Migrations The Law of Historical Memory
A strange inheritance from a grandfather resisting Franco and fascism in 1930s Spain.
“Whoa,” he said. Enunciating each potential sound, discovering others. Like the way NPR hosts say “hwite.” A true instance of onomatopoeia.
“You don’t drop a dime on your parents.” He was a marine stationed at the embassy—still is a marine, you’re never not one. A short Scott Eastwood from Fuquay Varina, North Carolina, pronounced “few-kway vuh-reena” and known to high schoolers the state over as “fuck-her vagina.” I was writing my way through Southeast Asia. We’d bonded over being Carolinians in Cambodia.
An instant flash of shame. Not hot but cold, stabbing.
I turned my attention to the smoldering butt of my cigarette, a crinkled, fetid cylinder dug from a shared pack, and flicked it. Still an awkward motion two years after a campaign friend taught me how in Southeast, DC. But the butt flew to its target beneath the wheel of a squat car, a beeline.
When I met his eyes, he started. His expression slid from smirk to gentle smile. He wasn’t really chiding me.
That moment remains vivid, a rarity for me. The cheap-beer buzz. Shambolic lawn chairs perched on uneven pavement, backlit by harsh neon. Standing seven feet diagonal from the bar’s door. Wanting short Scott Eastwood’s absolution. Stunned into shame in the street in Phnom Penh, otherness exposed again.
Another of the rare crystalline vignettes living in my head. A friend who taught me as a teenager, upon hearing some story long since lost, pursed her lips—a familiar moue reserved for deep thought on troubling topics—and quoted Donna Tartt. One character says of another, “You’d have to know his parents to understand.” They practiced “[r]ather an odd child-rearing method,” he explains, “like certain reptiles who hatch their young and abandon them to the elements.”
The first rule of child abuse is you don’t acknowledge child abuse. The second is that the object of abuse bears responsibility. This, it turns out, and gaslighting generally, are constants of abusive relationships. Abusers rarely recognize themselves as such. Individual acts, at most, qualified for capitulation. But not as such. Even in the absence of active abuse, there was no stability.
Unpredictability is in and of itself damaging. Animal studies suggest the consequences of negative unpredictability are not just psychological but physiological. In humans, “unpredictable and prolonged stress” during childhood causes the overdevelopment of brain areas linked to fear and anxiety. As well as a tendency toward fight-or-flight responses and wariness.
As a child, forgetting kept me alive. Home was a minefield. Staying attuned to two adults, reading their emotions, meant anticipating triggers and outbursts. Imagining outcomes, gauging the likelihood of each branching possibility, then planning a response to minimize damages was self-preservation, then second nature. These tactics were trickier beyond their walls. Surviving my parents proved poor practice for interpreting others’ cues; common social codes were foreign. Think, “bless her heart.”
School sated my thirst for predictability, for clear rules and stable structures. Intellectual distractions dulled the alienation; tests sought ready answers and rewarded logic. Even there, however, cliques and common ties—woven by committees, clubs, church—superseded rules. Other girls were sibylline cyphers, knowing and unknowable. I built a wall. Later, a façade. The lesson: Say what is not hard to say and few look harder.
Not until leaving at sixteen to spend the last two years of high school at a public boarding school did I experience belonging. There, among students plucked from across North Carolina’s one hundred counties united by their academic interests and under the tutelage of a trio of exceptional women, I thrived. Another clear moment: Dialing my grandmother on my Samsung shell phone after receiving an email admitting me to Harvard early. She replied shakily, “I don’t believe you.”
Admission to a college that existed more as ideal than institution in my mind seemed affirmation that scholarship could be my salvation. But it was an apogee in the astronomical sense; the descent was cruel. Cambridge proved institutions as well as people could operate on norms and rules to which I had no access. Extracurricular alternatives proved empty substitutes. Then, after the 2004 election, a spark. Advocacy beckoned.
“Dear Mr. Carville,” the email began. “On July 13, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Paul Begala at the National Campus Progress Leadership Conference.” The ostrich-skin-boot-and-suit pairing, though not uncommon for him, was unforgettable for me. As was his graciousness. “After expressing my appreciation for his comments on reconciling religion and the Democratic Party, I spoke briefly of my passion for the related problem of winning the South,” my clichéd, nineteen-year-old self disclosed. “Mr. Begala apprised me of a current book project he planned to co-author with you.”
The next August, in DC instead of Massachusetts, I began an internship with James Carville that evolved into a five-year fling with political consulting and campaigns. Politics became a new haven. “I don’t know if you’re weirdly brilliant,” Begala would email me three years later, when we were working together, “or brilliantly weird.” On campaigns, intensity is common and ability is king. The tendency to think differently, to follow the branches of possibility to extremes, had utility.
With confidence, another layer of other became conceivable. Being gay was unthinkable until my early twenties. “You just haven’t found the right one.” That poisonous aphorism, delivered with real zeal in the South, stuck. There was, too, the sense that it was me: “A guy would have to be into extreme sports to want to date you,” my father quipped. Meant to be funny, the line burrowed deep. More charitable, my mother urged me to lower my standards. “When you’re a girl in the South,” my friend Martha, a Georgia-born gay a generation and a half ahead of me, once told me in a droll drawl, “the only thing worse than being ugly is being smart.”
Surely God did not also have the other permanent “A” for me, one I could never hope to shed. It was statistically improbable. Then another bright moment, electric even: Reading The Price of Salt , Patricia Highsmith’s literary take on the lesbian pulp novel and finding a perfect description on the page. Therese gives Carol a response that surprises her. Carol replies, “What a strange girl you are.” “Why?” Asks Therese. “Flung out of space.” We do not always recognize the ways in which we are other for what they are; only that we are.
It took even longer to realize the extent to which this otherness owed to another aspect of my identity, that of a second-generation American, a Latinx suspended between cultures. Rarely does my ethnicity register with others. As a child charge once callously observed, I don’t “look” stereotypically Latinx. (Or, as she artlessly clarified, “like the people who paint houses,” another frozen moment.) Some part of this omission owed to active erasure—not mine but my mother’s.
In the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War, my mother’s father , a teacher in Pontevedra, Spain, wrote incendiary columns attacking Franco under the name Xan Calqueira, Galician for “any January.” Relatives took more direct routes to resistance, but my grandfather chose words. His writing was enough to make him a target.
The pseudonym did not protect him. Like other members of the Poza family, Hernán, my grandfather, was imprisoned, sentenced to death. He was more fortunate. A former student tasked with guarding him let him escape to Portugal, unwilling to have his teacher’s death on his conscience. With his first family, my grandfather fled to the United States by sea. Turned away initially, he went to Cuba then returned with documentation proving he had fled—not simply left.
This story coalesced out of documents and conversations. What parts are true remains unclear. Some are indisputable, a matter of record, but others are too cinematic, frankly false. Of my grandfather’s columns I am certain, although the copies are barely legible. They’re all that’s left, aside from a few photos and a caricature, of a man who died decades before my birth. They anchor my tenuous connection to Spain, the foundation of my claim to Spanish citizenship under what is in English the “Law of Historical Memory.”
The law allows those who can show descent from an individual who fled because of the Spanish Civil War to reclaim citizenship. Nearly ten years ago, the Spanish Consulate in Boston, satisfied with copies of bills of lading, papers from Ellis Island, and my grandfather’s columns, issued me a retroactive Spanish birth certificate. Because of his columns, I exist. And because I have his columns, I am now a citizen of a country I’ve met just once, for three days.
Papá’s life and legacy in the United States were more thoroughly documented. He went on to become an editor. His first marriage eventually failed. The second, to my grandmother, a Colombian immigrant twenty-four years his junior, would last until his death in his early sixties, of a heart attack, when my mother was eight; her sister, four.
My grandmother, who never attended high school, raised the girls alone on a secretary’s salary in Marine Park, Brooklyn, even as Sonia Sotomayor, her younger brother, and her mother made their way in the Bronx, fourteen or so miles away. Like Sotomayor, my mother excelled in school despite adversity. She arrived at kindergarten speaking Spanish, with a box of supplies the teacher handed back to my grandmother. When they moved to Arizona, the high school placed her in ESL courses because her last name harbored a “z.” Instead of Princeton, she’d end up at Stanford.
But in Palo Alto, as I understand it, my mother floundered, a first-generation college student in the US with little support, financial or familial. She found a place in Latino student organizations and among friends, but neither academic footing nor self-confidence. As the story goes, she wanted to be a teacher, but my grandmother slapped her when she heard of it. A French major, she went back for the credits she’d need to attend medical school then headed to Arizona for an MD.
These details emerged later. They might have helped as I struggled to navigate the corridors of an institution neither intended for nor accommodating of students like me, just as my mother had twenty-eight years before. It takes more than a generation to acquire institutional knowledge, cultural connections, and social ties.
In Cambridge, I was lost, adrift in a world where people talked about Suzuki lessons and private tutors. A neighbor’s $3,000 handbag splurges shocked me. These were phenomena that existed only in fiction. Among the polished progeny of Andover and Exeter, never having known someone who attended Harvard, I doubted myself. And listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell. Being unable to read those around me or rely on rules to guide me to success elsewhere, lacking any other source of confidence—a role family served for others—devastated me. Shame became self-loathing, fueled by a hyper-consciousness of a failure to excel as others had against greater odds.
At twenty-four, my mother married, precipitously. The groom, my father, an Irish-German Iowan, proposed to her in the car without looking at her. By twenty-seven she was a mother, a role that has always overwhelmed her, through some combination of accident and passive aggression, presumably. The box of contraceptive sponges moldering under a sink in a spare bathroom suggested less-than-rigorous birth control techniques. So, too, did the story of my birth my grandmother told me later in her life: Hours after I was born, with my grandparents in the room, my father threw a tantrum, insisting my mother come home. He didn’t even want a child, but he did want her to come home. It was Christmas Day. The moment of her telling has been stripped to words, sensations, and colors. The heavy satin fabric of a couch beneath my fingers; its bold stripes. Retaining more would be too painful.
Recognizing the origins of otherness allowed me to appreciate it. One is this legacy of otherness. Whether she would agree or not, my mother rejected swathes of her first-generation identity and, with it, the idea that it could be relevant to her daughters. She resisted things that reminded her of being set apart. Like discount shopping. Like language. Although Spanish was our first language, as it had been my mother’s, by the time we reached school, it had atrophied. Next year my mother will be sixty, as out of place as ever. She emphasized belonging, rejecting otherness. But recognizing sources of difference is empowering. With recognition comes the possibility of self-realization.
How and when did my grandfather decide to risk his life and right to reside in the country of his birth? The implicit predicate is staggering: I exist because my grandfather believed his political convictions were worth dying for. That the forces he fought now seem to be resurging makes this query timely.
Public recrimination following Brexit suggested the outcome might signal a fluke rather than a trend. Then the results of the US presidential election proved that at least one more cautionary tale would be needed for those who would resist the rise of nationalism. Even where nationalism has not prevailed, it continues to prosper.
Nationalist Geert Wilders wants to ban the Koran and enact a Muslim ban in the Netherlands. He even looks like Trump, a blocky ruddy face crowned by a peroxide pompadour. (As does, to my mind, Boris Johnson: The trio share a blousy aesthetic as well as tragic coifs.) While Wilders’s party failed to secure a parliamentary majority in March, they picked up eight seats.
This month we will learn the fate of Wilders’s ally in France, presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, the daughter of a Nazi who revels in reviling immigration and the EU. Whether she makes the run-off or not, her credible candidacy betrays an unsettling current of opinion. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to survive the September election, but take note: The far-right party won an election in Merkel’s home state.
Am I standing where my grandfather stood in the early 1930s, witnessing the onset of a fundamental ideological and political shift? How can we recognize events on such a grand scale? Beliefs that inspired violence in the last century are being validated; principles once enshrined, undermined. Even in countries where the scars of physical conflict are present, where conflicts arising out of nationalism and fascism reshaped generations. In the United States, removed from conflict, where memory seems much shorter, the barriers to nationalism’s ascension seem flimsier. Susceptible, apparently, to twittered nothings.
Following the possibilities branching from this realization scares me. “I knew this was my country,” my mother’s mother, Nana, once told me, “when I saw women smoking in the streets and wearing shorts.” She, nineteen, newly arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1954, recognized a totality in a glance. These were freedoms and rights women did not enjoy in Bogotá.
Nana could make a life in the United States because of those who fought for equal rights and legislation like the Civil Rights Acts and the Voting Rights Act. These activists and legislators upheld American ideals—democracy, liberty, and opportunity—by securing the political and economic enfranchisement of women and people of color in law. Throughout childhood, she was one of my only sources of stability. To be second-generation for me was to grow up adoring a woman who chose to become American and valued her citizenship actively.
Papá loved this country, as Nana, now ninety, does, and as I do, with an intensity that makes threats to its integrity immediately dire. The proximity to the legacies of ideological extremism, of fascism, may also heighten my concern—already well-developed, as a lesbian and a Latinx, as a lawyer with a keen sense of just how many civil rights can be erased or ignored.
The tension between far-right nationalism and little “d” democracy is no Spanish Civil War, but the principles at stake are becoming weightier by the day. What would I risk to resist the advent of radical political change in the United States? And what would it take to get me to leave all that I’ve worked for and dreamed of building here—to use the citizenship I inherited to flee the United States for Spain and plead use of the tiny apartment the Poza family still holds title to in Pontevedra?
The prospect of leaving without intent—or ability, if fleeing—to return terrifies me. Learning social mores familiar only in concept, through books, challenged me as a child in my own country. The effort to acquire an entirely new cultural grounding might undo me as an adult. The Spanish reacquired over years of study will never be mistaken for that spoken in Colombia or Spain. The narrow purple townhouse in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, that was mine for a year never felt like home, though it technically sits on US soil.
While not American in the way my mother envisioned, I am more American than anything else. More American than survivor; more American than lesbian. And only in the United States could the series of events—meetings, marriages, admissions—that frame my life have taken place. That is why I would fight for this America, even if it could mean leaving. Living in a country that no longer stands for the principles that drew my grandparents here, or the laws that made their lives, and mine, possible, would be worse.