I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
We are fog people. Every day the fog paws like a cat at our hearts. We are born and grow up to the broken promises of both sun and rain; that’s why we are more grateful than anyone for rays of light and the slightest raindrops. The weather, for us, never makes conversations easier.
We are street people. Nomadic by nature. We are the grandchildren of poor, adventurous strangers. Our living radicalizes their legacy. They left chaos behind only so that we could recreate it. Our chaos is where our vitality resides—it’s what makes us untamable. We suffer, buy, sell, eat, observe, flee, and love in the streets, fluorescent. We burn the asphalt. We leave often. And sometimes we even come back.
We are sea people. Our ship is a beached whale circled by vultures. For us, everything rots and everything comes back to life beside the waves. We dig deep pits at the edge of things. We prefer our bottles with no messages in them.
We are night people. People of long-since shuttered bars and drugs and alcohol-induced visions. Of secret maps, disenchantment, and staircases leading nowhere. Our poets write the most beautiful words in the world. And then they die.
We are shit people. Sometimes we are. There is no other explanation for all this hatred and rubble. We build our homes not to live in them, but to survive in spite of them. This is our city, perhaps our only chance on earth. But we are young and implausible. We have the fog, the street, the sea, and the night in common. Not shit.
We bring a beach towel and even a ball. We’re so behind the times. We’d forgotten that La Herradura no longer has a beach; the turncoat sea swept away all the sand that had been brought in by the truckload under orders of the first woman elected mayor of Lima. La Herradura no longer has a shore or its chromatic yachts. The sea, smelling of all the dead bodies in the history of the world, makes us want to drink.
The old waiter who served our ceviche tilted our plates, swirling the salty, spicy leche de tigre. He entertained us with stories I wish I had written: The “big fish” had moved out of those white rusty buildings near La Herradura tunnel, so the old man had started carrying jaleas—fried seafood platters—all the way to their new, carpeted apartments, where their mistresses also awaited, wrapped in white towels and with a puff of white powder on their nostrils. Old-time beach ostentatiousness metamorphosed, unhinged. Can there be anything more inspiring than this perfect decadence? Sometimes I swear I’m not seeing it but inventing it.
Faced with the desolate landscape, Rocío, a foreigner after all, said she’d never seen seagulls black as crows, and everything seemed to her a sign of the end of the world. Lena, a child after all, joyfully threw pebbles onto pebbles. Jaime, a poet after all, spoke about invisible apartments and the cars that drive in and out of nothingness. And I suggested we head for the decrepit white buildings and examine the magnitude of their abandonment.
As I walk across the main square in Lima’s Barranco district, I’m confronted with an image that I’d never seen before, though it may have been there all along, hiding behind the foliage: a group of sculptures of the most recent presidents of Peru exhibited by a restaurant as a part of its kitsch garden décor. Whether they’re a highly suspect political manifesto or a bizarre marketing strategy, they’re definitely a punch to the gut. Which isn’t really what you want at a restaurant. They’re all there: Belaúnde, Fujimori, Toledo, and García—the cream of the crop of our recent political freak show. How much disillusionment those names contain, and how much theft. Someone, or maybe all of us thirty million Peruvians, forgot to fling them into the fire of oblivion. We’re still letting them dine at the next table over. We even pick up their bill.
From up close, they look like a group of friends carousing around the table, with their papier-mâché brains and their wrinkly smiles. But when I take a few steps back, they look cornered, conservative, corrupt, and failed. I back up more, and peer through the metal bars of the restaurant’s façade. They look lonely and absurd.
From the plane, the city meets the sunrise like any other, its periphery scintillatingly alight. As we descend, the city awakes and unfurls in my memory. The cafes, terraces, and bars. The promenades and the taximeters. Another way of doing politics, another form of corruption, other kinds of propaganda. And the pulse of its everydayness, which I’ve learned to recognize over years. The peace of its bars and cinemas. I’ve gotten to know this other city well, and when I step off the plane I feel, in a way, as though I were coming home. The blue sky, the bright white and perfectly delineated clouds.
I recognize the horizontality of its paths and the democracy of its metro, where social classes are temporarily abolished. People’s faces seem familiar. So does the violence of their language and their brutal sympathy for all things. For a second of civic schizophrenia, I feel foggy with guilt at the thousands of miles that separate me from Lima. I live in a European capital, but instead of feeling cosmopolitan, it feels nostalgically provincial. As I leave the airport—souvenirs of bullfighters and flamenco dancers, Real Madrid T-shirts—I can’t help but wonder what I’m doing, returning to a place that is not mine. I fill the taxi with suitcases. A placid journey to the center of the city awaits. “Where are you from?” the driver asks me, but how to convey the concept of Lima’s grayness under this foreign sun?
Years ago, when I first arrived in Madrid, I carried with me an inner Lima as an insatiable hunger, out of which sprouted new cities and gaps and habits. I missed the food. I missed a form of relaxation that here feels more like wasting time. I missed the people. But moving to another city is to change the accent of your affections. It took only a few years for Lima to become the journey, and for touching down in Madrid to become the return. I cross this other city without delays. Madrid is not a paragon of civic-mindedness, but after two months in Lima it feels like Stockholm. Here, drivers don’t seem bent on running over pedestrians, and there is not a single publicity billboard in sight. No candidate for public office in any municipality would think to try and win votes by plastering their face all over the city.
I get home still feeling unsettled, dissonant. Perhaps everything feels strange because Madrid will always be “other.” And although I no longer leave my heart in Lima every time I return to Madrid, it remains my beloved, my horrible, my gray city.
Paternal abandonment runs through our culture; it’s in our idiosyncrasy and our essence. It wafted through the sails of the conquistadors’ ships, which set off from our shores laden with gold; it swelled in the gaze of the mestizo Garcilaso de la Vega, anxious at even the slightest snub from the Spanish court; and now it burns in the literature of Ciro Alegría, Vargas Llosa, Arguedas, and Valdelomar.
Our reality and our fiction meet at the junction of irresponsible paternity. Maybe this history of irresponsible paternity is why mothers, utterly unprotected, have had to play the lead role in the most violent struggles of our past. Like Rosa Cuchillo, the unforgettable character in Óscar Colchado’s novel, Peruvian women have had to tirelessly search for their disappeared children in the mass graves of unofficial history, under the indifferent gaze of the state.
I demand a paternity test. How can I share anything with this nation, such a fertile ground for satire? Am I in any way consubstantial to its cronyism, miserable deals, and dim collusions? Does its weakness bear any relation to me? To any of us? I want to say no, and I want to believe that most other Peruvians would, too. And yet, we’re all part of its disheartening, pathetic production.
“The palace now has the deep silence of a mausoleum and from there we are governed by a cadaver that breathes,” said the great José Watanabe to his Antigone.
Do we need to take to the streets again? This seems like a romantic and useless gesture, like throwing pebbles into stagnant, murky waters. But it’s better than cowering in the face of power, for if we do cower, one day we might be confronted, as Antigone was, with guilt—“a face that tortures and shames.”
They came looking for my father late at night, and the next time I saw him he was on the TV. He was there in the background, on the Uchuraccay hillside. I was excited to see my dad on television for the first time, but what I remember most vividly are the plastic bags. They contained journalists, like my father, except that they were dead.
It was not unusual to come across photographs of dead bodies during the 1980s in Peru. I was obsessed with dead bodies, especially those that came in black plastic bags. I remember the photos of an entire family murdered by Sendero Luminoso particularly well. The front cover of Caretas featured the tortured bodies of a family that lay strewn across their garden; the signs around their necks read, in their own blood, “back-stabbing swine.” I wondered if that would happen to us.
Caught in the midst of the cross fire, my parents often had to explain these kinds of photos to us—painful and, I realize now, shameful moments for them. If my mom and dad were a bit late coming back from work, I started to cry, thinking they were dead. I would snuggle up holding their pajamas to breathe in their smell, feeling paralyzed with fear of the monster that had stuffed my parents in black plastic bags.
While it lurked in the shadows, we all feared this monster like nothing else. But one day, we switched on the light and all we saw was a chubby man clinging to his own myth.
A civil war is a complex phenomenon, but a monster is just a monster. Those of us who have seen it up close know it nestles and eats away at you. The worst thing about it is not its ferocity, but its persistence.
Those of us who have seen it from up close know what it is to breathe a sigh of relief when it seems to be burning itself out. We know the optimistic twinkle in people’s eyes and the hopeful smiles. But it always returns, telling us that hard as we might try, we will never, ever be able to escape. If there’s anything I’ve learned in all these years, it’s that it plays with you, as if it had a mind of its own, as if it were more than the sum of its infected parts.
This illness tries to subjugate your will, bring you to your knees. One day you wake up and find it has infected a relative, a friend, and your boss—along with an endless number of collateral victims. At first you yell and protest, and then you try to expose the illness’s filthy underside to the light.
But still it persists. In the end it leaves a sediment of sorrow in the soul.
Corruption pollutes indiscriminately, killing hope and starving those who hunger for justice.
I have to give you all bad news: you are all cholos. Seriously, you are all straight-up cholos.
Let me explain: It was the Lima of the 1980s, very Arnold and Willis, and it was a private school where kids played at building hierarchies by comparing the shades of their skin. Little five year-old despots preaching the gospel of our society: “a little less black means a little less cholo.” I was one of the afflicted—my skin was on the darker end of the color spectrum we used to differentiate amongst ourselves—and therefore grew up believing my classmates were white, my sister was white, my girlfriends were white, and my bosses were white.
But, as I finally realized one day, not a single one of them is white; they are all varying shades of cholo. In Peru, everyone is a cholo. The news anchor is chola, for example. The soap opera actresses are extremely cholas, including the blond ones. The criollo writers, particularly those “non-Andean” ones, are cholos. There are tough cholos, big cholos, fat cholos, rich cholas, and swanky cholas. Even the first lady is a Chinese chola. Here in our castle of cholitude, we might as well try to make sense of things together.
I came to Spain because I was told that my destiny awaited here, in this so-called Europe. The crisis was supposedly “affecting” Europe, but Spain wasn’t just “affected,” it was a wasteland. Two of my best friends left. One of them went back to Lima and the other one left for Miami, which is basically the same thing. For the first time in decades, emigration was greater than immigration.
I also migrated—but from Barcelona to Madrid. It was a survival handbook move. In desolate Madrid, sometimes I imagined that only Mario Vargas Llosa and I were left behind. I used to be considered unusual for being Peruvian and not working as a maid. Then I began to stick out because I had a job, full stop. Some people even thought I was German.
When exactly was it that Spain fell apart?
Near my apartment there’s a Peruvian restaurant, La Lupita, famous for serving the best pollo a la brasa in the world amidst crying children, cumbia at full blast, and botched electrical wiring. Some days I go there just so that when I leave, I feel like I’m in the First World again.
When I arrived in 2003, Spain still had money to burn and was a place you felt glad to live in. Because it was a newly rich country (which in its day had survived a bleak civil war, a long dictatorship, and a debatable transition), it flaunted its shiny new membership to the club of the owners of the world. I didn’t get the memo, though. I had just arrived and was too busy surviving. I was an individual in crisis when everything around me was glorying in the abundance, and by the time I was prepared to reap my share, the crisis had hit everyone else.
But the Spanish government is one thing and the Spaniards are something else entirely. Gradually, Spain changed the rules of its game, and then faced off against the Spaniards.
“Beware, Spain, of your own Spain,” wrote César Vallejo. “Beware of the victim in spite of himself, of the hangman in spite of himself and of the uncommitted in spite of himself! Beware of the new potentates! Beware of the one who eats your corpses, of the one who devours your living dead! Beware of your heroes! Beware of the future!”
How right Vallejo was. It’s not that poets are seers; it’s that countries are blind.
Beware, Peru, of your own Peru.
In order to be decidedly un-European: never be on time, never plan ahead, care very little about the holidays, have a dismal savings account, and never look effortlessly elegant. Or, alternatively, pack turtlenecks while everyone is waxing and trying on new bikinis. Live halfway around the world for months, and return once a year to the corner from which you came, precisely for its cold season.
“I’m afraid,” sings Carlos Gardel, “of encountering my past.” For those of us who left Peru, the past isn’t behind us, it’s a horizon on the other side of the ocean. The stars, as mocking and indifferent as they are in Gardel’s tango, witness our return. In real life nobody cares we’re back, either, except for a handful of people who gave birth to us, watched us grow, watched us leave, and every so often welcome us back. There are no old cardboard boxes to be opened on the other side, because by now we’ve even taken our most yellowed books and thrown out our last high school notebooks. There are new babies and fewer friendships. We curse the weather and the sky. We take our children to see their roots, and we’re once again cradled by the tender madness of our parents.
People always feel the urge to revisit their first love. I, especially, am compelled to do so. After all, I was brought up to be argumentative, and my first love, my country, makes for a good sparring partner.
Regardless, there is no turning back from Operation Return Home, nor from this trembling emotion.
Translated from the Spanish by Lucy Graves and Jennifer Adcock, and excerpted from Sexographies by Gabriela Wiener. Copyright by the author and Restless Books.
Gabriela Wiener (Lima, 1975) is the author of the crónicas collections Sexografías, Nueve Lunas, Mozart, la iguana con priapismo y otras historias, and Llamada perdida. Her work also includes the poetry collection Ejercicios para el endurecimiento del espíritu. Her latest book is Dicen de mí (2017). She writes regularly for the newspapers El País (Spain) and La República (Peru). She also writes for several American and European magazines, such as Etiqueta Negra (Peru), Anfibia (Argentina), Corriere della Sera (Italy), XXI (France), and Virginia Quarterly Review (United States). In Madrid, she worked as editor of the Spanish edition of Marie Claire. She left the magazine in 2014 to work on her first novel.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee