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The Border: thoughts on place and identity

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Photo by Phillip Capper

“There was a wall…Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.” 

― Ursula K. Le GuinThe Dispossessed

I have been thinking a lot about borders. The borders I know come to being at the airport—at the security line where my belongings and body are scanned, at the booths of the immigration officers who take my fingerprints, my picture, my statements. I always have a lot of explaining to do at the borders. The Colombian officials want to know why I left, when I left, if I plan to return. I remember a young officer who cocked back his cap to ask how come I abandoned my country. By comparison, the U.S. officials are bored and indifferent with my comings and goings, barely looking at my face, making me almost yearn for that time when I roused their suspicion and had to travel with a binder of supporting documents proving I was who I said I was.

There’s something that happens when you cross a border— a resounding feeling, a fullness of self that is in some ways also a cavity: you feel you are free to become whomever you want. The choice of who you become is yours when you’re a first-generation immigrant, like I am, but for second-generation immigrants, the decision is a hand-me down from their parents, something to grapple with until they are old enough to parse it out.

I recently sat with Guillermo Ortiz, a second-generation immigrant from Mexico, whose parents moved up the coast in 1932 seeking work.

My mom spoke primarily Spanish as a youngster but from the time she was around 12 when they moved her English, she was bilingual. My dad similar kind of situation. He spoke Spanish as a youngster and English both.

They’re both bilingual. But interestingly, my dad was of the mind that because he suffered quite a bit of discrimination as a young man for being Mexican and he felt that with us that it was important for us to speak English. And so he discouraged us from speaking Spanish.

I remember bringing home a form asking for information about the students and I said, “Dad, it says here nationality. What nationality are we?” He says, “We’re American and we speak English.” I said, “Okay, well…whatever.” He was so emphatic about that. I never forgot that encounter, you know.

For him it was a way for us just to fit in and to be American as he liked to say. It came out of a good intention but in retrospect I think we also were deprived of our mother language. Even to this day several of my brothers speak no Spanish at all so I think that’s kind of sad.


Guillermo Ortiz

Guillermo Ortiz is someone who crossed the border in reverse. He was working as a medic in California when he suddenly realized he was more interested in native medicine. When he was 26, he set off on a series of border crossings into Mexico, looking for some identity that had been long ago discarded by his parents, discovering something larger that clicked within him.

I feel at home wherever I am. When I’m in Mexico something happens for me in terms of my interior. It’s almost as if something ancient and something old really starts to settle and actually starts to come through. The language seems much clearer to me. I understand things more clearly.

There is a living culture in language. There are stories that only make sense in Spanish. There are traditions that only make sense in Spanish. And those of us who live in this side of the wall try to salvage what we can and translate back into our lives what is translatable, and let the rest sift through our hands. In the words of Gloria Anzaldua, “To survive the Borderlands you must live sin fronteras, be a crossroads.” 

For me the experience of crossing a border will always be fraught with anxiety, and maybe it’s because of this anxiety that I am so enamored with the moment the airplane lifts its wheeled legs and I am airborne—because I feel like I am in a no man’s land of freedom. Looking out of the thick oval window and seeing the clouds is the only moment when I do not feel neither American nor Colombian. I exist, holding the two opposing cultures in my hands, nobody mediating what that is supposed to look like.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras is a 2015 Making Contact Community Storytelling Fellow. She is exploring the relationship between place and identity and will be posting occasional blog posts and updates from her radio segment. Find out more about the fellowship here.


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