How I wish I could begin with nostalgia, some gleaming shard refracted from a childhood where my mother patted my thick-as-branches Hispanic hair with Agustìn Reyes Royal Violets, known by Cubans as Violetas, a 75 year old perfume that has graced the tender heads of infants and the wrists of young women, a fragrance that endured a revolution, survived a dictator, and found its way into the homes of exiles all about.
If I were lying, I would tell how my mother tilted its dimpled glass bottle in her hands, how the amber color of the cologne reminded me of the seashells I collected in the shallows of Miami Beach during my girlhood, bi-valves precisely striped in russets and small enough to stash under the elastic of my two piece. The recollection would end with my mother singing "Guantanamera" while dusk pushed blue light and beetles against the window screens.
No such thing. My first memory of perfume had nothing to do with Cubanìa but more with how best to break away from it. Miami in the 1970s was not the city it would become; its middle class neighborhoods were not yet flooded with Spanish. There were no vendors hawking plantains and rosas frescas on the corners of buzzing intersections, no bilingual signs in parking garages or shopping malls, and the now ubiquitous Cuban coffee walk up counter was then found only on 8th Street, La Calle Ocho, where we went once a month for Sunday lunch and ate paella in a restaurant where everyone looked and sounded just like us.
Miami's schools were filled with students whose last names were rarely Quintanilla or Garcia. In fourth grade, I was only one of a handful of Latinas in my class, and I was certain of how to begin my transformation into Karen or Kimberly, girls whose names did not end with vowels and who were chased by cute boys around the jungle gym instead of the other way around.
The answer was perfume and it was pink and smelled of sugar melted into syrup. Topped with a cloud-white cap shaped like a bullet, Love's Baby Soft would quickly ensure the following: that I would become pale-eyed with straight, fine blonde hair, that I would be chosen first for kickball team, and that my parents would permit me to sleep over at friends' houses, where there were swimming pools instead of sprinklers and where families spoke in quiet tones instead of loudly and all at once. Love's Baby Soft, you were my Excalibur, the magic sword that would defeat my rivals, with their cool-girl, leather fringe purses, their secret clubs and slam books. You would bring me a kingdom of belonging. Upon my first spritz, no one would be able to resist me.
My first memory of Violetas is fused to friends I made right out of high school. Private school girls. They drank beer out of cans and smoked Marlboro Lights. They crashed parties and their cars, spied on their boyfriends while scrunched down in the back seat of a parent's station wagon. They behaved like punks but smelled guileless as doves, dabbing their earlobes and necks with an attar they had worn since they were in bassinets. Like me, they had no memory of Cuba because they were born in the U.S.; Violetas was like Noche Buena dinner or the Spanish we spoke. It connected us to the place we came from but had never known.
I loved these girls. They made being Cuban seem cool, and they were fearless. One was arrested for shoplifting by Mickey's police at the Magic Kingdom. For winter vacations, they hurled themselves down black diamond trails in the Rockies, despite only just learning how to ski and living in Florida all of their lives. One introduced me to lemon drop shots, and how to have a slice topped with sugar ready to go before slinging back the rum. Another taught me how to smoke pot.
"Suck it in as hard as you can, and then hold it," said Eli, after I took a few unskilled hits from a joint she had just rolled in the parking lot of a quickie mart. I coughed and blew out a patch of smoke. I didn't know how to inhale. I didn't even smoke cigarettes.
"Nothing. I don't feel anything at all. Maybe it doesn't work on me." It was the summer before I was to start college and the A.C. in Eli's shiny red Pulsar was struggling. I could feel sweat blotting my back. I cracked the window open and Eli sealed it shut again from the driver's seat.
"Are you crazy? Everyone will smell us." She popped open the glove box and pulled out a bottle of Violetas. She poured a little in her hand, flicked it into the A.C. vents, then patted her cheeks and the hollow of her neck with whatever was left.
"I'm going in; do you want anything?" I shook my head no and watched her saunter past storefront windows filled with cases of Bud and newspaper racks. I was thinking about the beach, where we were going after this, and what it would be like to lay flat on the sand, how the tops of my feet were always the first to burn and how good a blast of June sun would feel on my skin. Did I remember to bring oil? Did Eli pack her boom box? I looked out and saw her walking towards the car carrying...I don't know what. Where did she get the bag?
"Why are you laughing?" she asked as she tossed a plastic sack into the back seat and ripped open a pack of gum.
"I forgot where we were." And then she started laughing along with me, telling me it worked, that I was stoned, both of us laughing so hard we were bent over, the car still smoky and reeking of weed and violets.
The Viola odorata, or the sweet violet, is one of five hundred species of the genus Viola, in the family Violaceae, and the bulk of this tally resides in the Northern Hemisphere, with about one hundred species prospering in the United States, among them the Viola sagittata (arrowleaf violet), the Viola striata (striped cream violet), and the Viola sempervirens (evergreen violet). Violets like cool shade and humid soil, but they are found in practically all geographies: grasslands and voluminous forests, suburban lawns, hillsides and swamps.
The Florida violet, or Viola sororia, blooms in the open wet woods from March through June throughout the state, and I have seen it while hiking and camping, coloring the tangled base of the Everglades and near the damp banks of the Loxahatchee River, though not close enough to lean over and inhale what is reportedly its dulcet smell. For all its land grabbing and condo-mall-frenzy, Florida is largely a wild place and it's best to keep one's nose out of it. Just as well, since some violets possess ionone, a compound which temporarily makes us unable to detect their odor after the first whiff.
Perhaps it was the Reyes family's duty, then, to develop the flower's synthetic twin, first mixed in Havana in 1927, a scent that would not be flummoxed by natural forces but available to those willing to pay a modest price for the delight of its company. The list of devotees is long and storied. The Greeks believed a necklace of violets staved off canards and drunkenness, and they used the plant's oils as sedatives. It appears in myths related to Hades and Persephone, who was gathering wild violets from a grove when the king of the underworld first took notice of her. "So in one moment," writes the Roman poet Ovid, "she was seen, and loved, and taken..."
Medieval alchemists brewed violets for perfume and to mollify pain, and according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, paintings from the Renaissance often used them among other botanicals as symbols of faith or transgressions. Saint Bernard once described the Virgin Mary as "the violet of humility," and in the Benois Madonna, da Vinci fashioned her with a haloed baby Jesus balanced on her lap alongside a slender strand of violets.
Edouard Manet offered his in the blurred shape of a bouquet on a table, flanked by a note and a hand fan snapped shut, the accouterments of lovers in the late 19th century. Mary Cassatt's delicate renderings of domestic life include lavender blooms bursting from a vase set beside an open window. Mark Rothko's Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red) is crowned in a grave and scorched sort of purple, reflecting not only the abstract expressionist's thrall with incandescent fields of color but hinting at the vertical stretch of the cross. Depending on the century, violets have symbolized holiness, modesty, fidelity, death, desire, and rapacious sex.
On occasion I have heard Mozart's "Das Veilchen" ("The Violet"), a pretty pastorale he set to a poem by Goethe about a devoted blossom and the careless shepherd girl who crushes it. In truth, I prefer "Violet," the first track off Live Through This, Hole's sophomore record, where a pre-scalpel Courtney Love, legs bruised and mascara running, bellows about what it is like to love an agonized man beneath a sky drenched in rage and stars as meek as minnows. In my 20s, this was the version that suited me besta color pained over its own unavoidable desires, a palette that wanted more, just a taste, chocolate cake for breakfast, sleeping till sundown, the cruelest, most exciting man, the last drink at the last shadowed dive still serving.
From the Song of Solomon: "Beloved... pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out." I can't help but think of La Florida, its sobriquet a four-chord melody, the state with the prettiest name, as Elizabeth Bishop once wrote, "the state that floats in the brackish water, held together by mangrove roots." There is no other place to which Violetas could have made its way, even if the cologne did not have its own roots deeply locked to a neighboring island nation.
In 1956, Fidel Castro and his rebels journeyed to the Sierra Maestra mountains, from where they launched an armed socialist revolt against the government. Four years later, it was done. The Castro regime began seizing and nationalizing private homes and industry. In 1960, the Reyes family left Cuba and a three-decades old business, smuggling out the secret recipe for Violetas and leaving behind two year's worth of product and raw materials ready for a return they never made. Instead, the family settled in Miami and opened a modest factory in the Latino hamlet of Hialeah. They began again, and so did Violetas.
Where else would the scent have survived? Not in the same plains as the harsh clacking K's of Kansas or the Dakotas, or near the precise and thin lipped N's of Boston and surrounding New England. This fragrance needed Florida, a harmony filled with the year round light of vowels, open throated, vowels singing from the fertile vines of F and L, the rich till of R and the salt drift of D.
All week I have worn this perfume, at my job as a writing tutor at a local university, where I rescue students from the crimes of faulty grammar and punctuation. It lingers on me as I point out comma splices and missing citations, a pale sachet of herbs and petals that warms to a soft hazel over time. Because the smell is so mild, I am probably the only one that can detect it by late afternoon, on my way to buy an overpriced sandwich from the cafeteria or while I watch wood storks and herons troll the campus canals. The scent holds fast, follows me everywhere.