The Latitude of Home by Joanell Serra

An Essay on Home

On a recent winter night, I curled up on the worn velvet of a plushy chair in a spacious, if poorly lit, hotel lobby. As the clock struck midnight, my companions and I continued a lively conversation that had started with the drastically different climates of the places we call home. We considered the California current and the gulf-stream and the “rivers” of weather they bring, of micro-climates in both in Mexico and California and the strangeness of humans pretending to control life by building a wall between the two countries that are so inextricably linked.

The Geneve is an anachronistic hotel in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa district. A step back in time, men in long coats open the doors with a flourish, a statue of Porifirio Diaz guards the foyer, and live birds chirp from hanging whicker cages.

I’d spent the evening with my daughter, a friend, a Mexico City local, and the conversation flowed easily, a frolicking bilingual stream of consciousness.  We covered politics on both sides of the border, the future of journalism, the gauging costs of graduate school, global warming, growing up in big families, and the benefits and drawback of cannabis.

My daughter had been there six weeks, and her Spanish bubbled like champagne. A chronic illness warrior, she seemed healthier in Mexico, many of the symptoms fading to a low murmur. She wrote prolifically, her sense of adventure dominated, and she laughed easily.

At twenty-three, she is approximately the age I was when I took my first sojourn to Mexico and Guatemala.

In San Francisco’s wet winter of 1988, I saw a flyer for a one month trip to Mexico and Guatemala at an irresistibly low price. At least a priceIcouldn’t resist. The flyer showed pictures of hippies, college students and senior citizens traveling the countryside on a dilapidated bus, waving from the windows as the bus teetered on the edge of green hills. I’d been marooned under a three-month depression, each morning feeling like a painful slog even to get from bed to the tea kettle. My bones actually hurt when I reached the top of our steep hill every morning to catch the clanging metro to work.

I took the flyer home, drank a beer, then sent in my deposit before I could change my mind. My hand shook as I wrote the check, but once I dropped it in the mail, a rush a blood came from my heart to my head, and the air tasted slightly like hope. I quit my job, bought a plane ticket, and tried to practice walking with a backpack.

I arrived in the Mexico City airport anxious, sleepless, and feeling weakened by heavy back pack. I tried to navigate through a seething mass of people – women with children tied to their backs, business men rushing down the corridors, older couples pulling enormous suitcases, heavily armed guards.  The airport was enormous, the loudspeakers blaring in two or three languages, and sweat rolled down my back under my pack.

“Hola! Con permiso?”  I tried on various travelers who appeared to be locals. But they all had somewhere to be and little patience for the lost Gringa from California.

This was long before the time I might carry a cell phone, all I had were cryptic directions, scribbled in my notebook. My Spanish, learned years before in Madrid, was disappointingly rusty.  My chest grew tighte with anxiety and my feet hurt. I found a chair, and tried to calm myself, closing my eyes and calling up my inner strength.

When I came back to the present, I looked across the room and spied a group of disheveled hippie types, drinking coffee on high black stools, back packs at their feet. One of them had a bandanna tied to her back pack with the travel company’s logo on it. Thank God, these were my people.

Within a few days, I was scrambling up volcanoes, praying at temples, flipping a coin to see who bought the next round of cervezas, ill on the side of the road from ceviche, and chattering in Spanish like a hyper parrot to anyone who would listen to me. I’d found the “camino” to my happy place.  I found a confident, strong, relaxed but determined friend to travel with: myself.

The trip to Mexico thirty years ago started a love affair with the countries south of the border. It has led to evenings of joy, dancing in the streets – the way I always know I’ve truly arrived in Latin America- and to long nights of worry about the inhumane treatment of our Southern neighbors. It led to months of travel and stays in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, immersing myself in the cultures, absorbing what I could of the history, art, political complexities and most of all, people.

My travels sowed the seed to the adoption, years later, of my youngest child, who made the family whole when we didn’t even know a piece was missing.  My concern for the immigrants’ experience in the US changed the course of my career, pushing me to public and advocacy for Latino youth.

Mexico eventually solidified my relationship with my husband. We shifted from dating to serious in a little town outside Oaxaca. We got engaged on the coast of Baja. Latin America was the setting where we our love emerged in the sun and we could see the metal we would use to forge our family.

Now thirty years later our daughter Casey, a journalist, was winding up her six week stay and planning for her return. Could she live in Mexico City, she wondered? How long would the free-lancing last?

In the prior few days, I had observed as she interviewed artisans in Oaxaca, joked easily with babies, mamas and an elderly taxi driver, shared her new avarice for Mexico City with me, and relaxed in the warmth of her friends.

In the morning, as we packed up to go catch a plane back to the States, she looked crestfallen. Her heart was a kite, caught in the tree of Mexico. I picture her standing below it, tugging on the fragile string.

“Mom, come help me get my heart down.”

I look up, noticing the goldfinches fluttering in the branches. If the metaphor holds, the tree would probably be carved with the initials of local school children, and there might be a few abandoned cigarette butts dropped among the roots that push through concrete. The branches would stretch high into the sky, however and yellow flowers bloom.

“No,” I advise her. “You can’t yank it down. Better to leave your heart here and come back soon.”

So we get our bags in the taxi and wave goodbye to Mexico. . . to long evenings in the fading light at the Zocolo while babies toddle by, their hands loosely caught in their abuela’s shawl. To buying trinkets from tired men, hoping they will use the pesos to eat something.

Goodbye to constant reminders of Guadelupe, to teen boys strutting across the plaza in tight t-shirts, muchachas roller blading the other way, to taxi drivers who explain the significance of Opera to us, and indigenous healers who literally blow smoke on Casey, determined to burn away her illnesses.

It occurs to me that home is not where you are born, or even pay your taxes. It’s a latitude. The place where gravity feels heaviest, where no matter how many times you go away, you feel the earth’s incessant pull to return, to surrender. To lie down on the ground and say “Yes. Here. Home.”

Casey doesn’t look at me as the taxi joins the wave of traffic, her eyes on the sun-splashed streets.

“Don’t worry,” I promise her. “You’ll be back soon.”

BIO: Joanell Serra MFT lives and writes in Northern California. Her debut novel, The Vines We Planted, (Wido 2018) was a finalist for the American Bookfest award (multi-cultural fiction category) and was chosen by the Latina Book of the Month Club. She has published stories and essays in Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Poydras Review, Gravitas, Meat for Tea and many other journals and has won awards for her stories and essays.

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