[Revised/Remixed post from 9/30/07]
Years ago. I was asked to write about a particular object that represented in some way “home.” The project was about how certain objects can, in some ways, signify home or place for us. For an unrepentant border crosser, this was an interesting proposition as I didn’t believe that I kept anything that would signify a tie to a place. Rather, I had a random display of objects from all over the world, postcards primarily, but also photos I’ve taken in my travels. These were objects that I used to decorate my office door: photos of the US/Mexico border, cartoons photocopied from my battered issues of Pocho magazine, slides of some of my paintings, concert announcements, invitations to art shows, postcards from Spain and Mexico.
At the time I got the invite, I had been thinking of an art installation by Richard Lou titled “Border Door” that he constructed in the late 80’s. It consisted of a door installed at the border fence on the Otay Mesa above Tijuana. The door could only be opened from the Mexican side, and on that side he hung more than 100 keys to unlock it. He also distributed hundreds more of the keys to people in the working class barrios of Tijuana, as an invitation to “cross the border with dignity.” An invitation to walk into the US through the door. The title I was kicking around was “A Door is a Wall Until it is Opened” (more astute readers will note my sly reference to an album by Wire, A Bell is a Cup Until it is Struck). Decorating my office door in Pennsylvania was my simple gesture at “punching holes” in the wall that my closed door represented, opening it up in a way to a whole bunch of other places. At the same time, it was a gesture at mapping my own itinerant identity.
For various reasons —lethargy being the main one— I never advanced too far in writing the essay, it remained, actually, in pieces, spread out over various notebooks and random notes scattered in word documents on my computer.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had always been participating in an act of constructing a link to home, but not to my own family life in rural northern California: but rather to an aesthetic cultural past collected in random objects from my travels through Mexico. Artesanía mexicana: clay calaveras; wooden saints and angels; máscaras de luchador. Along with things gifted to me: an original foto of El Santo; lucha libre keychains; a Virgen of Guadalupe in a Box (which is exactly what it is); clay devils; “buddy” Christ. These things I placed on my mantle in my living room, and after a while it took on the appearance of an altar. And upon returning from a trip, I would place whatever I purchased or acquired on that altar.
It is objects like these make up one of my favorite stories by Sandra Cisneros “Bien Pretty” (and to which I send a wink in one of my own stories “Esperando en el lost and found”). Objects that speak little to my growing up: the iconography of my childhood was not in artesanías mexicanas, but rather: in border radio —traveling the aural spectrum from the boleros my grandmother would listen to in the morning to the oldies the neighborhood cholos played to classic rock and back to tex-mex—; in border television —el Chapulín Colorado, Lost in Space, and Sesame Street—; in bautizos, quinceañeras, bodas y funerales —following the arc of life—; in lucha libre at the county fair; in bailes on saturday nights with music provided by Los Diablos, Los Pasteles Verdes, Mike Laure —música grupera; in comic books —Kalimán, The Green Lantern, Condorito, Batman; in long drives down interstate 5 from northern California to Mexicali on the border. At the same time, these objects cast an oblique, or tangential, gaze at this border crossing life. And, as Roger Bartra writes, the most effective way for crossing a frontera is to do so tangentially, irse por la tangente.
When I moved from Pennsylvania to Iowa, one of the first things I set up was my altar. But as I didn’t have as much space as in my previous place, I had to separate it: keep part of it in my home, and part of it in my new office where I ended up with a collection of calavera mariachis presiding over a boda where the guests include robots. Giant robots. When I moved to New Mexico, that collection moved to my office where expanded it to include other toys, magnets, and random objects I’d picked up in Turkey, Peru, and Ecuador.
When I came to live in Turkey, I left my collection behind. I only brought one object, a tiny vial of holy dirt from El Santuario de Chimayó. Thinking about it now, it makes the most sense as a home object. But it also makes me realize that after years of travel across the United States, Europe, and Latin America, that my initial belief of having “home” in routes rather than roots, might have changed. My home might actually be there, in the land, in the tiny vial of dirt carried in my backpack from New Mexico to Turkey.