J. L. Torres


J.L. Torres is the author of novel, The Accidental Native (Arte Publico); The Family Terrorist and Other Stories (Arte Publico); and the poetry collection, Boricua Passport (2Leaf Press). He has published stories and poems in many journals and magazines, among them Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Eckleburg Review, North American Review, Denver Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, The Bilingual Review, The Tulane Review, The Americas Review, The Connecticut Review, and Puerto del Sol. He is also the Co-Editor of Writing Off the Hyphen: New Critical Perspectives on the Literature of the Puerto Rican Diaspora.  Born in Puerto Rico, raised in the South Bronx, he teaches American literature and creative writing at SUNY, Plattsburgh. A Fulbright recipient, he is the Executive Editor of the Saranac Review. More information at: http://jltorreswriter.com. Follow him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RicanWriter.

Lost tribe 

Antonio lay in his secret place, where the Caribbean Sea had eroded the sand under the mangroves and exposed their knotty fingers gripping the ground. The sea’s rhythmic waves had cradled him into tropical drowsiness.  And after hours of conjugations, math problems, desperately trying to imitate Mr. Ortega’s bad English pronunciation, listening to boring history lessons, he just wanted sleep and to float toward the ocean. Eyes closed, he inhaled the humid air as salt clung to his brown skin and water splashed around his bare feet. Daydreaming, he soared in the clouds; then, he remembered. 

Jumping on his beat-up Humber bicycle, he peddled down the dirt road, kicking up dust along the way, past fields of sugar cane reaching for miles. In less than ten minutes he swung into Esperanza Street and arrived at the front door of his house. He patted dust off his clothing, swatted sand and beach grass out of his hair. Taking a deep breath, he entered and faced three solemn individuals, seated in the tiny living room sipping coffee. He caught his father’s creased eyebrows. Mrs. Pagán stood up, a smirk on her flushed face. The stranger, an older gentleman, appeared bemused. 

“About time, Antonio,” said the father.

His mother shook her head and told him to wash up for dinner.  

After washing, and the introduction to Mr. Bisbal, his father’s supervisor at the sugar plantation, they sat down to eat. Antonio had never met Mr. Bisbal, although his father often talked about he was always looking out for his workers. Both men worked for Snow White Sugar and saw potential for mobility since the American invasion three years ago. Once an autonomista, now Antonio’s father welcomed the United States, saw in them, a brighter future for the company, himself and his family, especially his only child.  

During lunch, Antonio’s father explained how the new Commissioner of Education, Martin Brumbaugh, was sending Puerto Rican boys and girls to school in the United States. “Make the Americans happy, give them what they want, as long as they can help us.” With these words, Juan Serrallés, the rum magnate and their boss, passed on the information to Bisbal, who promised to find, among the workers’ children, eligible recipients of this American charity. Mr. Pagán received the news enthusiastically. He paid Mr. Ortega to tutor Antonio because he could not afford the one private school in Ponce and there were no public high schools. He wanted an education for Antonio; wanted him to someday take a position in the company higher than his. As Bisbal spoke about the wonders of this American school, Mrs. Pagán looked at her only child with equal parts of fear and frustration. He was already an adult, a man, and needed to make a life of his own.

After lunch, they all escorted Bisbal to the door to say goodbye. With the door closed, Mrs. Pagán spun around and slapped her son.  

“Never, ever, embarrass us like that again,” she yelled, following him into his room. “You’re seventeen years old, not a child, Antonio.” 

His father came into his room.  She turned to him, arms crossed against her chest, her face twisted in an angry and worried frown. “How’s he going to survive in America, Luis, if he’s always somewhere with his head in the clouds?”  Her husband nodded and waved her away.  Antonio slumped in the corner of his bed, sobbing. Mr. Pagan sighed and patted his knee and in a voice as calm as Good Friday told him everything would be wonderful in the American school.  

“You always wanted to travel. Think of all the new things you’ll see. The people you’ll meet.  It’s like an adventure.” 

The father’s lips and tongue formed the words, unshaped by any emotion. As he looked at Antonio, bent and tears dripping off his nose, he thought how lonely they would be without their only child.



In late April, 1902, Antonio Pagán Iglesias boarded the S.S. Philadelphia along with forty-two other young Puerto Ricans en route to New York City. For five days, they shared stinking toilets and slept on stacked bunks in compartments holding hundreds of passengers. Antonio found it difficult to sleep on the hay-stuffed mattress. His neck hurt from the hard life preserver used as a pillow, and the clanging and hissing of the engines below woke him often.   Every time he received his daily ration of slop flung into his tin pail, he missed his mother’s cooking.  

In New York harbor, they huddled together outside the steamship agent’s office. They waited an hour, hungry and bored, until a stout blond man wearing a cotton sack suit came to claim them. He introduced himself as Joshua Baylor, from the Carlisle School, and handed the agent paperwork.  

In two columns, Baylor marched them through lower Manhattan. Even the ones from San Juan could not believe the stench, the noise and the number of people herding past alleys where rats the size of small dogs feasted on stacked garbage. Antonio stared open-mouthed at the tenements and pasty faces jutting out of windows. People squatting on fire escapes glared or watched children play Johnny on the Pony below. They passed mounds of horse dung and a dead horse rotting by the curbside. Baylor did not allow them to stop once, so they slogged through streets and sidewalks crowded with carts full of produce and goods, skirting horse-drawn buggies and the rare chugging automobile, until they reached the ferry to Jersey City. From there, two train rides awaited them, before they reached the school in Pennsylvania.

On the train, Antonio struck a conversation with classmates José Osuna and Santiago Montaño.  Osuna was older than the others; he had a clerical job back in the island. Elusive at first, grunting responses to questions, he warmed up and even smiled. Castula Rodríguez was the opposite. Sitting in the back of the car, she had the other girls laughing. Mr. Baylor issued a warning. “Quite unlady-like behavior,” he scolded. Castula blinked at his frowning face, not understanding one word, stifling a giggle. 

Montaño looked at you with a quizzical face that either expressed fear or lack of intelligence. For sure, they were all frightened. They were thousands of miles from home. Only a handful spoke a few words of English. The train ride revealed a wide, beautiful but intimidating country full of tall people, who did not appear as friendly as Puerto Ricans. They all hoped the school would make their lives better, but nobody knew what to expect. 

At the Carlisle station, they staggered out of the train, groggy and rumpled. From another car Antonio saw dozens of children filing out onto the station. “Move along. Don’t pay them any mind,” Baylor said. “They’re orphans, not Carlisle students.” After collecting their belongings, they marched the one mile to the school on blistered feet not used to walking long distances with shoes.  

“Ay, how these yanquis love to march,” Castula said, under her breath.

 Baylor prodded them on until they reached the high archway entrance to the Carlisle Industrial Indian School, the name in bright red letters. Underneath it, in elegant Latin script, Antonio made out the words, Indicum Occide, Nisi Homo. As the Puerto Ricans walked past the gateway, they saw brown faces peering from a building. Later, the school informed them that those students had violated the rule against talking in their tribal language and were being punished by solitary confinement. Antonio could not forget one pair of eyes piercing through them to somewhere beyond.

They stopped in the middle of a large open field, except for a bandstand. In formation they waited, thirsty, hungry, clothes spotted with perspiration, their bodies aching. The spring sun was dimming; the crisp wind giving them their first Pennsylvania chill. To their left, they saw a gray-haired man dressed in cavalry regalia, mounted on a horse, riding towards them. His sword rattled; the feathers on his helmet flapped in the wind. He turned the brown Morgan toward them and remained still; with small sunken eyes that flanked a large protruding nose, he inspected each one in line. He looked like a man whose thin lips had never broken into a smile or laughter.

“I’m Lieutenant Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, the Superintendent of this school, your new home, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.” 

He talked in a growling voice, weary perhaps for having uttered similar words countless times. It did not matter what he had said, anyway, because most could not understand a word.  Even Osuna, the most proficient in the language, blinked in confusion with every tight-lipped word the Colonel spoke. Next to him, Castula yawned; the others, lost in their collective desire to sleep or eat. So, they missed the admonitions, the outline of rules and regulations, the spirited coda with advice to lose old ways and progress to a brighter civilized future. Then he galloped off, to where, no one knew. 

A Miss Shaffner spoke to them in Spanish. They were relieved to hear their native language, even if spoken in her flat, Midwestern accent. Miss Shaffner reiterated the more important information Pratt had delivered and told them to follow Mr. Baylor to their dormitories. None of the Puerto Ricans shared sleeping quarters; this was school policy to avoid socializing among children from the same tribes.   

Antonio found his small bed, among a row of ten, and spotted his new clothing on top of it. After changing into their uniforms—gray military slacks and jackets for boys and similarly colored dresses for girls—they marched to the dining area.  

Following supper—tasteless beef chunks with cold, hard potatoes—they congregated with other students in the meeting hall, where they listened to the chorus sing hymns. To stay awake, he looked at the banners celebrating past sports and musical achievements, the only decorations in the room, hanging from the rafters.  For the first time he had a good look at them, los indios, whom he and the other Puerto Ricans had discussed traveling to the school. They had never seen Indians and wondered if they would be naked and wearing feathers in their long hair. But their hair was cut like theirs, and there were no feathers anywhere.  

The concert ended and prayer hour began. Afterwards, Miss Shaffner called their new, anglicized names. Then, they listened to a half hour of lectures. Finally, a student came on stage and played taps. They hurried to their rooms, which were inspected before they were allowed to put their pajamas and toss their exhausted bodies into stiff beds.


The bell rang from the tower outside at six o’clock in the morning, followed by reveille.   At assembly, their names were called, and then the mess call.  They ate breakfast in silence. His family talked a lot during meals; most of it his father, but they had a conversation. This silent eating bothered Antonio, more than the blandness of the food. They ate, backs upright against chairs, shoving food into their mouths mechanically, staring forward past each other. The staff walked around to maintain silence, shushing anyone who whispered or as much as giggled.  

A whistle alerted them to their work detail. For Antonio, this meant working in the carpentry workshop, where he learned to make and fix furniture for the school, including beds, tables and chairs. Castula got placed in the kitchen, which she hated. They sent Osuna to the fields to learn how to farm. These work assignments displeased the Puerto Ricans, who had expected to learn professions. Since everyone shared these responsibilities for the institution’s upkeep, and they were new, they did not complain.

After work, they marched to class. In rare occasions when they had precious minutes to chat, in heated, rushed whispers, Osuna complained to him about the classes. Arts and crafts, and music, he found frivolous. The English class disappointed him; he felt it was not teaching him anything new, although it gave him an opportunity to practice. Antonio agreed, but he would rather have the pretty Miss Shaffner teaching him than Ortega; at least she spoke to them in English not garbled by accented pronunciation.  

In the afternoon, after a plate of some meat with the usual potato dish, accompanied by vegetables, they worked and studied until the recall bell summoned them outside for the ceremonial flag salute. Colonel Pratt led the salute in uniform, on foot, the sun reflecting off his polished boots. The day ended as it always did, and Antonio wondered how he would bear the routine for the remaining years.  

One night, he was tired but could not sleep. Outside, a screech owl’s repeated trembling song caught his attention. Slipping out of bed, he walked cautiously to the window, a few feet from his bed. A full moon lit up the frame and glistened through the windowpanes. The owl continued its sad song, but he could not find it anywhere on the oak trees that lined the border of the dormitory. Disappointed, he headed back to bed, but on the way spotted a miniature drum by the side of a student’s bed. Antonio bent down for a better look. 

It was a beautiful drum made of smooth brown leather, with a handle, and the face looked like tanned rawhide. Kneeling on the floor, Antonio picked it up. On the face, four painted arrows, adorned with feathers, shot out toward the four cardinal points. In the center colorful beads hung between two fingers of an open hand. He picked up the drumstick from the floor. The wood was smooth and two leather straps hung from the bottom of the stick.

Mr. Ortega once brought a drum to one of his tutorials. They had been studying the Taino Indians and he claimed the drum was an authentic one. That wooden drum was elongated and had holes in it to release the sounds coming from it as you hit it. He wanted to play that drum but Ortega told him it was too fragile to withstand any drumming. 

The owl continued its tremolo, so rhythmic and persistent that Antonio craved to accompany it on this new drum, but it would wake everyone and get him into trouble. As he lay down the drum and the stick, a pair of wide black eyes trapped his.  Antonio stumbled backwards and the boy laughed. Someone stirred outside and walked down the hall toward the door. The Indian boy shoved the drum and stick under his bed, and Antonio tip-toed quickly back to his bed and under the covers. Mr. Baylor opened the door and glared into the long, dark room, and seconds later closed the door. Antonio released his breath and heard the boy’s muffled laughter. 


By summertime all of Antonio’s compatriots were unhappy with the school.  On the few occasions they talked to each other, they whispered their complaints about everything. Castula, who wanted to be a teacher, joked that all she would be able to teach was how to make grits and mashed potatoes. Osuna mentioned he had written and complained to his parents, and Antonio was stunned to hear others did the same. He understood their concerns, their regimented days were harsh, the work brutal, and what they learned would help minimally in the professions they yearned to have. But he was happy to be away from his parents, even though he missed them.  He found the lessons more acceptable than Ortega’s ranting and harping. The food was foul, but after hard work and a day full of activities, it satisfied his hunger and he had gained weight. His letters to his parents never complained.

He had also made a new friend.  The day after the drum incident, he noticed one of the boys grinning at him. The owner of the drum, Antonio Tapia. Tapia was a Pueblo from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and he spoke Spanish besides his native Tewa.  When they realized they could communicate in this shared language, they conversed in Spanish as if speaking in code.  They whispered during classes and at night from their beds. Tapia introduced them to other Pueblo Indians, and he grew to like these new friends. They were generous and kind, and sometimes he felt as if he were talking to Puerto Ricans, since they looked like relatives.

During the summer, Carlisle arranged students to work in nearby farms as domestic

servants or farmhands. Colonel Pratt told them that the “outing program” allowed them to stay in homes of good white people so they could learn the benefits of civilization. The students not working in rural areas ended up in factories or iron and steel plants. They were happy to earn wages for their labor but did not know the school took a percentage. 

In late June, the school dispatched several of the Puerto Ricans to the Arnwald onion farm. Typically, students from the same tribe never went as a group on the farming details, but Pratt had convinced Arnwald that Puerto Ricans were adept at agriculture. 

Sitting in a hay wagon on the way to the farm, Osuna and some of the other Puerto Ricans joked about Antonio’s Indian friends. 

“Soon, he’ll start wearing feathers,” Osuna said.  

“Why don’t you dance and make some rain; it’s damn hot,” added Montaño, which made everybody laugh. Antonio stared at them as they shook from laughter, mocking him, and it struck him how much they looked like Indians. The brown skin, the eyes, cheekbones, nose—everything. Or was it that the Indians, with their cut hair and western clothing, now looked like them? 

“Why do you make fun of them—they could be family,” he told them.

Osuna’s nostrils flared. “I’m no indio. We’re not like them; we have people looking out for us.”  He looked around, then leaned in. “My parents contacted Luis Muñoz Rivera,” he whispered.  “And he’s visiting the school to check on our complaints.”

The others sprang up.  “Really?” asked Montaño. Osuna’s confirmation made them all excited, even Antonio. 

Muñoz Rivera was an exiled political leader living in New York City. While in the United States, he published a newspaper. When he received news of the bad treatment of the Puerto Rican children at the Carlisle school, he wrote to Pratt requesting a visit in August and was granted one. This bit of news made the trip to the onion farm more tolerable, and for that moment they felt a sense of unity and solidarity.

Once they started the farm work they swore the Puerto Rican politician could not come fast enough. Arnwald worked them for fifteen hours, giving them ten minute breaks for water, and half an hour for lunch, which they ate out in the fields. None of them had any experience farming and did not have the foresight to wear a hat. Stooped, they dug up the bulbs from the ground and tossed them in a bushel basket. When full, another worker took the bushel and replaced it with another one. At the end of the day, after a meal of onion soup or some other meal concocted with onions, and bread, they huddled into a small shack with bunk beds. There they slept, unbathed, their stomachs rumbling until the morning bell called them back to work.  Antonio would hate onions for the rest of his life.  

In the second week, their work started slipping. Osuna attempted to lift their spirits, but the others, particularly Montaño, would not have any of it.  “The hell with these onions and these yanquis, too,” he said, turning the bushel over and sitting down. His lips were parched and rivulets of perspiration rolled down his forehead. From the corner of his eye, Antonio saw Arnwald strutting toward them, pulling something out from his side. He had no time to warn Montaño. The farmer pounced on the boy, striking him with the whip, the dozen leather strips slashing across his thin frame. 

“Get up you lazy bastard, get up,” he yelled, with every lash, as Montaño cowered on the ground. Osuna jumped and covered Montaño.   

“For the love of God, please stop, please,” he cried, in English. He, too, caught a few lashes before Arnwald ceased, breathing heavily, eyes bulging, and strapped the short whip back on his belt. 

“Good then. Tell this good for nothing tipi tom to work or he’ll get more of the same.”  He looked around to the others. “I’m not paying you to sit,” he said.  “You’re no better than a bunch of squaws.”

“Get up,” he yelled at Montaño.  He picked the boy up by the collar and tossed him back toward the onion field. They all resumed work and continued until the sunset bell.


They did not complain to anyone at school. Montaño made them promise. His father had asked several favors and even bribed someone to get him into Carlisle. He would be disappointed and angry at his son if he stirred up trouble. Antonio, as the others, understood Montaño’s predicament. Their families had pulled strings and spent savings to receive what everyone had assumed was a privilege. They remained quiet about the incident and resolved to make their families proud. 

They withdrew, even more than the other Puerto Ricans, who also wished they had never left the island. When they heard about a runaway, their spirits lifted, but soon sank to learn the person had been caught. If someone escaped, whatever hopeful thoughts came to them about doing the same crashed with the anxiety of having nowhere to go, worrying about starving or getting lost in the wilderness beyond the school. During bedtime, he heard prayers and sobs in the darkness, and he would close his eyes to imagine his secluded beach back home. He thought about his father shaving for work. The smell of coffee mixing with his after shave. His mother preparing eggs or maizena. He missed his bicycle, wondered if his father would keep it for him or give it to one of his cousins. Then he remembered the salty mist on his skin, the sea lapping at his feet, the sand between his toes, and he fell asleep.

Conversations with fellow Puerto Ricans became depressing, so he found solace in the company of Antonio Tapia and the other Spanish-speaking Pueblo Indians. Tapia was going to graduate in two weeks. Antonio had learned much from Tapia, not only about coping with the school, but also about Pueblo history and culture. In the few minutes stolen to chat, Tapia talked about customs, traditions, legends, food; taught him a few words in Tewa. They became such close confidants that Antonio told him about the onion field. Tapia told him students working in steel plants returned with burns on their arms and faces, others were maimed. 

“There’s funny stuff going on,” he whispered.  “A few girls, their bellies grew.  We didn’t see them for a while and when they returned they didn’t have bellies no more.  I’ve seen strange women walking in hallways at night, and in the morning being taken away. We have seen bottles of moonshine in the basement.”  

He took a deep breath and exhaled.  “My heart and body ache from this place.” 

Antonio nodded and both stopped talking as their carpentry instructor approached to inspect the chair they were charged to repair.


On the day before graduation, Tapia shoved Antonio awake. He stood bedside, half his face lit by a fierce moon, dressed in day clothes, drum and stick in hand. 

“Come,” he said. Stumbling with sleep, Antonio dressed and followed him towards the window at the end of the rectangular room. Together, they opened the heavy window and slipped outside into the incandescence of a full moon. Tapia took off running, drum and stick in hand, past the bandstand decorated with bunting for graduation. Antonio kept up, following into a stretch of spruce and pine trees and finally toward Letort Creek. Not knowing where they were going, he smiled as the air hit his face and his heartbeat quickened.

They stopped running, breathing hard, and laughing. After crossing a plank bridge, they hugged the side of the creek and walked until they settled on top of a large boulder overlooking the water. They lay on that rock and stared at the moon that looked close enough to touch. Antonio could make out the low water creeping past scattered rocks and pebbles, forming tiny rapids, under the stream of moonlight. The constant noise of water against rock calmed him, reminded him of the ocean waves back home.  

Tapia told Antonio to gather some dry twigs. Together they piled branches, twigs and pine conifers within a circle of rocks. Tapia took two rocks from his pocket and within minutes started a fire. With firelight, Antonio saw green moss covering nearby rocks, the whiteness of the rapids below, the surrounding bushes and, up above, the silhouetted canopy of giant oaks. As he looked around, he approved of his friend’s secret hideaway. 

At one point, Tapia grabbed the drum and stick and told Antonio to listen. He drummed slowly, accentuating every beat so Antonio could follow. He handed the drum and stick to Antonio and gestured to play. With just minor corrections, Antonio played the sequence of drumming Tapia had taught him. “Continue,” he said, and stood up. He walked a few feet behind Antonio, who spun around to see him wipe the rock surface clean of debris. Then Tapia spread his arms and hopped, head down, to the drum beat. The young dancer chanted as he shuffled and hopped in a circle, flapping his arms above his head then bringing them down. He stopped and bent his knees and lifted himself on his toes. With mincing steps, he hopped to one side, then another, head down.

“Faster,” he told Antonio. Tapia circled faster, arms extended as far as they could go, while he hopped on one foot at a time. His body soared and swooped and landed.  

Antonio stopped drumming, and looked at his friend with admiration. 

“Eagle Dance,” Tapia said.

They sat by the creek until Tapia suggested they return. After putting out the fire, they walked back in the dark beauty of the forest, listening to the screech owl and the rustling creatures in the bushes. Nearing the school grounds, they passed the cemetery.  “Look,” Tapia said, pointing to headstones with names of former Carlisle students who never made it to graduation or back home. Lined in six rows, they stretched thirty or so yards. Antonio walked between two rows and as he drew closer to the headstones, he made out some names, and under those, their tribe. Many were marked “Unknown.”  

They climbed through the window, which they had left slightly open, changed their clothing, and slipped into bed. No sooner had his head hit the pillow, Tapia fell asleep. But as tired as he was, Antonio kept seeing Tapia dance, remembered the smoky smell of the campfire and how it glowed on Tapia’s graceful body. That vision melded into a dream where he saw Tapia flying around rows of headstones extending up to a burning sky.


No one from Tapia’s family attended the graduation. Many parents could not afford the long trip from the West, or Midwest, or in Tapia’s case, New Mexico. Non-graduating students made up a good portion of the audience. It was a quick ceremony to everyone’s relief. Dressed in military regalia, Pratt said similar things to the graduating class he had mentioned to the Puerto Ricans on their arrival. Awards were given; fifteen graduates received diplomas and the remaining students were allowed a few minutes to wish their friends and former classmates luck and say goodbye.   

After he had packed the few items belonging to him, Tapia gave Antonio the hand drum and stick. On graduation day, he took out the two flint rocks and handed those to Antonio.

“Go make some fire,” he said, and hugged him.


During the summer, most of the Puerto Ricans could not afford the trip to the island. Osuna was one of the few and everyone thought he would not return. But he did. Everyone who stayed had to work to pay their room and board. Antonio worked gathering potatoes, peaches and blueberries. On one occasion, as reward for his hard work, the school gave him the opportunity to stay with the Stantons, a childless couple, in their house outside of Harrisburg. There, Antonio learned to serve food and do odd jobs for Mr. Stanton until classes resumed in August.  

With the new school year, a fresh group of students arrived. Among them three Pueblo Tesuque students who told Antonio that Tapia had been arrested and executed for shooting a soldier. In assembly, Pratt mentioned the incident. Red-faced, his veins bulging in his neck, the Colonel called it a disappointment and a blotch on the school.  

“This young man’s decision to return to the blanket shows the dire consequences of this terrible decision. Use this opportunity we are giving you to uplift yourself and your people.  Move forward. Not backwards.”

Late that night, Antonio fidgeted in bed. He bent over the side of the bed and pulled the drum from underneath. He wanted to play it. But instead he slipped it under the bed, along with the flint rocks. He had to urinate and headed to Mr. Baylor’s office in the corridor to explain his need. Baylor slept, head tilted against his shoulder, snoring loud and ragged. Not wanting to disturb him, Antonio headed to the washroom and saw a light coming from Pratt’s office. He had never entered the Colonel’s office, which was a good thing, since mostly only students in trouble would. The Colonel was rarely in his office late at night. Antonio peeked in and saw Pratt slumped against the long black leather backrest of a reading chair. At his side on a small table was a bottle of bourbon and a glass. The office was big, full of bookshelves and books, decorated in blue, heavy curtains over the windows, an ornate mahogany desk stolidly centered and immaculately uncluttered. 

“What are you doing up, boy?” he asked, his voice gruff and sleepy.

“Toilet,” Antonio said, pronouncing one of the few useful English words he had learned while pointing in its direction.

Pratt’s eyes narrowed. Antonio had never come close to this man, who seemed like a mythical creature to students. Now, he saw the scarred face from childhood smallpox and the large nose. Eyes that with the liquor appeared more hidden than usual.

“I know you were his friend,” he said. “Probably will end up just like him.” He dismissed him with a flick of his heavy hand.  “Go and do your business. Go and return to the blanket for all I care. You ungrateful bastards. There are people who would rather kill the lot of you.” 

Antonio stood frozen at the threshold. “Leave,” the Colonel yelled, and he ran to the washroom. 


When Luis Muñoz Rivera arrived, the school lined up the Puerto Ricans to meet him.   They were scrubbed and cleaned and wearing their best uniforms. Antonio swore they all had received bigger portions during lunch. After getting a tour of the facilities, Muñoz Rivera entered the meeting hall and greeted them. A man with slicked back hair, a bushy mustache covering his lips and wearing a suit too tight for his plump body, he stood holding his hat and asked questions about the school. He spoke in Spanish and leaned toward them to listen when they complained about the vocational rather than professional training; smiled at the whining about the food, the long school day, and the work in the fields. No one said anything about Montaño’s beating. Antonio did not mention the odd occurrences Tapia had revealed to him. After shaking everyone’s hand, including the school’s staff members, he left.

Two weeks after the visit, Osuna received a newspaper clipping of Muñoz Rivera’s article. They passed it around, stunned to read he agreed the school was a good trade school and that their parents had probably deceived themselves to believe their children would become lawyers, doctors and teachers. That night Antonio slipped away to Tapia’s rock, and after several minutes trying, managed to build a fire. There, he lay within the quiet, balmy air, staring at the stars. He missed his friend, and wished he could have learned the Eagle Dance. As a screech owl’s trill tore the night’s stillness, he tapped Tapia’s drum, softly at first, then louder, until the banging became hypnotic and his fingers blistered.  


The young Dakota Sioux boy was new and like the others resisted his hair being cut.  He kicked and pulled back his head when Baylor held out the scissors. He bit the teacher’s hand;  at the first chance ran into the kitchen, snatched a knife, and screamed into the open field.  Antonio thought he would kill himself, but instead he clutched his long, thick braid and hacked it off. Finished, he trembled and cried. 

“Let him be,” Pratt shouted.  “Let him simmer down a bit.”

He stayed out there, kneeling, rocking, sobbing, holding his braid. 

Antonio did not know why he teared up watching the , but he knew then that he must leave. He waited until there was a full moon and packed his meager belongings into a pillowcase. He slept on Tapia’s rock and rose at daybreak to walk towards the road to Harrisburg.  By late afternoon, he had arrived at the Stantons’ house. Having worked for them during the summer, Antonio knew the Stantons were generous people. Quakers whom he trusted would not turn him back to Carlisle. In his best English, he told them he did not want to stay at the school any longer. That he would work for them until he could leave for New York City and return to Puerto Rico. Antonio’s desperate, teary face touched the elderly couple. They had heard rumors about Carlisle among the Friends at their meetings—that everything was not as rosy as Pratt painted it, and agreed to help him.  

Antonio lived and worked at the Stanton house through the winter. He was such a diligent worker that in the spring Mr. Stanton, a master printer at the Sentinel, hired him to clean the shop and arrange the typecast boxes and bottles of ink. He was a fast learner and soon grasped the basics of line casting. It was messy, dirty work, and often he walked the streets of Harrisburg with the indelible inked markings of a printer’s devil, but he enjoyed working at the shop, the camaraderie among the journeymen and other apprentices. Yet, he yearned to hear Spanish spoken, to eat food now a memory, to see his parents. To revisit his hideaway and taste the salty ocean on his lips again. 

When he had accumulated enough money for a train ticket to New York, he left. Osuna had mentioned that if he were to run away, he would head to La Colonia, an enclave of Spanish-speaking people in New York. Arriving in the city, he asked people where he could find this mecca of his people, but he sooner found rows of cigar-making factories. Being an astute young man, he inquired about employment in several before he landed a job with Ottenberg and Brothers as a roller. The work was mechanical and tiring, but the factory hired a reader to read the workers the daily newspaper and literary works by authors like Zola, Hugo and Dickens.

He rented an apartment on 28th street, a few blocks from the factory, and after work strolled through the neighborhood around the new Flatiron Building, looking for places to eat or to browse in bookstores, a new found pastime. The pace of the streets invigorated him; the noises made him feel alive. He grew accustomed to the rapid, harsh sounds of New York English, dodging the horse-drawn buggies and frantic pedestrians alike. He even welcomed the odorous pressed bodies packed in subway cars on his way to a roof garden for a stein of beer and entertainment. After a few beers, he sometimes ended on Soubrette Row or 23rd Street looking for female companionship.  

As he meandered through crowded sidewalks one Saturday after work in search of a good cup of coffee, he stumbled across a sign—Club Borinquen—spelled in chipped red letters above a storefront. His heart jumped to see the Taino name for Puerto Rico on such an unsightly sign.  Was this La Colonia?  Maybe people inside would help him return back home. He shoved his hands into his pockets, instinctively grabbing a wad of dollar bills in one, and one of Tapia’s flint rocks in the other.

He hesitated at the doorway, thinking if he really wanted to return. He had written to his parents only once since leaving Carlisle. To inform them he had left and was now living in New York City.  He did not give them an address, knowing they would be disappointed and angry. But it wasn’t only his parents. New York made him happy and the island seemed so distant and long ago. Maybe, he thought, walking through the faintly painted door was the closest he would ever get to home.  

What first struck him was the unmistakable smell of strong coffee, like the one his mother brewed, and then the smoky earthiness of tobacco. Cigars stacked on an opened humidor next to a cigar cutter shaped like a rooster. Every single man in the room turned from their cigars and cut through the gauzy smoke to stare at him.  

A tall stout, dark-skinned man, with large penetrating eyes, approached him.

“Hello, brother,” he said, in Spanish, extending his hand. “I’m Alfonso Schomburg.”

Antonio shook his hand, and searched the faces across the room; they seemed familiar although strangers. In the back of the room, a large Puerto Rican flag hung on the wall. A framed map of the island underneath. The room contained memorabilia from various parts of the island:  Wooden Santos; figurines of the three kings; miniature porcelain pieces of bulls, coquis,  Various instruments:  guitar, cuatro, conga, guiro.  African masks and face jugs, slave shackles, pottery. Paintings of famous Boricuas lined the walls, most of whom he did not recognize. A large bookcase contained books written by Latin American, Puerto Rican, and Spanish authors, along with French and English titles. Is this a museum?

“Can I help you?” Schomburg asked.

Antonio turned toward him.  Something past the man’s shoulder caught his eye.  A statue of an Indian against a wall. He had seen many of these in front of tobacco shops on his many walks. This one wore a feathered headdress, a necklace of some animal’s teeth hanging around his bronzed naked chest; by his thigh, he cradled a bundle of cigars with his left hand. Right hand on forehead, the Indian gazed into the horizon. Antonio squeezed the flint rock settled in his pocket. 

“Brother, are you lost?”  

© The Acentos Review 2018