There are 2 types of immigrants: those who look back, and those who don't. I'm both
My mother calls me every few weeks. Usually late in the afternoon for me, which is super late at night for her, in Spain.
She talks to me about the family and whatever is happening in her life. She's usually worried about something. But we rarely talk about personal stuff.
Some years ago I did ask her questions I never had before. Like how she felt when I moved to the United States more than 20 years ago.
She said she never quite believed that I had left. That no one ever thinks that their son is not coming back when they leave.
Today, my mother feels that the United States is as much my homeland as Spain and Seville. And hearing this makes me feel that maybe she understands what I've been going through.
Because my story of migration is unique in some ways, but also similar to that of many immigrants. And it brings up certain questions; like, what are the emotional consequences of emigrating to a different country? And does it take a lifelong emotional toll?
My two identities
The first time I visited the U.S. was in 1991, when I was 15 years old. My parents signed me up for one of those summer programs to learn English.
My father had become disabled after a stroke a few years before. My sister Beatriz remembers the years that had followed.
"I remember you couldn't look him in the face," she said of my reaction to his stroke. "When we were having lunch as teenagers, very young here at this table, I don't know if you couldn't just accept it; that you felt abandoned in some way by him."
I barely remember anything about my father before he had the stroke. My mother always tells me that I was really close to him and that I would go everywhere with him. But I've wondered many times if he ever had the capacity to enjoy life. He was old fashioned and obsessed with work and productivity. Everything he did had to have a purpose.
After the stroke, my relationship with him could not have been worse.
"I felt you separated from, I don't know, the family or me," my sister said. "That was a turning point. Afterwards I interpreted that it was too hard for you. So you kind of got away from the whole family."
During those years, the United States became my escape. So when I decided I wanted to live somewhere else, the U.S. seemed like the logical place to go.
It's at this point I should say there are two kinds of immigrants.
Heck, there are probably 500 kinds of immigrants. But let's just say there are two kinds. The ones who don't look back, and the ones who spend their lives looking back. I've done a bit of both.
I've ordered flamenco CDs from Brooklyn.
I've held on to my friendships in Spain for decades.
I've had to relearn how to dance sevillanas.
I've bought a house in Los Angeles.
I've learned how to drive in New York.
I've seen Prince in Vegas, Fito Paez in New York, Bunbury in LA.
I've worked myself to the ground day after day.
I've felt at home in Brooklyn.
I've gone back to Spain for Christmas every single year.
These are my two identities.
And through the years, I've asked myself time after time: Where should I be? What version of myself is more true? Should I stop looking back? Or should I simply go back to where I am from, once and for all?
My initial plan was not necessarily to stay in the U.S. permanently. I wanted to study radio production for a year, maybe two. But in 2004, after graduating from Brooklyn College, I was offered a job in public radio, and I couldn't turn it down.
I was in the United States to accomplish things. And I am by all means a privileged immigrant. I came to the U.S. because I wanted to. I was able to study. I even had support from my family in my early years here. But this job in radio seemed like my first success.
Then, not long after I started, I met Julia. Her name is not actually Julia, but we'll call her that.
We fell in love and got married. Julia taught me so many of the things that I know about this country. She made me a football fan — American football. We would go to the bar on Sundays, eat wings, drink beer, and cheer for the Steelers. That was the time when I was the furthest away from Seville. But I would still go back for Christmas every year.
Because radio is my passion, I have some old recordings I've taken over the years, including one from 2021 when I'm talking with my friend Lisa. It's about my favorite topic: happiness.
"On one hand I have this, like, constant need to make decisions to be happier," I tell Lisa. "On the other hand, I have this constant fear that no matter what I do, I'll never be happy. And my fear is that nothing will get rid of those demons."
And here's where this story gets complicated, because my father's illness is not the only thing that pushed me to leave Spain.
Suffering for a reason is easier
I have suffered from chronic depression since I was a teenager. I've done all the things that you can with therapy and medication. I was stupidly proud of never missing a day of work, never saying no to a plan with friends. But all the while, I was suffering.
When I moved to the U.S. I had a chance to develop a different persona. I only told my closest friends about my depression, and when I did, I felt like I was putting my life in their hands. And even then, I never really showed them my suffering.
There are two interesting things about suffering. One is that you know you can survive it. So when something difficult actually happens, it might not even make you that sad. After all, suffering for a reason is much easier than suffering for no reason.
The other interesting thing is that you want it to stop, and so you are always wondering what other life would make you happier. A different job, a different city, buying something, selling something, meeting someone, breaking up with someone.
In January 2012, Julia and I separated. I thought I would be OK, but I wasn't, because it touched the core of my identity in this country. I felt uprooted, out of place, lost.
Migrating, just like depression, is not a single event. It happens every day when you get up. It happens every time you meet someone and they notice your accent; every occasion someone makes an old cultural reference and you don't get it. It happens every time something important happens back at home, and you are not there for that. A birthday, a death, a celebration, a sickness, good news, bad news, no news, just life, and you are not there for any of it.
Over the years, my depression and my process of migration have intertwined in a way that I can no longer tell them apart.
And then, as I kept struggling with questions about my future and where to be, something happened.
I met Maria in Seville. A friend introduced us outside of a bar. People love to hang out with friends outside of bars in Seville. It didn't take long for Maria to realize there was Miguel in Spain, and Miguel in the United States.
Again, my old recordings help tell the story.
"When I met you... I don't know, Miguel, because, what do I say? How American you seemed to me when I met you?" Maria says.
"I really think that when I first noticed your personality change, when I realized you went from a Spanish to an American way of being, was in the last part of our trip through the United States. When we arrived in New York, you became much more serious. You looked down more, walked faster, talked to me less."
Maria stayed in Spain. She always tells me that I laugh more there, too. So, I kept coming back. And meeting Maria started a period of my life where I would use every opportunity I had to visit.
I would have gone back permanently during those years, actually. But I was afraid. Afraid that years of hard work could evaporate without a trace if I went back.
It's an immigrant's worst nightmare, going back with nothing to show for it.
Years went by. Maria and I continued our relationship by distance, with plenty of uncertainty about the future, but also daily voice messages to always be with each other.
Like this one from April 10, 2020.
"Hello my darling, good morning," Maria says. "I hope you were able to sleep well. I've been thinking of you all morning. I really want to hug you."
It was the height of the pandemic, and I was in Brooklyn. My mother had called me a few days earlier to let me know that my father had tested positive. We laughed it off. My father had survived a devastating stroke, decades of living under the risk of dying from another stroke any day. COVID would do nothing to him.
On April 9, 2020 my mother called me to give me the news. My father died of COVID alone in his nursery home in Seville. I cried on the phone, took the rest of the day off, then went back to work the next morning. After all, suffering for a reason is much easier than suffering for no reason.
Answering an old question
I've been running away from the legacy of my father all my life. That constant need to accomplish things in my life in the U.S. and to, one day, earn the right to go back. But the further I get, the more elusive that notion of success becomes. And the opposite of success is failure.
Recently, Maria visited me in D.C. for a week. That's where I am based now. We talked about our future, and whether I would finally make a decision to go back to Spain, to be together. I recorded that conversation, too.
"This is an old conversation, you know that," Maria said. "And you have never asked me to come live with you, directly. So is this a project of yours in which we are going to see how long I can last by your side? And what will life be like? Working, just working, for you... and working and waiting for me? Is that what you want?"
I remember a couple of years ago, my friend Lisa asked me what I think it means to be happy. I recall telling her that for me, being happy means to not suffer. That if I were able to just go through my days without suffering, then I would call that happiness.
Recently another friend of mine sent me a message. She is also an immigrant to the U.S and also struggles with depression.
She was struggling with the same questions I deal with: where is our place in the world? Why are we putting ourselves through all this suffering, going back and forth?
The only advice I could give her is to try to decide where you want to be in the future. And even if you don't know when that will happen, at least you'll know that you made a decision.
And at that moment, I realized that I had made my own decision.
Maybe it's my age — I'm 46 now. Maybe it's the years apart from Maria, or maybe it's my father's passing. But all of those things helped me make some decisions. To stop running away from my problems.
I recently bought an old house in Seville to tear down and build a new home. And I asked Maria to marry me. It was on her birthday, while getting lunch with some good friends in Seville.
I finally know where my place in the world is. And even though I don't have a set date, or a one-way plane ticket, I know I will come back to Spain. To finally rest. To live for the things that matter.
This story is an adaptation of Limbo, an hour-long audio documentary originally aired on Latino USA.
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