by Thomas Johnson
March 14, 2023

Thomas Johnson lives in Washington, D.C. and attends the Master’s in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Johnson is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and veteran of the United States Army.

Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere by Robert Lopez; Two Dollar Radio; 280 pgs.; $26.00 

    Robert Lopez the author asks much more of Robert Lopez the man than anything he’s asking of the reader. From a distance of time and geography, Lopez’s Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere transcribes moments, folklores, and wives’ tales to weave a listener’s narrative of his home nation, Puerto Rico, in search of his own family history. Upon finishing this collection of nonfiction essays, vignettes, stories, and recollections, it’s clear that the author is asking us not to consider him at all, but instead to wade along with him through the fogginess of uncertain truths. To convey what it feels like to be displaced and searching for belonging, the author instead asks the reader what they believe Puerto Rico to be, and how we ever lost an entire nation’s history in the first place.

    Built on a truncated series of observations, quips, and whims, the book presents itself as a journey through the author’s personal memories as a Brooklyn-born American citizen of Puerto Rican descent. Traversing among different, nonlinear moments from the past and up into the present day, Lopez unpacks the story of his family, and particularly that of his family from the moment his Puerto Rican grandfather, Sixto, first left the Caribbean island to start a family in New York, in what Lopez sarcastically derides would have been “in search of a better life,” as the way things went in the early- to mid-20th Century. As the details unfold and the memories become less opaque, the structure of his family develops – his own father, likewise of Puerto Rican descent, marrying his mother of Cuban and Spanish descent, and the children they raised to not even speak the Spanish language from their home among the boroughs of New York.

    This, among the other characteristics and habits of a child raised away from their heritage, becomes the author’s key for investigation, which Lopez poses as a simple result of the certain existentialism of our age; he remarks how, now at the age of forty-seven, he realized he had himself reached the age of his own father when Sixto passed away. “None of it bothered me until recently,” he says, “which is probably why I can’t quite put my finger on any of this. I’m still grappling with what I’ve lost and how I can miss something I’ve never had.” 

    Lopez uses this sense of obscurity, this shadow of ghosts, with an endearing talent to find the heartfelt and sincere core of our violent histories, weaving through our own various misconceptions of Puerto Rico, bridging the reality of Lopez’s distant life with the hyperreality of the actual history of the people of the island. Having gotten our ears through the lens of the soul, we’re pulled along for the ride through the many injustices brought against Puerto Ricans, and of those displaced in New York. Many of the “dispatches” that make up the different chapters openly detail, discuss, and relate the history of Puerto Rico the island, starting in 1898 in the year of its incorporation as a United States territory. And to make sure we don’t get lost, Lopez immediately details the number of times the United States Congress has deliberated on granting Puerto Ricans citizenship (one hundred and one), followed by the number of times they’ve been prosecuted for sedition. But for Lopez, who never grew up on the island and doesn’t share its native language, it could just as easily be the many origins and uses of racial terms used against him as a child and the last times he can recall hearing the words. Set alongside moments when he discusses the recent tragedies of Hurricane Maria and the disparaging comments and quotations of the forty-fifth President of the United States, each of these combine in effect to provide the reader with a totality of ambiguity – there are the things we know, and the things we think we know. What Robert Lopez knows for certain is that he is of Puerto Rican descent, something he doesn’t want to escape but cannot understand fully, and that’s all he can control.

    As a man, he enjoys tennis. The recurring characters and people that enter and leave his life as a means of regularly playing in the sport mirror the come-and-go effect of time passing, much like the volley across the court. Tennis, as a motif, becomes the vessel through which Lopez recreates his understanding of his own life, the memories he holds dear. Tennis then, and through all the people that it brings to the author, is not just a jockeying for life, but the opposing force to his parents’ unspoken indifference that leaves him without a heritage to lean on. It is through his mother’s own transient global amnesia that Lopez foreshadows the fading memories of his family, his childhood, and his heritage, asking us to consider the differences in passive and active involvement in the past. What have we already forgotten about these real events, about this real place in the Caribbean sea?

    Using the ephemera of other objects, facts, and ideas to arrive at the author’s own feelings and beliefs is the authorial tool Lopez wields in the same way that Maggie Nelson crafts her autofiction in Bluets to get at her own grief, never directly addressing her own circumstances much among her couple hundred vignettes crossing Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, and the color of the universe. But we arrive at her place of yearning, anyway, somehow. Lopez here maneuvers this genre with the same speed, clarity, and vision, and the reader never feels lost, even if it dabbles in the arena of the unknown. Many of the hearsay non-truths that Lopez is presented with as a child are revisited, placing the reader within the author’s own process venturing toward something like a conclusion, knowing that regardless of the way, the destination can become clear: if Lopez had never considered himself Puerto Rican before, he will not hide from it going forward.

    In the end, we never learn much of his mother’s side of the family because it isn’t important to the writer himself. He acknowledges this directly, arriving at the conclusion of the drawn-out line that he never visits warm places, and so hasn’t even been to a Spanish-speaking nation. It seems odd, at this point in the piece, to think that this investigation could be so important to a man seemingly avoiding this particular confrontation his whole life, but that, too, speaks to the condition of a man unmoored. Through multiple pop culture references from around the world and the repeated use of song lyrics throughout the decades, we’re painted a picture of a man who never falsely claimed to be of any particular place. Robert Lopez only wanted to be recognized as a human, and of the world. It’s only the world that gets in the way.

  It's these intricacies and nuances that bring life to the dispatches on the page, forcing the reader to reckon with their own handling of the material. Perhaps what makes this memoir an effective and essential read are the clues we pick up along the way to discovering our own place in Puerto Rico’s history, and that it’s as much our burden as his. And really, that’s the lasting effect of Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere. We are all in this together.

©2023 West Trade Review
History, Heritage, and Uncertain Truths in Robert Lopez's Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere" by Thomas Johnson

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