“Andale. It’s seven years today since I left Mexico to come to Vancouver.” Mariana reflected as she closed her apartment door behind her. It was early afternoon when she stepped onto the sidewalk, and she stopped to inhale the fresh air and feel the sun on her face. From her purse she took a lipstick, and without a mirror applied the colour with precision. Within seconds, the voluptuous mouth was ready to kiss Williams, her Canadian boyfriend, who was going to meet her at a Commercial Drive restaurant for dinner. She ran her hand through her thick dark hair as she began walking toward The Drive.
Approaching 1st and Commercial, she again felt that familiar pleasure in seeing the faces belonging to this neighbourhood. The Drive was home to Oriental, Indian, Russian, and European faces, the faces of people enriching a tapestry, one sanguine, another clouded. She encountered Italians and Frenchmen on both sides of The Drive’s shop counters - even those Canadians addicted to the Latin stuff. They tended to be composed, but all were willing to smile and talk if the opportunity presented itself. Mariana loved their numberless diversity, each one adding more human heat and joy to the street.
She appreciated the way Vancouver’s people established bonds, regardless of their race. Often, she found herself straining to grasp an English thick with the accent of a distant mother tongue, but this made no one feel impatient - quite the contrary. If either failed to impart their intended meaning in the common language, they would persist anyway, finding joy in the opportunity to express kindness alone.
Her recent purchase of vitamins brought about just such a transaction. A Chinese woman, her eyes shining, provided Mariana with an extended lesson on her new supplements’ benefits. While extolling the herbs’ powers, she kept passing her hand over the brown paper parcel containing them. It didn’t matter that the words between them were scarcely understood. The woman’s beaming face seemed to glow, and Mariana felt boyant.
They parted as kindred spirits. Their belonging to this place made them equals. The woman nodded with gratitude, and then Mariana shook her hand happily in parting.
Mariana increased her pace, impatient now to get to the centre of the Commercial Drive area. This street had a special presence for Latin people, recalling certain avenues of Mexico City. The Drive had the same marketplaces, foods, uproar, and colours. The air offered transient aromas such as chicken tacos with hot sauce, and the incense of shamans offering their cures at the street’s edge. She was pleased she could immerse herself here in the natural row and joy of life proper to the Latin people, with the strains of Salsa music filtering through and enhancing the sense of place. It made her feel as if she were at home.
She was about to pass by the restaurant, still two hours early, when somebody surprised her with a touch on the shoulder. She turned around to face Alberto, a well respected Latin-American journalist who had made Vancouver home for the last thirty-five years. The Drive was his favourite haunt, and he had introduced Mariana to it when she first arrived. He greeted her with warmth, and Mariana reciprocated with an affection she held for many Latins, similar to the feeling she held for her own relatives.
They embraced, and kissed twice on the cheeks, not having seen each other for two years. He invited her for a coffee, and Mariana accepted gladly. As they approached a favourite café, Alberto commented how important it was for any expatriate to find an ethnic community such as Commercial Drive. “These urban cultural oases are capable of reproducing the tones and textures of one’s native soil.” He looked inspired. “Immersing ourselves in these ethnic nodes helps reflect our native dreams back to us, and transports us momentarily to the cultural spaces in our blood.”
Mariana sighed as she remembered her own country. She felt a little sad.
“These shimmering avenues set the stage for a psychological return”, he proceeded, “a ritual of grief and reincarnation, and the emergence of a kind of potential space suspended between fantasy and reality. These scenarios that reproduce the places of our memories; they seem to imply that it is better to pretend to be at home, than never to feel home at all”. He held forth with relish, happy to speak in such an intelligent way, and remembering that Mariana used to like this kind of discourse very much.
But Mariana interrupted him. “Let’s speak less seriously, shall we?” Alberto, surprised, agreed. He asked her how she had been the last years, sustaining a tone of familiarity and joy while they began walking to the next café.
Mariana spoke briefly of her trajectory since the last time they met. “The most difficult thing, after securing my landed immigrant papers, was finding a job. After almost a year of searching, I began working for a company called Priton, a manfacturer of heavy machinery. Within months, they laid me off with little warning. Maybe I needed to have more Canadian experience. Anyway, the lay-off triggered a period of depression in me. I really thought I’d found some ground to stand on! After some months of near-desperation I decided to buy a computer, and I found a job through the Internet teaching Spanish. I looked for a boyfriend on the web, and I found a lovely one. In the end I went to live with him in Whistler.
“Whistler!”, piped Alberto, very surprised. “Something of a haven for the rich, isn’t it?” He watched Mariana.
“Yes”, Mariana answered, trying not to laugh, “I went to live there two years ago. I worked at my boyfriend’s engineering business. He has a very good income, and we are planning to marry and have a family. Unfortunately, Whistler wasn’t easy to live in. I felt very isolated there. After some time, we decided the city offered more opportunities. We returned to Vancouver a week ago, and I am very excited to be back.”
Alberto could not avoid feeling a trace of envy on hearing how well Mariana was doing, and how little she had to struggle compared with him. Ultimately, however, he was pleased that a Latin woman could demonstrate achievement and wealth in Canada. Wasn’t this the goal of all immigrants?
“As a matter of fact,” she recalled a mutual friend of theirs, “what about don Juanito?”
Alberto’s face darkened, perhaps more than necessary. “What, didn’t you know?”, he exclaimed, happy to have fresh news for her. “He died a year ago of a heart attack. The poor man ate so many steaks and fries that his cholesterol went through the roof. He just got to the point where only death could lower it.”
Mariana felt sorry. “One begins to sense how long one has been in a place when new friends begin to die”, she thought. She then knew that she belonged more to these Latin streets, to this multi-ethnic city, to the friends with whom she quarreled and settled than to her native land, and time overtook her. She feared that she was no longer a Mexican, but a hybrid of two cultures. Only then did she realize that almost seven years had had to pass before she could reconcile the two in her daily life.
“Are you all right?”, Alberto asked her.
“Yes”, Mariana replied. “I was thinking of my country. I miss it.”
“Haven’t you visited it recently?” Alberto’s eyes widened slightly.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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