by Eduardo del Rio
My mother’s older brother’s name was Rodolfo, but as far as I know everyone always called him Kiko. I’m not sure how he got that nickname. When you’re a kid you don’t really think to ask those things. He was a tall man. Probably around 6’4”. He had thick wavy black hair and a rueful look. When he walked into a room he commanded attention. Despite his stern appearance, you might catch a glimpse of a twinkle hiding in his hazelnut eyes. In fact, if you were lucky enough to get to know this proud man who might appear unapproachable, you’d soon realize Kiko was a personaje, one of those guys people refer to as “a character.” You never knew if he was serious or just pulling your leg. One day he would describe his recent flight to Miami and casually mention that the turbulence was so bad the flight attendant flew up to the top of the cabin, and the next day with the same expression he would lecture us on the many different ways to prepare batata. He claimed that he only knew three phrases in English: take it easy, take your time, today is wonderful day. When he said it, though, it was often with an exaggerated accent:, tayke it eecie, tayke yur tine, todaye ees wonderfool daye. He said those three phrases were all he needed to know because they covered any occasion. Every time he said that we would both laugh. To this day I don’t know if he knew any other English words, but I can’t remember him ever using any.
I don’t know how it had gone for him during the years that he lived in Miami after leaving Cuba, but once he arrived in San Juan my uncle seemed to flourish. There were two things that allowed him to adapt: the language, and the bustle. Like the rest of my mother’s side of the family, Kiko had been a journalist in Cuba. In Puerto Rico he was working for a local version of TV Guide. I didn’t really know what he did there, but he seemed to enjoy it, and was usually in good spirits. In fact, I can’t remember a single time when Kiko was angry or upset. I’m sure there must have been those days, but I never saw them. The office where he worked was in the heart of Santurce, an area of the city that was always busy with pedestrians, shoppers, business people coming and going; always a flurry of activity. Kiko seemed to thrive in it. He knew all the locals and had great rapport with them. Once in a while, when I was old enough to visit on my own, I’d take a bus to his office, hang around, and get treated to lunch. Nothing fancy; usually some kind of outdoor diner where we’d sit on a stool and order home-made arroz con habichuelas or whatever happened to be the day’s special. Kiko would tell a story and chat with the owner and several of the customers. Maybe tell a joke. Everybody liked him.
Over the years Kiko’s three kids graduated from Puerto Rican high schools and left for college in the U.S. They eventually decided to stay in Florida and make their own lives there. While it seemed he was unaffected by this, the twinkle in Kiko’s eye was perhaps a bit dimmer. Despite this, to the casual observer Kiko was still the same gregarious man he had always been. When I’d get upset about something he still managed to deliver his signature line without missing a beat. I’d laugh, and feel better immediately. As more years passed, however, it became clear that being so far from his children was taking a toll on him, and when the magazine he worked there was sold, he decided it was time to move on.
After he retired, Kiko and his wife moved back to Miami to be close to their kids. I visited him a few years ago. He was living in a condo in Kendall. It was a quiet neighborhood with mostly retired people. We talked for a while. Kiko seemed in good spirits, but I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t tell any stories or jokes. Before I left he looked up from his Spanish language newspaper and said ‘take it easy, take your time, today is wonderful day.’ Neither one of us laughed.
Eduardo del Rio is a Cuban exile who grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico and has lived in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas for the past twenty years. This multi-latinoness gives him a unique perspective on the similarities and differences of these three cultures and informs his literary voice. He is a Professor of Literature and Culture at The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley who has published essays in national and international peer-reviewed journals on British, American, and Latino Literature. His poetry has appeared in The Journal of Caribbean Literature, Voices de Luna, and Postcard Poems and Prose Magazine. He is the General Editor of The Prentice Hall Anthology of Latino Literature, as well as a Faculty Fellow for The National Endowment for the Humanities. His latest book is titled, One Island, Many Voices: Conversations with Cuban-American Writers, published by The University of Arizona Press.