I have been possessed by Percilla, the Monkey Girl, and I am the medium by which you will become the Monkey Girl too. Stop reading this now if you do not want to be the wriggling thing covered in a coat of downy fur, extricated from Mother’s womb on this spring day on the island of Puerto Rico. The midwife crosses herself and summons Father, who stares at me in horror and disgust and will not touch me. And Mother screaming in the background, can you hear her? The neighbors do, and soon word gets around: a monster has been born to the Spaniard and his wife. The priest comes to sprinkle holy water in every room of our house and says a prayer of exorcism over me, just in case I am the devil’s spawn.
Stop reading this now if you don’t want to hear Mother’s anguished cries, Dios mio. Why did you not let this poor creature die? I feel you near me. You and I belong in Percilla’s story now. We will be with her, as over the months, our luxuriant coat grows thicker, as the curls that should have crowned only our head sprout over every inch of our body, and as our baby teeth pop through our tender gums in pairs—two of each. How we cry and beg to be comforted, our teething pain twice what any other child has suffered, and everyone each day more afraid of the childlike thing with the sorrowful eyes, crawling, then walking on two sturdy legs, and growing. At some point, someone, perhaps a doctor, offers our parents words of hope: En los Estados Unidos, in America, there is a cure for everything. We remember the suffocating heat on the day when we are swaddled in blankets and carried to the harbor in San Juan. There we board a ship and stay sequestered in a swaying cabin for days until it makes port in New York. Mother’s ceaseless tears, we taste their saltiness. But never her sweet milk.
In the American city there are no answers for us, only more stares and whispers. Endless lines of the curious come to see us squirm and cry for attention like any child craving sustenance and comfort, yet to them we are nothing but a mockery of nature. The hunger of the crowds to lay eyes on his odd child gives Father an idea. On our return to the island, he makes certain we are fed well, and he commands Mother, who is pregnant with her fifth and last child and wild-eyed with apprehension, to oil and comb our pelt, as he calls it, to a gloss.
Everyone calls him a saint, a martyr, a model of resignation. He never touches us. We recall only: the brush, the cold clippers, her trembling hands. We are never really held; we are passed from one to the other but kept like a wild creature at arm’s length, felt, viewed, exposed: Aquí tambien! Mira, her hair grows everywhere! We remember the many pairs of prying eyes looking down at us at bath, at toilet, eating a banana—children like this scene the best, and feed us until we grow sick of the fruit—or are we imagining what will happen in the future? The carnival eyes, the chimpanzee partner in our sideshow act, who will be the banana-eater, for we grow sick at the mere sight of the fruit that grows rampant on the island of our birth. We will not remember much of our native tongue, except for a few words. But this one comes easily to mind: mona in Spanish means female monkey; it also means cute. And, on those occasions when we are taken out of the house, to be unveiled a little at a time by Father, no one can resist calling out ¡Mona, la niña mona, que mona! At first the sun, warm on our head, is a comfort. Then the faces get closer and closer. Eyes. Many pairs of eyes. The sun drawn by our black hair burns us; we feel we will burst into flames. Terror and tears. Father saying, Calmate, Percilla. Smile for the nice people. Show them your pretty teeth. Soon we will again set sail for America, where the cool weather will be perfect for my well-insulated niña mona.
We will become one with the Monkey Girl on this journey. Ours will be the voices she hears when she takes her place in front of the eyes. Learn to love what refuses you, Percilla, and the world will be yours, hija de nuestro Corazón.
The Monkey Girl: Born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, on April 26, 1911, to a normal couple, her Christian name was Percilla. She was afflicted with the so-called monkey-face form of hypertrichosis, which meant that in addition to a full beard, and to her entire body being covered with coarse, dark hair, Percilla also had a second row of teeth. Given up for adoption by her father to Carl J. Lauther and his wife, owners of a carnival sideshow, Percilla was exhibited on tour from a very early age along with a chimpanzee partner named Joanna. She was billed as “The Little Hairy Girl” but is best known as “The Monkey Girl,” the appellation the paying public preferred.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.