The Homeland or Something Like That
My grandmother adored Ronald Reagan. As a child, I just took this to be one of her many idiosyncrasies, along with the very deliberate way she posed in pictures with limbs akimbo and how she sometimes burst into tears while driving to Pizza Hut. Pretty much from when I can remember being able to synthesize thought into sound, I complained to her about how much I hated Houston, her adopted hometown and my birthplace. Houston was built by oil tycoons on top of a swamp. It’s a place where children dread the late summer months not because of school, but because of the thick humidity and the futile attempt to play sports in triple-digit temps.
But my grandmother, known in my family as Lina, loved Houston and loved Reagan because this place and that surprisingly pro-immigration president gave her family and all its succeeding generations a new life far from her homeland, Peru. The myth of the American Dream looms far and wide.
La Molina, Lima, Peru
My first trips to Peru blur together in the way that childhood memories exist somewhere on the edge of reality, in the moments after waking when your brain is trying to piece together where you are, who you are, if you really did just escape an evil parking garage with a lion chasing you.
Tia Grimalda, my grandpa’s older sister, lived only with her maid/caretaker/devoted friend, Maquita. Grimalda’s house felt cold and always smelled of a spice I couldn’t quite identify, something too fragrant and foreign and never found in a common American kitchen. The house had those steps with the separation between them, where you could peek your head through as a child and peer at those down below.
As a child, I already enjoyed sleeping in. Each morning, I woke up later than Lina and my mother, and I sneaked out of my bed and peered between the steps at the breakfast table, trying to understand the rapid-fire Spanish between my grandmother and the foreboding Tia Grimalda, who was always yelling at me in words that I struggled to understand.
My curly hair stuck up wildly around my head as I headed down the stairs to join the women at the table. Lina cooed good morning greetings to me while she warmed up milk for my breakfast. As she stepped into the narrow kitchen with its fading yellow tiles, Grimalda looked at me forebodingly. “Por que no hablas espanol mihijita, es muy importante cualquier cosa quieres haces en el future porque todavia hay gente en estados Unidos que solamente hablan espanol, hay chispues, que queieres comer para desayuno, fideos otra vez?”
I looked at her, then went to the kitchen to stand with Lina between us.
Nearly all the houses in Grimalda’s neighborhood, in every neighborhood of the city stretching to the outskirts, shacks on the side of dirt mountains, have exposed beams sticking out of the tops of the highest floor. I noticed these incomplete houses on every visit but didn’t feel secure enough in my Spanish to ask anyone about them until years later. My kindest tia, Marcela, explained finally that these metal arms waving up to the sky were there for the houses to be further built upon, to add more floors and more space, someday. I asked her, in my Spanish I generally refer to as “basura,” what the deal was. Marcela’s husband, my tio Ivan, responded, “Creo que la gente espera terminar.”
On one of those first trips, I woke up in what felt like the dead of night – it was probably 10pm – and cried out for my mother or grandmother. They were out visiting family members, probably drinking tea and eating bread late into the night.
But Maquita quickly padded across the stone floors and into my room to hold me in her arms. Her high-pitched voice sounded like a bird, always on the edge of squawking. She rocked me back and forth, cooing “Lindita Luisita, ahh mi amor, tranquila, tranquila.” Once I stopped crying, she melted chocolate D’onofrio squares in warm milk for me to drink and soothe me back to sleep.
I was a terrible traveler (though in my defense, what 5 to 10-year-old isn’t?) and to this day, everyone in the family laughs at my inability to eat anything but fideos and hamburguesa. I fought with my cousins, sister Antonella and Claudia (mostly Antonella – she was kind of a bitch back then) and freaked out whenever Lina or my mother went on these late evening visits to her friends and family. Everyone spoke too fast, the streets were frightening and filled with mad drivers, and the food was bizarre.
On every visit, Lina and I got on a bus that slowly – slowly – chugged upwards into the mountains. On every visit, I had a wicked case of elevation sickness. My stomach churned with every lurch on the bus, the dizzying heights and the breakneck turns and the half-formed thought that we could at any moment spiral back down through the mist, into the valley, to death. At moments death seemed more appealing than having to throw up again.
Chupaca is a village – or whatever a place is when you can walk across its entirety in 15 minutes – further up into the mountains from the nearest big city, Huancayo. At the time, it had a town square surrounded by dirt roads, and from my Tio Lucio’s house to my Tia Cushta’s house on the other end of town was a brisk 10-minute walk. The air had a clean bite to it, impossibly crisp. But there was no McDonald’s. This was a problem for me.
I sat at a table covered with a plastic tablecloth covered in cartoonish strawberries, relatives surrounding me, half-listening to their hours of catching up, sipping my warm chocolate milk and nibbling on bread. A 90-something-year-old woman set up her tent to sell her wares on the market days in town, using her wrinkled hands to pat together dough, endless dough. The grooves of time were well-worn in her face, filled with decades of perfecting this local delicacy, being watched by passersby and me. Her bread was akin to an English muffin, full of air holes, chewy, earthy, hearty. It was perfect to split in half and soak up fresh butter or palta or just to scarf by itself, especially when warm. I never didn’t eat bread.
Tio Lucio and Tia Concho’s house always felt cold to me then too, with too many rooms and levels and doors. There was a big staircase in the center of the house that felt a little too steep, and I tiptoed down it every morning, one step at a time for fear of falling. The tile and the hardwood floors echoed the emptiness of a home that once housed nine children. My mother whispered of my long-lost Tia Angela, the one who killed herself years before I was born. For some reason, I always assumed she threw herself down the stairs. I felt the coldness of her presence some days.
The water didn’t heat up after dark in Chupaca. I was only six or seven on these first visits, young enough to not be embarrassed at my grandmother helping run my bath. If we had let too much of the day pass, she had to boil buckets and buckets of water in the kitchen to fill up the tub so I could scrub without shivering.
Peruvians tragically enjoy eating cuoy, aka guinea pig. This always disturbed me, still disturbs me, especially on my solitary walks out to Tio Lucio’s expansive backyard. There were views overlooking the roadways back down to Huancayo, the mountains covered in mist, the rolling hills of green and brown. The backyard had a big empty swimming pool where another cousin and I played games and chased each other in circles and called out in the expansive echoes of the cement walls of the deep end. And there was an enclosure, filled with cuoys. I had never had a guinea pig (probably for this reason), but I always loved animals and would get close to try and pet the little creatures. They squealed and scampered to the corner of the enclosure, squeaking and chittering anytime I got near. The women of the house laughed at me expressing deep sadness and horror at killing them in my broken basura espanol. (Not that I had any right to talk at the time. I loved burgers.)
The streets of Chupaca always had rickety vans flying down every which way, with a young man hanging by a finger out the side door of the van, screaming out, “Huancayo, Huancayo! HUANCAYO, HUANCAYO!” The vans were packed with villagers going down to the city and vice versa, sometimes chickens or dogs accompanying them. Stray dogs were – are – everywhere, which perplexed me. Where did they each belong? Why did they live in the gutters on market scraps? My dog back home was fixed and safe in her backyard house – what was going on here?!
At some point, I noticed Lina only ever took us to stay and visit with my grandpa’s family. This was a bit odd, considering Lina and Papa had been separated for most of my life, and had divorced an inconclusive number of years before. She simply said, “Papa’s family es mas agradable.”
My mother’s house had a converted garage room where I spent many late nights writing in my LiveJournal and chatting with my friends on AIM. Intermittently, Papa lived with us in that extra room. All our relatives in Peru lived three generations to a household, if not more, so it never seemed out of the ordinary. In the years before she bought a house, after her divorce from my father, we moved from apartment to apartment, sometimes with Lina, sometimes with Papa, sometimes with neither. Everyone in the immediate family was always floating on the peripheral, if not just sitting in the next room.
Papa had his easel set up in a corner of the musty, stuffed room, shelves overflowing with junk and old schoolwork of mine and books nobody ever read. He had a cacophony of paints surrounding his work station, where he sat and worked for hours in silence. For all his grandchildren’s birthdays, he painted our favorite scenes as we each progressed through childhood – Lassie and a small herd of pups for me, Barney for a littler cousin, a baseball player hitting a home run for my brother. But he always came back to scenes from his home.
“Mira, mira.” Papa gestured at his half-finished work as I tried to sneak to the old desktop computer.
“Que es?” I struggled to communicate with Papa more than Lina. He never quite learned English.
“Nahuimpuquio.” He enunciated it slowly so I could follow. “Practicas!” I rolled my eyes at him.
Those years in school, we learned about ancient civilizations and the European conquerors who helped bring them down. My friends joined me in my personal vendetta against Francisco Pizarro for “conquering” the Incan empire. Sure, empires invariably fall, but Pizarro also just seemed like a typical imperialistic asshole type. Although my genetics and those of most Peruvians today reflect the inevitable mix between native Peruvians and conquering Spanish assholes, we still collectively harbor a bit of resentment towards Pizarro. So, naturally, on the middle school playground my friends and I would spit on the grass, pretending it was Pizarro’s grave. It felt like the least I could do.
My mother brought me and the little brother and the stepdad on a trip back to the homeland when I was 12 or so. (I was slightly less of a whiny little bitch at this point.) One of our many stops was a ride in a rickety little Cessna plane. I climbed into one with my mother, and as the pilot dove and tipped we shrieked in utter terror while the pilot probably laughed at us, but it was all dulled by the roar of the plane. I became more like my mother in these moments, unwittingly mimicking her high-pitched shrieks.
Below were the Nazca Lines, ancient etchings in the desert sand. They haven’t faded and can only be seen fully from far up above, the great-great-grandfathers of crop circles. The Nazca people labored to move the rocks of the desert plains, one by one, revealing a softer, lighter soil underneath, though it’s unclear how they could create these geoglyphs to gigantic scales, spanning sometimes 30 miles, a unit of measurement they would have no concept of.
There is a ton of speculation on who or what could have created the ancient wonders of the world. It couldn’t have possibly been people…right? Did aliens build it all? I resent the historians and archeologists being supposedly so baffled at how things could have been done – who knows what people knew 1,000 years ago? 5,000 years ago? These ancient homies would be equally baffled at the tiny glowing things we’re constantly looking at. (Then again, I’m not a historian or archeologist, so I may be oversimplifying things a tad.)
Our old beat-up Nikon could not capture the intricacies of what we saw as the plane tipped back and forth and the pilot happily chattered away. A spider with its legs splayed to its front and back at heady angles. A hummingbird with parallel lines for wings, moving so quickly that its depiction stood dead still. A monkey with a whirling spiral tail that reminded me of that game you play in middle school where you tell the person to stop and they count the spirals to reveal who you’ll marry, where you’ll live, what you’ll do, how many kids you’ll have.
As my mother squealed with delight as well as continued horror, I looked down and thought of every trip to every beach, the prank drawings on dirty car windshields, and now, the inches of fluffy snow on my ice-encrusted Mazda3.
“Luisa was here”
“please wash me”
I wondered what was being said between these lines in the desert sand to us so far in the future.
“I was here”
“there was a hummingbird”
“and a spider too”
“please don’t wash me”
My people are big fans of trinkets and jewelry, which I am not, but one day in my freshman year of high school I wore earrings in the shape of the Nazca spider. A boy in algebra asked me what they were. I, for some stupid reason, could not remember, so I said, “The…Nasdaq?..or something?” He stared at me.
Machu Picchu, Cusco, Peru
The plane landed, and my mother, stepfather, baby brother, and I all trotted off and out onto the tarmac. The mid-sized airport was filled with a trillion tour guide options, young men offering their guidance to the region, personal tours of the ruins, money exchanges, anything a clueless tourist could possible need. I always felt safe with my mother and her native tongue that could steer us clear of scams – except that she’s impossibly gullible and more than once, my stepdad or I had to pull her away from someone trying to sell her something.
My stomach roiled and I felt dizzy. I either stayed in bed for two days or for a few hours that felt like two days. I couldn’t eat, though the sweet lady cook of the little hotel made me soft scrambled eggs and whispered to my mother that she wished me better health soon. The TV had some fuzzy telenovela playing, and I could hear noises from the courtyard of children playing and dishes clanking.
But we were in Cusco for a once-in-a-lifetime sort of deal, so I had to get my shit together. Either the next day or the next after that, we were making our way up Machu Picchu. I tried to keep my insides in as we climbed up the staggering steps. My fear of heights had either not yet coalesced in my young mind, or I was still delirious from the altitude sickness and I just figured death was the next logical step. At the top, I stood in my orange-and-pink striped shirt, a blend of a grimace and a grin settled on my face, as I tried to appreciate what our people had built.
We all listened to the tour guide a bit, but we were mostly dazed at the sheer scope of the place. Though I still resented the implications that the Incans couldn’t have done this on their own, I don’t know how the hell human beings could have gotten up the side of this mountain, let alone built something atop it. I peered over edges, wondering how many dead bodies lay far below the mist. My brother, still only a toddler, nearly ran off the edge to join them. Some European tourists grumbled loudly about the stupidity of bringing a child to such a place.
My family had, not shockingly, woken up earlier than me one morning. Since I was in the full bloom of late adolescence-to-awkward young womanhood, I had become a huge fan of sleeping in. The Peruvians, of course, all woke up with the sun and were on their second meal by the time I typically was out of bed.
We stayed at Tia Cushta’s house, which had so many bedrooms I didn’t have to share on this leg of the trip. There were breakfast remnants on the wooden dining room table, cold cafecito and the least-appealing leftover hunks of pan de Chupaca. I nodded at the girl who worked in the house as she did her chores, not wanting to fully embarrass myself with my basura espanol this early in the day.
My sweater felt slightly too tight and my jeans disproportionate to the shape of my body as I walked the ten minutes across town from Tia Cushta’s to her brother Tio Lucio’s, where I figured my family would be. Almost as if on cue, a group of boys in the middle of town hollered out at me – “Ay, chica! Que bonita, venga aqui!” They whistled and made kissy noises and laughed as I hurried past, holding my arms tightly over my chest. No wonder Lina always said she didn’t want her kids marrying Peruvians, I thought.
Nobody answered the front door, so I let myself through the gate and wandered into the backyard. I found Lucio digging, working on some project with his bare hands even though he was something like 85 years old at the time. He turned to me, at first confused, then in shock, exclaiming, “Eres una mujer!” This was somewhat true at 16, and I realized most of the family still had only seen me as a child.
I didn’t get elevation sickness anymore and wasn’t nearly as picky an eater. My Spanish was still basura, but I tried my best and got laughed at often by my cousins, particularly when I accidentally said “concha” instead of “concho.” (Turns out it means cunt. Shrug.)
But over that week or so, Chupaca started to reveal more to me – the dazzling beauty and uniqueness of the rainbow-patterned textiles, woven sweaters, the shawls and skirts, made from soft Alpaca wool; the perpetually 90-year-old woman still kneading dough with her strong, wrinkled hands; the bright array of fruits displayed in overflowing heaps on market day; the clean bite of freshly squeezed papaya juice.
Los Angeles, California
“California es un decepcion!” Lina hissed at me. She hated everything about LA – the overpriced food, the unyielding traffic, the insufferable weirdos, and my new studio apartment filled with roaches.
We sat at my favorite coffee shop as I sipped on espresso and she added more heaps of sugar to her milky coffee. She sneered openly at the hipster couples and aspiring actors and wannabe musicians with neon yellow hair and lip piercings, all the creatures that lazily inhabit any trendy east side café on a Thursday afternoon. Before she could say anything insulting too loudly, I would interrupt, muttering, “En espanol, Lina, por favor.”
Lina had cancer, but she didn’t act like it. I drove us back and forth across the sprawling city as I scurried to fruitless job interviews and she helped me move my stuff out of my last college apartment and into the roach-filled Hollywood slum. One night we slept in the front seat of my car, my cat nestled in her carrier between us, as roach bombs spewed noxious gases back at the studio apartment.
She always found a way to get what she wanted or needed, whether it be to move her entire family to another country, or to find an Inka Cola in a seedy part of downtown LA. When we returned in the morning to find live roaches crawling on the bombs themselves, she used her Spanglish to help me break the lease and get the deposit back.
Papa was away on his yearly pilgrimage to spend the holidays with the Peruvian family. Most of them didn’t know that Lina was dying. She was a proud woman, the sort that didn’t want others to see her in such a weakened state, unable to move or eat or drink or go to the bathroom on her own.
My tio, known in the immediately family as Tio, set her up at his home, with a hospital bed and a sling to move her from room to room. Nurses came to check in on her twice a day and help us give her medication, check her vitals, offer support. The three of her children and five grandchildren and one great grandkitty – the same who had slept between us in the car – gathered in various permutations as the holidays crawled by. My cat nestled on the couch between Lina and me as we all watched her favorite movies on repeat, as we gave her morphine to dull the cancer’s edge, as I stroked the soft skin of her arm in what I hoped gave her some small comfort.
With great reluctance, I went out with my high school best friend on New Year’s Eve. We went to our favorite country western bar. She tried to pull me onto the dance floor as I kept my head tilted back in the light of the disco saddle every time I felt an oncoming tear.
My phone rang at 9am the next morning as I stirred on the air mattress at my friend’s house. She had little to say – just “I’m sorry” and “I love you,” which pretty much covers it – as my friend swiftly wrapped the remains of a cake we had half eaten the night before. My cousins, aunt, uncle, mother, brother and I silently ate cake together as the paramedics pronounced her dead.
It was and is an open family secret that Papa always loved Lina, and perhaps Lina had always loved Papa but would never forgive him, for reasons we have lost over time. He returned a few days after her death, collapsing in sobs on my mother’s doorstep. Lina had always been the love of his life, even if they spent nearly 20 years of that life apart.
I wonder if Lina would be mad if I were to take some of her, and when it happens, Papa’s, ashes back to Chupaca and scatter them together in the graveyard where their parents and ancestors rest.
I wonder if Lina would be mad if I gave up bigger dreams to take myself back to Chupaca, to let myself rest.
San Isidro, Lima, Peru
A year later, my mother, stepdad, brother and I returned to celebrate the holidays with the Peruvian family. I was fully in the young adult phase of trying to make everything in my life thematically fitting, or just, meaningful – reading the last chapter of an incredible book while looking out over the sparkling sea, thinking about my grandmother and wondering why she ever wanted to leave this place and create a new life so far away.
Christmas Eve was at my mother’s cousin’s house, with her parents, aka my Papa’s sister and her husband. From age 12 on, every trip to Peru involved me making an extremely intricate family tree in order to understand who the hell all these people were that were calling me Luisita and fondly recalling my deep love for McDonald’s and fideos. I’d interrogate tias and tios, try to cobble together dates and timelines and marriages and number of children and place of residence, but the general idea boiled down to: everyone older is a Tia or Tio (if they’re not a mama or abuela) and everyone vaguely your age is a primo or prima. Easy enough.
Fireworks went off on the street outside, even in my Tia Chabela’s gated community, and a fire roared inside as we all exchanged gifts. The old men sat on the couch and joked in mumbled tones about how old they were. “Que?” “QUE?!” We drank ponche, a delicious warm milk made out of a blended variety of nuts that is painstakingly laborious to make (I dreaded helping Lina peel the nuts every year, but I like to think I did it when she asked).
Mountains in Junin
I was determined not to be a brat anymore at this age, but on the way back down from the mountains, something happened on the two-lane road and everything…stopped. For hours. A family got off one of the other buses stopped in traffic and they all laughed while simultaneously peeing and/or shitting on the side of the road, fully in view of everyone else who was stuck. There were no shops, gas stations, houses, nothing around us but steep drop offs and more mountains. A few shacks sat precariously on the edges of this one road where people somehow lived with certain death looming a few wrong steps that way in the darkness.
I felt myself regressing by a year every half-hour that we were stuck. That first hour, I scrolled through every grainy movie and TV selection available on the modernized bus we were taking. There was no wifi – which, duh, we were in the middle of the mountains. My mother and Tia Marcela happily chatted away.
Another hour into not moving, I had to grit my teeth from not just spitting in rage. I angry-whispered to my mother: “What is happening? How can they do this?”
“I don’t know, darling, there’s probably an accident. You know it takes a while for cars to get up here.” They kept chatting and laughing.
“What are we supposed to do?” I tried not to curse directly at her but muttered curses to myself between sentences.
Tia Marcela interjected, “Ay Luisita, que paso mihijita? Ya estas lista para salir? Todos Tambien, pero, que hay? Nada mas que montanas.”
My mother asked if I need to go to the bathroom. I said something along the lines of, I would rather jump into the abyss than shit on the side of the road. She shrugged and turned back to Marcela to talk about what their 30 other cousins were up to.
Miraflores, Lima, Peru
For reasons I can’t remember, my family flew home the night of New Year’s Eve (I blame my stepdad) while I stayed behind to celebrate with a couple of primas. Claudia loaned me a see-through blouse and we got ready for a night on the town.
Her friend’s apartment was in their same trendy neighborhood, Miraflores, one of the “good” parts of Lima. It was a decently raucous party, with plenty of people our age rapidly chattering away in Spanish. One partygoer latched onto me and though I was only vaguely interested, I talked to him because he spoke the best English. We all drank and waited for the display right outside the window – Peruvians have no qualms about setting off gigantic fireworks displays in densely populated areas. Every street of Lima was lit up in smoke and lights.
Long after midnight, Claudia and her friend took me to a smoky club where we danced in low red light, rum and cokes and cigarettes in hand. We yelled at each other in half-basura Spanish, half-broken English, as guys occasionally pulled one of us away for a slow dance. But we’d break apart from them laughing, another drink in hand, before we stumbled out blinking to the New Year’s dawn.
In the taxi on the way home, Claudia handed me a cigarette. I hate cigarettes, but there’s a time and a place for almost everything. I held it between my fingers delicately, blowing the smoke outside the window as the driver ricocheted down the gloriously empty, quiet city streets.
We spent my last few hours in the country at the beach, reveling in the mildly warm day. I’d always asked my mother what it was like to have Christmas in the summer, and she just said that’s how it was. Santa in a suit and Christmas sweaters and chestnuts roasting on an open fire were just as foreign to them.
My primas and I got snow cones made with real fruit puree. I explained to them, poorly, that in the US snow cones were made with sickly-colored syrups and not real fruit. They looked disgusted. We licked them down as we gazed over the Pacific from our blanket spread over the dark grey rocks.
While I was away at college and my brother was going through his elementary school years, he spent the bulk of his time with Papa, who lived in the biggest bedroom upstairs of the suburban home my mother and stepdad had moved into. His easel, a comfy chair, a TV with the ongoing drone of Telemundo, a bed, a desk and a shelf filled with pictures of his grandchildren all fit easily into the corner room.
My brother and Papa would go drive around the suburbs after school, him bugging Papa to buy him Chick-fil-a or Whataburger, Papa easily acquiescing after minimal resistance. As the years passed, my brother noticed Papa’s trouble driving, shaking as he poured sugar into his coffee, the way he would bang a fork against his plate repeatedly, as if to purposefully annoy, but also to take some control of his body back. This led to my brother teaching himself how to drive at 12 years old and continuing to go to fast food places with Papa, just their places in their car reversed.
Papa was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few years later. His yearly pilgrimage to the homeland was no longer possible on his own, and with the increasing limitations of this shitty disease, my family wanted him to visit Peru at least one more time – but with a companion. I was unemployed, broke, and deeply annoyed with my attempts at a life in LA, so I agreed to go, if someone could please pay my rent.
Tia Grimalda’s house was no longer her house, as she now lived with my closest primas and their parents, and she was extremely docile and not frightening in the least anymore. Papa and I stayed in a hotel, and on our first night, Papa peed on the side of the room. I cleaned it up and apologized in basura Espanol to the maid, who waved it off.
Though he walked with a cane, Papa insisted on going almost everywhere with me in Lima. Sometimes he’d just lead me somewhere with no explanation. He grumbled in Spanish, took me a few blocks west of the hotel, and pointed at a house – “Este. Este!!!” I took a picture. My mother explained that it was one of the first houses Papa and Lina lived in, a baby blue cozy cottage only a block or two from the ocean.
While Papa napped that afternoon, I walked back down to the cottage. The salty breeze whipped my hair into a tangled mess. The air smelled like the sea and car exhaust, but the hum of the city wasn’t quite as loud here.
I stood on the sidewalk, staring at their old front yard. I could see being a child here, walking to the beach to get snow cones on Christmas. I could see Lina with her perfect beehive, hauling her three little ones inside the house after school. I could see her hanging laundry in the backyard, Papa pruning the bushes and planting flowers, her filling the kitchen with the smell of lomo saltado, papa a la huacayina, ceviche, fresh chicha morada on a sweaty summer day. I saw all of this in the empty baby blue cottage the same way my first memory is of a playpen in a house, my parents still married, a sliding door to the backyard and my eyes and ears opening for the first time.
There are approximately 6 billion cars in Peru these days. This is hyperbole, but between the micro buses, the taxis, the personal vehicles, the tour buses, and the 10 million residents, the roads are teeming with vehicles the same way my first apartment was crawling with roaches.
Traffic was worse on this trip than I ever remembered as a child, and my relatives complained, saying something along the lines of, “Every jackass with two soles has a car these days.” So Papa and I walked, walked miles too far for him, as taxis honked and swerved across busy lanes for our attention. Papa waved his cane, then laughed hysterically every time he nearly fell over from the effort of waving his cane.
“Pa, me voy al gimnasio. Quieres dormir, o quieres acompanarme?” I gently nudged, thinking he would rather stay and nap.
“Pero Pa, no estas cansado?”
“No, no, no. Listas?” He whacked the cane in my direction and I ducked. He laughed.
For days, we walked to coffee shops and the tourist markets in Miraflores and even the gym, where Papa fell asleep on a bench in the corner as I tried to understand the coaches. Everyone kindly let him sleep and moved delicately around him, not ever questioning why he was there.
Tia Marcela and her husband Tio Ivan wanted to look after us, so instead of taking a flight into the mountains (modernization had brought a regional airport, as well as wifi in Chupaca, I’d just learned), they drove us back up to Papa’s first home. The drive out of Lima took hours. Traffic sat at a standstill. I asked Tio Ivan, in English, because he wanted to practice, why it was taking so long. Was there something special happening? Was everyone getting out of town for the weekend? Was it rush hour?
“No. This is just…how it is now.”
Once we cleared the city, it was just a matter of not staring out the windows for too long. Papa dozed off. I read a book and tried to keep my mind off the heights we were ascending as night darkened the skies.
Even though I was now a picky eater because of this whole vegan thing and not just because I was an asshole, I tasted everything in Chupaca with a new tongue. The market was steps outside my now-passed Tia Cushta’s door. There were piles of palta, avocados the size of small watermelon, two for a sol. Lina’s favorite fruits – cherimoya, lucuma, platanos, papaya – all littered the street in bushels. (She had been caught at customs several times trying to smuggle fresh fruit back into the country and was devastated when she was forced to throw away a most treasured wheel of fresh cheese or a ripe cherimoya.) The villagers hiked down from the even higher up mountain villages, with their goods bundled up in brightly colored fabric, slung onto strong backs alongside babies.
Eating was always the main event, and Tia Marcela would take me to the market every day for breakfast – warm pan de Chupaca, with gargantuan palta, potatoes of every imaginable color and shape, dazzling fruits for jugo, pounds of queso fresco. She accidentally dragged my weepy sensitive vegan ass into the butcher’s arena, where blood splattered the white walls and carcasses hung in scattered parts and it was difficult to walk and not knock into a skinned head or leg. But I appreciated the proximity to death here – it felt more honest than a grocery store.
Papa vaguely knew I was vegetarian, or something like that, and he took the opportunity to troll me. We walked through the market one day, and he stopped suddenly at the chicken stand. He muttered to the lady with the blood-spattered apron and thin pursed lips, and I found myself holding a clear plastic bag with freshly chopped chicken carcasses. Papa laughed and laughed as I held the bag as far away from me as possible, trying not to look at it.
He wanted to go walk one day, and he would never tell me where exactly he was headed, but I figured we couldn’t make it so far that we wouldn’t be able to find our way back. Sometimes what he said didn’t quite make sense, though I couldn’t tell if it was my vastly imperfect Spanish or the disease ravaging his memories.
As we walked on a clear, cool day through dusty streets, a shopkeeper called out “Armengol!” He stopped for a hello. The lady shopkeeper warmly shook his hand, quickly wished him well and saw us off. I looked back at her, sitting in front of her corner store, staring out at the empty streets.
He pointed his cane up another street. “Que es?”
“Primer. El primer caso.” It was a little brown house that sat across from a park.
“Todos son muertos,” he muttered as we walked back.
“Todavia no,” I’d reply.
At night, I stayed in a bedroom on the first floor of Tia Cushta’s house, with Papa in the adjoining bedroom. Sometimes he would call out, “Toña! Toña!” – my mother’s nickname, but meaning me. My mother told me that would call her Celi – my grandmother’s nickname – so I guess it kind of made sense.
Cushta’s house had so many rooms that I had managed to stay in three different bedrooms over the years. Her living room had a dusty old record player that we had all gathered to listen to years previously, when she was alive and so spry for 94. The lot of us held hands and danced in a circle with her as she sang the words she knew by heart. She held my hand tight, her small figure brimming with memories she shared in a low, growly voice. She called my little brother Mashua, because our other cousin is named Joshua. She was very funny, and she knew it.
I thought about her and all the long-lived tias, tios, abuelos and abuelas in my family, especially as Papa and I made our way to the cemetery one afternoon. He led me to his parents’ tomb, as well as to Lina’s parents’ graves, and I helped him walk amongst the gravestones, the cracked mausoleums and the grass peeking up through the rocky ground. I tried to memorize my great-grandparent’s names, tried to memorize where they lay buried, but Peruvians are one of those cultures with a fondness for an endless conga line of family names. I tried to imagine what my name would be if we carried on tradition – Luisa Antonieta Cerron Espejo Barron. Oof.
There are flower stands right outside the town cemetery, always heavily stocked for those coming to pay their loved ones respect, or buy cigarettes to ward away the evil spirits. It disturbed me when I was younger, standing in a spooky cemetery while my mother and grandmother, who normally never smoked, lit up cigarettes and talked quietly amongst their dead. But now, I think I kind of get it.
The trip was near its end, and I grew simultaneously more irritated and increasingly sympathetic to my grandpa. As we walked back to his sister’s house, I asked him, “Quieres quedar aqui en Peru?”
He said, “No. Quiero quedarme en Texas.”
“Porque ahora es mi pais. Todo estan ahi.” He paused. “Es mas comodo.” He held tightly onto my arm and I slowed my gait so that I could support him.
One day as Papa napped (later he was quite cross with me for leaving his side, although my Tia Marcela was there for him), I walked down the now familiar streets of Chupaca, past the edge of town, past the same houses and shops and markets. The roads turned back to dirt, buildings turned to farms, fewer cars milled about as horses and llamas had free reign over the pathways. I breathed the clean air and listened to true quiet – nothing but the distant sounds of hoof steps of pack animals, people hanging laundry on clotheslines, kids walking home, the mountain breeze rustling the trees.
I could understand why Lina wanted to leave a place with such political turmoil and corruption, the domestic terrorism of the Shining Path, an underdeveloped economy, and a lack of opportunities that she wanted for her children. And sure, Peru had had five different presidents in a week or so. I could see so clearly how much she and Papa had done for all of us by sacrificing their own opportunities, their families, everything they knew and loved. But I also wondered if everything I had grown to want in a life wouldn’t someday bring me back here, back to a place of bright colors, crisp air, fresh food, and a peace I can only experience when the noise all around falls away, standing on the side of a dirt road.
Luisa Barron is a Guest Contributor for Panorama