Life Lessons From the Happiest Woman I Know

Marcelo C. Baez

Standing in line waiting for a taxi at the Luis Muñoz Marín airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I said to myself: “Kids. I hate them.”

Of course, I don’t really hate kids, but a two-year-old boy spent the entire duration of the flight from New York punching the back my seat’s headrest so, at that precise moment, I felt no sympathy for children.


Off that same flight I hated — no, despised — two other passengers even more: The boy’s hippie, new-age parents. They were the kind of people who never discipline their rowdy kids — or even bother to feign embarrassment. I’d turn around and give them an evil gaze every 10 minutes but both the mother and the father would shrink their shoulders and look back with a “oh-he’s-just-a-baby!” kind of smirk.

The entire family was sitting in the exit row and I considered pulling the emergency door handle mid-flight. “Once the baby is sucked out,” I said to myself, “I can turn around and give the parents sweet and pensive oh-your-son-was-really-annoying-and-so-is-your-parenting-style” kind of smirk.

You probably think I’m a terrible person. I can’t be objective about myself so I won’t dispute your perception, but I’ll tell you this: I was happy as a camper once I sat inside my assigned cab. Chirpy and optimistic, I was on my way to Old San Juan and the cab driver, a woman in her mid ‘50s, was friendly and chatty — my favorite kind of person.

“¿De dónde tu viene?” [Where are you coming from], she asked in a booming, raspy voice. “De Nueva York,” I replied.


The woman, whose nametag read Sandra, sparked up: “I love that city! There’s people from everywhere, there’s so much to see. Mira, chico, [look, kid] I lived there for four years. I had the best time of my life. But it’s just too cold for me. I couldn’t handle the winter so I moved back.”

I asked Sandra what part of the island she’s from. One of her eyebrows arched before belting out "Uy, nene [kid], I'm from Santo Domingo! But I've been here for almost 30 years."


Years ago, when I first traveled to Puerto Rico, some local acquaintances told me there's a certain animosity towards Puerto Rico's Dominicans residents. Apparently some Puerto Ricans believe Dominican immigrants are unrightfully taking jobs away from the island's "real" citizens.

If I had a penny.

What followed was the most interesting part of our conversation. Assuming Sandra was married, I asked for her husband. She cackled almost maniacally before answering: "Papi, I left him a LONG time ago. And you know what? I'm the happiest person I know. I go home when I feel like it, I buy the clothes I like, hang out with my friends all the time — I do whatever I want."


Because of her vocal disdain towards marriage I assumed Sandra had no offspring. "So you never had kids?" I quizzed. Sandra’s tone sobered up: "No, I did have a son. Fuí mujer completa " [I was a complete or whole woman]. But he's a grown man now. He lives in Santo Domingo."

"Mujer completa" lingered in my head for the rest of the ride. It's the kind of term that would make my educated, feminist friends in NYC roll the eyes all the way to the back of their heads. But my friends had no place in that moment because, unlike Sandra, I'm sure no one — not in 2013 — is gonna fault them for not living out their potential as "mujeres completas." And if someone does fault them, it won't be with the stifling intensity of the last century, when most women were viewed — and yes, many still are — as little more than brood managers, cooks, and maids.


Sandra kept growing on me. Her observations were great: "In the pueblo, [referring to Santo Domingo], you live with what you got. There's nothing ostentatious or luxurious about it, but you never owe anyone anything. Here, in Puerto Rico, and over there [the States], you're duped into believing you can own anything. You can have lots of things, but you don't own them; for the rest of your life, you're stuck working 10 or 14 hours a day just to pay for that crap. Crap you don't even need."

You tell them, sister.

In Latin America, where education is often subpar or non-existent, and where dull telenovelas influence the expectations of women more than politicians or organized religion, working-class folk are rarely as sharp as Sandra. Not because they’re not capable of grasping a more progressive set views, but because most don’t know those views exist. Some might be semi-aware, but the implementation of such a different social structure — where, for example, being an independent woman is lauded, not shamed — seems strange and far-fetched.


"That's the way the cookie crumbles, papi," said Sandra as we approached Old San Juan.

Then she questioned me: "You doing anything special this on vacation?" "Well, I'm here for a wedding," I replied as the car pulled up to my hotel. She giggled: "You gonna try to catch the garter?" I pulled out a wad of singles, paid my fare, and responded: "No. Thanks to you and some strangers who sat behind me on the plane, I'll be cowering under a table during that part of the wedding."


She laughed and yelled "You're terrible!" I smiled, thanked her, and made a pronouncement: "You know what? I have little to no doubt: You’re the happiest person I know, too."

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