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Summon your Duende

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      "Olé, Olé" my grandmother Antonia whispered at the TV as we watched a flamenco movie.  Summer in Puerto Rico was extremely hot.  I was eight years old and did not understand how Abuela could iron clothes and watch TV amidst the infernal heat.   I was scared that she would burn herself.

       Abuela stopped ironing, looked at me and said, "The burn fills me with joy."

       Had she read my mind? "Did you burn yourself?" I asked.

      Abuela laughed.  "Don't worry, watch the dancers," she instructed.

     As I watched them, their hands and feet movements mesmerized me.  They seemed to be on fire.  Then, all of a sudden Abuela shouted, "Tiene duende!" and broke my trance. 

    "What is to have duende?" I asked.

     "To have a thirst that only death can satisfy," Abuela said.

     My head was spinning with confusion. "What is duende?"

     "Be quiet and watch the movie," Abuela ordered.

     That night I had nightmares.  A duende looking like a devil kept trying to kill me.

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      The next day, Abuela returned to her ironing and flamenco ritual.  I refused to watch. "I'm scared of the duende," I told her.

      Abuela put the iron down and walked towards me.  "The flamenco singer has duende.  The flamenco dancers have duende."  Abuela leaned down and took my face in her hands, and then she said, "You have duende."

      "No, I don't," I insisted. 

      "You need to summon your duende," Abuela replied with a smile.

      I didn't understand.

     "You will learn," Abuela said, and again I felt sure she'd read my mind.  "Duende is felt, not understood," she added.

      Abuela prepared coffee and served it with my favorite cookies.  As we snacked, my fear dissipated.  Abuela turned on the TV, and once again, the dancers bewitched me.  After watching the movie, we sat on the balcony and smelled the azucenas (lilies) from Abuela's garden.

     Abuela and I continued watching flamenco movies for most of my childhood.  Over time, my young heart began to understand what my mind could not comprehend.  In school I learned that duende is one of the hardest Spanish words to translate into other languages.  The Spanish poet playwright, Federico Garcia Lorca, described duende as "the mysterious power that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained."  Usually associated with flamenco, duende is an earth spirit that conjures inspiration, magic, danger, mystery, fire and passion.  However, I later realized that duende is whatever you need duende to be.

     I fell in love with flamenco dancing.  As I practiced while watching the dancers on TV, I felt a burning sensation that made me feel alive.  Was this what it meant to have duende?

      Years later, I left Puerto Rico as a young woman in search of a new life in Connecticut.

     "Remember to summon your duende," Abuela advised in her parting words to me.

     I discovered that Connecticut was frigid.  Winter was the antithesis of the Puerto Rican torrid summer.  Moreover, White American discrimination and hate-filled insults cut me like a frozen machete.

   "Go back home!" people screamed at me when they heard my Spanish accent.  I hadn't expected to become the target of racism, sexism, and xenophobia in my new home, and it was extremely painful.  Sara Lee cakes became my constant companions during this agonizing period.  As a result, I no longer recognized the woman in the mirror.  Worst of all, I did not dance.

      Looking for solace, I visited Abuela back on the island.  She sensed my pain as soon as she laid eyes on me. 

     "You need to summon your duende," she said as she embraced me.

     "How do I do that?"

      "Allow your duende to commune with your pain."

     Easier said than done, I thought.

     Abuela added, "Duende lives at the border of life and death."  With a strange look on her face, she continued, "When Duende connects with death, it ignites a thirst for life."

      After I returned to the States, I continued my wounded lifestyle.  To cope, I forgot myself.  In fact, I repressed everything that reminded me of my childhood--including flamenco.  For years, I lived a robotic life.  Abuela interrupted my automatic existence when she announced that she was coming to visit.  I was shocked because she hated flying.

     When I picked her up at the airport she said, "You need to summon your duende."

     Abuela brought life into my apartment.  She cooked delicious healthy meals.  She ironed my clothes and sang flamenco songs.  We watched movies.  Abuela even tended my barren garden, planting azucenas.  But I still could not summon my duende.

     "Do you know why we say Olé, Olé when duende appears?" she asked one day.

      I didn't know what Abuela was talking about.

      Abuela's penetrating eyes read my heart, "Because it is how we invoke our divinity."

      "How can I do that?" I asked.

      Abuela answered with a smile. 

      I later learned that Abuela was right about the meaning of Olé.  Federico Garcia Lorca believed that when Andalusians witness the presence of duende, they invoke the divinity as they reclaim their Mozárabe (Muslim) roots saying "Olé, Olé"--a cry close to "Allah, Allah."

      After Abuela's visit I slowly improved my self-care.  I began dancing again. I lost weight.  I recognized the woman in the mirror.  I felt alive.  Finally, I was able to summon my duende, and she appeared as a flamenco dancer.

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      My duende helped me to connect with my inner female divinity.

    Now, as a middle-aged woman, I summon my duende by:

             Communicating with my wounds

             Alchemizing my pain into awakening

             Expressing my creativity

             Recognizing my inner divinity

            Allowing duende to possess me

    During a recent trip to Puerto Rico, I went to visit Abuela's grave.  A strong smell of azucenas permeated the cemetery.  As soon as I reached her grave, a soft sound startled me.  I looked around, but no one was there.  I breathed deeply and closed my eyes.  Then, I heard Abuela's voice in a whisper on the wind calling: "Olé, Olé."

 

Photography: Frederick M. Jacobsen

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As a psychologist, healer, and writer Lillian Comas is interested in spirituality, feminism, and multiculturalism.

Comments

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Thursday, 09 May 2019

    What an amazing story, Lillian! I love how you paint your story so beautifully, and with such a good message. (Would it be ok if I shared this story in our magazine as well?) Cordially, Anne

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