From This Place on the Border by Margarita García Robayo
My sister’s sister-in-law’s name was Rocío and she was pregnant. She went to church to light a candle to Saint Ana for having granted her the miracle. Her man – short, brown-skinned, stout – went with her, satisfied at having fulfilled his mandate by insufflating his part of the mix. Rocío’s prayer, however, didn’t encompass fertilisation alone. Once the pregnancy was in the bag, the whole matter got more complicated: if the baby was a boy, she wanted him to be white, please, like her, because a male must make do with the hand he’s dealt. There’s no way of fixing him, polishing him, dolling him up. But if Saint Ana decided that her child was to be dark and curly-haired, like her husband, then she prayed for it to be a girl. Because a girl can get fixed up. How? God almighty, there’s an entire galaxy of products. Moreover, there’s Halle Berry, Vanesa Williams, Zoe Kravitz. For a dark-skinned girl, it was easy to take a bearing, and head in that direction.
The first time I heard my sister tell this story, I laughed. The second time was at a family lunch. Then, it was Rocío herself who was telling it, with her swollen belly. She already knew that she was expecting a girl and celebrated it with a ‘Thanks be to God, for sending me a little black beauty’. Her face was so distorted by the retention of liquids from her pregnancy, that it would have been cruel to reply with anything other than a genuflection. But hearing those words come out of her mouth made me feel so sorry for that baby girl who, even before she was born, was already being forced to resemble a B-list Hollywood actress.
It took me back to when I was a teenager, and suffered an inferiority complex for being the darkest-skinned of my classmates (I went to an expensive private school, that is, a white school), who in their peaks of tenderness and condescendence, would call me Pocahontas.
‘Enough, Rocío’, her husband said that time. And for a moment I thought that into the stew of that afternoon, a chunk of common sense had been dropped by mistake. ‘Don’t be naïve. If the girl’s black, her life will be harder.’
Perhaps I was wrong.
Then they got absorbed in an impossible-to-reproduce argument about how a father could be a positive guide to a dark-skinned child. In a nutshell, the suggestion was that there had to be an effort to provide a good financial position because it’s not the same to be a poor black than a well-to-do one. The progenitor himself, the owner of the seed, was a dark-skinned, unflattering man, who’d married a white, blonde woman (naturally blonde? No way. INOA 9.32, ‘Very Light Blonde Gold Iridescent’), and only thanks to the fact he was the fourth generation in a family of ranchers. That was the well-to-do position, and there was his golden prize. The formula was hardly complicated. The Social pages of the local paper listed similar configurations all the time: the rich rustic weds the dumb blonde. And so it goes. Sequences of the kind must take place daily in places like this: a comfortable apartment in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood in a city on the Caribbean where, like all cities on the Caribbean, the population has Spanish, African and Indigenous roots, and as a result a high probability that the dark gene casts its shadow over their progeny.
It’s no secret: the first border to be crossed is that of the family. Then come others, but the first stone we stumble upon in our lives is this human group that receives you with a backpack loaded with emotional weight and crochet booties. In the Caribbean, they say, family is what matters most. A life unfolds one way or another depending on the family you happen to get. The biggest problems families have, I believe, always have to do with proximity. I have the impression that the closer we are to the people we love, the more our vision of them is distorted. When we take a step back, on the other hand, we can make out their outlines better, in both a physical and ideological sense. And it’s only then that something like understanding can flourish.
It’s a long time since I left my city (and my family as a result). I can’t say that I’ve deciphered and accepted their ideological scaffold, raised as it is over a deeply colonial foundation, that is to say: racist, classist, macho, violent, nullifying and much more, while at the same time being lovingly and controversially overprotective. However, I can formulate abstractions that at least allow me to describe it. That is the place, the culture, I describe in this text. Why? Because it is the one I know best. The Colombian Caribbean is where I was born, and the well-adjusted middle class is the social stratum I grew up. The idea behind being ‘well-adjusted’ is not gratuitous because, after all, being middle class is about finding the best way to slot in.
So, who are we? We are the social climbers.
But not to join the upper classes: that doesn’t happen in our societies. People do not ascend social class, and in general they don’t descend, either: they are born and die in the same place. We climb to avoid falling into the ocean of the poor who howl at us from below. Others might call it surviving: we climb in order to survive. And because the rich are white and the poor are black, the middle classes are the suspect, brown border between the two. The middle classes resent the wealth of the whites above us because we’ll never attain it, and we fear the poverty of the blacks below us because it’s a phantom stalking us. Symbolic, rather than material ‘poverty’ sometimes occurs without reference to fortune. A change in context, in place, in perspective, can be revealing. Someone who in the Colombian Caribbean is safe in their knowledge they belong to the comfortably-off middle class might move country to discover their status abruptly and automatically changed.
It’s a Latin American classic: countless young, spruce, professional brown people who find themselves waiting tables, caring for the very young or the very old or cleaning toilets in countries where they are treated as black by their bosses and neighbours; young people who find everything they’d believed turned on their head, as if the world had been shaken up and they, instead of climbing up to a better position, had plummeted straight into the muddy wasteland of the poor. Some return disillusioned (even when they have money in their pockets), with their resentment and their disdain towards anyone who reminds them they can always fall still lower. Others, those of us who don’t clean toilets and believe ourselves to be artists, for example, try to stay and adapt to a reality that, as much as it may benefit us, always alerts us to what we are not. We aren’t white, we aren’t rich. But nor are we the worst off.
It might be said that I’m not talking about racism, but about emigration. Let me clarify: I’m talking about the emigration of those of us who were born neither white nor rich. Because those who are can live wherever they like and feel like they’re in their own country. Money is their country. And if you’re not wealthy, but you are white, then you can easily camouflage yourself in the world – whether developed or developing , it doesn’t matter – because you are part of that serviceable flock that no one finds to be dangerous or takes any notice of. You exist in a system that accepts you unquestioningly.
To alleviate our annoyance, we middle-class artists have the resource of progressiveness – similar education, similar generation of thought, similar intellectuality–: inequality is denounced, among other things, to hide resentment, fear and guilt of being and not be. But progressiveness is not enough. From this place on the border, voices are heard as if from behind a pane of glass. We compose songs, we write books, we construct monumental installations out of our tepid and disconcerted way of inhabiting the middle. Out of the deepest lack of satisfaction. We’ll never have the tragic power of a black voice, never the arrogance and universal right to be heard of a white voice. We are the enraged voice that is smothered at both extremes. The voice that seeks the gap to slip through and to finally find a place of comfort.
This year a novel of mine was published in English. It is entitled Holiday Heart and in it, I try to write from the perspective of two characters who inhabit this social segment I have described: a Latin American couple from the comfortable middle classes who have emigrated to the United States and find themselves in crisis, bitter, sick of the world they sought for themselves. Some critics have described these protagonists as racist. I understand that this reading is happening within a given context: being in lockdown has forced us to look closely into ourselves, and this in turn has exacerbated our sensitivity. Without a doubt, this is – I believe – a good thing. In addition, we have also lived through the Black Lives Matter crusade. Suddenly we all feel touched by the disproportionate violence that the police have historically used (in Minneapolis and almost everywhere else in the world) against those representing the weak link in our system: Black people, poor people, immigrants, women, children and a very long etcetera. To try and tell a story that exposes ‘racist’ behaviour in a way that does not defend but rather presents it as a portrait of a time in history, a place in geography and a social class, is a complex task indeed.
No sane author would dash to clear their characters’ names, and that’s not my intention. Nor has it ever been my intention to construct pleasant or sympathetic characters: rather, I construct the characters I need to talk about issues I want to expel from my body as if they were toxins. I write driven by this urge. Yet I was struck by the interpretation of these readers, since Spanish-language critics have not once mentioned the topic. I ask myself: why is it that readers in the first world – whom I presume are mostly white – found two brown Latin American characters to be so racist? Perhaps, an English friend tells me, they aren’t used to imagining characters like these in a position of ‘superiority’ relative to their peers. That is, that they would find it more digestible/ understandable/ plausible (even if always unacceptable) that the stereotype is that we clean toilets. Now, to turn the question around: why is that no Latin American readers – to my knowledge – remarked on this? Perhaps because it is our bread and butter. Our middle-class racism is normalized. We were born as its victims and its perpetrators. What’s the problem?
That’s the problem.
The problem of inhabiting this blurry border is that your place in the world is reconfigured each time you change your surroundings. Your place in the world works by contrast. For example, in my school I was the darkest girl in the class, but in the public university I went to, I was among the lightest-skinned. When I left my country I lived for periods in Mexico, where I was seen as a ‘pale Indian’ – Barcelona, where I was ‘exotic’ – and Buenos Aires, where a boyfriend jokingly told me that I was his ‘personal affirmative action’.
Argentina is a country just as third-world as my own, but has a very different history in terms of the make-up of its population. Here where I live in Buenos Aires, there aren’t many black people. At least, not locals. There are black people who arrive from Nigeria and sell jewellery in the centre. There are a couple of black girls in my children’s school, whose lesbian mothers adopted them in Haiti. They attract a lot of attention from the other children, including mine, who are all white. It is a private, bilingual college. It is an upper middle-class college, like the one I went to. Here, in Buenos Aires, there are not many indigenous people either. The history books tell us that they were exterminated in the so-called ‘Desert Campaign’, a wide-ranging and bloody military crusade that today is treated as a genocide. The point is that in the vast urban weave through which I move every day, my position in the gradient of skin colours and showcase of ethnicities has changed once more. Leaving aside the Haitian girls, I’m the darkest. And what does that signify? Many things. To mention just a minor but recurring event: when I go to the playground with my kids, I am always – always – mistaken for their nanny, and treated accordingly.
On a visit back to my home city, I asked my sister about Rocio. We were eating lunch with an aunt of a venerable age, on the occasion of her birthday.
‘She’s got two kids,’ my sister told me, ‘a boy and a girl.’
‘What colour are they?’ I asked.
My aunt answered for her:
‘Aunt, please,’ my sister reproached her, polite woman that she is, despite tolerating the outbursts of her sister-in-law for years.
‘What, Rocío can say that because she’s white?’ my aunt said. In the colour gradient, she’d be darker than Rocío, but lighter than me.
‘Rocío can say that because she’s their mother,’ my sister said.
My aunt turned to me:
‘Dark and ugly, my dear. Especially ugly: ugly children from ugly parents.’
I laughed. I thought that my aunt, at the age of 87, deserved a laugh for her rude jokes. My sister didn’t laugh. She couldn’t take sufficient distance, I thought.
‘You sound racist, auntie,’ she whispered, shaking her head.
‘Racist?’ my aunt sat up in her chair, raised her deeply lined, brown face, her own unfortunate history filling her eyes with indignation. ‘According to who?’
translated by Carolina Orloff
Margarita García Robayo was born in 1980 in Cartagena, Colombia, and now lives in Buenos Aires where she has worked as a journalist and scriptwriter. She is the author of three novels, a book of autobiographical essays and several collections of short stories, including Worse Things, which obtained the prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize in 2014. Her books have been published widely and praised in Latin America and Spain and have been translated into several languages, including Chinese, Hebrew and Turkish. Holiday Heart is her second book to appear in English after the very successful Fish Soup, selected by the TLS as one of the best fiction titles of 2018.
This piece is published as part of the Queen Mary Wasafiri Global Dispatches series, where six writers will send dispatches from around the world – writing from Tasmania and South Africa, the UAE and Argentina, England and Canada – and reflect on themes of Climate, Justice, Childcare, Racism, Futures, and Isolation—all in the context of Covid-19. Watch this space for Professor Penny Green’s response to Margarita García Robayo—and the topic of Racism, Borders, and Covid-19.