Quiara Alegría Hudes’ memoir “My Broken Language” arrived in my mailbox as a mystery. I had not ordered the book but somehow it found its way to me. I don’t believe in coincidences. As a Puerto Rican, the eldest son of hard-working immigrants, what struck me, from just reading the first page, was how clearly her story connected with my own. She understood me even though we have never met. Usually, I am a fast reader, devouring words. But not with Hudes—with her, I took my time. I found her collection of sentences, paragraphs and chapters impactful and marveled at how they pierced my heart and occupied my brain.
Her words transported me through time, inserting me into her own memories. Hudes wrote of her grandmother’s household: “Bodies were the mother tongue at Abuela’s, with Spanish second and English third. Dancing and ass-slapping, palmfuls of rice, ponytail-pulling, and wound-dressing, banging a pot to the clave beat.”
Now to the play adaptation of Hudes’ 300-page memoir “My Broken Language,” which she directed. This is a love letter of sorts. Dedicated to her female relatives, the “Perez women” a.k.a. the “Philly Ricans,” who inspired her to become a playwright (librettist and screenwriter of “In The Heights” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Water By The Spoonful”).
In the play we are introduced to that extended Philly Rican family, where she answers to her nickname, Qui Qui, picking key moments like learning the perfect way to cook Abuela’s rice, and how to honor the religion of their ancestors often whispered about at gatherings with a mixture of reverence and fear.
Inside the Signature theater, I was seated directly above the sacred space reserved for the worship of the orichás, and since I don’t believe in coincidences, I knew that the aisle seat was destined for me, understanding what was unsaid and feeling the other energies infused into Arnulfo Maldonado’s alluring blue-tile set.
Qui Qui’s mother, Virginia, dances through choreographer Eboni Williams’ movement serving as the theatrical link embodying the Orisha of lightning in her religious practice which is a stepping stone to her daughter’s “possession” as a writer.
The importance of Virginia’s religious beliefs is painted throughout the memoir and is an important part of her family’s history again connecting the dots to my own, and many others, Puerto Ricans.
Hudes, best known for her stage work, has returned to her roots after a self-imposed four-year exile. The five performers in many ways represent her voice and the family at different times, sliding into each character at different ages, switching comfortably among characters and tongues as the author finds her own voice.
As the director, Hudes lifted several sections of her book and infused them with dance and live music played by pianist Ariacne Trujillo Duran. The play consists of performers Yadira Correa, Yani Marin, Samora la Perdida and Marilyn Torres and includes her longtime collaborators Zabryna Guevara and Daphne Rubin-Vega, who both brought a gravitas to the emotional weight of the piece.
There are six scenes spanning from the age of 10 to 26. The one that made my spleen quiver happened, when, at 18, Qui Qui while dyeing her cousin Nuchi’s hair blonde discovers she can’t read, even though she graduated from high school. “They just pass you. I just stood in the back.”
One of the saddest facts about being Puerto Rican in this country is how many of our people meet tragic ends at early ages. Our mirrors, ‘thrones,’ and photo albums are packed with mourning flyers displaying a picture of the deceased from a happier time. The birthdate and death date printed under it—“gone too soon”—uttered in Spanish as another soul is removed from a future, snatched and snapped in two. Here too, I am connected to the grief that is shown by the sheer amount of the flyers that have amassed over the years like a collection of
mournful Pokemon cards.
And yet, like the Puerto Rican community Hudes located that joy erupting from unexpected places and she let it loose in the 90-minute whirlwind that is “My Broken Language”—painting her struggles to understand her place as she navigates two worlds, two cultures, two languages, in bright, colorful, and bold strokes across the stage.
I felt the strength, love, and loss among the Perez family because it mirrored my own. And I feel the call to action and the spark of my own ambition coming back to life and a need to create my own work to be included in that library of us where our stories are missing. And like Qui Qui’s 14-year-old sister watching the play she’s written about her, I resonate with her response: “It hurt, but I feel seen.”
“My Broken Language” is interchangeable with the author and the life of being a Puerto Rican trying to figure it out in America, and it’s true, this play hurts in places, but at least, I am seen.