The spirit of manifest destiny has been rebranded into the travelogue.
In this age of going nowhere, I’ve been thinking about the times I could not sit still. My life has been defined by the arc of a plane. If my mother hadn’t boarded a plane from Colombia to England in 1976, she never would have met my father. If my British father hadn’t left London for a one-year teaching job in Houston solely on the basis of his love of American diners and cowboy boots, I would not have been born in the States. If my parents hadn’t crisscrossed the ocean once more when I was a kid, movement may not have felt so integral to who I am.
Wallace and Gromit
As a teen, a leather-skinned shop clerk in Notting Hill flicked back a straw of peroxide-blonde hair as she insisted my mother open her fist-sized purse, ignoring the mountainous camo backpack I sported, one of its burlap cords hanging down and brushing my bare midriff. Red-faced and scowling, I lunged at the woman, demanding to know why my mom was being searched and I was not. As I expounded on the dangers of casual racism, lifted directly from my high school ethnic studies course, my mother quietly peeled me back by the arm. The woman pursed her thin, candy-pink lips as she watched my mother shepherd me down the street, using all of her five-one stature to contain the gangly arms and legs of my lanky five foot six. On the walk home, my mother nodded intermittently, fiddling with her purse strap as I continued my tirade, building arguments to prove my allegiance to her but not stopping to ask how she felt.
While a college student in Northern California, I opted for a study-abroad program in Argentina, attempting to pursue a “full” sense of Latin American diaspora. I took printmaking classes at an art school in La Boca, spent my nights drinking maté and carving woodcuts, careful not to leave an ink residue on my host mother’s linoleum floor. Occasionally I’d be goaded into going out by my friends, sweaty nights at the local discotecas, which were mostly crammed with tourists.
Then I’d have my oral exams and be completely undone, skin sticky under a florescent light in the middle of the day, paralyzed by the fear of tripping over words that were supposed to come naturally. I shakily stated I was pregnant instead of embarrassed, horny when I meant cold. I bumbled through basic conjugations, announcing that I was “at” a place instead of “of” it, an ironic blunder that our Spanish instructor, a willowy woman dressed exclusively in pencil skirts, winced at from the corner of our classroom. The other American students rolled their shoulders to my mistakes, softly chatting to each other as I tried to breathe out my blush and subtly wipe away smudged eyeliner.
When it was their turn, they slunk from their seats in stained T-shirts, oversize cargo shorts, and sandals, belted out a few flattened, slow vowels, and then called it a day, shuffling off to plan parrilla dinners, tango classes, tours of the coast. For them, this was a dip into the foreign, a collection of anecdotes to rack up and tell their children about in twenty years. For me, a sculpted Spanish was necessary infrastructure for authentic cultural allegiance. I covered the anxiety up with bravado outside of class, mocking the twangy accents of the other study-abroad students to the misfits I had friended as I leaned on a scuffed university wall, cigarette in hand.
At the discoteca, I laid out my family map to anyone who would listen, meticulously listing the origins of each migration from Latin American city to city, coast to coast. I told anyone who would listen that my blood ran through this continent. But people saw the act for what it was—lip service, a grasping for recognition to be politely nodded at as they reached around me for another beer.
Though my mother’s side is from Colombia, we have roots all over Latin America. From Cuba to Peru, I tracked mannerisms—a particular lilt in the voice, a slope of the nose. I parachuted through the continent in the hopes that some long-lost clan would claim me, that I could somehow pancake into their version of latinidad. In Lima, I found the shop where my grandmother sewed dresses, saving up money to take her children away from the swell of civil war. In Cuba, I looked for the cattle ranch my great-grandfather worked on. Each trip lasted only a few weeks, and I decided I needed more time to put the pieces together.
Under the auspices of researching a book on family history, my friend H and I traveled to Minca, a small town tucked into the Sierra Nevadas a few hours from the coastal Colombian port city my mother grew up in. From Santa Marta, we rode via the bed of a pickup truck to a commune that cited its “locals-only vibe,” heart-stopping views, and close-knit, eco-minded community. I had salivated over photos of fluffy emerald hills, millennial-pink sunsets, and waterfalls that tumbled into swimming holes, a mash-up of tropical paradise and quasi-homecoming playing like an early 2000s music video in my head as I pictured myself working the land, connecting with kin.
When we arrived, our moto taxi dropped H and me off at a splinter in the forest. Our driver nodded with amusement at the look of trepidation on our faces. We walked the narrow path through a tarp of vines that seemed to lead to nowhere. Just when we thought we might have taken a wrong turn, a cluster of cabins sprung into view, ringing a wooden house.
In front of the house was a large algae-infested pond, where four Australians crouched by the water, chatting as they dipped slabs of bread into a jar of peanut butter. Across the commune’s lawn, a sea of blonde dreads and tribal-print parachute pants abounded. The commune’s property overlooked a verdant hillside. A smattering of sunburned American and British tourists did downward dog into the sunset as a freckled lady wearing a headwrap circled them to adjust their backs.
We passed through a smoke-filled living room riddled with dogeared couches where a half-nude man performed reiki over a fully naked woman laying on a wooden table. He hovered his palms a centimeter over her nipples. “I’m feeling a lot of heat here,” he announced. Out on a balcony punctuated by hammocks we found our host, a stout man from Mexico City with a tangle of brown hair down his back and a hand-rolled cigarette perpetually between his lips. He hopped out of his hammock to give us a tour, from the communal joint jar to the outdoor shower. “All rainwater,” he told us proudly. “The Gods provide.” I didn’t bother to ask him which ones.
By then I was electric with disappointment and disdain. I’d come to learn more about my family’s background, but what I’d gotten was a bite-sized world tour of Western appropriation. I opened my mouth to say as much to H, but she spoke before me. “This place is magic,” she sighed, tucking her hands underneath her ankles, looking out at the horizon with purpose. I seethed in silence. To her, this was a place of opportunity. To me, it had held the possibility of feeling whole.
I looked out onto the orange sun burning a path through the sky and realized that I was more ashamed of myself than angry at her. She, like me, was a product of her environment. Whether I wanted to admit it or not, both of our approaches to this place had been shaped by capitalism and a sense of conquest.
The spirit of manifest destiny has been rebranded into the travelogue. Any number of blogs encourage readers to seize adventure, that it’s something to be taken advantage of like a grocery-store coupon or unseasonably good weather. Influencers denounce the confines of capitalism (the desk job, the 401(k)) while embracing the language of neoliberalism, its anthropological crawl across the arc of colonial relation. I had railed against this attitude for years, bolstered by college readings of José Martí and Aimé Césaire, but sitting there, gathering clumps of grass between by fingers and listening to my friend jot out her plan to stamp my beloved hills with an American haven of Eastern medicine, I realized I had also comewith the intention of extracting something. I wondered, what really separated me from the travel blogger blabbering about wanderlust? The Australian backpacker pontificating on the dangers of capitalism while downing Cheez-Its?
On a trip to London with my mother and sister, they rolled their eyes at me as we boarded a South Kensington bus. “London just feels like home,”I had mused. “Easy for you to say,” my sister muttered, scanning my light skin. She glanced at the pinched-lipped, pearl-clad ladies on the bus, who clamped their purses to their laps in response. “You’ve always fit in here.” My mother nodded.
Whether I wanted to admit it or not, both of our approaches to this place had been shaped by capitalism and a sense of conquest.
My lip twitched. I looked away. I remembered the cascade of interviews my mother had gone on while we lived in England, using my father’s last name only to be turned away once she got through the door, the position miraculously filled. What had been an idyllic childhood for me, living in a dilapidated farmhouse without electricity, roaming the buttercup fields and thickets of Southwest England, had been a sinkhole of economic hardship and racism for her. As a child, I had thought growing our own food was an adventure and not a necessity.
On the bus, I gripped the handrail and stared out the window at a blur of black taxis and umbrellas, unable to meet my mother’s gaze. In my efforts to feel close to her, to take pride in the cultural legacy she had gifted me, I’d doctored her subjectivity in a way that suited me, claiming it as mine while remaining blind to how easily I moved through the world in ways she could not.
The commune revealed myself to me more than any faux back-to-the-land fantasy ever could. Instead of finding the self that I wanted to be, I was thrown into relief with what I did not want to become. But of course that was a naive notion. Knowledge and access are intertwined. I couldn’t come here to “learn” about myself or my family without dragging the colonial framework just as endemic to my personhood with me.
My search for a complete sense of cultural identity was just as exploitative as any Wayuu mochila resold for triple the price on Etsy. Constantly traveling, remaining stubbornly mired in this sense of nonbelonging, was actually a denial of my privilege. It wasn’t that this place had failed me; it was that I had failed it.Like a codependent lover, I tried to make it my world, force it to define me.
A year into lockdown, my years spent fanned across Latin America feel literally and metaphorically far away. I see now, in a way I couldn’t quite grasp back then, that this cultural cherry-picking made me no different from any other clueless tourist. I couldn’t keep running away from the responsibilities of who I am, even if who I am is an inherently slippery concept, filled with fissures. There is no place that can fill up the fissures, and to try was to fail before I’d even begun.
Something funny has happenedto me during the pandemic. In the before times, I ran from my feelings—hopping on the next train or bus or plane in search of some unlocatable belonging. I allowed that longing to solidify into idealization, making “home” a site outside of me. Now, I’ve learned to sit with my multiple, and not-always-welcome, selves, to track the surge of multiplicity rising inside me without fleeing.
I see myself as malleable, thoughts flexing like weather patterns. If I wait long enough, I’ll get to the other end of the emotional spectrum. Maybe we’re meant to be porous, our selfhoods built to bend, shrink, or expand the vertebrae of our being. Maybe I’mmeant to take off right where I’m sitting.
ROSA BOSHIER is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her short fiction, essays, art criticism, and creative nonfiction have appeared in Guernica, Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, The Offing, The Rumpus, Artforum, Hyperallergic, Vice, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, among others