Hair tells family secrets, like lips and skin: my chestnut curls and waves that intractable thicket—one month’s tropical growth— Mamá called maleza de manigua, jungle scrub. What will the neighbors think? Locked in the bathroom, I brushed hard against the grain—pig bristles, nylon quills, chrome needles, nothing tamed my guava bush, not even the wire brush Papá used for mange of rust. I rubbed sores with Mamá’s alcohol and iodine (mixed in squirt bottles to disinfect the house of ghosts). Prune this wild boy, Mamá told the barber as she pulled my hair, grimacing, red fingernails drawing blood. Cajoling the cranky pedal with grease, Luis el barbero pumped up the chair he’d bought at a Hialeah junkyard, strop stained by rain; la barbería squeezed between a butchershop and cigar factory— "America, Love It or Leave It" macramé nailed above hooks where viejos hung canes, Panama hats. I slumped angrily, shoe kicking foot rest, hands clenched under white shroud, plastic Virgin Marys scowling at me for hating Mamá. Luis thinned the bush with toothed shears, straight razor hacked outer growth as Mamá reminded him my abuelos were Spaniards—her Catalan father’s eyes between gray and blue, Roman nose, his brother’s hair just like mine, curlier even. Tío Octavio looked Semitic, Mamá said, you’d think he was Henry Kissinger. Fat and bald, back hairs brushed up like cockatoo’s crest, Luis shook his head, eyebrows raised, smiling like someone who’s heard this before. Any hair’s better than none, señora, any hair.
Praise be to God for confounding our tongues and scattering us into exile
like chaff in a stray wind or the fig seeds dropped by a green iguacaon on a hogplum.
Confusion is sweetest chirimoya on a dry tongue.
Hymns of disorder bring bountiful harvests in times of drought,
And perhaps only cross-eyes can see in chaos serene mandalas.
I shout from the top of my Babel’s tower sown as a kapok tree—
Blessed are the dialects, the patois, the argots, and the pidgins;
the half-breed word-hoards and the mongrel grammars; the geechees,
the calós, and the ghost words; those hallowed languages gone dead
or worse extinct because of genocide or conquest or just time’s erosion,
yet how we must mourn each one in our bones, hearts, spleens;
then join hands by the sea at dawn to chant their names in flames
of gumbo-limbo, O so many to remember: Elmolo, Mawa, Ba-Shu,
Koibal, Guanche, Calusa, Wichita, and the Taíno of my own island—
Kubanakán—whose words linger past the cyclones of our sadness
like flotsam chromosomes or castaway fossils of such beautiful amber
as barbacoa, canoa, fotuto, hamaca, iguana, malanga, tabaco, yuca.
With these words I make machines of memory in flesh and marrow.
With these words I glide and cleave the tidal waves of history.
With these words I take root in the quicksands of diaspora.