La Mariposa en la Pared

The everyday experiences of latino immigrants through the eyes of an outsider. Las vidas típicas de unos inmigrantes latinos a través de los ojos de una forastera.

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Location: Upstate NY, United States

"To me it’s always interesting when you get accepted somewhere you don’t really belong. It’s interesting when people open up and let you in their world." - Gilles Mingasson

Saturday, October 08, 2011


"Esta gente aqui-" I let my eyes wander over the richly carved woodwork, and listened to the laughter from the gallery as artists with grey ponytails flirted with women wearing too much makeup, holding wine glasses. "Es que la gente aqui no son mi gente."

A couple walked in from the chilly evening, eyeing me suspiciously as if I were plotting something secret in my foreign tongue over the cell phone. I blinked and they glided by in a watery blur.

But how could it be? With my birth, my degree, my culture, by all means I should belong here. Only once in my life had I felt like I truly belonged anywhere. Not in high heels, not here. There. Among the big warm bodies with their earthy smells and whinneys, laboring and sweating, laboring and freezing, every day living alongside people who never failed to smile to me, to welcome me in a million different ways. Speaking the language that came to me like a gift. My learning it was a labor of love, my ultimate expression of the desire to understand and to be understood.

Now I'm home but I feel homesick. What is home? Is it a house? A city? My family is here but they have lives that have endured and changed while I was gone. My life is back there, abandoned back there along with the people who made that place feel like a home, of sorts. I feel like a ghost visiting where I once lived. I feel detached, like I'm floating near the ceiling, unable to get my feet under me.

Then I remember that I'm talking to someone who understands what it's like to be a stranger. For him, home is a confusing notion, too. The primos y amigos who surround him understand what he gave up, how hard it is to live day to day in a place where no one speaks your language, and that to go back home would mean to be among family, but family who don't know what his journey has been like. Family who feel hurt when you don't seem all that content to be home. Because you feel more at home among those who understand you best.

So many months away from home. So much effort to get back home. Only to find that home had changed from a location to a measure of belonging. And I belong with them.

Friday, November 26, 2010

La Despedida

He sat alone in the dining area of the convenience store, waiting for the Greyhound bus. Beside him leaned two big black suitcases bulging with everything he had decided to take back with him to Guatemala. For ten years he had worked en los estados unidos. When he asked her to come see him before he left, she asked instead when he'd be back. "Nunca," he said.

That was unusual. Most who go home admit before they even leave that it's unlikely they'll be able to avoid having to return eventually to work en el norte.

Three hours were all that remained of his time here. After that, a bus would take him to Houston, and a plane would fly him to the land of eternal spring. It was a lonesome end to a lonesome long time. He had spent the last few months watching her work, blurting out "buenos dias" a little louder than he intended, smiling when he caught her eye, waiting for her to walk by. She had mostly ignored his calls and messages, after many polite no's, doubting his sincere I love yous in spite of his pleas in English.


He looked up from his clasped hands on the table. She looked into his surprised chocolate eyes and smiled. They just looked at each other for a long moment before she began to explain. "No pude dejarte salir sin decirte adios." The truth was that she knew she could go say goodbye, it was a short drive to where he was waiting, so why not? Why not give him a warm send off? Why not, when this simple kindness could make him happy? She felt compelled, and she knew that she wouldn't regret it.

"Estas sola?" he asked hopefully. "No.. I gave someone a ride.. he's waiting in the car." She hadn't wanted to put herself in a compromising position, and she was pretty sure that the man in the car would understand if she ended up having to explain herself.

They spoke for several minutes, looking into each others eyes, committing one others faces to memory.

"I wish I could kiss you."

She pulled up a chair and sat opposite him, and leaned forward, and smiled. "You can."

It was their first and last kiss, and it was the kind that she wished she could repeat again, and often.

She stood and hugged him, and they hugged ever tighter, and then she kissed his forehead - feliz viaje - and his cheek - y que te cuides - and his other cheek - mucho.

"This is the best gift you could have given me," he said softly. The tears in his eyes reflected her own, and it was she who felt she had received a gift.


Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Simple Request

The most common complaint I hear about how difficult it is to learn English is that the words are not spelled phonetically like Spanish words are. Trying to learn to speak English from reading study guides or Spanish/English dictionaries is frustrating, because one is left still unsure of how to pronounce the words just from looking at the way they're written.

I've become familiar with the vernacular spellings used by migrants with little formal education. They sometimes make Spanish even more phonetic than it already is, and shun the B in favor of V, since the two letters make an almost identical sound in Spanish, anyway. Many have written more by sending text messages on their new cell phones than they did in their everyday lives before they came here.

While out walking my dogs yesterday, I found a crumpled piece of notebook paper lying alongside the sidewalk, and the writing on it caught my eye:

"ai nid ei jercot on leyers end ai want jailaids on all heair"

It is a simple request, written phonetically in English but with the letters having a mixture of English and Spanish pronounciations. Keeping in mind that the Spanish J sounds like our H, if you read it out loud, it makes perfect sense.

Deciphering the note reminded me a bit of trying to make out the meaning of an early 19th century diary written by a New England farm wife. Vernacular spellings were common here back then, too, when formal schooling for most people was spotty at best. Of the migrants I know, most of the Mexicans have made it through about the 8th or 9th grade, and among the Guatemalans, 4th grade is about the extent of their schooling.

I wanted to share the note, partially because I am fascinated by language in all its uses, and partially to make a couple points. The first one being that this note is emblematic of how challenging it is to communicate even simple requests in a language other than your own. This is a difficulty faced by many immigrants, and can be quite serious if the problem is a matter of health or safety, life or death. The note shows that someone who knew how to speak the words had tried to write them in such a way that one who doesn't speak English could later repeat them accurately by reading the note outloud.

Secondly, consider our immigration system, with all its bureaucracy and difficulties. Few people try to navigate it without the help of a lawyer, but many have been misled by their attorneys, or become hopelessly lost in the system after trying to do everything right themselves. Now imagine trying to approach this system, and tackle the paperwork, deadlines, roadblocks, exclusions and exceptions, having only an elementary school education. I'm not talking about stupid people. I'm talking about people who know more about life, death, happiness, work, and surviving corruption and violence, than I will ever know. But with education comes more than literacy. There comes a confidence with all things written that one who lacks an education does not have. That lack of confidence can make some things so intimidating, that a man who has lept onto moving trains and crossed half a continent enduring regular beatings and robbings can find himself frightened to enter an office or sign a paper.

I'm not saying this to make excuses for not immigrating legally. For most of the poor and unskilled migrants who wish to work here, there is no legal recourse, period. I just feel that most people who talk about reforming the immigration system know very little about the people it needs to serve. And, I feel that there's a serious lack of compassion and understanding toward migrants, and the problems they face, from the horrific conditions they have fled, to just wanting to get a decent haircut. This note is a little step into their shoes.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Delicious Stories of Connecting

Food has always been a universal tool for bringing people together. Shared meals have often been the bridge between me and those I seek to understand. The flavors transcend language, the ingredients speak of the land which their fathers still work, their mother's recipes adapted to a lonely new world open wide a window into their past where cooking was done by women, communally and over fire, instead of alone in electric griddles.

But the solitude disappears when these simple meals are shared. The feeling of being an outsider evaporates, and we become more like brothers and sisters.

I'm not the only one to have felt this sacred connection over a shared table. A few years ago, I added my voice to that of many others to create a collection of stories of love and food, traveling and connecting. The result: a book, complete with recipes, the proceeds of which will go to send slum kids in New Delhi, India, to vocational school, thanks to Rotary International.


A Scrumptious Summer Read That Celebrates Traveling, Connecting, and Eating Around the World


Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World
by Rita Golden Gelman

“Tales from around the world, which . . . affirm a sense of human decency, generosity, and community beyond the borders of language or political affiliation. . . . All feature an appealing sincerity.” —Kirkus Reviews

When Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman was published in 2001, it became an instant worldwide bestseller. The story of Gelman selling all of her possessions and becoming a nomad—traveling through many countries and homes around the world—captivated readers. Gelman insisted on putting her personal e-mail address in the last chapter of her book and was flooded with correspondence from readers worldwide who offered their guest rooms, couches, meals, and—most important—stories from their own nomadic adventures.

In her follow-up, FEMALE NOMAD AND FRIENDS: Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World (A Three Rivers Press Original, June 1, 2010), Gelman includes many of her own further adventures, as well as essays by writers and readers celebrating the connections they’ve made around the world. The stories in this moving anthology include people taking risks, seeking adventure, stepping out of the box, and discovering that beneath the beautiful differences that make us unique there is a universal sameness that bonds us.

FEMALE NOMAD AND FRIENDS also pays homage to the wonders of cooking and eating around the world, and includes more than thirty travel-inspired, taste-tested, and author-approved recipes. Among these fabulous international dishes are vegetarian dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), chiles en nogada (stuffed poblano chiles topped with a white cream sauce with walnuts and a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds), and ho mok (an extraordinary fish coconut custard from Thailand).

Happy reading—and bon appétit, selamat makan , buen provecho!

All of the royalties from FEMALE NOMAD AND FRIENDS will be used to fund educational scholarships for kids from the slums of New Delhi.

About the Author
Rita Golden Gelman is the author of Tales of a Female Nomad and more than seventy children’s books, including More Spaghetti, I Say!, a staple in every first-grade classroom. As a nomad, Rita has no permanent address. She is currently involved in an initiative called Let’s Get Global, a project of U.S. Servas, Inc., a national movement designed to bring the gap year to the United States. Learn more at: Lets Get Global.

Female Nomad and Friends
By Rita Golden Gelman
A Three Rivers Press Original | On Sale: June 1, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-58801-2| $15.00 | 352 pages

Sunday, November 01, 2009

El Día de los Muertos, El Día de los Difuntos

To some people, the Day of the Dead is an ugly pagan holiday, something akin to devil worship. In the white protestant world, it's poorly understood, and therefore feared and looked down upon.

Yesterday, as I was talking with someone I love about a Halloween greeting I had received from a Guatemalan friend, she said, "But don't they celebrate the day of death or whatever?" It wasn't just the mistaken name, but the tone with which she said it, that made me cringe. What I heard was her refusal to respect what she didn't understand. What I understood was that, to her, the blending of pre-Columbian and Catholic traditions had produced something sinister rather than something sacred.

I remember learning about the Day of the Dead in Spanish class in high school. What I didn't get out of it was the beauty of the day's intent. I remember candy and skeletons. I remember it as the "Mexican halloween." I never even saw a Day of the Dead altar until I saw this one:

All by herself, Luis' grandmother lovingly placed food, dishes, flowers, and candles in memory of her departed husband. He was on her mind as she worked. Less like Halloween and more like Memorial Day, the Day of the Dead is for remembering those who have died. Families gather and celebrate the rememberance of their beloved departed. The belief is that their spirits return to earth to visit the living on that day, so they are welcomed with their favorite foods, their way lighted by candles.

It is a hallowed day.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Rudi's Return

I almost didn't recognize him. The defeated stoop of his shoulders, the pale of his once morena clara skin, nearly caused me to look away. But he looked at my eyes in the rearview mirror as I was just leaving, and I stopped.

His smile is still silver, but now when he smiles, he only does so with his mouth. His eyes don't follow along. They're sad, and they're flat black, like holes in his face. I couldn't stop looking at his eyes as we talked. This 27 year old had aged a decade since I had last seen him.

Rudi asked, Cuanto te debo? How much do I owe you?

Oh, Rudi, that was a long time ago. Ya me he olvidado. I've forgotten it already.

But he insists, and I think that even though I never expected to be repaid, maybe it's essential to his dignity that I allow him to repay me. In Mexico, he lost some of his dignity, but he also lost a ton of money. Not money that he had to lose, but his future earnings. He was kidnapped on his way back here, held for ransom, and now on top of the cost of his passage, he owes $6,000 to his friends and family who paid for his freedom.

It kind of makes the $600 I paid the lawyer seem insignificant. I was happy for the chance to help him, and although it came to naught, it was not money wasted. It was proof that, as he sat in that glowing white hot tent in Texas, someone cared for him and wanted him out of there. He was deported back to Guatemala anyway, where he lived and, according to his primos here, suffered, until he had the strength to cross Mexico again.

That crossing took years of his life, and that sparkling-eyes-and-teeth smile I had loved to see directed at me.

He had called me once from Guatemala, told me there was no work, and he would return in March, nearly a year after he was deported. March came and went, and I asked about him. His cousin told me, he's in Mexico. He left Concepcion Las Minas the end of February.

But it's April.

He called his mother and said someone took him, not la migra, not the police. They're holding him there. He can't leave until he pays them six thousand dollars.

What does that do to a man? How can he swallow the injustice of having to pay so much money to someone whose only intent is to cause him more suffering? On top of the injustice of poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunity in his homeland, lack of respect in the only place that offers him any hope at all for a better life. I burn with injustice at being ripped off in simple everyday purchases. But six thousand dollars, for nothing? Just for the privilege of continuing an already terrible journey?

I complain when my flight to Key West is delayed, bitch and moan about my "lost" luggage that I have to wait an agonizing 24 hours to receive. Rudi lost two months, sitting in the middle of a hostile place, just waiting. Waiting for his destitute family to collect and send that $6,000.

The injustice of this is indescribable.

Nearly two months after he left Guatemala, Rudi was back here, with a mountain of debt to pay. He took no time to rest and recover. Mowing lawns, washing dishes, he dove instantly back into his work, the same work he was doing when he was arrested for having committed no crime aside from simply being here, working.

Rudi didn't tell me any of this. I heard it from his cousins. For me, Rudi had nothing but his best attempt at a smile, and two questions: How have you been? and, What do I owe you?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Unapologetic Love

Death is, in a way, a blessing to those of us who remain. It reminds us how short and precious life is. It keeps us from drifting too far away from what matters the most. Death gives us an opportunity to stop for a minute and think of the people we love, people we take for granted every day, people who may not be here for us tomorrow.

I see death pass me on all sides, causing awful holes in the lives of people I know. Gone are mothers, brothers, husbands, children. I'm sorry for those who have lost someone they love.

Just this morning alone, I've been told to be my best, for God and myself. Ask forgiveness, offer a balm for an unnecessary hurt. Thank you, Tim Chavez, for being a voice for the voiceless, and for writing as long as you could.

Thank you, Luis Urrea, for reaching out in your time of sadness and loss to those of us who need the reminder: Don't wait another minute to tell someone you love them.
..if you love somebody, tell them now. If you're mad at them, get over it. If you miss them, write them or call them. Tomorrow might not come around in time. Love them now.