My childhood, as I recall it, is like a puzzle with missing pieces. I cannot paint
a clear image of that childhood, because at my age, much has been forgotten or
perhaps repressed. When I ask my mom for clarity, she refuses to talk about
certain moments in our past. The pain is too much for her to relieve so I don’t
push. Like she often reminds me, “¿De qué sirve recordar el pasado si te va
bien en la vida? (What’s the point of remembering the past when you have a
good life?) Yet, remembering my history is important for my future, regardless
of how old I may be. I am my mother’s legacy and my son is mine. Having
missing fragments of that history, I find it difficult to move forward, learn, and
grow fully. When I try to recall my history I recall struggle and fear, anxiety
and curiosity, music and dancing, family gatherings and one long period of
separation from my mother. I was two years old, but at 44 years of age, I still
carry that trauma with me.
Most people do not remember anything before the age of six, yet, my earliest
memories are from when I was just a toddler. Mamí split from my father and,
for reasons I didn’t know back then, we ended up living in Ecuador for a
couple of years. Guayaquil was blissful but steamy and dark at times. I
remember a great-aunt who had a farm on a cliff overlooking red earthy
pastures. I frolicked in the fields, played with her goats, disdained the chickens
and had a pet piglet. Whenever there was a party which felt like every
weekend, I remember seeing people dressed up as clowns and laughing at the
silly things they would do. I played with other kids, ate “tangos” with them and
in turn they would coil my curls around their fingers and call me “sambita”. I
often got sick while I was there too. The mosquitos in Guayaquil were deadly
in the mid to late 70’s. Too often I have flashbacks of myself sweating
feverishly in a hammock, getting pinched by long needles and sometimes
surrounded by “chamanes” and “curanderas” who slapped me with plants and
smothered me with oils and tobacco smoke. Mamí decided, I would return to
the US, but we could not travel together. I travelled alone.
Whenever I ask her why we were there in the first place, her mood and
expression change. For a long time I never undrstood why but with time I
discovered mamí was in the US undocumented and could not live in the US,
despite having all of her family in the New York, New Jersey areas. All of her
family: brothers, sisters, nephews, father, and me, her only daughter. No one
was left in Ecuador when the family did a massive migration to Nueva York.
Somehow she found herself back in the country she left behind filled with
trauma and educational and economic limitations.
Much of the day we parted is a blur. I do recall it was nighttime. I remember
feeling cold and uncertainty as I cried on the plane. When I arrived at JFK, I
was escorted by the flight attendant who held my hand as walked through long
tunnels, escalators, halls after halls. It was a long cry from the farm and my
piglet. I don’t remember being told what to expect, I just remember the sight
of a huge metal globe where that lady pointed to where I was and where I had
just left. The distance seemed interminable to me. All I wanted was to see my
mother and feel her embrace.
I was taken in by my maternal aunt who lived with her husband, son and dog.
My cousin was one year older and we were thick as thieves. We shared a room,
ate together, played together, even took bubble baths together. He was for all
effects and purposes my big brother, yet, I never felt at home, never a part of
that family. I wasn’t the daughter or the sister, I felt like la recogida. The
longing for my mamí cut deep. She claims it was only two weeks that we were
apart, yet my memory has flashbacks of a birthday in October, snow and a
Christmas tree. I also remember smelling flowers on the front lawn, lots of
rain, Otter Pops (a long-time favorite summer treat) and the family dog Laica,
bearing puppies. That could not have been a two week sleepover at my aunt’s
in Richmond Hill.
Years later, I discovered that during the time I was at my aunt’s home, my
mother was crossing multiple borders from Ecuador to Mexico and into the US.
Her odyssey is what we don’t speak about. My mind doesn’t play tricks on me,
it was longer than a two week stay. The confusion behind my mother’s silence
on the subject, a chapter in our history, perplexed me as a young woman and
does so still as I approach middle-age. However, I understand the hardship, the
danger and the physically arduous journey she endured just to be reunited with
me. As a young child, I never understood any of it, and the trauma of that
separation has stayed with me.
Being separated from my mother because of her immigration status, caused me
to suffer insecurities, night-time fears, separation anxiety and nervous ticks that
I carried throughout childhood and into adolescence. As an adult, I carry
multiple phobias that developed during that plane ride and throughout my stay
in Richmond Hill. Despite all the pain, however, I also developed strength and
resilience. I learned independence and self-reliance at an early age. Above all, I
learned how to be a good daughter to my mother who suffered so much and
who I honor with my accomplishments and the work I do, even though there
are several missing pieces, still….
*This is an excerpt of a memoir with a working title: “Full of Grace: On Becoming Latina”
Profe as a toddler, wearing a beautiful red lace dress her mother sewed for her to wear on her trip from Ecuador to the US. This photo was taken a couple of days before they separated. Red is an apt color. A favorite of Profe’s as it is the color of fear and fearlessness, struggle and survivance.
Graciela M. Báez (Profe) (BHSEC Queens)
Updates Every Sunday