A Passenger’s Version of Latin America’s Future
This passenger is a young Latin American woman,
born and raised in Nicaragua, who went to live in Canada.
Like millions of young Latin Americans,
she has lived in two worlds and
reflects on life between them.
I had two passports in my hands and wasn’t sure which I should to give to the immigration official, who seemed more interested in the size of the airplane that had just landed. “Is it a three-aisle plane?” he asked me. I responded with my question: did it matter what passport I used to come into the country? He told me it didn’t, so I gave him my Nicaraguan passport and pocketed the Canadian one. When he was through with me he let me pass.
To avoid getting teary waiting for my luggage to appear on the carrousel, I tried not to look toward the glass doors where passengers’ relatives were waiting . I opted to look fixedly at the mountains in the distance, beyond the runway behind the parked planes. My 67-year-old grandmother and three of my five sisters—Birmania, 26; Irlanda, 24; and Claudia, 20—had to wait a little longer for us to hug, as they held me up in customs because I hadn’t followed the advice of a Nicaraguan on my flight to stick a $5 bill in my passport before giving it to them. Birmania was the only one of my sisters I had seen in seven years.
Back in NicaraguaWhen I finally managed to leave Managua’s Augusto C. Sandino Airport, I was hit with the infernal afternoon heat, the kind Gabriel García Márquez described in his novels and that my sister Claudia, calls “pressure,” for some strange reason. My maternal grandmother, who had raised me as her daughter, looked old, which made me even sadder. After all the boring migratory processes, we climbed into a taxi to take us home. No one said anything. Sitting on the lap of one of my sisters in the back seat of the taxi I checked out the city. I saw an Avon ad with Reese Witherspoon’s face, her lips painted a vivid rose color. The streets looked old and dusty. Children, mango sellers and homeless people crossed them, dependent on the pity of the cars circulating on them.
Seven years had passed since I was last in this country where absurdity is commonplace, a 3 pm appointment is really for 6, people sleep by day and work by night and you have to beg the restaurant waitress to stop watching the soap opera and concentrate on your order. This is the country where I was born 27 years ago, a year after the civil war began.
My father was an important SandinistaMy mother, a Maya-haired woman descended from the brilliant minds of Manolo Cuadra and Ramiro “Tipitapa” Cuadra, both of whom challenged the Somocista dynasty with their jokes, dreamed of going “North.” She met my father when he was working in the “Merchant Marine.” One day, on one of his many trips to New York, Florida and the Caribbean, my father hijacked his ship, which was called “Hope,” and took it to Cuba instead of Nicaragua to drop off arms and provisions he had purchased in Puerto Rico. The plan was to stay in Cuba a couple of years and receive rigorous military training. But all this happened just before the triumph of the Sandinista revolution.
“During the revolution, I was the second most important man in town,” my father once told me proudly. And he really was, at least in Tipitapa’s rundown streets full of houses that kept their doors open day and night to watch life pass by. He was the second councilor in the municipality, a job full of dreams that he had to abandon due to the political back stabbing that forced him to go to war in the rainy mountains and explained his prolonged absences from our house, full of bats that hung from its tile roof.
My mother once told me she had only been interested in my father because he worked on a ship that often made stopovers in the United States. She hoped he would take her away from Nicaragua because she sensed “something bad was going to happen.”
As she explained to me by phone me the other day, “I knew the gringos weren’t going to like those shitty socialists and I wanted to leave the country before the chaos started.” When I asked her if she knew my father was working clandestinely for the Sandinistas, she said no. “If I’d known”—she paused to drag on her cigarette—“I never would have gotten involved with him.”
On one of his returns from the mountains—right when there was a food shortage—my dad started selling beans on the black market to support us and the Sandinista government blacklisted him. The war ended only a couple of years after that, leaving an economy in total ruin: $17 billion in damages.
When my father went away…That’s why my father decided to go to Canada in 1987, where he asked for political asylum. One of his brothers said he chose Canada and not the United States because “Canada has always had socialist tendencies.” If many people had been given the chance to leave, I think they would have gone as well. My sisters, mother and I were supposed to go the next year. That was the plan, but that year stretched into eleven, a very long time to wait.
In that first year I remember seeing a photo of a bunch of men in one of those yellow buses headed to Mexico to then cross the border into the United States. The photo depicted the mass exodus of Nicaraguans after the war. It could have been titled Adiós Muchachos, like Sergio Ramírez’s book. At least that’s the name I would have given it. From the windows one could see faces with sad smiles and hands thrust out to wave good by to everyone. Although my father didn’t migrate to the United States, I sometimes wondered if one of those hands was his.
After my father left, my mother started pressing us to write letters urging him to “send for us.” “Tell him you miss him and want to be with him in Canada,” she dictated to us while smoking one cigarette after another. On July 20, 1989, she carefully ironed her clothes in the living room and packed a small leather bag. The bus she would take to Mexico to then cross the border was leaving that night. My maternal grandmother, who ended up taking charge of us, my big sister, who was nine, and I, a year younger, went to the bus station to see her off. “I’ll be back soon, silly,” my mother assured my sister. But she never came back. She eventually went to Canada, but took a decade to get there.
White snow and red apples1998 was the year three adolescents—daughters of a father who had gone to Montreal and a mother who had left for San Francisco—finally won the big prize. At least, that’s what we thought. After various attempts, they finally gave us Canadian residence. I was included in the package and was thrilled to get it. I had waited 11 years for that moment and was ready to leave everything behind for snow and red apples.
Before leaving, I remember my father explaining to me by phone, as I wrote my name with my finger in the dust on a rose-colored glass lamp on the nightstand, that his “fiancée” didn’t have children and didn’t know how to treat them. And she certainly didn’t know how to deal with three adolescents with rampaging hormones who could say nothing in English other than “Hi, how are you?” That was why she decided to try with three of us first.
I turned 17 that year. Months later, I found myself sweeping multi-colored leaves in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, not Montreal as planned. My father’s partner, a biologist, had been offered a job there and they moved a few months before our arrival. At times I imagined her sitting in the middle of the icy, dark Atlantic Ocean. I’m sure I got the inspiration from some Spanish translation of English literature I’d read by then. So in the end I wasn’t fated to go to Montreal.
Those Canadian days, Years later, as I was running in Montreal’s Mont Royal Park, I wondered what my life would have been like if we’d move there instead of Halifax. During my stay in that French-speaking city I realized its inhabitants were more open-minded and cosmopolitan, surely because of the multicultural atmosphere surrounding them. I could also see that they’re more flexible toward life’s changes, a quality I didn’t feel people in Nova Scotia have. “I couldn’t live without seeing these same stars,” a neighbor in Halifax told me when I commented how delightful it would be to see life go by in Valparaíso.
so cold and so new
That autumn day in 1998, as I swept the red and yellow leaves the wind was blowing in my dark-skinned face, my hands frozen from contact with the metal rake handle, I knew anything could be borne, even zero-degree weather. Sighing, I thought, “I’ve made my life here now!” How wrong I was…
During those first days in Canada, my sisters and I had to adjust to many cultural changes. I remember going to dinner once at the home of my stepmother’s former husband and pigging out on roast beef and potatoes without realizing that several other dishes awaited us. Someone like me, whose vocabulary didn’t include the word “options,” had to assimilate a new mentality. “What can I tell you?” remarked one of my uncles, who had a similar experience when he went to his son’s wedding in Spain. “We’re proletarians.”
So at 17 and in a new culture, I had more to worry about than just what boy I was going to fall for the next day. One day at the university there was a slide show on the history of Internet and its advances over the years. Suddenly everybody began laughing when the projector showed an image of a man alongside what seemed like a television, but was one of those enormous metal boxes our modern personal computers have now replaced. The gestures of the man, dressed in a dark brown suit, indicated that he was demonstrating how that strange equipment worked. The title of this slide was “1975” and its caption read, “Canada begins to develop Telidon, an advanced videotext system that started functioning in 1979. It was considered the world leader in advanced graphic technology.”
“Those were the brown days!” I heard someone shout from the back of the classroom, alluding to the color of the man’s suit, apparently the height of fashion in the seventies. My classmates all giggled and I laughed too, pretending to understand, even though that experience didn’t strike a chord with me. Apart from not having been born yet, the seventies have never meant “cool technology” to me. Those years for me are a symbol of a father hijacking ships and a mother trying to get on board one of them so she could be let off in the United States of America. Nor did I understand when my friends, Mimi and Crystal, mentioned The Tea Party as the “coolest” band of the early nineties; for me that period is musically synonymous with songs of disillusioned love by Los Bukis.
Who am I?These and other things made me see that I was living between two worlds: the old one I had left in Nicaragua and a new one I was still insecure about entering. At the end I entered, but without leaving the old one behind. “In any event,” my father told me, “you have to learn from both.” Feeling excluded from the university’s Anglo-Saxon world, I decided to take Spanish literature classes.
There I realized the mediocre way I wrote essays in my mother tongue. It was also confusing to see my professor’s disapproving dark brown eyes when she heard me quote Shakespeare instead of Cervantes. This on top of everything else made me wonder who I was.
I had to go back“I’m one of those imported rootless bamboo plants that Canadians put in their houses,” I heard myself murmuring. That was when I realized how important it was to go back to my country. I was tired of playing different characters in a single play. I decided to return; I wanted to find out if I could discover my real identity in my old life.
It normally takes three different planes to get from Halifax to Managua. The last stretch was Miami-Managua, and on that flight one could already feel the whole Latin American atmosphere. The passengers—largely Latinos and most of them Nicaraguans—demonstrated their anarchic ways. It felt like the pilot descended faster than normal and made a more haphazard landing, infected by these people’s behavior.
At some point in the flight, the gentleman seated beside me—the same one who advised paying $5 to customs to avoid having my luggage inspected—said to me “I didn’t know you were Hispanic. Latinos don’t use those big backpacks,” he concluded knowingly; “that’s a gringo thing.” Upon landing, he took out a little mirror and comb from his pants pocket to tidy up his hair before seeing his family. His hair was died black, which only managed to hide some of the gray. His family had probably taken some bus at 4 a.m. to be able to pick him up on time. When I looked across the aisle, I saw women taking out little mirrors and red lipstick cases from leatherette purses they must have bought with their last pay from the parents of the children they take care of in the United States.
My trip began thereThe minute I stepped onto Nicaraguan soil I realized how my life had changed, how the mango tree that was once in the dirt patio of my grandmother’s house, now closed behind iron grillwork, was gone. I couldn’t get into my friends’ conversation topics—dirty diapers, sore nipples from so much nursing and the like. Their voices became distant echoes I couldn’t make any sense of. Nor could I comprehend an old acquaintance’s indifference to a small protest about the lack of jobs. “That’s all they do with their time,” she said in her air-conditioned SUV, which was so large it seemed more like a military tank.
I visited the island of Ometepe, where one can contemplate the softly breaking waves day and night and gets dubbed a “foreigner” just for being on time. I ended up staying in the cabin of a small lodge, where I spent my time deep in thought. In the restaurant, the same waiter served me breakfast, lunch and dinner for three days. Once I ordered fish, and after taking my order he lingered a minute in apparent agony, wanting to ask me something that had nothing to do with the food. He did it again, but that time he finally shook off his timidity and began bombarding me with questions: was I married, what country was I from, where was I headed next… His eyes opened wide with enthusiasm when I told I was living in Canada, and he began asking me about life in “the North.”
Going North is an empty dreamHe seemed to be saying “tell me everything because I want to go there and marry a blue-eyed Canadian and have dark-skinned children with her.” Finally he said to me, “You must like the snow.” Whether we call it Canadian or American, that dream—someone once told me—is an “empty” illusion. But no matter how many times you tell them how things are there, you can’t disabuse them of it. They’ll never believe you, and I don’t blame them. They constantly watch the “Miami boys and girls” come and go with their superior airs, wearing brand name clothes and modern haircuts. In response to their girlfriends’ disapproving looks, they tell them in Spanglish, “The States is where it’s at, dummy!”
At times they apologize for their bad Spanish, even when they’ve only been away from home for five years. But their friends’ facial expressions seem to be saying that “it’s good you’ve already forgotten that good for nothing language; English is super more chic!” Clearly they’re wishing they could speak Spanglish. You can’t blame them for their deceptive dreams when the vast majority of Nicaraguan youth spends their jobless days in front of a TV screen absorbing the American lifestyle.
When I asked the waiter in Ometepe what he thought about Nicaragua’s political future, he ignored my question and asked about Canadian winters. I rephrased the question: what did he think about the government decision—according to the opposition—not to include the Venezuelan money from the oil deal in the national budget? He seemed frustrated that I was trying to redirect the conversation toward topics that interested me more. “Ay, here all the politicians eat from the same plate,” he answered, then enthusiastically tried to get back to questions about “the North.” “When I saw you arriving at the hotel,” he continued, smiling, “I said to myself, ‘She’s Spanish.’”
When we were in Granada waiting for the ferry to take us to Ometepe, a man came over to sell me a hotel package on the island. He obviously believed I really was a foreigner. My sister Irlanda, who was traveling with me, asked him what made him think that. “Is it the way she’s dressed?” Wagging his index finger and gazing on Cocibolca’s dark waters in the distance he replied,”No. This girl has no patience; I already told her the ferry’s on its way…” suggesting that I was complaining too much about the heat and the ferry’s lack of punctuality.
My home isn’t hereHe was right. My home is no longer Nicaragua, at least not the Nicaragua I knew, which has been relegated to a distant place in my memories.
Watching the white foam of the waves in Ometepe, I realized I’m only a passenger. But I’m no longer fighting against that. I now know that things are where they should be. After all, living between these two worlds hasn’t been as bad as it seemed. This trip made me appreciate “the North and its rationality and the South and its imagination,” as a friend of mine said so well.
I symbolize the new era of Latin Americans. To be a part of it, one has to know both languages. The new Latin American emigrates, leaves everything behind for the snow and red apples. This is our reality and our future. That’s where we’re headed, even if it means turning the language of Cervantes into Spanglish.
Natalia Roque lives in Canada and is now a freelance journalist.