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My essay

Celia Quetzal La Luz ’10 grew up in San Francisco, attended an alternative public high school, and has worked as a radio journalist and writer. It’s a far cry from the upbringing of her father, a postal worker who spent his youth being shuttled between New York City and Puerto Rico. He got out by joining the Marines and fighting in Vietnam, a topic that his daughter tackled in her Reed admission essay. Says La Luz: “I passed the essay by a teacher and she kept saying, ‘you have to make it more positive.’ I passed it by my dad, and he cried when he read it. He said, ‘What’s true is true.’”

Celia Quetzal La Luz

My love of language will stay with me irrefrangibly, but I’ll always remember the night when my passion sparked, kindled by words ephemeral, the words spoken by my father. I don’t know how the conversation started, how we managed to tolerate each other for that long, but one night my dad and I sat down and talked for what seemed to be the first time, ever. It’s funny how I could live in the same house with this man all my life and know nothing about him. When I think about it and try to piece his past together from what few fragments I have all I can see is that picture of him from Vietnam standing with his buddies as they held up the corpse of a man they killed, his cammies the same jungle drab as theirs—when I think about who he was then and what he is now, I know only the silence that breeds between us.

la luz imageWhat he told me that night was so fantastic I could not help but listen; he told me about his boyhood in Puerto Rico, when his mom sent him back to his place of birth because he was raising too much hell in the city. The world he described was so idyllic, and though I hate to say the word, magical. You could plant a branch in the rich red earth and it would grow into a whole tree, or, for that matter, plant a weed like him and watch it grown into something grand and serene. Instead of sleeping around shamelessly with girls like he did in New York, he and his friends sung serenades to all the girls in town when the night was too hot to sleep. And when it rained the drops used to patter over the ribbed tin roof of his hut, a soft, somnolent song. He must have lived in a fairytale.

He did not speak with that same sordidly amused tone that came with the stories of shrapnel and swamps, with the pictures. When I think of when all of his friends stood in a line, arms encircling shoulders all bearing the selfsame pain, I wonder if the mire beneath their tired military boots is the same as the fertile earth of Puerto Rico. I’ve decided that both lands are the same, divided only by a few years time. But that is enough to change everything.

He’s gone back to Puerto Rico since, but it’s different now. Houses spread their roots into pavement and rain breaks against Plexiglas. I was in ninth grade when he told me all of this and I had to go to class the next day. During English my teacher gave me fifteen minutes to write a poem on nature. Usually I hated prompts like these, but this time the dark, moonlit roads of Puerto Rico rolled out before my eyes.

Bring me home by moonlit path
Where the pale moon stains the ochre earth.
Tell me where to go.
Away from the place where the yellow
lanterns glow
Where the insects gather for heat
In the lonely night.
Surround me with trees
Where the stub
born houses refuse
To stand
Where the rain breaks delicately
Against green leaves.
Take me to the place
Where the stars do
not hide timidly
Ashamed of their beauty
Where the smells that
rise from the earth
guide me
Guide me home to the forest
Where I can find myself again
Hidden in the leaves.

la luz imageI still remember watching my dad read it, crying. Despite what I wrote, none of it belongs to me. I built him the vessel to return to his fog-ridden land of bliss, a vessel I’ve yet to build for myself. As the years come quick when I must set sail myself, I know not the land I depart from. Lotto tickets and the paraphernalia of poverty, the wind that seeps in through the hole in the bathroom floor and blows open the doors like an angry phantom—these are the memories of my homeland. Sullied fragments lay about me, yet to sparkle with the polish of nostalgia.

And then the memory of moonlit paths strikes me again. It was midnight when I was hiking back to the SCA base camp in Vermont with only two more miles of my hike to go—halfway there, midway through the trip, a midsummer’s night. Ahead of the rest, I stopped and turned off my headlamp, and the cheap blue stain of LEDs fled to give way to the moon. My tired hiking boots fell still, leaden with the weight of the rich red earth. I was sinking, I was becoming. A lightning bug cracked in the sky, her flash obscuring the welkin’s belt in that moment, alone but sustained by the countless generations that begat her. And that is when I felt it, that weary but eternal weight upon my shoulders; and that is when I heard my father speak again.