Gustavo Rueda. Photo by Leo Hernandez.

Nowhere: A Personal Essay About Living Between the Distant Past and the Distant Present

It would never have occurred to me that one day I would be looking back to discover that I no longer belonged anywhere, either from the country I came from or the country where I am currently living; that I would not know when or at what moment it happened; if I had brought it upon myself and if there was something I could do to change my circumstances. I never thought I would realize that the country where I was born had become a geographical reference I could only recognize on a map. But that did not worry me as much as this other discovery: that for several years I had no longer felt attached to that country. I no longer saw it as my birthplace, but as a mere circumstance in the life that I had lived. That country called Mexico had practically disappeared from my life and it did not cause me any apprehension, rather it was the sense of emptiness, a very similar feeling to when you lose something unexpectedly.

I lost my country, but did I find a new country? Did I adopt a new place I could call home and did not need a map to remember its shape? It is not that simple. I know some people would think that you might lose something, but you might win something after moving into a new place, a new country. That is a fantasy. Once you lose something, you will eventually lose more, until one day you look back and what you had before is lost, and you might feel lost as well. I know some people might say that you just need to look around and find yourself, but first you need to understand where you are, and that is the most difficult part, to realize you have ended up not here nor there, but nowhere.

And along with the realization of having lost the old country, I also discovered that the language in which I had learned to imagine the world was no longer the same because it was turning against me, or against my memory. And this worried me, as I had already realized that I had been missing words such as estupefacto, transterrado or obnubilación. And I know it may sound a bit ridiculous since words, especially these, among many more that I needed to remember, have not stopped being spoken. There are thousands of people that might pronounce them practically every day and there would be no reason to want to remember them. But remembering these kinds of words, like dilapidación, tribulación, acertijo or latrocinio, was very important in my life. And if I was not able to remember them, it meant as though I was not able to remember myself, especially not remembering the moment when I heard them for the first time, and the impression they made on me. 

I just wonder, if at this point in my life, should I truly care to know where I come from, to understand who I am? Is it that I should know silly words in my native language so I always remember where I came from or what I represent? As I looked back, I used to think I could not forget my place of origin and remembering it was the only possibility I had to make sure I belonged there and in my family. However, I did not consider that once you do not live in a certain place you also stop belonging to it physically and permanently. I am alone here, meaning, I am my only family, my only present, so I cannot long for the past, even for the language I used to speak. That language somehow belongs to a memory, to a memory that as time passes, is vanishing from my head.

Then I wondered, how would it be possible to keep living after that? Once we decide to exile ourselves (or in case, are banished or expelled), is it that we could never again be able to claim our origins? Is it that we could no longer be children of the old country? Perhaps the only thing we could become is everlasting nomads, forced to live on the periphery of the world, without a past and hopelessly living without a real present (because somehow it does not belong to us or because we do not know how to embrace it), living outside of time for the rest of our lives. Or maybe not. I am still not completely sure about this. And that is why I am writing, because I want to remember these words and many more with the hope that I will remember myself and who I have been for the past 15 years or so, away from Mexico, in the U.S., always between the distant past and the distant present as well.

The more I think about it, it was no longer just leaving Mexico and entering the unknown, but rather having run the risk of losing everything, not only my dignity and my pride for giving up my life in Mexico, but also losing the words that constituted my whole life, and even the voice with which I could pronounce any of those words. It was as if once I crossed the border it was no longer possible for me to turn back, which meant that my language, my words, my voice, even my memories were going to become part of a different life, of a different time also, and it was only going to be possible to revisit it in my dreams (it is hard to dream in one language), and that there was nothing I could do about it. I had no other option—because I did not want to think of any other option—but to simply accept my destiny. Once I crossed the border I had to resign myself if I wanted to blend into this new reality, this nowhere, even if that meant losing myself.

I thought it would only be enough for me to close my eyes and imagine that one day I would recover my life (rather, my past), and that I could continue living in this new reality, even if it was not in its entirety, only a few fragments that I would have to keep saved, and in due course, I could be able to put them together and, thus, be able to rebuild my reality in its entirety in this country.

But there are some days when I cannot help but to think that nothing that I have experienced in more than fifteen years living in this reality has not meant much. Sometimes I have the impression that everything is ephemeral, that it did not leave the impression I was expecting. And I know I am wrong because after so many years, pretty much all of what has  become of my life in this country has represented the only life I have, and that the life I had in Mexico no longer represents me nor defines me. At some point it lost weight and consistency because it belonged to the distant past. Looking back made me discover that even though I never learned to live in the moment, because I thought it was not worth being the present, I learned to go beyond the limit of this imaginary border between Mexico and the United States. However, it is impossible to avoid the feeling that in reality I am not living either here or there, but somewhere or maybe nowhere, in which time has been buried and I am not able to escape. I have been living on the border looking in every direction, but incapable of finding which way is the right direction.

Beyond the biblical message about running away from his divine mission, I wondered about Jonah trapped inside the belly of the whale—what he really thought about away from his reality. If Jonah was completely alone, what did he think about, especially if he did not have anyone to whom he could speak, anyone to who could answer him, anyone to who could guide him in the darkness that surrounded him for the amount of time he was trapped? I often wonder what the ordinary man named Jonah thought about the time he spent alone, uncommunicated, isolated, far away from everything he knew. What did he think, feel and imagine during three full days and nights? What would Jonah’s dreams have been like inside the whale? I wonder that once he was expelled by the whale, did Jonah cease to be himself? I wonder if he really changed beyond the biblical version, if after being swallowed by the whale something else inside of him woke up, and I am not talking about the religious vocation, but a new sense of belonging, if he regained a new existence. I think he did. He changed.

Jonah was no longer the same, but at the same time, he continued to be just like we do after living inside the belly of the United States. Somehow he saw and perceived reality in a slightly different way. I do not know if it is better or worse. Do not know if we, as we continue living inside the United States, have changed the way we see reality. Do we understand it more? Do we understand each other better, perhaps more empathetic with the type of person we have become? I wonder if Jonah became less or more afraid of what was out there after living inside the whale, if he did not become paranoid and believed that something or someone was coming to get him, just like I see with my friends, who live worried that ICE will come to get them. Just like Jonah, sometimes I feel that I am still inside the whale, surrounded by a thick darkness, feeling alone and in exile.

What I can only be sure of is that I am no longer the same. But as long as I can still be here, writing, I have decided not to look back anymore. I no longer need to look into the distant past and feel lost, nor that I have lost my country or my language, or even the way I dream. I promised myself that no matter what happens, I know I can keep imagining my reality in this place called the United States.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

This essay was originally published in Coordenadas Magazine. It has been edited for style.

Gustavo Rueda spent several years between Mexico City and Chicago writing articles for different newspapers about books, movies, and theater. He currently lives in Chicago working as a translator and writer. This is his first story for the Weekly. 

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