I can’t get the word invisible out of my head. For the past couple of weeks it has been boring through the fabric of my brain like a worm or catchy jingle. It stays with me all day; it’s still playing when I go to bed, and for some strange reason it’s still playing when I wake up. It simply won’t go away.
Maybe it’s because I watch too much television news. Maybe it’s because I see so much hate and despair in the news. I get it: sensational stories involving hate and despair, like car chases, trump equally sensational stories about love and hope when it comes to attracting an audience. In a highly competitive 24/7/365 news cycle, television stations need to win viewership.
Audience translates into ratings, which translate into advertising dollars, which translate into people keeping their jobs. I get it, but, I don’t like it. In fact, I’m sick of it — all of it — car chases, riots, wars, religion, politics, and especially all the divisiveness.
Often it’s triggered by differences in circumstance, like where we are born, or where we live. Sometimes it’s sparked by differences in religion, or even basic human values; and sometimes it’s because of perceived differences in privilege and entitlement. Too often the hateful divisiveness I see expressed on television, and the division it perpetuates, comes as result of the differences in political ideals and motivations. Way too often it’s triggered by differences in the color of skin.
“Invisible.” There it is again. Did you hear it?
My Portuguese grandfather was a tea-colored man who hailed from Madeira, a small island located about 350 miles off the coast of Morocco in northwestern Africa. The best evidence I have about his beginning is that he was an illegitimate child. Of course the stigma of being a bastard child, particularly in a deeply religious Catholic culture, meant he was borne into a harsh environment on an island that was already suffering from hardship and despair.
As a consequence of nothing but circumstances beyond his control it meant that my vovô was an invisible underdog and outcast from the moment he was born. He wasn’t wanted by anybody from the moment he opened his eyes as a newborn child. He was a castaway.
Seventeen years later he escaped the harsh reality of his life in Madeira, where he grew up working on a banana plantation, to begin life anew as a stowaway on an ocean liner headed to a land of new opportunity in the United States. Like many Portuguese in the early 1900’s he made his way to the Fall River, in southeastern Massachusetts.
Vovô died of lung cancer in 1975, about the time of my eighteenth birthday. While it seems longer, when I do the math it says I only knew him for twelve years. Sure, he was in my life for eighteen years, but I really didn’t get to know him until I was about six or seven. What kid remembers much before that?
What I do remember about him is this. He was a poor man, who was as kind and gentle and tough as the situation and conditions demanded he be, at any given moment in time.
To make ends meet, he was a hard-working and hard-smoking housepainter whose seven children included a son with polio; at the time, another stigma. Before that he made pocket change by jumping into the boxing ring as a sparring partner. After that, he painted Navy ships at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts.
I also remember that he was an unusually quiet man who never, ever talked about his invisible life in Madeira; he never complained about the circumstances he was borne into. Instead, he seemed to relish in the fact that he pulled himself from obscurity and underprivileged circumstances to make a life for himself. Proudly, by himself.
I’m blessed to have had the chance to get to know my once invisible, tea-colored grandfather. The values he instilled in me, I think, are a big part of the reason why Anguilla and its rich story have had such a big and meaningful impact on my life’s experience. Until its revolution in 1967, the outcast island and its 6,000 castaways knew enough about invisibility, obscurity, belonging, underprivileged circumstances, and pride as any people or place on earth.
Why is this important, i.e. why’d I write this post?
It’s because Anguilla’s story is about a once invisible people, place, and struggle for liberty where issues of color could have divided, but didn’t. More importantly, in a world where issues of color, nationality, religion, and other differences continue to divide, Anguilla’s uplifting story about human spirit and its power to beat the odds and find hope in desperate times — like my vovô’s story — is a comforting hug for humanity in a time of great need.
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