In the late ‘50s, my parents left Colombia and moved to Ecuador. This would be the only time my mom was an immigrant. She had four children—one boy and three girls— and a gypsy husband with a penchant for wandering off, losing money, driving fast, drinking too much, lusting after other women, and not caring about the consequences. He smoked with abandoned, ate like every meal was his last morsel, and when sober and collected, planned fantastic trips to faraway lands. Egypt and the Bermuda Triangle, where he was sure The Atlantis had sunk, were his favorite destinations. They settled in Machachi, a town located to the south of the capital of Ecuador, Quito, a place surrounded by volcanos with fantastic names: Atacazo, Corazón, Rumiñahui, Illinizas Peaks, Viudita Hill, Pasochoa, and Sincholagua, and part of the Cotopaxi.
My mom told me about the Otavaleño women who came all the way from Otávalo to sell their textiles and native arts and crafts. They would perch their children between their legs and groom them in plain view, catching and killing the lice they found on the child’s head. Some of the women ate the lice they caught. She must have felt sophisticated, foreign, but refined compared to the lice-eating women around you. She said Machachi was freezing cold. She spoke of mornings when the snow on the páramos surrounding the city blinded her with their whiteness. She learned to eat cuy, Guinea pig, like a local. She rescued a little mutt you named Cuca. In Ecuador, Mom was poor, slightly less poor that she had been in Colombia, had a puppy, and husband with a job. She was happy, she told me many times. The happiest she ever was.
My dad worked for Morrison Knudsen, an American civil engineering company building a stretch of the Pan-American Highway in Ecuador. Mom couldn’t pronounce the name of the company. She called it Los Gringos. Every day, before sunrise, when the temperature was at its lowest, a company pickup truck came to collect my dad. He would jump on the truck’s flatbed, and traveled to the worksite exposed to the elements, hands in his pockets, the collars of his jacket pulled up, his chin buried into his chest, his bones rattling against the cold metal of the floor, eyes shut closed so that the high wind chill wouldn’t freeze his corneas. My dad would return every evening after the sun had already sunk behind the Andes and the day was once again dark and icy. Mom would wait for him by the door with a bucket filled with water that wasn’t too hot but just perfect, help him out of his work boots, and on all fours, she massaged his frozen feet back into life. I don’t know what to make of this picture. Sometimes it makes me think I don’t know true love. But mostly it saddens me.
Machachi not only had lice-eating Otavaleño women, active volcanos, edible Guinea pigs, snow-capped mountains, and freezing temperatures; it also had social unrest, controversial presidential elections that wreaked havoc across the country, riots, tear gas, mounted police, and a martial law that closed bars and places of entertainment. My dad had nowhere to go after work but home. That’s why mom was happy. The happiest she ever was.
* * *
I hadn’t been born yet when they moved to Ecuador. I don’t know what about moving to a different country, away from family, settling in a little freezing town, and living in a derelict tenement, made Mom happy. Like her, I left Colombia, or rather, I escaped Colombia’s violent ‘90s and I moved to the USA, away from family, and settled in freezing Anchorage. That’s where the parallels of our migrations stop. My husband, an American man I had been dating long-distance, didn’t have to go to work on the back of a pickup truck. He owned a double cabin Dodge RAM 1500 with leather upholstery, heated seats, and a great sound system. Our neighbors were not Otavaleño women selling arts and crafts. We lived in the suburbs, in a house atop a hill overlooking a lake, there were camping trips and fishing expeditions. Life in Alaska was plentiful; which is to say, my mom’s relocation was very different from mine.
* * *
Fast forward four years. Another relocation. This time, the oil company my husband worked for sent us to Kuwait. Again, my new immigrant experience was not like my mom’s in Ecuador. Other ‘oil wives,’ mostly British and Americans, were happy from the moment they realized there would be nothing for them to do in Kuwait other than tea, tennis, sunbathing and the occasional charity ball. I didn’t fit in. I was neither American nor British. I was a Latina who spoke American English with a Colombian accent. I looked Hispanic, Indian, Arab, African even, anything but American or British. I frantically looked for a job and found one as a teacher.
* * *
Kuwait opened the first two public schools for girls in 1937 and 1938. Sixty years later, there I was, a stranger to the land and its people, an inexperienced middle and high school teacher, trying to fulfill my role at the newest American school in the emirate of Kuwait. I was asked to teach a variety of subjects: Earth Science because I was a Petroleum Engineer, Current Conflicts because I was an anthropologist, French because I knew the basics, Spanish because it was my native tongue.
* * *
Seven a.m., first day of class. From my classroom window on the third floor, I surveyed the student population entering the school. A black Jaguar T-boned a white Caprice Classic boxing it in. Three Mercedes, still running, had parked on the median with their rear tires on the road, and a minivan had crashed into one the date palms flanking the doors to the school. All honked their horns at the two perpendicular cars blocking the flow of traffic. Both the Jaguar and the Caprice were empty, their drivers had run inside the school to escort the students. The Jaguar had been left with its two front doors wide open, furthering the confusion. I made a mental list of the chaos: dozens of beeping cars trying to get as close to the small school gate as possible. The relentless determination of the drivers—mostly Indian or Bangladeshi—to get their little passengers delivered right in the school lobby while the engines were still running, the illogical way in which the cars T-boned each other making an already chaotic situation even worse, the clouds of dust raised from the vacant lot across the street where the faculty parked their vehicles–old, Toyota Corollas, rental cars, and a few jeeps with duct-taped windows. I was nervous but had to shake my head and laugh at the obvious social class division between faculty and students. I looked straight down and spotted a teacher on gate duty right in the middle of the road, waving her hands in the air trying, in vain, to direct the traffic. I prayed I never had to do gate duty. I turned away from the window, walked around the classroom, looked at the empty desks and an overpowering sense of panic and anticipation dizzied me. I was about to be una profesora, a schoolteacher.
The first thing I noticed when the students walked into my classroom was their maids. Some of the girls had brought their maids and nannies with them all the way into the classrooms and straight to their desks. They walked slowly, without a worry in the world, talking and laughing animatedly among themselves while their maids followed behind carrying books, backpacks, and lunch boxes. By the third day of school, I had brought this comfy tradition to an end. I refused entry to students if their maids made it to the third floor. Other teachers soon followed my example, and after a few weeks, no maids were allowed beyond the lobby.
The excitement of teaching was marred by the restrictions forced on the faculty by everyone from the Ministry of Education to the censorship committee to the school administration. My clash with these restrictions began before I had taught a single class. Twenty minutes before my very first Earth Science class started, I was summoned to the principal’s office. The textbooks had been finally released and approved by the Ministry. I was good to go.
I browsed through the textbooks and was happy to realize that the first chapter on the origin of the world had not been removed as the principal had predicted.
“Don’t get too excited,” she said as if she could read my mind. “They might have overlooked the chapter on the Big Bang, but you are not to mention it in class.”
“This is an American school. Don’t we teach the Big Bang in the States?” I retorted. “We follow the American curriculum, right?”
“Yes, we do.” She finally looked up at me from behind her Ikea desk. “And we also teach about abortion and guns and teen pregnancy, and we even teach the kids how to put on a condom, don’t we? Now, do you think that’s enough reason to do the same in a Muslim country?” The principal said, visibly annoyed.
Even then, seated behind her desk, being my boss, I could tell she was terrified of Kuwaitis and the power they had over her. This school was her baby and any Kuwaiti with a little bit of power could quash her dream. In a tribal society such as Kuwait, upsetting the wrong parent at school had the potential to upset also his or her cousins, aunts, brothers, and sisters, beyond Kuwait City, past its outskirts and into faraway desert camps.
I left the office determined, against the principal’s wishes, to lecture on the Big Bang. I put my mind at ease by reminding myself that I was hired to teach science, not religion. If I had to use dogma to teach science, then I wasn’t really a science teacher. To my surprise, as I climbed the stairs, I realized that the only part of the chapter about the Big Bang that had survived the Ministry’s scissors was the title page. Everything else had been eviscerated. The book jumped from page 5 to page 17. Many words, sentences, and paragraphs had been excised from the textbook, either blacked out with a sharpie or removed with scissors. I did a quick fill-in-the-blanks exercise and guessed the blacked-out words: evolution, fossils, the expansion of the universe, Pangea, geological eras, continental drift, the great unconformity—a gap of billions of years between two contiguous geological layers, and any mention of a relationship between modern humans and African apes.
* * *
I walked to my classroom. I’d had a few minutes with the girls during homeroom and those who were my students followed me close behind. I heard the words helwa, shai-b-laban and asmar shuwayah enough times for me to memorize them. I later found their meaning: cute, sort of the color of tea and milk, and sort of brown. That was their first impression of me and my first lesson in their peculiar way to describe people’s skin color. Black and white could be understood only if they were accompanied by the modifier shuwayah (sort of, a little), which made the color indefinite; aswad shuwayah (a little bit black), abiad shuwayah (sort of white)—and the list went on. In Colombia, my friends call me negra, negrita, whose translation goes beyond black woman or little black woman. In Spanish, negra is a term of endearment. It’s a word charged with warmth, affection, respect. All that good old Latin amor. A complicated word to translate, because I’m brown, not black.
* * *
Twelve Kuwaiti girls between the ages of 14 and 16 stared at me in silence. “What do we know about the origin of the universe?”
“Allah created all things,” a girl seated in the front row answered in impeccable English. Her name was Salma. She wore a black hijab, a long uniform skirt that dragged when she walked, and a uniform blouse that covered her arms beyond the wrists. She was asmar shuwayah (sort of brown) and had a protruding crooked nose, a fleshy mouth full of braces, and thickly lashed big dark eyes framed by unruly bushy eyebrows. When she spoke, she moved her hands in the air exposing the tips of her fingernails dyed with back henna.
I said thank you, turned around and wrote on the board: Allah created all things.
“Any other ideas?”
A slender, tall girl with delicate features and cascading curly black hair caught my attention. She had inquisitive eyes and seemed more poised than the other girls.
“What’s your name?” I asked her, roster in hand.
“Shaikha,” she said.
“Any thoughts you’d like to share with the class, Shaikha?”
“Allah created all things, Miss, and he did the whole thing in six days.” She faced the class defiantly. “And all Jews, Christians, and Muslim believe this.”
A few girls jeered; some others shook their heads in disagreement.
“It’s true, Miss. The three religions believe that God created human beings by blowing on a dough of clay.”
“Oh, my God, we share nothing with Jews,” Salma barked back condescendingly. “And I wear the hijab, you don’t.”
That explained, to a degree, her dignified demeanor. Salma felt a step closer to Allah than Shaikha by virtue of wearing the hijab. That headscarf gave Salma an aura of purity, humbleness, and surrender to God that she did not hesitate to rub into the faces of those not wearing the scarf.
Shaikha did not retort. She seemed busy with her own thoughts. Eventually, she raised her hand.
“Miss, do Christians believe in only one God?”
Salma scoffed, exuding confidence: “Of course they don’t.”
I knew I was treading in murky waters, dangerously wandering off course, but curiosity got the best of me and I asked Salma to explain why she thought that Christians believed in more than one God.
“They have this little thing called trinity, right? They believe that God is only one corner of this triangle and the other corners are his son and the Holy Spirit.”
Salma seemed more aware of the world than everybody else in the classroom. She had her very own opinions about international politics, religion, women’s rights, and, as I was about to find out, sex. There were two things she loved to speculate about: everybody else and sex.
Shaikha was visibly upset, but I sensed that she wasn’t strong enough to challenge Salma. Rather than confronting her, Shaikha asked for a restroom pass and left the classroom. I told the class about the perils of living a life with a narrow mind and warned them about my intolerance towards intolerance. They laughed because being intolerant towards intolerance sounded like a riddle. They said I was funny, but as soon as I asked them to be quiet, they went silent. I knew I had the girls’ respect.
“Any questions?” Several inpatient hands went up.
“Miss, are you married?”
“How did you meet your husband?”
“Is he handsome?”
“Is he abiad, white?”
“Miss, you have kids?”
“Miss, you have pictures of your wedding day?”
“How did you meet?”
“Did your parents find him for you?”
“Miss, you work out?”
“Miss, you a Christian?”
“Where do you live?”
“Miss, you like Kuwait?”
It was apparent that they were more interested in me as a woman than as a teacher. I thought I’d satiate their curiosity first so I could teach without external distractions. But the questions never stopped, and I resigned myself to the fact that to them the idea of an impersonal relationship with anyone was unthinkable. They related to the world in terms of kin, hierarchies, and the ability to navigate the web of their surrounding network of friends, relatives, and acquaintances with ease. Those who did not reveal themselves entirely became outcasts. If you cannot be known, placed, labeled, and categorized, you are condemned to a lonely existence among Kuwaitis. Provenance. They need to know where you come from before they decide whether to accept you.
“I’m a petroleum engineer.” Their faces beamed with something close to pride. “I used to work for a multinational oil company as geophysicist.” I heard almost in unison Mashallah, God bless you, eyes-wide-open, jaws dropped. Many of their fathers, uncles, and male cousins were involved in one way or the other with the oil industry, but they had never met a young female petroleum engineer in the flesh. Their facial gestures changed as they followed my life story, almost as if they were watching a movie. Their interest faded instantly when I said: “Enough of me. Let’s go back to earth science, shall we? Who knows what the Big Bang is?”
Salma giggled, but she was alone in her outburst of hilarity. She raised her hand.
“We’re all good girls, Miss. None of us knows yet what a bang is, let alone a big one.” She laughed, and she laughed alone. Nobody else in the classroom understood her innuendo. Expressionless, I looked at her straight in the eye and repeated my question, denying her the pleasure of a reaction. She raised her hand again.
“Miss, with all due respect, can I tell you something about us?”
“Only if it is relevant to the class.”
“We are here for two reasons: TV programming in the morning is dreadful, and the shopping malls only open at 10 am. Don’t build your hopes up. Really, Miss, we’re here to kill time until a rich, handsome man proposes.”
I scratched my head. Oh, boy.
* * *
That was my first day as schoolteacher. From day one the students and I established a rapport that was the envy of the other teachers. I was young, fit, liberal, and unlike most of the American teachers who were white, I had a dark complexion, which made me, somehow, one of the girls. Plus I, like them, spoke English with an accent. There was a common sense of third-world otherness that bound us. I was the wife of an American oiler, I embodied, at least to some of them, success, and the fact that I was a petroleum engineer, a male-dominated field in Kuwait just as much as it had been in Colombia ten years before, earned me their respect and admiration.
* * *
Taking roll call became a source of amusement for the girls as I couldn’t pronounce their names correctly. There are Arabic sounds that untrained ears and throats cannot process let alone reproduce. The popular name Shaikha uses the kh combination that is meant to be pronounced as a guttural ch as in Bach and loch; the rolled “r” sound, similar to the Spanish R, was easy for me but remained a mystery to the rest of the faculty; the gh, a gargling kind of sound between “g” and “r,” produced deep in the throat; the apostrophe ‘ which sometimes is pronounced by contracting the muscles in the throat similar to a “choking” sound, and sometimes by making a “glottal stop,” like the one at the beginning of “uh-oh!”
My students had different names, all legitimately given, and to be used in all their versions depending on the occasion.
given name + father’s first name + grandfather’s first name: Fatima Husain Muhammad
given name + father’s first name + family name: Fatima Husain Al-Haji
the father’s and grandfather’s first names preceded by the word bint, daughter of, or bin, son of:
Fatima bint Husain Al-Haji, Fatima daughter of Husain Al-Haji
Fatima bint Husain bin Muhammad bin Fahad, Fatima daughter of Husain son of Muhammad son of Fahad.
A gross Western equivalent would be Mary daughter of George son of Bill son of Henry son of Paul son of Peter Jefferson, where Jefferson is the family name. In this way, a woman always carries her father’s name and his ancestors’ last name with her. When married, the woman retains her maiden name until the birth of her first boy, at which point tradition dictates a further name transformation. An additional title is attached to her name: the mother of or um. If Mary calls her first baby boy Thomas, she will be known as Mary mother of Thomas, Mary um Thomas.
The girls took great pride in memorizing and reciting the names corresponding up to six generations. I could never tell if they were pulling my leg when they recited their impossibly long ancestry going as far back as the time before Kuwait existed as a country. They knew where each came from. They knew whose roots were Saudi, Iranian, whose ancestors were pearl divers or merchants, who was royalty and who was not. There was no room for reinventing oneself, claiming royal ancestry or political notoriety. Their names carried the weight of their family’s history.
“And you, Miss, where does your family come from?”
I thought about my answer. It was easy. I know exactly where I came from, but I also felt compelled to meet them half-way, to show that my last names also meant something. I thought of a long, convoluted answer.
My mother’s last name was Pinzón.
My father’s last name was Páramo.
I carry both.
I have more than one hundred thousand ancestors who can be traced back to specific regions in Spain. This deep Spanish ancestry doesn’t make me white. Just because the kittens are born in the oven doesn’t mean they are biscuits, the adage goes. These conquistadors had sex with native Colombians and black African slaves and produced a slew of criollos, who despite miscegenation laws, continued to have sex with other Spaniards, other mestizos, other mulatos, other zambos. At some point, the nobility mixed with the chiefdom, the culture with the folklore, the armor with the feathers, the petticoat with grass skirts, and slowly, the first Pinzón and the first Páramo, those two Spanish men, stretched the color spectrum of their descendants so far, they could no longer see themselves in it. Between my father’s Páramo and my mother’s Spanish Pinzón, there have been women with majestic afros, jaguar-hunting Pijao Indians, parteras with unpronounceable names, fair-skinned flamenco dancers, mestizo bullfighters, criollo priests, curanderas, and zambo nuns. They multiplied and multiplied until I came into fruition, like a long-awaited wonder. Un milagro.
“I don’t have an interesting family history like you girls,” I said. “My past is Bo-ring.”
* * *
El Instituto Nacional Femenino Javiera Londoño, my middle and high school in Medellín, was more beautiful than this school in the wealthiest country in the world. The school was a modest three-story building, with a basketball court on one side and a covered swimming pool on the other. There was nothing grand about the school’s physical appearance, no fine architectural features or lush gardens. As I remember, the school was not a beautiful place, but I loved a little corner out in the basketball court, for it was a vantage point for me, a place from where I could study the students and speculate. Sometimes when I had recess duty, I would sit on a bench under the kitchen’s canopy, watch them in the yard and ponder the kind of women they would become. The kind and caliber of the dreams and distorted notions of the world they would drag into adulthood. Out in the yard, while eating their lunches, their young skin gleaming under the sun, they looked like they had it all figured out, like if they could have their way, they’d send their teachers and parents packing, make all adults redundant, claim they already knew everything there was to know, march out of the school, and never look back. They looked kind under the sun, so kind and at ease that it was easy to forget the days they walked into the classroom armed with their hormones sharp and spiky like daggers, disliking themselves and everybody around, but mostly themselves, made me the recipient of their hatred during homeroom, their undying love and respect in Spanish class, a second dose of hatred at recess, only to love me again before the day was over. Or not. They reminded me of a fourteen-year-old version of myself. Hungry for approval, wading blindly in a hormonal limbo, an intellectual limbo, a sexual limbo, an emotional limbo, that goddamned labyrinth of adolescence, trying in vain to find a one-size-fits-all definition of love and life that could carry me into womanhood. They didn’t know yet how to demand respect but wanted to be respected. They didn’t have the words or the guts to say what every woman needs to learn to say every once in a while: To hell with you, world. Come mierda, mundo.
* * *
In the Current Conflict class, we talked about genocides: Rwanda, Biafra, Bosnia, Liberia, Sierra Leone. One of the students was adamant that the systematic killing of black Africans could not be considered genocide as genocide implied the killing of human beings, and some black Africans, according to her and her diplomatic father, were not fully human. I trod carefully. I had become aware that our relationship, as good as it was, was fraught with historical and sociopolitical differences and that if anyone had to jump through hoops, make gross allowances, be patient, nonjudgmental and keep an open mind, it had to be me.
“Give me an example of black Africans who are not fully human,” I asked this student.
“What makes them less than human”?
“They’re gross,” she said. “Like animals.”
She gave me an exaggerated shudder, turned down the corners of her mouth, the veins on each side of her throat pulsed with disgust. She stuck her tongue out and made gagging noises. I could have brought up notions about the sanctity of life, mutual respect, and equality before the law, God and each other. I could have expressed the full extent of my shock, delivered a passionate lecture on the kind of ignorant comments I would not tolerate in the classroom. I could have ridiculed her in front of her peers, sent her to the principal—a black American who would certainly feel personally insulted—punished her with an extra assignment, asked her to do a research on the issue. I did none of these. I was taken aback. Her Arab privilege and self-entitlement frazzled me. Did her diplomat father teach her that over dinner? Who else didn’t make it to the human race according to him? I scanned the classroom for reactions; a few students seemed amused by her comment, but most of them were indifferent. It took every ounce of energy in me to maintain my composure. I set my eyes on her and did not avert my gaze as I approached her desk. She rearranged her headscarf.
“I’m waiting. Why are black Ethiopians not human?”
Nobody moved. A steely silence hovered over our heads. All I could hear in the distance was a motorcycle speeding outside the school.
She shrugged her shoulders. “Ma’adri, Miss.” She didn’t know. End of conversation.
There was no returning to this issue that day or later. I must have given something away. Maybe she read the disgust on my face as I saw hers and understood that we would never see eye to eye on the subject. That I could not undo, in a few classes, what her ancestors had carved for centuries. I don’t know. That line became their most effective way to say I don’t want to talk about it. It is what it is. You wouldn’t understand, Miss. Ma’adri.
* * *
A low cloud covered the city, trapping an invisible layer of heat that hovered over the city. Small dust devils formed in the parking lot across the school. The wind blew dry and mean around the basketball court. Still, there they were. A group of girls absentmindedly dribbled the basketball, black headscarf tightly fastened about their chins, double-layered long-sleeve uniform shirts, long trousers underneath their knee-length shorts, a couple of them had black gloves on, chatting and laughing animatedly like they were immune to the heat, like the 100F was just slightly warm but tolerable. How they could function with so many layers of clothes on never ceased to amaze me. Why did they feel the need to cover so sternly in an all-girls school where every teacher, every cook, every janitor was a woman? The chances of being seen by a man on school grounds were slim to none, but for as long as there were doors and windows and keyholes, the girls covered up. You never know, Miss. Lots of pervs out there, Salma told me. They only let their guard down in the classroom. If it was locked, that is. If there was a repairman sent to the floor to fix a restroom or to heft some desks up or down the stairs, the hall-duty teacher went from classroom to classroom warning the students: Man on the Floor, Man on the Floor, like some sort of public service announcement. The girls would then scurry about looking for their hijabs, fastening the scarf nice and tight, even if he was completely out of sight, even if he was at the opposite end of the hallway or simply walking between floors. Hide your beauty. Hide your hair. Your hair. Such a powerful tool of seduction. Men can defile a woman with their brutish gaze. It’s a known fact.
Man on the Floor.
Man on the Floor.
* * *
And so, I was a Spanish teacher. The beauty of teaching a foreign language is that it grants the teacher permission to trespass. And it is through this continuous sanctioned transgression that the language teacher becomes an anthropologist in the classroom, an ethnographer of her own population of subjects. As a Spanish teacher, I deliberately trespassed and mostly got away with it. For instance, Arabs are timid when it comes down to revealing the names of their female relatives. Something to do with protecting their honor so that their names are not whispered outside their homes. But when we talked about family and worked on our family trees in Spanish class they gave the names of their mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins, even the unmarried ones.
“Cuantos cuartos hay en tu casa? How many rooms are there in your house?” They never knew. They would cock their heads left and right, count on their fingers, squint as if they didn’t know how big their own houses were. They usually had more than ten rooms—most of which were en-suite—two living rooms, two dining rooms, and two kitchens.
“Why do you have two comedores and two salas?”
“One for men and one for women.”
“Why do you need two cocinas?”
“One upstairs and one downstairs.”
If they didn’t have two kitchens, they had an elevator communicating the kitchen upstairs with the main living room downstairs so that the food could be delivered without the maids being seen by the guests.
“How many people live in your house?”
“Do the maids, drivers, gardeners, and nannies count?”
It was a valid question. Traditional houses in Kuwait had a mullhaq, a small detached house for the drivers, tea boys, and gardeners. The maids and nannies usually lived inside with their employers.
“How many carros do your family have?”
Three or four was a common number.
“Are you rich? Eres rica?”
“Yes, of course, I’m rich. All of us are.” This was an answer that never failed to surprise me. I had grown up in a Catholic household run by a mother who romanticized poverty, taught her children to be proud of having come from nothing, and who always proclaimed that we were close to God because we were poor.
“What’s la edad ideal for marriage?”
“Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one tops.”
“What’s la edad ideal to have children?”
“Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one tops.”
* * *
Recess duty. I sat under the kitchen’s canopy, listening to the Filipino employees sing and laugh inside as they cooked lunches for the students, and I wondered what would become of the girls. I speculated that some of them would grow into cold heart-breakers, women with razor-sharp fingernails and eyes that burn like cigarettes. Venus flytraps in skirts. But which of them? Some others would have their hearts broken by a man, a woman, an unfixable world, an unattainable dream, a broken dream, the lack of a dream, or any combination of the above. Salma? Noura? Fatima? Which of them will set the world on fire? Which of them will become lawyers, engineers, artists, veterinarians, accountants, and which housewives, mothers, or reckless buyers of every sliver of glitz? Will the thin girl with bouncy curls become fat and lazy or will the lethargic student with thick glasses and sad eyes become fit and industrious? It was hard to imagine the future of their wombs: some busy with full-term pregnancies, miscarriages, and maybe even secret abortions, while some will remain vacant for life. How much longer will they have to wait before having to face the real world? Five years until the first marriage proposal? Six until motherhood? Ten until a steady income?
It was too early to tell. They were still teenagers, which is to say, they were all bravado, hormones, and lip-gloss. The girls were lost, but they didn’t know it yet. Their young minds were minefields, their neural synopses a mess of short-circuits, and their life plans were anybody’s guess. They were women in the making, sisters from different mothers with a penchant for daydreaming, drawing, writing bad poetry and singing corny songs. Their hearts were still brand new and spacious with extra room for grudges, secret crushes, and invisible codes. They had cliques, made new friends, and in time, the new friends became best friends, soul sisters conjoined at the wrists, the end of their braids, pinkies, and diaries.
“Miss,” one of the girls shouted throwing the ball in my direction. “Catch.”
* * *
Mom gave birth to my sister in Machachi, life got tough, food was scarce, she was no longer happy. My dad lost his job, there was no money for rent, and their landlord had an eviction notice ready. They wrapped their five children the best they could, tiptoed their way out of the house in the middle of the night, boarded a bus Bogotá bound, and a day later arrived in Colombia with nothing but the clothes on their backs. I was born six years after their return and a few years later, my dad abandoned all of us. My mom was an immigrant for eighteen months. I have been an immigrant for twenty-seven years. What made our migrations different? Mom was borderline illiterate, had six children and chose a husband poorly. I earned a Ph.D., had only one child, married a good man, divorced him, and married a better one. I teach at a university where I’m surrounded by intelligent people with inquisitive minds. I don’t know if education was the key, or who we married, or fate. What I know is that sometimes I google Machachi and try to love the place. Some other times I google Otavaleño and try to imagine the children kneeling between their mothers’ legs, armies of lice crawling on their scalps, mothers catching the bugs, examining their size and robustness before plopping them into their mouths, then I try to be happy. The happiest I have ever been.
Adriana Páramo is an award-winning cultural anthropologist, memoirist, and women’s rights advocate.
She is the author of dozens of essays and three nonfiction books: Looking for Esperanza, winner of the 2011 Social Justice and Equity Award in Creative Nonfiction, My Mother’s Funeral, a CNF work set in Colombia, and Unsent Letters to My Mother by Floricanto Press. They can be found here.
Adriana teaches Creative Nonfiction in the low-residency MFA program at Fairfield University. She writes from Qatar where, oddly enough, she works as a fitness and yoga instructor.