A Study of Homeland in Displacement

By

When I dream of Brazil, I dream of it as I left it in 2004, a land static in my childhood memory of it. In this Brazil, the lot in front of my grandparents’ house is nothing but dormant red-clay earth, and the dirt roads I remember walking are still dirt roads. If I concentrate I can remember the streets they intersect, the corners they turn, and the destinations they lead to: a padaria, a lake, the igreja. Behind my eyelids is the country I like to think I would have eventually mapped with the bare soles of my feet had I stayed.

Home, or the memory of it:

In this Brazil, my grandfather is still alive—smokes a pack a day and laughs the way I remember, like he’s invincible. In this once bright, now faded land I can still speak our clear, blunt, and rural Portuguese without littering it with English, and distance has not turned me into a stranger.

*

I am eleven-going-on-twelve when I board a plane to the United States with my sister. She has just turned fifteen, and we have never been on a plane before. Our mother stays behind in Brazil in case immigration officers do not let us into the United States. I am more nervous about this than I am about flying for the first time. We are told to not speak to the immigration officers about our father, who is in the United States but should not be. This isn’t a problem, as neither of us can speak English.

ButcherNameThis is what I am thinking of at the airport, speaking English, which I have daydreamed of doing since my father left for the United States. This is the language of this bright and new world I think I will one day belong to. I do not think about our one-way tickets, the two Portuguese-translated Harry Potter books in my sister’s luggage, and the fact that for the next twelve years my name will be endlessly butchered by English-speaking tongues indifferent to verbal slaughter. I do not think about how I will hand Americans the knife myself, as sharp and cutting as the English sounds of the vowels in my name, and tell them the best way to draw blood.

Sitting next to my sister in the plane, I think of the whiteness of our skin, which we have been told will serve as camouflage. I think about being part of Os Estados Unidos.

Here, for the last time in Brazilian soil, I can only think of leaving it.

*

In the beginning, the first question people ask is if I miss Brazil. My accent, still mechanic and sharp, draws a clear line between them and me, so my presence in the United States is endlessly questioned, my foreign identity cautiously but incessantly brought up. Do I miss Brazil? It is an impossible question that I am sure no other immigrant has ever asked me. Half of the time I am convinced people are desperate to hear an outsider praise the United States, the only America that matters. In the beginning, when people ask me this question, I pause and say, “I miss the people,” because that is the only truth of which I am sure. I am fifteen, and still mesmerized by the United States. Sixteen, only four years out of homeland, and not yet preoccupied with time, diaspora and identity.

Do I miss Brazil?

When I dream of my home country during this time, it is of the people in it—my padrinho’s laughter, the habits of my cousins, and my tia’s northeastern accent that does not fall but raises hurricanes from her tongue, r’s like waves during a storm. I dream of people I will not see for another ten, twelve years—some not at all. Sometimes I wake from dreams of them in the various American homes we have made for ourselves across the years: my godfather on the porch of the house on Charles Street, my cousins in the parking lot of the first apartment we ever lived in in the United States, and my grandfather helping my father in his own garage-turned-carpentry in this little middle of nowhere town in Georgia.

I dream of fantasies.

I do not dream of the coconut trees in my uncle’s backyard in Araçatuba, the weekend feirinhas in Vera Cruz I, or the sky-reaching apartment in the middle of Goiânia. I don’t yet dream about what it will mean to stand in the smallness of my hometown in Brazil, weighed, shifted, and made entirely different by the magnitude of my experiences.

*

The first time my grandmother, my father’s mother, visits, it is 2011 and we have been out of homeland for seven years, ten for my father. My grandmother is kinder than I remember her—childhood insecurities no longer twist my image of her. She does not seem older to me, but her memory falters. She speaks endlessly about my grandfather. He has been dead for one or two or three years, I am not so sure. Time matters less in distance, becomes twisted: simultaneously broken in half and doubled by the miles, the lack of visas and money. All I know is that my grandfather is dead, that I have not spoken to him in years, and never will again. This realization only hits me a year or two later, in the middle of work, a menial task suddenly made impossible.

GirlPearlEarringDuring her visit, when my grandmother talks about Brazil and its changes—dirt roads made paved, childhood homes now occupied by strangers, and my grandfather no longer making domestic art out of wood in their carpentry—I close my bedroom door because I do not want to hear all of the ways in which I don’t know my home country. In the silence of my bedroom, Brazil remains fixed, unchanging, a masterpiece no one’s allowed to touch in a museum. I can revisit it often, and find that its details remain, that I recognize them, and that I still belong: I am not a fraud.

To think of Brazil as a different place than I remember it is to think of my unbelonging, as someone out of place in my memory.

*

After the tenth year, people start doubting me. My accent becomes disguised by a lisp, a nervous stutter, and xenophobic expectations of immigrants. Suddenly I am not Brazilian enough. When I say I’m Brazilian, strangers ask if I am actually Brazilian-American, if I mean that my parents were born in Brazil but had me in the United States, if I left when I was an infant, if, if, if.

“So,” they say, skeptical, daring, oblivious, “when was the last time you visited?”

I don’t tell them that I returned last week in a dream, and every day since on the drive to work, fantasizing about my first visit back while Brazilian songs play on the stereo.

“I haven’t,” I say instead. I say, “I want to,” and hope it is enough, not for the stranger asking, but for me, for my family back in Brazil, and for this phantom of the country that keeps on tugging at my shirt, visiting me in my dreams.

Some time between the first three years and the tenth year, people start asking, “Do you remember it?”

When strangers ask me this question, if I remember the country I am from, the piece of land in which my first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth homes still stand, the place I resided in for twelve years, the land where I spent the entirety of my childhood, I can only think of the girl I was at thirteen and fourteen, desperate to belong in America even if it meant forgetting, leaving behind, sinking an entire country.

When I reply, “Yes, I remember,” I am thinking of the young girl I used to be, thankful for memories that persist, do not drown or die easily.

FlagEyes

Around this time, I start obsessively listening to Brazilian songs from my childhood, those by Legião Urbana, Cassia Eller, Tribalistas, and Charlie Brown Jr. It is not coincidental. I am trying everything to remember, to keep tethered to this country that is now ten years ahead of me. One particular night I play Cassia Eller’s song “Malandragem” through the speakers in my parents’ new house and they look at me like I’m someone they don’t recognize.

“Voce escuta isso?” they ask. You listen to this?

Ten years in and even my parents start doubting me.

It’s a fair enough question, something to be expected considering the young girl who used to live with them, who in her assimilation refused anything south of the United States-Mexican border.

I think, of course and, I remember these songs, but say, “Escuto.”

Through the speakers Cassia Eller sings, “Quem sabe eu ainda sou uma garotinha,” and I think, I am one of you too.

*

When my godparents, my father’s brother and his wife, visit us for the first and so far only time in the United States they bring us a box of Sonho de Valsa and we devour them by nightfall. My cousin and I split the last of the bonbons, sneak it from the counter like we are still children in Goiás, and I try not to fall into this soft and overwhelming familiarity the scene brings, a feeling that will only break me later. I chew through the chocolate, familiar and estranged, and I do not think about what our presence together again in the same room means.

Soon I know it will be our turn to visit, no—return. We speak about it endlessly when they are here. “When you visit us,” they say. “When we return,” we say. When. I hang on to these promises, bury them for when my godparents and cousins leave—my parents’ house, modest in size, suddenly too big, its walls too tall and the wooden floors echoing the abrupt silence, all of us remembering, for the fifth or twentieth time, what it means to be an immigrant—the difficulty of goodbyes, no matter how often you say them, and their permanence in the miles between.

Before they leave my godparents give me a Brazilian classic, a book I will keep on my nightstand for the next year. It is Tenda dos Milagres, Jorge Amado’s novel beautifully bound and weighed heavy by words I no longer have the ease of speaking, reading, or writing, but am adamant to try anyway. I know it is partly my mother’s doing; she must have told them I am trying to better my Portuguese, soften it so it is less jagged and broken up by English. I am in awe of this book, which has made the same journey as me, and these people who share my blood and my homeland, who seem to understand me even when I think they won’t.

When we say goodbye to my godparents I am no longer worrying about being unrecognizable to my Brazilian relatives, a fear I have carried in the several weeks leading up to their arrival, and a heavy, distorted weight that has only grown as our years in the United States add up. The night they leave I read the first page of Tenda dos Milagres in bed, and I don’t care that it takes me twice as long to read as it would have in English, that sometimes I have to pause to remember the meaning of a certain word, repeat it until it makes sense.

I understand it, and that is enough.

*

Halfway through my eleventh year in the United States, I make my first international trip. I travel to South America, but not Brazil, and I go with my university to study in a program called “Gender, Sexuality, and Post-Coloniality in Contemporary Ecuador.” The whole time we are there I am thinking about how this is the closest I’ve come to Brazil in almost twelve years. On the first day my professor turns to me, asks, “How does it feel to be back in South America?” and I almost cry—I have to look at the street art and smile so I don’t.

I find Brazil everywhere: in the food, in the waitresses’ shy and polite mannerism, in the locals’ curious eyes, in the churches. Most of the time I convince myself that it is all projection, my displaced imagination, desperate and longing for my roots to take hold. But during dinner one of the local professors, a native Ecuadorian, talks to me about traveling to Bahia and describes to me all I have felt since landing in his country: a familiarity that perhaps should not exist, founded on the history of South America’s violent colonization, but is felt anyway. This familiarity usurps any alienation I’ve felt. It feels unlike the first time I landed in murky Florida, my first time in the US over a decade ago, an obvious outsider, and all the years that followed in which my family and I were incessantly denied a place to belong in the United States. In Ecuador, our languages branch from the same tree, and my name sounds like it is supposed to.

While I am in Ecuador, a friend texts me to ask if I am stopping by Brazil, since it is so close, since is has been so long, since I can.

This is something I am still coming to terms with, that I am free to visit Brazil, to come and go as I please. For so long, returning to Brazil was only ever connected to deportation. When we talked about returning, we were really talking about immigration at the door—a friend of a friend who had been deported, and the likelihood that we would be next. I do not visit Brazil while I am in South America. I tell my friend that I do not want my first time back to be an afterthought. It is half of the truth.

BirdcageBefore boarding the plane back to the United States, I am held for two hours at the Quito airport because of my documents, which raise flags, which do not match each other, which seem like an anomaly in between my classmates’ uncomplicated American passports. While they scrutinize my Brazilian passport, I can only think of being denied re-entry into the United States. I try to find comfort in the fact that they would just send me back to Brazil, that place I call my homeland, which I have felt tethered to for the entirety of my trip in Ecuador.

I do not feel comfort, only panic and terror. It is the same kind of terror I felt growing up undocumented, the panic when acquaintances were deported or when the police pulled my father over for the second time. This is the other half of the truth. This reality, the immense privilege of return, still terrifies me. My daydreams, these rose-colored memories I re-visit often, do not diminish the anxieties that eleven years have built. And this is the whole truth: I am an immigrant. We are not naïve to the consequences of time and distance; we know better than anyone else the costs of leaving. The problem, I am learning, is that my journey so far has taught me nothing about returning.

*

This summer marks my twelfth year in the United States, and my twelfth year out of Brazil. It is my personal equator, an official halving of my life in the Americas: twelve years south and and twelve years north. I am still trying to understand what this means—coming to terms with the reality of Brazil as more than my homeland, a pinpoint in the map of my genealogy. Brazil remains the root of everything—the big bang, the origin, the point of return. And still it continues without me in it, moves through time oblivious to diaspora, migration patterns and nostalgia.

Outside of it, in its sister continent, I go through the motions, apart from it, but never separate.

***

Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.


Fernanda Cunha is a writer and a jumper of made-up borders and nation-states. Her writing has been featured in The Feminist Wire and Bitch Flicks. Her non-edited writing can be found on Twitter @fernahndah. More from this author →