I’m back in the Northern Hemisphere and in the saddle of design and development work. My month-long trip was wonderful. I did some work some proposals and troubleshooting. I talked, ate, sang, saw sights, and laughed with family and friends. I spoke a lot of Spanish. It was part tourism, part emotional odyssey, part design inspiration, and a lot of fun – a great way to explore my roots.
I promised in my last post that I would share how I came to be on a such a trip, so here goes.
My parents lived in Argentina when I was born. They met and married in Kansas. They moved there because my Dad, while being a United States citizen, was raised there by his parents. My mother was born in Michigan and she’d lived all over the States. She was open to the adventure of living outside the US, so off they went.
My family lived in Villa Maria, a town in the state of Cordoba with several universities and colleges, lots of agriculture and some dairies and other factories. We lived there until I was four when we moved to the state of Chubut in Patagonia. It wasn’t until I was seven that I set foot in the US, though I am a natural-born citizen through my mom. Fun note: It is a matter of some debate in my family whether I or my brothers could run for president since, no one knows exactly what the US Constitutional requirement of “natural born Citizen” actually means. As none of us are interested in the office, I guess Ted Cruz will have to solve that mystery for us all.
When we moved to the States, my family got on a plane in the heat of a pampas summer to arrive in the brutal cold of a Michigan winter. I was greeted by English-speaking family I had last met when I was three. I started school within days of arriving in a new language and with no one I knew. My survival strategy was assimilation. My mother says I told her on the plane that I would never again speak in Spanish. I never asked how to say something in English, preferring to think until I found the word myself. I and my brothers learned rapidly, as children do. My parents attempts to keep us speaking Spanish at home failed and we slipped into English permanently. Mom’s first language was English and my Dad was raised speaking English at home so perhaps they were both in the habit. Perhaps it was unnatural to translate what we lived in one language into the other. Certainly my determination to stop didn’t help. Whatever the cause, I lost all my Spanish.
My parents had more luck keeping Argentina in our home. We made Argentine food like milanesas and asado (cooked over hot wood coals by my dad). They regularly brought out the hundreds of amazing photos of the pampas and Patagonia that they had taken when we lived there. Mom and Dad could not afford to take us there so they used the food and photos to spark stories and keep memories alive. Whenever anyone visited us from there, they brought food, notes, and photos. I noticed visitors’ suitcases had a wonderful aroma – a blend perfumes, books, steaks, leather, coffee, wine, pastries, and yerba mate. I craved that smell and still find it intoxicating.
Food and photos were the tangible things I held of Argentina until we visited when I was 14. That first trip was a dizzying array of sensations, some strangely familiar and others completely alien. There were all these legendary places and people whom I had last seen as a small child. I felt like a foreigner, not a native. I could not communicate in Spanish, which made it harder. During my visit, the local school allowed me to attend with my friend, Cecilia, who also spoke English. I went to biology and algebra and sang in a choir concert. Her circle of friends embraced me fully, sharing snacks on breaks, inviting me to parties, and practicing their English while teaching me “castellano” (Argentine Spanish with its Italian influence and inflection). I learned a key Argentine value: hospitality. Hospitality to strangers and foreigners is a cardinal virtue. Sure, there are blackguards waiting to take advantage (as there are in every culture), but the vast majority of people are delighted to find you’re not from around here and eager to share their world with you. I couldn’t assimilate because I lacked the tools and the time in the six weeks we were there to truly fit back in. The hospitality of the people gave me space to explore my old home even from my outsider’s perspective.
We are all wonderfully weird. No citizen of any nation is 100% representative of their national identity. After all, national cultures are made up of regional cultures and further down of communities and families and, obviously, individuals. Even those who have never left their hometown are unique in some way. As we grow, we are sensitive to the ways we don’t fit in. Weird is bad and we are weird. Weird is good and we are insufficiently weird. Weirdness becomes yet another thing holding us back.
Our relationship to each aspect of ourselves changes, too, depending on the situation and our mood. Through the eyes of adolescence, I didn’t feel fully American nor fully Argentine, but I was living in the US. Perhaps that’s why my first instinct was assimilation. I’ll conform so they don’t think I’m invasive! I come in peace! See, I speak your language and I have embraced your customs. I, too, love The Little Mermaid. Let’s sing “Part of Your World” and play with My Little Ponies. That first trip back to Argentina confirmed how out of place I was in my birthplace. By welcoming me, my fellow Argentines opened a door. The idea finally coalesced: perhaps I didn’t have to choose between the nations I loved.
My family took another trip to celebrate my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary just after I graduated from high school. That trip sealed it – I would be bi-hemispherically American, North and South. I decided to work on the major obstacle or language relearn Spanish in college. People used to tell me that I would be able to access the entire language in an instant one day. Maybe if I studied it, probably when I visited, perchance if I was struck by lightening. It never happened. It was almost as difficult for me as everyone else who studied it, but I was happy to toil at it.
Cultivation is Key
Now I live and work in the United State of America. My primary language is English and I write, speak, and read in it most of the time. I have grown so much in this environment. I consider myself a Michigander, having lived there during those formative years of childhood and adolescence. My husband finds it both hilarious and irritating that I’m always on the lookout for Michigan or Argentina for news items, fun facts, and plane ticket sales. It took a couple of visits and a lot of maturing to see that my weirdness was worth something. My Argentine friends didn’t shun me because I left and grew in different soil. My American friends appreciated my background. Speaking another language – even if it was a lot of work – was valuable in both contexts. I had another culture from which to draw creative inspiration and energy in my work and relationships.
My dad, especially, was a strong tie to Argentina during my youth. It was the place he had moved as a kid and grown up as a non-native, but he loved it like a local. When he passed away in 2014, I feared I had lost Argentina along with him. He, more than Mom, was the keeper of the memories, the culture, the language of that part of myself. How could I continue my quest without him? The question hung over me as I grieved.
My grief showed me that I wanted some changes in my life. I resolved to freelance full time to give myself flexibility to spend time with family. I also resolved to take this trip and gather stories and connect with the people that knew my dad and my family. I took photos and kept a journal so I could preserve these memories and pass them along to my brothers and their families, as my dad did with us growing up. This trip was about him in many ways, but it was also about me continuing my growth. This time, much more than previous trips, however, I could see I was approaching it more as someone who belongs than as an interloper. I won’t claim to be native, but I see how I can contribute and give back to this culture that has enriched me so much.
In the last year, I crossed an important milestone: I have lived in Maryland longer than anywhere else. I am learning to embrace its quirks and see myself as more of a local than when I moved here 12 years ago now. I don’t feel the need to erase my other identities to fit in here. I need only find welcoming friends, learn about the culture, embrace the food, and keep my weird, non-native roots alive.
Happy National Sibling Day, hermanos! For the first years of my life, I wanted nothing to do with you. Now I take any excuse to brag about, support, and visit you and your families. I’m so grateful for you and my siblings-in-law. Family can be so wonderful – whether you are born into it or you join up later.
A photo posted by Erica Sommerville Palmisano (@ericapalmisano) on