La Brega

The Sunday farmer’s market never returned to the plaza. Since the pandemic, it stayed in the parking lot of the Rincon Mini Storage, generously offered by the owner, a mayoral candidate who was too soft spoken and virtuous to ever actually win.

I haven’t asked why the market didn’t go back. Some assume because of the church in the Plaza. Maybe just island bureaucracy. The same government favors that shut down the annual spay and neuter clinics, or that let developers bulldoze hilltops, or that elect corrupt mayors year after year.

Personally, I don’t care much where the market is. I don’t go to mingle. I’m usually just whisking through, gathering my greens for the week on my way to work or back home to rest on my day off.

I walked with my bags through the short line of pop-tents, the little clumps of masked shoppers, and greeted the Kombucha man. I paid him for two bags of mustard greens ($4) and asked how he was doing. He looked weary. His wife was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she had had the baby.

“Papa?!” I asked. He nodded, affirmative. “How are you?” I was a little distracted, already thinking of the next booth, but I held his heavy gaze.

He sighed, sharing that the baby was a little underweight, but getting better. “Estamos bregando,” he said. I smiled and nodded, uncertain what the word meant, but sure it was something positive, as everyone tends to be dutifully positive with a new baby. I carried on with my day.

Later at the beach, I came out from surfing and climbed the sand shelf to the wooded parking area. The regular crew of sun setters were there, beers in hand, shooting the shit. I greeted my buddies with hugs and smiles, then noticed a white jeep with the hood up, jumper cables strewn across the engine. I looked back at the surfer bros by the door, not locals.

“Hey, do you guys need a jump?” I asked, perky and helpful. One of them said yes, another just stared at me intensely. I wasn’t sure, maybe attraction? I looked around. They were kind of blocked in so I couldn’t pull my car around. 

“Our friend will get out of the water soon and help us,” said one of the boys, nodding at the car next to theirs.

“Ok!” I turned to chat with my friend Sam and then noticed his jeep on the other side of theirs. “Oh hey Sam, do you want to jump their car?”

“I already said no,” he said. “I have the same car. Jeeps eat batteries.” 

I didn’t flinch. It made sense immediately. That Jeep was Sam’s first ever car. He worked hard for it, catching rides and biking and scootering around town to save money. He baby-ed it and took care of it. Island cars weren’t something to abuse. They were fickle beasts and critical tools.

I thought of the Cape Cod boy who came to house-sit my shack. As I drove him home from town, up the unlit winding road, a dark tunnel beneath arches of jungle trees, he asked if my lights got any brighter. I squinted intent at the dark road, insufficiently lit by my high beams, and I found his tone obnoxiously entitled. I guess I had never considered my lights should be any brighter. My island car was better than most. It started, and ran, and kept me dry, and didn’t overheat. Damn, in this moment it even had air-conditioning! I wasn’t complaining about the brilliance of my headlights. Needless to say he didn’t stay very long.

Suddenly it made sense why the surfer bro had stared me down. It wasn’t attraction, it was a glare. They didn’t understand why Sam wouldn’t jump their car. They had just come from the land of plenty, the land of ease. They didn’t understand island cars.

“Dude!” the punkiest of the bros stepped forward from their sulking huddle, “all you have to do is give us a jump. It’s not gonna hurt your car. Anyone who knows anything about cars knows that. You’re a fucking asshole.”

I inhaled sharply and looked back at Sam, all six-foot hulking muscle of him. He raised his eyebrows, raised his beer to his mouth, and turned back towards the ocean. What a guy. Peaceful. But now I wanted to fight. I felt nothing but pure defense for him. I dwelled on the interaction all night. The punk’s menacing glare, his entitled pomp. Sam wasn’t an asshole, he just wasn’t about to compromise his security for some yahoo on vacation.

I had a friend visiting from California. As I drove him around, showing him my favorite walks and beaches, I suddenly had a thought. “Hey Graham will you remind me to look up the word  bregar?”

“Sure,” he said.

Later that night we typed it into google. Bregar: to struggle. I thought of the Kombucha man, his weary eyes, and felt ashamed. “Estamos bregando,” he said. And I had just nodded and smiled and carried on.

Two days later I got a random message from a long-distance friend, a link to an episode of This American Life. The show interviewed Alana Casanova-Burgess, narrator of a podcast of stories from Puerto Rico. The short interview focused on the title of the podcast, a Puerto Rican word. “It is a word that doesn’t translate directly into english,” said the narrator. It roughly means: to exist in and wade through a system that is set up against you, to deal with obstacles and opposition, and to overcome. Casanova-Burgess explained that this word seems to epitomize Puerto Rican life better than any others. The word (and the name of the podcast) is, La Brega.”

I found the podcast and clicked on the first episode, choosing the Spanish version to see if I could keep up. Casanova-Burgess spoke slowly and clearly, a great service to someone learning the language. But I was there to learn more than just the language. 

I like to think I understand the struggle, from my early years living on islands, from boat life, and from teenage years in shit-box cars and shacks filled with bugs. But I wanted to hear it from Puerto Rican mouths, their version of La Brega.

The first episode focused on none other than potholes. Focused on cars, and the struggle to drive through dark, narrow, winding roads, littered with pocks so deep they would pop a tire, or break your suspension. Roads so neglected that one could lose their vehicle, their transportation, their very livelihood simply by hitting the wrong bump.

I remembered a night in town, sitting at a food truck with a friend, dipping Yucca fries in mayo-ketchup, watching a wobbly older man pace around his broken Honda. He appeared to have run it into the curb. He was drunk, I assumed. His friend came, a son perhaps, and they pondered the car together. Then I realized, he hadn’t crashed his car at all, it had broken out from under him, just given up. Maybe he was drunk, or something else, but his broken car was nothing but the typical struggle of these ragged streets.

The podcast went on to interview citizens taking matters into their own hands, hitting the streets with bright spray paint, painting rings and lines radiating from the holes to warn drivers, then blasting pictures over social media to activate and alarm the country, to light a fire under the butt of officials seeking re-election. And in some cases it was working.

How appropriate, I thought. Such a perfect depiction of an understated and overlooked challenge of Puerto Rican life. Again I thought of Sam, turning his back on the whiney, puffed-up surfer bro. Of course the kid was angry. Of course he could not understand. He hadn’t been in the islands very long. He didn’t understand the everyday grind, or what was at stake. Or that you don’t always get what you want, or what you had planned for. He knew nothing of La Brega

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