Más Home

Castle Fire, photo by Henry Rael

“Normally I fill out this paperwork in the middle of the night on the hood of a car,” said the wholesome young woman sitting across the table from me. She was one of those non-descript straight-haired girls from the Midwest, with glasses, a round face, and skin that looked like it would burn easily in the New Mexico sun.

“I’m new to this office, so I have to look for the intake forms,” she said, standing up and disappearing behind a cubicle partition. She returned a few minutes later with a clipboard, a Red Cross New Mexico pen held against the metal by the cap handle.

“I used to work for La Cruz Roja in Central and South America.”

I nodded.

“Here we have pens. Such luxury,” she said.

Maybe she wanted me to know that she was more than just a Red Cross worker in Albuquerque, even though this is a fine, respectable profession, one I certainly appreciated and needed at that moment, ten days after the fire that destroyed my apartment. Maybe she wanted me to say, “Wow, you worked in Central America?” Maybe she wanted to speak Spanish with me or tell me how she planned to return to Honduras or Nicaragua and that this stop in Albuquerque was just temporary.

En la Calle, photo by Henry Rael

I wanted to tell this woman that I understood her. Before signing the lease on my now-charred apartment, I had tried to divide my time between Albuquerque and Oaxaca, earning money and applying for grants here, just so I could get back there. I taught Writing to Heal workshops for women in Oaxaca. I wrote a book in Oaxaca. In Oaxaca I didn’t need a car. I walked to the mercado or a street vendor and bought plastic cups of fresh jicama, mango, and sandia sprinkled with lime and chile. I spoke Spanish and drank mezcal and sang La Llorona and read poetry at Café La Nueva Babel. In Oaxaca I had long talks with Rosa María and Martha and Laura and Perla.

Viva, photo by M. Otero

I wanted to tell Red Cross worker now filling out my emergency food and clothing vouchers that, when I first returned, I had also struggled with being here. Here where George W. Bush was President, and Homeland Security would build a fence between the U.S. and Mexico. Here where busy friends made appointments to spend time together instead of just running into each other on the street because these streets were built to accommodate cars and traffic, rather than human beings.

Jardín, photo by Henry Rael

My education and my work in other countries had been a kind of home. Honor Roll. Harvard. When I was twenty, I spent a summer in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, learning Spanish and volunteering at a group home for abused girls and a home for disabled children. Two months after graduating from college, I moved to Partridge Street in Belize City, where I spent the next two years working for the Diocese of Belize as a Jesuit Volunteer. I coordinated a national lay minister training program and then served as Pastoral Assistant at St. Martin’s Church. Graduate school. In my early thirties I won a Fulbright and moved to Oaxaca for nine months; I stayed for two years. I came back to the States for holidays and graduate school residencies, but I liked that my base lay elsewhere. And even after I moved back to New Mexico in 2006, I ached for a chance to return to Oaxaca.

Floridas, photo by M. Otero

I confess that for most of my life I believed that staying here meant I had failed. When the letter in the big envelope arrived from Harvard all those years ago, my mom said, “Your going there isn’t just important for you. It’s important for all of us.” And it was. And it is. But I misunderstood her. I thought she wanted me to be bigger than this place, to learn to live in that other world, whatever that world was, and to create a space for “all of us.” But I think she meant that I had been given an opportunity not many of us get, that this opportunity would give me choices, choices that many young Chicanas did not have, choices that had been denied my parents and grandparents. I think she meant that I could choose to come home.

And so I did. When I was visiting Oaxaca and received news of the fire in my Albuquerque home, I wanted nothing more than to stand on 15th Street looking up at my 2nd floor living room windows, even though I knew I would see sky where my roof had once been. I wanted to lie on the hammock in Henry’s (and now my) backyard and stare up at the Chinese Elms etched against that same sky. I wanted green chile and pinto beans and pocho Spanish.

photo by Henry Rael

It has been nine months since the fire, since the wholesome Red Cross worker handed me vouchers for KMart and Albertson’s, and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” If I could talk with her again, I would thank her and say, “I am home.”

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Published in: on May 27, 2010 at 11:29 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Beautiful post.

  2. You Are Home, my beautiful daughter.

  3. I truly remember being so happy for you when I heard you were headed to Harvard. Mainly because I grew up with you and was so amazed at your “Smartness”. It’s nice to get on here during a quick break at work to read your magnificant writting ,it takes me to a place that for some reason I feel connected to you or better worded understand where your coming from and actually feel like I myself have been there. Thanks it makes my day.:o)

  4. Shortly after you left Harvard, while you were in Belize, I joined the Red Cross Disaster Services team in Boston. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was an act of healing after the Dunster murder-suicide. I needed to recreate that event in a way I could control: the waking up to screaming, this time a beeper instead of a human voice; the rushing to an emergency, this time prepared, welcomed as useful.

    So many times in the middle of the night, in the worst parts of Boston, I stood on the street or in our box truck, filling in those forms, giving the hotel voucher and number to call in the morning for some more vouchers that couldn’t possibly begin to replace what a family had lost.

    The thing I wanted most deeply then was to make a connection with that other person. I wanted to say, “I know you’re more than a *victim* — we both hate that word. There’s no way I can understand how alone you feel, how empty and vulnerable I would feel without my things, my memories… And I am sorry I don’t get to know your joys and successes, only the pain I see in your eyes.”

    My friend, I am honored to know you as the person beyond the middle-of-the-night disaster. To see your successes and to know that after such a loss you found yourself in a new, very rich home. It’s strange the places our journeys take us and how a single event can change everything we think about what we need, what we want, and where we fit into the bigger picture.

    As always, thank you!

    • Luci, I am honored to know you beyond that awful event in Dunster House, blown away by how you transformed the fear and helplessness you must have felt into grace and accompaniment for those in need. I am thankful that your friendship remains part of my rich home.


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