For immigrant families, the hope is that one day they’ll show their kids their homeland. Parents who immigrated to the U.S. may dream of sharing with their children their ancestral roots to help them learn of their heritage. I was fortunate enough to have made this trip at a young age.
The year was 1992. I was 10 years old and my brother, Paul, was 7. My parents made a travel plan that would change the rest of my life. They decided that my brother and I would go to visit Lima, the city where my parents immigrated from. Since it was not possible for both my parents to travel, my mom, sibling, and I traveled to their home country for about two weeks.
This visit marked my first international trip. I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to learn about my parents’ hometown.
Upon arrival, I recall being happy to meet family members I had never met yet. However, I specifically remember an aunt telling my mom the disadvantages my brother and I faced for not speaking Spanish. I thought to myself, “She’s right. I have to do better.”
Let me elaborate: my brother and I grew up in the 1990’s, when California had a Republican leader, Gov. Pete Wilson. As governor, Wilson signed legislation, Prop. 187, also known as the Save Our State (SOS) initiative. This law was aimed at prohibiting immigrants residing in the country without legal permission in California from using public healthcare services except in cases of emergency, social services, and public schools. The federal court later struck it down, averting the measure from becoming a reality. Needless to say, learning Spanish in California around this time was not an easy feat.
When I heard my aunt say what she said, I knew I had to improve myself. How could I ever know who I truly was if I could not communicate with my family in Lima? This means I couldn’t talk so easily to tías, tíos, primas, and primos. Furthermore, the majority of people in Peru speak Spanish. Not only, then, was I unable to understand my family; I also couldn’t comprehend mainstream culture over there.
Yet, besides this cultural awakening, I also had my first memorable visit to a wonder of the world: Machu Picchu. Of course, I was in awe of this new land; it was ancient, it was different, it was very high. The air was pure and crisp; the land was very green. The people in Cuzco and Machu Picchu were indigenous. I had never seen a place like this.
My mom, brother, and I went along with my abuelita. When we arrived to Cuzco, my abuela felt soroche (which is a sickness one may feel due to high altitude). Due to feeling this, she skipped on visiting the Inca ruins.
The three of us, however, did not. It was on our journey to Machu Picchu, at this young age, that I knew: Peru is majestic. How the Inca civilization could escape the Spanish conquest by hiding up in the mountains dumbfounded me (since it is not an obvious strategy, to go up instead of staying at ground level, especially during an invasion). Not only seeing llamas, but also observing tools that the Incas used (such as how to tell the time of day by the position of a shadow from a rock-like structure) surprised me to say the least. The survival of these ruins and the animals I never knew about was what stunned me. This was the moment that my pride was truly developed: I knew how unique Peru was, because of what my parents had told me about this country. However, through observing such naturalistic beauty and learning such indigenous history, I could feel a uniqueness that was hard to verbalize as a child.
It was this very trip that sparked a life mission in me: to visit Machu Picchu every decade of my life. I returned again in 2005 (at the age of 23) and 2017 (at the age of 35). As you can imagine, now in my 40’s, I am certainly plotting the next trip to this Incan treasure (and perhaps may even push myself to do the rigorous Inca trail, which involves hiking to those ruins instead of taking the Peru Rail train ride).
Naturally, Peru will always have part of my heart. It is where my parents came from. It is where some of my family members still remain; and it is a place that has symbolized some sort of consistency in my life (since I have seen it evolve since the 1990’s). It is because I know my familial past that I have a better sense of who I am, and where I come from.
While immigrant families may or may not visit their homelands, it may be a beautiful journey to do so. To know your roots, native language, and family, is to know your past.