The child of immigrant parents grows up in a home where one foot is in their new country, the other stubbornly rooted in the old country. When my 5 siblings and I would come home after school, with that first step through our front door and into our house, we were teleported in a matter of a second, back to the old country. You’d close that door behind you, and the United States of America, ceased to exist.
In my case, welcome to Colombia, baby.
The immigrant family usually includes extended family under one roof. With us, it was my non-English speaking grandmother. My grandmother never really understood that we were in a new country. She just came along for the plane ride, and kept her suitcase packed, for when her visit here was over.
In the small village from where my grandmother came, she was one of the revered few who knew the ways of natural plant remedies. I’m speaking of allllllll the plant types that Colombia is known for. In my family of 2 brothers, and 3 sisters, we grew up not knowing how unusual and different life was outside of our home.
Until the day arrived, and we were outside of our home, with the beginning of school.
My siblings and I thought everyone lived as we did. When we had an upset stomach, my grandmother would treat it with “Yerba Buena.” Literal translation: “good weed.” I’d go to school, with a thermos full of “mate,” or “good weed” drink. My schoolmates (I had no friends…weird wasn’t cool in 1966) would ask what I was drinking. Knowing they did not know Spanish, I’d say “good weed drink.” I think my family personally was responsible for giving life to all the Colombian stereotypes that my classmates had heard.
Back in Colombia, my grandmother was entrusted with preparing the town’s chicha. Chicha is a drink that is prepared and allowed to ferment for a lunar cycle (that’s what the recipe calls for) and includes cannabis or coca leaves. It is drunk in large quantities for celebrations, or in preparation for a journey of 2 days or more across the mountains. Preparing chicha is considered an art, and the person who makes the town’s chicha is respected. It is corked for 28 days and on the 29th day: uncorked and Happy Days!!
I tell you all this to explain the following snippet of a childhood day, in which my 5 siblings and I became the first known latin gang in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the year 1966:
We always had headaches as children (tension, anyone?) and my grandmother would remedy this in the following manner. She’d take an orange, peel it, place the orange peelings on one of her brightly colored Andean scarves, and tie the blazing colored bandana around our heads, just barely above our eyelids. Supposedly, the acid in the orange peels was supposed to do something like shrink the swollen blood vessles in our throbbing heads…but what really happened instead was that we’d all go outside to play looking like little midget street gang bangers. We’d go knocking on neighbor’s doors, with our heads tilted up so we could see out of our red and orange bandanas, orange peelings slipping down, the smell of citrus fruit attracting all the gnats and wasps around our heads, and ask children to play with us. Huh, no one was ever available.
We were the neighborhood oddity. I remember a mother’s reply when a “normal” child asked her who we were and why we had scarves with oranges tied around our heads. She replied, “migrant workers from somewhere.”
I have so many stories from my childhood that I call funny stories. I tell them to our 3 children, and they laugh. I can either paint a picture of feeling lost and alone and rejected, or I can laugh and be thankful that the childhood I had was one that has enabled me to post over 300 posts on my blog, and I’m not even close to being out of stories.
When given a choice between laughter or tears, I always choose laughter.