By Isabel Erroa
I was born in New York City shortly after my mother came to the United States to follow my father. He left El Salvador to flee the civil war. Both of them grew up in poverty. My father was from Tonacatepeque and my mother was from Estanzuelas. They dreamt of a better life in New York City, as poverty always weighed heavily on them. My mother dreaded setting foot on the Taca Airlines’s flight that took her far away from her family and home.
When she arrived to the JFK airport, she tried to ask a woman if she spoke Spanish. The “American” woman responded with annoyance and anger. My mother’s first experience in the U.S. was rejection.
I was only one year old when my mother took me to El Salvador in 1991. The war was still happening. She missed it so much she didn’t care. All she wanted was to be home again. I continued to return to El Salvador almost every year during my childhood, for months at a time. My mother would excitedly take me places she had been to, letting me try foods she used to eat as a child, etc. El Salvador was where my mother became alive and happy again. El Salvador was the place where I saw my mother as she truly was. Every time we left, my mother cried profusely, and I’d always wonder why, as we always came back.
We moved to small town in Kentucky for a year, as part of the process my parents had to go through to get their U.S. residency. I went to school there for the first time, where children were mostly white. It was at this place where I experienced rejection. I spoke English with an accent, so I became a target of ridicule. The dark skin and indigenous features I had inherited from my ancestors became my shame when my classmates mocked me for looking so different from them. Desperate to feel accepted, I began to say I was just American as they were, as I was born in the same country they were. My mother refused to accept this, always declaring:
“No digás babosadas. ¡Vos sos Salvadoreña, bichita!”
When I went back to El Salvador as an older child, I realized how different I was from my relatives. I spoke differently; I lived a completely different life. I had privileges they didn’t have. And yet, I felt safe there. I felt at home. I felt acceptance and love. I wasn’t mocked, or ridiculed. It just felt like I was always meant to be there. I was supposed to be born there. It was supposed to be my home. The land my father fled from became the place I yearned to return to.
We went back to New York, and as our family grew, we switched from going to El Salvador every year to every two. My lighter skinned siblings didn’t experience the rejection I had. They spoke better English than I did, went to school with other latinos, so they weren’t mocked in the way I had been mocked. They didn’t feel the yearn to return to the motherland like I did. They never felt angry every time we couldn’t go like I did. They accepted their American birth right more than I did.
In a way, I envied them. As they got older, they grew to envy me.
I’m 28 years old now. I recently went back to El Salvador to introduce my long term boyfriend to my relatives, something I had never done before. I began to count down the days as soon as we booked the flight. He already knew so much of El Pulgarcito because of all the stories I told him, just like my mother had done with me. I was excited to take him to places I had gone to as a child, and to have him try the foods my mother had introduced me to there.
He loved El Salvador and said he saw me become lively in a way he had never seen before. Then, like my mother before me, I began to sob as soon as we got on the flight back home.
And one day, our children will also wonder why.