On Leaving America, Elena Poniatowska and Janet Blaser’s Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats
I’ve done this before, in fact, many times over the last twenty years. Leaving what used to be home in northern California and returning to my new home in Mexico. I look at faces in the airport, each time younger. Each time more distant.
I’ve never really known how to bridge the gaps that separate us. The biggest one being America’s brand of alienation, the one I grew up in. Moving through the world in a car, getting out, brushing shoulders with others. But then, not really brushing. More like glimpsing from the side while standing in the Pete’s Coffee or the Starbucks pickup line. What are you like, my fellow corporate customers? I ask silently. We are conjugated, that is all. I consume, you consume, he she it consumes. The Latin of separation in this corporate meeting place. Would you ever even be interested in what I write and think about? Novels about events in Mexican history? Events much like those in US history. Genocide, slavery, civil war—the motives for what are not taught in school or discussed at the dinner table. Should we call it Deep America?
“What has fiction got to do with it,” you ask, as you stir your coffee, without looking at me, without speaking. One moment, please, while I consult my inner muse. The one that dictates the next sentence. The one that is listening to something in my brain. And so, well, aren’t we all living out the plots of our own lives, our own stories? The ones about conflict and struggle, love, cruelty suffered and forgiveness given and received? Aren’t we all protagonists, flawed yet still trying to do the right thing? Trying to find our place.
I am heartened by the children, on this morning, traipsing along behind their mothers, carrying their little stuffed-bear backpacks and their fuzz blankets, trudging along bravely, as if the snow were two feet deep, for the moment protected by the same glittering airport bubble that I too inhabit.
At the same time, as I drink my coffee, I’m holding Janet Blaser’s wonderful Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, the testimonies of twenty-seven women, including Janet, on why they moved from the U.S. to Mexico, looking for a better and more satisfying life. If only I had had this book in my hands twenty years ago, when my love and I took a deep breath and crossed the border at Nogales, Arizona.
If that had been the case, we would have had much insight into what we were doing. But we did not have her book and had to learn everything ourselves and, in the end, over the years, became permanent residents of Mexico, the place we call home.
In her book, before the Preface, Janet quotes from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. “I have an idea that some men (change the man pronoun as appropriate) are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid strangers in their birthplace…Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends them far and wide in the search for something permanent to which they may attach themselves…Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”
Several years ago, Elena Poniatowska, Mexico’s grande dame of letters, gave a keynote speech at the San Miguel Writers Conference, where she read from a long list of foreigners like herself, who came to Mexico, wrote, painted, sculpted and composed and added to the country’s vast cultural richness. Each one of their stories of why they came (and some left) are part of the same kind of testimony you will find in Janet Blaser’s anthology.
Still at the airport, I am going where most of my fellow airport coffee drinkers aren’t going. I am leaving “we” once again and joining “them.” Already, I have to start saying “they” again, referring to my fellow coffee drinkers. If I told them where I was going, they would pause for moment and then politely ask, “Why?” And I would tell them, in order speak a different language and live in a different culture.” And then after another polite pause, and with concern in their voice for me, they would ask, “Is it safe?”
I am familiar with being afraid of Mexico. Years ago, when I was in my early thirties, I flew to Puerto Vallarta—my first time in Mexico—and found my way to the old hotel. I went to my room and closed the shutters, got in bed and pulled the covers over my head in the middle of the afternoon.
It was another thirty years before my love and I crossed the border. The women Jamet Blaser’s anthology are far smarter and braver than I was. They knew something was missing in their American lives, and they wanted to change that. They saw through the mirror that reflected their American culture assumptions back at them. That is not easy to do. We are the dominant culture or, more accurately, the dominant country. As the Mexican saying puts it: “So far from God, so close to the United States.” Dominant cultures tend not to be able to see into other cultures.
I sip my Pete’s Coffee. I guess I could say I’m going to a place where some of the coffee beans that fuel Peet’s and Starbucks are grown and are picked by people whose day wage would not buy even a quarter of a cup and whose lives most of us are not even aware of. They do not figure in the corporate algorithms. Except, perhaps, that you may think they are dangerous. They are not. They are poorly paid workers and kind people.
Truth in advertising: There is a Starbucks in the very historic center of my colonial city Guanajuato. Clearly, corporations are not put off by Otherness and simply hire locals. But there is a choice here. The best coffee in the Western Hemisphere is a few steps up the street at Greg’s Café Tal.
My one recommendation? Begin learning Spanish now. It’s like having a diving bell that lets me sink into the culture. My Mexican writing partner always argues that I have not immersed myself deeply enough, that I don’t always find the precise word I’m looking for. That happens to me in English, too. I started Spanish when I was fifty. He may be missing the point somewhat. There is no bottom to culture. Your intent and persistence is key to communicating and respecting the wonderful people we live among. And so: begin your Spanish and buy Janet Blaser’s book: Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats.