Written by: Janet Arelis Quezada
The line is always longer when it separates you from your loved ones. The longer you’ve been away from them—the more painfully you’ve stored the treasured, few, remembrances of the last time you saw them 11 years ago—the harder it is for you to hold back the tears that began to glint in one eye as you got on the plane and waved goodbye to Felipe and Dora who brought you to the airport. Not that the officials who make you wait in line will ever care.
On the plane most of you were seated in the big numbered cabin, sharing the close air and the intimate sounds of sleep, gum chewing, laughter at the dubbed movie and trips to the bathrooms by the exit signs. But now, you are divided into lines. Lines for people who are citizens and for those who are visitors. And then in the visitors’ line more distinctions are made and you have to be careful that they do not find out that you plan to stay.
You plan to stay. It’s not that simple. It’s not that easy. You plan to stay means that you can’t go back—there’s a difference in that. Dora is a good woman and you know she will take care of Felipe; calm him down and make him focus on work and home. But you have so many friends, comadres, every-day acquaintances—like Celia from the beauty parlor who knows exactly what dye looks best on your hair and who tells you the best picardia stories, better than any novela. You know so many people that you could not say goodbye to all of them. You could not stand with the grocery bag balanced on your hip and actually tell them that you were not coming back. On the last day you walked your usual path to the store, to Felipe’s job at the garage to bring him lunch, to the special spot on the beach underneath la palma that gave the best shade to say goodbye with your feet to the land that you would miss so much.
And what about your Santos? You had made una promesa to finally take the path toward initiation and look for a Madrina. All those years with Antonio, you had hidden the knowledge of herbs and the lukumí prayers to the river. Prayers that would have unlocked that special strength to keep everything together with grace that you so badly needed during your time with him. To Antonio and his family, you had been the urban Catholic that they wanted you to be. Went to misas on holidays and kept your rosary beads and bible by the nightstand bookmarking Psalms with lists of prize-winning numbers. That was enough for them. You accompanied Tía Clemencia to the novenas en la Romana during the yearly time away from Antonio with what remained of your family en el campo. You hid the bruises from them the best you could. Didn’t even dare buy statues of the saints in Catholic form, because Antonio over the years had boycotted all religion as his own family turned fundamentalist. Would you be able to keep your promise to the Santos in this new place? Were they the ones giving you the resolve to make this decision in the first place?
Ramonita says there are herbs here that people have sent from the island and that things grow here, too. But, all her pictures are of buildings and no earth. Where can seeds grow, if there is no earth? You had known better than to try to bring some roots; here they fined you for transplanting foreign plants. Imagine the buildings here choked by a super-fertile siempreviva plant. You keep forgetting that Ramonita doesn’t live in New York anymore. Hard to imagine a US that is not New York, but rather Los Angeles—a city that sounds like it can offer her amistad and protección.
In the letters to Ramonita, you had begun to prepare the way for el encuentro. Eleven years is a lot of time to be apart and Ramonita would have to get to know you now as you have been after Antonio’s death. Now when your laughter explodes from your mouth at random moments. Now when you are beginning to go back to the ways your grandmother had taught you, now when the posture that you had presented to the world had been softened. You are different now. Más coqueta. Ramonita would not believe it!
Monita was the right age and she was having a baby. It was time for the two of you to meet again as women. To finally have that talk about the immigration papers, why you had been denied entry as a parent. You only told Ramonita not to fight it. You had only told her that you didn’t want to get that big eagle angry, because you were afraid of his talons. You had only told her that you could not really leave Antonio after all. The papers, the documentation, the proofs, the blood: you made a big deal to Ramonita about not wanting to blemish that newly printed certificate that pronounced her naturalization. “What if they take it back?” you had asked, in order to get Ramonita on one of her favorite topics; “demystifying the power of the US government.” Ramonita really believed that you had an all-encompassing fear of the US officials and would talk a 5 minute phone card out trying to convince you that it was just a collection of people and laws just like any other government.
Documents, proof, blood; you are coming without them. You waited long enough now that Ramonita can’t argue with you about going the official way. She’s having a baby. She’s finishing up those management classes that will help her get a better salary. She’s in that relationship with that friend of hers with whom she’s planning to raise her baby. She’s organizing those rallies on immigrant rights, sitting on committees with Salvadoran, Chinese and Mexican activists. Advocates. Ramonita’s friend was an advocate who had come to New York to do some “solidarity work” and would not return to California until she had convinced Ramonita to leave everything and go with her. Ramonita has got a lot to think about and you dropped the news into the last few seconds before the card ran out. And you had called purposefully forgetting again about the time difference, so that there was nothing left for Monita to do but rush off to work and prepare for your visit less than a week away.
You know her well enough by the letters and those magical conversations; the calls from your house in Santo Domingo connecting to first silence and then loud ringing and then the other side of the sea and recently a whole continent in between-all done under 5 minutes-all the catching up and the growing up done then. You know that Ramonita was ready for this new part of her life. There hadn’t been a visit; Ramonita couldn’t get the money together, or the time away and besides she did not want to come back. Finally, she had told you that she didn’t want to see Antonio ever again. She had said that she was so glad that she didn’t owe him the respect of a daughter to a father. You had raised her that way; you wanted her to honor the familial obligations; family first and always. If he had been her father, your Ramonita would have studied ways to forgive him and talk to him for a minute, or two, but he wasn’t blood—that’s the way you had raised her—and so after Ramonita boarded the plane she had refused to talk to Antonio “Pilin” Cardenas.
Ramonita was having a baby. Would that baby grow up to understand all the decisions that you’d made; the calculations based on the laws, the economy, the rules, the documentation; all those things that now you knew you did not believe in anymore? Maybe things you had never really believed in? Despite the ways that you had taught Ramonita; you did not believe in anything but the heart and the spirits. You knew that this child Ramonita was having would be your grandchild; that when you died you would still walk behind this child deflecting the arrows of jealousy, or mal de ojo that came that child’s way. You knew that spirits had walked with you that had nothing to do with your blood family and looked nothing like the bark colored skin and colocho hair that was on your head, not all of them.
When the official at the front of the line asks you for your documentation, papers, proof, the answer on your tongue burns you into silence. You push him the papers, documentation, proof that you will be coming to Los Angeles to look at the red carpet and to stand for hours looking at the real life, real size people projected on the big screens. You will not tell the official that the only “stars” you recognize are from the telenovelas from Venezuela and Brazil and that Ramonita, only Ramonita could fill your eyes for hours.
You will not tell them that you had raised Ramonita for your sister. It happened; you had to support your younger sister and then suddenly, despite the prayers, Flavia decided that she could not continue living one morning soon after Ramonita’s birth despite all of her family’s more than abundant love. Everyone else who had known that you were the Aunt not the Mother had forgotten over time or were now on the other side of time’s river with Flavia too.
You were not going to tell the official all about the change in your emotional course; time had worn away everything except the need to be truthful to the people who really mattered. Since Antonio’s death, you had emerged smooth and shining, yourself and yourself again wherever you turn. You will allow these lies in this other country only because the documentation, papers, proof are not available to you to explain what your spirits whisper to be true.
Besides, what’s done is done. Ramonita had been raised well. She had been dutiful, studious, respectful to her elders; los vecinos that watched her grow up had approved of everything you had done with her. They stopped you in the street to ask after her and smiled fondly to know that she sent you money and letters; that her first thought after receiving citizenship was to bring you to her. That’s a good daughter. Your daughter. You will share with her the birth of her child and also, you will share yourself completely. And she will understand.
Janet Arelis Quezada is a beader of word necklaces, a dancer and mangu con queso eater. She believes that peace is a verb and that justice is an action. Her mother is from El Seybo and her father is from La Romana. She graduated from Wellesley College with BA in English Literature and has spent her career in non-profit service and advocacy on a range of issues alongside communities in New York, the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Florida Review and Ambientes: New Queer Latino Writing edited by Lázaro Lima and Felice Picano.