This is an edited excerpt from “27 Views of Durham: The Bull City in Prose & Poetry.”
To my surprise I returned from a short trip not long ago to find my neighbors’ house deserted. I have no idea what happened to them. Even though they lived across the street, I can’t say I really knew them all that well. I knew their names and that they were from Guerrero, Mexico. Sometimes I would smile and wave to them from the window of my car on my way to work. Other times I would walk by their house with my daughter and say hello and exchange pleasantries standing on their porch, taking refuge from North Carolina’s scorching sun. We would talk in Spanish about the Latino Credit Union, soccer, the best place to buy tomatillos, about their hopes and dreams and sometimes nightmares.
The truth is they were what some refer to as illegals, which is another way of saying criminals in the eye of the law. How did I know this? They trusted me with their secret and with the story of their journey across the desert – how they walked, how they were lost, how they prayed, how one night they had to literally dive into a thicket of thorn bushes to hide from a menacing helicopter. The scars on their arms and on the cheek of one of their children were still there, proof of their sacrifice. I wanted to know. I wanted to be a witness. For me, a sense of place was bound by the act of becoming a willing accomplice to their crime. This complicity increased my endearment and compassion toward them, for it reminded me of my own past. It reminded me of how far I had come as an immigrant and how far others still had to go.
Ever since I left Chile as a child, I’ve been looking for a home – a piece of earth, a peace of mind, a place where my memories can rest for a while beneath the shade of a tree I have planted, in a garden I have cultivated, under the roof of a house I can call my own. I left with my family one month after the military coup of September 11, 1973, that destroyed our country’s democracy. With not much more than a stuffed rabbit in one arm, holding on to my mother’s hand, I was dragged into exile, seduced by the thrill of flying on airplanes and visiting faraway places, reassured that I would soon return, very soon, to see my friends, my family, my toys, my country. For a whole decade after we left Chile, we lived out of suitcases. Always on the go, we lived in Paris, Amsterdam, Maryland, dozens of houses and apartments; so much so, we didn’t even own a mattress.
And so, I was always the one leaving behind unfinished friends, vistas, and gardens. Now that I have finally settled down in Durham, I’ve begun to enjoy what was denied me all those years: a view from a window I can recognize day after day, for years to come. It’s a soothing and reassuring thought and yet ... and yet today as I look out my window and see that my neighbors are gone – their children no longer dangerously bicycling in the middle of the street and the sometimes-loud Ranchero music no longer blasting from one of their cars – I feel my sense of security slightly shattered. And to think that they had just laid out some paving stones in front of their muddy entrance and planted beautiful little pink flowers along side them!
... As a writer I live to imagine the lives of others, a world inhabited as much by their absence as by their presence. As I look out my window at the empty house where my neighbors once lived I can’t help wondering, What happened to them? Did one of them lose a job and they were forced to move to an even smaller house; or are they doing just fine and actually moved to a larger one? Or did one of them get caught without their papers? And what would happen to the children? Or did they just simply “move” on?
They often told me how much they liked it here in Durham, the work, the weather, and the friendly neighborhood. For years I was the one who left in the middle of the night like a wandering immigrant and now I was the one that had to witness the disappearance of others. Now I wished I had taken the time to visit them a bit more and in turn invite their children to play in my yard and share with them the vision of a future where they wouldn’t have to live like criminals because they didn’t possess the correct piece of paper.
After all, you can’t always bathe in your own blessings. Maybe that’s what belonging truly means. To be able to get out of those comforting waters and let others revel in them.
Rodrigo Dorfman is a filmmaker and multimedia producer who won the 2011 Jury Award for Best Short at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. His “Occupy the Imagination: Tales of Seduction and Resistance” will be released in late 2012.
Courtesy of Eno Publishers