HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. – It’s the day-to-day things that hit me when I least expect it.
While pushing a shopping cart around my pristine suburban supermarket, I’ll suddenly feel overwhelmed by the dazzling abundance around me: aisles of packaged food, cleaning solutions and paper goods arranged with near mathematical precision; polished pyramids of organic oranges, apples and tomatoes; tidy rows of sliced bread, buns and biscuits; and plastic-encased meat, poultry and fish on hyper-sanitary styrofoam trays. Everything is always there, always available, and always the same.
There are no food shortages, no electrical outages, no mud-encrusted potatoes or yucca root, no tins of government-issued powdered milk, and no bartering in outdoor mercaditos over banana leaves, giant papayas, wrinkly passion fruit, or crunchy casabe cakes. There is no jostling in panaderías to pound bolívares on glass cases filled with fresh bread and sugary palmeras, no clamoring in carnicerías for fresh meat and cheese sliced by the kilo, and no stopping at seaside bodegas to buy syrupy Pepsi Cola to drink with a lunch of sancocho de gallina, fried red snapper and butter-slathered arepas.
These are my “Moscow on the Hudson” moments. In the 1984 film, actor Robin Williams plays a Russian musician who defects while shopping at a Bloomingdale’s department store in New York City. In one iconic scene, his émigré character collapses in a supermarket when faced with a multitude of capitalist consumer choices, including a dozen brands of coffee. I’m not an immigrant. I’m a U.S. citizen, but I’ve lived the immigrant experience.
When I was only 19, I married a young Venezuelan engineer I met in college, and fled to his country, where I tried to outrun my family, my unhappy past and myself. Recently, I read there are 3 million Americans living abroad. The confusing repatriation process some of them might experience after years of living outside the United States goes by a couple of names. Some call it “Peace Corps Syndrome.” Others refer to it as “reverse culture shock.” For those who have not already experienced this phenomenon, imagine reacclimating to your ancestral homeland after losing yourself for years in another part of the world. Merely visiting another country as a tourist for a week or two is not the same as packing up, picking up and leaving your country, your family, your language, your geography, your history and everything else that is comforting and familiar to you to immerse yourself over a long period of time in a completely different country or on another continent.
I spent a decade embedded in Latin America as an everyday citizen. You know the place, or at least you think you do. It’s the United States’ proverbial backyard, the mysterious, untamed, tumultuous, sweltering, corrupt, politically unstable, drug-trafficking, tragic, hopeless, helpless, ancient, backwater of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Catholic banana republics south of The Border. Right? At least that’s what many of my undergraduate college classmates scribbled on a survey handed out by one of my political science professors in 1990. I had just returned from a decade of living abroad, and was trying to pick up where I had left off with my formal education. My professor, who sometimes dressed up in fatigues and staged faux golpes to illustrate the forced distribution of wealth, wanted to gauge how much his Yankee students really knew about Latin America. As it turns out, not much.
Pico El Aguila, Edo. Mérida, Venezuelan Andes, c. 1987
Contrary to my last name, ethnic heritage and appearance, I didn’t speak much Spanish when I arrived in South America in 1979. I wasn’t in the military. I wasn’t a missionary. I wasn’t in the Peace Corps. I didn’t work for the U.S. government or for a multinational corporation. I wasn’t an academic searching for a cure for cancer in the rain forest, a liberation theologian helping stone-age Indians adapt to the modern world, a gold-seeking capitalist, a surfer looking to catch the perfect wave, or an earnest structuralist with a dog-earned copy of “Triste Tropiques” under my arm. I wasn’t a peanut butter and maple syrup ex-patriot who didn’t mix with the natives, or a fugitive on the run. I wasn’t driven by youthful optimism or by political fervor incited by Castro, Ché, the Sandinistas, Evita, The Clash, Cantinflas or any other iconic and assorted romantic revolutionaries, comedians and punk rockers. Unlike the thousands of Latin Americans flooding into my country in search of a better life, I was a U.S.-born Latina who left the richest nation on earth to try life in another dimension. Like Alice through the looking-glass, I crossed over for no other reasons than curiosity, boredom and—love.
I was doomed from the start. My South American novio was not like the boys I’d grown up with. He was handsome, college-educated, adventurous, self-confident and Latino. He danced salsa in a white polyester suit and platform shoes. He had a natural tan, white teeth and glossy black hair that fell to his shoulders in artful layers. His friends called him El Travolta. He looked like a Latin Orlando Bloom, and sang the Alma Llanera with unabashed pride and a sexy Spanish cadence. He was born in Barcelona, Venezuela, near Cumaná, the oldest European settlement on mainland America, and not far from the lush Paria Peninsula, where Columbus planted a Spanish flag following his fourth voyage to the New World.
My novio was not confined by the low expectations, ignorance and intolerance of American Apartheid. He returned to pre-revolutionary Venezuela because he wanted to participate in the “technology transfer” that would help his oil-rich country continue to develop and thrive. “I’d rather be a first-class citizen in my country than a second-class citizen in yours,” he told me in trying to convince me to live in his country for awhile. I wasn’t the typical gringa. I was born on the dusty edge of the Great Plains, and on the fringe of mainstream U.S. society in a small steel town built by the sweat of fur trappers, rebellious coal miners and exalted war heroes.
Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, c. 1983, at old Spanish fort.
As a U.S.-born Latina, I had grown up rejecting any attempts to put me in a cultural, racial or political box. In Venezuela, I became una gringa reencauchada—an American who had lost her original tread, her cultural markings and roadmap. It was nearly 20 years before the Internet, e-mail and blogging created instant, global communication, and nearly 30 years before Facebook and Twitter made it possible for people to share every thought, move, digital photo and embedded video—by the minute—with friends and relatives around the world.
I was incomunicada, and lived on the Caribbean coastline for a year before moving closer to the confluence of the Orinoco and Caroní rivers, where dark brackish and turbulant white waters converged under rickety barges. There were no personal computers, no digital cameras, no mobile phones, no social media and no global village. I went weeks without hearing a word of English. I waited months for handwritten letters from my mother that contained tattered newspaper clippings and faded family snapshots. Three or four times a year, I spent a small fortune to place international calls just to hear the faraway, crackling voices of loved ones.
I spent a decade—toda una vida—tuning my ears to rapid-fire Caribbean Spanish; poring over Latin American literature; adjusting my palate to new tastes; learning to cook a la caribeña; dancing salsa, merengue, cumbia and joropo; and traveling around the Andes, the Amazon basin and the Caribbean. I taught English, worked as a bilingual journalist, and generally blundered my way through comical malapropisms and awkward cultural faux pas. Along the way, I learned what I loved about my country, and stored the rest in my heart, like a secret garden.
It’s been 22 years since I returned to gringolandia, but I can’t go back to the person I was before. I am not an émigré, but I’ve lived the immigrant experience, and see shades of the exile’s double world, where nostalgia and yearning survive untouched by time.