are played at births, at weddings, at funerals, etc. The drum in African tradition is one of the most important tools of community and love.
I know how important the drum is to my father, his life, and his destiny. His playing that night was to tell the Universe how joyful he was, fulfilled by his three children and the woman he loved, the friends closest to him there that night.
There is a cassette tape somewhere in my mother’s house of the night of my birth. I have yet to hear it, but I imagine it being redolent with joy, exuberance, love. I imagine that there are men’s voices singing, talking, laughing.
I kind of love the idea that the sound of drums and horns welcomed my birth. What a proper introduction for my life.
Greenpoint Hospital was opened in 1914, a beautiful brick and limestone building bearing the strong Neo-classical architectural design of the time, clean lines, archways and grand entrances. The hospital, which still stands, although no longer a medical facility, sits at the intersection of three Brooklyn neighborhoods: Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick. Used as a medical facility in North Brooklyn for nearly seven decades, Greenpoint Hospital was shuttered in 1982 and replaced with Bushwick’s Woodhall Hospital.
It is the first day of spring in 1955. My grandmother is pregnant with her fourth child, my mother. She has carried the baby for the full term of nine months and yet her belly is small. This worries her. She lives with her first three children and her husband, who works as an EMT at Greenpoint Hospital a mere few blocks away.
My mother is born in Brooklyn on March 21st, 1955, the first and only of her mother’s children to be born in New York City. It is the first time my grandmother has given birth in New York City, but more importantly, it is the first time she has ever given birth in a hospital. Her other three children have all been birthed in a house in Puerto Rico under the guidance of a midwife known to the family.
I can imagine her apprehension. There is no midwife, just a doctor, lab coats, sterile walls, the smell of alcohol, men. I imagine her not knowing whose hands are reaching in for her child and being disgusted at the thought. I imagine her gritting her teeth in her pain. Life in New York City is not easy for her or her family and she relies solely on my grandfather’s income because as el hombre de la casa, he refuses to let her contribute. Their marriage, though one of love, is also tense and controlled and at times, volatile. I imagine my grandmother feels alone, feels lost, feels trapped in a city that doesn’t want to help her or her children.
I don’t know if my grandfather is with my grandmother when my mother is born. I do know, though a full-term pregnancy, my mother weighs a wee 4 pounds at birth and is kept in the hospital for a month. Knowing that my grandmother had never given birth to any of her children in a hospital before, let alone with strangers, let alone with males, I can imagine how frightening that must have been to leave her youngest child in the hospital frail and helpless with strangers.
When I ask my mother if my grandmother had ever told her about her birth, my mother says all she knew was that my grandmother was frantic about leaving her child behind. When I ask her more, my mother hums that “Hmm” sound she makes when she is slightly amused and I imagine a hint of a smirk fluttering over her lips.
“I wouldn’t know a lot of details, Imani. I was being born.”
My mother has two sons, both born before me. Growing up, she always told me that she dreamed about having a little girl, about being a mother. She brags that she gave birth to all three of her children naturally with no epidural, brags that she never had any stretch marks from any of her pregnancies.
She tells me that my father lied to her when I was born and said it was a boy. Her heart dropped because she had been praying for a girl. She loved her sons, of course, but a little girl was a dream for her, so her disappointment was real.
“When he saw my face, he gave up the joke, probably out of guilt and told me the truth. That moment that I found out it was a girl….when they told me it was a girl, that was the ultimate happiness for me. I was overjoyed for all three of my childrens’ births, but to know that I had a girl, that was the happiest moment of my life.”
“Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”
On June 20, 1984, I was born in the “new building” of Lincoln Hospital. My mother likes to call me and my brothers “true Bronxites,” as we were all born in Lincoln, a central and well-known health facility in the Bronx. Lincoln Hospital, or officially Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, founded in 1839 as the “Home for the Colored Aged,”was originally in midtown Manhattan and was meant to support aged Black people, many of whom had been slaves prior to the abolition of slavery in New York. In 1882, it’s name was changed to the “Colored Home and Hospital.” In 1902, it’s name was officially changed to Lincoln Hospital after finding a home on 141st Street and Concord Avenue in the South Bronx. In 1976, the “new” building was built at a cost of $220 million dollars. In 1970, the Young Lords Organization took over the hospital in protest of the neglectful treatment of it’s patients, who were primarily Black and Latino. The facility takes up five full city blocks, continues to serve and support the health needs of its community and is the third busiest emergency room site in the nation.
My mother says she felt labor pains and me being her third child, knew to go to the hospital, where her water broke. She tells me that Dr. Jafari, the doctor who helped her through birth, was a “George Clooney looking motherfucker,” who had the pregnant women requesting him and giggling like teenagers. My father says that the “funnest” part of becoming a father was witnessing our births, though I am sure that my mother would disagree. He tells me I shot out like a football and he caught me.
Both of my parents tell me it was a joyous time in their lives, their children all young and growing, having their last child be a girl was the icing on their cake. I arrived in Kingsbridge in swaddling in the Blue Monster, a huge 2-door Blue Maverick.
There is something to be said about knowing your birth story, knowing where you born, who was there, who celebrated with your parents. It gives you an anchor to your story. This is point A. I think it’s so interesting to know how my parents came into the world, to know the start of their journeys in relation to my own. Their birth stories in many ways, though different share so many similarities, and it is because of them that I am here.
How life can twist and turn is the story. How life can start. How life can be joyous and difficult and scary and full of hope or despair. That’s the story.
But to know where the story is going, you should always know where it began.
My story begins in the South Bronx, by way of Brooklyn and Naranjito, Puerto Rico.