She called me La India. She was a tiny brown nut of an old woman with a crinkly hard shell. She only wore house dresses. Her silver hair hugged her head with tight curls. She called me “La India” because she could not remember my name. She was right to save that space in her brain. I only stayed in her boarding house for two weeks.
She called me La India because I was from India, and that is all she knew. She did not call me La Americana. I spent the summer of 1998 in Puerto Rico. It was a strange trip, a trip that came together quickly and haphazardly. I had some contacts. Names, addresses, and phone numbers. I had some vague, amorphous goals. I had a plane ticket. When I arrived in Puerto Rico, the telephone workers went on strike. I could not call the people I was supposed to contact. So I wrote them a letter. I found a boarding house to stay in and I waited.
The old woman called me La India and I called her Senora. Two other girls were living in the house for the summer and taking courses at the University of Puerto Rico, a few blocks away. They were friendly but busy, and my Spanish was limited. I spent the days wandering San Juan. I took the bus to the beach. I walked around campus. I read books and took naps in the library. I went to the market and bought canned macaroni and cheese. I waited.
She called me La India and it fit. In Puerto Rico, I passed for Puerto Rican. People were surprised when my Spanish came out in fits and starts. They looked at me and saw una India – a Puerto Rican with native blood, indigenous. In Puerto Rico, I passed. My head hurt from trying to understand, trying to communicate, trying to find my way around. My head hurt, but something else was at ease. Eyes did not pick me out and wonder. It felt like being in India. It felt like another home.
She called me La India, and so often, that is what I am. I am the Indian friend, the Indian on staff, the Indian at the party. But for a few months in Puerto Rico, I wandered the streets of another place and was just me – alone, unobserved, free.