From across the Pacific Ocean, my parents, my sisters and I, arrived in Australia one October many decades ago.
At Sydney airport, Angy and I, the youngest children, looked on as we saw adults walking in mayhem, shouting aimlessly. Maybe people raised their voices because no one could understand the other. There we were, dressed in our finest, but there was no red carpet, no heralding trumpets; no personalised welcome, which the Australian Embassy in Lima had promised.
Next, we were in a car for the longest time. Thick drops splattered the glass windows. We children were transfixed. We came from the coast of Perú, where the Humboldt Current prevents us from hardly ever experiencing rain. Wet weather is reserved for the Andes or the Amazon jungle, not the dusty dry coast. We marvelled at the thunder and lightning, but Mum watched with fear.
We got out of the car with our five brand new suitcases, each child with her doll, the only toy we had been allowed to bring from our home in Lima. We stared at the rows of little houses with a round roof. It was the East Hills Migrant Hostel. For Angy and me, it meant new terrain to explore, so, while my parents and my eldest sister were busy inside the hostel processing the reality of our new living quarters, Angy and I were skipping along the concrete pavements that surrounded the circular houses. We delighted in jumping in deep puddles and we watched with glee as the water spurted upwards. We didn’t care that our good shiny black shoes were getting squeaky wet as, somehow, we knew that on such a day getting shoes and socks wet would be overlooked—and so it was.
Decades later I understood what my thirty-something-year-old parents experienced upon landing in Sydney: fear. They thought they had made the biggest mistake of their lives. Dad’s English wasn’t as good as expected and my eldest sister quickly became the family translator. Angy and I were lucky, we were too young to worry about it. We simply played; the new surroundings, the concrete puddles, the lightning, even the thunder, kept us in a state of wonder.
Until school started.
I don’t remember much about East Hills Public School except that it was an old-looking building. We dreaded it. Angy and I didn’t understand anything but observed everything. We were good at imitating what the other children did and quickly learnt to dump our lunch box in a corner of the classroom first thing in the morning.
But no one bothered to explain to me not to do that on excursion days. My parents didn’t let me go on my first excursion, and I remember my dismay when at lunchtime I couldn’t find my lunchbox. ‘It must have gone on the excursion with the class and everyone’s lunches!’ I howled. I must have made such a spectacle because a teacher searched through her purse and bought me a salad roll. I beheld this strange piece of food and cried even harder. Somehow, the teacher located my older sister who told me I had to eat it.
To this day I abhor salad rolls.
We were at East Hills only for a brief time, because we were transferred to the Matraville Migrant Hostel when Dad got a job at the paper mill factory in Botany.
There the primary school was called Soldiers’ Settlement, and it was swarming with migrant children. Soldiers’ Settlement were two little schools located a few blocks away from each other. One was the Infants and the other was Year 3 to Year 6.
My elder sister went to the bigger school so Angy and I stuck together at recess and lunch. We couldn’t speak English yet but we were fabulous at mimicking behaviour or speech. One day at assembly, the students were singing—possibly the national anthem. Angy and I were great at lip synching, and we did the mouth movements and imitated the sounds. But that fateful day we were signaled to go on the little stage to show off our wonderful singing. We looked at one another, protested as best we could, but we were ushered up anyway. We held our hands tight. I still recall our tiny quavering voices and our shiny frightened eyes. We expected to be punished for our feigned singing but we must have been a pitiful sight. There was the beginning of a trickle of laughter but it was hushed and… I don’t remember anything after that.
My classroom was divided into two. On one side there were the Aussie kids and on the other a mixture of children from Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lebanon, Greece and me. The teacher gave us pictures of animals and flower bouquets, plus colour pencils and crayons. There was one clear instruction: be quiet so the other half of the class could proceed with their regular lesson. I remember looking at them every so often. There were some Chinese looking students who were on that other side. They spoke perfect English. I couldn’t understand how they did it but they motivated me. I wanted to learn beyond flower and butterfly drawings. I knew that if these ‘migrant kids’ had learnt fast, so could I. Little did I know they were second- and third-generation Chinese-background children.
Morning recess and lunch times were strange affairs as the classroom divide continued in the playground. Mini-ghettos developed as the same languages stuck together. No one else in the school spoke Spanish so Angy and I looked out for each other and faced the same smirks, snickers and bullying.
Dad taught us to fist-fight in case we were physically attacked. One day, an Aussie girl slapped Angy and off my right punch went. The migrant children huddled around and protested as the on-duty teacher scolded me. Despite not being able to talk to each other, we migrant kids learnt to help each other and always protected each other from the disdain of the locals. Every day felt like going to battle and it took its toll. Once I was sleepwalking, trying to open the locked doors of our quarters in the migrant hostel.
My parents woke up because of the noise and asked me, ‘¿Dónde ibas?’
Tearfully, I replied, ‘To see abuelita.’
To this day I wonder how we children survived the separation from our abuelitas, our tías and tíos, our cousins. Back in Lima, Sundays were spent with the extended family; we were doted on, given that extra bit of dessert, ice-cream or banana. We played with cousins of all ages. We were safe. We were looked after. We thrived. In Sydney, we were a lonely five-member family. I remember our birthday parties of that first year without much fanfare. We missed all the presents we used to get. Most of all we missed feeling protected—especially at school.
Sometimes Mum took Angy and me to Soldiers’ Settlement before she went to work. We would plead her not to leave us, but she was always firm and admonished us. We felt betrayed and possibly this is why in my sleep I desperately searched for my abuelita. Years later we found out that for the first two years in Australia, Mum cried every day in the shower.
Sometimes I wonder how our lives would have been if we never stepped onto that airplane staircase back in October 1969. I remember in my mid-teens feeling stunted, feeling something amiss, feeling that something wasn’t quite right but unsure of what. Then one day I thought: ‘How would I have fared if we had not migrated? Who would I be?’
These questions have resurfaced from time to time, and I ponder whether in a different dimension, in the multiverse, there is another me who never left Perú.
I imagine us staring at each other, reaching hands and running excitedly to retrace our lives to the point of our forking paths, squealing out experience after experience.
When I was joyfully puddle-skipping in East Hills, she probably went to la sierra and got drenched in a rainstorm. When I was bullied here at school, she might have fended off the bullying that came from centuries-old classist prejudice. When I feverishly tried to open that door at the dead of night in the migrant hostel looking for my abuelita, was she trying to open a door in the darkness, searching for something unknown… perhaps for me?
All I know is that I had a childhood where strangeness was normal. I learnt that nothing is permanent, that people’s worlds are vastly different, that nothing is an everlasting truth. I learnt quickly that to survive one has to adapt, and if someone got you down you had no choice but to get up again.
Did my twin self, mi otra yo, the one who never left Perú, learn to never be defeated? I don’t know but I really hope she did as—if there is one universal truth—it is that life is ever-changing and only fools remain the same. I wonder whether if I had stayed in Perú, I’d now be an old, foolish woman. I doubt it as I’m sure mi otra yo at this very moment is also thinking out loud, ‘¿Será que la tecnología de este siglo nos permitirá observar un universo distinto?’
‘Ojalá … porque te quiero conocer,’ she replies to me. [I hope so because I want to meet you].
‘Maybe now I understand The Two Fridas,’ I say. [Capaz ahora entiendo Las Dos Fridas.]
‘La unión de las dos, de lo que pudo ser con lo que fue,’ she says. [The union of the two selves. The union of what could have been with what was.]
I remember those first packages that crossed the vast Pacific Ocean bursting with small gifts coming from our abuelitas, tías and tíos; my sisters and I keenly listened to their cheerful and wavering voices from cassette to cassette. My twin self must have relished these moments but would have watched in dismay as my Spanish receded and I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) understand, as I got bored and didn’t appreciate the trinkets. At some point, I guess, my other self returned to her Peruvian world.
But today, te convoco, I conjure you up. Let us put ourselves together again.
Let me create you. As I don’t hold paint brushes or easels like Frida, let me create you my way. Let’s share our lives moment by moment, compartiremos nuestras vidas paso a paso, bit by bit, así poco a poco. Together we’ll knit, nos tejeremos; we’ll sew, nos coseremos; we’ll seed, brotaremos; we’ll plough, we’ll patch, we’ll fill that chasm that began in 1969. Juntas llenaremos ese tremendo vacío que empezó en el momento de subir la escalera al avión.
Let me imagine you, so that one day soon I feel whole again.
En ese instante al otro lado del universo, mi doble se sentó a escribir:
Un día sintió algo moverse dentro de sí misma y vio su sombrita empacar su muñeca favorita y escalar un avión para volar al otro lado del mundo. Se asombró. Angy hizo un gesto impaciente, así que volteó sonriendo y continuó jugando a la cocinita con su hermanita.
One day she felt something move within herself. She saw her little shadow pack her favourite doll and step onto a plane that went to the other side of the world. She felt surprise. Angy made an impatient gesture so she turned, smiling, and continued playing kitchens with her little sister.
De Las Rosas was born in Lima, Peru and migrated to Australia at the age of seven. She discovered writing in high school and it became her passion as it was the perfect way to communicate in a precise way, sidestepping pronunciation issues. At university while studying Latin American Studies, she dabbled in writing short stories in Spanish. Currently she likes mixing languages in her writing. In 2022 her short story ‘Ana, Bianca and Stella’ was published in the Seniors’ Stories, Vol 8 and her short story ‘Abueli Duties’ was featured in Puentes Review, Issue 1.
By De las Rosas
Issue 3 | Autumn 2023
Pandemonium | Lúcia Allamandi Schwenker
Barco | Steamboat (translated by César Albarrán-Torres)