Miami doesn’t look like Caracas. That may seem obvious, but I had a hard time understanding it. Or, let’s say, absorbing it fully. With little effort I’ve found corners of Caracas in almost every city I’ve been to. Sao Paolo, New York, Chicago, and Torino, and Buenos Aires, and Washington. And when there’s no trace of Caracas, some other place of Venezuela fills the void. I saw the plains of Guárico in Iceland’s Seljaland and Puerto La Cruz in Cabo. I’ve been told many of these comparisons are a bit of an exaggeration, not to say self-involved bullshit, but I can’t help it.
I see Caracas everywhere.
But Miami is something else: a completely different animal. A city stitched out of cities, which are not so. Or, at least, not yet. Apolonia makes fun of me, she says that I have no chance without Google Maps. She thinks it’s absurd that I get lost in a place where the streets and avenues follow such a simple logic, which to me, it’s only in her head.
Leaving is never easy. Grasping that your kids’ “homeland” —and I struggle to suppress the gag reflex as I say the word— is not the same as yours is always jarring. The full weight of it only struck as I watched the US presidential campaign last year. When the President appeared on TV —the previous one, not this one— and my eldest daughter’s eyes opened wide and she said: “that’s the president.” I saw something in her that I’ve never had: respect for the presidency.
I don’t know if it’ll last.
I confess that she doesn’t know much about Venezuela. I don’t think she would recognize that President. For her, the President is some other guy, the one who beat “the girl” in the elections.
I don’t know how to tell her a story which doesn’t have a happy ending yet.
We left when she was three, and before then we did what we could to shield her from the bad stuff, which was already a lot back then, like Benigni in La vita e bella. We figured if she was going to live there her whole life, it made no sense for her earliest memories to include violence, cancer, and hate. Back then it was still possible to craft a small bubble of paradise for her, between home, daily visits to her grandparents’, and occasional trips to the beach.
But you can’t hide everything. In the last election —ours, not theirs— I used to watch every single speech by our sick President. Closely. And she was always there, in the background, playing, distracted. I have this image of her humming and singing, confusing the lyrics of Itsy Bitsy Spider with the hymn of the federation:
The itsy bitsy spider
Went up the water spout;
Viva la libertad;
El cielo encapotado
Down came the rain and
Washed the spider out.
As the sick President became the dead President, and we kept on playing Benigni. School shutdowns due to protests —the previous ones, not these ones— morphed into extended vacations, and explosions —in the afternoon and at night— into fireworks.
Then her sister was born and we returned to Miami. The return, because we’d already left once. An unnatural order, just like in Back to the Future.
She still asks about “Velezuela.” What can I tell her?
My instinct is still to shield her from the anguish, from fear of the country. I don’t want her to be scared to go back. We talk about the things I used to do there when I was her age and we remember together the adventures we had hiking up “the mountain.”
I tell her that it’s the same mountain where the mice dug the cave where Alfredito and Hortensia live. She asks when we’ll get to go back to “the seven seas,” and when will we go visit her grandparents and her nonnos. I tell her we’ll go soon, drawing a picture in my own head that in a couple of months things will be fine for a vacation.
She knows that I go there frequently and that I don’t take her because “now we can’t.” That there are people who need help, and children who don’t have enough food to eat. She helps by putting the things people need in boxes.
But I just can’t bring myself to give her a complete explanation.
She knows that part of my job is describing what’s going on in Venezuela, but I don’t know how to tell her a story which doesn’t have a happy ending yet.
Her sister has only been to Caracas twice. She doesn’t understand “here” and “there” yet. Miami is the only home she has ever known.
She knows that I go there frequently and that I don’t take her because “now we can’t.”
I see how, day by day, my daughters are digging their roots in a country that isn’t mine. How they’re becoming from here. They eat arepas every week, but their accent is fading away, and I find myself in absurd situations explaining them that they can skip the “eses” and that it’s fine if they replace them with “jotas,” and that the words they use are correct but are not the ones that they should use, and never, never ever, disciplining my youngest every time she drops a “cadajo.”
Meanwhile, I keep getting lost in the corners of Alhambra (“Alajambra”) and Ponce de Leon (“Pons de Lion”), and in the numbered streets North and South of Flagler, and looking for the goddamned East. Trying to find the coastline as if it were the Avila.
Maybe the problem is that I don’t concentrate enough. Maybe I haven’t completely understood that I’m not a tourist anymore. I don’t know.
What I’m sure of, however, is that they will not get lost here.