My mother grew up along the fierce río Biobío, in Concepción, Chile. Before the Spanish ever set foot in the country whose name they translated as “Chile,” the Mapuche people named this river. They resided behind its impenetrable waters, safe from Spanish conquest, until the 1880s.
Thirty years later, I grew up along the peaceful Connecticut River. The French settlers borrowed the Mohegan word “quinetucket” to describe this stream. Unlike el río Biobío, the meandering Connecticut could not protect the indigenous peoples in the American Northeast. People like me have resided here since the introduction of smallpox.
The Connecticut and el río Biobío do not meet. The Connecticut flows from North to South, emptying into Long Island Sound. El río Biobío collects in the Andes and surges westward towards the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps the great colonial apologist Rudyard Kipling was right: “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
In some cases, rivers join at junctions called deltas. (Think the end of the Mississippi, the Nile, the Amazon.) Delta is a cognate in Spanish and in English. Connection is possible. Though the currents of my life and my Chilean family continue to flow in opposite directions, every couple of years, the twain meet.
When we met on a sweltering December day, my eleven-year-old twin nephews gazed longingly at the swimming pool as the afternoon progressed. “Why don’t you go get your bathing suits?” I suggested.
“No, tía, it’s not a good idea,” said Felipe. “I don’t want to swim right now,” added Nicolás. They’re like a comedy duo: Felipe is the talk-show host who begins the jokes, and Nicolás is the man behind the podium who chimes in. With their nearly identical features, that’s how you can tell them apart.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, because then we’d have to choose between playing with our friends or playing with our cousins.” Felipe gestures at the other Contreras children of various ages who mill around him. “And that would get complicated,” Nicolás interjects.
I’ve never had to make that choice. My friends and my cousins have always existed on separate continents. Our family gathering in Chile this year was larger than anything my immediate family could have hosted in the United States. My mother always says that in Latin America, your family are your friends, but in the U.S., your friends are family. In the absence of my mom’s eight brothers and sisters, their children, and the newest generation of children, we have cobbled together an American family of friends. Now, after six years in their loving company, I am finally back with my blood relatives in Chile.
Gloria Anzaldúa describes the land between the United States and Mexico as “borderlands/la frontera.” To her, the border is not simply a line, but instead a liminal, fluid zone with an identity of its own. I truly can’t think of an analogous metaphor for my relationship to Chile. There is no physical space where the twain meet. We share no border. Our rivers flow in opposite directions. And my beloved Atlantic washes up on the Argentinian side of Latin America. So, every so often, I become the borderlands. I embody la frontera. I bring a piece of the Connecticut River to the land of the Bíobío to create a womanmade delta. I am woman, made delta.
Chile’s most famous poet asks in his collection El libro de las preguntas, “Cuando veo de nuevo el mar/El mar me ha visto, o no me ha visto?/Por qué me preguntan las olas/Lo mismo que yo les pregunto?” The translation in English reads:
“When I see the sea again
has the sea seen me or hasn’t it seen me?
Why do the waves ask me
The same that I ask them?
Every time I visit Chile, the waters mix differently. I have seen some of the sea, but most of it is new. The family asks me the same questions I want to know of them. And we are all aware of the ebbs and flows of time that have caused us to switch generations.
My cousin Alejandra has a lovely daughter named Sandra, who peers at me with Ale’s wide blue eyes. Together, we all assemble the new Lego set that she got for Christmas. As Ale plucks the tiny pieces out of the bag to create a stable, Sandra walks the Lego horse across the table. She tells me the plot of Frozen, then The Little Mermaid, then Beauty and the Beast. When I invite her to come put her feet in the pool, where the twins have finally migrated, she primly informs me, “Te voy a decir que no.” She has a very logical excuse – she’s left her bathing suit at her aunt’s house.
In 1997, when I was four years old, I occupied Sandra’s position in the family. Alejandra gave me my Christmas gift that year as we gathered on the patio of her mother’s house. My aunt and two cousins, who were in their teens and twenties at the time, had picked up a perfectly nineties Ken doll for me. He sprouted chunky blond highlights when you put him into water. Ale and I stuck Ken’s head under the faucet in the yard to watch the magic happen. As she lit her cigarette, my tía Carmen smiled at her daughter and I, perhaps imagining what Ale would be like as a mother. In the absence of her mother, Alejandra has a mini-me for the rest of her life.
Tía Carmen – I keenly feel the ghost of her Chesire Cat grin at this gathering. I can only imagine how much she loved little Sandra, and I notice how my tío René has lost his usual spark without her. The bad part about growing older is that I’ve actually met the people who have died. I am at peace with some of the passings. I loved my abita (abuelita) dearly, but after ninety-four years, it was time for her to go.
And then I watch curly-headed Javiera amble around the yard, the spitting image of her mother Paty. I picture my tía Quena, her departed grandmother, directing Javi around the yard in her raspy voice and leaving her signature red lipstick on the little girl’s cheeks. Paty is the image of her mother. I can only imagine how much tía Quena would have loved to see a granddaughter who looked just like her.
Before Quena’s grandchildren came to life, my brother Peter and I were the children who barged into the house that Quena shared with my uncle, where she raised her children. We invaded Paty’s upstairs bedroom for any toys that remained from the eighties. We conquered the tall clay pot in their backyard and claimed it as our own. I can only hope that she dreamed of her future grandchildren as she watched us play.
My dad watches Paty chase after little Javi as her younger daughter toddles behind them. The two of them are completely stuck to their mother. My dad always likes to tell the story that when he met Paty at his first Chilean Christmas, in 1985, she was twelve years old and was sent to practice her English with the gringo guest. She had gotten a beach towel for Christmas, and my dad noticed how Paty was content with a gift that would have disappointed American children. I know that he feels the change of generations acutely.
And yes, the generations have changed. My uncles no longer sprout bushy dark mustaches, lazily smoking cigars over the meat as they grill. Instead, my cousin Marcela whisks a tray of beef into the dining room, shooing her children, the twins, out of the way. The other women set the gorgeous summer tomatoes out on the table. As always, there is wine.
I stay out of the way as my aunts and cousins prepare for our afternoon lunch. I watch as two of the younger children arrange their train set, and my cousin Juan Carlos comes over to join us. I struggle not to call him “Macarlos,” as Peter dubbed him when he visited the United States sixteen years ago. At the age of three, Peter had an ear for alliteration. If Juan Carlos’ sister and fellow guest was named Marcela, then surely his name had to begin with the same letter. “Someday,” Juan Carlos says, gesturing at the children,”these will be yours, no?”
Most of my cousins and I will never be in the same stage of life. Our twains of experience may always flow in different directions. We shall always be visitors in each other’s countries and speak each other’s native tongues as a second language. When we kiss on the cheek in greeting after years of separation, we exchange generations.
Instead of wishing that they were my peers, I can only hope to love their children as fiercely and as kindly as they loved me. To repay the favor of the cousin who took me to see my first movie in theaters (Anastasia, in 1997). To lift up their giggling babies and smother them with kisses in the way that only Latina tías can. To continue to talk to my cousins despite age and language barriers. To love my Chilean family generously in my mother tongue.
Which reminds me, I promised the twins t-shirts from Boston for their birthdays. They have their sights set on MIT, though I had to tell them it was not pronounced “meat.” Hopefully, by the time you next read my blog, I will have found an MIT biology shirt in a children’s extra large size.