Mami did not read stories to my sister and me; she told them to us. Juan Bobo stories, Puerto Rican folktales that are now almost two centuries old. Mami learned them from her mother, born in the 19th century, she in turn from her mother — a chain of storytelling, stretching back to my great-grandmother and beyond. Storytelling took place in a small bedroom with a single bed against the right wall, a bureau and wardrobe against the other wall, and shelves by the bed. My sister and I would lie down on the narrow bed with Mami, nestled by her sides, enveloped in her warmth. We listened in the darkened room to her narrative. The stories were funny and silly. We would always ask for more; she would say, “Sí, mijito,” move a finger across our foreheads, and start another as if turning the pages of a book. I can remember everything about our storytime, her voice the only sound, the darkness of the room, her warmth — except the tales themselves. My sister remembers our Mami telling us stories and has no memory of what the stories were about. I asked several Puerto Rican co-workers about Juan Bobo. They remembered his name, but not any of the tales. It was a magical time when our mother told us her tales. Part of the magic was the stories themselves. To reclaim this part of the wonder of those nights, I obtained a copy of Los Cuentos de Juan Bobo, adapted by José Ramírez Rivera from a collection by Maria Cadilla de Martinez, who collected them from storytellers. I hoped that reading them in the original Spanish might trigger a memory from those long-ago days of childhood. None of them brought back any memories of the narratives our mother told us, only the mischievous character of Juan Bobo. One of the reasons we loved the stories was because of how ridiculous they were. The story of the “Clock Adventure” illustrates this and that Juan Bobo was not the sharpest pencil in the drawer. For a taste, I have translated this tale for modern audiences. Before starting this condensed version, I should explain that it involves some wordplay. In English, we walk, but a clock runs. Andar means to walk in Spanish, but it can be used in the sense of a clock running. I have used run in my translation. Juan Bobo and the Clock Adventure One day Juan Bobo’s teacher asked him to bring a clock back to school that a parent had donated. His teacher warned Juan Bobo that the clock was still in good condition and ran perfectly. “Be careful to avoid any bumps that would stop the clock from running,” the teacher told him. Juan Bobo did as he was told and picked up the large, heavy grandfather clock. He soon tired of carrying the heavy clock. “My schoolteacher told me you could run,” Juan Bobo told the clock. “I am going to run ahead and show you the path.” “Follow me! Follow me!” When he looked back, the clock had not moved. Becoming very annoyed that the clock had not followed him, Juan Bobo found some twine, wrapped it around the clock, and started to drag it down the path. Every time it hit a bump, another piece of the clock would fall off, destroying it by the time he got back to school. Juan Bobo’s teacher was so upset with him, punished him so severely that Juan decided not to go back to school. But then Mami stopped telling us the stories. Was it because she had told us all the stories she knew? I don’t remember our mother ever repeating a story. My experiences telling stories to our son followed a similar path and may hold the key to why she stopped and why we can’t remember them. Sometimes instead of reading him a story, I would relate to him a children’s story I had learned growing up. On a hike through the primeval forest of Redwoods National Park in California, our three-year-old son was restless and not enjoying our walk. To keep his attention, I told him the classic story of Hansel and Gretel as we walked along the shady forest path. The effect was dramatic. He listened with rapt attention and walked without complaint. After this, I started telling him stories or making one up when he began to fuss at a restaurant. They had the same calming effect. At bedtime, sometimes instead of reading to my son, I would tell him one of my made-up stories. Holding him on my lap, I would act out the exciting parts of a tale about time travel, rocking and rolling his body with my knees, complete with sound effects. As he grew older, we would bring books to keep him entertained at restaurants, and he became less interested in my homemade stories. Is this what happened with Mami? Did we become less attentive, and if so, why? Then as my sister and I grew older, English replaced Spanish, our first language. Mami would speak to us in Spanish, and we would answer in English and tell her to “speak American.” She, in turn, started to reply to us in English — this was the way our mother learned how to speak English. Did we become less attentive to Mami’s stories told in Spanish and stopped asking for more of them? Something similar happened with music. At first, we listened to the popular Spanish language music of the day Mami loved, but as we grew older, she kept moving to a Latin beat, as my sister and I became rock-n-rollers. First-born Americans, we embraced American culture and its language. Spanish was for old people like parents. Rejecting their Spanish language and culture was the beginning of becoming independent, something all children go through as they reach adulthood. The language used might also be why my sister and I don’t remember the stories Mami told us. We still retained the vivid emotional memories of us lying down with her in a warm, narrow bed, but not the soft Spanish words of the tales she told us in the dark. Our son told me that he remembers the storytelling much more than the actual stories. Perhaps the intimate act of a parent telling a story to a child is the most crucial part of the memory — the teller not the tale.
Michael De Rosa was born in New York City and grew up in Spanish Harlem. His mother was born in Najuabo, Puerto Rico. He holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the City University of New York. From 1973-1989 he taught organic chemistry (in Spanish) and did research at Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela. From 1989-2020 he was a faculty member at Penn State Brandywine and retired as a professor emeritus of chemistry. This piece is from a memoir he is writing on growing up in Spanish Harlem. He recently published a short story, "The Nuptial Dance in Xs and Ys,” in Academy of the Heart And Mind.