Migrations When Your Mother Country Becomes a Foreign Land
I grew up in the in-between: white, Hispanic, a pigment of mixtures that blended unevenly.
Deep, jarring slopes line the path from Guatemala to Copán. Our small shuttle turns sharply with each curve, descending into the subtropical landscape. I’m surrounded by foreign tourists who stare out into the open, smiling and pointing toward the conic mountain tops masked in a warm shimmer of sunset, rocks turning the color of egg yolks. I stare into the mosaic boulders that look like faces etched into creases. Honduras . This is the home I’ve left behind since birth. My mother country, the place from which my earth-colored skin comes. This is the land of my first memories—where scraped knees became scars the shape of constellations. This is my mother’s home, and my Abuelita’s. Where my first word became a lifelong syllable.
Two red tuc tucs zoom by us, past the child who runs head-first into a steep hill awash in corn. The young Australian couple sitting in front of me points to the small ladies wearing large baskets on their heads. One of the women descends rapidly into the rough terrain, her hands gripping the edges of splintered wood. A funeral procession is underfoot on the road ahead. Men in large cowboy hats carry the casket as women clasp lanterns, candles, and flowers before crossing beyond the pine trees. How many loved ones have been buried in this place?
My mother country is now foreign to me, its vast plains echoing nostalgia. But I remember the dark-haired girl in torn sandals running through its fields , her tongue forming vowels and sounds in Spanish that she tossed eagerly toward friends and family.
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The first time I remember flying on a plane, I wore pigtails and my favorite yellow dress with matching shoes. When the plane took off, I stared, dazed, at the tiny people and cars that became smaller and more distant.
It wasn’t my first time leaving the world in such a way, watching it become both large and diminutive at once. I grew up in the in-between: white, Hispanic, a pigment of mixtures that blended unevenly. Middle child, a girl amongst two brothers. American, Honduran—outlier . A peg connected by two disparate points. My home and identity were neither definable nor permanent.
We initially lived in Honduras, in a home where the smell of corn tortillas wafted between clay walls as my grandmother circled around me with her tender smile, shuffling me toward her as she prepared huevos con frijoles. I often wrapped my small body around her skirts, and peered out at the many aunts and uncles who stopped by to visit the small kitchen.
My first words were in Spanish, and my first memories were spent in this tropical country of ripened mangoes and oversized plátanos; of lush greenery and smoked aromas. It was three years after I was born that we migrated to the United States. My American father insisted on living in sunny Florida to ease the cultural adjustment for my mother, who had never lived abroad. We flew from the expansive countryside of San Pedro Sula to the modern airfield of Orlando, eventually claiming it as our permanent home.
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I point to the gauzy herb dressing the roads. “What’s the name of that plant over there?”
“Mani Forajero,” my Guatemalan husband responds, before falling into a deep slumber beside me.
I nod to myself, remembering the feel of it against my palms. The memory is tactile, sitting just below the surface.
My parents often flew us back and forth between countries—leaving the cruel winters of the north for the sweltering heat of San Pedro Sula and the cooler mountains of Santa Rosa de Copán. Some of my earliest memories were spent running in its spacious fields with my brothers, pounding over anthills as the sun pierced our faces. We trod the earth without knowing whether it was “first” or “third world.” It was there that I learned how to pluck fistfuls of wild mushrooms from the ground and climb over rotted wooden fences in search of adventure.
At nineteen, I arrived in the Salvadoran airport with one suitcase and the customary naiveté my middle-class privilege afforded me. This other world was so appallingly different—and yet warmly familiar, with its smiling faces.
As a child, arriving each year to trash-covered streets and deteriorated buildings was a shock compared to the clean highways and modern facilities I grew up seeing in Georgia. Many of my visits with my Honduran cousins involved sitting around a circle and answering questions about my experience living in the US. Were the houses really as beautiful as the ones on TV? Did we own a car? How many toys did I have? They listened with rapt attention as I explained the yellow school buses that came to pick me up and drop me off every day; the pink-hued room with my large Barbie dollhouse and toy kitchenette. I shifted between pride and shame when detailing all of the commodities in my day-to-day life.
When I was nine years old, a young girl about my age with dark circles under her eyes and ragged clothing appeared in front of the home we were renting in Santa Rosa. I was alone at the time and stared at her through a window. For nearly an hour, she clung to the gate, loudly insisting I give her my spare clothes. My throat tightened before lying that I didn’t have any clothes to give. She left quietly, and my fear and irritation gave way to regret.
Later that evening, my family ran into her outside a small restaurant downtown. My father invited her to sit across from us and bought her an order of enchiladas. I didn’t say that she had visited us earlier, choosing instead to keep my head down as she carefully rolled the remains of her food into a napkin, explaining how she was saving the scraps for her sick mother back home.
Her face stayed with me when my classmates spoke of their five-star vacations and trips to Disney World, their visits to theme parks and white-sand beaches. Why can’t all kids live here? I wondered. Why do we get to feel safe and have nice things?
One summer, I found a miniature blue egg nestled within the cavity of a wooden fence. The egg was no larger than a marble in my palm. The nest was caught between my Abuelita’s land and her neighbors.
“Who does it belong to?” I asked my father.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s yours now.”
A couple of weeks after, the egg mysteriously disappeared. I searched the entire farm and surrounding areas hoping it would turn up, blaming myself for not being more careful.
I knew then that it had never been mine to keep. Some things are better left between worlds.
At age five, I asked my mother to dye my hair golden, so I could look like the other girls who occupied the playground of our apartment building—girls with blue eyes and pale skin and freckles, pink tutus tumbling around the monkey bars. “Mami, quiero ser rubia , ” I pleaded.
In the evenings, these girls’ mothers gathered them by the poolside, braiding their wet hair into ringlets and passing out cherry popsicles. My dark hair seemed murky in comparison to theirs, mottled against my skin. I did not consider myself beautiful as a child, especially when compared to my smaller brother, with blue eyes and perky pink lips, eyelashes that astonished strangers on the sidewalk. In the supermarket, people often remarked how fortunate my mother was to have such a boy—oh, how he looked like his daddy! I didn’t appear American like my white father, as was often pointed out to me.
At preschool, teachers walked me to the other children of color, children of immigrants. “You’ll have so much to talk about,” they’d exclaim, segregating the shape of our eyes and skin color into one small group of our own. The other kids made fun of my strange words, my rolling R s and distinct accent. I quickly learned that Spanish was less favorable, less acceptable.
Later, when we moved from our small apartment in Orlando to the suburbs of Georgia, my brothers and I marveled at the powder-white snow and large houses that seemed to be straight out of a movie. And though they rarely invited us into their homes, our neighbors were cautiously kind, politically affable to us.
“The woods can kill you,” my father claimed many times during my childhood. “People get lost beyond the trees and then everything looks the same.” He sipped his tea reverently, thoughtful of all those who had been lost to nature. His hometown of Bangor, Maine had left an impression on him all these years later. Snowcapped forests he had known were deadly silent, a far cry from the dense jungles of Central America that crackled with mysterious sounds.
When he met my mother, my father was a gold smuggler who traveled between towns and borders, eventually being caught by Nicaraguan soldiers in the midst of the Sandinista war in the ’80s. When he called my mother to tell her of his capture, she immediately boarded the next bus and bravely traveled the long distance to retrieve him. My normally fretful mother, who for years resisted driving in the US, who had never left her home country until that day. My father said he knew then that he loved her.
I wanted to burrow my head in these stories, cover myself with their silk strands. When did she lose her fearlessness? I asked. My father couldn’t tell me.
Having been raised on a small farm in Honduras, my mother wasn’t familiar with the American Way of things. She did not participate in PTA meetings or bake cupcakes for school events. We didn’t invite neighbors over for outdoor barbecues, and our lawn more closely resembled an untidy forest than a manicured garden.
Back in Honduras, my mother walked the streets alone and took buses. She frequented the Sunday market and braved its crowds without fear. In Georgia, she became watchful and anxious at social gatherings, her eyes darting from one white neighbor to the other. Afterward, she became ill with an assortment of headaches and stomach pains. During this time, my mother’s hair remained a bright auburn, her dark roots rarely visible.
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When we finally arrive in Copán, I press my husband’s palm before emerging from the small shuttle we’ve spent the last day in. I watch as the other tourists shuffle out and marvel at the towering trees and bright colors. The night air is damp with traces of smoked tortillas and tobacco wafting from the park . Smoothing my black hair, I step out and greet my first home. She is warmly familiar to my skin, as gentle and welcoming as a mother’s touch.