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.



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