Strange… I was going to say rootless, but suddenly the term above came to me and it sounded much truer. It was something I realized on Sunday, when Kiwi-san and I went for lunch and a game of Scrabble to a friend’s house. The couple we were visiting is English, for all intent and purposes, although she has lived part of her childhood in the United States. Kiwi-san himself is quite English in as far as his upbringing in spite of his New Zealand origin. It was normal, therefore, that the conversation should concern things British and that I should be turned into a listener. While listening that I realized the extent of my rootlessness in relation to the simplest of cultural references, for example, singers, television series, newspapers, editorialists, culinary habits and even the form of schooling. To put it quite simply: England is not America, and even if it were, my cultural references don’t actually come from the U.S of A, per say, but rather from a very specific set of personal experiences, a melee of diverse cultural data that actually ended up belonging to no specific country.
Conversation between people of the same cultural background is like the weaving of a familiar tapestry: the threads of their common daily knowledge come together in definite patterns of given connotations and understood values concerning newspapers read, editorialists followed, television series viewed, actors recalled and, above all, culinary likes and dislikes. For instance, on Sunday there was a fascinating conversation about English sausages (also called “Bangers and mash” according to one internet site) and whether one could get them in France and whether one wanted or not to get them in France; yet I had no idea what an English sausage looks, tastes or smells like (have since checked into internet to further my cultural education), so I listened and wondered if they might be similar enough to Oscar Mayer wieners that I could intervene mentioning my trip to Spain to buy some because they are not available in France either, but I was afraid that Oscar Mayer wieners would be considered plebian in comparison to English sausages, so I kept my mouth shut. Believe me, I have no ill feeling about this sort of thing that happens quite frequently when I meet the English and rather cherish it as a way of extending my own frontiers of knowledge but it has made me somewhat silent at social gatherings.
What it has made clear is that I might as well have come from outer space in as much as my cultural references. I wouldn’t even consider speaking of American Cuisine, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one and what good would it do me to speak of Mexican tacos or chimpachole or frijoles negros, cuitlacoche soup or quesadillas de chicharrón, sopes, chalupas, nopales, mole or even tortillas de maíz none of which are available in France either? Even in Spain where one is supposedly speaking the same language, the mention of these common Mexican goodies brings nothing but a blank stare and one hasn’t even ventured close to gourmet dishes such as grasshoppers (chapulines), maguey worms (gusanos de maguey) or ants eggs (escamoles, known as Mexican caviar) all of which are considered delicacies to those in the know.
The truth is that, even if I stay with the English language referents, I never would have imagined that there existed such a distance between the British and the American experiences of everyday reality. Finding that, in spite of our common language (even if the Brits deny it), many times I have no idea what they are talking about has been somewhat of a shock. Occasionally it is due to the pronunciation of a word, others to the vocabulary itself and others –most of the time- to cultural references of which I am totally ignorant.
The same thing, I must admit, had happened to me upon arriving to live in Spain. Thinking that our differences would simply boil down to a question of historical data, I was completely taken aback by the fact that my Spanish was laughed at, my vocabulary many times not understood and my way of expressing myself considered an inferior version of the Spanish spoken in Madrid. There, too, I found tremendous cultural differences. People my age in Spain had shared a common historical period, a certain type of music, food, education, vocabulary, likes and dislikes and even styles of clothes, all of which I hadn’t any inkling.
So I got to thinking about how strange it was that I should be experiencing this non-belonging so late in life and I realized it went back to my beginnings. When I was born in New York City in 1942 I had no way of knowing that I wouldn’t always be rooted in the United States of America. By the age of eight, I had learned to salute the flag and stand at attention when the National Anthem was sung. I spoke only English (in spite of the Brits, that’s what we call it in America) except for a few scattered words in Spanish that my father had taught me like elefante for my gray stuffed elephant, beso for kiss and buenas noches to say goodnight. The only grandparents I knew (my mother’s parents) were American and always spoke about the States as if there were no other place that one would really want to live in the whole wide world. All my extended family, schoolmates and friends were Americans, and in school I was taught no language other than English. True, my father was Spanish, but he also spoke English all the time and as far as I was concerned he was no different from any other father except that he was better.
I had just celebrated my ninth birthday when the family picked up and moved two thousand miles plus to the south. Today Mexico City is a sprawling metropolis with everything modern you could wish, but back in 1951 it housed fewer than four million people and was practically undeveloped in terms of technology and consumerism. The interesting thing is that although I was physically in Mexico, culturally I was still in a smaller and less diverse version of the USA. At home we spoke English, read the English-language newspaper, received my mother’s American friends for bridge and entertained my parent’s American golfing buddies in the evening.
I attended the American School where supposedly I learned Spanish while speaking English all day with my classmates, my mother joined the Garden Club and the Junior League, and all my neighborhood friends were also from the USA, some having fled to Mexico victims of McCarthyism (the Butlers and the Trumbo’s were amongst my schoolmates). Mexico as a reality only appeared in the form of maids who spoke Spanish, a pet parrot called Loro (which means “parrot”), piñatas at parties and the fact that my cousins introduced me as their “Mexican” counterpart when I visited them.
However, what really made it obvious that we weren’t living in the States were the things we had to go without, like Double-Bubble bubble gum, or Mars Bars or Turkish Taffy, the latest comic books and the right clothes (moccasins, bobby sox, crinolines and circular skirts, all of which had to be brought back by someone travelling to the US); television –when it came- had Laurel and Hardy with subtitles and a form of wrestling called Lucha Libre where two masked fighters took turns thumping each other onto the mat and gauging each others eyes out. One of my few incursions into the Mexican culture was having my ears pierced at the age of twelve which allowed me to wear earrings when most young girls in the States hadn’t ever thought about it.
True, we did take sightseeing trips to the pyramids of Teotihuacan and the floating gardens of Xochimilco; from certain places in the city one could see Ixtlaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, this last a volcano which years later would start throwing up ash and rocks, something it does every fifty or sixty years. I often walked down the long avenue where we lived to the town of San Angel (even then already incorporated into the city limits) to the paper store or the seasonal fair which included a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel; there was a local street market, but my mother preferred the small supermarket, Sumesa (literally: your table), which had just opened nearby and was to become the largest chain of supermarkets in Mexico City until the Arango family began opening Aurrera’s, a play on the word ‘ahorrar’ which means “to save”. At home, we ate roast beef and pork chops, mashed potatoes, peas, carrots, hamburgers, hotdogs and corn on the cob. Occasionally, our Mexican cook would introduce something native like a tostada consisting of a fried tortilla, mashed beans, shredded chicken, julienned lettuce, avocado, cream, cheese and, if one wanted, hot sauce. There was sopa de pasta which was a light tomato broth with pasta (letters, little conches, penne, etc.), and very often a side dish of refried beans would appear on the table along with the standard American fare. And, while most of my equals in the States were learning to ski on snow, I was doing the same in Acapulco on the water.
It was like living on an island of imitation US culture slightly tainted by the surrounding foreignness of a completely different and exotic way of life; like having been transposed from a garden seeped in Americanness to an American-like flower pot surrounded by, but separate from, a garden flourishing in Mexicanness. Then, to complicate things even more, I was sent back to the US to finish my education in a New England boarding school, which was sort of like going from one flower pot to another. Being interned in an Ivy League Prep school did not offer me a broader and more intimate view of daily living in America. Then, coming from Mexico as I did, I was grouped with other American girls that lived in Latin America (Venezuela and Colombia) who, like me, were lacking in the cultural references which bound the rest of the student body; obviously we made a tight group of outsiders. Nonetheless, I had my experience of State-side music, of girls/boys dances (the famous two-step), of outings to The Big Apple, of New England fall colors, of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and simple living in the suburbs during visits to my grandmother in Larchmont, N.Y.
Everything probably would have been fine if I had continued my immersion in the US culture after what would be considered a very light brush with Mexico from the ages of nine to sixteen. However, at the age of eighteen, after finishing my first year at Barnard College I went running home attempting to flee from an adolescent crisis of rather unruly dimensions. I was very confused and the only place I called “home” was in Mexico.
My parents continued living their semi-American life combined with some Americanized Mexicans and a few Spanish from my father’s business, but I started reaching out to something of Mexico. I no longer had friends from the American School days (they had all gone off to college in the States) so I enrolled in a small school run by Mexican nuns and began to study Social Work. This eventually put me in direct contact with two things really native to the Mexican culture: poverty and Catholicism. The only thing either of them had to do with me was that my father had once been a Catholic although he now declared himself an agnostic as did my mother whose mother was an avowed atheist. I enjoyed my studies even though I was the only foreigner in the course, and soon found myself passionately wanting to help the needy. Poverty, however, was for me an even more foreign country than Mexico itself: blond, blue-eyed, white-skinned and with an accent, however light, upon speaking there was no way I could ever get close enough to do anything for these people other than offer them charity. As for Catholicism, I thought I had finally found something that could make me feel as if I belonged. One of my companions in the course was a nun of the Dominican Order and after becoming friends, she offered to prepare me for my entry into the religion.
A few months before my twentieth birthday, I was baptized, confirmed and given communion in the Catholic Church; a few months afterwards I married a young Mexican doctor I had met on a blind date and who had nothing whatsoever to do with my life or my family’s social circles: another unknown country. Catholicism didn’t last, the marriage did. Through my husband and his extended family, I was introduced into the way of life of the Mexican middle class. There was a certain element of culture shock, but I liked the feeling of closeness in his –for me- large family. Shortly after marrying we moved to yet another country for me: Hermosillo, Sonora in the north of Mexico. Even though Mexico City was quite third-world compared to someplace like New York, it was a modern, cosmopolitan city compared to Hermosillo, a provincial “city” where only the main street was paved and ranchers raced through town with their pickup trucks on the way to the nearest bar while their wives stayed home, had children and gossiped. As it turned out, I didn’t get pregnant and, as I knew no one, I lacked the credentials to be included in their sewing cicles or afternoon coffee. Besides that, my upbringing was so absolutely different from theirs (even in my husband’s family) that anything I did was misinterpreted. It was terrifying: what I thought was being helpful they found insulting, when I tried to be kind they were affronted, my basic shyness was taken as snobbery and when I went over to talk to the group of husbands at a party with the hopes of integrating men and women my morals were considered doubtful. I was miserable; more than an outsider, I felt like a creature from Mars. Life was kind and after four months even my husband found the provincialism unbearable and we hightailed it back to Mexico City and then on to the States where he was going to study a medical specialization in an American hospital.
Even this time I was no more integrated into American culture than I had been before: since marrying, I had moved into the country of wifehood and isolated myself from the surrounding world. To complete my isolation, I had a son and was henceforth kept busy. No time for friends, no time for socializing, no time for anything, but I was happy: the snow, the change of seasons (Mexico only has two, the dry one and the rainy one), the intensity of spring reminded me of my childhood and I only accepted going back to Mexico after my husband had promised that we would stay in Mexico City. Hermosillo had been too much even for a rootless soul such as me.
But life in Mexico City was not much less isolated than it had been in Framingham. So much moving around had meant that my childhood and adolescent friends had long since continued life without me; marrying outside of my high school group and out of my family’s social circle had severed any relationship that might have withstood the time and distance. My husband’s friends also had been left behind when we moved north and then to the USA, so we were both without ties or connections other than our respective families. We developed a social life divided between our two families with all the stress, discomfort and boredom this can eventually cause. Shortly after the birth of our second child, a girl, I once more went into a mental and emotional tailspin suffering a depression so deep I contemplated suicide several times before finding a psychoanalyst and entering treatment six days a week only because he didn’t work on Sundays. Suddenly I found myself in a territory which I have long since claimed for my own and have never left from that day on: the mind, my mind, if there be such a thing.
One of the first land maps I discovered was that of my rootlessness. Reading about development in childhood, I discovered that the age of nine (more or less) was when children tended to begin separating from the original family and forming social ties; at that age, the child has enough security to know that the family will be there when they get back so they begin creating a wider world for themselves. And it was at the age of nine, precisely the age when I should have gone about forming a wider and more interesting world for myself, that I was suddenly uprooted, dropped in a new culture, in another language and with maids instead of parents to care for me, while my mother, who had previously spent all of her time at home, spread her wings and flew off to golfer’s and bridge-player’s paradise. Having established that having no roots was one of the basic problems, I immediately set out to establish roots in the only logical place: Mexico.
I stopped speaking English, went to the University to do my undergraduate studies in Hispanic Language and Literature, began writing short stories and essays in Spanish, and started doing translations from English into Spanish and vice versa to earn some money. The studies, the work, the sense of finally giving a direction to my life and the existential project of growing roots in my adopted country pulled me out of the emotional hole and set me on my way to becoming a writer. To my credit, my effort gained me a page and a half of bio-bibliography in the Dictionary of Mexican Writers, I produced nine books in Spanish and three have been translated into English. In Mexico I managed to make a name for myself, to be known as part of the literary community; later I became president of a conservation association and was publically recognized for my work, but the truth is I have never really been Mexican inside anymore than I have been outside with my blond hair, blue eyes and white skin.
With the third and largest -and I hope last- crisis of my life, my 30 year marriage ended. Through the fallout of that final explosion, I found myself a peoples to whom I can belong no matter where I am in the world: Alcoholics Anonymous became my family and my nationality.
The support I found there, the feeling of coming home that filled me no matter what group or where it was or even in which language it was directed, did something that nothing else I reached for had ever done: it set me free and it set me on the spiritual path that continues today. As a member of AA, I finally claimed my birthright as a citizen of the world, for no matter where I travelled I had family and a place that would always welcome me. It was then, I believe, that I started Free Floating.
Moving to Spain was nothing more than a logical consequence and the fulfillment of a wish (‘I wish I could live in Madrid’). Little did I expect, however, to find myself once more devoid of cultural references that would allow me to feel part of the Spanish society: language is not culture and I was no more Spanish than I was Mexican, as a matter of fact I was less. My accent in Spanish is different than theirs, the words I use can cause laughter or confusion; I know nothing about Spanish culture other than the literature I studied. I have not worn their clothes, or breathed their air, or danced their dances or sung their songs or suffered their history, or walked in my youth through heir streets; I am a foreigner despite my paternal heritage. But I love Spain, it is a wonderful country and Madrid is the best city in the world to eat and live in. And yet, even though I made friends, they were friendships based on the enjoyment of the moment: they had no past, no shared memories, no common ground upon which to even reminisce; the moment enjoyed together was like a moment out of time and place and, therefore, it did not create lasting bonds. So my relationship to Spain and all that it held for me was not difficult to lock within my heart and move away from when I fell in love with Salies. And it is in Salies where I am confronted with two more cultures that are not mine (the British and the French), with the whole European scene to which I am a foreigner, to a continent that has suffered wars I have only experienced in movies, famines and plagues that are unknown in America, a cultural history that extends way, way back before the discovery of the New World.
So I listen to conversations in which the references hold no reality for me and I ask questions that highlight my ignorance, and I am silent because it would do no good to begin talking about things Mexican which have no meaning here, although they are, after all, the only roots I managed to invent for myself.
Free floating, staying out of the pure love of the land and the moment and the challenge that making a life here has become. To stay at least until the next impulse of wanderlust takes hold and then … who knows. I have a recently re-encountered friend from my third grade class in New Canaan, Connecticut, who has married a native Tanzanian twenty years her junior and moved to Africa, and she, supposedly, had roots. So, in my book that says that anything is possible, anything.