El Caserío

Ordinary Girls: A Memoir BY Jaquira Díaz. Algonquin Books. Hardcover, 336 pages. $26.
The cover of Ordinary Girls: A Memoir

This is where I begin. I come from poverty, from El Caserío Padre Rivera, the government housing projects, and there are stories here I never want to forget.

In El Caserío, Anthony and I spent most summer days playing outside. It was a world of men, of violence, a place too often not safe for women or girls. There were shoot-outs in the streets, fourteen-year-old boys carrying guns as they rode their bikes to the candy store just outside the walls. We watched a guy get stabbed right in front of our building, watched the cops, who we called “los camarones,” come in and raid places for drugs and guns. Outsiders were not welcome. Outsiders meant trouble.

We were poor, like everybody who lived there, but we didn’t know any better. At times, El Caserío was like the Wild West, but what you didn’t know unless you lived there was that most people were just trying to raise their families in peace, like anywhere else. The neighbors kept an eye on all the kids, fed them, took them to school, took them trick-or-treating on Halloween. All over the neighborhood, people told stories. El Caserío was where I learned about danger and violence and death, but it was also where I learned about community.

El Caserío was made up of clusters of two-story cinderblock buildings, each with four apartments on the first floor, and four on the second. Every apartment had two balconies, one facing the front yard, one facing the back. Some buildings, like ours, faced the street, but some had a view of the plaza, or the basketball courts, or the elementary school at the end of the main street.

We sometimes played cops and robbers, but Anthony and his friends didn’t want girls around—I had to beg them to let me play. I was always the robber, always the one to get shot down by the cops. Because they were boys, they got to carry the guns and do all the shooting. Girls were not supposed to carry weapons—knives or guns or machetes—so how was I supposed to rob a bank? Still, they showed no mercy, shooting me six, seven times. I had to lie on the sidewalk, pretend I was dead.

Most days I ran wild around El Caserío, dying to hang out with the boys, or my brother when he was around, to be the boy I thought my father wanted. But my brother was nothing like me. I was tanned from days spent in the summer sun, and everything about me was messy. I spent hours climbing the tangled branches of the flamboyanes, riding my bike in the street. I ran around with Eggy, barefoot, splashing in puddles, catching lizards, digging our hands into the mud, pulling up earthworms. Sometimes we’d shoot hoops. If there were no boys around, I’d play double Dutch with the triplets who lived in the next building over, singing along to our Spanish version of the Jackson Five’s “Rockin’ Robin.”

My brother was the favorite, who never got in trouble for pushing me down, for knocking me upside the head, for tripping me as I walked by. Eventually, I learned to defend myself, to outrun him, to hit him back. Anthony was chubby, with my mother’s piercing blue-green eyes, blond hair, fair skin. He didn’t climb trees, or run through the flooded streets during rainstorms, or hang upside down from the monkey bars—that was all me. My brother mostly stayed inside, watching TV or drawing. He could draw anything in under a minute. With a pencil and paper, he’d take one look at you and turn you into a cartoon. He’d draw cities and underwater worlds and the Millennium Falcon. He’d draw our family: Mami with a round pregnant belly, Papi with boxing gloves and high-tops, Abuela stirring a giant pot of sancocho, and me, with a parrot’s beak for a nose, two red devil horns, and a pointed tail. I was just like Papi, with his wide nose, with dark eyes, tight curls, skin that browned easily after a little bit of sun. I was the wild one, always running, always dirty, sweaty, a tomboy. Anthony was blue-green, light, golden. I was brown, brown, brown, like tierra. But even though we had a white mother, Abuela reminded us that we were a black family, and that every single one of her grandchildren was black, no matter how light-skinned we might look to the world. Even Anthony, with his golden hair and light eyes.

One afternoon, Anthony and I met the other boys outside our building—Pito and Eggy and a bunch of other kids. Pito, the oldest of all the Caserío street kids, was the shot caller. He was in sixth grade, but smaller than most of the other kids, with a short Afro and a face full of freckles. Eggy was taller, less freckled, and not so bossy.

“You better be ready for war,” Pito said. He tossed a pebble back and forth from one hand to the other.

Pito decided that we’d all be Taínos, that it was our duty to defend our island from the Spaniards who came to murder and enslave us. If Pito said climb a tree, we climbed. If he told us to break into the neighbor’s apartment, we broke in. So when he said we were going to wage a war against el viejo Wiso, we ran around El Caserío looking for rocks and pebbles to use as bullets and grenades, enough to take down an entire army.

El viejo Wiso spent all day sitting on his second-floor balcony, looking out at the barrio. He sat there quietly when we rode our bikes in front of his building, and when Pito started a small fire on the lawn so we could cook a can of Spam like soldiers did in the old days of war.

Across from Wiso’s building was the tallest tree in El Caserío, a ceiba with a trunk thicker than my torso. Everybody said el viejo Wiso was toasted, and we kids were supposed to leave him alone, stay out of his way. But Pito claimed Wiso had killed hundreds of Taínos in Vietnam, which is what made him crazy, and now we were going to make him pay.

Pito filled the pockets of his jeans with rocks, small pebbles, and pieces of broken glass. Some of the boys didn’t have pockets, so they stuffed my overalls’ pockets with their ammunition, even though I was forbidden from throwing rocks. (According to Pito and Anthony, everybody knew girls couldn’t throw.) When Pito gave the order, we marched our way across the narrow, cracked sidewalks, cutting through patches of grass and weeds and moriviví, all the way to el viejo Wiso’s building on the other side of El Caserío. He was exactly where we expected, just sitting there on his balcony, fanning himself with his worn, gray, newsboy cap.

When Pito threw the first rock, it landed in the middle of the front yard. Wiso didn’t move.

“Attack!” Pito ordered, one fist raised over his head.

And then, all at once, the boys started flinging rocks, hurling them at the planters and the rusty bike el viejo Wiso kept on his balcony, some of them landing in the yard or hitting the neighbor’s windows. Anthony and Eggy and Pito picked my pockets for their rocks, throwing one after another and another.

“Get up!” Pito shouted. “Come down and fight!”

But Wiso still didn’t move.

I pulled a rock from one of my pockets, got ready to fling it, but Anthony snatched it without a word, as if I was just handing it to him. I watched him throw it as I scrunched my face under the sun. He bit his bottom lip, something he did when he was trying to concentrate, and sent it flying over the lawn, his bushy blond locks lifting in the wind.

When everyone ran out of ammo, Pito scanned the lawn for more rocks, turned all my pockets inside out. He searched the ground beneath the ceiba tree, until he found exactly what he was looking for: an empty beer bottle. He grabbed it, measured the distance between the balcony and his throwing arm, and without another word, he flung it, hard.

It landed right in the middle of the balcony, shattering into a million pieces, glass exploding like shrapnel.

Slowly, Wiso rose from his chair. He dropped his hat right there and stepped back into his apartment. We watched, wide-eyed and nervous, waiting for him to come back out, maybe with a pot of hot water to throw at us, like some of the viejas when they were fighting with their husbands, or the mailman, or the neighbors.

But suddenly, without warning, Pito took off, pushing boys out of the way, running in the same direction we’d come from. Eggy grabbed my arm, pulled me, hard. And that’s when I saw it: el viejo Wiso crossing the lawn, headed right for us, a machete in his hand.

Then we all took off. Most of the boys split, peeling off toward their own apartments. Eggy, Anthony, and I followed Pito, who was heading toward Abuela’s place. It was home base, Abuela’s house, where we all went for lunch or snacks, where we all took refuge when we were in trouble, when we were hiding from our parents or each other, or when los camarones came in to raid places or take someone away.

I cut through the same spots of patchy grass and moriviví, all the boys yelling, “This way!” and “Faster!” and “Get out of the way!” I followed Pito. Maybe because he was older and I thought he’d have a plan. Maybe I thought he wouldn’t let Wiso chop my head off. After all, he was brave. He was the boss.

Excerpted from Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz. Copyright 2019 by Jaquira Díaz. Published in October by Algonquin Books. All rights reserved.