Lágrimas y Joyas: Echoes from the Latin Diaspora©
By Guillermo Calvo Mahé
On Liberty Island in New York Harbor a poem by Emma Lazarus is engraved within the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands. It reads in pertinent part, as follows:
… here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The United States has historically been portrayed as a haven for the world’s underprivileged and oppressed. Today, the benefits of that reputation are being reconsidered as many have become alarmed by the seemingly unending flow of new “undocumented” arrivals. Their home countries are also troubled as many of the departing represent their own hopes for the future. The emigration of large segments of a region’s population is hardly a new phenomenon. Traditionally, a region’s population loss is offset by increased opportunities for those who remain and an inflow of capital from those who have left but feel an obligation to help those left behind. The emigrant’s new homes are enriched and energized by the influx of ambitious and courageous settlers, initially willing to work for bargain wages, although such benefits are not always readily apparent to their new neighbors. Many emigrants soon adopt their new homelands fully, frequently undergoing an immigrant syndrome in which they do all they can to disassociate themselves from their natal affiliations in order to better assimilate into their new culture. In other instances a very different phenomenon is experienced; rather than assimilate as members of the host culture they begin to identify with a pan-national community of expatriates from within a region as a whole, as apposed to the individual countries from which they came. As they age, many emigrants who originally sought to assimilate into their new host cultures become disillusioned and also develop pan-nationalist ideals. Under both circumstances, such emigrants sometimes become the nucleus of an evolving region-wide nation. This phenomenon has occurred in several places involving different national groups. It may have been partially responsible for the consolidation of Italy and Germany as nation-states during the nineteenth century. Today, however, its most important manifestation involves Latin Americans living in the United States.
Romanticized, melancholic and idyllic views of their former lives are common to emigrants who, like me, tend towards pan-nationalism. “Memorias Infantiles”, a short story narrated from the perspective of a child, reflects my feelings after my parents suddenly stepped out of my life, my father having left for Venezuela and my mother for the United States, an all too common situation. “When Things Made Sense”, “Manizales” and “A Happy Colored Land”, three related poems, deal with adult introspections concerning a very special and perhaps atypical region of Colombia, the country I left as a child. The reflections are based on old and imperfect memories of times experienced in that region during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s (e.g., admittedly, they ignore the violence prevalent in other regions of the country during that time). In some ways, they are reminiscent of Jose Marti’s concept of “Patria”, an unattainable heaven on earth; unattainable because, like the bluebird of happiness, it’s never recognized until it is lost, and because, in the echoing halls of memory, significant editing occurs (expatriate memories, like most, tend to be selective). Regardless of their hazy historical perspective however, such feelings have a tangible and important impact, personally, politically and historically.
I stare at my dirty toes as they stretch for the floor but they just continue to dangle over the edge of the dining room chair. A porter brings our lunch from my grandmother’s hotel. We always have soup and then salad, rice and beans, with meat and cooked plantains, then dessert. My feet never reach the floor except when I’m standing or when I sit on our lowest front door step. I’m very bored so I get up, put on my sandals and a sweater, get Doña Elena, our nanny, to open the front door and go outside.
The sun is bright and warm and the sky is very blue. The air smells pretty from all of the flowers in our small yard. My grandmother loves flowers. Ramona lives next door in a house just like ours that she rents from my grandmother. No children live there and it’s always very clean. It doesn’t have any holes in its walls dug out by little boys who don’t know it’s wrong to try and pull out the dirt stuffing. Ramona works at a hospital where sick people go to stay. I know that people also come from hospitals because Ramona told me so. I was born in the one she works at. Marina, my little sister, was born at home because she couldn’t wait to get to the hospital. Ramona says Marina almost died because she was born so young. Aren’t we all? Ramona says that Marina was just too stubborn to give up. I’m glad Marina was stubborn then; I just wish she was less stubborn now.
Our little house is very boring except when Doña Elena punishes my sister by locking her up in the dark closet. I almost always manage to sneak her out and escape to my grandmother’s hotel for a while but then they always send us back. I don’t get punished for rescuing my sister. I think Doña Elena is afraid of my grandmother and my grandmother loves me very much. I enjoy being Marina’s hero except that she wants to hang out with me too much. Marina isn’t hiding in my shadow for a change. I love her but she’s a pest. It’s embarrassing when I play with other boys and they complain that I’m bringing a girl, especially when I don’t even know she followed me.
Doña Elena doesn’t have much patience for her own daughter either. Blanca is very pretty and I love her but her mother is always talking to her about getting married. Yesterday Blanca yelled back and said she was going to marry the next man she met on the street. Then she slammed the door and left. I guess that means she isn’t going to wait for me anymore. I hope the man turns out to be nice. I also hope Blanca isn’t going to get locked up in the dark closet for being bad.
Domingo, my dog, is gone. My mother told me (before she left) that the coal man stole him. I don’t want a new one, especially after the incident with the angry dog at the candy store. Still, that leaves only my sister to play with now. Marina loves dogs and isn’t afraid of anything. Maybe I could get a cat, or maybe a parrot. I had a little burro but my grandmother sold him. I also had a little calf at my grandmother’s farm but he fell down the mountain and broke his leg. I think we ate him!
I have a stick I use to roll an old bicycle tire. I raced it with other boys, but not anymore. How many times can I guide the tire around the block anyway, especially uphill? We live near the bottom of our hill but not too near the edge. Sometimes I play near the edge and look down at Villa Maria, the village way below. It looks tiny but I’ve been there and know that when you drive there all of the small buildings and people grow to normal sizes. We don’t drive very often but sometimes I like to push the starter buttons of cars parked on the street near the hotel. I get in big trouble if my grandmother finds out!
Our hill seems to go up forever but I know my grandmother’s hotel is at the top. I remember the time I used the guitar she’d had made especially for me, but as a sled, and how it disappeared as I slid. My grandmother said I had been very bad but Sara, the hotel cook, said I was just creative (although not to my grandmother’s face, no one says anything critical to her, especially to her face). I wish I hadn’t been mean to Luis, Sara’s son! Now he isn’t allowed to play with me. My grandmother won’t let me play with the boys who live in the street either; especially after I played at “begging” with them. I was pretty good too. I got many five cent pieces. Luis and I used to play all over the hotel, especially at hide and seek. A lot of the time it seemed we were invisible because no one seemed to see us, even when we were right in front of them; especially my grandmother. Luis was my best friend until we found the razor blade. He dared me to cut him with it and I did. Only a very small, tiny cut, but I got into big trouble. I was very mad at him for telling on me, but sad at the same time, because my grandmother said I couldn’t play with him anymore. My grandmother gives Luis all my old clothes. Still, I have two other best friends, they are Luis-Enrique (a different Luis) and Carlos Alberto, twins, but they don’t look very much alike. We go to the movies together. Sometimes we do things we know we shouldn’t and my grandmother gets very mad: like dropping water balloons from the third floor of the hotel, other times we just make kites out of newspapers which don’t really fly all that well.
Sara, the first Luis’ mother, is very big and very black, unlike her husband, Jose, who’s skinny and pale. He’s a tailor – when he works. Sara once told me that she was going to feed me guts from chickens she cooked for us. I didn’t know that she was teasing so I stopped eating chicken. I still don’t! My grandmother fired her for a while but then re-hired her. That happens a lot with the people who work for my grandmother, especially the handy-man. His name is Pedro and he can do almost anything but it’s hard for him to get along with people he works for. My grandmother says he’s very smart but doesn’t have any education so he’s very frustrated. I’m not sure what that means, but I like him.
I spend a lot of time in the hotel. Sometimes I’m allowed to order Coca Cola in the restaurant. I especially enjoy Coca Cola with empanadas at the hotel bar but I don’t get to go there very often. My uncle Francisco (we call him “Tio Pacho”) goes to the bar a lot but my grandmother says he’s very bad. He likes rum with his Coca Cola, or even without it, and the more rum he drinks, the funnier he becomes. He likes beer too. He gave me some one time but it was terrible. Sometimes my sister and I pretend Coca Cola makes us drunk but my grandmother doesn’t think that’s very funny.
My sister and I always stay at the hotel on Sundays. It’s my favorite day of the week. That’s why I named my lost dog “Domingo.” We play with my two aunts, Carola and Livia, when they’re not away at boarding school. On Sunday nights I sleep with my grandmother in the big bed in her very big room. Aunt Livia says I’m my grandmother’s favorite and makes fun of me. Carola says that’s because she’s jealous. She says Livia was the favorite before I was born. Carola doesn’t seem upset that I took over her little sister’s role as family favorite. Sometimes Livia cooks for us. I especially love when she fries fresh, soft potato chips. She fries almost everything she makes. We go to the movies every Sunday, either at the beautiful big theater, the “Olympia,” or at the smaller theater by the park, the “Caldas.” My favorite movies are about two funny guys, one fat and the other skinny. They’re different sometimes. Someone told me the skinny one had gotten fat and the fat one had gotten skinny but that they were the same people. I’m not sure about that. I also like movies that have a lot of fighting. I wonder what they’re saying. Movie people don’t know how to speak proper Spanish. On the walks home my aunts almost always buy us ice cream cones from vendors in the street.
A long time ago my sister and I stayed in another hotel, very far away, with a friend of my grandmother’s. Her friend either owned or managed it. That was right after my mom first left. I remember that there was a girls’ school nearby and that at lunch a lot of the girls would come and talk to me. Sometimes their teacher would be with them. She was very nice and very pretty and spent time talking with me too. She would let me do a lot of talking too and I liked that.
I remember that I forgot to bring my toothbrush when we first went to live in that other hotel and that for a while I used my fingers to brush my teeth. I didn’t care about brushing my teeth at all but I still had to, even without a tooth brush. Then we went to stay at a school for ladies that wanted to become teachers. It was run by Mercedes, another friend of my grandmother. I remember that one of Mercedes’ daughters asked me whether I wanted to be her friend or her enemy. I didn’t know what “enemy” meant but it sounded pretty cool so I picked that. It was the wrong choice and she avoided me for a while, except when chores had to be done. My grandmother had a lot of important friends, mainly women like her who didn’t have husbands anymore. I remember there were a lot of open fields where I would usually play by myself. Then we came to live with my grandmother but she was too busy, so we stayed in our own little house with our own nanny (except on Sundays).
I once overheard someone say that my grandmother kept moving us to hide us from my father, but that doesn’t make sense to me. I remember when my mother told me that my father had gone to visit his parents in Venezuela and then, after a long time, when I asked when my father was coming home, she told me he had died from a fever. I don’t think that’s true. Not from the way my grandmother talked to my mother in the taxi when she didn’t think I was listening. But maybe he died and I just don’t understand. I’m not quite sure what being dead is anyway, except that everyone always talks about Jesus being dead and then coming back to life in three days. They say Jesus lives in heaven which is on the ceiling someplace. Maybe my father will come back in another three days?
It isn’t raining. It rains almost every day at the same time but my grandmother says there’s some kind of a rainy season and it’s ending. I remember a time when it didn’t rain every day but we lived in a colder place, in a large house with a large central courtyard. I remember that we had a car and a chauffeur; and that my father lived with us and built me a little car that really worked. But then my grandmother came and took me and my sister away. And then my mom came to live with us in our little house towards the bottom of the hill. Then she left to live in the United States, the place where they make all the movies but can’t speak right. She’s been gone a long time. My aunts say she’s looking for a new father for us but I just want my old one back. Even though I’m not sure he’s really dead I pray to him for help sometimes, especially when I’m in trouble. I stand up and slowly stroll through our small front yard. There’s no sign of Marina and I wonder where she is? I wonder what day it is and how many more days are left until Sunday? I’m still very bored! I wonder when I’ll be grown up. Grown ups aren’t bored. Why is growing up taking so long?
When Things Made Sense
In the beginning things made sense.
Intuition and empathy enabled me to wander in other peoples’ minds,
stroll though other peoples’ souls wearing other peoples’ shoes.
I was joyfully non-competitive, spontaneous. Procrastination was an art form,
mañana ever present. The inchoate world spilled from infinity to eternity and back again.
Everything was possible. Every option open. Evil, an illusion,
a misunderstanding. Happiness just was.
Mornings brought vistas of purple peaks. Special mornings:
clear, cool, cloudless mornings sometimes brought a special treat:
a brilliant cone of white peaking over the highest of the local mountains.
A quilt in greens and tans and browns and oranges, spread over the valley below.
Trees reaching long arms to touch the sun; explosions in green and yellow
playing at their feet. Happy floral explosions, not the other kind,
the kind that started later, shattering the world that was.
The land undulated in hills and dales almost everywhere,
roads and streets curving dizzily to hold precarious perches on the mountains’ sides.
From the heights it seemed I could see the entire world, hazy and indistinct in the distance,
but there just the same. Everything seemed solid.
The afternoon sky was so pure a living blue one could swim in it (if one knew how to swim);
the night sky an indigo blanket full of brilliant pin pricks and one argent vessel,
changing from a dazzling orb to a slender crescent and back again;
the morning fog a cool silver river that slowly dissipated into a breezy, wet, warm mist.
Afternoon rains in winter empathically divided the day, the bright blue sky congealing
into a thick grey cascade. Then they wandered off: vapors slain by liquid gold;
the air again crisp and clean and cool, preparing for the deep evening chill;
the cool pleasure that contrasted with warming sheets under thick alpaca covers.
Then dreams explaining new life in primordial languages, understood but for an instant.
Sleeping late was not a pleasure then. Dawn’s adventures called too loudly
for sweet dreams to overcome. Innocent adventures beckoned daily
from a world eager to be explored. A different world; still there somewhere,
alive in someone’s heart; refusing to believe that everything has changed.
A gothic cathedral’s spire reflects the snowy cone of a sometimes dormant Andean volcano.
A crucifix towering over the skyline, a beacon guiding home the lost;
roots buried in white crystals encasing bright sparks for little boys to free:
The pearl of the Andes, the City in the Sky.
Undulating streets make driving an adventure of shifting gears and grinding brakes.
Tall, twisting trees grasp for stars as muddy waters swim to the swiftly frothing Magdalene.
Carnations and roses and fruit trees circle below a tiny pink and gold castle
above a pool, a lake and a stream, by the side of a peaked gazebo.
Madonnae, in stiff, starched white habits and billowing black gowns,
belted with sacred black beads, anchored with crosses of silver or gold,
pray their Rosario in a small hillside chapel
on the street near the school by the stone convent’s wall.
The songs of haggling housewives and cunning vendors
compete with enticing odors of tropical fruits and the acrid smell
of freshly slaughtered meats in the central market,
just under the Liberator’s square.
Men, young and old, elegant and passionate,
in threadbare suits, bright vests, white shirts and old ties,
argue political theories and aesthetic merits in the cafes,
while their shoes are shined and pigeons redecorate the ledges of nearby buildings.
Sardine sandwiches on Sunday, then cinemas with subtle subtitles and strange sounding words,
and fresh fruit ice cream in sugar cones, from sidewalk stands on the long slow walk home.
Feria: Streets flow with laughter and music and joy. Entwined, sensuous dancers;
the savory smell of empanadas, arepas, buñuelos and mangos;
the bouquet of Ron Rico de Caldas and Aguardiente;
the sounds of salsa, mambo, and merengue.
Eden, hiding in bustling streets. Its soul echoing in the sound of church
bells and in steaming waterfalls crashing into pools filled with hot, friendly faces.
Paradise reflected in the eyes of the girls in the parks and in heavens too close not to touch.
A universe of students, grown wise, then: just gone;
heeding fables from far-off wealthier shores
but still tied to echoing memories of the country they adore.
I wander, melancholy, remembering and alone, in the cold streets of a new place,
far away from home.
A Happy Colored Land
It was a happy colored land.
Bright blue skies, with rolling clouds of silver and cream, making faces for us to guess at;
bright green leaves on the long arms of tall slender trees, reaching fingers to the skies;
yellow fields of flowing grasses, swaying and dancing to tropical rhythms,
— sprinkled with flowers of pink and yellow, white and violet, crimson and amber;
lakes of mirrored silver, translucent, slightly blue;
sleek gold and green and argent fish
darting in and out of reeds sprouting in their own submerged realms;
laughter scenting the wind with hints of joy, pure and clear, unencumbered and sincere;
chirping birds floating lazily on warm currents, playing in the sun,
gold glinting off Technicolor plumes;
dreams transcending time and space, spinning emotive tendrils,
catching dreamers here and there, puzzles with mismatched parts,
a logic all their own, at least while they were there;
breezes, sweet and gentle, just enough to cool the air.
I remember Manizales, and I wish that I was there.
© 2007, Guillermo Calvo Mahé, Ocala, Florida. All rights are reserved.