My story is an old one and too common: a child ducks, a child startles, a child dissociates when she can’t do any of those things. A child grows up learning how to avoid a mother, and this type of knowledge seeps into all of life. An old story, well-worn. But in my case, I got handed a mango, and it changed everything. At age 16, I stepped off a bus in Oaxaca, Mexico, in a small village in the mountains, stood alone on an empty dirt road surrounded by jungle, and a skinny boy walked up to me, took out a pocket knife, peeled off some of the skin of a mango, held it out to me. The fruit was ripe and drippy and the surprise of its sweetness brought tears to my eyes, which was a surprise in itself, since I had ceased to cry years before.
The boy’s name was Alejandro, and he was the son of the host family, and he showed me the steep path that led us to his village, which was a cluster of corrugated tin-and-plywood homes, barking dogs, meat drying on clotheslines, cornfields, and jungle. As a Colorado farm kid with many siblings and low socio-economic background, I was not so flustered by the close-to-the-earth living, but I was surprised at the intensity of emotion that kept striking my heart. That summer was supposed to be about building outhouses—and it’s true I got good at cutting rebar and mixing cement in wheelbarrows—but that time really proved to be the moment I became aware of the desire to become whole: my wish to stop leaving my body and actually experience my emotions, and this boy’s wish to leave his country to experience his life. One journey internal, one journey external, both a migration fraught with danger.
It is only now, decades later, that I can see the truth of this: The hardest and most difficult journey we will ever undertake is the one to our best self.
Sometimes the journey involves traveling inside, and sometimes it means traveling deserts. That summer was a clear turning point, the summer in which I started to realize and form words for the childhood trauma and my adaptive psychological numbing (though I had no terms for any of that yet) and the reasons people crossed national borders (though I had no scope for that yet). Somehow, in the strange neuron-firing-pathways of my brain, the two became inexorably linked.
I have flickers of memory of being cognitively aware that something was wrong with me: the way I startled at loud noises, the way I daydreamed so intensely, the way I simply shut down when voices got loud; or, conversely, the way that here in Mexico, I was able to laugh freely, delight in the taste of a tortilla I’d just made, or feel confused or sad or happy at night on my cot. I was starting to put words to my experience and, more importantly, make judgements about my life. It was not right, for example, to have seen my little brother’s head pushed into a toilet and held there, again and again, to punish him, at age five, for saying a curse word, a word that he did not even know was “bad.” As I struggled with my own words—Spanish and Mixteca—and mixed cement for toilet seats, basic observations like this kept getting linked in my mind. This toilet in Mexico, that toilet in Colorado. It was the moment in time when I realized the wrongness of what I’d witnessed. And what I was now seeing.
Because, of course, I was becoming aware of a different brand of difficulty: Alejandro wanted nothing more than to “go to university,” as he always put it. But I knew his struggle was going to be a big one. Also an old story, also still true: he sketched out math problems in the dirt with a stick, the crumbling-cement schoolhouse was only in session at mysterious times, there was not a single book anywhere. His dream seemed like a fantasy, clearly too disassociated with his life.
I came home, now aware of the humanity of each person who wanted a better life, including myself. Alejandro became the image my mind produced when I heard of young men dying on the border. My politics and activism started roots. I got fierce about my own life too—the year I left home, I picked up the phone and called a therapist, who heard my stories, introduced the word dissociation to me, discussed psychological defense mechanisms and the ways to access and feel emotions once again, made me realize that this was not melodrama or cry-babyness, that it deserved attention.
Over the years, I’ve tried to contact my host family in little Rancho Viejo. There’s never been a response, and there’s no record of that family in the area. Perhaps Alejandro made it to university. Perhaps he died on the border. Perhaps he made a good life in Mexico. All I know is that he offered me a mango, and I wrote a book about him. Or, more specifically, about a gringa who needs to cross the boundary into her real self and recover from PTSD, and a girl named Alejandra who needs to cross a country’s border to find hers. It is an old story, but still true: We are all seeking the best and most complete version of ourselves.
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