It was 1986 and I needed Uruguay.
I come from a small country that breeds nostalgia. Its grey streets and nineteenth century European buildings, the cracked footpaths, all cry out for what once was. Encapsulated in Piazzolla’s tangos, my parents imported this nostalgia to the suburbs of Wollongong in Australia. I grew up with this nostalgia, it seeped through everything: the foods we ate, the conversations my parents had with other Latin American political exiles, the stories they told my sister and I, it even spilled into my school books. We breathed it, tasted it.
Our life was immersed in longingness. For what? For the life we had been denied. A life cut short by a military dictatorship that took away my sister’s voice, my parents’ worth and my identity. My sister fortunately regained her voice, my mother lived in a little corner of herself, my father erased his past as much as possible so that he could build a new life for his family in Australia, and I never stopped searching for myself.
Ours was your average Uruguayan home except it was in Australia. We spoke Spanish, we drank mate, from a gourd that my mother had somehow passed through customs, and we had asado, barbecued beef short ribs, most weekends. We listened to Latin American music, we went to visit Latin American family friends and we went to political functions where films about the dictatorships in Latin America were shown. Our parents talked about the disappeared, the friends and relatives that had left, the ones in jail.
During the week we all went to our Australian worlds of work and school. Then back to our little Uruguay in the afternoons.
When I left home to live with my boyfriend, I took all of this with me. I was eighteen and off to university. The Uruguay inside me came with me to live in Sydney with my hippie boyfriend, who smoked far too much dope and kept his motor bike in the lounge room for fear of it being stolen.
We slept on a mattress on the floor and he played the guitar and sang Bob Dylan songs. I tried LSD and for a time it ripped Uruguay out of me. I pretended to be an Australian hippie, so I left university and we went to live in the bush.
I had tasted a freedom unbeknown to me. A burden was lifting, nostalgia no longer lived in every room of my house. Uruguay was far away, on the other side of the world, where it belonged. My kitchen was in English now, no more platos y cubiertos, it was now plates and cutlery. I became a vegetarian, no more weekends of smoked dead animals over the fire. Salads could now have carrots and cucumber and whatever else I wanted. I was no longer imprisoned in a Uruguayan lettuce and tomato salad.
Yet there was an emptiness, a sadness. This was not my world. My parents had come to Australia for a better life, a life without oppression on the streets, a life where their daughters could study, get good jobs and build a comfortable life for themselves. I was letting them down and I was letting myself down. Something was not right.
My boyfriend and I split up and I went looking for myself. I had to be there, somewhere.
I arrived in Uruguay with a backpack, and a whole lot of addresses. At the airport I was met by my aunts, uncles and cousins who had seen me off as a six-year-old. Now I was returning fifteen years later.
The dictatorship had gone, it was safe to return.
My mother’s best friend, Raquel, a thin woman, who spoke quickly, took me home. My last memory of her was her and I at the beach. She telling me off for throwing sand at her. Again, she was taking charge of me, except I was now a young adult.
She put me in a room with her aging mother, who had a potty under her bed for emergencies. It unnerved me, as I heard the old woman get up to piss in her potty every night.
I woke up to the smell of coffee and fresh biscochos, delicious pastries filled with quince paste or dulce de leche. Raquel showed me Montevideo’s public transport system, old buses that took way too long to go short distances. But I was hooked, hopping on buses to explore the city, my city, the city where I should have grown up. I even looked like the young women, we all had long dark hair and wore blue jeans and handbags with long straps. When I didn’t speak, I blended in like I had never left.
I spent cold nights drinking mate with my cousins and talking into the early hours of the morning.
We visited bars and cafes, where black coffees were served along with glasses of cold mineral water, emitting a Parisian ambiance. I saw Latin American movies and walked along la rambla, where the Atlantic greeted me. The skies were grey.
I let Uruguay invade me. I wanted it to hold me and never let me go again.
The years away had meant I had big cultural gaps. I spoke differently, I thought differently, my history wasn’t there. It wasn’t my home; I didn’t belong there. But I was desperate for it to. It had to fit right, not hang off me like an oversized coat.
I grieved for the self that would never be.
The search for myself was relentless. It took me to Peru, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. In all of these countries I was another tourist. Yet, in some way, I was part of this huge continent.
I saw how people struggled to live. The cholitas of Bolivia, selling their wares, as they sat on market floors. The hard weathered skin of the Tucumanos. The drivers of the old buses on the Andean roads.
I realised how lucky I was to live in a country where it was relatively easy to live comfortably and how important education is. I made up my mind to go back to Australia and finish my degree.
However, my hunger for Uruguay remained. I still needed Uruguay. I didn’t want to let it go.
A few months later, back in Australia, I met him. Black hair, olive skin, small build. A musician. My Uruguay.
He was charming. He spoke the language of my childhood. He ate the foods of my childhood. He knew my history and he knew my music. He was the missing pieces. It was 1986 and I had found Uruguay.
I was besotted with Uruguay. I couldn’t get enough of him. He held my story and I wanted it so badly. I wrapped myself around him, so tight.
I was home, basking in Latiness.
I had Uruguay, what else could I want? We had a shared history, a shared background, shared politics. I let myself be absorbed by his world.
I began to speak like him, think like him.
Our home was the home I grew up in, we spoke Spanish, we listened to Latin music. Uruguay was a musician and an active member of the Latin American Cultural Centre. He played with his band; he took me to gigs and cafes, to parties, dancing. Uruguay was a bohemian romantic.
I worked and studied. He played music and made sculptures.
Two years later I began to have anxiety attacks. I couldn’t understand why. Uruguay was supposed to make me happy. This was the relationship I wanted. But I was suffocating. I had buried something. Was I in the wrong life? Maybe this wasn’t me. I made attempts to get out by reaching out to other men as if they were life boats who could pull me out so I wouldn’t drown in a sinking ship. I wanted to be rescued because I didn’t know how to save myself. I became scared and climbed into a corner of myself and stayed there quietly as I watched Uruguay live his life.
We moved into a studio apartment. One room held everything: his life. I was erased.
One night I went to bed unaware that I would never be the same. One dream changed my life forever.
The child had died. Yet she moved towards me between sheets and sleep. Her arms outstretched.
A primal scream and rage burst out of me, gushing and taking over everywhere, flooding the room and my world.
Anger that had been buried moved freely about. The child wanted to draw, she demanded attention. She needed to express herself. It terrified me.
The feelings and the memories, overpowered me. They took over the rooms, over every crevice.
I tried to go back to my life but it was impossible. I kept on moving between child and adult, between Uruguay and Australia. The streets of Sydney, merging with the streets of Montevideo.
I was scared and didn’t know where to go. I left Uruguay; I could no longer be in the one room apartment that had denied my existence. I shattered his world too.
Uruguay couldn’t understand what happened and I didn’t know that I had let him bury me too. I had no words, only feelings and images.
Was it a nervous breakdown? My therapist turned me away, my state scared her. She couldn’t deal with the forces that I was carrying.
Another therapist said it was a flow of memories from the unconscious.
At the time, my parents were leaving Australia. It was safe for them to return home. For good. They shipped all their possessions to Uruguay. My mother, tired of living on the margins, wanted her life back. She wanted English to become a lost memory, along with all the surfaces she had cleaned to make a living. They were getting out.
I stood in no man’s land. Alone.
I took a step and flew with my parents to the country where I had taken my first breath. Maybe returning would sooth the inner turmoil.
Three months later I came back to Australia and was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and a new journey began.
Alejandra Martinez was born in Uruguay and migrated to Australia at the age of seven, with her parents and sister. She regularly writes short stories. Two of her stories, ‘The President’s bodyguard‘ and ‘If you don’t like it leave,‘ were published in Best Australian Stories in 2004 and 2005, edited by Frank Moorhouse, Black Inc. Other stories, including ‘Whatever happened to Ojos Negros?’ and My mother’s knitting, have been published in women’s’ publications. She is currently working on a manuscript.
By Alejandra Martinez
Issue 1 | Autumn 2022
The ill-earned monopoly | María Elena Lorenzin (translated by César Albarrán-Torres)
Abueli duties | De Las Rosas