Immigrants are always homesick. This is the core of our story. Even those of us who flee horrific circumstances have at least one thing we remember fondly, or that becomes fond when it is gone. To emigrate is to surround oneself with the unfamiliar, and to live in the echoing absence of what was once everywhere. There are days when those echoes are a deafening cacophony, laying down the impossible demand of that incoherent word, home.
Ottawa’s yearly Latin festival puts the many feelings of that word into focus. This gathering of my people in the plaza before Ottawa City Hall is a riot of sensation. Live music invites listeners to come close, and an uproar of food smells permeates the area. Hand-written signs advertise our regional specialties with words I rarely see even on our restaurant menus, and every spoonful of yellow rice and chunk of slow-roasted pork is a portal to a world I left long ago. Even the less familiar offerings, Peruvian noodles that take notes from South America’s Chinese community and Colombian pastries I’ve never tried, come with our unmistakable aroma and style.
I wasn’t there for the food. On doctor’s orders, little of it would have worked, even if the event wasn’t in mid-afternoon. My own culinary education has had to twist around to find ways to make food feel right without my people’s standard onions, garlic, and beans, and the vendors were not here to accommodate me. I was there just to be there, soaking in the sights and sounds and smells, being anonymous in a crowd of my distant, untrusted kin. My people are outrageously, magnificently beautiful, and taking in the sight of our summer skin just as they, too, sink their eyes into mine is a strange sort of solidarity, one that continues to fill in the gaps in my self-concept and refresh my sense of my own femininity. I overhear conversations in line for the bathroom that swell my heart with our fine, precise tongue, punctuated with the regretful rejoinder, “Solo hablo un poquito; soy canadiense.” It is where, for the first time in my conscious memory, I stood on this side of the border and encountered a Puerto Rican flag in someone’s possession.
Boredom arrives eventually. My mind is never still, and demands more engagement than this. But eventually, someone who arrives alone and is present mainly to watch and absorb draws too much attention, and as a trans woman in a Hispanic space, I know my invitation can be rescinded. But I don’t want to go. To leave this immersion feels like pulling myself out by literal and figurative roots, the music fading as I rejoin the urban silence, a piece of me staying behind.
This time, I brought a little back with me.
I have never been one for nationalism or patriotism. I came to Canada and never once felt the need to own or carry an American flag, and my feelings about the country where I was born have grown only sourer since. But the other two flags of my heritage don’t carry the same cruel, imperial symbolism. After a life surrounded by the sorts of immigrants who keep images of their natal flags as mementos of cultural pride, I’ve begun to understand their appeal. My people’s flags carry a great deal of meaning: resistance to imperial rule, the determination to build something new, faith in the United States which proved misplaced, and more. As I continue to re-evaluate my relationship to the two places that shaped me without ever touching me, it seemed time to make a bigger gesture than the two small hand-flags I sometimes use as protest props.
Tragically, the stall selling flags and soccer merchandise didn’t have a Puerto Rican flag on offer, but I at least know that my cat appreciates the struggles of those who came before.
It will always be a challenge to feel this connection to my heritage. But in this meeting place, I can keep trying, and find a version of it that fits within this strange, divided life.