Mami gave birth a thousand times that year
on the streets of Habana Vieja.1
Some of my siblings were
spread over the cobblestone
while others were
buried within the dirt
we thought was
No one knew that Cuban coffee was
made from the remnants
of my mami’s children,
spread over the land like
splattered over the plains of plantations,
roaming around the crowded streets,
swimming in the cups of
Americanos in Floridita,2
bathing in the fields of Tropicana,
submerged in the hundred-mile-
deep and draining sea.
Mami birthed us a thousand times,
and a thousand times as seeds of coffee
we spread over the sprawling weeds of La Habana.
We were roasted under the heat waves of
perpetual summer and washed out by
the rainy, hot days, melting and brewing,
brewing and melting, into an
unending flow of coffee,
flowing through the island,
up the mountains and down
in the deep lakes, raining from the sky.
“Ojalá إن شاء الله que llueva café en el campo!”
said the guajíro!3
We are the children of coffee and sugar plantations,
cañaverales where memories peel plantains,
our plantain peeling, planting plantations,
flooded with our flowing
bodies of coffee,
brewing and running,
running and brewing,
from Cuba to Aytí, to
Quisqueya, Borikén, Xaymaca,
flowing through the cracks of
history’s filter-paper gates,
flooding each island and melting
into the sea of the Antilles,
overflowing with coffee,
coffee, overflowing, Mami’s children.
No one knew that Cuban coffee was made
from the remnants of Mami’s children,
spread over the land like one-dimensional paintings,
splattered over the plains of plantations,
roaming, swimming, submerged, floating.
Sally lived, or worked, or breathed, or merely existed in the house of Molly Hall in the deep spaces of Charleston, or was it Savannah? Or was it La Habana? Stretched out over a series of spaces, Sally lived, or worked, or breathed.
A day much like every other day, in fact another iteration of the very same moment, Sally labored over a wooden table, crouching herself magnanimously—or was it begrudgingly?—over a set of onions. Sally loved the sound of onions. Sally loved the sound of onions as they would release their layers, as their layers would then be released. Sally loved the sprinkles of onion that would fall upon her hands, and then onto her clothes, and then onto her self.
And when she thought about her long-gone mama, she wiped the onion into her eyes, onto her nose, onto her self. Sally’s self was overflowing with the remnants of the onion, filled by the soothing nature of the mist that would overflow her. Sally remembered the moments long gone, when her mama would be there soothing Molly Hall, and in return Miss Molly Hall would overflow her mama with onions.
Sally remembers the flow of onions, the overflowing remnants of the onion, onto her hands, onto her clothes, onto her self. Miss Molly Hall would overflow Mama with onions, and Sally remembers the flowing of Mama over the floor, Mama flowing all over the floor, flowers over Mama, flowing.
Sally raised the freshly cut onions to her face, and the various layers of the onions left remnants on her hands, her clothes, her self, and Sally remembered Mama soothing Molly Hall, and the remnants of the onions.
And a moment just like every other, Sally poured herself over the overflow of onions, and out of her eyes were the remnants of the overflow of onions. A moment just like every other, Sally lived, or worked, or breathed, over a set of Mama’s overflowing, mama-flowing, flowing onions.
Fermina’s nails had been growing at an incredible rate
ever since she had become a mother in the enclosed barracks
of a sugar plantation in Matanzas. Her fingernails extended
themselves, reaching out for her missing baby, spiraling
and searching inside themselves for traces of her daughter,
in the dirt planted deeply within the cracks of her nails
and the greyness where the ivory once was. Her daughter
had been lifted from her chest only a few forgotten
but looming moments after her birth, and since that moment,
Fermina’s arms had been outstretched, reaching outward,
one finger at a time.
It was after roaming about, tongue-tied and twisted,
arms outstretched, fingernails spiraling around themselves,
that Fermina was sent out to be sold. On the auction block,
a step of gravel and loss, Fermina grabbed a passing man
by the neck, clutching her spiraled nails across his cheeks, and pleaded
that he return her daughter. Fermina’s outstretched arms were forced
behind her back, her wrists chained, and she was thrown into a cell,
her wrists unchained.
In the dark room, where only a soft ray of light hit a barren space
on the mud-formed wall, Fermina began digging inside the wall
for traces of her daughter.
It happened one moment at a time. First there was a scratch,
then there was a small dent, then a shape, then her daughter’s left eye
materialized in the once-barren space of the wall. Her button-nose
soon after appeared in the wall, and the next day, her small lips.
In a series of carvings, some momentary and some looming,
Fermina sketched out the detailed face of her baby daughter,
and the baby girl seemed to stare back at her. Fermina’s arms
extended out to the wall, so captivated by her daughter’s
phantasmal presence that she carved deeper and deeper
into the barren wall around her daughter’s face, sinking
her spiraled nails into the dents of the wall. Her arms soon followed
thereafter. Within a series of moments, her upper body was
immersed in the concrete wall. The bottom followed.
The very next day, Fermina’s body was found concretized in the wall,
fused to the phantasmal presence of her daughter,
fossilized in perpetual, uninterrupted motherhood.
Margarita Rosa is a Dominican American writer born in Tenares, Dominican Republic, and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is completing a PhD in comparative literature at Princeton University.
1. Old Havana.
2. Floridita is a restaurant in Old Havana that Americans, including Ernest Hemingway, used to frequent. The restaurant is still in its old location.
3. “Ojalá que llueva café en el campo!” are lines from the Dominican artist Juan Luis Guerra’s song by the same name. It means, “God willing, coffee will rain from the sky,” alluding to the suffering that would be avoided if the Caribbean were to export coffee that could simply rain from the sky. The Arabic spelling for “God willing,” placed after the word ojalá, is included to indicate that the Spanish version is a transliteration of the Arabic (from the sixteenth-century common phrase, “Lau sha’ Allah”). Guajíro is the name given to Cuban musicians and was also a common term for free Black musicians during slavery.