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Kate Della Pietra / Columbia Daily Spectator

Recently, I’ve been having vivid dreams. Images of impossibly hot December nights speed past my mind’s eye as I pass through doors and out again. There are shouts, faces familiar to some yet never known to me. A sudden silence presses down, and I collapse.

She has spoken my fears into reality: “You have to move out.”

Waking up, I knew this dream was not fiction. In 1977, it was the same story of my mother’s impromptu coming-of-age, leaving the idyllic bubble of life with her father, uncles, and Tia Naná in Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana district to move in with her mother, a makeup artist who could only settle in one place for a season. Two decades before, it was her coming-of-age story, venturing out at fifteen to catch a cross-country bus from Salvador, Bahia to Rio in hopes of “making it big” and escaping an abusive father. In 1926, it was my grandfather leaving his village in the Amazon for greener pastures, and at the turn of the century it was his father crossing the Atlantic in pursuit of a ”paraíso tropical” that never was.

For the myriad of first-generation students attending Columbia, there is no greater unease than answering the question, “Where is home for you?” The response goes one of two ways. The first is pointing to coordinates on a map: short, sweet, and a lie, chosen to avoid the hassle of unraveling endless threads of genealogy. The second is to tell stories, a compromise that hides the trauma of multigenerational displacement under the veneer of entertainment.

In my case, some stories weren’t given the dignity by family memory and historical record—five hundred years of institutionalized slavery by the Portuguese were particularly effective in ensuring their erasure. Other stories were intentionally obfuscated by altered birth certificates and incinerated property deeds, the private interests of long-forgotten relatives kept secret to the grave. As a result, stitching together the patchwork of our shared past becomes more than reaching into the archives, but reimagining of what was and could’ve been.

For some of us, Columbia indirectly helps in that endeavor by teaching us the sweeping movements of history as the backdrop for migration. For most, however, the big, existential questions of our identity have to be put aside for a more practical education; we are left to fill in the details where theory falls short. Simply put, if the stories don’t exist, we have to make them up to continue getting by.

Given this cartography of the imagination, I propose that home cannot be considered a concrete point. It is neither past nor present but everywhere and always, a discontinuous set of layers etched onto the maps of memory that should be viewed as a composite whole. There is no clean-cut trade of one home for another, but a tacking-on of another space whose presence in the mind remains so vivid as to be almost tangible.

Likewise, our estrangement from home needs to take into account points of stress and violence that have preceded us and are at risk of being perpetuated by our own behavior. At Columbia, it means stepping back and taking an honest look at ourselves in the mirror. To some degree, we are all at fault for believing in the potential to recreate ourselves at this University, a severing from the inflicted trauma and socioeconomic hurdles we faced before we passed through the pearly gates of 116th and Broadway.

Goaded on by New York’s promising mantra of “fake it till you make it,” we rearrange the building blocks of our identity like Tetris. The juggling of our appearance goes hand-in-hand with the superposition of Columbia as our “new” home, more important than all others. Trying to defeat one’s own past through pure invention is inherently self-defeating, and expecting Columbia to carry the weight of a supposedly self-contained identity is even worse.

May it be sobering to accept our inability to change that which was never in our purview to decide, but also to be careful not to dismiss our histories as self-limiting. My journey following the echoes of colonialism and the Middle Passage down the generations has been deeply troubling, but this knowledge has only encouraged me to resist in the day-to-day.

My dreams of loss persist, but they no longer worry me. Looking out onto Riverside Drive from my window, I look upon the whole. Here is my home, but it is also beyond: beyond the Hudson, beyond the silenced cries of the sea and waystations’ lights at ports that I cannot know and will never return to. I can only lay my traces down in hopes that my children will enjoy the comfort of a body finally at rest, no longer a wanderer but where it truly belongs. Even Naná would approve, no?

Nathan is a senior at Columbia College studying Latin American studies and history. Besides thinking of life in the longue durée, this semester he is also a contributor to the Spectator’s Discourse and Debate section.

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home identity first-generation family history
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