Probablemente ya, de mi te has olvidado. Y sin embargo yo, te seguiré esperando. “I haven’t wanted to leave to see if one day you will want to return, so you’ll find me here, still waiting.”
Lucky was my mother’s word. She thought I was lucky to grow up on the border; lucky to be able to listen to both Spanish and English music on the radio; lucky that we got Telenovelas and Soap Operas.
My father pulled out the guitar at parties, played the Beatles and José Alfredo Jiménez, our gringo friends clapping along to the lengthy ballads sung in Castilian. My mother, tone deaf, sang with gusto in Spanish. She didn’t know that many songs in English. Or maybe she did and her Colombian accent made her shy. Every so often, there would be a song for me—songs that my father didn’t know but his fingers could still play. He’s been playing by ear since he was twelve––he can’t read notes, but his muscles remember sound. Whenever it was my turn to sing, inevitably one of the anthems was always Juan Gabriel’s “Se Me Olvidó Otra Vez.”
The song is in second person. The story is simple: you have forgotten the narrator, but he’s still in your small town waiting for you with your old friends, so that upon your return everything looks and feels as familiar as it did when you left. The narrator thinks he’s probably asking you for too much; he hasn’t forgotten that it’s over between the two of you. You’re probably not coming back here again; you never really loved him.
I think of the border as the protagonist of the song––the narrator, speaking to an obstinate, unwilling “you.” The “you” of this story is me. I’ve gone away; I’ve left all the borderlands I know: Barranquilla (Colombia), Veracruz (Mexico), McAllen (Texas). So the border waits for me to come home, trying not to change, but it knows that I won’t, that I never really loved it, that it can’t really be home. This is a song about remembering and places, memory and landscape; this is my song of home.
A few years ago, Mexican pop balladeers, Maná re-released the song––faster, poppier; there may have been maracas and a tambourine––this was the first version I bothered to memorize. My father hated it. He forbade me from desecrating the original, wouldn’t accompany me even if I begged. But when I started slow, unwinding like a stiff music box, my father swooned.
I agree with my mother. We were lucky. An image: I am singing in my living room, my father accompanies on the guitar, my mother shuffles only a few feet away (this is how she dances). I sing to myself in the voice of the lands I have abandoned; I recast myself––no longer a runaway, but now a woman conscious of what she’s leaving behind––a temporal resident, here during the holidays, gone soon enough.
Barranquilla, Colombia dances a certain way––hips sway but feet shuffle. The shoulders and hands move only forwards and backwards, but the waist and head never move. My mother’s theory: when slaves started the dance in Barranquilla, their feet were shackled. So Colombians shuffle. Hips and shoulders shake like they got a devil in them that needs out.
I never looked up the actual reason Colombians dance in place, but I buy my mother’s logic. When I teach others how to dance Colombian, how to shuffle just right, the visual allows them to understand what’s at stake as they try to match limb to accordion breath. They are dancing like slaves–– mobility means freedom.
Dancing is storytelling, the preservation of culture and history. The mapale: boy courts girl, girl responds affirmatively, all to a frantic pace. He climbs underneath and over, she bends, he slides; their feet shuffle so fast they blur. Vallenato: the dancers are polite, moving towards each other and back again. The dance happens in circles, her skirt held out. She is welcoming him, although he cannot touch her. Cumbia: flute, accordion––the arms are held out, the hips more important. The pace is slower, a 4/4, the dancing is continuous, repetitive. There is the crocodile song, the deer song, and the song of the woman who wanders the waterside.
Every time we have coffee, my mother’s mother tells me history that shouldn’t be written. “Who memorizes the Bible?” my grandmother asks. “No need to memorize, just look it up. And what are you going to do when you can’t find the Book? You need to talk it, to tell it, to dance it, to sing it, and often. If you just tell it once, you are likely to forget. Make sure you tell someone where you’re from before it’s gone. Cities are like paper too. Statues fall in Colombia like ripe bananas.”
I am told that I am Colombian, Mexican, U.S. American. I believe that my history is the history of all three places and of none of these places. I get on airplanes and fly over imaginary lines drawn in dirt that I cross without thinking. When people ask, I sometimes say I’m a Texan foreigner. Sometimes I say Mexican via a Colombian mother in Texas. Sometimes I just say Mexican. Or three out of my four grandparents are Colombian. Depends who I’m talking to. Depends on what about. Depends where I am.
When I was twelve years old, my mother held up her right hand and swore on The Bible to uphold the laws of the United States of America. Bill Clinton’s picture hung above her head.
Twelve years later, she and I flew into Barranquilla, The Carnival City, the City of Shufflers. Weeks before, I had told her that a new law required all Colombian-born U.S. Citizens to travel with a Colombian passport in addition to their U.S. one. My mother ignored me, which was not unusual. At the airport, the young man behind the counter asked her for the green passport after she’d handed him the blue.
“I am a U.S. Citizen,” my mother told him. “I forgot my other passport at home. This should do.”
The young man sighed. My mother sighed.
“You know, the Cúcuta just lost their chance at the Libertadores Championship,” my mother said. The young man perked up a little. “The game was so good though. The team tried so hard. No one expected them to make it as far as they did. Soccer is so unpredictable anyway; it’s all about having the right day.”
My mother (the genius) sighed again and laughed. “I guess,” she said. “I’m not having the right day either; I left my Colombian passport at home like an idiot.”
“Oh no, ma’am, you’re not an idiot.” The young man stamped our passports and waved us on.
Borders require negotiation. There is no borderland, no state of in-between that anyone can fully regulate. It comes down to interaction
between two individuals: agent and traveler. The agent, fully aware that symbols are a form of power, waits at the desk as the traveler forms lines and follows procedure. The individual is transported like cargo, awaiting inspection before free movement is possible. The traveler is limited, he or she can move arms and hips back and forth, but the body must stay in place or the line becomes chaos. Limited movement keeps the space negotiable, keeps the space neutral, keeps the chains from hurting.
When you walk across the border from the U.S. into Mexico, you simply pay a quarter and keep moving. No one asks who you are. No one cares. A guard monitors the tollbooth, making sure everyone deposits their twenty-five cent fare. Once you reach the other side, you press a button on what looks like a traffic light. If the light shines green, which it mostly does, then you just keep going. Easy. Simple. The pharmacy, kitsch shops, dentists, and liquor stores all spread out in sight. If the light shines red, then you have to open your bag and a guard with a flashlight will look inside. You’ll be asked about your intentions. And then they’ll wave you on. Go ahead: shop, eat, get your groceries here. The economy needs it.
The Mexican side of the border is not the one people worry about during daylight hours.
The situation gets a bit more complex when you cross back. You still pay a quarter, but this time the guard is Mexican, so his uniform is green instead of blue. You still walk across, but there’s a difference. No traffic light, no random checks on this end. Then you stand in a line. There’s no button, just an angry U.S. Border Patrol or Customs gentleman. “U.S. Citizen?” he’ll ask. You reply “yes, sir,” as clearly as you can. You don’t need a passport unless you’re planning on making trouble or you’re leaving the Rio Grande Valley.
Mexicans cross over the border on Saturday mornings, en masse. License plates from Michoacán, from Puebla, from Guerrero, from the capital. Some trucks and small cars from Guatemala and Nicaragua, Transmigrantes. Everyone crosses over to shop and see the doctor. A new outlet mall opened in Mercedes, Texas a few miles away. People say that el parking is terrible down there.
Twenty-six miles in either direction from the Rio Grande River is a free-driving zone. Mexican cars drive around, needing only a relatively easy to obtain permit. U.S. cars don’t need anything, free to roam for twenty-six miles. My mother takes the Volkswagen and the dog to the veterinarian in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. She picks up some groceries while the dog is groomed. She drives back, careful not to bring any avocados or meats.
I am writing the homeland, but I can’t decide which one. Colombia belongs to my mother. Mexico belongs to my father. South Texas belongs to Gloria Anzaldúa, her mestizaje colors the landscape.
I am not from the border. I was born in Mexico City. When I was three months old, my family moved to Houston. Four years later we transplanted to a small town in northeast Texas, near Louisiana. A year after that, we packed up a moving van and drove to South Texas. My father’s business demanded it. And then my brother died, and we stayed. His ashes were interred in a mausoleum in McAllen.
My brother’s death wasn’t the only reason we stayed. Another was Mexico. The Rio Grande Valley, El Valle is the only place that felt like Mexico to my parents. My mother liked shopping on the other side. My father opened a business in Reynosa, and so we commuted. My dad soon expanded his operations to Mexico City. We’d fly there, and a few years later to another office further down the Gulf Coast in Veracruz. I moved to Houston for undergraduate. Home expanded from twenty-six miles to five hundred on either side of the river, but the Rio Grande was still the crossing point.
We’d cross the Valley to go to La Mansion, my father’s favorite restaurant in Reynosa. We ate quail and prosciutto as an appetizer and fajitas in a lime-chile ancho sauce as the main course. My mother drank red wine. Dad stuck to tequila. I ordered margaritas. Once, two Polish women sat down at the table next to us. We asked them to join us. They asked if we were locals. We didn’t respond. We know where to get the best shrimp. We know where the closest notary public is. We are citizens of McAllen and Reynosa. We are citizens of the border. But we still refuse to tell people we’re from here. This is not home. Just a place between Mexico and Colombia, between Austin and Pittsburgh. I keep moving further away––the return journey more expensive.
My parents have argued this question their entire relationship: whose Spanish is better? Colombian Spanish, my mother says, is class, Patrician. The language is musical and clear. My father says, that in Barranquilla the fishermen can’t pronounce Ds and normal people can’t distinguish the letter S from a Z. My mother points out that Mexicans slur everything together and that they speak atonally. Language is not supposed to be spat out. Both my parents agree that Texas Spanish shouldn’t even be considered and that English sounds uglier than German.
The Spanish I speak is neutral—my accent cannot be located. In Mexico and Colombia people ask where I learned to speak so clearly, without a trace of home. My Spanish is the Spanish of radio announcers who have been taught to disguise their voices, to make the pitch and intonation easier on the listener. Television personalities with dialect coaches sound like me, recreating an inflection that doesn’t exist outside studio walls––an inflection that all Spanish speakers can understand, an inflection that rolls off my tongue naturally.
The Valley breaks Spanish, breaks English. But it never broke mine.
Thirty-three thousand cars cross the same bridge every day. The country across the river is tangible, touchable. I have mastered the paperwork, filling out the forms in both languages. My mother once packed a mango and brought it back from Colombia. This is the little song and dance I am performing for you, shuffling along like a good Colombian and slurring my words like a Mexican. This is the story I am telling you, so that it is told; so that the border knows that I haven’t forgotten it. I know it’s there, still waiting, loving me more than I ever will. Lucky me.