The Home That Is a Shadow in My Soul

tatiana de la tierra

El Líbano, Tolima, Colombia, 1996. Mountains, green with wild sugar cane, red with ripe coffee beans and copper, black and bronze with layers of rich earth, are my beginning. In the mountains, gusts of wind purify and the moist emerald ground nourishes intravenously. Waters, always clear, cool and in motion, transform the cosmic nectar that blesses the country where I emerged.

My story begins in El Tolima, a region in the heart of Colombia embroidered with the central range of the Andean mountains. In 1863 my great-great grandparents came to Villa Hermosa, a tiny town tucked so high in the fertile mountains that the heavens became confused. They were founders of this place known as the town of two lies because, as the saying goes, it was neither “villa” nor “hermosa.”

Magical mountainous earth, that black dirt endowed with ancient volcanic ash, was soil that my ancestors lived from. My great grandparents, Mamá Rosita and Papá Gabino, owned coffee plantations and lived on their farm near Villa Hermosa. Ripe red, the coffee beans were hulled with a hand-cranked machine and left to dry for days in the sun until becoming pale brown, when they’d be placed in burlap sacks and sent to be sold into nearby towns on the backs of mules. Also growing in that fertile earth were plantain trees that shaded the coffee, yellow corn that transformed into arepas daily, rooted yuca for the weekly sancochos, and sugar cane that became hardened golden brown panela on the monthly moliendas.

Amidst all of that earth tilling and cow tending, Mamá Rosita birthed Genoveva, Teñito, Belia, Benjamín and Elvia, who would be my grandmother. In 1925, when the children were school age, the family moved to El Líbano, a nearby town that had good schools, healthy commerce, and an even bigger church. They traveled to El Líbano on horseback, taking a descending path that gushed with the sounds of streams, rivers, and waterfalls. Founded in 1855, El Líbano nestles cozily in a valley that’s embraced by mountains and neighbored by rushing rivers, wide-mouthed craters and ice-tipped volcanic peaks. Back then, it was a bustling town, seven days on foot and three days on horseback away from any major Colombian city.

An emerald green wooden door marks the entrance to my great grandparents’ home. This house, where I took my first steps, coddled the generations before me. The children who ended up being my elders lived in that house in El Líbano, with a farm in the backyard that bore scallions, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, peas and chayotes. Guayabas, oranges and apple bananas grew on trees that reached to the blue sky and then dropped their fruit on the ground in that infinite back yard. Chickens laid eggs nightly as white Margaritas and colorful Dahlias grew tall and abundantly. Every evening a herd of baby calves walked down the long hall into the patio, where they awaited their mothers, who arrived at 6 a.m. the next morning to be milked. Those moos, along with a choir of crowing roosters, inaugurated each day.

When I was seven years old, in 1968, I moved with my family to the United States. From there on, Colombia became a shadow that looms in my soul. I visit in the summers during my teenage years and then in between semesters during my undergraduate years. And then, for one reason or another, I didn’t visit for more than nine years. After coming out, I wait a few years for my next visit. I hesitate, worry about relatives. And then I go with a gringa girlfriend and, really, it’s cool. We have sex on my great-great grandmother’s bed and it’s so perverse and fine. I tell her that’s as deep as I can ever be fucked and that’s the truth. A huge framed color portrait of Jesus’ bleeding heart looks on. Everyone seems to know something is up but no one questions me about it, and for the first time ever, I don’t make any announcements. Years later, my relatives still ask about my now long-gone girlfriend. And I learn to bring my dyke self with me wherever I go, even to the sacred soil that brings me in contact with the artifacts of my history.

Later, in my thirties, I make an emergency trip to El Líbano. Teñito, my great aunt, is gravely ill. I fly into Bogotá and take a taxi to the bus station, where I look for the fastest ride into town. The “Expreso Tolima” buses that I remember used to be big and clunky, with wide sagging seats that creaked during the entire seven-hour ride. Fine dust, blown in by the wind, would swirl through my hair. The drivers were usually middle-aged men who had icons of the virgin Mary on the dashboard and played bambucos and boleros all the way. This time, I ride in a shiny white Ford mini-van that seats no more than thirteen passengers. It is air conditioned, there are seat belts, and there is no saint on the dashboard for our protection. The driver is in his twenties and the music is harsh. Rock, disco, techno, merengue. He passes out plastic bags for motion sickness and rushes off, assuring us he can get us there in four hours by taking a new route.

On the way, I watch the landscape from the front seat. After we get out of Bogotá, the road begins to wind through the mountains. But the scenery is not as green as I remember it; the slopes are patched with pale mustard and browned grasses. And it’s hotter than it ever used to be. It’s still beautiful, though, and I doze off during the ride, praying for my great aunt and wondering how El Líbano will look to me now that it’s 1996.

I wake up hours later, just as we are passing through what used to be a town called Armero. We are fifteen kilometers from El Líbano, and from here on it is a winding uphill drive. Scenes begin to look familiar to me. The wooden house with the pink verandah and white rose bushes. A young barefoot boy leading a mule loaded with burlap sacks. Blackberry bushes jutting from the mountain. Fields of miniature coffee trees. Groves of guayabas.

A white sign reads, “El Líbano, Tolima. Founded in 1855. Population 34,813.” At the entrance of the town is the cemetery, where all of my ancestors are buried. We pass the new Hotel Los Fundadores, the hospital, a park and then, my favorite bakery, “Mis Golosinas.” Then we turn on la Calle Real and I see people lined up outside of Telecom, a red building where long-distance calls are made. We pass the pharmacy on the corner, the little stationary store next to it, then the butcher shop, a music store that’s blaring Shakira’s “Estoy Aquí.” Finally, the driver parks the mini-van in the main plaza and I get out with my hand luggage. I am home, the home that is a shadow in my soul.

It’s 1996, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s 1965 and I am a little girl living in this little town. It’s a late Friday afternoon and the plaza is bustling. Vendors bake arepas over charcoal grills, smother them with butter, and charge 400 pesos a piece. Potatoes and green plantains are sliced and deep fried, then sprinkled with salt and served in miniature brown paper bags for 300 pesos. It is all the food of my childhood–crispy round corn buñuelos, grilled corn on the cob, half-moon empanadas, blood sausages, stuffed yuca, caramelized roasted peanuts, sweet coconut cocadas, cold avena. I buy a little bit of everything and bite one thing after the other, marveling at the time that seems to stand still here.

In the plaza the townspeople are out for an afternoon stroll. Children play along on the grass. Old ladies sit on benches and gossip. Couples hold hands. Teenagers gather in a corner, wearing the latest hip clothes. Young men court their wives-to-be. Men talk amongst themselves. There are no strangers here. There are also no dykes that I know of, no rainbow flags flapping anywhere, and frankly, I don’t care. This is about going home, about meeting with matriarchs. It’s not about rhetoric or politics or domestic partnerships. It’s about growing up and sustenance. It’s about the first steps that I ever took. It’s about embroidering orange flowers on starched white placemats. It’s about fat and frayed black-and-white photo albums. It’s about playing among the burlap sacks full of coffee beans, getting lost in coffee fields, drinking café con leche out of a baby bottle.

Before walking to my great aunt’s house, I head into the church that occupies a full side of the square. It is the tallest building in the entire town. It has two steeples, peach walls and copper trim. Inside, light filters through stained glass windows. I light a candle and kneel before la Virgen del Carmen, my great aunt’s patron saint. On the walk to her house I notice that everything looks the same as I remember it. I wave at the saleswomen at the fabric store on the corner and think about all the skirts and dresses I’ve had made here. I pass la galeria, where fruit, vegetables, grains, herbs, legumes, meat and household odds and ends are sold. Then, I pass a candy store, a small coffee warehouse and then, finally, I am in front of the emerald green wooden door, #1352.

As I knock, and when my cousin greets me dressed in black I know that my great aunt has passed on. She had died just as I was landing in Bogotá earlier that day. By now, she is already in a cedar coffin, wearing a deep green dress with a pattern of tiny yellow flowers. She is in the front room, the room reserved for the special occasion of death. Red candles are lit around the coffin, and many of my relatives are already there, dressed in black and praying the rosary. Teñito, eighty five years old, rests inside her special room, and I kneel before her and tell her so many things that, in life, never needed to be said. She was the thread that maintained all of our history alive, the only remaining matriarch of her generation. She knew all the stories that made up our family history. She had lived through La Violencia, through dozens of presidents and political upheavals. She was alive before electricity and telephones existed. She never knew E-mail or faxes. She never knew that I was a lesbian. And she lived her entire life in El Líbano, this place so far removed.

All through the night, relatives come from different parts of Colombia, filling the little room with prayers. Teñito will be buried the following day. By noon on Saturday, four of my uncles and male cousins are carrying the coffin down the street. A priest leads the procession of family and friends. We stop at the church for a service in my great aunt’s honor, and then we all continue, on foot, to the cemetery. I think of all the funerals that I went to with Teñito, and the weekend visits that we made to the cemetery. We carried flowers fresh from the backyard and brought them to the family mausoleum. She prayed as she changed the water and disposed of the old flowers. I had never learned the prayers but I knew the ritual well. When I was a little girl, coming to the cemetery was an outing and I played upon the graves and memorized my great great grandparent’s names.

This visit is different. It symbolizes the end of an era.

On this Saturday afternoon, beneath blue skies and amidst eternal prayers, my great aunt is buried. Her mother’s remains are placed at her feet so that she will be accompanied into the other world as she was in this one. I cry, not only for her passing and for everything that she means to me, but for the shift my soul must make as I face the rest of my life without a living symbol to my past. Walking back towards Teñito’s house I see El Líbano in its ageless beauty–the wooden houses, the horses clicking on the street, the life that I have always known and that will always remain the same. And once again, I thank God for blessing me with such a birthplace.

Originally published:

de la tierra, tatiana. “The Home That is a Shadow in My Soul.” Chasing the American Dyke Dream: Homestretch. Ed. Susan Fox Rogers. San Francisco: Cleis, 1998. 201-207.