~This essay was originally published in Dos Passos Review (2011).
I was born in Colombia. This is true. I was born in a Spanish-style whitewashed hospital that was later leveled by an earthquake and rebuilt in its likeness. I was born in a small city in the southwestern Colombian mountains, and my father congratulated himself with tragos while my mother swore and labored, screamed and pushed.
I began my life in Spanish. This is true. Zapato and leche were my first words. I crawled on wooden floorboards and encountered tropical insects as big as soup bowls. I teethed on mango seeds, masticating the sweet yellow flesh until my tiny pearls appeared in pink gums. This is true.
And if my mother had never taken me back the U.S., if my parents had never parted, never fought over me, never fallen out of love, if I would have grown up in that rented house in Colombia, I would have heard the peals of the iglesia’s iron bells. When my amigas went to mass with their abuelas, my hippie parents—a mezcla of American progressive values and Colombian pride—would have kept me at home, my mother reading aloud chapters from a dog-eared copy of Winnie-the-Pooh.
If we had lived, not in a Minneapolis suburb but in a town in South America, I would have watched my mother at her wooden loom, slapping the treadle against the warp with a comforting thud and singing the folksongs of Joni Mitchell. She would have played me scratchy records of Peter, Paul and Mary and we would have sung along in two part harmony. These recordings I remember so well from my childhood would have been, had we stayed in Colombia, the only time I would have heard English spoken by anyone other than my parents.
My abuelitos would have adored me just as my maternal grandparents did. I would have been, for a time, the only granddaughter, a perfect excuse for spoiling and indulging. Dulcitas and caramelos and rides on my abuelo’s shoulders would have been mine.
I would have worn my mother’s hand-sewn clothes embroidered with her original abstract flowers and designs. When my mother taught English I would have stayed with a primo or the vecino next door. The neighbors would have fed me café con leche and taught me to dance the cumbia, wanting to mold me into a true Colombiana.
The house was at one end of a single-lane bridge where cars and camionetas waited for their turn to cross, and, with my father’s radicalized ideals and my mother’s Midwestern upbringing, we would have lived in a sort of comfortable isolation in our traditional town. I would have been a happy child, pampered and loved.
My parents would not have been happy. The nights my father spent locked in his taller would have made my mother silent in loneliness, wishing for her Minnesota parents, her brothers, her American girlfriends. She and I would have tip-toed around the drafty casa where she would have scrubbed clothes by hand over a large rough stone until my father emerged, splattered in paint, exhausted and self-congratulatory.
My mother would have flown into an occasional rage that made her more like her adopted country, and my father and I would have sought refuge in flowers and walks on sun-dappled trails. He would have set up a miniature easel next to his own and we would have painted pastoral scenes side by side until my mother’s soprano rendition of Blowin’ in the Wind would have come floating up into the hills above our house. My father and I would have marched home through the high altitude jungle to kiss and make up, the picture of familial bliss for another couple days.
If I would have lived in Popayán when I was eight, I would have been there when an earthquake hit our town and I would have been with my cousins buying bread in the panadería. There would have been a tremble and great rush as if the ocean were suddenly overtaking the coastal mountains. The moment when my primo was struck by falling fragments from the ovens would have been repeated over and over in my childhood nightmares. The brick missed his head—gracias a díos—but his shoulder would have always been a reminder of the earth moving. My auntie would have rushed us out into the dust-filled plaza, and when it was over the equatorial sun would have laughed at the debris nature had left us.
Even though my family would have been the only non-Catholics in the pueblo, we would have gone to gawk at the Pope when he came to bless our devastated town. I would have remembered very little of the papal visit, only the crowds and the vendors selling handpainted plaques in the shape of el Papa’s hat. My father wouldn’t have bought me one, and, since I would have been unaccustomed to being told no, my hot selfish tears would have made the people around us assume we had lost loved ones in the terremoto. My mother would have found this to be another reason she should never have left the United States.
By fifteen, I would have come back from a visit to the U. S. to find that my best friend’s hermano had been killed by guerillas. The brother would have been just seventeen. He would have saved up for a motocicleta and would have taken off on a rosy October morning to drive into the páramo. He and his amigos would have been young, beautiful boys with short, black buzz cuts who would have started la universidad next year. I would have been half in love with one of the hermano’s friends, although I never would have admitted it. And when all seven boys, mistaken for military, were shot in the knees before being shot dead in the back, I would have imagined them, as I do now, face down on a winding mountain road, the shiny coffee leaves and giant sugar cane shading the bikes that lay abandoned on the gravel, a vicious guerilla killing that would have made no sense to either me or the families in the pueblo.
When I went to a big Midwestern university—assuming I even went to college—my accent would have been stilted and cautious. Even though my mother would have spoken English to me had we stayed in Colombia, there would have been holes in my vocabulary, experiences that set me apart. I wouldn’t have had a quinceñera, but I wouldn’t have gone to prom either. I would have earned A’s in English class at la colegia, but I would have strained to understand the subtitled episodes of Saved by the Bell I would have watched, not on a looming color TV in the basement of the house on Edgerton, but on a small black and white tele at the foot of my parents’ bed.
At home in Colombia, I would have always been viewed as the outsider. My skin would have been lighter than the other muchachos in our neighborhood. My German legs and ankles, clearly descended from my mother’s Anglo Saxon roots, would have made me self-conscious in front of my Colombian amigas —girls with the slender bodies of Indios.
And whenever I visited my mother’s family in the U.S., I would have found myself even more of an outsider. I would have been pasted with labels: Hispanic, foreigner, Latina, minority. My English would have been grammatically exact, but colloquially forced, and my Spanish wouldn’t have been like the more familiar Mexicanos’ drawn-out rhythm.
If I somehow would have still met my future husband, and if I brought this gringo back to Colombia to meet my parents, my father would have given him a Colombian kiss on the cheek and then called him “dude” to show he was a modern man. My mother would have been stand-offish, but secretly relieved that I was marrying an American.
But my newly-wed life in the U.S. would have found me as confused as my mismatched parents. I would have pined for the humidity of the valleys and the crisp air of las montañas. I would have spent my money on long-distance phone calls to friends in Bogotá, Quito, Cartagena. I would have found myself simultaneously homesick and at home. I would have discovered that my handsome esposo didn’t always understand my accented English, didn’t like the sancocho or deathly sweet café con canela I prepared for him. We would have had to compromise when the days became endless and las noches filled with arguments, fighting, misunderstandings—all those problems that arise from a joining and a clash of two cultures. And, like my mother before me, I would have had to decide which life I wanted.
But this, all this, it isn’t what happened—this isn’t the life my mother chose. I was born in Colombia. This is true. In a whitewashed hospital that was destroyed by a terremoto. In a town with abuelitos and amigitas and guerillas. In a family that loved me. This is true.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
In 2010, I was spending a lot of time thinking about truth. I was working with JC Hallman, Dinah Lenney, and several other writers through the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series program. Through various readings and writing exercises, we endlessly discussed the intricacies of truth related to nonfiction and the covenant the writer makes with the reader. I was in the early stages of writing what would turn into a memoir about my childhood as a half-Colombian Minnesotan and was meticulously concentrating on accurately capturing the details—the truth—of my story. But the more I thought about truth, I realized how much of it I didn’t know and how much of it was relative and shaded in grey, not black and white. So as an experiment, I thought about the truth and decided not to be constrained by what did happen but to explore what didn’t. This essay was the result.
ABOUT ANIKA FAJARDO
Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota by her single mother. Her work has appeared in various publications including Literary Mama, Hippocampus Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and others. Her memoir-in-progress, Magical Realism for Non-Believers, was a finalist for the Bakeless Literary Prize in Creative Nonfiction and was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant. See more at http://www.anikafajardo.com