A Bit of Immigration

immigrationhistoryFor more than twenty years, I dreamt about going home.   It was 1982 when we departed Peru in search of a medical treatment for my sister Olivia.  She had suffered from a lack of oxygen to her brain during birth which contributed to her progressive and later incurable mental disability.Although we did not have a lot of money while living in Lima, we were considered one of the most “well-off families” on the block.  A small 13” color TV was testament of that, as well as my mother’s variety pack of eau-de-toilette(s) tester bottles that contributed to the short aroma of our street every morning she would head to the bus stop ~ we did fine however; all five of us, not including our permanent guests: 2 street dogs, 2 cats, a couple of roosters and of course, our single mother.

Home was home, no matter what.  Our mickey mouse apartment was certainly our pride & joy.  We were actually very grateful to the 1975 earthquake that inadvertently knocked down one of the walls in our bedroom.  As savvy economists we were known to be, we took advantage of the hole provided to build two au-natural closets, one adjacent to the other, to store our clothes.  I don’t believe Ikea could have done it better hence every morning the fresh smell of moist dirt would permeate our clothes.  In addition, we were able to expand our shotgun apartment by adding a living room in back of it.   Perhaps the neighbors were not too concerned with the fact we had crossed our property line to put something together.  For thirteen years, no one said a word about it.

My sisters were probably the ones who benefited from the fortunate architectural design our apartment displayed.  The roof of our kitchen was made up of polycarbonate “laminas” or segments of curvy protective layers joined together by pressure that almost covered our kitchen.  The areas exposed actually served as entry into the house mostly when they had missed their curfew.  However, most of the time, they would still get it from mom.  Their resonating tip toeing across the rooftop was a sure giveaway.

Shortly after arriving to the United States, I wanted to go back ~ I missed home so much that I would cry myself to sleep at nights reminiscing of the memories left behind.  How I loved the milk man gently piercing through the bars of our bedroom window every morning to leave two milk bottles for us.  Or the tooting of the panadero’s horn (our bread man on wheels) to let us know hot bread was out of the oven or my sister putting me to sleep by scratching my back.

The next fifteen years in New Orleans replaced many of the memories of my childhood years, but not the sentiments locked up in my heart.  From time to time I still longed to return to Peru, but each time the desire palpitated with less intensity.   The new chapter of our lives had certainly landed on the pages of an adventure magazine.

My mother, a recognized public figure in our country, kept herself extremely busy, go figure! … Her human tendencies followed her shadow even in a foreign country.  She went from coaching the national gymnastics team and talking to congressmen about public education reformation to training housewives about brushing their toilettes on a weekly basis and the types of cleaning products that work best … “no, not Ajax, Comet is better.”

My mother probably spent the next two years alternating her routine between cleaning houses, attending evening English classes, bringing my sister to her doctor appointments … and calling me on a regular basis to coach me in the art of cooking, “you must boil the water first and then add 1.5 cups of rice, turn down the fire and later add the salt, cover it … and wait until the water evaporates.  Then … you take another pot …” Everything was training … including the initial selection of my friends.  In order to assimilate to a new culture and expedite my English skills, speaking in Spanish outside our home was prohibited.  I was forced to throw myself to new opportunities, including exerting my new found freedom of speech by changing the lyrics of Darryl Hall & John Oates’ She’s Man Eater to She’s A Man Either in front of my new American friends; yet once again I was probably the envy of the block during the summer months.  It seemed my television karma followed me from one country to another ~ my mother would glue me to the television screen probably six to eight hours a day.  By the time the morning slot was filled, I was picking Bob Barker’s second shift of The Prize is Right around our kitchen.  Everything began with, “how much you bid … to …come ooooooonnnnn down.”  My English began to sound incredibly monotonous; however I did manage to learn my numbers and brands pretty well.  Luckily, school was a great mediator between the television set and my singing career; two years later, I was tutoring American kids in English, their native language.  I guess my embarrassing moments had finally paid off.

The beginning of our transition in America by far felt the most painful for all.  Winters appeared to be long and deeply gray, including for my three siblings who were left behind in Peru.  Many times, my tears would mimic the pattern of the rain outside, in particular when my mind projected a cinematographic collage of memories.  The only thing that would bring me back to reality was the coldness of the glass each time I pressed my face against a new spot on the window and the arrival of the mailman.  I am certain, my mother felt the same.

But the kindness of life taught us well.  Every winter did turn to spring …and so did our lives.  My mother was asked to teach at a Catholic school and before I knew it, I was entering high school.

By far, I was a trend setter … I was the only Latin girl throughout my four years of high school, and later college.  But this time it was not my lyrical skills that won me the admiration of my friends, nope, it was my title … The Girl with the Latin Accent.

By the end of my sophomore year, my siblings began to arrive from Peru slowly, but surely, with only a two year interval in between.  And six years later, we were all reunited again.  However, it was a meeting among strangers ~ nobody wanted to surf the waves of the past.  Did I miss something?  I finally came to realize they too needed to go through their period of adjustment, their own way.

The most awaited hour of my life finally arrived in 1999 when I decided to return home for the first time after 17 years.  I was going back home to celebrate the turn of the Millennium.   It actually became a turning point in my life.  I had nothing to go back to.  All of my family now lived in the States; my old Quinta or apartment building had been converted into two or three different types of businesses and finally shut down and 17 years of people’s lives had past, not just my own.  My childhood experiences had become part of a former now I had attached my identity to and could finally leave behind.  Without awareness, I had graduated from a past to an even scarier present; I was no longer a Peruvian, I was a woman.

Since that trip, I have entertained the idea of having a new home and with this topic in mind; I arrived to my own conclusion, in my own timely manner, that I have had many shelters in my life that helped me transition from one period to another.  And that home is just another way of saying I am, wherever I am … in this moment.



A Bit of Travel

Land of the IncasI had not seen my father since the age of six.  As I grew into my teen years, his face became almost obsolete in my mind – yet, the desire to see him again haunted me.

When I’d ask my mother about him, she would immediately change the subject or regurgitate her usual responses, “I already told you, he’s dead.”  I never believed her.  I’m glad I didn’t.

By the time I was 18, my oldest sister arrived to the U.S. from Peru.  In one of her conversations with my mother, she mentioned my father had visited her a few years prior to inquire about us.  She told him that my mother and his two daughters, Olivia and I, had moved to the United States to start a new life.  As she continued relaying the story, she described him as having aged tremendously, her exact words were, “He was unrecognizable – he looked like a man of about 65.”

Instantly, two thoughts crossed my mind, one: he was still alive, and two: he didn’t forget about us.  I didn’t feel elated as perhaps an orphan may have upon discovering the news she had living a parent – I felt vindicated, and validated, but more than all, I felt confident one day I would run into him.

1999 was an awesome year for many of us who saw the turn of the millennium as a significant timeline in our lives.  For me, it meant a year to return home after 17 years, and the time to find out more about my father.  My journey would commence at one of the places my mother talked about most – one of the highest mountains in the world, Cuzco, Machu Picchu.  In many of her stories, she would discuss the popularity my father had among the locals in Cuzco.  As she would say, “his fan club began there.” Although my mother wasn’t aware of my true intentions – she was kind enough to have paid for my trip.  She thought this was the best Christmas gift she could give me since I always talked about returning home.

I’ll never forget the day my ex-boyfriend Mark and I landed in Cuzco. The small city was in total chaos – unraveling before the preparations for the New Millennium.  The ratio of tourists to the locals was approximately 12:1, commercial trucks shared one-car roads with the llamas, mattresses being carried on people’s heads – the madness and commotion reminded me of a crazy Mardi Gras evening, but a lot less colorful.

Our tour guide suggested Mark and I go to our hotel room to rest and to drink some mate the coca (coca tea).  Gracefully we followed, but unfortunately we found ourselves sharing a deep connection with the mattresses earlier seen on the streets.  Our newly erected hotel had yet to be furnished – so as a result, we were forced to use our rest period to find a descent hotel to accommodate us.

We barely made our two o’clock tour bus bound for Sacsayhuamán, another Incan spot.  Once there, I watched Mark move ahead of me to hike the ruins before us.  As I tried to keep up with him, I began to feel a shortness of breath – in fact, by the time I had reached the top of a small pyramid – I was certain I was having a heart attack.  Here I was thinking … oh shit! this can’t be happening … no freaking way I returned here to die!  The rapid chest pains and my gasping for air were unbearable.  I looked for help, but no one was around me.  My eye lids were blinking faster than the heart beat of a six week fetus, and right there and then, all I could think of was YOGA – do YOGA exercises!!!  So … I began to pace my breathing as I struggled to take in more air.  I still don’t know how I managed to count mentally, but I pep-talked myself into regulating my breathing.

I was not alone in my misfortune.  Mark was almost rushed to the hospital later that evening.  His fate struck him right after dinner…

The next day, we got up early to tour Cuzco and to do a little investigation about my father’s whereabouts.  I tried to recollect to the best of my ability some of the places my mother had mentioned in earlier conversations … the shops around plaza de armas, the ambassador hotel, old fabric shops, bars, even city hall to find out or inquire about a crazy, old Brazilian who had settled there over 25 years ago.  I knew my chances were slim and for a brief second, I experienced a feeling that I’d been casted to play a role in a horrible B-movie about a woman looking for her long, lost father …

So if this was my movie, I was going to determine the ending.  I was not leaving Cusco without giving my very best effort.  Since nothing turned up, we carried on as regular tourists: we shopped and dined the rest of the evening.

The following morning we were to leave for Machu Picchu.  We had been waiting in our hotel lobby for our tour guide.  11:00 a.m. came quicker than expected, and there was no sign of our guide.  I called the agency, and our guide had not been informed that Mark and I had changed hotels.  When he finally arrived, he told me that if we didn’t hurry we would miss the last train leaving for Machu Picchu, and the following train would not leave for another two days.  We jumped inside his beetle Volkswagen and took off for the train station.  As soon as we arrived, we bolted for the platform area, but the doors had just closed.  The train was in motion and in route to Machu Picchu without us; it couldn’t be stopped!  I screamed, STOP THE TRAIN, STOP THE TRAIN … Mark chimed in … the locals standing nearby looked at me as if I was a lunatic.  I looked at the tour guide, and he stood motionless shrugging his shoulder.   I asked him, “where is the next train stop?” – he said about 2.5 Kilometers away.

I grabbed Mark’s hand…and said, let’s go!  We got back inside the beetle and sped off … but not even ½ a mile into our journey, we were forced to stop.  A catering truck was unloading their serve ware into a restaurant while taking up the entire road to do it.  I was going nuts!!! Here we were trying to catch the last train to Machu Picchu right before the New Year and we were being hindered by some evil inertia.  The guys didn’t know what to do so I put my traffic police hat on and began to direct them.  I told Mark and our tour guide to step out of the car and to help the guys to unload.  Actually, we all did… and the truck finally moved on.

We arrived at our final destination: a pole with some sort of sign hanging from it.  I asked the tour guide, “This is a train stop?”  He said, “Yes! – but usually people don’t board from here.”  I continued, “How are they going to know we need to board?”  He said, the train will probably slow down and you’ll have enough time to jump in. “What?  This is crazy!” I said, but Mark said, “No, this is fun!”  I felt for a second we had somehow ended in a sequel of an Indiana Jones film… and sure enough that’s exactly what ended up happening.  The train approaching began to slow down when the tour guide signal the conductor … we threw our luggage inside first and then we jumped in …

I couldn’t believe it … We actually made it!!!  We were going to experience the change of the millennium on top of Machu Picchu

The encountering of so many obstacles made me feel more confident that something was about to happen.  I didn’t know how or when, but it was an unexplainable feeling continuing to grow within.

Hours later, we arrived at Aguas Calientes, a small town at the foot of Machu Picchu.  From there, we would be bussed to the top of the mountain.

When we entered the halls of Machu Picchu, I anticipated something great would happen – in fact; I was looking for something out of the ordinary to occur, but nothing did.  I walked to an isolated area and sat by myself.  I leaned on my arms as I reclined myself to look at my surroundings and at the sky … and for the first time I experienced nothing –the most perfect silence I had ever taken in.  The world stood still for elongated seconds and I was a part of that…my only contribution to that moment were the thoughts I left behind.

On the train back to Cuzco, I leaned my head on Mark’s arm.  He asked me, “Are you disappointed about your dad?”  I responded, “I don’t know…- maybe this is a journey of acceptance.”

Suddenly, a gray-haired man entered our wagon and started to walk towards us … the mental blurry visions of my father became clearer and slowly my lower jaw began to drop.  I felt the temperature inside the train turned cold … Mark asked, “What’s the matter?”  I looked at him, and said, “That man looks like my father.”  He said, “no way” … I rebutted “Yes, he does … and if he sits right next to us, I’m going to shit on myself.”  The stranger took the seat across from us and smiled when he looked at me.  Neither Mark nor I could believe it.

For the first time in my life, I was speechless – the motor mouth expelled the same silence experienced on top of the mountain!  My eyes did all the work.

My eyes took turns looking across and below … and he finally caught me staring at him.  I was so embarrassed I didn’t know what to do.  The temperature suddenly cranked up as I felt my cheeks turned apple-red.  I breathed in and said, I’m sorry … you remind me of someone I used to know.  The stranger replied in perfect Spanish, “really?”  “Yes,” I said … “someone from long time ago” He chuckled, took a deep breath and said, “He must have been a lucky man.”

A Bit of Love

Love Lies InsideA light drizzle vaguely hit the ground on a Sunday afternoon. Despite the opaque, gray-colored sky, I continued to stack packed up boxes that soon would be locked away.

I felt equally solitary as my environment as I struggled to move forward.   After all, he had given me two weeks to move out, and my time had expired as much as our love. 

I turned the tv on to play a random music channel to mask the emptiness each object left behind.  But my hurt and anger anchored my determination to leave.  

I’m not sure how many hours passed by the time I was almost done, but I gave in to my sore muscles and called it quit for the day.  I threw my black coffin-size suitcase into the car, along with a couple of boxes shoved into the trunk as I pushed around hangers clinging onto my clothes.  Both of the Maltese climbed to the front seat as they normally did, and waited for the turn of the ignition.

As we drove away, I breathed intermittently a sign of relief but confusion swirled my head.

I arrived at a friend’s place close to nightime.  Around 8:00 pm my cell phone rang.  For a second, I thought I’d left something behind, but it wasn’t him haunting me.  It was the sound of an old, familiar voice.  I began to smile in anticipation of a warm greeting, but what she was to say next was all but comforting.  She quickly cut me off, and asked, can you talk? 

I was a bit taken aback by her prologue, but replied, yes.

She continued, are you okay? are you in a place where you can sit down?  I responded in a positive manner, but the lineup of questioning was making me uncomfortable.  I felt my guard slowly rising, but not yet knowing what she was referring to, I played along and indulged her. Naturally, I asked, “what’s going on?” A light pause ensued.  Her tone did not hint or forewarned of her jabbing, unhesitating news  – “Sonja is dead.”

I stood motionless as if the pull of gravity had paralyzed me.  I asked her to please repeat herself, but in my heart, I knew Beth would never joke so insensitively.  My mind shielded me from taking in in her words.  

Filled with disbelief I asked “how? when?” she continued – “she hung herself inside her closet and was found this morning.”  Not knowing what to say next or how to think, I clung to the phone in silence.  

Calmly, Beth asked me if I was okay to drive myself to a friend’s place.  News of her death had spread quickly throughout the day, and a group of Sonja’s closest friends had gathered to support each other and offer their prayers.  I made arrangements to get myself there.  On my way out, before grabbing my purse and keys, I stopped myself in front my friend’s altar.  She had been practicing Buddhism for over 15 years.  I took a couple of steps toward the beautiful mahogany doors and respectfully pushed them apart.  Like the sound of a violin that reels you in, without any resistance, I gravitated towards the scroll filled with Chinese characters.  I pulled the chair that was already behind me and sat.  I slowly lit two semi-melted candles, and grabbed a couple of sticks of floral incense to burn.  I clasped my hands together, filled my lungs with air and expelled a broken down chant.

After a few minutes, my head felt clouded.  I had stepped into a surreal moment where I was clueless of my whereabouts. 

Teardrops flooded my eyes.  I stopped, then attempted to mumble a syllable, but I’d choke with the bitter, salty discharge running from my cheeks into my mouth.  I cupped my hands over my mouth out of fear of being heard, but the more I tried to compose myself, the more my repression betrayed me.

Memories of Sonja began to burst, and I with anger.  I wanted to explode – take everything in sight and destroy it.  God, I hated her in-between the love I felt.  How could she?  Why did she?  When did she?  Why couldn’t she have waited for me?  I was only a week away.

My friend approached me and gently rested her hand over my shoulder.  She stroked my hair a few times, and compassionately murmured, “Let it out.”  She pulled a chair next to me and chorused me through my chant.  I couldn’t finish a single word without experiencing an incomplete kaleidoscope of emotions: sadness, hurt, betrayal, guilt – and emptiness.

Sonja’s presence had already fused with the thin air I breathed.  I felt abandoned and alone.