July 1994, sometime at noon. I am with my older sister, Vane, and my cousin Angelita in the alley that faces my grandparents’ house in Cusco, Peru. That day, my parents, my sister and I moved to live in a small city in Ecuador called Riobamba. I was three years old, almost four, and Vane was 5. I wonder if any of us understood what was happening.
The only thing I remember about that day is a scent. Vane and I had these little woven purses. I do not know if they were bought for the trip or not, but we carried them during our exodus. Those purses had a particular smell, a mix of strong odors: cookies, dirt, butter and dark flowers. It was not a sour scent, neither bitter. When, in Ecuador, I smelled those little purses I thought they smelled like Peru.
Vane does remember. She tells me she knew what was happening and did not want to leave, because she did not want to move away from mama Hebe, our maternal grandmother. My sister always had a special connection with her. I guess because she is the first granddaughter. Or maybe because, although they are very different in many aspects, they feel like two of the same essence. Neither of them goes through life yelling; their voices fill with sugar when talking to strangers and seen them curse is beyond comic.
It was different for my parents. They not only left family behind, but also friends. I do not usually think about what they felt that day, the few days we spent in Lima and Quito before going to Riobamba, or their first days there. Being Peruvian and living in Ecuador is something that, since I have memory, has been a reality in my life; like the fact that I use glasses or my curly hair. That is why I never thought there was a change. I never reacted to the fact that there was a day zero and maybe my parents remember it differently.
In my house we barely have three photo albums. It seems my parents were not that fond of photography or enthusiastic about going to the studio to reveal photos. But that made the photos we do have become treasures. There are photos from life before Ecuador: their engagement party, my mother’s bachelorette party, my parent’s marriage, and our first birthdays. Others of the first years in Riobamba: Alejandra, the third daughter or “the Ecuadorian”, one or another birthday and school events, travels inside the country and pictures with friends. The albums reveal the dichotomy of my life and my sister’s: our family is Peru and in Ecuador, our friends.
Migrants. I never thought of us that way. I associated the term with travelers who had a bad time in the host country, those who go through cold, loneliness, hunger and discrimination. Now I know we are migrants and that we were lucky, because we travelled in good conditions. My father had a job; in fact, that was the reason why we left. It offered benefits, like annual round-trip tickets to Peru for all the family. And, nevertheless, we were excited the few times we talked to them by phone. It was an event of colossal proportions. We all gathered around the phone and remained silent while one of us was talking. Until now I remember the emotion in my parent’s voice, that yelled when speaking, and my shy voice when it was my turn. Someone always cried, mama Flor or my mother. And there was always the big void that forged as soon as we hung up because, even though my father’s job was great and our house pretty, for a moment after we hung up, we were alone.
Twenty-four years later we’re still in Ecuador, and from that loneliness there is only sadness left when we look at the pictures where we are missing. I am a daughter of migration, because the only way of living I know is by missing. In Ecuador I miss my family from Peru, and in Peru I miss my friends from Ecuador. I dream of having everything in the same place, so I can have lunch with my grandparents and dinner with my best friend on the same day. I wonder, how it would be like to present a boyfriend to my grandmother, or the relationship between my cousins and my friends, or hug an uncle for Father’s Day? Nevertheless, what I gained was two ways of understanding Spanish. To use “farrear” and “tonear” to refer to the same activity. Pronounce “achachay” in Kichwa or “alalau” in Quechua to say that it is cold. In my house Lomo saltado and seco de pollo are cooked, and Eva Ayllón and Paulina Tamayo are listened to. But sometimes being from two places may feel like you are not from any. In Ecuador I am the Peruvian, and in Peru the Ecuadorian; in any other country I am many, sometimes Ecuadorian, others Peruvian, and sometimes the long a rehearsed “I was born in Peru but lived all my life in Ecuador”. And even though some impertinent nationalists and well-intended nosey people keep asking which country I would pick, they will always be for me Peru and Ecuador, Ecuador and Peru, in the same proportion, my homes.