Coming Home to the Motherland and Coming Out: “A Cup Of Water Under My Bed” Gets Translated to Spanish
My mother carried me in her arms on my first trip to Colombia. I was eight months old. She stuffed me in a fluffy pink snowsuit, and we took a picture with the pilot. On my second trip, I was a toddler. Mami couldn’t carry me because I wouldn’t let her. Already hell bent on freedom, I scampered up and down the plane’s carpeted aisle as it made its way from New York City to Colombia. On my third trip, I ran away from my mother at the airport in Bogotá, leaving her with the baby sister in the stroller, careening past adults with worried foreheads, and not even stopping when I spotted the men in uniforms, the rifles in their hands. I didn’t know about the civil war or the drug war, and the Avianca flight getting blown up in the air and killing all 107 people onboard was a few years into the future. It was 1982. I barreled toward the line of familiar voices past the doors: my primas and tías and tíos. An uncle who drove a school bus had brought it to the airport filled with everyone to pick us up.
I didn’t visit Colombia again for more than two decades. It felt reasonable. There was the flight that blew up. There were the kidnappings. There was the grandmother with the long white braid who died. My mother sighed her grief.
Of course, many good moments also happened in Colombia: a new Constitution recognized the rights of Afro-Colombians, at least on paper. Bogotá voted for a progressive mayor, and the city made headlines as a go-to city for cyclists. The country recognized the rights of lesbian and gay couples and then two years ago legalized gay marriage. I returned to Colombia one year with Mami and another time with one of the tías. We toured the city museums and ate the really good arepas from Ramiriquí.
I don’t know how straight white folks mark their “adulting” moments, but I can tell you how the queer children of immigrants do it: the first flight to the motherland without your mother.
Earlier this year, I boarded a plane in Miami bound for Bogotá. I was dressed in comfy sweatpants and a T-shirt. The young man in ironed slacks across the aisle looked me up and down and practically sneered. I was definitely not following the “tía tradition,” which was apparently also the Colombian tradition in general: dress up for a flight as if you were going on a job interview.
The young man in his ironed slacks did not know the worst of my transgressions. My memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, first published by Beacon, had been translated into Spanish and was coming out from Rey Naranjos, an independent editorial house based in Bogotá. Forget that all my cousins (my sister counted forty at one time) and aunties and tíos were about to find out that I’m bisexual. I would be promoting a book about queer life, immigration, and feminism in a country still known for its conservative bent. Would anyone even show up to the launch event? Would they shudder at my revelations? Would they mock my Spanglish or be appalled for the way I can sound so brazen in my mother tongue because, apparently, I am over-the-top in multiple languages?
I took some small comfort in that my memoir was being launched at the country’s international book festival, La Feria del Libro Internacional de Bogotá, a two-week event that brings writers from all over the Americas and Europe. Teju Cole would be there, and so would the poet Ana Blandiana who had fought the dictatorship in Romania with her verses and actual organizing. I didn’t know either, but I felt it was a good sign that I would be in the company of other folks whose writing lives had challenged social mores much more than my own did.
The hotel was nice. I mean really nice. The windows gave me a view of the mountain range and clouds so thick I finally understood how someone would worship them. I drank good hot coffee and photographed the antique sewing machines installed in the lobby as works of art. I posted existentialist questions on social media: how was it that I, the child of a seamstress, now had a room in a fancy hotel where the machine that had once made it possible for my mother to buy steaks and bananas now served as objects of beauty—and all thanks to me writing my mother’s stories?
The night of the book launch, I focused on one person in the audience: He—She? They? Let’s say they—They had astonishingly blond hair and caramel eyes and sat in the front row and smiled at me. They were probably in their early twenties and grinned at me like we had just spent the night before drinking in a gay bar and lamenting loves that never worked out. They grinned at me like we were friends, and I remembered when I was first coming out in college and how I would walk into a room and look for other queer kids, for as we used to say: “chosen family.” Here now in my mother’s home city was the queer kid, my chosen family. I hoped they would stay until after the talk.
The room with its dozens of chairs filled up. Correction: the room filled up with women I didn’t know. These were not my cousins or tías. They weren’t even my friends. Who were all these women? My translator, Juan F. Hincapié, asked me questions. My cousin, Diego, took pictures. I tried to argue for reclaiming language used against women. Why not call each other perras, the equivalent of bitches, in Spanish? We had to start somewhere. The audience burst into friendly laughter.
And the queer kid did stay. Actually, many of the women stayed. The queer kid and I hugged as if we were long lost friends finally reunited. They had a sweet voice and told me they identified like my sweetheart back in the States: genderfluid, genderqueer. We took pictures on their phone. I signed their book. And then the women came, one after another, to have their books signed and to tell me their secrets:
“This book is going to help me. My brother is in the closet.”
“I’m bisexual, too.”
“I think you’re so brave.”
“I’m bisexual, too.”
One woman looked me straight in the eye and declared, “I think writing a book is a humanitarian act.”
My mother had told me when I was twenty-five that Colombia didn’t have gay people. She didn’t say it in a mean way. That sort of thing just didn’t have happen in Colombia, she said. Now here stood a line of women in Bogotá telling me otherwise. Even when they weren’t queer themselves, they knew someone who was, someone they loved. And they were so kind to me—abrazo after abrazo—that even now as I write this I burst into tears. At a time when so much about political life in the United States feels like a sharp rock, here were women, whose faces reminded me of my own mother, reminding me that books still inspire the most intimate of connections.
About the Author
Daisy Hernández is the author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir and coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. She teaches creative writing at Miami University in Ohio, and you can read more about her work at www.daisyhernandez.com. Follow her on Twitter at @.