La casa decía por fuera “boarding home,” pero yo sabía que sería mi tumba. Era uno de esos refugios marginales a donde va la gente desahuciada por la vida.
The house said “boarding home,” on the outside, but I knew that it would be my tomb. It was one of those marginal refuges where the desperate and homeless go…
-Guillermo Rosales, La casa de los náufragos (Boarding Home) // The Halfway House
Transl. Anna Kushner
The ominous opening lines of Guillermo Rosales’s 1987 novella establish the dread and desperation that permeate the entire story. Having arrived in Miami as a refugee from Cuba narrator William Figueras comes to terms with where his life will end. Impoverished, living with untreated schizophrenia, and unable to cope with his disillusionment of the Revolution and its censoring of his work as a writer, William is relegated to a halfway house. It’s within this house that he, like Rosales in 1993, lives out the remainder of his soon-to-be-abruptly-ended life. This, I don’t think, is any kind of spoiler since it’s in the opening lines. What matters, then, isn’t what’s going to happen to William—or what happened to Rosales—but rather how and why it happens, and how we understand it.
Over the past week, I’ve been thinking about Boarding Home and its author. Rosales not only flexes an incredible dexterity, summoning hopelessness and psychological claustrophobia, but he flashes just enough sunlight and oxygen into his story to keep it from feeling like 90 pages of torture porn. Amid his mental and spiritual apocalypse, no one is heroic, but no one needs to be heroic to earn what little warmth and kindness characters can offer one another. For someone who’s spent any time impoverished or confronting severe psychological hardships, these scenes and sentiments ring hauntingly familiar. And for those who haven’t previously encountered such brutalities, these scenes might be the language necessary to process the present moment.
Before going further, I should clarify that I don’t have firsthand experience with being a political refugee or living with schizophrenia. As a child of working class, Mexican immigrants, I grew up in poverty and I’ve confronted bouts with depression, anxiety, and mania. Boarding Home resonates with me for its stripped down, unencumbered relating of a displaced person unable or unwilling to return home but struggling to find a life in a new land, one where your human value is subject to your ability to work and work and work and work. This means sustaining, and largely ignoring, wounds to your body, your mind, and your soul in the hopes that those who succeed you might have it better.
Growing up, we had enough money to eat, be clothed, and have a roof over our heads. I recognize these to be great privileges. I must also acknowledge, however, that to have this kind of stability, meager though it felt at times, my parents spent years under-documented, working scores of jobs to make ends meet, separated from their families and homelands.
That money I referenced? My parents were able to save it only after they received documents thanks to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act—colloquially known as “amnesty” for a generation of undocumented people in the U.S.
That house I grew up in? It was purchased thanks to affordable housing programs and using money my parents had won in litigation after barely surviving a car wreck. My working-class upbringing was privileged, relatively speaking, but it was built on a foundation of suffering.
In Boarding Home, William has a brief glimmer of escape. He meets Frances, a fellow refugee committed to the halfway house by her family. The two develop complex but romantic feelings for one another, and he eventually sets out to find them an apartment somewhere in the city. These are some of the lightest moments in the story, as William walks the streets of Latino Miami, singing to himself, daydreaming about a possible life with Frances, and reconnecting with fellow Cuban refugees who knew his family back in the old country. However fragile and improbable, this hope buoys the spirits of narrator and reader alike, I think, and makes the ending all the more devastating.
Throughout my childhood, my siblings and I would spend our summers living with mi abuelita in Monterrey, Nuevo León, México. When I was a thirteen, I asked my mom why we did this? I wanted to spend summers at home, farting around with my friends and generally being as much of a carefree kid as I could manage.
She responded, “Porque no queremos que pierdan su cultura ni su lengua.”
Whether or not this was true, that my mom saw our time in Mexico as a way to keep us close to our roots and mother tongue, is secondary in my mind today. To her credit, mis hermanos y yo mantuvimos nuestra lengua y nuestra cultura, a pesar de toda la discriminación en este país. Even still, it’s secondary in my mind because mi abuelita once told me that my parents would pick up additional jobs or shifts every summer, and we were sent to Mexico so they wouldn’t have to worry about us being home alone, not being fed, or out in the streets doing whatever. And this, in a way, was part of keeping our culture: knowing to rely on one another, knowing to connect elders to younger generations, knowing to think of home as more than one place, despite ever-militarizing borders. Borders which separated both my mother and father from my dying grandmothers years later.
The business of getting to mi abuelita’s place, was also part of the ordeal. Every summer, we would pile into my parents’ van or pick-up truck and endure the nearly-30-hour trip to Monterrey and the nearly-30-hour trip back home. We had food so we never stopped to eat, we had blankets so we never stopped to sleep, and we had no air conditioning so we drove the whole way with our windows open and the sound of desert wind howling against us. The only relief arrived when my dad stopped for gas and we could get out and stretch or when we passed familiar landmarks, making us feel we were actually progressing and wouldn’t be stuck in our vehicle forever. These tough and weird circumstances and my own moodiness notwithstanding, I always felt a twinge of excitement about being on the road, about being constantly on the move.
A few days ago, as I sat in my house—working, trying to work, trying to help curb the spread COVID-19 in my hometown, separated from my mom and dad, who are both in their 60s—I felt a swelling in my chest. It was the kind of feeling I get when I can tell Spring is on the horizon here in the Sonoran Desert, or when I read a painfully relatable line in someone else’s writing. Then, as my mind drifted back—to those long, stuffy drives to México, to my childhood when we didn’t have money for anything but the essentials—I realized what this pandemic feels like. It feels like leaving home, but without knowing whether we’ll come back.
Born and raised in the Washington-Escobedo Neighborhood in Mesa, Arizona, Oscar Mancinas is Rarámuri-Chicanx poet, prose writer, and PhD candidate. His debut poetry chapbook Jaula is forthcoming from GASHER Journal, and his debut fiction collection is forthcoming from Arte Público Press.