Piedras Blancas was—is—home. Growing up in the mid-80s and throughout the 90s meant that, in a pre-Internet rural Puerto Rico, I spent most of my early childhood playing with my neighbors: my father's younger cousins, his youngest sister Yma (who's only 11 years older than I am) and my own cousins. I also spent a lot of time with my mother, Mama Lucy, Mama Lucy's cleaning ladies and finally my sisters. Note the overwhelming majority of female figures in my life. The men were always working.
There were a few boys in the mix, though, and because I wasn't into sports, when we played together we'd either role-play and go on adventures (or play house), or we'd round up our action figures. The He-man figures were some of my favorite from one of my neighbor's collection, especially because he also owned He-man's castle, which to me seemed wonderful. Also, and although she was a girl, one of my cousins, Michelle, carried a briefcase full of airplane and car-themed Transformers that we used to love playing with (and hiding from her).
As fun as these male-oriented dolls were, I have vivid recollections of the role female-gendered toys played in my childhood, particularly in my own self-awareness as somebody who was queer as well as the ways I navigated through definitive moments of my identity. To start, I much preferred playing with Titi Yma's impressive collection of My Little Ponies—Paradise Estate included, thank you very much—than anything else. I also remember how much I used to love her two Cabbage Patch Kids—one bald, one ginger, both with the beautiful blue signature of Xavier Roberts on their butt cheeks—as well as her plush Popples. I have a hard time describing what Popples are, so I checked on Wikipedia and it describes them as "brightly colored marsupial teddybears", which sounds about right especially since they could each tuck into an body-integrated pocket to turn into balls—the only kind of balls I actually enjoyed playing with, other than my love for marbles, which were one of the few non-gendered forms of play I recall while growing up.
Just like these dolls, there were dozens and dozens of toys for little girls in a variety of themes. But the thing is, even today, looking back as a designer, girls' toys during the 80s and 90s were so undeniably beautiful. They were vivid in color, wild in imagination, they had stories and many of them had their own special settings: the dolls came with the spaces they inhabited, such as bathrooms and treehouses, and these were all equally as colorful, vibrant and beautifully designed.
One time, I visited one of my aunt's apartment as a small child, I might have been four, and I distinctly remember seeing this stunning, glamorous Barbie doll she had on display. I think she was dressed in silver—or maybe it was white. I couldn't take my eyes off of her. That night, while my aunt slept, I got up, went to the living room and paid Barbie a visit. It was around Christmas time, and there, in her small apartment with its carpeted floor, dimly lit by the glow of the white lights on the Christmas tree, I picked up Barbie and admired the hugely off-scale 'diamond' earrings she flaunted.
I remember feeling admiration, wonder and delight when I looked at these dolls and toys. They were a treat for the eyes, as well as for the nose, as some of them had particular scents. It wasn't uncommon for girls' toys to come with little perfumes, aromatized trinkets or scratch n'sniff stickers, and let's not forget the scented doll par excellence, Strawberry Shortcake herself, along with her whole gang. There were also delicious textures, such as certain, special My Little Ponies whose bodies were covered in suede, contrasting with the normal plastic from most other horses, although some of them came in a transparent, glitterized plastic body, and they were fabulous too.
Toymakers made it really hard for me to not want to play with girls' toys, despite being aware from a very early age that I wasn't supposed to. My encounter with the diamond-earing Barbie is an example of this. I had to wait until I was the only person awake and sneak out of bed to be able to so much as stare at her for a prolonged period of time. I must have known, even at that age, that doing so in front of my aunt would have raised suspicion that I was doing something for which I'd be scolded.
The person I primarily had to hide these actions from was my father, who today is a very open-minded and accepting man, but back then was a queer boy's nightmare. Growing up, I wasn't allowed to wear sandals because boys were meant to wear sneakers. One time, my dad found a pair of flip-flops in my closet and, in rage, hurled them over the fence and into the bushy site in front of our house. That was traumatizing.
Secondly, I had to hide it from Mama Lucy herself, my heroine! I could always feel how disapproving she was of any feminine behavior or trait in me, and since it's been a very long time, I find it hard to remember of any examples other than through her stance on what toys I could play with.
One afternoon, after school, I went to Mama Lucy's house overly excited to play with Titi Yma's Cabbage Patch Kids. Knowing that my grandmother had always told me that boys couldn't play with dolls, I had sneakily hidden them from her in my dad's former bedroom, inside this awful bed whose headboard doubled functions as a storage space. It was veneered in formica, and it was awful. But when you'd opened the secret compartment, the wood inside smelled quite nice.
That afternoon when I opened the headboard, to my surprise and despair neither Cabbage Patch Kid was there. My heart absolutely sank. I desperately searched the multiple closets in the house hoping to find them again, with no luck. Even at that age of six or seven, I came to believe that me not finding the dolls had little to do with my searching abilities and everything to do with my grandmother's tacit decision—whether shew as responsible or not. If I'd asked my grandmother were the dolls were, I would be automatically guilty of, firstly, having played with them, and, secondly, having hidden them from her. I had to pretend that everything was fine, because little boys weren't supposed to play with dolls in the first place. And the fact that Cabbage Patch Kid advertisements targeted girls and boys, only signaled to me that my grandmother's taking the dolls from this safe space felt intentional, disapproving of my preferences, and to be frank, cruel.
The Cabbage Patch Kids were my secret, and my interactions with them evidenced a queerness that I was too young to understand but that I clearly see now. I always find remarkable what seemingly insignificant memories remain with us, especially with how much we forget. But as I write this note, the fact that I can still vividly remember the Cabbage Patch Kid event becomes less surprising; it makes much sense that I haven't forgotten it. The irony of having hidden this secret within a closed, storage, closet-like space inside the headboard of the bed in my father's old bedroom is not lost on me. As gay and queer people, so many of us are taught to be ashamed for any and every action that deviates from the norm. We're chastized, reprimanded, humiliated, punished and corrected, often by the people we love the most. That these corrections happen by taking advantage of childlike naïveté, through the downright mundane act of what we play with, is deplorable. We queer people are often left with little other choice but to bury parts of ourselves and hide them from the outside, from plain sight. We do it to protect our bodies from pain, our emotions from embarrassment and to ensure that we get to explore ourselves, to test our ambiguously defined sense of boundaries and, in many cases, to survive. To eventually become subject. Upon noticing the absence of the Cabbage Patch Kids from the closet I had literally buried them in—a place I thought was safe—what remained with me was the realization that my grandmother had found out my secret, and disapproved.
Some time after, I eventually found the bald Cabbage Patch Kid (the ginger was nowhere to be found), and along with Titi Yma's My Little Ponies, I put him in a bag and carried him down the hill's road, back to my house and inside my closet.