My mother bites into a Big Mac and her glasses catch the reflection of a purple neon light somewhere behind me. It is June 1979, and we are in a food court at Los Angeles International Airport. My favourite song ever, Barry White’s “Love’s Theme,” is blasting from the loudspeaker. My mother looks hilarious. She’s in a white polyester pantsuit, platform sandals, and aqua eyeshadow, and she’s actually shaved her legs and armpits. Her eyebrows have been plucked into a look of perpetual surprise. Then there’s the frosted pink lipstick—which has moved to her chin now, what with the burger and all—and the scent of Charlie. I helped her choose that perfume. There’s a picture of the new Charlie’s Angel doing the splits in the air with a white suit and platforms, so my mother decided to follow her lead, though not the splits part because she’s four-foot-ten and round. When we got home, she sprayed the Charlie all over her face and neck, but it got in her eye and went up her nose and then we both peed our pants laughing. Now here we are, at Los Angeles Airport, which my mother calls L-A-X, and her new look has presented only minor problems. We walked with my younger sister, Ale, for ages through this terminal, looking for food, and the whole time my mother massaged the palms of her hands into the small of her back, denouncing the fucking patriarchy under her breath. The patriarchy takes on many forms, depending. In this case, the patriarchy is set on pinching a nerve in her spine.
Just yesterday my mother was a hippie. And the day before that. In fact, she’s been a hippie her entire life, or as long as I’ve been her daughter, which is eleven years now. Then I got up this morning and found her hunched over, curlers in her hair, Neet cream on her upper lip, blowing on her toes wet from red polish. The Samsonites were packed to the brim, the passports were laid out like a fan on the table, and she hummed Victor Jara’s “The Right to Live in Peace” just one last time. Her voice quivered and dipped, and sighs escaped her mouth like great gusts of wind. We didn’t look back when we left the Burnaby basement suite, the posters of Ho Chi Minh, Salvador Allende, and Tupac Amaru taken down days earlier and given to those left behind. Our friend Crespo drove us to the airport in the beat-up vw bug, and my mother had a laugh attack again because he had only just learned to drive. She kept yelling, “Clutch, Crespo, clutch, you idiot!” Crespo was super excited because he got to keep the car from this day on. The vw got us to the airport with only a teeny bit of whiplash and, just like that, we said goodbye to the exile life forever. No farewell bagpipes or white hankies waving in the air. Canada had taken us in after the coup in Chile, and my mother had made it clear from day one that this refugee thing was not for us. So our suitcases, which had lived at the foot of our beds for the last five years, had been packed again and now here we were, at L-A-X, waiting for our connecting flight to Costa Rica. Our stepfather, Bob, had left months earlier, and we were to live with him in revolutionary Central America now, never again to return to the imperialist North.
This imperialist North is very different than the last one. In Vancouver, we, the few dozen Chilean families, were the only Latinos. That land, where you could buy tropical fruit in the dead of winter, consisted mostly of white people who kept their bodies and faces perfectly still when they talked. Here, in this imperialist north, I am surrounded by the sound of Mexican Spanish, there are black people everywhere, and I can see palm trees and turquoise sky just beyond the glass walls of the airport. People look at you and you look back at them and that’s okay, and the lady who sold me my cheeseburger with no patty (I’ve been a strict vegetarian since I was eight) actually touched my cheek and spoke to me in Spanish. Because she recognizes herself in me and somehow I understand that, and, for the first time in five years, I think I belong somewhere. But it can’t possibly be here because we are still in the imperialist north, the forbidden place of belonging.
A Colombian family at the next table argue and laugh and break into spontaneous cumbia, because they are happy to be going home. I go for a second banana milkshake, and one of the Colombian ladies asks me if I’m going to Bogota too, and I shake my head and I can’t explain where I’m going or where I’m coming from because there are too many winding roads to backtrack on and all I know is that she sees me too and for some reason I find this moving and I need to swallow down some tears hard and fast.
Back at our table, my mother has finished her Big Mac. Ale, who is ten going on two and a half, shows off a helium balloon featuring a portrait of Ronald McDonald, given to her by Ronald himself, who passed through here mere moments ago. Ale’s so immature it’s not even funny. She still cries out loud like a baby and talks in this whine and asks the dumbest questions all the time. Like she thinks the word revolution has to do with the disco revolution and the word masses has to do with people who go to church on Sundays. She has no memory at all of the coup or Chile and all she cares about is playing games. The words Wanna play a game? Huh? Huh? Wanna? must come out of her mouth like twenty-five times a day. I’m supposed to be in charge of her all the time even though I’m only a year older, and that’s okay with me, I guess. Because we went through something together. Something my parents don’t even know about and she doesn’t remember.
There’s a knot in my throat and I’m sure it’s caused by these ladies who speak to me in the native tongue and the heat and the palm trees, but it could also be caused by my mother’s new look, which makes her a kind of stranger to me. Or it could be caused by the farewell of a few hours ago at the Vancouver airport. Goodbye to my elementary school city, goodbye to the land of late-night janitor work, hand-me-down Barbies, and Salvation Army clothes. Goodbye to my father, who is staying behind. My mother and father got divorced two years ago, when I was nine. Ale and I came home from school one day and they were sitting at opposite ends of the living room. My mother’s glasses were all steamed up and my father stared out the window, chin quivering like on the day of the coup. My mother explained she had to go, that she couldn’t be with my father any more but she’d always be our best friend, and then she got into the vw whose trunk was held down by a coat hanger and, just like that, the family was broken forever. I could hear my father weep every night and all we ate was hot dogs for like ever. The house got really dirty, the laundry piled up, and there wasn’t any food in the fridge. But the plants looked nice because he watered and trimmed them and kept them growing. My father is a great admirer of nature. That’s what he always says about himself: “I am a great admirer of nature.” Then he puts on his rubber hat and goes to turn dirt in the yard.
I suck the milkshake past the knot, Ale licks ketchup off her fingers, and my mother rounds up the garbage, wiping her fingers and chin clean. She lights up a Matinee, clears her throat, and says that there’s something very important she has to tell us: we are not going to Costa Rica. A stream of smoke leaves her lips. Ale and I look at her like we’re retards. One mid-swallow, the other mid-lick. Ale’s legs stop swinging. I stop stealing glances at the happy Colombian family. My mother sucks on the Matinee and says that we were never headed to Costa Rica. That was a facade.
“What’s a facade?” Ale asks. Ronald McDonald spies from the helium balloon above her head.
My mother goes on to explain that a facade is when you make up a story because it would be dangerous or silly to tell the truth because you are involved in something bigger than yourself and you don’t want to risk your life and the lives of others.
Ale says, “You mean a facade is when you tell a big fat lie.”
It’s not quite like that, my mother explains. All she can say at this point, though, is that we’re going somewhere else, but she can’t tell us where that is. We’ll know where we’re going once we get there. For the time being we’ll be taking a plane to Lima, Peru. She lets us know how lucky we are to be told this much. We’re lucky because nobody else, nobody else, has this information on us. Everybody else thinks we’re moving to Costa Rica. Apparently they’re poor fools, living in ignorance. My mother states that all of this has to do with being in the resistance and that someday we’ll both understand. I had no idea we were in the resistance. I just thought we were in solidarity with the resistance. But I don’t say that because I’m embarrassed to admit that the obvious had escaped me all these years.
I trust my mother. She knows what she’s doing. She is the mother, after all. So I forget the whole Costa Rica idea. But now I’m thinking about the lying. I mean, we’ve lied to everybody. Including my father. A familiar feeling washes over me. It reminds of when my mother left and the forever-broken-family thing was brand new and I couldn't feel the tips of my fingers. Or the top of my tongue. I rode my banana-seat bike to school one day and saw a squashed-up robin in the middle of the road, only he was still breathing a little. His dark orange chest was all mashed up, but the heart was still beating and I understood him. I told him that too: “I understand you, Ms. Robin.” I said Ms. and not Mr. just in case there was a radical feminist listening and then that radical feminist would go tell my mother on me and I’d be in trouble for bowing down to the patriarchy. But even though I said Ms. I think the robin was a mister. He looked me in the eye and I kept riding my bike to school, and I remembered his barely breathing, dark orange chest, and I felt solidarity for him and he felt solidarity for me. I know he did. So I walked around with a broken chest and frozen face for a while until I could swallow and breathe again. Now I realized it was all meant to be. A Chilean woman I call Aunt Tita is now my stepmother, and Bob, who had been my gringo uncle, is now my stepfather. We’re off to meet him. He’s waiting for us, somewhere.
The plane to Lima will leave in two hours, so my mother will take this time to prepare us for the resistance. She leans in, holding the cigarette close, her face super serious like when she vacuumed the halls of the East Hastings office building at night, and I know better than to look away or practise the Hustle in my mind. Her voice kept low, she dives right in: the resistance is underground. That means it is top secret. That means you don’t tell anybody. Under any circumstances. Along the way, my mother will tell us a story. It is a story about ourselves, but it is not entirely true. We are to learn this story and go over it many times, so that when anybody asks us about ourselves, we will know exactly what to say. Like, for example, when someone asks us where we were born, we are to say Vancouver. When asked who Bob is, we are to say he is our father. In the blood sense.
Bob has been our stepfather for two years now. Since the divorce. Before that, he was just our gringo uncle. He’s a longshoreman and would bring us goodies from the port and kept a drawer full of Kit Kats in the kitchen. He also took us out for pizza every Friday night and let us get refills on our pops. One time he took us to Star Wars and let each of us get an extra large popcorn. My mother liked to tell his story at the rallies she organized. When he was nineteen, he hitchhiked all over the world and after everything he saw he decided to become a revolutionary. He was in the Peruvian Amazon when Allende was elected, and he hitched his way to Santiago to offer his revolutionary support. Lots of foreigners did that. He spent a year there, helping to build houses in the New Havana shantytown. Then the coup happened. The military raided and Bob was arrested and they put him in the National Stadium, which wasn’t for soccer games any more, but a concentration camp. He was held prisoner there for two weeks. He gets this look in his eye sometimes, far far away, and his Adam’s apple starts shaking and my mother has explained that it has to do with what happened to him in those two weeks. And what he saw happen to other people. Bob has told me that it was during those two weeks that he became a revolutionary with a capital R. There were a total of three Canadians being held prisoner in all of Chile, and the Canadian embassy got them out. Out of jail, out of the country, and on the blacklist. The three Canadians could never set foot in Chile ever again. Or else. The minute Bob landed in Vancouver, he drove across Canada with his friends. They called it a caravan. When they got to Ottawa, they set up camp on Parliament Hill and refused to budge until Trudeau gave asylum to Chilean refugees. So it’s thanks to Bob that we went to Canada to begin with. He explained to me how we were the first Third World refugees fleeing a right-wing dictatorship allowed into Canada. Ever. Before that it was just Russians. We were one of the first families to arrive, and Bob came to greet us and in that way he became my gringo uncle. And then my stepfather. And now my father. Which is kind of funny, but I guess people will believe us because Bob is Black Irish. That’s how he explained his black hair and beard to me one day. He showed me a picture of his family and said, “We’re Black Irish.”
My mother continues with the untrue but official story: when asked about her, we are to say she is Peruvian. The blood that runs through our veins will be no more. I remember my father working on his ferns in the garden. My father is a lover of ferns. And a hater of weeds. He’d pull up those weeds by the roots and throw them away. That’s what we must do with Chile now. The story continues: we are moving south because our “father,” Bob, is starting his own import/export company, and the reason we shopped at the mall for the first time ever was to put together a middle-class look. Oh, I get it. It all makes sense now: my mother’s Charlie’s Angels attire, Ale and I in our brand-new Adidas sweatshirts, Pepsi shoes, French-cut jeans, and maple-leaf earrings. We have to look normal. Mainstream. Middle class. Stand out for the right reasons. Not the wrong ones any more.
We’ve always stood out because we’re exiles. And that’s all I’ve ever known. Other exiles. Lots of them came straight from the detention centres, and they arrived with mashed-up organs, or without an eye, or missing their balls or nipples or nails. Like Crespo. He came from this concentration camp in the Atacama Desert and when we went to pick him up at the airport he was skinny like a skeleton and all he had on him was his charango, this teeny little guitar made from an armadillo shell. That was three years ago, when he was seventeen, and Bob had taken him in and fed him for a while and gave him money for his cigarettes and wine. Crespo tried to teach me how to play his charango, but I didn’t get it. It was too tiny to get your fingers in the right position, and I almost threw it across the room, but I took a deep breath and taught him the Hustle instead. He liked that.
My mother is talking about life and death. To be in the resistance is a matter of life and death. To spill the beans is a matter of life and death. To say the wrong thing to the wrong person is a matter of life and death, and it is impossible to know who the wrong person is. So one must assume everybody is the wrong person. Period. End of story. These are things one does when one is in the resistance, because one agrees to give one’s life to the people. For a better society. The sacrifices we are being asked to make are nothing, nothing at all compared to the vast majority of children in this world who die of curable diseases and work twelve-hour shifts in factories without ever learning to read and write. I remember the sacrifice Crespo made. He said he handed his bones over to be broken methodically, and he’d do it all again if he had to. Then he showed me his scars. And he let me touch them. My mother is talking about how our sacrifice will consist of looking like we have money, of pretending we are something we’re not, of holding the secrets in and never letting them out. I swallow past the stupid knot, which is still caught in my throat. It’s like a big huge vitamin that got stuck in there. And no matter how hard I swallow it won’t go away. If I let my chest heave for a while, the knot will dissolve into a stream of tears and hiccups, and that can’t happen because I’ve learned that when it does, it just won’t stop. Ever. So I keep my chest real still, because otherwise I’ll be like a baby and then people will look and then maybe they’ll ask what happened and then we’ll draw attention to ourselves and then the resistance underground revolution thing will be out of the bag and it will be all my fault.
Don’t ask questions, my mother is explaining. When one is in the resistance, one simply does what the mother tells one to do. And for the time being, you will not write letters or postcards to anybody. Until further notice. She puts out the cigarette and it makes a sizzling sound in the ashtray. I remember my Chinatown stationery waiting in my carry-on bag. Given to me by my father with explicit orders to write. Often. I remember him, this morning, seeing us off at the airport, shoulders shaking as he stifled back the sobs. “My girls, my girls, my girls,” he murmured in our ears, hands clutching the backs of our heads. Right before we went through the international gate and the automatic doors closed behind us.
Ale shrugs her shoulders and demands more fries in that idiotic whine of hers. I take in the long shadows created by the setting sun. The voices and music and planes might break through the numbness that has frozen me solid. Are the planes coming or going, I wonder? Those planes that litter the sky directly above. What if I were to pick up my brown travel bag right now and walk to the orange Canadian Pacific counter and get onto a plane to Vancouver? Or what if I were just to join the Colombian family at the next table and become one of them, and be from Bogota? What if I were to walk through the glass doors that lead to the vast city of L.A. and get on a bus and see what part of town it took me to and just stay there? I look behind me and catch sight of the neon light reflected in my mother’s glasses: there is a huge spaceship in the middle of a parking lot, and people in Hawaiian shirts are in the windows sipping cocktails with hot-pink umbrellas. When I look back at my mother, she is hugging her canvas carry-on that reads “le bag” and staring way off, somewhere unreachable—a thing she does a lot. She exhales a stream of smoke. A fresh Matinee burns between her fingers.
We line up at the Braniff counter along with Peruvians and Ecuadorians. The plane stops in Quito before reaching Lima. A lady in a beehive and pearls asks me if I’m from Quito. I say no, I’m from Santiago. And for the first time since I was six, I don’t have to explain where Santiago is. She nods and smiles and says Santiago is one of the jewels of South America. Wow. I didn’t know that. And that will be the last time I say I’m from Santiago. Because my mother pinches me and I remember that I’m from Vancouver now, a place so faraway it’s like it never existed. We are no longer refugees. We are a resistance family headed who knows where. First stop being Lima. Now there’s a kerfuffle at the Braniff counter. There’s yelling and some crying going on. A lady who’s just like Julie from The Love Boat goes on the loudspeaker and explains that the plane is having technical difficulties and that we won’t be flying out tonight. We will be put up at a hotel near the airport and first thing in the morning the plane will take off. Ale and I squeal with excitement and give each other a high-five. It will be our first time ever in a hotel.
We join the lineup to get on the buses that will take us there. A woman with fake eyelashes and gel fingernails with the U.S. flag painted on them approaches my mother. She clenches a white purse. The woman tells my mother that she is from Ecuador, that she is twenty-five years old, and that she came to L.A. to visit her uncle and aunt. Her uncle is the baseball sportscaster on La Raza radio. Do we know him? Anyway. Now her nerves have got the better of her because the plane is delayed. She has noticed that my mother is a señora with two girls and that we are travelling alone. Would my mother mind taking care of her as well? Can she share a room with us in the hotel? My mother nods. This lady looks like a Latina Charlie’s Angel and I’m in awe. I’ve never spoken to one of these ladies before, with feathered hair and heavy perfume and big plastic geometric earrings. Ladies who my mother has always referred to as “a bunch of fucking idiots.” And now we get to share a room with one.
The motel is just like Malibu Barbie’s house. Her house is on commercials all the time, during Looney Tunes. It comes complete with a kidney-shaped turquoise pool, Ken lounging in a deck chair wearing nothing but a red Speedo, a rec room with billiards and a jukebox, a white Jeep in the driveway, palm trees in the yard, and a master bedroom in pink. Only difference between her house and this motel is that this is for economy-class Latinos whose planes are suffering from technical difficulties. There are knocked-over plastic flamingos, the paint is peeling, the Astroturf stained, and the pool water is murky. Ale and I cover our faces with the mini Nivea cream offered in the bathroom, smell the soap, shampoo, and balsam, and admire ourselves in the full-length mirror. All this while wearing the shower caps that we have pulled from their packaging. There are so many channels on tv that we’re dizzy. Twelve to be exact. At home, we only got three channels. Plus the tv was from the garbage, black and white, and you had to stand to the left of it in order to get a picture, crane your neck and in that way watch The Waltons, my favourite night show of all time. My favourite day shows were Fun-O-Rama and Gilligan’s Island.
It’s four in the morning and our bus will pick us up at 6 a.m. to take us back to the airport where the plane will be fixed and we’ll be able to fly to Peru. Ale and I try to sleep on our double bed, which is covered in beige bedding and smells of rancid cigarette smoke. My mother is sharing her double bed with the lady, who is called Jackie. Jackie Camacho. Jackie Camacho is stationed at the plastic wood vanity, rollers in her hair. She is putting different creams on her face and then wiping them off. Now she’s tweezing her eyebrows. She’s also tweezing the trail of hair that leads from the belly button to the vagina. My mother calls the private parts of the body by their actual names. If you say “down there” instead of “vagina,” my mother will look you straight in the eye and say, “vagina. Repeat after me: va-gi-na. Good.” Then she’ll roll her eyes and walk away, humming an Angolan liberation tune. Jackie Camacho hasn’t gone to bed. At all. Not because she had to finish reading The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo before the break of dawn, but because her beauty regimen called for it. I’ve never seen one of these fascinating ladies up close.
At 8 a.m., the plane takes off without a hitch and we fly south, past the equator, never to return north ever again. People on the plane cheer and clap and talk in loud voices about the final destination: home. The last time we were on a plane, it was all backward. We flew north, in the middle of the night, and all you could hear was people weeping in their hankies. Someone had laid a Chilean flag and a banner of Allende down the aisle. The pilot came on the speaker and said, “We have crossed the border into Peru. We are out of Chile,” and people, grown men and strong women, cried louder, and someone started singing the Chilean national anthem and everyone else joined in and my mother and father put their arms around me and Ale and they said, “You will never forget. You. Will. Never. Forget.” Their faces were deformed from the crying, and Ale was five and I was six, and now here we are, five years later, heading somewhere. Somewhere south.
“Something Fierce” originally appeared in Brick 80. Since then, it has been expanded into a full-length book. It appeared on the best books of 2011 lists in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and Quill and Quire. It was long-listed for the BC National Non-Fiction Award and the international Charles Taylor Prize for Nonfiction, named BBC’s Book of the Week in the United Kingdom, and won CBC’s Canada Reads. It is currently being translated into Finnish and Dutch. Reprinted with permission from the author.
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