Saturday, July 02, 2011

Wings & the Red-White-and-Blue

by tatiana de la tierra

I just came home from a 4th of July barbecue in Glendale, California. Sipping on a mojito, I looked around and noted that, out of around 25 people, only three were born in the U.S. with direct roots in this country. The others born here are of Mexican descent. And then there were those of us born elsewhere--El Salvador, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and New Zealand. This is the U.S. I know, an international bilingual brew. To commemorate the red-white-and-blue, I dedicate today's bloga to all of us immigrants. We each have our story of getting here. This is mine.

"Wings" was originally published in Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class. Ed. Michelle Tea. Emeryville: Seal Press, 2004.

Placing a pink feather headband in my hand, my Abuelita Blanca kissed me good-bye, crying. I cried, too. I didn’t know why. The perpetually gray Bogotá skies joined in, sprinkling us with cold rain. I ran up the narrow metal staircase as wind bit my wet cheeks, into an airplane that would take me and my family far from Colombia. It was 1968 in May and I had just turned seven years old.

Thick, warm Atlantic air greeted us as we clambered, wide-eyed, out of our metal cocoon. The air in Miami was nothing like the air I knew in the Andean mountains. But being yanked from the love and protection of my aunts, grandmothers and great aunts was the most momentous change. It was bigger than air itself. I walked to the market with them, chit-chatted on the sidewalk, made corn arepas at the crack of dawn, collected eggs in the morning, accompanied them in the evening for hot chocolate. They cooked for me, bought dresses for me, introduced me to all their friends. But in Miami, everybody was a stranger.

At the airport I played with stairs that moved and doors that opened magically. A strange twig of a man who wore ripped denim and spoke halting Spanish greeted us. “Yo aquí para ayudarte,” he said, offering a warm handshake. Harvey was a friend of a friend of my dad’s; they embraced as if they already knew each other. My mom looked at him cautiously through her reddened eyes. Finally, she extended her hand.

Everything seemed brand new and shiny those first few days. All the blades of grass were uniformly green and stood properly on plush manicured lawns. The clean-shaven policemen wore immaculate starched uniforms and drove sleek cars crowned with blue and red domes that sometimes flashed and made wailing noises. Neat rows of containers housing exotic foods filled the spotless stores, where clerks counted crisp bills over Formica counters and gave back the change without stealing. Exquisite paintings graced cereal boxes and cans of soup, and luminous rays emanated from curvy Coca-Cola bottles branded with fire-red labels.

My father took me to a 7-11, where I marveled at the cans decorated with vivid color images of the foods they contained.
“This one, Papi,” I said. We both scrutinized the can. It had a picture of reddish brown beans on the label. Beans, a mainstay of our diet, had to be soaked in water the night before and took hours to cook. Yet there they were in the palms of our hands, ready to eat. We went home with the can. My father opened it and heated up the beans with some rice. I could tell they were different; they were watery and didn’t smell right. Still, I brought a spoonful to my mouth. I gagged as the flavor hit my palette. They were sweet. Beans were supposed to be salty and spiced with onions, garlic, tomato, and peppers. They were supposed to be thickened with green plantains. They were not supposed to be sweet or watery.

My mom, who disliked cooking and had little time for it, took advantage of the cheap and instant foods. She went grocery shopping and came home with Kool Aid, white bread, processed cheese, frozen chicken pot pies, sugar-coated cereals, and Hamburger Helper. The Colombian foods I was accustomed to—fresh blackberry juice, farmer’s cheese, Creole potatoes, tamales, and empanadas—quickly became a memory.

But my dad’s hunger for familiar foods roared incessantly. He truly enjoyed eating and cooking and went to great lengths to find magical ingredients. He discovered that you could find fresh coconut milk in the shell, ripe guanabanas, cumin powder and plantains in bodeguitas like La Ideal and Los Pinareños. You could get an entire meal—a bandeja paisa with real arepas—at La Fonda, a Colombian restaurant. One day, my father took the bus and went foraging, his eyes bulging with the thought of Colombian food. He returned late in the afternoon, his shirt splattered with drops of sancocho, his breath greasy from fried empanadas, his belly expanded with sobrebarriga, his fingers sticky with dulce de leche. He was beaming. He brought us avocados, coconuts, yucca, plantains, and Colombian delicacies.

On Saturdays we took the bus to Miami Beach and went swimming by the pier, on the southern tip. There, I dug my toes into the sand and bobbed in the salty ocean. My mom, who was pregnant, sat on the beach and read a book while the rest of us played in the water. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with Kool Aid. Once, as a treat, we went to Kentucky Fried Chicken after being at the beach all day. They had a special offer—two pieces of chicken with a biscuit and a small Styrofoam cup of mashed potatoes and gravy for $1.29. We got a special and sat down to share the food. I bit into a drumstick. It was good, crunchy and spicy. But as I swallowed I recalled what happened the day before we left for Miami, and my stomach became queasy.

We were in El Libano, at my great aunt’s house. It was our last day there. I was in the corridor that faced the garden when I saw that Cuki, my favorite chicken, was being hunted down. “Run, Cuki, run!” I screamed as I saw a shiny machete swinging in her direction. I gripped the wooden porch railing as she ran, headless, fluttering her golden brown wings in a futile attempt to levitate. Cuki, who used to peck at my feet when I showered on the patio beneath blue skies, was our last supper. I missed her, and I missed the black earth that caked my feet when I played in my great aunt’s garden.

Our first home in our new world was a room in Harvey’s house. Blond, blue-eyed and eccentric, Harvey slept on the beach, washed dishes for a living, and drank rainwater that he collected in an oxidized metal container in the back yard. He nourished himself on tropical concoctions, blending whole papayas with fish guts and honey. Restaurant napkins for toilet paper and roadside-discarded produce for dinner were his gifts. He taught my mom to walk on the grass to extend the life of shoe soles. He came home every few days to drink the rainwater, wash up and change clothes. Harvey didn’t believe in pesticides so roaches crawled freely on the walls and even on us. He didn’t believe in banks or the government, either. His living-room library was stocked with books about politics, anthropology and history. He let us live in his house for free, until we could afford to rent a place on our own.

Another Colombian family soon joined us, moving into the room across the hall. The coziness of our home disappeared with the violent intrusion of our new neighbors. José Miguel was my dad’s military companion from Colombia. He was a construction worker, thick and muscular, who wore a constant snarl on his face and stank of liquor. His wife, Irma, took care of us while my parents worked. My mom came home earlier than expected one day. My brother and sister and I were cowering in our room as José Miguel beat Irma. Their little girls, Nubia and Cacallo, were screaming throughout the house. My mom grabbed a broomstick and busted in on him. “Bestia!” she yelled, leading a sobbing Irma into our room.

The scenes repeated like tired reruns. When José Miguel wasn’t home we were free to run and play, but as soon as we heard his boots step into the house, we froze. “¡Chito!” we warned each other, walking on tiptoes, trying to be invisible.

But not everything was bad because I was with my brother, Gustavo Alberto, and my sister, Claudia. They were my only friends. The three of us walked around the neighborhood together, marveling at the gringo houses and the gringo lawns and the gringo postman and the gringo talk. Gone were the mountains that ringed Bogotá, the matriarchs in the countryside, the gamines who begged for money on the street, the fresh air. We didn’t understand why we had left Colombia or what the future held for us. So we did what we knew how to do, no matter where we were. We played. We ran and kicked bottles, climbed trees, played tag. We dueled as cowboys and Indians. I wore my pink feather headband and protected my tribe. My brother brandished his miniature machete. My sister was the village elder, scheming to outwit the troops.

In August, three months after our arrival, my little sister was born. Natasha came home in a white wicker crib that my mom had bought used for $1.50. Cushioned with a new white satin pad and lined with pink balloons floating in flannel, the crib wobbled on uneven legs. Natasha, who was conceived in Colombia, was the only U.S. citizen in my family. She was a real gringa and even had golden hair. She was my life size doll. I changed her diapers, prepared her bottles, and cradled her in my arms.

My childhood had come to a close. Summer was ending and school was about to start. Irma found a job and couldn’t take care of us any more. My mom worked as a maid in the Tudor Hotel in Miami Beach and my dad worked in a paper factory. I was the oldest, so my responsibilities increased. I began to cook, clean, and take care of my siblings. I became a miniature adult. “Wash that plate!” I scolded. “Clean up that mess!” I nagged. But my commands were never responded to in the way that I expected.

If we hadn’t left Bogotá I would still be wearing my gray uniform to school and learning to pray the rosary. I would come home to my mom and play outside and do my homework and have arroz con lentejas for dinner. I would be a seven-year-old girl, just like all the others. But Bogotá grew distant every day. After four months in Miami it seemed that we were there for good.

School was an enclosed city surrounded by banyan trees and hibiscus bushes where I became indoctrinated into another people’s culture. Gimnasio Palestina, my first grade school in Bogotá, was a private school in a small brick building. But Shadow Lawn Elementary took up an entire block. It was made of concrete and had dozens of classrooms, a cafeteria, a gymnasium and a playground. In Bogotá my school had one class and one teacher, but in Miami there were hundreds of students, many teachers, and a principal. I was the only light-skinned girl in my class and one of the few Spanish speakers in the entire school. I couldn’t speak English and was just beginning to understand some of the words.

I sat in silence at my desk with a thick pad of baby-blue-lined paper and a yellow number two pencil that had been given to me for free on the first day of school. Mrs. Clara sent students to the chalkboard to write words that she dictated. She called on me; I stood at the front, looking at my feet, frozen. She read her list: ocean, river, stream. I fingered the chalk and she repeated the words, eventually chanting them as if they were commands. “Ocean! River! Stream!” I didn’t even attempt to write on the board; I went back to my desk, my fingertips dusted with white chalk.

I dreaded those public moments that highlighted the fact that I was a foreigner. Sometimes I sat at my desk, plotting my revenge. I would master the English language. I would infiltrate the gringo culture without letting on that I was a traitor. I would battle in their tongue and make them stumble. I would cut out their souls and leave them on the shore to be pecked on by vultures.

One pivotal afternoon, I squirmed in my seat. I had an itch between my legs like a red-hot ant bite. Finally, I arched my hand toward the ceiling to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. Mrs. Clara looked at me; I knew no words to express my state of emergency. I pointed to the door; she stared back blankly. The whole class looked on. I grabbed my crotch, squeezed and grimaced. Finally, she understood, but as I darted out of the room, warm pee exploded between my legs, trickling into my socks, and splashing in droplets on the floor. I ran out of school, my moist shoes pounding on the speckled tile, squeaky drum beats echoing in the corridor.

Past the banyan tree by the playground and through the neighboring streets, I sprinted as if being pursued. I ran with the inside of my legs soiled, wet and sticky with urine, sucking oxygen into my bursting lungs with wrenching gulps. I wished that the stiff metal airplane that had ripped me from my home would just take me back. Pumping my arms, I wished for silver angel wings that glided or long broad eagle wings that soared. But I knew that my flapping was useless.

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