by Patricia R. Bazán
Editors’ Note: The original Spanish version of “Silencio” appeared in the anthology Nébulas peruanas, published by Grupo Editorial Caja Negra in Lima, Peru, in October of this year.
Despite the fact that her days were all the same, the sleeping pills helped her stay in the clouds, avoiding the shock of an undesirable reality. Alfonso had no choice but to take their daughters to the United States, where he would process their paperwork required to apply for permanent resident status. Nevertheless, she sometimes wondered if leaving her behind in Lima was a punishment for failing to obtain a tourist visa. She was still relishing her farewell at the airport with masochistic bitterness. For the love of her offspring, Gracia knew her tiny body had to find enough life to endure a great sacrifice. Her husband was clear: she had to cross the border if she ever wanted to lay eyes on them again.
The pills gave her a truce because they lengthened her life of an automaton. “Work like a bear, do something to kill time,” she repeated to herself. She didn’t even know how she was getting home: “See you tomorrow, mates”; the Metropolitan bus; walk three blocks and enter without being seen; go straight to your room; throw yourself on the bed surrounded by stuffed animals; fall into the void; a pill to fall asleep, then another, one more, a last one before finally passing out. The unexpected call broke her reverie; she felt compelled to answer, and a hopeful smile emerged from her lips: “Don’t worry, Gracie. I already spoke with Cristian and we have arranged that I will pick you up in Colorado.” Gracia. Full of grace. The grace of God.
She carefully observed the room of her future pollero, the man who would guide her throughout the journey: The Peruvian flag of monumental proportions clumsily hung on the wall, a squalid coffee table artfully decorated and holding three pre-Inca huacos with gloomy faces; a colonial-style mirror with wooden borders on the opposite wall. The old furniture fought against the plastic laminate to free itself, a decoration that pointed to a life in transit, ready to flee at any moment. Just as she was beginning to nod-off, Cristian entered, greeted her, and went straight to the point: The journey would be arduous, long, and dangerous, but with a good chance of success. The future leader of the expedition was part of a silent and efficient network of experts in the border geography between Mexico and the United States. First, she would travel alone to Nicaragua, where she would meet her contact, who in turn would pick up future walkers from Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. The rest of the trip would be made by foot, boat, or in multiple vehicles through Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, until they reached their final destination: Phoenix.
Cristian stressed that, with the help of Providence, everything would be done in a sacred and inviolable silence. A sigh overtook her. She had kept silent all her life, and she didn’t mind continuing to do so, as long as she could see her daughters. Her mother was forced to remarry after her father abandoned them, an experience reflected in the dullness of her graceful eyes. Yet, she never said anything. She had mastered the art of remaining quiet with her head down, and perhaps at long last her silence would serve a purpose.
Her suitcase was almost empty to pretend like she was used to traveling. As planned, a Nicaraguan man, one of her many connections on the trip, was waiting outside, as was Cristian, the leader of her expedition. After a courteous greeting, they asked her to step aside in order to spot two other travelers. Gracia thought it would be the beginning of a ruthless journey, a journey her battered body would have to endure. Onward.
She considered that, apart from the vicissitudes life had thrown at her, she had had a happy childhood. On one occasion, she was sent to summer school to retake a math class, an excuse that justified a trip to the beach. She told her mother that classes were cancelled, but a classmate gave her away. She actually remembered very few details, as this episode had become somewhat nebulous over time. All it had left was the burning sensation associated with the slap’s imprints. A severe man, her stepfather administered harsh punishments, no matter how light the offense: strappings, slaps, kicking, and being made to eat with the dog on the floor. Her mother watched in cautious terror, as any attempt to protect her daughter would bring dire consequences for her and her youngest. Such long nights were also reserved for the wife, who would face the same repertoire of atonements for having failed to properly raise her daughters, with the added variation that he would make love to her on her reddened maternal body.
After a long wait, all twelve left the airport and boarded a minibus, traveling inland until they reached Chinandega, a city whose colonial value they did not have the opportunity to appreciate. That is because they arrived at the most impoverished part; dilapidated wooden houses, unpaved streets, and an intense dust that would welcome all foreigners. They spent the night in a one-room den, something that would become a constant. The next day two more arrived, then three, until the group was complete. There were eighteen: eight Peruvians, five Colombians, two Bolivians, and three Ecuadorians. Sixteen men, one of them lame, and two women. The eldest was sixty years old, and the youngest eighteen. The only other woman in the group was twenty-three years of age, married and childless. She was traveling with her father and her brother; she had left her husband back home in Peru and was excited about the idea of a reunion in El Norte. The Dirty Eighteen.
They remained there for a month. In the morning they would wash their clothes and the women cooked for the group, and when there was fried fish, it tasted like heaven. In the afternoon they would either go to the market or to the beach, play soccer, and eat only once a day to stretch the little money they had on them, as if to keep themselves slim. At night they rested on the ground on rickety mats, covered in stained sheets that had seen better days, being careful not to be stung by snakes or scorpions. By now, everyone had mastered the art of communication without uttering a single word. The septic tank was a lair of huge flying cockroaches that would land at night on the visitors’ bodies, only to be plucked during the day from their heads, the palms of their hands, and from in-between their legs. The worst affected were always the unfortunate who slept with gaping mouths. During the time that she remained in this little town abandoned by God and immigration, Gracia could not sleep, not just because she missed her pills, but because the constant effort to protect herself from the formidable brigade of winged insects was eating at her state of mind. The kindness and smiles of the townspeople, however, inspired an inexplicable tranquility.
To pass the time away, they would sometimes gather and play cards, making bets on the soap. That was how Gracia came to learn about the lives of the other travelers, fictional lives they had invented to protect themselves from the unknown. Eighteen fabrications, all interwoven by silence and despair. One boasted of having been a sailor who had traveled to Japan where, according to him, he had left several girlfriends; another made up the story of having killed his wife’s lover for being unfaithful, leaving him no choice but to escape from Ecuador; Gracia recounted that her husband had taken away her two daughters for contracting AIDS in one of her many illicit love affairs, a lie that would prevent her from being raped; a certain Ángel told he had a talent for soccer and swore that one day he would be part of the El Norte national team; one named Sebastián, stocky, with straight hair, dark-skinned and who wore glasses, nicknamed El Feo, and with good reason, said that he would meet his girlfriend in Seattle and get married as soon as he arrived in order to conceive children who wouldn’t be as ugly as he. Each story was part of a transparent and sinister tapestry of eighteen intertwined pieces with a sole objective: in El Norte they would be reborn from the ashes of a merciless desert, and its ruthlessly effective police.
Cristian distributed the group in such a way that Sebastián would always stay close to Gracia and protect her. She had deteriorated to the point of looking scrawny, ailing, and unthreatening in appearance as a shield against the harsh and inhospitable reality that awaited her. El Feo became her guardian angel; all the others slept in the same fetal position, night after night, like mummies, with the strange premonition of having embarked on an endless journey.
At the end of the month, Cristian announced that they would soon leave for the port of La Unión in El Salvador, but not before demanding that they accept their invisibility from then on. They got up early, carefully folded their mats and donned their life jackets before boarding the speedboat where they traveled at a very velocity for two hours, dodging immigration boats. Suddenly, one of the Bolivians unintentionally undid the rope to which he was tied and flew away while the others witnessed his involuntary release, stunned by his unexpected wet death. Gracia would never forget Cristian’s face when the unhappy traveler disappeared; in a matter of seconds, he had lost five-thousand dollars. Once at their destination, the travelers jumped off the boat and dragged themselves to the shore with their backpacks. They did not know if the moisture on their faces was due to the sorrow of having lost a traveling partner or the freshness of the sea water. They arrived at eleven in the morning and began an endless walk. Invisible. Illegal. Silent. Now they were seventeen, doomed.
They walked to the border of the mountains where they moved in a single row, becoming one with the soil when the helicopters descended in search of inopportune travelers. It was difficult to distinguish if the fear came from the threatening noise of the propellers or from the supernatural mosquitoes that slipped through their clothes stealthily, without offering them the opportunity to defend themselves, daring them to remain immobile. It was six in the evening when they arrived at a cottage in an abandoned town where they would stay for forty-eight hours. Wet and sandy, the rancher smeared them with horse dung as protection against the flying monsters, holding their breath to avoid contact with the fetid smell. Life was not offering them a truce, but they were closer to El Norte.
Gracia had cuts and bites on her legs and feet, and her private parts were scalded from the endless journey in wet clothes. She only had ten dollars, but she was wearing a silver bracelet and earrings, a gift Alfonso had given her for their marriage. The owner asked for them in exchange for clean water and ointments for the wounds on her feet as the nearest pharmacy and well were ten hours away. She spent the night as best she could with four others in the same bed with their feet dangling. A few hours later, two vehicles arrived and they were placed, one on top of the other like a sack of potatoes, covered with a tarpaulin, so they would not arouse suspicion:
“If the women want, they can get in the front to be more comfortable…”
They formed a human wall, and the men in the group refused to hand Gracia and their traveling companions over to the predatory hyenas. They would rather endure the body heat and the dust than be separated from the group; the collective silence had taught them to distinguish individual breaths, one more method of protection, they thought. When they arrived at a mechanic’s workshop, they were put in two rooms filled with newspapers that served as beds. Those who had money sent for food and shared it with the others, and that’s how they spent three days in a village where even the souls had vanished. At dawn, a laconic one-armed man came and gave a simple command:
He was the driver who would transport them to the border with Mexico. They got into the truck and huddled together as usual. He dropped them off at the border and they walked all night. They crossed mountains, agricultural fields, and farms; they kneaded the cow dung and felt a merciless cold inside their veins. They were invisible, even to animals. They slept outdoors, one next to the other, with their backpacks, and the only change of clothes they had. One for all, all for one.
Around ten in the morning, a truck pulled up, and they proceeded to get in, one by one, where they would sit, regimented, and squashed together to make room for the next partner. They rested despite the numbness caused by the other bodies’ proximity. They did not know when they crossed the great city of Guatemala, but when they saw the small room of their seedy hotel, they knew that they had reached their next destination. They ended up three in a bed, had three meals a day and bathed in hot water. Such luxuries came at a high price: Cristian asked them to burn their passports. Now there was no longer any doubt about their invisibility. To protect the two women, the leader of the expedition took the fifteen men to different brothels and in groups of three. He woke them all up at the crack of dawn because they had to be prepared in case they were arrested. They would imitate the intonation, become familiar with a few customs, and learn a national anthem that mattered very little to them, just to pass as Guatemalan.
They made the journey to Mexico in a public bus, but not before hearing a recommendation from the guide: if they were captured, they would return to their country, but they would do so alone, without implicating their partners. They stopped in front of a security booth, then Gracia had a panic attack, leaving her with no other recourse than to hold on to the Mexican man next to her. Without saying a single word, the stranger understood, nodded, and took her hand. She was relieved. The seventeen passed immigration control without a problem, and when they got off, they shared a mutual smile: they were in Mexico. They would meet their driver in Chiapas once they took a good bath and had something to eat. Before leaving, Cristian gave Gracia three-thousand dollars in a paper bag to bribe the immigration agents in case they were detained, and addressed the group:
“From now on you will meet several polleros. No matter what, don’t accept any packages, and much less cell phones, because they may contain drugs or a trap to reveal your location. Even though we will cross several Mexican highways during off-peak hours, silence will save your life and will continue to be your best friend. As soon as I give the signal, you throw your backpack first through the barbed fence and quickly run across the road. If you don’t want to be caught, you have to be quick.”
They set off on the journey, and after a couple of hours, one by one began to jump out of the Ford, bouncing like beach-balls and at the risk of breaking their bones. Weak as she was, Gracia didn’t land safely, and fell into a dung-filled puddle, becoming covered with mud. Since she didn’t have another set of clothes, she moved on, having to deal with her fellow travelers’ faces of revulsion. Once on the other side of the road, they waited for the car that would pick them up after a signal. Her life was at stake, and speed was of the essence. Gracia and five others ended up in a VW Beetle; rotten in filth as she was, she sat on a fellow traveler’s lap. The trip to the outskirts of the Federal District seemed like an eternity, until they finally spotted a large house on the horizon. The pollero offered her clean clothes and allowed the women to bathe first. Their faces were calm; not so much because they were closer to El Norte, but because they couldn’t stand Gracia’s stench. To the surprise of the other seventeen, that night more than fifty other travelers joined the group. Gracia observed the new arrivals with sadness: pregnant women, some with babies in their arms, elderly, nearly blind men, orphaned children, and adolescents. For the first time in her life, the man with a limp didn’t feel out of place. Everyone was crying, everyone except Gracia. At a tender age she had learned that tears were not to be wasted and should be reserved for special occasions. They scattered the next morning.
Upon arriving in Mexico City, the pollero informed them that they would take the subway to Guadalajara. They ended up in the home of a woman in a wheelchair ho rented rooms on the third floor to smugglers in transit. They couldn’t go out; they cooked at the house and shared two rooms; one for the women, and one for the men. The house was large, and the widow lived with her daughter, a pretty fifteen-year-old girl quite precocious for her age, who immediately fell in love with one of the boy travelers. Desperate to escape her fate, she reserved herself for someone who wanted to take her, and she flirted with anyone who would pay attention. Noticing the concupiscent eyes of her young traveling partner, Gracia asked him to feel sorry for the conditions in which the owner of the house lived; after all, she was helping them. “If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t be able to cross; no matter how much the girl insinuates herself, respect her,” she advocated. In the end, the boy chose to cross the border rather than to become involved with the girl.
The terror of being reported was a key factor: if the owner found out that her daughter had been touched, they would all end up in jail and one step away from deportation. When they went to sleep, Gracia discovered that the boys had jokingly entered her room. Wasting no time, she grabbed one of her trucker boots: they couldn’t yell or ask for help because they would end up at the police station:
“Hey asshole, what’s wrong with you?!!! I don’t like you being in my bed. Moron! Don’t you know that I have AIDS and that I can infect you?” she said while hitting him on the head.
“Don’t hit me like that, my head hurts!” said the scoundrel, as he fled to the adjacent room, where his minions were waiting for him.
They left them alone and apologized as soon as they got up: “That was a close shave,” Gracia murmured in relief. At dawn they began a longer stretch than the usual and crossed Guadalajara until they stopped at Villa Hermosa, a shantytown on the outskirts of the city. A seedy camp awaited them, with only one toilet, no water, where everyone defecated and left their shining fresh lumps of excrement, scenting the outdoor shower. Six boys slept on a couple of bunks, while Sebastián laid on the ground next to Gracia. They slept like this until it was time to cross. Of Cristian’s group, El Feo was the first to disappear and Gracia the first to notice his absence; she felt helpless without him. The next day six more left. The destination was Piedra Lisa in New Mexico; there, Cristian would contact some relatives to release a few, slowly but surely, once the debt was paid off. Gracia went out with eight men and the other woman in the group to take a bus. Suddenly they were stopped by an immigration officer. Cristian had warned them that all of Mexico was swarming with police officers due to pressure from the United States. They pretended to be asleep, and with deep sadness, they witnessed their own arrest. “Fifteen-thousand dollars lost,” Gracia muttered. Moving on. The wandering seventeen.
Once at the police station, she began to cry out of powerlessness and then remembered the three-thousand dollars Cristian had given her to bribe the immigration officers. The fear that the agents inspired in her was so great that she saw them as towering, ferocious, and ignominious. She gathered herself and thought clearly. They separated her from her companions and a female officer took her to a cold and dark room where she had to undress; The officer’s jaw dropped: Gracia’s belly was protruding, and she looked pregnant. Years later she would remember how her abdomen, the product of so many Peruvian potatoes and rice, would save her life.
“Do you bring something in your private parts? Are you clear? You don’t have anything? Where are you going?” the agent asked.
“I’m on vacation with my husband. I don’t bring much, I’ve been told that Mexico is a dangerous place so I’m travelling lightly, but I have my money. Once we visit our relatives, we return to Guatemala,” Gracia replied, imitating the Guatemalan intonation.
“You better. This is no place for illegals here. There are too many and we don’t want you either!” concluded the officer.
They released them and sent them back penniless to Villa Hermosa where they found out that some of their traveling companions had been deported. At least something good came out of Cristian’s three thousand dollars. It was at this precise moment that she understood that her silence was a gift rather than a curse. When they left, Cristian took them to a clean and safe house where they stayed until January first. They sent for a roasted turkey, and for the first time, they drank tequila, delicacies that anticipated the most dangerous part of the trip: crossing the desert on the outskirts of Phoenix, a savannah that required black clothing for camouflaging in order to become one with the desert. They left their last lodging in Mexico at night for a bus stop that would leave them at a precise point to cross the border into Arizona.
The trip lasted six hours in total silence, dressed in black, in the darkness. The mist was thick, and on the horizon, there was a piercing light that guided them on the abandoned road they were traveling. Suddenly, the vehicle stopped and, one by one, they began to fly off in whichever direction they could. When it was her turn, Gracia, confused, didn’t know where to run. She froze and after a few seconds she realized that truck had moved on; she was in the middle of nowhere, alone with her terror. She was left facing the gray density and unable to scream because her silence had eaten her words before leaving. At that moment, an energy transformed into matter invaded her, seized her hand vigorously, and forced her to follow it. She was frightened to death: convinced that she had penetrated the unknown, she resigned herself. In the midst of this nebulous episode, she remembered Alfonso’s premonitory words: “Gracie, honey; I don’t want to scare you, but if there comes a time when they are going to rape you, leave it alone, cooperate, the more you resist, the more damage they will do to you.” She let herself be swept away by the guiding hand, felt a wooden bridge under her feet, scrambled over huge boulders, thinking she was going to an inescapable end. She continued. Once the mist cleared, Gracia realized that she was safe: the hand released hers and left. She noticed a field with many stones, typical desert stones. Her loneliness was immeasurable.
Little by little she began to distinguish a myriad of men, women, adolescents, children, and elderly people sprouting from the stones. Human rocks. She leaned back on something hard and immediately felt a warmth: the rock took off its mask, revealing a familiar smile. Both the man with a limp and Gracia greeted the dawn with pouring rain, and it was then that they understood the reason for the term mojado, a word invented by the rain itself as a symbol of solidarity with those who cross the desert. She felt calmer and settled in with the group, hugging the black garbage bag that Cristian had given to each of them before leaving. The sixteen pilgrims became forty-six; they were Indians, Brazilians, Europeans, Africans, and Chinese: they had crossed the border. Gracia felt an unknown tear invading her face, only this time it was not caused by a humiliating slap on the face, but by the joy of being alive. Upon resuming the trip, Gracia faced the immensity of the desert, knowing that she would remain stagnant since her aching body would not cooperate. She was stumping through mud, stumbling, physically and emotionally exhausted. She gave up twice because the cramps had taken hold of her legs until she heard the pronouncement of the main pollero:
“If this woman can’t keep up with us, we have to leave her behind.”
Her partners refused: “She is going to continue walking.” The water ran out due to the number of travelers; they resisted until the last moment to carefully drink it and savor it to the last molecule. At nightfall they threw themselves into the arms of the vast sheet of arid land and Gracia felt sick again. She had chills, a headache, and her wet blankets did not provide her any relief. She still had a long way to go, and six specialized smugglers had arrived to cross the desert as the group had grown. They had to move. In a curt and insensitive way, one of the polleros stated:
“We have to continue to the other side of those mountains. We walk during the day and sleep at night in the desert.”
Cristian and two other polleros led the group while the remaining four carried huge backpacks containing thick blankets, pallets, telephones, and” supplies, and withdrawing from the group at night. The polleros slept comfortably and the mojados with their garbage bags. The women had the option of sleeping in their camp, but the men begged them to stay. They protected themselves in silence. When the smugglers sensed the flight of a helicopter or a small plane, they immediately shouted: “Pretend to be a ball and don’t move.” In the distance they looked like stones, and the darkness protected them. They were stones day and night. They walked like this for three days, sensing that the desert was their magnanimous mother. Gracia began to vomit and between the pain she became delirious, “I want to continue. Give me a drug or something, give it to me because I want to continue, I have to see my daughters.” Someone gave her a Coca-Cola and her traveling partners donated their ration of bread to force it onto her, thus giving her energy. Her bleeding feet were about to burst from the blisters, but her will was stronger. Through Cristian, Gracia found out that Sebastián had been captured on an interstate in Phoenix and was going back to Mexico; she had no one. She was completely sickly and when he saw her, the lame man was the first to offer to carry her on his back: “No, you are not going to stay here!” and so they moved on; everyone took turns carrying her, and at the end of the day they would put her on a blanket to rest. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the last hill and Gracia gave up; they decided to leave her.
Cristian asked that they take him and Gracia to the first ranch they found, “I don’t want this woman’s death on me here,” he said. Six carried her, making sure they were not seen when the house’s sixty-two guard dogs came out to greet them, and they all fled to hide behind a broken truck. Once the mojados left, Cristian cried for help: they gave themselves up. An hour later, a blonde, blue-eyed agent came in a truck; he examined her, she had a fever and was crying, “Please I need to see a doctor.” Cristian declared: “I am her friend, and I could not leave her alone.” In flawless Spanish, the immigration officer asked if she was pregnant. “I need to take a shower,” she replied as she removed the blood-soaked washcloth. He took her information and brought them to the border near Nuevo Laredo so she could see a doctor. They went to a nearby pharmacy where they gave her medicine for pneumonia. “Don’t try to cross the border into the United States, please,” the blonde officer advised them and politely said goodbye.
They arrived at a hotel, she bathed, took her medicines, and slept like a log. “I’m not going to last, I can’t walk. I’m going back to Peru, Cristian. Thanks for everything.”
“Your husband is willing to pay, I can’t keep losing any more money. Besides, I like you,” the guide answered while he dialed a number. They went to a house where she slept on the floor: there she found Sebastián, now recovering from a heat stroke. Through his contacts, Cristian obtained false documents to enter the United States and taught him a little Mexican Spanish. Two days later, he introduced her to a pollera who had three young daughters and made Gracia their aunt. “So long as they don’t ask you, don’t say anything,” the mother advised. They got into the Mercedes Benz and Gracia caressed the girls as if they were her own. Arriving at the checkpoint, the woman explained in perfect English: “I am going to McDonald’s with my family.” The sounds of the English language sounded like a heavenly hymn to Gracia. They passed and, after eating, the woman left her at a young couple’s home. The next day, she was sent to Colorado, where Alfonso was waiting for her.
Gracia never saw Sebastián again, but she found out from Cristian that he, the lame man, the self-confident man who threw himself into her bed, and the Peruvian woman who was traveling with her brother and father had crossed with thirty-six other travelers. They were now gringos and they paid true homage to the phoenix: they had been reborn. It was the last trip that Cristian carried out before retiring and marrying Lauren, his girlfriend of ten years. Later on, Gracia read in the newspapers that two of the polleros ended up in Mexican jails, one for raping and the other for using illegal immigrants as mules. The travelers opted for oblivion and the experience died with them, aware of having been marked for life.
Thirty years after that inconceivable test, Gracia still remembered the protagonists of the nébula that had defined her existence forever. From the window of her house in Forest Hills, and before taking a sip of tea, she whispered: “Thank you, Silencio.”
Patricia R. Bazan was born in Lima, Peru. She arrived in the United States at the age of twenty-one and has been residing there for over forty years. She is a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, specializing in Spanish and Latin American literature, as well as multicultural, interdisciplinary, and Latino studies.
Despite having a successful academic career, her true vocation lies in writing. For the past few years, Bazan has been writing semi-autobiographical fiction. With this purpose in mind, she published Cinco nébulas de obsesión. Estelas de vida y muerte (2019) and Lazarillo en Londres (2022).
In the fall of this year, Nébulas peruanas, Bazan’s second collection of short stories, will be released. The themes of reincarnation, the Spanish conquest, social inequality in Latin America, the presence of the United States in Peru, and tales of the undocumented permeate the entire narrative.
Inglés sin Barreras”
by Lázaro Gutiérrez
It’s a late evening in May, the sun is setting at the Heritage Trace Apartment Homes. The spring air is crisp in Newport News, Virginia, much cooler than the humid air of Cuba. The air conditioner, the soft carpet on my toes, and the smell of Gain laundry detergent are new to me and equally as pleasant. My parents and I have been in the United States of America for a few months now and we are learning the way things function here. My parents are working at a factory farm. I’m completing the third grade at B.C. Charles Elementary School, though things are not going well and soon I’ll be pulled into a conference comprised of my parents and teachers where we will be told that I’ll need to repeat the third grade. My mother will cry because in Cuba I was a star student, but here I know nothing. The language is not sticking for me and my new teachers believe that if I repeat the third grade I will learn much quicker.
Looking back, I don’t know if it really made much of a difference. It’s not that I didn’t know the subject matter, I just didn’t know the language.
* * *
On the television screen, a woman from the nineties, with big dark curls and a suit with wide shoulder pads is teaching a class of people different phrases in English. My parents are both watching and taking notes. They do this often after work—when they have the time. On other nights they sit on the balcony of our apartment and play music, and drink beer. Life is better now and even though it feels as though we are toddlers in this big new country, we are full of hope.
Life is now a perpetual translation coupled with the repetition of signing documents. At school some kids guide me around on my first few days until I understand how things work. School here is much different than it is in Cuba. I’m fascinated by all the different food options. In Cuba, I remember having chicken at school once, and it was a special day for certain, here in the U.S., it happens often and served in many different ways.
I am particularly enthralled by corn dogs. It’s a hot dog on a stick covered in some sort of fried dough and it’s delicious, especially when dipped in ketchup. And don’t get me started on the breakfast ones, it’s a weird type of meat (which in time I learned was called country sausage) wrapped in a blueberry pancake batter and you eat it by dipping it in a sugary liquid (which I later learned was called maple syrup).
Our teacher is kind, she falls asleep at her desk sometimes but she gives us powdered donuts in the morning and later she sits me down in front of this blue translucent computer that is unlike anything I have seen before. I sit there and play games all day. I am the new kid. I am mostly voiceless, and I feel out of place—but I am happier than I have ever been.
Upon our arrival in this new country my parents became fixated on learning English as quickly as possible. Like most immigrants they yearned to assimilate into the country they were now slowly becoming a part of in order to become the best versions of themselves. Learning this complex language was one of the requirements. My parents were in their thirties when we moved here. My mother had studied English in Cuba and knew quite a bit. She helped me learn my first few words and phrases. I remember the nights of frustration as we sat together practicing and learning with flash cards. That was the foundation of my learning.
One day my parents bought this second-hand language course from some of their work colleagues. It was valued at over a thousand dollars—or so their “friends” said. It was called “Inglés sin Barreras” (English Without Barriers.)
“Inglés sin Barreras…para los que no tienen tiempo a aprender inglés” was one of their slogans. English Without Barrier, for those who do not have the time to learn English.
The commercials would come on at all times of the day, sometimes during Sabado Gigante (Giant Saturday—an entertainment show that aired on Saturday nights and was hosted by the iconic Don Francisco). When the commercials came on you’d hear this music that evoked a feeling of hope. My parents both worked low-paying, hard-labor jobs but this course strengthened their faith. It gave them hope that the future would not be so challenging, that if they just worked hard enough one day they would have no barriers. At the time both of my parents were working at a factory farm called Smithfield. My father would sleep at the factory farm sometimes to get extra hours of overtime pay. I stayed by myself a lot of the times but in being lonely I learned to love literature and fantasy, and soon I made friends of my own if only in the pages of books. Harry, Ron and Hermione became my English tutors when I was alone.
* * *
“Inglés sin Barreras” was a set of video cassettes, CDs, and booklets that promised a system for Spanish speakers to learn English like they did when they learned Spanish as kids. It had this blue cover with a graphic of a city skyline, a big yellow sun was shining behind a skyscraper and a multitude of lights were turned on as the evening turned to night. I see the skyline as the buildings my parents wanted to work at. The buildings they surely would have worked at had they moved to the U.S. at a younger age. Office buildings, suits, and comfortability. I picture my parents as successful business people. My father who didn’t finish middle school was born with the natural brain of a businessman and even with a language barrier he was determined to achieve all of his goals.
My parents completed the entire course, but they didn’t become fluent. My mother’s grammar was excellent. But the weight of the language became a barrier for her because she was imprisoned by the thought of people judging her accent. In retrospect, I had a taste of that feeling when I was first enrolled in school here in the U.S., I was given a test in English and failed it, but when they gave me the same test in Spanish I passed it without a struggle. I was dumb in English, but I was intelligent and promising in Spanish.
Even now my mother’s insecurities over the English language still resonate with me as I still feel inferior to those whose native language is English. Although I dominate the language I often still wonder if I could have done more with my life if everything would have remained in Spanish or if I would have been born in the U.S. instead of Cuba. The truth is that I likely wouldn’t, where I come from opportunities are as scarce as everything else. But I’ll be honest and confess that I often feel like the dumbest person in a room of native English speakers. Why? How? I minored in English in college and still I tell myself that I am the worst writer I know. And on the other hand even though Spanish is my first language, I still feel as though I never unlocked its full potential. And even though English is my dominant language now, I still feel like I am learning it every day.
My mind witnesses on the daily this strange dichotomy between the person I am in English and the person I am in Spanish. As though I am two completely different people in each language—because I am. There are parts of me in Spanish that can only be loosely translated into English and vise-versa.
When I was in college I found myself lost when we read old English. The works of Shakespeare were confusing and often time I had to read the spark notes and interpretations of others to decipher what seemed as though was written in some code my immigrant brain could not comprehend. This forced me to always give the best I could, double and triple checking my work to ensure that I hadn’t made a single careless mistake. These are the remnants of the classmates who thought it was fun to taunt me when I was first beginning to learn this very intricate language. Meanwhile in Spanish, though it’s my mother tongue and the language I grew up speaking I sometimes feel that I don’t know enough of it. And when I hold a conversation with someone whose only language is Spanish I feel that I can’t express myself as well as I would want to. And the feelings of shame and embarrassment creep in.
* * *
One of my mother’s first jobs in the U.S. was as a housekeeper. During the weekends I’d help her clean the vacation homes of rich people. Sometimes she’d let me sit down on the couch while she cleaned and I’d watch television—something on Univision usually. Some sort of children’s program completely in Spanish. These are the last memories I have of being fully immersed in my native language. It wasn’t until the later years of my life that I rediscovered my passion for Latin-American music. It was a combination of yearning for my culture and an inherent need to go back to my roots in order to understand my composition. To this day I still find myself in a constant state of fluctuation between assimilation and the preservation of my culture and language. But something about listening to the songs I heard growing up takes me back home if only for the duration of the music. Ricardo Arjona, Marc Anthony, Marco Antonio Solis, and of course Celia Cruz, are some of the Latin artists my parents frequently listened to. These are the artists that now offer me a comfort zone when I have spent too much time immersed in anglo culture.
Recently, I took my parents to see living legend Ricardo Arjona during his stop in Raleigh, North Carolina for his Blanco y Negro: Volver tour. Known sometimes as just “Arjona,” the Guatemalan musician is often described as the Bob Dylan of Latin America. With his complex lyrics on society, sex, religion, and Latin American culture and life, Arjona has cemented his name as an iconic figure in Spanish speaking countries and all over the world.
We were in an arena surrounded by people from all over Latin America who all gathered there with the same purpose—to watch Ricardo Arjona belt his hits to all of us. When Ricardo sang my favorite song of his, Si El Norte Fuera El Sur, (If the North Were The South) a song that sheds light on the stark differences between the United States and Latin America, you could hear the excitement in the audience, the energy of every Latino feeling empowered as Arjona sang his powerful lyrics juxtaposing two cultures. Flags from all over Latin America were being waved in the air as he sang his poignant lyrics. I felt myself singing with the passion of someone who despite not growing up in his home country still feels extremely proud of his origins and culture. I felt empowered, I felt Latino enough, Cuban enough. And when Arjona decided to remix one of his biggest hits, Historia de Taxi, with a salsa influence, my mother and I joined to share a salsa dance, and in that moment Cuba became me.
* * *
I always feel Cuban, I am Cuban enough—especially when I drink our strong black coffee which for me is tradition but for others it’s like drinking motor oil. That sweet “cafecito” fuels me for hours. I feel Cuban when I listen to salsa music, or when I curse under my breath in that very creative way we Cubans do. These bits and pieces in my structure will never be destroyed. I have tailored myself to fit the American brand, to be the best dressed form of the American dream and demonstrate to those that didn’t have to fight for freedom that I am in fact worthy of being here. That I am able to become what they need me to be. Except, I no longer yearn to assimilate. I want to be what I am—Cuban. As Cuban as Celia and rum.
* * *
I have the entire knowledge of the world in my hands and yet I am not a millionaire. Artificial intelligence, the voices of books reading to me without the use of my eyes and yet—I’m still not a millionaire. What worth was my parent’s sacrifice if I am not the best goddamn thing to come from this family? If I don’t elevate this last name so high that the next generations tremble at the very thought of competing against my accomplishments? If I am being honest, it feels as though I have accomplished nothing. Smelling poverty’s breath left its rancid taste in my mouth and now I am on an endless search for the best toothpaste that eliminates the stain of my teeth forever. So that everyone in my lineage may have white teeth too.
I seldom allow myself to gravitate towards the dark thoughts that tell me I won’t become nothing more than what I already am but when I do it comes over me and sinks me to my greatest fears. Sure, I went to college, but I am no doctor, I am no lawyer, certainly no engineer. I learned a couple of things and wrote a couple of papers. I was praised here and there—but at the end of the day I still feel defeated. I still feel voiceless in a room full of powerful echoes.
I have the job my parents dreamed of when they moved here. I have the comfort of working from home, sitting down in an air-conditioned room where I can get up whenever I want and grab a bite, use the restroom on my own time, and even on the most frustrating of days, I can still just walk away for a few and catch a breather. So why do I feel this way? Why do I feel…hopeless? My parents were full of hope working at the factory farms and cleaning hotels, and living in those old apartment buildings—so why do I feel so hopeless in all of this privilege when I broke the barrier of language?
* * *
I compare myself to the children of other immigrants and wonder how they did it. How did they become so much more than me? How can I be more like them? I think my mother elevated my intelligence beyond my own understanding, but that’s what mothers do, isn’t it? The truth is I don’t think I am as smart as they think I am. I always wonder how it is that my parents gathered the strength to leave all they knew behind to start all over. And here I am complaining about wasting my life away at this nine to five. I shouldn’t complain, right? I should be grateful. But surely there is validity in these emotions. I do not wish to be a prisoner to this endless cycle of selling my time for man-made value and recognition. My pain is no comparison to the sacrifice of my parents. And although I do not wish to wait until I am nearly dead to enjoy this life and it isn’t fair for me like it wasn’t fair for them, I recognize the ease in my life, that which theirs did not have. And that is what keeps me going on my saddest days, that is what keeps me going on the bluest of Mondays.
But I am an immigrant too. I often forget that even though I was young—I was an immigrant too. And I disregard the credit I deserve for being the first person in my family to finish college, for putting myself in the rooms I wasn’t invited to. For bringing my own chair to the committee that did not want to let me in.
Even with the limitations of a language barrier my parents built a life in America that many native speakers haven’t—and I say that proudly not to boast in any way. Their sacrifice birthed a business that provided for all of us, for most of our family to also be here in freedom. And I learned an ultimate lesson: that sacrifice and hard work is the key to success. That we can build our own destiny with grit and determination.
I watched my mother study each and every night, practicing the questions to pass the U.S. naturalization exam. I went with her the day she took the test, I was with her the day she became an American citizen. And she went with me the day that I (thanks to her) also became a naturalized citizen. Only I—the one who speaks perfect English—didn’t have to take the test to prove I was worthy, because I was under eighteen and that meant that if she passed all I had tondo was pay and it was just handed to me thanks to my mother’s hard work and sleepless nights. Because of this I feel indebted to my parents even more.
My father would become a citizen years later. He would fail the test the first time but pass it the second time around. What an achievement for a man that didn’t finish middle school. What an achievement for two people who were held back by a language but refused to give up. Those are the examples I grew up seeing. Two fearless people taking what is rightfully theirs without letting limitations stop them.
So, what do I do with my near-perfect English? What do I do when I have no barriers but the limited thinking I allow myself to dwell in?
I fight and I strive, and I put the entirety of my soul into my dreams to bring their fruit to this reality and savor the taste of success. For my family, for my parents, for the generations to come—for me.
Today, when I wake up feeling like a failure, staring at myself in the mirror, bloated from last night’s drinking to stop feeling like a failure, I pray for health for my family, happiness for my lady, happiness for our son, happiness—for all of us. I tell the universe that things will get better. That in no time my worries will become whispers of the past, like the memories of hardship in Cuba. I breath, take a sip of coffee, and remind myself that my parent’s sacrifice was worth it if only I am happy. And I am happy.
In this very moment, I remember the theme music of the “Inglés sin Barreras” infomercial, that song that gave my family hope that in taking action we would destroy the limitations blocking the way before us. And we did, we broke them all.
The voiceover plays in my head taking me back in time to that apartment in Newport News, Virginia. Putting me in that same living room in our first home in the United States. Back when everything seemed simple and easy—but it wasn’t. My parents were just really good at maintaining their hope and they chose to see opportunities instead of limitations.
I am choosing to do the same.
“Llame al 1-800-780-8000, las operadoras están esperando su llamada (call 1-800-780-8000,
the operators are waiting on your call).
Active in literary ventures, he contributed to The Crusader, the college newspaper, and Agora!, the literary magazine. Lázaro's exceptional achievements earned him recognition as the Outstanding Educational Studies Graduate and earned him accolades from various honor societies.
His writings beautifully encompass personal experiences, nature, immigration, fatherhood, love, and the complexities of the human condition. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Of Earth & Sky, You Might Need To Hear This, Hey Young Writer, Tint Journal, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, Vermilion, The Gobstich Penn, Papers Publishing, and Latino Literatures. Follow him on Instagram to find more of his writings: @lazaro_gutierrez_writer