My husband and I arrived in Toronto in June 2003, with our twin daughters (who were two and a half years old at the time), two dogs (a couple of adorable pugs) and one cat (a stray, picked up in a poor neighbourhood in Mexico City), after travelling in our minivan from San Antonio, Texas, where we had been living before. The journey north took us one week, but it was an enjoyable road trip as we were able to visit beautiful plantations in Tennessee and even Graceland along the way. We didn’t know anybody in Toronto, and we didn’t have work here. Our Hispanic friends in the United States and our family in Mexico called us irresponsible. How could we abandon everything we had and head off into uncertainty, with two daughters (and pets) in tow, as if it were all just a game? And in a sense it was: a kind of Russian roulette where we bet our whole lives that we’d come out unscathed; and, luckily, so far we have. More or less.
The more time I spend outside my country, the more convinced I become that immigrating is a trauma. You have to adapt to a different language, a different climate, different attitudes, different food, different ways and customs. You must leave behind everything you know and love, and start out on a road towards a tomorrow that never comes, because the today of every immigrant is necessarily infused with yesterday. My husband took a job that paid a lot less than what he’d been earning in San Antonio. I started giving night classes in Spanish, but the pay was so meagre that my first cheque made me cry; so many hours of work had translated into a figure that didn’t reflect the effort made or the hope invested.
Winter came, and with it the shock of snow as a constant feature of daily life; I then understood that being an immigrant means learning to walk like someone who has just been fitted with a prosthetic leg. That first year I also understood, as never before, the power and magic of Vivaldi’s music in his Four Seasons: the rebirth of life in spring, the revitalizing intensity of the summer sun, the caress of the fall colours and the cool October wind, the curse of the return of the freeze, the torpid stillness brought on by the interminable whiteness (I soon came to understand the madness suffered by Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining); and amid all this, the incredible and inexplicable energy to go out every day and get on with life as if it didn’t hurt to breathe the biting air. In Mexico, people sometimes don’t go out until it stops raining, or until the rain lets up a little. In Canada, even in a blizzard you have to get to work, and everybody complains about it, but they go. To join the battalion of heavily clad soldiers who brave the elements every morning requires a determination that is far from common. Those of us who have come to Canada from warmer climes should feel proud of our endurance. We are, in essence, palm trees that have managed to survive and bear new fruit among maples and pines. That’s no small feat.
In the case of my family, I can’t complain: my husband found a better job and has moved his way up through huge effort and discipline. I completed a master’s degree and a Ph.D., and now have the privilege of teaching at York University and the University of Toronto. My creative writing students at U of T invariably dedicate their first writings to their experience as immigrants, and they are always surprised to hear each other’s stories. They are all so similar, they say. Some fled from dictatorial regimes, others from corruption and violence, others from unemployment, desperation or indifference, and all of them – all of us – end up feeling the same uneasiness, the anxiety of not belonging, the pain of distance, of families left behind where the heart also still remains. Some students complain of how tedious it is that we all write about the same thing, but I always tell them no, there’s nothing tedious about it, any more than love or pain are tedious. To leave behind the land where you were born and where you thought you would live forever is like stripping off your own skin. “My skin is my country” says the Canadian writer Kim Echlin, and I feel every letter of this phrase with every atom of my being. As with any open wound, the skin grows back again, but it will always leave a mark, a scar. I feel that scar twinge in the speech of my daughters, who speak with greater confidence in a language that is not the one I dream in; I feel it when I try to write in English and the words don’t flow with the rhythm of my blood; they get clogged, stopped up, and even my breath develops a stammer. Every word is hard work, like every step taken with a prosthetic leg; although it may seem almost natural, almost normal, it is only ever almost. Something there hurts, irritates and hinders, but also, ironically, facilitates existence. A contradiction like this can never be tedious.
When you immigrate, you change. My husband and I are not the same people who arrived here eight years ago in that little minivan. We have grown and learned a lot. We have learned, among other things, to be grateful for what Canada has given us – security, stability, a high standard of living; to love this new land and, in this way, we have made it ours and made ourselves a part of it. We have given it the most beautiful gift we have to offer: our three children. And we have been happy here, without any doubt. But deep inside, on days of sun, rain or snow, when the wind is like a furious wildcat scratching at the world, and even when no wind blows at all, I feel the pain for the distance, for absences and for all that I left behind and that nurtured me for nearly thirty years; it still hurts to have stripped off that skin. But that pain (like all pain) makes me (and all who feel it) stronger. It makes me alert and compels me to live this new life – which I have had the huge fortune of choosing – to the fullest.
Translated by Martin Boyd
Martha Bátiz is a published author and professor of Spanish literature. She currently lives in Toronto.