“Soy Loca Por Ti América”

September 20, 2010

I am writing you from the living room of the house where I grew up. There are blond wood floors, fat blue couches and one too many wrinkled copies of The New York Times. There are so many books on the shelves in my room that they are stacked horizontally and scatter onto the floor when I jump from my bed.  Outside, a square of dry marigolds rings the plot where my father grows the chiles he dries on the front seat of his red car. When he opens the door, the hot air rolls out heavy with the spare sweet smell of the southwest. This is the country of my childhood, of suburban abundance and rumpled comfort.

My weaving teacher, her son, their cat

It seems strange to think that six weeks ago I lived in a house of wooden boards and tin. When it rained everything was silenced by the clamor of water hurling itself onto the roof. I slept on a cot in the corner of the women’s dormitory, my books and bike and various papers and pots of finger paint spread across the floor and shelves alongside. At night I lit a half-shattered candle stenciled with the silhouette of Virgin rescued from a dusty black bag in the corner of the office. The light threw up the shadow of my solitude to the ridges of the roof, and I closed my eyes and waited for silence.

For the first time in my life, I woke up early, naturally. The sky was so clear and sharp it could have been cut from crystal. The river that ran alongside was cold, powerful after a rainy night and still after a quiet one. I walked through the vines in my swimsuit and high rubber boots and threw myself into the pool that lay just north of the school, hidden behind a bend. I would fight the current to swim upstream, grasping at the stones that cupped red flowers and forcing myself forward. My arms felt firm and long. I felt awake and clean and alive.

It was cool in the morning. By midday the sun scorched. When I didn’t have a ride to get to and from the literacy groups, I would walk. I swung my plastic bag of supplies over my back and felt the sweat heavy on my face and chest. There were three steep places in the road between Saquixpec and Lancetillo, but the stretch from Saquixpec to Rosario Sacubul is nothing but sharp subida followed by almost vertical bajada. I breathed heavily, sweated profusely, and repeated like a mantra: “What would Che do?”

When I was driven, I looked up from the rocky dirt and marveled. The banana plants hung over the houses and coffee and cardamom brushed against their board walls. When we came hurtling around the curves, butterflies rose with surprise and framed us with their fluttering. And every single time we arrived at the crest of the hill in the last village before Lancetillo, I caught my breath with wonder to see the mountains shoot up.

It was Eden. Biblical in its newness. And I was seduced by its lush beauty, so unlike the stark lines of the prairie and the sleek canyons of the city. Come my beloved, I recited to myself as I fought the cold current of the river, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages.

I was a different person in the Zona Reyna. Strong and taught, springing with kinetic energy and fierce determination. I was the best version of myself. I stopped missing everything but strong coffee. I loved cold showers and black beans, and craved only the nutty tortillas the women cooked on their clay comals. I worked every day, all day, for weeks. And when I boarded the buses to return to Uspantán, I pressed my face against the grimy glass and stared reality straight in the eye, without fear.

On Sundays I visited the family of my weaving teacher. I went swimming with her children and helped them shake unripe guavas from the trees. We took dozens of portraits, in their torn play clothes and embroidered formal huipils, and they gave me roasted ayote and sweet atole. We watched the clouds roll over the mountains and her son sang and danced for me. We made occasional conversation, none of it important, but all of it genuine and joyful.

When I went to see them for the last time, I cried. My teacher clasped me close and said, “We won’t ever forget you, Emma, because you lived like the people, and understand the people.”

She gave me a clay vessel for incense. I wrapped it in three layers of t-shirts and packed it deep in my laundry bag, but when I pulled it out of my backpack in Mexico it had been crushed to shards.

The Zona Reyna seems now like an enchantment, a brief moment when it seemed possible to be not just norteamericana but American, in the continental sense. Now I am spoiled with electricity and overwhelmed with job applications. Am I supposed to return to the life I lived before? I am doubtful and uncertain. My arms are soft and limp. My tan is fading and the broken sun- reddened ends of my hair have been cut off.

I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love.

As he lies dying, the English patient of Michael Ondaatje’s eponymous novel tells Hannah, his nurse, how he painted the dead body of his lover with the colored sands of the desert.  “I believe in such cartography- to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. … All that I wished was to walk upon an earth that had no maps.”

But how do people without maps determine where they are, and where they are meant to go?

So you see, when people ask me about Guatemala, I am not so sure what to tell them.


One Response to ““Soy Loca Por Ti América””

  1. Rose said

    Thank you, Emma, for your beautiful writing! I hope to see you soon.

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