In my last trip to Texas, where my all my in-laws live, I started naming my experience of living far away from Colombia. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since I left my mom’s house about six years ago and trying to name it has become vital to me. It may have to do with years of studying Latin American literature and culture, for which exile and self-exile of the writer are huge issues. It may have to do with years of believing that my identity would be jeopardized by social values I don’t approve of (conservatism and maniacal consumerism) or by stereotypes (oh yeah, Shakira, Shakira). However, day to day my identity has become less related to a piece of land than to having my very own experiences, that in the end are the only thing that can define who people are. This is why I just don’t coincide with the idea of being “proud” to belong to a place, call it Colombia or “America.”
There are two meanings for the word "estrangement" (extrañamiento) in Spanish: when you miss something or someone and when you feel out of place because of where you are or what is going on around you. I was born and grew up in Bogotá, a messy and unpredictable city in South America, but I’ve been living in different cities around the United States. Besides what US Americans (self-centered or not) call “America”, I haven’t had another experience living outside of Colombia. However, I’ve had the fortune of being in diverse and cool cities that have allowed me to do what I like the most: thinking. Bogotá, San Francisco (I lived close by, in a boring suburb, but I got the sense of the city) New Orleans, and Chicago. I remember that when I was living in Bogotá I used to say I would never live in another city because I had it all there. And sure, I had it all, including that awful provincial ideology of the person that has never left her place but dares to affirm that her place is the best in the world. Now, I have estrangement!
When I was in California I missed Bogotá in a sort of melancholic way and of course this city girl wasn’t fitting smoothly in the culture of the suburbs. I went back to Bogotá for a couple of weeks and that was enough to change my mind about the city I idealized from a distance. I felt for the first time like I didn’t belong at home. Back in California, even when I was still struggling with the self-centered way of thinking and wasting and showing off of the US hard-core white upper middle-class people, I decided I wanted to stay longer. Mainly I didn’t want to live in Colombia under Uribe’s regime and I’d developed a certain taste for productivity and completion of things, a phenomenon hardly possible in Colombia. So, I applied to grad school. While I was waiting for the responses from the universities I applied to, I had to go back to Bogotá because my visa expired. During those eternal six months in my home city I came to miss California more that I’d missed Bogotá the first time I left it. I guess I forgot all the things I used to criticize about the suburbs because, one more time, I idealized the land. If Bogotá was my first Paris, San Francisco was the second one. I was hoping to get accepted at Stanford so I could go back. Thankfully, they rejected me. I got accepted instead at Tulane, in one of the best Departments of Spanish and Portuguese in this country. So, I ended up in California’s antipodes: Louisiana.
I couldn’t fully enjoy the party in New Orleans because, unlike many students at Tulane, I was studying. For real. I also found out that there is another way US Americans love to feel good about themselves besides showing off constantly, besides living beyond their means: exoticizing the marginal. As my husband once wrote, and wrote well, New Orleans is like Latin America, but just for the wrong reasons. Of course New Orleans culture is not just about that, but my perspective of it was mediated by my own experience of marginalization and by the way Colombia has been for decades: a place totally screwed by the rich and self-exoticized so tourists will feel safe and spend there. The way I related to New Orleans was the same way I relate to my country, in a very critical and painful fashion. One more time I felt strange in my new place and missed the old ones. However, in New Orleans I was being the nerd I was born to be and I found my Mr B –the Texan I’m deeply in love with. As soon as I got ABD status, I followed him to Chicago, not the second but the first city of “America” (you can totally find out that truth just by going for a weekend to NYC.) Now I’m here, enchanted by the culture, the organization of the place, the beauty of the architecture, the diversity of the community. But of course, I am suffering the weather. And that not insignificant detail makes me miss the weather of the South, the colors of its winters, the party I didn’t fully enjoy, the family we love. Once again: estrangement.
A year from now my husband and I are going to live for half a year in Guanajuato, Mexico and everything is pointing to the fact that we are probably going to end up living wherever the job market wants us to go. Despite the uncertainty of the last six years of my life, despite the uncertainty we are going to have to face in the future with that moving around and this awful economy, despite not following the steps of middle-class people in any country of America (buying a house, establishing yourself in a place, having kids as soon a you get married and so on), and despite sometimes feeling sad because I am so far away from both our families, I’m quite satisfied being in this constant estrangement. That makes my experience; that makes me. Having the luxury of living in cosmopolitan places has made us appreciate how much we would have regretted being stuck in our places of origin. That has been our most terrifying fear: the fear of not being estranged.
Thanks to Brandon Bisbey, my husband, for helping me edit this essay.
María Catalina Rincón-Chavarro is a Ph.D candidate in 20th and 21st Latin American Literature from Tulane University, New Orleans. Blog: Anónima en PhDlandia.
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