A Puerto Rican Thanksgiving

In April 1988 my mother called from New York and told me she'd had a dream. Not the Martin Luther King kind of dream, where people live together in peace and harmony. No, this dream was more of a hallucinogenic vision: she saw herself living in Puerto Rico.

At the time of the call, I was in the process of preparing for an Academy Awards viewing party at my house in Los Angeles, so I really didn't have the necessary time to throw all the cold water I would have liked on this specious semi-plan. But I did what I could, starting with "But you don't speak Spanish!" and seguing to "But you've never even been there!"

She had an answer for almost everything, primarily related to her lifelong loathing of cold weather and love of the Atlantic (just don't get her started on the Pacific). At the end of the call she acknowledged that she should take a trip to Puerto Rico before committing. I figured that would be the end of that. She'd go, feel like a gringa out of water, realize she had no support system, and start sending away for flyers on Miami.

But no. She returned from her trip having taken a job at an English-language school ("They use the immersion method!") and rented a small house. Packing commenced immediately.

As a parent, I know what it's like to disapprove of a child's decision. This experience brought home to me the helplessness of disapproving of a parent's. It wasn't our first role reversal, the first time I had felt like the comparative grownup, but it was the most significant. After almost 20 years, she is still there, and our positions have only hardened.

Once she settled in, she insisted she had been right to trust her intuition. She invited us down for Thanksgiving. This was partly so we could fall in love with island life as she had, and partly because she thought it would be a fun adventure to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in her new environment. She knew someone, Luis, who had a rental apartment for turistas like me and my husband, and we sent a check for $600 to prepay for the three nights we would be there.

We arrived in Puerto Rico the day before Thanksgiving 1988. We were dropped off at the apartment and climbed the previously unmentioned stairs to find utter filth: dishes in the sink. Dirty leopard-print sheets on the unmade water bed. Dead bugs on the window sills. We didn't dare inspect the bathroom. My husband refused even to bring a suitcase into the place. So we lugged everything to my mother's, about a half mile away. (There were no cell phones in those days except those bolted into cars.)

Naturally all hotel rooms were filled but my mother arranged to have her landlord and next-door neighbor rent us the atypically vacant larger house on the property where she was renting her small house. My mother was thrilled: the additional kitchen space would make Thanksgiving dinner preparations so much easier. We dropped our stuff and headed for the beach, where slumlord Luis operated a hot dog stand, to demand a refund of our $600.

I can still hear Luis laughing. No matter what we said--and we all took turns--it just sent him into peals of hysteria. "It was dirty!" "Hahahahahahaha!" "The bed was disgusting!" "Hahahahahahaha!" "We want our money back!" Double "Hahahahahahaha!" Furious and defeated, we left in a huff. Our only satisfaction came the following year when my mother sent us a photograph of Luis' hot dog stand, flattened by Hurricane Hugo. I'm not normally vengeful, but in his case I made an exception. Hahahahahahaha!

It was more than 10 years before we returned to Puerto Rico, and then we stayed in a hotel.

Originally published Thanksgiving 2006.


  1. Ok... so what's your point???
    you dont like bugs,strangers, thanksgiving or your mother?

  2. You can draw your own conclusions. I do like my mother, though. She's always good for a story.

  3. This doesn't hit me as "hellish!" It hits me as typical American tourists who travel to other parts of the world hoping the circumstances will be just like America. Stay in America. Do the rest of the world a favor.
    Your mom sounds like a fascinating, exciting person. Rather than disapprove of her spontaneity, you should try to be more like her!

  4. I do not like the way you talk about Puerto Rico. There are bugs like any other country, but there are many precious places to visit. The problem is that your mother chose the wrong one for you. Many Americans like to visit Puerto Rico for the holidays because they like the warm weather.


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