On Becoming a Citizen: Translating Memories, Transposing Dreams

 

passport

The Miami Herald Sunday Magazine, June, 1997

I filled out the applications, got my picture taken, sent the money order, got a letter
with the appointment date, waited in line, had my name called, did the interview,
went home and forgot about it. Time passed, got a note in the mail, went to the
Knight Center, waited in line, heard the speeches, followed the instructions and left
a citizen.

After almost 20 years of living in the United States, there had been no one thing, no
bolt of lightning, no life-changing insight that had finally pushed me to it. It was
something else, probably much more mundane and profound.
I had come to Miami to be a foreigner, not a citizen.
I had left Argentina in my 20s with no interest in looking back. The country of my
childhood had become a nation of enemies.
In Boston I didn’t know anybody, couldn’t figure out why people did what they
did, didn’t understand the language, and yet I felt safe, at ease. Not recognizing the
people you grew up with, becoming a stranger in your own neighborhood, fearing
that which had been familiar yesterday — all that my life in Argentina had become
— that was hard.

Boston was easy. It was supposed to be baffling. I was a foreigner.
I came as a student and, little by little, without realizing it, I also became an
immigrant. I got a job at a Burger King, learned the language, went to music
school, put together a band, wrote my first film scores, and through no brilliant
scheme on my part, stumbled into an improbable new career. I became a
professional outsider — a writer.

In less than a decade I went from subversive in Buenos Aires to exotic in Boston. I
settled in new routines and did the grown-up thing — I got married and divorced. I
had an accent but, under the right light and from a certain distance, I could pass for
a native. After all, I did live through the blizzard of ’78, my first snow, and
graduated to excruciating spectator pain as a member of the Red Sox Nation. I
spent Saturday mornings going through the bins at Stereo Jack’s, a used-record
shop where they knew their jazz, always had an opinion and couldn’t wait to tell
you about it. I griped about the gentrification of Inman Square and mourned the
closing of The 1369 Jazz Club — neighborhood dive, haven and confessional.
I was born into Buenos Aires. I earned my Boston.
I never thought about becoming a citizen. Not once.

I lived in the in-between, defined for what I was not — not really an Argentine,
clearly not an American — rather than for what I was. I was my own interpreter
and translator and never thought of this as something special. It was just the way it
was. Then things changed.

I got a little recognition in my job, a new girlfriend, my own home for the first time.
The better my life got, the worse I felt. I had never thought much about belonging,
but the more of a Bostonian I became, under the right light and from a certain
distance, the more of an outsider I felt. It turned out the limits of translating are not
words, but memories.

I had learned the language; I had little to remember in American.
My memories were of a country of one — far from Argentina, not quite in the
United States — and I felt at home only around others who lived in countries of
one. With Maure, who was South African, Isabel, who was born in Chile, or
Laurent, who had come from Haiti, we stumbled with English and accents, but we
spoke a language of in-between.

I thought about American cities made of countries of one.
Los Angeles was, well, too West Coast. New York was old and settled in its
ways. Miami was intriguing but problematic. It was young and closer to South
America — but it also had the kind of self-appointed Inquisitors I had hoped to
never deal with again. But then I had a chance to come and took it.
My Boston friends were dismayed. I was abandoning civilization. Most were sure
I was escaping the snow, the darkness in February, the pipes freezing and flooding
the basement. It had to be the weather. I told them that’s what it was. The truth is I
hate the heat and the humidity. I actually like the cold. Almost four years later, I still
miss the smell of the fall.
But now, while I still live and die with the New England Patriots (I mostly die), I no
longer have to explain un cortadito or live without sobremesas .
I’ve learned to dance tango and appreciate the untranslatable differences between
love and amor . I’ve found a good Spanish bookstore with a know-it-all attendant,
and spend most Saturday mornings going through the bins at the Blue Note record
shop, taking lessons on gospel and R&B from people who really know their stuff
and can’t wait to tell you about it.

I’m not sure how it happened: There was no bolt of lightning, no life-changing
insight; it was more like life — an imperceptible accumulation of small decisions,
and banal, unmemorable moments. Perhaps it was because here, the mundane is as
exotic and as ordinary as I am. Whatever it was, I never could have imagined that
of all things, in this place of tourists and refugees, scam artists and visionaries,
cyberpunks and nostálgicos, I would find a home and come to think of myself
American.

Fernando González
fergonzalez@bellsouth.net