I’m trying to think of a word or a phrase or a way to describe the arc of a certain kind of relationship, a relationship a person has with a place.
I want to describe what it is like to be in a place where I didn’t grow up.
It’s a verb that I’m looking for, an action word. I’ll give you some words that aren’t quite right: learn about, understand, land, become familiar with, know, comprehend, take in. Internalize comes the closest.
The place I’m talking about is a place where I don’t know the names of the trees, and the rhythms and modulations of the language sound like a song I have never sung. Where I can’t pronounce the words on the street signs or on the front of the busses, and the foods have names so unfamiliar, I can’t order a meal from a vendor on the street where people gather to eat. Where I don’t know the value of the coins and paper money I spend. Where the kindness and availability of strangers disarm me. Where my ability to communicate is so limited that when I ask for a black tea I am given a plastic fork. “Té negro” in my mouth sounds like “tenedor”.
I walk all the time, revisiting the same places, trying to connect. Trying to…but what is the word? If I can just make a small corner of this beast of a city into something familiar, something my own, maybe I can start thinking and feeling again. Maybe the loneliness, the alienation so powerful I can’t even find my Self, will loosen its hold.
This isn’t the first time I have had this struggle. In fact I have it wherever I am, except when I am where I was born and raised. When I was s a child I owned the streets of my neighborhood. Does it make sense to leave the place you were born to go somewhere else to live?
The history of this continent seems to say no. The folks who left Europe in fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in their profound alienation, created some big problems here.
In the US, Manifest Destiny seems to be alive and well, with so many of us leaving our birthplace to make homes elsewhere.
I ended up in Albuquerque as a teenager, ignorant of its history. It took a full year to (again the words fall short) come to terms with the sky and the mountain, having spent my formative years rarely seeing more than a stripe of sky between the buildings. Now it was ever present, oppressive even, in its relentless intensity. And the permanence of the mountain always shouting “East” and the volcanoes answering “West!” How could a boy from the Bronx internalize this?
After fifty years time, I have a only the beginnings of knowledge of the complex history of New Mexico: the serial invasions, the extraction of resources, the caste system based on race, the layers of language, slavery; and through it all, the persistence of the Native people. Those of us who came here from elsewhere walk a treacherous path. On one hand our ignorance and arrogance help bury history. And yet, until we make the place our own, we are tourists, thoughtlessly taking what we want.
I don’t mean owning, like you own a car. It’s a different kind of owning but I can’t think of the right word. It’s something like giving yourself to a person you love, or dancing your ass off at a party instead of shyly standing on the sidelines.
In many parts of the US it is easy to forget that you are standing on Native land. In Mexico the Native presence is everywhere. In New Mexico, less so. Experiencing this is helping me to have more understanding of the place where I live.
I’ve known Ricardo Rubio Esparza for many years but hadn’t seen him in person since he came to Albuquerque four and a half years ago.
We sat facing the main library and its mosaic mural on the enormous campus of Universidad Nacional Autónoma Mexicana, in front of the Torre Rectorio, the administration building, with its incredible three dimensional Siqueros murals.
It made me so happy to see him and he expressed his happiness in seeing me. He asked me how my stay has been and I was mute. I just rolled my eyes. Ricardo helped me out: “Es un monstruo”, he said. “It’s a monster.” I told him the things I’d been thinking about, belonging, landing somewhere foreign, the things I just told you. I tossed out all the inadequate words in Spanish, trying to express the long process of adjusting to being here, still unable to find the right word in any language. But right away, Ricardo understood. “Asimilar,” he said. Click! He gave me the word I’ve been searching for. It has taken me a month to begin to asimilar.
Ricardo teaches film making at Instituto Politécnico Nacional. When I explained to him that being here has been helping me to understand New Mexico more deeply, he related a similar experience: when he visited Europe, he suddenly understood Mexico better. He said that when he saw how relaxed Europeans were in comparison to Mexicans, how little they had to work, and how much luxury they have, he understood it was because of all the wealth that they have taken from Mexico; that in order for there to be people who have plenty there have to be people who have little. “La Conquista continúa,” he said, with Juan Gorman’s mural, depicting the conquest facing us.
After sitting with Ricardo, and receiving the Word, I noticed a shift inside. That heavy sense of alienation lifted and this world that I’m a part of welcomed me in.