by Elisa R. García
I am a young Latina, a nenita in her early 20s who is the first one in my family to go to university and the first one to have opportunities to study and travel freely. With Mexican-Chilean roots and a mother who is from Bolivia, I took full advantage of study abroad opportunities and my financial aid situation to go to all three of these places that have played roles in the histories of my families. I wanted to go hasta la raíz to really understand how we became to be who we are today. Reconnecting with my these histories, families, cultures, and language – all that I have found lost to me in these past two generations away from my countries of origin – has spiralled me onto an unexpected journey of solitude, soundness, and soul therapy. I imagine this kind of journey could do many of us good, though I understand that this is a very privileged opportunity that is not a possibility for many people. This journey was only made possible to me because I found myself in an ideal situation for it to occur as a college student with near full funding for my studies, who was ahead of credits, giving me the freedom to study abroad for about two years in total. If you are finding yourself in a situation where you can realize these homecomings and reconnection to your countries of origin, I highly suggest taking the opportunity. Though I will give a fair warning, this type of journey back to the homelands, learning about who we really are, where we come from, and why we are not ‘from’ there anymore can be a deeply intense and painful, but a beautiful process nonetheless. I was being called back to my roots, so I looked into the study abroad programs offered in these countries – Mexico and Chile. Then I went, and I took the opportunity to go to Bolivia too.
I participated in a field research program in Mexico offered by my university that allowed me to live there for four months. This was only my second time visiting and my first time returning in about fifteen years. I had gone for a month when I was about five years old and stayed with my family who lives in Guadalajara, Jalisco. I was placed for a month in Ciudad de México to study, then in Oaxaca for three months to conduct my field research, and I then visited my family in Guadalajara for a week at the end (where I was prohibited to visit during my program due to travel restrictions). Living in the country for those couple of months, I learned much about about the country, the people, myself, and our shared histories. The Spanish I had lost after having been fluent as a little girl developed so much with dedicated study, immersion, and dating a local. In Ciudad de México, I was introduced to the fast-paced Chilanga lifestyle and enjoyed all the street food. While in Oaxaca, I was given the freedom to design my own schedule, allowing me to realize more than just my research (that is to say that I also spent a lot of free time falling in love and on the back of my partner’s motorcyle getting to know the city and living my best life). Later in Guadalajara, when I was finally able to visit my family, I sat in my bisabuela’s house and tortería, eating all my favorite home-cooked foods and learning a little bit more about my personal family history. The memories of my childhood visit came back to me in Spanish, from when I was more fluent. At this time, I was still developing my Spanish and I started trying to converse with my family about topics I always wondered about – like how and why my grandmother left home as a teenager on her own to the U.S., for example. With time, practice, and use, my Spanish has improved immensely, and I am proud to say that I am now nearly fluent. This renewed skill has allowed me to communicate fully with my family, which has been the most important for me. I’m sad to only have been able to visit my family for such a short amount of time, but I am already planning a three-month return to just stay with them in Guadalajara to really get to know the whole family and our history.
The semester after my study abroad in Mexico, I started my year-long study abroad program in Santiago, Chile. Though the family I have here is mostly from the Valparaíso Region (which is about two hours away), being in Santiago was the closest opportunity available to me and I made frequent weekend visits. I didn’t know much of my Chilean family at first, but they definitely knew me, and showed me all the pictures and letters my grandmother had sent them throughout the years. Everyone welcomed me into their homes with open arms and it was during these initial visits that my search through my family history and the past grew more profound. They shared stories with me about my grandparents and about their childhoods. This led me to ask questions to which led to interesting stories and even more questions. Then I began taking notes, collect data, conduct informal interviews and search for more family members that were introduced to me for the first time in theses stories. I started reconstructing my family history and making a family tree, with the goal of meeting them all and sharing our histories with each other. I would travel to meet each person for the first time and each of them gave me a new perspective, new information, and put me in contact with even more family members I hadn’t previously known about. Así que, with each new person I met, the family and our complex history got bigger and bigger. All this was done in my free time when I wasn’t studying at the university in Santiago, partaking in my internships, or attending events with my exchange program. Balancing all of this work on top of trying to keep mentally, physically, and financially stable was a feat that sometimes I lost to, but am proud of myself for having been able to pull through by means of immense self care and seeking out the support I needed – but that is a whole other story.
During the break between my two semesters here in Chile, I went to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia where I met up with my mom for her first time returning home in thirty-three years. I was there for only a short time and spent my time and energy there looking for the missing pieces to the my family history while trying to navigate its sensitive relationships and complicated dynamics. Here I sat down with my family members, trying to get them each alone so we could speak honestly one on one because I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to share the truth with one another. Some of my family members don’t have cell phones, What’sApp, or Facebook and live in remote regions so visiting them in person was truly the only way. Bolivia is where all the pieces began to come together of the history of my grandparents leaving Chile, building a new life in Bolivia, getting lost in the drug trade, brujería, and Evangelism, and the long and harsh journey that brought my grandmother and mother to the U.S after having been abandoned by my grandfather. After all this searching, I now became the family keeper of oral history, knowledge, and secrets that could have been very well forgotten – leaving my siblings and I, and the generations yet to come, less confused about where we come from and why and how our life became to be the way it is in the United States.
I think the most rich yielding from my study abroad experiences has been the reconnecting of my family and the healing process I have undergone in learning the roots of my family’s unresolved traumas and of my own personal traumas. We might not be able to undo whatever harm was done to our families along the way of leaving our countries of origin and starting anew, but we can come home and do some deep searching, honor our histories, and heal. If you are finding yourself in a time where you are able to and it’s safe for you to do so, I encourage you to take a wholesome look at the possibility of travelling to where we come from – para realmente conocerse hasta la raíz. It’s time to know our stories and to tell them now before they are forgotten.