We all have a special place we call our own – where we enjoy going when we want to be alone or to think. Where we can relax, unwind or be happy, or where we can be sad or scream at the world when we want to express our frustrations, anger or troubles. Our home away from home, so to speak. We go to these places because we feel at ease, familiar, connected, and because they have some connection or meaning to us. We go there to feel our best or worst with the comfort of knowing that we won’t be judged, that we can truly be ourselves. In short, it is our sense of place.
My sense of place, “mi sentido de lugar,” would have to be Oaxaca (wa-hah-ka), located near the states of Guerrero, Puebla, Veracruz and Chiapas. It is known for its indigenous cultures, and its capital city of the same name is noted for its colonial buildings made of green volcanic stone. This place is significant to me because it is where all my family is from. Even though I was born in the States, I was brought up knowing of my family’s birth place – the food, traditions and culture.
My parents taught me and my sister that family is and will always come first, and my mom wanted us to have a connection with our family members back in Mexico. Since I was seven years old we have traveled to Oaxaca every summer when we can to visit my grandparents and the rest of my relatives. Because of this I love, embrace and am proud of my Oaxacan roots.
I always love the feeling I get when my family and I are about to arrive there by plane and I start to see the neverending, intricate “cerros” upon the hills with their lush green vegetation down below me. Minutes pass, we descend and we are finally here. I see my aunt and first cousins waiting for us at the end of our terminal, eager as ever to see us all and pick us up.
Leaving the airport from Oaxaca, we take a 30-minute drive south to get to my grandparent’s home. It’s like how I remember it, busy streets with endless cars and the sound of traffic. People line the streets performing or selling items to drivers at the stop signs and red lights. Others are taking taxis or buses, making their way home or to work. Always moving. Fast paced. No one ever stops or takes a break. Markets with their fresh produce and flowers, stores with beautiful, vibrant traditional clothing. On either side of the road stand restaurants, buildings and churches with their unique structures.
I roll down my window from where I sit in the back seat of my aunt’s car. I feel the fresh air hit my face and blow my hair as I inhale and inhale those familiar smells. The sweet smell of bread in the nearby bakeries, of hot chocolate and coffee brewing; of savory dishes like mole negro, coloradito, tlayudas, quesadillas – all so sweet, salty and mouthwatering. But my sweet smells are then clouded with the smells of air pollution and environmental toxins – of oil and gas from cars, of firewood burning from homes of those who have to use this method to cook or to stay warm on chilly nights, of burning trash and fields.
There are also many mesmerizing sights, landmarks, structures and historical events that make up this captivating state. Beyond the city exists pre-Colombian archeological sites, including Mitla, the second most important archeological site in Mexico, as well as Yagul and Monte Alban the Zapotec capital dating to around 500 B.C. El arbol del Tule and Hierve el agua are other spectacular sights.
My blood, my family
The first time I visited, at seven years old, I met my aunt and for the first time at the airport. She greeted me with a big and loving warm hug. Then I saw a little boy about my age who shyly smiled at me and didn’t know what to do until my aunt told him that I was his cousin. He then awkwardly hugged me and gave me a soft little peck of a kiss on my cheek.
My fondest memory of that trip was when my aunt, my cousin, my grandpa, me, my mom and my sister all went together to the beach at Puerto Escondido as a family for the first time to soak up the sun and enjoying the cool waters of the ocean. That was when I had my first bonding experience with my grandpa.
Because I was so young I didn’t dare go into the ocean because I couldn’t swim and because the huge waves rolling towards the tide frightened me. I thought they would swallow me up and take me with them, so I just dipped my feet in and sat on the sand and let the waves come to me and splash me a bit. My grandpa, though, picked me up and carried me into the water.
At first I was terrified, so I just held onto him for dear life. But as soon as I started to feel a splash of water on my toes, I took my head from my grandpa’s shoulders and turned to face the water. He told me not to be scared, so I reached my hand down to feel the clear, sparkling, blue water. I laughed with excitement, as if I had accomplished some brave feat.
My grandpa laughed, too, and in that moment I trusted him for the first time and felt safe, loved and happy with him. He was no longer a complete stranger I had just met. He was my grandfather, my blood, my family.
Since that experience, I developed an immense fondness and respect for my grandfather. Maybe it was because we share the same birthday, or maybe because he had wanted at least one of his granddaughters to be named Priscilla, and little did he know that my mom then would name me that. She did in fact hold me in as long as she could so that I would be born on the same birthday as him, so maybe she intended for me to share a special connection with him. Even though we have never shared our birthday together in the same place, we always call each other on that day.
This man is only one of the strong ties I have with family there. Although we may be miles apart, our bond is strong and grows more beautiful through the years. We may have experienced losses in the family, but we have been blessed with beautiful new members as well. Because of this, Oaxaca has and always will be mi sentido de lugar.
Graphic by Pam Black