When George Bush was re-elected, I decided to leave the country. I graduated from the University of Hartford a month after the election, stopped by Washington, D.C for the inauguration and one last protest, and moved to South America, determined to break with the place I came from.
I found work teaching English in Ecuador, became involved with an ongoing political revolution and fell in love with Rosy, the charismatic daughter of a rising political star. I thought that the world was changing and that I was at the forefront of it. There was an infectious optimism in the Andean air; and I was drunk on it.
For three years I held onto the notion that I had transplanted myself, leaving America behind for the warm embrace of Ecuador; then I got deported.
The new government, which I enthusiastically supported and was connected to via Rosy, had become increasingly nationalist and refused to recognize my visa after a trip to visit family in New York. They forced me onto a plane and flew me back to the United States. I snuck back in, but it was never the same. The revolution bred an aggression toward the world beyond its borders that especially targeted the nation I came from, and I felt it everywhere I went. From immigration officials and police officers, down to children on the street begging for change, everyone began to look at me differently. There were always ignorant people but they seemed to multiply overnight, and incidents such as strangers spitting on me in public became a more common occurrence.
While I was still struggling with my legal standing in what I considered to be my home, there was one particularly disturbing incident. I had just returned to the downtown apartment Rosy and I were renting when I heard the doorbell and the loud screech of tires. By the time I reached the door, there was no one outside and no cars in sight. A crushed shoebox, with a tire mark across it, and bright red liquid oozing out of the torn cardboard sides, was on the step. Curious, I opened the box: inside was a dead and badly disfigured guinea pig. It looked like they had run over the box while the animal was trapped inside, still alive. Blood had splattered on the cardboard sides and the animal’s intestines poked through its torn skin and fur. The front lip was peeled back and ripped from its face, revealing a handful of broken teeth and slashed gums.
I wanted to vomit and cry at the same time. I felt horrible, and a dozen paranoid thoughts raced through my mind. Is this because I’m American? Do they know that guinea pigs are pets in my country? Did they know I was home? Are they watching me? Did the same people leave the dog shit on the step yesterday? Do I know them? Will they come back?
Whatever anti-American sentiments I had dealt with before were annoying though bearable—the mutilated guinea pig was the breaking point. After I went back inside and collected myself, I fell into a terrible state of depression and waited for Rosy to come home. But when I told her what had happened, she didn’t seem to care. She didn’t understand why I was so upset.
“I live here, that’s why. This is my home,” I shouted at her. “People spit on me in the park and leave dead animals at our door and you don’t even care.” And for the first time I started to seriously consider that maybe this wasn’t my home, maybe Rosy wasn’t the girl for me, maybe the dream was just fantasy.
That same week, while I still clung to the idea that things would work out with Rosy and me; with Ecuador and me; I walked past a protest in the park. A hundred youths covering their faces with bandanas were blocking the road while a group of riot police lined up a block away. The police were putting on their gas masks; the protesters were collecting pieces of pavement and rocks for a counter attack. After passing the protesters, when I had my back to them, I heard one yell after me,
“Fuera Yankee!–Yankee go home”
I turned around and looked in the direction the voice came from.
He said it again. It was the tall one with the red bandana. I turned and walked straight for him. A crowd gathered to watch what would happen.
“Que dijiste?–What did you say?” I asked.
“Fuera Yankee,” he repeated, though with less certainty in his voice.
I laughed but did not smile, did not break eye contact. “You don’t like my country because it treats Ecuador unfairly,” I said. “It doesn’t know your nation but it makes assumptions about it. It thinks all of Latin America is the same, thinks all Ecuadorians are the same. It thinks it knows you, but it’s ignorant.” I paused. “You’re the same. I live here. I work here. And the U.S. government does not represent me anymore than Lucio [an unpopular former president] represented you. You’re the same as the U.S.; you’re part of the problem.”
The man with the red bandana responded in a voice so low that I barely heard him above the noise of the protest, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
I turned my back and walked away. At the time I felt proud, felt that I was entrenching myself ever deeper within my new environment. Throughout all but the last weeks of my time there, I progressively perceived myself as more Ecuadorian and less American.
It took me a long time to realize that I will always be an American. My anger with the man in the red bandana stemmed from the idea that he was not treating me as an individual, and my glorification of the individual is, ironically, a value I now recognize as distinctly American. The concept that anyone can be successful with enough hard work, my love of pizza and ketchup and so many other things, I now recognize as trails to my past, permanent marks left on me by my birth nation and culture. Wherever I go, whatever I do, I can never change where I am from, nor deny the great influence that has on my personality. It sounds simple enough, but it took Ecuador’s rejection for me to understand that I can never deny where I came from.