by Kelliann Schrage Flores – Co-administrador of the Chismes, Noticias, y Cultura de Cozumel Page en Facebook

When Laura asked me to write how Cozumel became home, it seemed strange since I grew up there. On the other hand, I was born in the US…so here goes:
In the beginning there was snow. Lots of cold, harsh, white snow. And I hated it and dreamt of Hawaii.

That almost sounds like a joke, but southwest rural Michigan gets quite a bit of lake-effect snow and I would cry when I was cold. My mom would keep me inside all winter. We lived in a very old, sprawling farm house and there was a lot to do inside, from my dad’s attic workshop where my brother and I made boats that invariably sank, to the forts we built with sheets and card tables in the living room. Regardless, winters were long.

In January of 1967, there was a massive blizzard and I was very fortunate to have missed it. My mom and her friend Ellen decided it was time to go on a vacation, and they set out to Cozumel with 3 kids in tow. My dad had stayed home with my brother and sister, and they were stranded in the house, with 10-foot snow drifts blocking the doors. I would have probably stayed inside for the next 3 months if I had seen it!

Now it’s time for the alternate beginning: I walked off the plane in Cozumel and was warm. And the sun shined. And I saw real palm trees for the first time in my life instead of faded images in books or TV. And I knew I was home.

My memories of that trip are pretty fuzzy, probably because I was still at an age where the limits between reality and fantasy are blurred. I remember the feeling of finally being home very clearly. There are a few other things. There was no road to San Francisco Beach, so we took a boat and dolphins started to play jumping over the prow. Once everyone calmed me down – I had seen too many sharks in cartoons – it was a great day. Since the day was too good to be true, I did the impossible and learned to swim there on the first try! The water colors could not be real either, so they must have come from my over-active imagination. Of course, I later found out that is really is easier to float in salt water and that tropical water certainly is awesome. Back in town, an open-air stall in the park sold tutti-frutti ice cream. And a waiter named Enrique told me that horchata was really Yucatecan milk. So I also found my ideal childhood meal on the trip. Unfortunately, my mom had a different idea of a balanced diet.

Then the vacation that took me home came to an end.
Nine months later, 3 weeks after hurricane Beulah hit the island, on October 5, we moved there on a permanent basis. With that timeframe, I wonder now if the idea needed to gestate to gain life, to incarnate from the vacation dream. It still felt like home, even if the palm trees were bent and a lot of vegetation was damaged: it was still warm, there was horchata and tutti-frutti ice cream, and the ocean was still a blue rainbow. Overall, there were 7 of us: Ruth (my mom), Ellen and all 5 kids. We stayed in the Hotel Lopez, by the park. The owner, Don Miguel López was really nice to all of us, and we called him Papa López. Eventually, Ellen and her two kids moved to Key West, where they still live today. My family stayed, and after a couple of moves, we settled in La Francesita, a house on Calle 6 Norte, half a block from the Rafael Melgar. The town was still small enough that you could name houses, and send mail that way!

Then culture shock hit. Power would go off randomly. We would run out of water. In school, I would sit in the back of class and cry when people spoke too fast. My mom had to figure out how to navigate the market in the very early morning hours – no supermarkets back then – and how to cook with whatever was available. I missed friends and relatives.

Eventually, we figured out that none of this was insurmountable. Neighbors would put things in context when they told me that 24 hour electricity was a recent event: a few years earlier, there was power for 4 hours a day, from 6 to 10 PM. Friends on each side of the house had wells where we could get water in a pinch. Don Eduardo Ruiz, from Pepe’s Café (now Las Palmeras) would help out with the occasional food emergencies until my mom got used to navigating the necessity of cooking with what is in season/available. I wrote a lot of letters. And in school, I discovered joy in the simple elegance of math while my Spanish improved.

But Cozumel really became home in a different way. The concept of home, of family in the US seems to be constrained by individual houses. In Cozumel, that was not the case. We were all family and the island was home. This is a constant and unchangeable fact. We looked out for each other. We played our music too loud, and turned it off when someone died. When my mom catered a dinner, everyone offered their refrigerator to help store food. We played in the street every night, and hung out in hammocks in everyone’s living rooms in the afternoons. No one knocked on anyone’s door, but when the latch to my door broke, everyone pulled it shut when we were not home. We lent and borrowed bikes and clothes and records and comic books. We fought and stood up for each other. The memories and links will always be there: we are family regardless of time or distance.

Sometimes people ask me why my mom moved to Cozumel. She was a great raconteur and the stories she used to explain the move tended to change over time. Personally, I think she feared a dull and unhappy existence as a divorcee in rural Michigan in the late 1960s. By moving to the island, she was able to start over in a grand adventure, not knowing how well it would turn out in the end. I have never made it to Hawaii, but my mom gave us the best roots by living in Cozumel. Mom, wherever you are…thanks!

Kelliann Schrage Flores teaches Spanish and Women’s Studies at Stony Brook University and Suffolk County Community College on Long Island. Her early schooling was at the Escuela Primaria Benito Juarez, where she originally got hooked on school – and she would like to give a shout out to all her great teachers, especially her godfather and 5th grade teacher, Veudi Vivas Valdés.


This story originally appeared in the weekly Cozumel 4 You NEWS – the island’s number one source of positive information about our island!  Be sure and subscribe to the weekly NEWS to find out all the island events!…

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