March 23, 2020
Some people live in the same town, even the same house, for decades. The idea of home, for them, is presumably a clear-cut one.
I never managed that. A divorce, and the desire to live closer to work and friends, meant I left the suburbs that I’d never much liked, and came closer to the centre of Toronto, the city where I lived most of my life. As a single adult, I stayed in one apartment there for 14 years, and that was my longest spell under one roof.
But Mexico was a thing for me from the age of perhaps four. I liked a BBC TV cartoon featuring a soulless Mexican villain and the occasional, intriguing saguaro cactus. (It’d never make it to the screen today, but this was over sixty years ago). Something important seemed for me to be in that rudimentary landscape.
Saguaro cacti, which captivated me as a pre-schooler.
As a young adult, I lived with people who’d spent time on the Yucatan coast, and my fascination for the country deepened. It was hardly an obsession, but Mexico was there in the background over the years. My friend Lucero, whom I met in Toronto in the 1990s, and who owns the house I live in now, got me to visit fifteen years ago, and when my job evaporated after the 2008 economic meltdown, I moved here. I did go back, to earn some more cash and pay off the small house I’d built (currently rented), but at the end of 2018, I reversed that move. A vacation visit in 2017 showed me I’d been remembered here, and I felt there was a welcome waiting.
Is this home? I often feel it isn’t. I struggle with Spanish verbs and local expressions, and sometimes simply with people’s accents. I miss foods I’m used to, or the presence of browsable bookstores. Yet I don’t feel homesick, and I can’t identify another actual home for myself. This village, Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl is imperfect, but I can live here.
Perhaps, I could have gone back to England, where I was born, found a little cottage and grown roses. But I’ve been gone so long, the country feels foreign to me. I’ve missed a half-dozen prime ministers, Thatcherisation, the Tony Blair years, austerity and Brexit. I can’t read the place.
With the current threat of an epidemic, and the option to run back to Toronto where I have some badly missed family and friends, I chose to stay here in my Mexican village, and I’m trying to grasp exactly why. On the rational side, I do think I’m a little safer here; or, maybe, there’s less worry in the air, and if the worst happens in the coming weeks, it’s a nicer, easier place to go through a bad time. I can’t explain that to people who don’t live here, who often think all of Mexico is an unsafe place. But other expats share the sentiment. I’d trust strangers to help me if I was desperate, in a way I wouldn’t and couldn’t in Canada.
The epidemic also seems to have opened some doors. In the absence of robust social and medical services, people are more conscious of their neighbours, and I’m having more spontaneous encounters with people in the community.
Still, I’m an outsider, and always will be. In reality, I scarcely touch the essence of this community, and I’m always careful not to cause offence.
It’s likely my outsider status fits in with my long-term sense that I have no home. As an immigrant, I felt only partly Canadian (whatever that might mean), though a huge percentage of Canadians are also first-generation immigrants, and I still own being Canadian as my nationality. Here, I’m not even partly Mexican, yet somehow the place has gotten into me.
While I won’t disconnect from Toronto, and I stay in touch with family in the UK, somehow ‘home’ and Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl are fused for me. This crisis has made me realise I’ve made a commitment.
James Baldwin has the famous line in Giovanni’s Room, “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” I’m not entirely sure I understand it, and it’s about a feeling for a person, not a place. But he seems to be saying that ‘home’ is a state of being, of safety, and embrace.
I’m here. That’s not to say I always love it, or even like it. But it’s where I was drawn to live. And I know it’s a shocking thought to some people, but with the wave of disease coming, and thoughts hitting the de profundis level, I would not be upset to know that here life might end.