On the question of ‘Where is home?’

MARÍA JOSÉ YAX-FRASER  |  15 AUGUST 2020  |  LONG READ  |  ISSUE #11

Three summers ago, my husband, teenage children and I were standing at the check-in counter at the airport to board the plane back to Canada after visiting our family in Guatemaya (AKA Guatemala – the use of Guatemaya reflects my interest to recognise the rights and contributions of Mayan peoples). While my children and I sorted out our luggage and my husband busied getting our boarding passes, the moment was interrupted by expressions of sadness and excitement. The sadness of leaving our Guatemayan extended family behind and the excitement that, as my oldest son elatedly exclaimed, ‘We will be home soon!’. 

 

Immediately after his exclamation, there was another brief moment of silence which I believe was begged by an introspective question that captured his imagination: ‘Oh! But… where is home?’ Realising how complex the idea of home is for migrants like myself, my son tenderly embraced me: 

 

‘I am sorry, Mom. I guess this is your home too!’ Then, he asked me: ‘What does home mean to you?’

 

My understanding of home, over the years I have spent living in Canada, has continuously been transformed and broadened. As a migrant, I have come to experience home in plural and fluid forms and have come to realise that I carry home with me. I have come to understand home as something that is created, re-created and desired. While I have worked hard to maintain a strong attachment to my place of birth and to contribute to Canadian society, I have come to view and experience home as a conflicting and empowering site of belonging and becoming; and as something bound up with historical, sensory, socio-cultural and personal experience, affectivity, embodiment, memory, movement and geographical places of the past, the present and the future. I could not comprehensively respond to a question that is so enmeshed with politics with a simple answer. Home as well as the issues of belonging and identity are, for people like me, not only intrinsically interconnected but perennially contested.

 

My son’s question took me back to a particular moment thirty years ago when I realised, as a migrant, how complex the notion of ‘home’ had become for me. It was the summer I returned to Guatemaya after my first year in Canada; my sister and I had gone shopping in a commercial area twenty minutes away by bus from my parents’ house. To return home, as many people do, we intended to cross a major busy two-way boulevard navigating the traffic. We stood side by side waiting for the right moment to cross, but before I could react, my sister had already reached the middle of the boulevard. I stood there frozen and shaking. Bare yet clothed. My armour: skills and abilities to move in this environment, were inadvertently lost, removed! My sister and I stood facing each other nervously from opposite sides of the road. This was a moment when I realised I was no longer completely at home on these streets because, although there were, and still are, traces of it in my body, mind and psyche, risk and fear as a way of life were no longer as familiar to me as they had been. In fact, I had begun interrogating this way of life anew as a migrant; and this event laid bare for me how the repetition of action and thought is involved in establishing identity and home. I not only realised how I was developing multiple home attachments but how people, often unaware, are agents of change, responsible for creating and recreating cultures, communities and societies. Later that day, my Mom, Dad, sister and I sat down for the five o’clock coffee. I love the steaming milk, the freshly made weak coffee, and the sweetbread to accompany it. As we sipped our coffee, my brother arrived. I was home! The home where I first negotiated and contested family relations, racialisation, gendered class, cultural and ethnic differences. 

 

Being in the diaspora, my experiences of home as a set of relationships involve multiple attachments and bonds of affection, socio-cultural locations, and geographical places. In turn, all these have shaped my identities and feeling of belonging. Although I do not see Canada as a ‘home away from home’, I agree with anthropologist Steven Vertovec that being in the diaspora has given me an awareness of being ‘here and there’. Although I cannot physically be in Guatemaya all the time, my mind and heart are always split between Canada and there. The internet makes it easier to keep up with news and life in Guatemaya. WhatsApp, Zoom, Facebook gives me a greater opportunity to feel I can be in two places at once, but my heart aches that my parents have not seen my children grow up and that we have not seen my parents aged. I grieve we cannot be part of family reunions, birth and birthday celebrations; or the fact that I provide long-distance caregiving rather than being present in times of illness. 

Afternoon Winter Light, by Inae Kim.

 

Back in the airport, I drew an invisible circle pointing at each one of my children, my husband, and I, to respond to my son’s question: 

 

‘This is also my home’, I said. 

 

My son and his siblings feel the same way. Wherever we are together, that is where home is. Such sense of home captures the idea of home as a space of comfort that is created when we are around those we love and care about, whether we are in Canada, Guatemaya or in the middle of an airport. 

 

As my son said, I see both Guatemaya and Canada as my home. I see them as places I love and feel I belong. I have accumulated numerous lived experiences in both of these countries. I spent the first twenty-four years of my life in Guatemaya and share a collective history with the people there; and I have now spent half of my life in Canada studying, working, raising a family and have attained Canadian citizenship. In spite of this, I am not always welcome or made to feel that I belong in either of these places. 

 

Growing up in Guatemala (my use of the term Guatemala signals a history wracked by profound racism and gender discrimination, genocide, organised crime, drug trafficking and gang violence, flaccid democratic processes and neocolonial economic structures), under the shadow of state violence, war, and genocide against indigenous people had a significant impact on my feeling of belonging. Even within my family, this sense of home was not uncomplicated. As I have written elsewhere, it had an impact on the way I was brought up, my psyche, and socio-familial relationships. I grew up in a racialised and ethnically and culturally mixed family where relationships with extended family were dictated by class, ‘race’, gender and religious affiliation. It was, in the confines of my own home where I first learned the constructed social boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the privileged positions that such identity markers grant to some and deny to others in a society that openly discriminates against its original inhabitants. As an indigenous woman living in Canada, I experience persistent systemic racism and discrimination in new ways when I am in Guatemaya. 

 

As a Canadian, I have often made to feel I am not at home. I have been asked to go home many times, often imagined as an outsider, never recognised as a settler, and frequently considered a second-class citizen. Guatemaya and Canada, for me, are two different, yet interrelated, homes. At a personal level, it was my friendship with Canadian born friends that opened the door for me to come to Canada to study, and eventually set a home of my own here in Canada with long-lasting connections with my home in Guatemaya. At a more macro level, on one hand, is the interconnection between the indigenous peoples of Abya Yala (Central and South America) and Turtle Island (North America) that provides me with a sense of continuity, diversity and difference. I am grateful that being in Canada has allowed me greater freedom to explore the Mayan cosmovision and has made me more cognizant of the legacy in their similar colonial histories. While I recognised these countries are at different stages in their road to achieve multiculturalism and plurinationalism, I grieve their resistance to embrace diversity. On the other hand, it is their present economic interdependence that makes visible to me their differences and interrelation. I condemn their present imperialist relationship – more specifically, the role of Canadian mining companies in Guatemaya and the adverse effect this natural resource extraction has in Guatemayan life. I also feel anguish for the persistent social disparities, government corruption, and impunity that goes on there. 

 

Living in a state of multiplicity, not being considered Canadian and neither indigenous nor mestiza, little less Ladina, in Guatemala, while feeling you belong to multiple collectivities involves huge amounts of invisible emotional and intellectual labour  – particularly if you are a migrant mother – to carve a home. Learning from other feminists with similar experiences has provided me with concepts and terms to articulate and give meaning to my own. Chicana feminist and cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa, for instance, has aided me to rethink traditional conceptions of identity and history. She recognised what we know today as intersectionality and transnationality. That is, Anzaldúa described the experiences of those of us who move within and among multiple intersecting, often conflicting, socially, culturally, and infrastructural constructed worlds, geographical, social, economic and cultural borders as intrinsic to ‘borderland’ identities. The ‘borderlands’ in her writing are geographical, as well as in reference to multiple ethnicities, cultural heritages, nationalities, sexualities, religions and languages. I have experienced a similar borderland identity since I was a child. To explain my present experience, I add ‘home’ as a site of my intersecting identities. That is, I live and negotiate home, as a racialised migrant, as an indigenous woman with a Christian background, as a feminist, as a community leader and social artivist, as an academic, as a Canadian-Guatemayan, as a middle-class woman, as a Spanish speaker, and as a mother. As a result of these experiences, I embrace a homing desire for a world without borders, physical or imagined. 

 

Yet, living in a state of multiplicity is also extraordinarily empowering. It grants me the experience to live and negotiate my identity and sense of belonging in what sociologist Avtar Brah refers to as diaspora space. This describes a space that is inhabited ‘not only by those who have migrated but equally by those who are constructed and represented as indigenous’. The term ‘indigenous’ here refers, for instance, to white European settlers in Canada rather than to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and to Ladinos (Guatemalans of Spanish descent or white Europeans) in Guatemala. This is a space where I actively work to dismantle racism and discrimination in many areas of social, economic, cultural and political life in Canada, while also supporting human rights in Guatemala. I constantly negotiate and selectively choose from both of these homes to carve my own. For instance, I work to embrace respect for diversity as a value to live by in our home, community and relationships. I have raised my children to speak Spanish and to embrace their multiple cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I follow Christian values and learn and draw from Mayan cosmovision to understand social justice and peace, to advocate for gender equality and equity and climate justice. 

 

In the airport, there is another moment of silence: my three children hug me. They too are experiencing having multiple homes and attachments. After our luggage is checked, we take one more look towards the exit door to give one more wave goodbye to our family there. My oldest child excitedly jokes: ‘I can’t wait to see everyone who will be waiting for us at the airport!’. The three children laugh. Unlike the thirty plus people who were at the airport waiting for our arrival a month earlier, there will be no one waiting for us back in Mi’kma’ki (Nova Scotia).

 

By the time we board the third plane, I begin to look forward to a glass of sparkling wine, a nice meal in our backyard, and to a beautiful sunset. The children had already invited their friends over. In a few weeks, I too will be up to getting together with my friends and to go grocery shopping. By then, I will begin to insist they have to speak Spanish with me, our complaints over the lack of scrumptiousness in the fruits and vegetables will fade, and soon we will be happy when we can buy mangoes, plantain, avocados, or pomegranates in K’jipuktuk (Halifax)! 

María José Yax-Fraser

María José Yax-Fraser is a migrant and indigenous mother of three children. As a feminist artivist and research practitioner, she constantly crosses academic and community boundaries. She has worked in settlement and migration, including forced migration, for the past 28 years. She advocates for gender equality, equity and the advancement of women. She is a founding member of the Immigrant Migrant Women’s Association of Halifax (IMWAH). María José is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at York University. Her dissertation explores the meaning of a welcoming community for immigrant and migrant mothers in K’jipuktuk (Halifax). Her areas of research include housing and migration, underemployment, immigrant attraction and retention. She has a personal interest in human rights, affordable housing, the intersections of gender and development, the rights of indigenous people in Turtle Island and Abya Yala, and the eradication of gender-based violence around the world.

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