Bringing Luis Home

In Memoriam: Louis Delgado
by Barbara Finkelstein

Lou Delgado – Synanon 1973

      Sid and I would travel to Puerto Rico to see customers for our business and to attend the annual Heineken Jazz Festival in San Juan. Grieving the death of Lou, we found comfort and understanding as we crawled the island. Friends from our Synanon years would sometimes join us; and in 1996, Sid fulfilled his dream of introducing Lou’s son to his father’s childhood island.       Graham was with us, too.  One morning back at home on Sanibel, my pen took over during my daily writing. It was as if Lou were having his say, and I just happened to be there to listen and make notes. The second surprise that day came with a phone call from Lou’s daughter, Phyllis Delgado Toor. She and her family had just  arrived on the island for vacation, and “Could we get together?” Joy of joy! Yes, yes, yes! For one of those days, we met on the beach at Sanibel’s west end where the family was staying. I read aloud the first draft of this narrative, and once again, we felt touched by magic. Near to us a man sat relaxed on a beach chair. Wearing an islands’ style fedora, he was playing a ukulele. His music accompanied these words.


South of Maricao, along Puerto Rico Ruta 119, 
mangoes ripen in the yellows of sunny noon.
Sedans and pick-ups angle onto the grass
and plastic shopping bags balloon in wind
as local men and women hurry to fill them. 
My husband slows our rented car
as if to stop again.  I laugh,
my bare feet warm against soft, fragrant fruit. 

Luis would tell us:
I could just go outside and find my food.
Mangoes, bananas—aie!
Limes, plantain, breadfruit, yams—all I’d need.
But for Mami and Papi the island was not enough.
No work even in Arecibo.
They bought first shoes for us,
leather and laces for feet loving cool earth,
clothes, when my skin wanted sun.
Adios, my aunties, my uncles.
Oh, the good-byes, touches of hands and words!
¡Nuestros queridos! Our dear ones!
No hurricane more frightening than the one
blowing us to New York. 

Shoes hurt my feet—leather on cement.
And the voices—I could not understand English,
but I knew they insulted him, my little Papi.
They took trusting eyes for stupid,
politeness for weakness.
They wanted only muscle 
but it was his wisdom they needed.

And Mami, tall—
you see where I get my height—
oh, the photograph on our living room wall!
She is proud with conquerors’ blood,
yet even she could not control my anger
that worsened as I grew.
Her foot on my neck,
she tried to hold me to the kitchen floor.

Too many years in that city!
On King’s Highway we raged.
In the corners of rundown buildings
we shot up five-dollar bags—
my longing for sweetness,
my longing for paradise. 
Still, I learned to work as a printer.
I could always keep the presses running
and I had the eye for design.
But my wife?
I had done harm.
I promised never to call,
not ever to look for them, the three little ones.
A new man would buy them shoes.


I, Luis, crawled through a tunnel,
a long, dark tunnel back to myself.
Would you believe a tunnel from New York
under the continent
coming out here in California—
out by another sea,
mountains up from the shore
with caring people around?
In this place called Synanon we still form tribes—
yes, tribes—of every age, mix and color.
Would you believe that like my ancestors
we play a game?
We clear space for a circle
and bat words at one another—
truths harder than stones
and we do not die.
Some call it rehab; I call it paradise.

I have my printing, my design.
I get respect,
I hear it.
Look at me—a man restored!
Hey, you!  ¡Mira!
You can have what I have—
a clean life,
a beautiful wife.
A beautiful son.
Listen—my stories—
I search for the right word
to tell you in English,
the language which so limits caring words.
Imagine! Only one word for love!


My husband and I come to the long porch
where dinner is served at Parador Hacienda Juanita.
We are caught in the strength of this house:
beams of nearly extinct ausubo,
thick walls painted deep pink,
tall, green shutters at windows and doors,
old plantation tools in corners,
photographs of small men and women
picking beans and roasting coffee.
We take our seats in wood and woven-straw chairs.

After he died, a dream: 
He is gaunt, his skin dark-tinged.
He dances slowly,
feathers in his crown and on his shoulders
quiver with each step.
Rattles tremble in his hands.
His eyes are black and frightened.
He turns away from me.
Who am I to him?

Luis, I love you—don’t you see?

He turns to my husband,
looks into his eyes and dances close to him.
In this presence he stops.
The feathers quiet.
The fear subsides.

Night covers the canyon slopes.
Birds cry, bamboo trees creak,
leaves shake in the wind.
Coquis cut loose their high singing.
I say, if I had come to this island sooner,
I might have understood his pain on leaving.
My husband sighs,
I wish he could have brought himself home.
Imagine if he and I had bought this hacienda together.
Can you hear him greeting guests?
People would come running up this mountain!


I, Luis, look back over my years
and think again about my story.
Did I tell you I am a big man?
That sometimes my size alone caused me trouble?
In that community I called home 
I did not always fit.
And I would not always listen,
except to the young ones,
the ones in trouble. For them
I could listen.

And we came to new times—
again, new times with little room for old ways, 
for the small constellations that keep us warm.
Sometimes even I bowed
to the conquering hand of greed.
¡Dios mi!
Tight lips called the rules.
Don’t reach over the porch rail 
to pick a banana for breakfast anymore:
file a requisition.

So, I began to die,
partly from the poisons of conquerors 
that flow in my blood,
partly from too much surprise.
For hurricanes, now, we have warning,
but floods roll trees down canyons, tear away
your house and toss even your toilet up a tree.
Earthquakes shake off wives,
break open the ground beneath
and leave you with almost nothing. 
You forget who you are in the struggle.
You can’t remember old ground anymore.
You pack your things and go east again.

The children come around with their children,
and you wish now you had energy.
You touch them, listen to them,
and see in them their mothers
and Papi and Mami.

Other people tell them stories
and you brag, too.
But you will not drive into Brooklyn
morning after morning like a modern slave.
And imagine sitting in a townhouse in New Jersey
at a round table only two of eight chairs filled!
A man needs a circle
with a carved stone seat
rubbed smooth by hands working sand.
His voice must fill with stories.
His hands are made to welcome.
Even the love of a wife does not help.
You think about going all the way home.


In our hearts, Luis,
in the realities of shared thought,
we bring ashes to your island.
We wait for the right time, the right place,
and always we find it.
Some we leave with the man selling fresh orange juice
from his cart on Calle San Sebastian,
and among the roots of the ficus tree
in Plaza de Hostos where old men click dominoes
in the hot afternoon.
We let them mix with phosphorescent water
lapping under the pier on a full moon night.
In the mountains, where a rooster and hens 
roam a garden with canyon views,
they will find ashes softening their nests.  
¡Muy grande!

We scatter more around the cathedral in Arecibo
where nuns look up from arranging flowers
and invite us through locked gates.
Just think—your son has come to Puerto Rico!
And our son, too!

Look at them, Luis, these beautiful young men 
in this place of stature Papi helped build. 

And at the jam session with Giovanni Hidalgo,
congas and timbales in complex rhythm,
were you to walk in then at age thirty-five,
all heads would turn,
women’s eyebrows would rise
and their hips move faster.
Oh, yes, you would knock them out,
those sophisticated, young San Juan professionals.
They would remember a people
who knew how to walk 
with the back of the neck straight,
who knew how to extend a hand
and draw a person close with the right touch.
among perfect evening shirts and fitted skirts,
at feet in polished shoes
where the beat of deep heart must be danced,
there, too, we leave your ashes.


Me gustaria saber:
what draws us to one another?
What spirit wraps this day
when I write of your memory
just as your daughter calls?
She is visiting our Florida island
and soon arrives at our door,
two sons,
a daughter already fifteen.
We eat ice cream
drink tea 
and touch photographs.
Next day we meet again—
a boat
and a tiny island in San Carlos Bay.

I snap a photograph of her family
on blankets beneath the Australian pines.

I could tell you, Luis, how she is like your finest self—
full and welcoming.
How I see your Papi’s calmness in her bearing.
She carries the old wisdom.
She laughs through pain.
But first, I must talk about grief—
how it lifts
when the fire in a lost friend’s eyes
rekindles in his daughter’s.
Lou’s Dad With Sid, Wendy with Josephine Delgado
Sidney shopping for breakfast in PR
Trip Break, Lou, Bob Rod & Ben Humphrey

10 responses to “Bringing Luis Home”

  1. Oh Barbara……taking a deep, deep sigh. Thank you!!! xoxoxo

  2. What a lovely tribute to Lou, who was a fine man, one who embodied the best of Synanon at its best.

  3. Tears drop with memories your moving poetry brings. Thank you dear Barbara.

  4. Well done. It spooled out like a story Lou would tell. I always think it is difficult, for me at least, to write in someone else’s voice, you did it beautifully.

  5. He was an old timer when I got there and he was wonderful

  6. Linda Jean Hunt Milioto Avatar
    Linda Jean Hunt Milioto

    A gentle giant who always made me laugh I don’t remember why but every time he saw me he would say “stop acting like an elephant “ I remember A play in Oakland with Lou and Leon brings back such sweet memories most beautiful tribute thank you♥️

  7. This is sooooo beautiful. Thank you, Barbara. He is in my thoughts often.

  8. Such superb writing about a truly beautiful human being. Thank you Barbara. Lou made a life for himself for himself and afforded many others like me an opportunity to catch a breath, get on the right side of life, smell the roses and move on with it. He coralled a lot of frightened and insecure people in those long arms of his and made the only way alright for awhile. He bought us time whenever he could.

  9. Barbara, this is so heartfelt and such a tug at the spirit. Your poetry always astounds me and takes me to places I wish I had known. I love you and miss you.

  10. Lou, Lou in Hot Havasu. With one arm around my neck and the other waving away my confusion, we navigated those empty streets and another daunting day on the Wire. Always the teacher. Always looking out for the young men. We young lions, who were watching and listening, learned the family business from Lou.

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