I Can’t Think of Anything to Write About

“To retire is to begin to die.”

Pablo Casals
1966 James Monroe High School Yearbook Photo

Weird. I usually have a million things on my mind to write about. I mean, I have a list. I’ve wanted to write about police brutality, what I should call myself (Hispanic, Dominican-Puerto Rican, Latino, Latinx), how white liberals are going to get us killed, the GOP delusion, how much reading I must do this semester for school; I mean I have a very long list. Yet, I can’t seem to put two sentences together this week. Nothing is coming out of my mind into my fingers onto the keyboard.

Paris, France (Photo by Antonio Ruiz)

I’m just so busy with my three classes this semester. Seriously, I didn’t even think about how much reading and writing I would be doing as part of my classes and assignments. Take, for instance, Gerontology 401 (the study of aging). I just finished our third week, and I’m already overwhelmed with so much reading and writing, but I must admit, it’s interesting as hell. Theories of Aging, the biology of aging, the genetics of aging, and the three categories of aging (Young-old, Middle-Old, and Old-old) are right up there with lessons on physiology. I feel like I’ve walked into a medical school classroom. I learned some of this material in Anthropology at Long Beach City College, so it’s not entirely foreign to me. I’m glad I decided to take the class. When you’re 74, you discover you need all the knowledge and tools you can gather to deal with your aging.

One of our assignments this week was to write a 500–750-word essay about ourselves in the context of why we are taking this class. I wrote:

According to the Social Security Administration, I have an additional 12.5 years in life expectancy subject to a “wide number of factors such as current health, lifestyle, and family history that could increase or decrease life expectancy” (Unites States Government). I’m hopeful that my family genes will play a more significant role than my past health issues in determining my life expectancy. I have family members on both sides who have lived into their nineties and seen their centennial birthdays.

Discussion Post for GERN401
Paris, France (Photo by Antonio Ruiz)

Until I wrote those sentences, I hadn’t thought much about aging. Honestly, I feel young except for the slow-moving getting up from a chair or those aches in places I never thought I had and the getting up in the middle of the night two or three times for the lonely journey to the bathroom (it’s a man thing). But a look in the mirror or the spider-like skin growing on my hands, along with those medical appointments to check my plumbing, all are severe indicators of aging. Yeah, I’m glad I’m taking this class.

My U.S. Ethnic Writers class, English 375, is beginning to heat up. In the last two weeks, we’ve watched two documentaries, Agents of Change (2016), directed by Abby Ginzberg and Frank Dawson, and Race: The Power of an Illusion, both critical films about race, whiteness, and culture in this here America. Particularly disturbing were the familiar battles over ethnic study programs in the late sixties and early seventies spotlighted in Agents of Change. Here we are in 2023, still fighting the same struggles with basically the same group of conservative white Christians, primarily men (accompanied now by more women), telling us People of Color who we should be and what we should learn about ourselves. Yeah, I have two words for you, and it isn’t a merry christmas. Thank goodness, I’m not tired yet.

Paris, France (Photo by Antonio Ruiz)

Journalism 415 Diversity in the Media has turned out to be a surprise. This class isn’t what I first thought it was, and I’m cool. Here’s an excerpt from the syllabus:

This course is designed to give students a theoretical, as well as practical, experience with issues of gender, race, class, and sexuality as they manifest in mediated artifacts of popular culture. The course is taught from a cultural studies perspective where students will gain skills in critical analysis and media literacy. Concepts of power, privilege, justice, representations, hegemony, consumption, and resistance will be woven throughout course readings, films, assignments, and discussions.

Excerpted from syllabus JOUR 415: Diversity in the Media

Now that’s a mouthful. In practical terms, this past week, I spent much time listening to various podcasts like Scene on Radio’s “Seeing White: Turning the Lens,” and Code Switch’s “Can We Talk About Whiteness,”along with watching a documentary called White Like Me. Catch the theme? That makes two classes in the same week address the issue of race. The right wing in Texas and Florida must be pissing in their pants. Look, seriously, I know these are complex subjects to discuss that make people uncomfortable, but I can tell you from experience that these are not new subjects. American history is full of these subjects and will be for the foreseeable future until, if ever, we accept and deal with the foundational narrative of America. It hurts and will continue to be a sore on the soul of this nation, so pull up your britches and grow up.

Paris, France (Photo by Antonio Ruiz)

This Spring 2023 semester marks fourteen semesters (hey, you don’t gulp fine wine, you slowly sip it) of college (Long Beach City College and California State University, Long Beach) with only two more until the Spring of 2024 when at the ripe middle-old age of seventy-five, I will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, Creative Writing. The journey has been both exciting because I’ve met so many inspiring students, teachers, and staff and because of the universe of knowledge and wisdom that has been opened for me, including Math (Stats) which I am not a big fan of, but which proved to be my biggest challenge over the past seven years. I got my only B in all my years in college in that class, surprising me (no, not that I got a B, but that I even passed the course).

I have often told myself that retirement is outdated in the digital age. There are too many opportunities to enrich your mind, body, and soul at any age, especially now. If I can walk, talk, and think, I intend to keep pushing my boundaries of living by learning and grabbing up as many degrees as I can fit on my wall. After that B.A., a Master/MFA is next. Hell, why stop now? I don’t play golf.

DNA: Searching for Me

One in an occasional series of essays on identity

Simeóna Marte, my 2x great-grandmother

She stands there in what appears as a photography studio in a possibly manually colored picture, her hair gray and short, dark eyebrows, left hand on her hip, her right arm leaning on an elevated small table of some kind, a pink full body dress with a pink cinch wrapped around her wide body. It is difficult to determine her height but not her stern stare. Serious, like maybe she was anxious for the session to be over. Her name is Simeóna Marte. According to a recently discovered cousin, she is my 2x great-grandmother, who was born in the Dominican Republic sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century.

I know nothing about her, but the strength visible in her stance and face shout out to me from another century, another country of which I know very little. My mother’s place of birth, the Dominican Republic, shares an island called Hispaniola with the poorest country in the Caribbean, Haiti. For most of my mother’s life in New York, she spoke little of her heritage and ancestry to me. My mother, Ana Estrella Ruiz, was married to a Puerto Rican man, my father, Antonio Ruiz, whose heritage and ancestry dominated our view of where we came from. He proudly proclaimed that his grandfather was from Spain, the colonizer of much of the Caribbean and Latin America. And for years, growing up in the South Bronx, I called myself Puerto Rican, ignoring my Dominican self.

My mother and father

In my later Puerto Rican Pride teen years, my mother couldn’t help reminding me that I was also half-Dominican. She didn’t proclaim as if to belittle the Puerto Rican heritage but to remind me that my roots were complicated. While Spain may have played a significant role in determining our origin, it was not the only nation that either colonized a path through the two Caribbean islands or contributed to the DNA pool through indigenous settlement or importation of enslaved people.

My family is a study of diversity. We like to call ourselves rainbow people, from the noticeably white European features of my father to the brown features of my mother. While we, as children, spent more time with our father’s Puerto Rican family, we would occasionally meet my mother’s Dominican family. Her aunt and uncle sponsored her immigration to the Bronx, New York, where she would eventually meet our father.

My mother’s mother, Mamita

Her mother, whom we called Mamita, did not like leaving her home in the Dominican Republic. Something about the big city. She spoke no English, just like my father’s mother, and I had previously lost my Spanish, so communicating was not easy. Her brown skin revealed years of tropical living. My grandfather, her husband, and I only met once for a few minutes (the disrespect of a teenager who had other things to do). All I remember was his white hair, even darker than his wife’s skin. I kissed his cheek and asked for his blessing, and I was out the door losing an opportunity to discover from him and my grandmother the answers to all the questions I now have at seventy-three. Questions haunt me as I search for my family’s history, from the nineteenth century to now.

As tested by Ancestry.com, my DNA reveals that Spain (28%) and Portugal (22%) comprise fifty percent of my ancestry. That is not surprising considering what my father told us and, of course, the historical record for Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Of course, one would expect France (8%) to be in the mix since that colonizer once controlled the island of Hispaniola, where French is a dominant language in what is now known as Haiti. What did surprise me were the other thirty-eight percent. Twenty-seven percent were from countries of Africa, including Egypt. Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising considering the transatlantic African slave trade committed by European colonizers along with Arab and African collaborators throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.

All the long DNA lines from Europe and Africa flow through the Caribbean and my father and mother’s family, including Simeóna Marte, into the body of their oldest son, me, born on December 8, 1948, in Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. The DNA would continue through my second marriage to a woman of Puerto Rican ancestry born in New York.

My oldest son, named after me, married a woman of white European heritage, and a girl from their union was born who is now five years old.  

Clockwise: My son Antonio, me, Antonio’s wife Crystal, and my granddaughter Anabella

Then there is the third marriage (yes, I’ve been married three times) with a woman whose mother was Japanese and whose father was a Black American from Louisiana. We have a son with dreadlocks who cannot be mistaken for anything other than a Black man, except he has a Japanese name with a Spanish middle name. Let that DNA story settle into your imagination for a minute.

35 years
With our very young son, Daichi Gant-Ruiz

Searching for me is not only recording your life events and the family you know as you grow up. It is also about understanding the history of where you come from, the people and their history, the towns, and cities they lived in, the culture they celebrated, and the horrors and successes of life. I wish for that knowledge because it is who I am today and what I have passed on to my two sons and granddaughter.

It is not about what label to use to call myself but the totality of my DNA, my family, my children, the cultures that have shaped my outlook and helped define me, and the people that have surrounded me all my life and that I seek out now in search of new ideas, new visions, and new futures.

Searching For Me

This project arose from an assignment in my Fall 2021 English Studies class. The goal was to explore memory, identity, and roots.

My mother and father

When my parents, Antonio Ruiz Diaz and Ana Josefa Estrella-Diaz Ruiz, died, the stories of their family roots also died. I missed every opportunity to ask them about their parents, grandparents, and grandparents’ parents. As I’ve gotten older, I regret I don’t have more family history to pass on to my sons and granddaughter.

I’ve now become obsessed with searching for my roots. It would be easy to chalk it up to all the shows about genealogy and the ads for DNA tests. But I know it’s something more profound, a recognition that my life didn’t begin with my birth. I come from somewhere, from generations of people in the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. For me, it starts with the history of two people who traveled to Bronx, New York, from two different islands in the Caribbean. My parents brought their own roots, national culture, and history with the Spanish language the bridge between them. They would meet by chance in 1947 in front of a furniture store on Westchester Avenue in the South Bronx (it’s a very romantic story). At that chance intersection of life, a romance bloomed for Antonio and Ana. Marriage followed four months later, on February 29, 1948. My birth later that year. A new generational line was created by their union. I know where the line moved forward from my parents. What fascinates me is how far back it goes.

I’ve seen snatches of a family tree from Puerto Rico (my father) and the Dominican Republic (my mother), two islands in the Caribbean, 236.78 miles apart. Piecing together the family history has been difficult. I don’t speak Spanish, and many of the surviving relatives of my father and mother either don’t speak English or are too old to remember it.

This I can tell you, a Puerto Rican and a Dominican getting married back in 1948 was a big deal. My father would tell me some vague stories about his grandfather being from Spain. On the other hand, Dominicans, well, let’s just say that there was a lot more visible evidence of indigenous and African blood mixing with that of the Spanish conquerors to make some light-skinned Puerto Ricans nervous. The irony is that Dominicans on the island of Hispaniola have had a long-running dispute with that other country that shares the island, Haiti. Something about Haitians being too dark.

My Father

My father, Antonio Ruiz Diaz, was born June 20, 1925, in Puerto Rico in a small town called Maunabo, whose name came from a Taino name Manatuabón for the Maunabo River. Spain had claimed the Caribbean Island before they lost it in a gunfight called the Spanish American War in 1898. The United States then declared it a U.S. territory as if they had found a lost piece of luggage. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens, although no one asked them what they wanted. An American veteran of World War Two, my father had to deny he was Puerto Rican when he first applied for work in the Bronx. He told them he was a Spaniard and got the job. His reward for a long life of hard work, volunteering for his Church, and fathering five children, was cancer. He died in the Bronx on October 6, 1993.

Father’s Family Tree

The long list of names in my father’s family tree is a mystery to me, beginning with the grandfather that I never met, Pedro Ruiz Y Rivera. Born in 1893 before the Spanish American War, he died in 1930 when my father was young. Then, there are the names Juan Tomas Ruiz Escobar, Juan Rito Ruiz, and a fifth great-grandfather, Juan Correoso Gascon. I’m not even sure they were from Puerto Rico or Spain. There are gaps in the forefathers’ history with no glimpse of the women they married and their history.

My father’s mother and a very young me

I did know my father’s mother, Virginia Diaz Ruiz, affectionately called Mamá. She was born before the Spanish American War on August 25, 1895. She died on May 27, 1997, at nearly 102 years old. With my Spanish-speaking skills lost, I could not discover my grandmother’s story, of the husband who died so young, her parents, brothers, and sisters.

My Mother

My mother, Ana Josefa Estrella-Diaz Ruiz, was born in the Dominican Republic in another small town, Palmar in Salcedo (Provincia de Hermanas Mirabal) on August 8, 1928. She would later proudly become an American Citizen while raising five children, telling us scary stories and teaching us to laugh. My mother fostered too many children to remember and adopted two of them. Life rewarded her for all that she gave with Parkinson’s Disease. On October 28, 2015, she died in the same Bronx Hospice where her husband passed away twenty-two years earlier.

The Women in my mother’s Family Tree

I’ve met my mother’s mother, Melania Margarita Díaz-Mendoza. We lovingly called her Mamita. She disliked traveling to New York from the Dominican Republic, so my visits with her were always brief. Then there was my grandfather, Juan Estrella Minaya, who was born in 1899. I only met him once, remembering him as a dark brown man with a shock of white hair. I gave him five minutes of my arrogant teenage time. They both died before I was able to ask them about their stories, lives, and family history.

There is something about looking back to see where one is going. I now know that I am more than my life lived.

Special thanks to my sister, Margaret T. Ruiz, for her input and editing assistance.

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