You step on a strange territory, where everything is unfamiliar around you. But, even so, you can still recognize that the sky is the sky, although a bit grayer, that the sea is the sea, although a bit grayer, perhaps as a consequence of the sky, that the houses, although some unfinished, are houses, the streets are streets, the buildings, although some more modern, are buildings, and the people, although with other traits, are people.
In that multitude of faces you probably won’t be able to find a familiar face. The elusive eyes that cross path before your dead fisheyes ignore that it is not that you just don’t know them. It’s that you don’t know anyone. When someone calls out to somebody else on the street, the sound of a voice that stops you and pronounces a sound like your name, you still be certain that it is not you they are calling. No one needs you, and if someone approaches you, they’ll say “friend” or “Miss, you have your backpack pocket open.” No more aunts, friends, neighbors, acquaintances or cousins.
At first, I had the stigma and the concern of being a foreigner. I tried hard to go unnoticed. That was all I wanted. Since I could not and did not intend to lose my accent, I tried at least not to use words that called too much attention, and I am referring to words that are used and can be understood in all the extension colonized by Spanish, such as, coger instead of agarrar, or chiquitico instead of pequeñito, or to not seem so informal and ask with a “qué?” instead of a “disculpa?” Words or phrases that are usually understood perfectly, but that here could bring me a suspicious look and maybe even the question: “You are not from here, are you?”
A line like that always crumbled my disguise as a citizen x. My Frankensteinian pose was left in rags, grafts of accents and smiles from anywhere covered, according to me, by a shroud of the most absolute neutrality. After some time, I relaxed, forgot and also accepted the fact of not belonging anywhere and at the same time inhabiting the place I now inhabit.
I began to appreciate the kindness of strangers, to walk looking over my shoulder and the heart in my underpants thinking that today is the day, today I am being robbed, today I am being raped. Moments in which everything seemed to indicate that prejudices were becoming true. But no, I only confronted a teenager. We fist-fought over my broken wallet, in which I kept my keyboarded cell phone and some tissues with snots.
Outside of the island, many people, probably many more than those who live in the island, do not know that your island exists and, better yet, they care less about the personal drama you drag along, and think is so transcendent. Somehow, everyone has their own islands, and others have their own bubbles with their own privileges, with their own inequalities, with their own shortages, with their own poverty, with their own exclusion and oppression, and everything coexists, a few blocks apart, thousands of meters above sea level, up or down the river, uphill or downhill.
No one who can vouch for you travels on your back. All you can prove is what you are. And all you can be or do often depends on the coins you carry in your pocket. There is nothing that protects you other than yourself. What happens when you don’t fit the mold of the enterprising immigrant who pulls their guts out to achieve something? What happens when you live without knowing what it is you’re supposed to achieve? What if you’re not, much less, that functional productive worker, who can’t see things straight and upward no matter how hard you try? What if all you have is useless experience as an actress, and you don’t even have a college degree? Insignificant, banished forever from your comfort zone, you live the experience of your first day of work in a city you don’t know.
I’ve been in the other country for a few months now, maybe six already, and I’ve landed a job where I don’t have to walk through a drunken crowd to hand a new pitcher of beer to drunk number seventeen who asks for my phone for the fifth time in the night. The new job, even though it pays much better, means I must let go of my shyness, of myself and my limits. To make matters worse, my partner, the only person I know and trust, is out of town. If I had thought twice, I might have said no, but first thing tomorrow morning I must go across town and host a construction trade show, stand firm in front of my PVC pipe booth.
I went to the agency to pick up my uniform and the girl, looking at me up and down, warns me that they have entrusted me with the job because, even though I am a novice, I look very produced. Produced is the word they use to tell you that you must become an inflatable doll for men, desirable, sexual, shiny and impeccable. That’s all they ask from you, you just must become an advertising banner, stand still, become an object. The most notable difference is that I wear 12-heeled shoes.
I went to the hairdresser, bought a cheap make-up at the market, next to the potato stand. As I watch a lot of tutorials on how to blend color and apply shade to the eyelids, a tremor runs through my chest. While the third smokey eye attempt is frustrated, I go over the route I must take, two buses and a cab. No one could explain to me how to get directly to the fairgrounds.
Will I be able to sleep? The question becomes meaningless when, in an involuntary and absurd act, it occurs to me to iron the uniform the agency gave me. At the age of 26, I have probably seen myself only twice with an iron in my hands. When my grandmother was scandalized to discover me already at the door of the house with my blouse wrinkled as if I had taken it out of a medicine bottle, my answer was always the same: “That it stretches now on the road”. But, with maturity some evil spirit mocks my laziness and takes its revenge on me. I have the imperious urge to iron an acetate dress. I heat up the iron and feel all proud of my “production”. When the iron touched the synthetic fabric, I felt a crackle and the immediate smell. I burned it; I burned the dress. “It’s not that bad, the dress is black” I said to myself as I saw, the flawless melted mark of the iron.
I walked from corner to corner the little room we rented, trying to get rid of the stomach pain. I had no one to complain to, no one to tell the magnitude of my idiocy other than myself. Of course, I didn’t sleep. My eye shadow did not come out smoky, but scorched like my dress, a dress in which I would have to show off twelve hours a day, three days in a row. These unfortunate events replay in my head, like getting off the bus early or late, getting lost and having no one to call, arriving late and being scolded and charged for the ruined dress and being fired from work without even starting.
I went to bed, waited for the sun to rise and the nerves to go away. If I fail, then I failed, but let it be for once. I always survive my clumsiness. I have been generally non-functional, very unstable. I have never been able to help my family, I am the bad joke of the one who returns to the island empty-handed with gifts for no one. A friend once, when I confessed to him that I had never done a phone recharge to anyone, told me that I am indeed the real wormiest scum out there.
I’m not sure if I belong anywhere in specific. I don’t know if I ever understood what people who define themselves that way feel. Peruvians know that I am not Peruvian, but they cannot guess my place of origin, and when I tell them, they doubt it and smile, suspecting in the same way as some Cubans who do not know in which register of Cubanness to place me. I don’t know either. I have always been haunted by the feeling that my life is traversed by events that, simplified, can be enclosed in a certain popular phrase: “You are behind the stick”. That is, I am where things do not happen and, when I move from that place, things begin to happen.
On the first New Year’s Eve outside Cuba, I found out that my dog, which I had hoped to bring with me, had died months before. They had not found a way to tell me. Shortly thereafter, between crying and sobbing, my dad told me that my sister was in a coma and about to die. I was in the wrong place again, with no money in my pocket. Many times, I imagined myself running like Forrest or just jumping into the ocean and swimming.
However, lately I prefer to think of myself differently. I want to break my own judgment and say that I go in circles around it. That way I can come to terms with my lags, my permanent inopportuneness. It is possible that I am not right about anything, that my gaps have no real base, but, in any case, I dare to recognize how valuable it is to feel and to know you as insignificant. With the same right to exist as a snail or a pig, I understand that I belong to a non-place, to a disordered identity.
A few years ago, a census brought a controversial question for many Peruvians, a self-identification question that for the first time was included in the questionnaire. “By your customs and your ancestors, how do you feel or consider yourself?” At that moment I didn’t know what to put – what a difficult question, especially when they have always tried to take away from us the possibility of self-identifying ourselves as we want, building fiction upon fiction without the possibility of complaint.
Lately, after giving birth, a figure comes to my mind similar to those people who, it was said, arrived from the Yuma (USA) with all their clothes on, their own, their cousin’s, their uncle’s, their neighbor’s, their children’s, their grandmother’s. I imagine myself as a doll with hundreds of layers, clothes and fabrics that do not allow her to articulate a gesture of her own and that, at this point, begins to take off one by one the things that no longer work for her and possibly never did. This is how I feel in front of my growing daughter, stripping myself, taking off the skin that is not mine, that does not fit me, that does not represent me, that squeezes me or dances on me. If I had to choose what, or how I identify with, I would then prefer to simply disidentify.
Next time I might put something like “from a tribe of worms”. If everything is fiction, I choose to assume myself in one of my own, and not drag the one of Isabella the Catholic. I must then carry this unstitched backpack, loaded with something that floats, shiny, that always detaches itself from the mother iron, like real dross, without rooting myself to anything that will sustain me for long. Back and forth, the same phrase is repeated endlessly, “You’re not from here, are you?”
Translation from Spanish by Sergio Vitier.