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My Chee-koo Baby

Being in a relationship with a city is just like any other relationship. You go through all the same stages that you would with a person. Perhaps most importantly, these relationships push us; they help us discover unexpected parts of ourselves -- parts that can grow.

Since I’ve met my old lady, a question reverberates in my mind:

Who are your people?

My people have been the friends and family I've collected along the way. People who collected me. It has never been about race, nationality, bloodline. It's about connection. Warmth. Hospitality. So when I came here, she became my people, because she took me in and welcomed me in her balmy, southern winds, without asking where I came from.

The kids at school asked me: Are you black or white?

I’d answer: I’m mixed. 

I knew my mother was light and my father was dark, but I didn’t know much about my roots -- my father’s roots. We didn't visit the island my dad was from; we didn't practice his traditions; we didn't speak his language in our home. I was told to never marry a man of color. And let me tell you... that's a crazy thing to hear when your own father is as dark as a coffee bean in the summertime.

There was talk of Spanish ancestors and random cousins with blue eyes. I had always been encouraged to embrace my mother's German lineage. But my parents failed to mention that I had uncles with afros. When I found my dad’s old photo album, I was shocked. I couldn't understand at the time -- he had suffered because of his darkness and didn’t want the same for me. I still don't understand, but I've learned to accept that he did what he thought was right.

We didn’t talk about my father’s roots, but, looking back, I see traces of them -- in his cooking, his dancing, his music.

I grew up listening to Latin and soul music. Celia Cruz's voice exploding through the eight track. Dad busting into salsa moves -- outside grilling ribs for a Saturday BBQ; in the kitchen, seasoning a giant pot of arroz y gandules. The vibes in our house were powerful. When my father feed people, I saw sparks, magic, in his eyes; they tickled my chest and filled my belly with the sense that we came from someplace magical. I never felt that again until I moved to New Orleans; her culture consists of the same kind of soul, a variety of spices that have amalgamated, culminating in a home where we all belong.

When we form a relationship with her, her potent eccentricity sweeps the the river breeze, seeps into our pores, flows through our veins and infects us with some magic.

I cried every time I walked in a second line. I beamed at the old black men congregating on the neutral ground who told me I was "a pretty young thing". For the first time in my life, I felt like I could breathe a little easier, like an orchid restored to the jungle after a lifetime of believing it came from a greenhouse.

I loved the way she made me feel. Isn't that what they say about love? That it's not the person but, rather, the feeling you get with that person? New Orleans made me feel at home; she made me want to take my shoes off and stay a while. She taught me that my curly hair, brown skin and freckles were a blessing. That knowing how to throw down in the kitchen was a mark of worldly success. She reminded me that I wasn't made by two races. I was made by two people. Two people who were very much in love with each other.

And she really is the sweetest damned thing. Especially on summer nights when the air is scented with jasmine and her warm breeze brushes softly against my bare skin, drying it off after a night of furious dancing, making me swoon. That's my Chee-koo Baby. I can't imagine being with anyone else.

This article is by Isabelle Guzman. Please send comments to [email protected]