Last night, I ate a pizza.
A glorious, way-too-big, way-too-cheesy, way-too-yummy, pizza. We probably, most definitely, made the cashier wish we had walked into a different pizzeria, asking him to make the Hawaiian pizza vegetarian because we really just wanted the piña y queso, taking way too long to decide what we wanted to drink, laughing and debating between 8 porciones o 12 porciones, repeatedly sneaking back to the counter to grab more ketchup and salsa and napkins.
Last night, in a small town in Bolivia, I sat in Napoli Pizzeria listening to Latin music over the speaker while sipping on a coca cola and wondering why the heck we thought we could finish 12 porciones de pizza between the three of us. I chomped on my slice, lathered with salsa picante while listening to the crescendos and decrescendos of the Spanish that enveloped my body, whispering to my brain which (so happily) has stopped having to translate what I hear to English in order to understand.
Last night, I sat in a truffi bumping along dirty and rocky roads, with full tummy and drowsy, droopy eyes, when the pounding bass of a fiesta with saxophones and rainbow lights filled my eyes and ears. I watched the young, slender bodies casually leaned up against old, rusty cars in the street, bopping their heads to the beat of a party that spilled under and over and around its walls, shouting to friends and laughing and singing. And I smiled to myself, happy to know that the weekend is a celebration everywhere.
Last night, I walked back to our temporary home with hopefully not-so-temporary friends, looking up at the perfectly clear night sky, perforated with bolts of lightning, while eating a vanilla donut with chocolate icing and sprinkles cut in half and filled with vanilla cream like a sandwich. Is there anything more American to be found in Bolivia?
There is a man who strolls down village streets in Quillacollo and Aluthgama with a loudspeaker selling anything from fresh produce to jugo de naranja to mattress repairs (although the latter is mostly just South Asia); in museums in Ushuaia and Shanghai, I examine the intricate weavings and clothing, and the similarity of patterns in Indigenous communities; the smell of street food in Penang and Xi’an intrusively enters my nostrils, making me forget that food poisoning could ruin me for weeks to come; somehow, no matter which city, I always seem to get caught in the 5 o’clock metro rush of everyone trying to get home for dinner, for their families, for their evening television fix.
These tiny similarities tell me that, perhaps, the reason we all look at the same night sky is because it reflects the similarities of the earth below.
The past two days at Pachamama Universal, I’ve been working in the tremendous, jungle-like garden under the relentless Bolivian sun. Juan Pedro tells me which plants are flowers and where we’re going to re-plant them, which is all well because here in Quillacollo I can’t tell the difference between a plant and a weed. (Although Ivonne confirmed that she thinks we’re planting weeds, too. Alas.) We take the weed-flowers out and remove the weed-weeds and put the weed-flowers in new ground, watering it and hoping they will grow come spring. Waiting, watering, hoping. Esperando, esperando, esperando…
Last night, I thought about the ways that my identity has been cut in half, folded, and burned these last few months. But also, how I’ve learned to remove it from old ground, plant it in new soil, and water it. I thought about how my understanding of myself has been lost and I felt the ground fall out from underneath me, but how I’ve learned that even weeds can become flowers, only if you choose to search for the beauty in it, water it, and wait for the spring for it to grow.
Ivonne, a fellow volunteer at Pachamama, asked me the other day, “how can minorities in the US have pride in their country when so often their government and their neighbors are the ones attacking them?” For the umpteenth time on this trip, I didn’t know how to answer.
Latinoamérica has been a journey of many sorts. I’ve been learning to separate myself from the identities that have been placed upon me. Often times, I have failed to connect with individuals when they realize I am from the States, and I struggle under the weight of the destructive pain of being villanized for belonging to a nation that continues to villanize me. But, still, I remember that I can recognize my privileges while understanding that I am more than my collective identities, that I am more than what frames my existence, and that I must also grant this same leeway to those that I meet, whether they are Bolivian, Chinese, or my fellow Americans.
Last night, I ran through the streets and alleys of Quillacollo with Ivonne and Larissa, marveling at pizza and empanadas and pastries after a week of vegan-ism, praising the universe for the beautiful gift of dairy. I thought of the incredible conversation we’d had the night before, along with Lynn, after watching a bootleg version of Suffragettes, discussing how our families and backgrounds had hindered, inspired, and framed our self-empowerment as women.
Last night, I felt present and grateful and moved by all that I have been able to experience, be, and feel these last few months. I was reminded that growth is a process in which we must unlearn and unlearn and unlearn. And finally, after removing all the weeds, we will have room for flowers to grow.