Home - Ana María Zabala

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of home recently. When everybody went nuts over the COVID-19 situation and COA decided to shut down the campus, we were all told to “go home.”

What am I supposed to make out of that?

I’ve been living in this town called Bar Harbor for almost four years now and what brought me here—COA—is no longer here but in a nebulous virtual space. I’ve been waking up lately with a question in my thoughts: what am I doing here?

I try to go out to the park because although I grew up in cement memories surrounded by 11 million people in an urban monster called Bogotá, I know that the forest brings clarity amidst confusion.

The forest here brings me a sort of sense of belonging.

It took me a long time to understand it though.

When I first got to these northern latitudes, I thought these forests were dead.

They are so silent.

In Colombia, we often refer to nature as el monte. El monte is also the place where war is waged. In el monte the guerrillas, paramilitaries and army give each other gunshot. When someone joins an armed group, we say ‘se fue pa’l monte’. Going to the monte is going to nature which can also mean going to war.

El monte is heavy with sounds.

Sounds of jungle with humid tropical air.

Sounds of mountains with roaring winds descending from the Andes and the condor beating its wings.

Sounds of war.

Buzz orchestras, wing songs and animal roars make one dizzy.

The sounds of the metal birds that throw bombs, lead and glyphosate in the name of the ‘War on Drugs’ make one even dizzier.

But with the years, I’ve come to listen to the silence of the forests here. Their winds often bring me airs of home.

Today I was out on a walk in Acadia with my friend Indi and we ran into a woman walking her dog with her daughter.

“It’s so nice to see people from the town out,” Indi said to this woman.

The woman looked at us strangely and said “Oh yeah, we go out to the park everyday.”

“Where are you from?” she asked with suspicion.

I didn’t want to answer this question, so I remained silent and thought to myself “I live here.”

“I’m from Costa Rica,” Indi said.

“Oh, just visiting?,” asked this woman with apprehension.

“We go to COA,” Indi replied.

Where am I from? Can’t I just live here? So in times of COVID-19 paranoia I’m supposed to go wherever my ‘home’ is because I don’t look or speak like the people who are allowed by the law to call this place ‘home’?

What is home?

‘My country’?

What is ‘my country’

‘my city’

‘my town’?

I love the place where I grew up but when I go to Bogotá I feel like I go insane from all the pollution, cement, anger, rape and traffic jams. ‘

My city’ is not even considered ‘home’ by most of its inhabitants.

Bogotá’s collapsed streets and its dead river whose foam reeks of landfill always remind me of its uncontrollable unfurling fed by Colombia’s incessant violence that displaces hummingbirds in el monte.

Bogotá is an urban monster that went from having 600 thousand inhabitants to 11 million inhabitants in sixty years. The sixty years of our most recent war that forced so many hummingbirds out of their nests who had to rebuild them in an uphill struggle on the mountain slopes that contain that city.

So many hummingbirds escaping bullets have reached Bogotá’s ridges.

At night, the lights of their barrios guard us like stars.

During Christmas time, those who can, return to their hometowns.

Those whose birthtowns were vanished by massacres, bullets and bombs re-encounter what’s left of their people in other towns or smaller cities.

For many hummingbirds displaced by our incessant violence, Bogotá is the cage that confined them to a chaotic grid of asphalt.

During Christmas time Bogotá becomes festive and calm because the caged hummingbirds can escape its effervescence of exhaust and return to their families.

Singer Chavela Vargas, who was born in Costa Rica but is more mexican than a tortilla, used to say “uno es de donde se siente” (one is from where one feels).

My mom shares this feeling.

She was born in Bogotá and has lived there for more than forty years, but she spent her childhood in La Guajira—an arid desert region that kisses caribbean waters on the northernmost tip of South America.

My mom doesn’t feel like a Bogotana even though her family has been in Bogotá for as far back as the memory of our living relatives can remember.

Caption picture left: My grandmother and great-grandfather in the backyard of their house in the Barrio Primero de Mayo of Bogotá.

Caption picture right: My mom and I in the Pilón de Azúcar beach in La Guajira.

My mom was a guajira when she was little; she spoke fast and loud, sung the last syllables and swallowed the s’s like Caribbeans do in Spanish. She now speaks like a Bogotana but at heart she’s guajira. She’s never found the peace she had in Maicao, the town she grew up in.

Caption: Picture of Maicao from an article in in Medium.com titled “Maicao: Pirate Town on the Venezuelan Border”

A memory of a conversation.

On a very nostalgic day of longing for home, I call my mom after working at the college farm. We discuss the coming elections. It’s the summer of 2018 and I’m in Maine. My mom is afraid and I’m angry about the politics that brand that lovely piece of land under the yellow, blue and red colors. I miss everything about it all the same.

Mom tells me people fight everywhere, everyone is polarized. Families are divided and strangers scream politics at each other inside buses, in the craze and tumultuousness of rush hour. That year Iván Duque won, the pupil of ex-president Álvaro Úribe, who at the time of the elections was being investigated by the Supreme Court of Justice for crimes against humanity.

“I was sitting on a bus thinking: if this country turns unlivable and everything goes to shit, where will I go? I often thought about this in the 80s and 90s, when narcos ruled this country and bombs blew up everywhere. I told you Anita, how one of Pablo Escobar’s bombs stripped the windows out of the buildings of our neighborhood Colseguros. But I never left. I never left for the US or other ‘better places’. I have always thought: what will I do in a place where I have no identity, no people? So if everything goes to hell again, I would go to La Guajira.”

Here, I cry. I miss her. I miss her sweet voice.

She continues “I only find peace in La Guajira. Despite the fact that it was a very difficult land. There the familias guajiras shot each other right in the heart of the plaza. I remember being in elementary school, hearing the gunshots and everybody would say ‘the Cárdenas and the Valdeblánquez are giving each other plomo again!”

The war between the Cárdenas and Valdeblanquez family lasted nineteen years. It rests in the collective memory of the caribbean. My mom’s memory is part of that fabric. Bombs, massacres, shootings that would last up to two hours, underage victims, assassinations in Riohacha, Santa Marta and Barranquilla.

It is said that the conflict started over a woman. Either two of the men from each clan slept with the same woman or one of the Valdeblánquez slept with a Cárdenas woman that he didn’t want to marry afterwards. It was a war of honor.

The deepest offense for a Guajiro is the shedding of blood. The first one occurred on August 16 of 1970 in Dibulla, La Guajira with the assassination of Hilario Valdeblánquez in the hands of José Antonio Cárdenas. These families got rich with the bonanza marimbera that the Peace Corps started in La Guajira so they extended their narcotrafficking nexus to other capitals of the caribbean like Santa Marta and Barranquilla.

This war left two hundred deaths. These two families literally wiped each other out. The last Cárdenas was killed by two gunshots in the head that reached him when he was waiting for his school bus. He was thirteen. It was 1989, the same year the DAS building blew up because of a car bomb put there by Pablo Escobar’s power. The wave of the bomb sent my mom flying across the Colseguros buildings’ parking lot.

So my mom found peace in a land of war. I really understood her. That day we talked, I longed to stand in that land of violence that is Colombia. That country with its never ending war.

I was surrounded by the quiet and safe Maine woods watching a silent summer sunset, but my insides were slowly being eaten away by nostalgia. I counted the days I had left to see my mom at the end of the summer when she would come up and I would go down to NYC.

That summer, all I did was count.

Counting the days left for August 12th, when I had my week off from the farm and would see my mom and finally speak Spanish again.

Counting the heads of lettuce, never losing track of the numbers,

I reached 370 one morning,

counting my movements to be more efficient,

1 hour and a half those 370 lettuces took.

All this counting left me void inside.

All this counting just for selling.

Just selling and buying.

The American Dream.

And I longed for the Colombian War.

That was 2018 and now it’s 2020.

I don’t long for the colombian war as intensely anymore.

I feel comfortable here in Maine. I haven’t felt void inside for a long time now but I’m afraid I will again.

Especially with this question of ‘home’ hovering over me constantly in these times of uncertainty.

I see the fragility of the threads of the ‘COA community’. I see them coming undone.

Can a college, which in the end functions just like any other business, offer a community? Really? If everything goes to shit, I’m expected to ‘go home’. My mom told me in 2018 that if everything went to shit in our country and war broke out again she’d go to La Guajira, where she found peace.

Where do I go now?

Bogotáe’s merciless height and cement suffocate acutely. In times of lockdown and quarantine, I don’t wanna be even more suffocated there. But I have no people here either. I have strong friendships here but we all came here for our own sake, to study this or that, get a degree and go elsewhere. We are not a people. We don’t share a history. We probably won’t put our necks on the line for each other cause most of us got other ‘homes’ to go to if shit hits the fan. We are a fabricated community by this institution that has no place now.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the people I’ve met in this college, and I’m thankful for the friendships and relationships I’ve built with peers and professors, but please COA stop calling yourself a community. I’m not asking one from you, but don’t promise things you can’t offer.

These words I encountered in Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise have been on my mind a lot recently.

“But can't you even imagine what it must feel like to have a true home? I don't mean heaven. I mean a real earthly home. Not some fortress you bought and built up and have to keep everybody locked in or out. A real home. Not some place you went to and invaded and slaughtered people to get. Not some place you claimed, snatched because you got the guns. Not some place you stole from the people living there, but your own home, where if you go back past your great-great-grandparents, past theirs, and theirs, past the whole of Western history, past the beginning of organized knowledge, past pyramids and poison bows, on back to when rain was new, before plants forgot they could sing and birds thought they were fish, back when God said Good! Good!-- there, right there where you know your own people were born and lived and died. Imagine that, Pat. That place. Who was God talking to if not to my people living in my home?"

I think very few people in this world can have a home like this.

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