Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family by Anika Fajardo

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Not quite foreign, not quite domestic.

There is something about the above line that beautifully expresses the assumptions made about mixed race children, particularly when it wasn’t as common in our author’s youth as it is today. Skin color, ethnic features tend to be used as a map for other people to ‘tell your story’, which more often than not is wrong. Then there are expectations we cling to ourselves, as Anika Fajardo wanted to embrace her Colombian side and finally get to know the father, Renzo, who had been absent from her life for over two decades. Anika wanted to love and relate to the things a Colombian should, like authors and spicy foods. Of course, we all fall under the spell of  stereotypes for ourselves and others.  A man of secrets, and yet welcoming her as if they saw each other everyday, he greets her at the airport. The point of her existence begins first with the love story between her mother Nancy and her Colombian father Renzo. Once his student, Nancy fell in passionate love with the charming artist, having come to Colombia for a semester of college abroad in 1970 at the age of Nineteen. Eventually, when marriage came and baby made three, the romance wore thin faced with the harsh realties of  financial difficulties, isolation, lonely nights for Nancy while rumors of Renzo and other women were impossible to ignore. Her job teaching wasn’t much better, how does one end things when love is dead? Nancy made a life altering choice, one that solidified the future for their daughter Anika, who though born in Colombia would be raised in Minnesota, America.

A new family takes shape, a family made of two, mother and daughter. Through the years there are step siblings that come and go, but nothing that sticks. It always goes back to just the two of them. That her whole family is split, divided between Colombia and Minnesota, a family she will not meet until she is 21 seems more fantasy through her childhood, her mother never quite denying her access to her father but not encouraging it either. Her father is letters, her father is a phantom. It wasn’t always for selfish reasons her mother chose to steal her away to America, there were health problems, dangers in Colombia that could be the difference between life or death. Naturally, Anika spends much of her time wondering how different a person she would have become had she and her mother remained. Culture molds us like nothing else! Much like immigrants, there is always a divide in people who are torn between two cultures, as she states “not quite foreign, not quite domestic.” 

Her visit to Colombia gives her missing pieces to the puzzle of her parents early relationship and her own father’s life after. There is love, but to him she was always that baby whom he last held, not the full-grown young woman who stands before him. She is like a ghost, looking so much like her mother’s twin. Too, she explores the things that drove her mother to make such a life altering decision for them all, simply by visiting the places her mother once lived. Colombia is as much a mysterious family member as her father, sticking out like a sore thumb when she first arrives, covered up where women dress far more provocatively (by American standards anyway) confidently comfortable as sexual beings, fully at home in their bodies, she can feel her artlessness like a sore tooth. Tasting the sweetness of ‘unfamiliar fruit’, vigilant of the possibility of intruders, aware of the threat of drug cartels while in the back of her mind, her hunger to meet her father far surpasses the fact that Colombia at the time of her visit was ‘one of the most dangerous countries on the earth.’  With the presence of his wife Ceci, who is kind enough, there are two strangers for her to get to know. Renzo and Anika do share a few memories, one story in particular she tells him that he too remembers, one she hadn’t even realized he was a part of. Memory is slippery but so much harder to fully recall are the earliest ones. Reunions aren’t always full of deep meaningful conversations, intimacy takes time, they share DNA but they are still strangers. Her father talks a lot, but ‘says nothing.’   Seeing his moods, and understanding her mother’s ways solidifies for Nancy why they fell apart, and how it never would have been a harmonious home. Even five years after her visit to Colombia, there remains more to her family story, big things that were kept from her that Renzo delivers in the form of his “enigmatic emails’.  At first, it may be more than she wanted to know. Her father, that man whom could cause women to swoon with his ‘disarming charm’ is both ‘overly emotional and fiercely cut off’, the master of his own story and Anika’s because there are more chapters, untold surprises.

There is death, danger, cultural shock, love, loss, secrets and a growing family. It is about desperately wanting to know your roots, to find the missing pieces of yourself and to finally meet a parent who is like a phantom limb. It is the odd coincidences of paraellel lives, the strange experience of coming to love strangers who are your blood, the peculiar curiosity of what ifs, the wonderment that another you could have easily come to fruition had life taken different turns.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

University of Minnesota Press

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