first person

Gold, History, and My Body

Photo: Getty Images

Puerto Rico means “rich port” in Spanish, and it’s not an accident that many Puerto Ricans prefer to call the island by its indigenous Taíno name, Borinquen. In the colonial world, naming a place for its riches marked it for plunder and for slaughter: the Gold Coast, Río de la Plata, the thousand El Dorados glittering just beyond another battle. But neither Puerto Rico nor the rest of the Caribbean archipelago yielded much gold, despite the little ornaments Columbus saw glitter in the noses of native women. Today, the hallucination that shimmered so seductively before the Spanish ships still touches us at our noses, our ears, and dangles between our breasts. Who can blame us? We look so good in gold.

In fact, I feel naked without it. There’s the short chain and the long, the small hoops and the larger pair. The bangle and the chain-link bracelet. A smattering of Catholic pendants. All the real gold I own comes through my Puerto Rican line, but my father, who is white and not Puerto Rican, has learned what suits me, and when he buys me earrings for my birthday they’re gold-toned too. I like how gold slinks across my collarbone, how it picks up the yellow in my light skin and makes my dark eyes shine. I love its resilience. I don’t need to nurse it like silver. I can sleep in it, swim in it, sweat in it and still it keeps its brightness. Once, gold saved my writing hand when I was caught in the doors of the Buenos Aires metro and my bangle buckled like armor around the bones of my wrist.

Gold is a Monday kind of love. Gold is the most glamorous girl on the way to work, and gold is the glance between us on the bus. Gold is the colonizer’s compass. Gold is that sold-out pair of sneakers. Gold is the trumpet in my mother’s voice. Gold is my grandmother’s low-wage labor in heels, and gold is the damage it did to her back. Gold is hip-hop. Gold is Bollywood. Gold is class, gold is trash, gold is Trump Tower. Gold is what white extracts from black. Gold is the song of the summer. Gold is oozing from the skin of the woman you want most. Gold is the gilded cage and gold is the canary in the coal mine. Gold is a luxury I can’t afford to lose. Gold is the thin chain that fastens my body to itself. Gold is the medal they will pin to my chest when I learn to love gold less.

A week before we broke up, a man said to me: Your primary seduction is your golden patina. He said it in Spanish: tu pátina dorada. I like being admired and I like the language a hand articulates as it passes across my body. But why is my color most often recognized through the eyes of sex? Mira mami. Or: You ain’t white with that ass. Or: Where’d you learn to dance like that? I can slide from white-passing to “Butta Pecan Rican” in a second if someone’s hungry for it. The flash of pleasure I always feel at being seen as part of my people can be quickly spoiled by that grasping. As soon as someone sees my gold shine, it’s his treasure, counted out at the bank of race and sex. In New York Ricans From the Hip-Hop Zone, the scholar Raquel Z. Rivera is very clear about the ideology that haunts the desire for light-skinned Puerto Rican women, like Jennifer Lopez: “Doesn’t it seem too much in accordance with Eurocentric aesthetic hierarchies that a very light-skinned, straight-haired – white, by Latin American standards — woman is the icon celebrated for her so-called black ass?” Yes. It does. White supremacy is quick to remind us that her privileged position in the color caste system is bestowed from above. Even her face belongs to someone else: articles in Refinery 29 and Allure credit makeup artist Scott Barnes as the one who “created her famous … skin,” who “gave Jenny that signature glow.” Is it naïve to say I see her own light shine beyond her lightness? Is it naïve to bask in that glow within a glow?

The word “patina” means “a film, usually green, produced by oxidation on the surface of old bronze and often esteemed as being of ornamental value.” Or: “A similar film or coloring appearing gradually on some other surface, especially as a result of age or long use.” Long use has produced a miscegenated body with ornamental value. Sometimes, that body is mine. But when I touch the rings in my ears I remember that women have also claimed me with love, have called me mamita, muñeca, mandolina, mi vida. They’ve given me gold in the family name and told me to hold it close.

I didn’t know my mother’s father, who was ultimately exiled from our family for the damage he’d done. But when he was dying, my mother went to care for him in the trailer park where he lived in Orange County. His neighbors loved him: his life-of-the-party, his generosity with children. By then there was no room left in his shrinking body for rage, only a tenderness that my mother tried to transmit to me in the form of a story told over the phone. I could hear how it healed her. I wasn’t sure I had a wound, so I wasn’t sure I’d heal from the phantom grief I felt and feel. She brought me the brown plaid shirt he was wearing at the end — slim enough for a college girl — and the three charms he wore on a chain. Let her have them, he said.

There’s a guardian angel, an Italian cornicello (for luck), and my favorite: a tiny amulet cut in the shape of our island, with its bumps and bays, the words Puerto Rico etched in the gleam for those who don’t know how to read it otherwise. The shirt still hangs in the closet at my mother’s house. But I wear the necklace almost every day. When I lean over, I like seeing Puerto Rico float on the brown skin of my boyfriend’s chest. After our first vacation there — my cousin insisted on picking him up at the airport — he started plotting his future retirement: just a little spot in the green hills of Vieques, with a porch and maybe a mango tree. I can’t quite see his dream through the decades of hurricanes still to come. For me, Puerto Rico is not a world away. But even at the bottom of the barrel of debt, where the United States likes to keep its colonies, it’s hard not to want the beauty that remains.

In a tour-de-force essay on the visual aesthetics of hip-hop, the art historian Krista Thompson shows how bling seems “to pinpoint the limits of the of the visible world: the instant that reflected light bounces off a shiny object, it denies and obliterates vision.” When I drape myself in gold, I can’t pretend I don’t want to be seen. I recognize and am recognized by a shared culture through a language of shine. But I also like the way gold catches and deflects the gaze from its usual line of sight: “Bling, then, conveys a state between hypervisibility and blinding invisibility, between visual surplus and disappearance.” I don’t want to disappear the bloody history of this precious metal and my place in it. I want what you can see to draw your mind’s eye to all you can’t.

Gold, History, and My Body