I was six years old the first time I crossed a border. I was not an immigrant, exactly, though I would eventually become one. In 1991, my father had obtained a scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of Kansas. Friends told him that completing a doctorate would take five or more years. My mother said that this new country would not become our permanent residence, though we would be there a long time. It was not our home, she said, but we should try to “make ourselves at home.”
At that point I had barely come to know my first home – Paraguay, where I was born. Sometimes referred to as a “dark” or “lost” corner of the Americas, the Republic of Paraguay is a landlocked nation in the heart of South America, a subtropical country of grassy plateaus, arid plains, vast marshes, and wooded hills between three great rivers. One, the Pilcomayo, has in recent years shrunk, drying up in parts and devastating the local fauna; the other two – the Paraná and the Paraguay – are so wide that at places they almost seem to disappear into the horizon. About the size of California, with roughly the GDP of Wyoming, Paraguay has around a million fewer inhabitants than New York City. Most of its inhabitants still speak the majority Indigenous language, Guaraní, and many prefer it over Spanish (both are official languages). The country’s history is reminiscent of that of Ireland or Poland: like Ireland, Paraguay was subject to colonial rule; like Poland, it is a relatively small country whose independence was more than once imperiled by its bigger and stronger neighbors. And like those European nations, in the furnace of its national struggle it forged a legend ripe with heroes and poets.
I didn’t know much about this at age six, however. Most of what I knew back then was a child’s inventory of essential shapes, colors, textures, tastes, and sounds. I remembered my grandmother’s garden, with its mango tree, crotons, and palms. I could recall the sand-swept, yellow cathedral in the capital city of Asunción. I held on to the smell of sulfur and leaded gasoline in the streets. I never forgot the taste of beef cooked in the asado style, and the starchy, cheesy pancakes called mbeju. I could picture the gray rubble I saw after a military coup. But after a few years of getting used to what I took to be the world, I was parachuted into a wholly new one: the United States of America. My senses would have to adjust.
Paraguay had been a place with blood-red, sun-cracked soil and flat, wide blades of grass. In the United States, the grass blades were greener, skinnier, perpendicular to the ground, and they lived in front lawns that were trim, with moist brown earth. The people there growled their r’s. I had been briefed by my elders. The United States was the wealthy nation where cartoons came from, a place with no soccer. Its people practiced a strange religion – it was called protestante, and I was told it was like the Catholic church but “without priests.”
I was afraid of this new world. I developed a defense mechanism: I became critical and cocky. On my first evening in the United States, my aunt took me to McDonald’s – this was the early 1990s, before McDonald’s ventured into South America, but somehow I already knew about Happy Meals and the colorful plastic ball pit, and I had dreamed of one day enjoying both. In the ball pit, I corrected an American boy on his pronunciation: it’s super-MAHN, of course. Did I really believe that “Superman” was a Spanish name? For some reason, I held this particular piece of intellectual property to be mine, not America’s.
Later that year, after we settled into our new house, my mother bought me a collection of school-themed plastic cups. One pictured a series of pencils, pens, and erasers, austerely standing side by side in orderly fashion. Another bore the image of happily personified pencils, pens, and erasers, each laughing and dancing and having a good time. I told my mom: Americans are like the former, Paraguayans are like the latter. How did a six-year-old come to have such a negative view of American society? At some point I had gotten the idea – probably via television, or overheard adult conversations – that the real America was a conformist dystopia, a vast shopping mall, an endless array of blank prefabricated houses, a society cold like air conditioning in July.
This negative view was mostly not informed by real-world observations. It was founded on my feeling of homelessness, a dizziness that can make you adopt a dark interpretation of everything around you. And what I didn’t know about, at six, were the proper place names, the neighborhoods, and the beautiful things that make this country a home to its people: tailgating, rodeos, country fairs, jazz, hip hop, baseball, regional cuisines, or the Apollo 11 mission. It would be almost a year before I was able to join the neighborhood kids in lighting sparklers and blowing up firecrackers on Fourth of July weekend. It took a while, but eventually I was able to make myself at home.
When I returned to Paraguay, the place of my birth had become a foreign country.
One moment of cockiness still nags at my conscience. A few months after the move, I was enrolled in a public school – a decent place that had an English as a Second Language program for students like me. I quickly picked up rudimentary English, as most young transplants do. My homeroom teacher, Mrs. Anderson, was the picture of Midwestern warmth and politeness. But for some reason, I disliked Mrs. Anderson’s teaching assistant – a woman who must have been in her twenties, working her first teaching job. I misinterpreted some cues, as even kids without a culture barrier can, and I judged her to be an arrogant and patronizing person. One day, right before the semester winter break, she asked me: “Do you celebrate Christmas?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes,” I said, “I am not stupid.”
Why did I snap? Because I took her question to be a snooty remark. It established a distance between her and me, her country and my own. Of course, we celebrate Christmas – we are civilized too, you know. I was not aware that non-Christian religions existed. But even if her question wounded me, it was also an outstretched hand, though I didn’t know it. What might have been a bridge between us – the fact that we both celebrated Christmas – had become a wedge, a border.
Five years later, I returned to Paraguay. But I did not return home. The place of my birth had become a foreign country, just as foreign to me as the United States had been a few years before. I revisited the old sensory inventory, the ancient experiences of my early childhood, and I felt something akin to an out-of-body experience. The sights and sounds felt familiar, but they felt like the memories of somebody who was not me. I was not the same boy who had played beneath my grandmother’s mango tree. The flat grass and the sulfur in the air made me feel uncomfortable – in fact, the polluted air of Asunción for a while made me sick with allergies and asthma.
Now, I was picking up on new, strange details of daily life. In America, milk came in plastic jugs; in Paraguay, it was stored in plastic bags. The spiral notebooks of my Kansas elementary school were replaced by small, hardback notebooks in which we were expected to write in very small print, not the large, loopy letters that were fine for Mrs. Anderson’s class. I became obsessed with asphalt – Paraguay seemed to have so little of it – and I made a mental list of all the alternative ways in which streets were paved in Asunción: cobblestone, tile, cement.
But it was the martial culture of Paraguay – a culture that today, after almost two decades of what has been called “globalization,” has largely disappeared – that most confused me. It was more than a strange sensory detail; it was a new moral universe. Every morning in my strict private school, we lined up like soldiers getting ready for combat. On Mondays, the school principal inspected us like a general, critiquing any crooked tie or untucked shirt, and took great pains to make his students enunciate every syllable of the national anthem properly and with reverence. We rose from our desks whenever the teacher entered the classroom, and greeted him in unison, barking out: “Good morning, professor!” Those hardback notebooks were meant to be filled with dictations – which I took to mean that the teacher was commanding us exactly what to think. In the school library, the books were kept behind glass, under lock and key.
I rebelled against this culture, just as I had rebelled against the American one. Eventually, my parents found a more “modern,” “Americanized” school for me to attend. But I now saw myself as homeless twice over. Today, I can see that the things I experienced back then as “Paraguayan” or “American” do not define the essence of either place; they are merely the things that stood out in the eyes of a child. What made them meaningful was that they represented two radically distinct places, equally weird to me at the time.
At this point, it became easy for me to feel odd, to focus too much on myself, and to develop a youthful narcissism. An immigrant might avoid this by becoming rooted in a diaspora community, or fully embracing his new nation. But often one goes for both options simultaneously, feeling tugged in both directions, with varying degrees of loyalty to each. And so, the sense of homelessness continues in a different form. That, at least, is what happened to me.
V. S. Naipaul captures this feeling of double homelessness in his 1971 book, In a Free State, structured as a series of narratives of twentieth-century displacement. The novel concerns two Europeans from the sheltered world of diplomacy and NGOs during a politically tumultuous period in an unnamed East African nation. The supporting narratives, on the other hand, focus on protagonists from former British colonies, who have migrated to an imperial capital. The main character in “One Out of Many,” the first of these stories, opens by comparing both sides of the border he has crossed:
I am now an American citizen and I live in Washington, capital of the world. Many people, both here and in India, will feel that I have done well. But.
I was so happy in Bombay. I was respected, I had a certain position. I worked for an important man. The highest in the land came to our bachelor chambers and enjoyed my food and showered compliments on me. I also had my friends. We met in the evenings on the pavement below the gallery of our chambers. Some of us, like the tailor’s bearer and myself, were domestics who lived in the street. The others were people who came to that bit of pavement to sleep. Respectable people; we didn’t encourage riff-raff. … Except of course during the monsoon, I preferred to sleep on the pavement with my friends, although in our chambers a whole cupboard below the staircase was reserved for my personal use.
The irony in this passage is easy to spot: Santosh, the narrator, is obviously giving a somewhat rosy picture of his life in Bombay. His social status had not been an elevated one; he was a servant, and the few luxuries he enjoyed had come from the largesse of his employer. Another source of pride is more questionable, because it is derived from feelings of superiority before the “riff-raff,” the lumpen who live in the streets. Despite his fond memories, Santosh had a difficult life, at least by American standards. But he was happy because his place in the world was secure, he could take pride in his work, and he admired the man he worked for. After his boss takes him to the United States, where he has been posted for a government job, Santosh’s story begins.
Santosh never fully enjoys his life in Washington. But he cannot fathom returning to Bombay. “I had looked in the mirror and seen myself, and I knew it wasn’t possible for me to return to Bombay and to the sort of job I had had and the life I had lived. I couldn’t easily become part of someone else’s presence again.” The only life left to him is the life of commerce – he manages to make a good living as a cook in an Indian restaurant. But success in business doesn’t produce the feeling of belonging that he once had. By now, Santosh has abandoned any hope of finding something called “home.” This concept has been replaced by a stripped-down, abstract view of human life: “All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.”
Naipaul’s story depicts an extreme case, and in many ways, Santosh is a bad character. But through this story, Naipaul recognizes an illuminating, often painful, moment in an immigrant’s story: the dawning of a feeling of homelessness combined with a constant, unshakable yearning for home.
Writing about In a Free State, the novelist Neel Mukherjee argues that the legacy of Naipaul’s work should be the development of an aesthetic that eschews the very idea of home, that embraces the idea that a human being can be fulfilled and still be homeless. “I’m envisaging a novel which sees outsiderness as enabling, a form that has at its center the question, ‘What is our place in the world?’ and is unafraid not only to question the whole notion of place but also to return another unflinching question: ‘Why must we have a place in the world?’”
When I moved back to the United States a second time, in my late teens, I would have found it tempting to answer that question by saying we don’t in fact need one. Moving a third time was painful, but I developed a new defense mechanism: since the pain I felt was driven by my attachment to home, I tried to forget those things I loved about Paraguay, as quickly as possible. I also tried to make myself feel important: Maybe there was something noble and modern in not having a fixed place in the world. I hadn’t read In a Free State yet, but I could have been convinced that Santosh’s bare-bones anthropology is the truth of the human condition. Home is an illusion, I told myself, a collection of comforting and familiar sensations and memories, but we don’t really belong anywhere. A version of this belief, one could argue, is even part of the Christian tradition: Didn’t Thérèse of Lisieux, the French Catholic mystic, say: “The world is thy ship and not thy home”? Moreover, the question of home seemed tied to the idea of nationhood, a concept with, at best, a fading reputation. Once you’ve crossed a border – it seemed to me then – you discover that we are all, ultimately, homeless.
But what do we even mean by “home”? Those who search for it are on “a quest for peace, justice, and community,” writes Emmy Barth in No Lasting Home: A Year in the Paraguayan Wilderness, an account of the Bruderhof community’s journey from England to their establishment in Paraguay. Their journey of uprooting, exile, and making a stable life beyond borders cuts a hopeful contrast to the despair in Naipaul’s story.
In the 1930s, the still-young Bruderhof community, pacifist and drawing members from various European countries, refused to render homage to Hitler. They had been surveilled by the regime since at least 1933. Eventually, they fled to England. But England proved to be something less than hospitable – the German roots of the movement, along with its unwillingness to contribute to the war effort, made the Bruderhof suspect in the eyes of many British people.
Their unlikely next stop was Paraguay. As far as the Bruderhof were concerned, the country had a few advantages. A community of Mennonites had already been living there since 1927, and the Bruderhof had joined the Mennonite World Conference in 1936. Los menonitas, as they are called by the rest of Paraguay, are a well-known community there, though mostly out of sight – their largest dwelling, the far-off western city of Filadelfia, is a difficult six-hour drive from the capital. (As a child, I only knew that they produced milk and were protestantes. I never wondered whether they celebrated Christmas.)
The Paraguayan government, writes Barth, offered the Bruderhof the same privileges it had offered the Mennonites: “Freedom of religion, freedom to run their own schools, and exemption from military service.” Finally, Paraguay was (still is) sparsely populated, with a lot of open land, although letters from the Bruderhof members also show an acquaintance with the “so-called Indians from whom the land had been stolen” – that is, the previously displaced Guarani Ñandeva, Ayoreo, and other Indigenous peoples. When they arrived in Paraguay, the Bruderhof spent the first few months living in the Mennonite settlements.
When the Mennonites arrived in 1927, Paraguay was living through a long period led by the Liberal Party, when elegant and somewhat despotic European-educated elites ruled the country with a combination of laissez-faire capitalism and Beaux-Arts aesthetics (the nicest buildings and piazzas in Asunción are from this era). It was not an altogether democratic era – officials fixed elections, imposed curfews, clamped down on protests – but it was a time when, to a greater or lesser degree, the nation’s leaders subscribed to high-minded principles, such as the freedom of religion that both the Mennonites and the Bruderhof found crucial for their survival.
The Bruderhof group arrived in 1940, however, at a pivotal moment. Paraguay would soon undergo changes that, while not immediately affecting the government’s open policy toward European Protestant refugees, greatly altered the political climate in other ways. In 1935 Paraguay had triumphed over Bolivia in the war over the Chaco region – the very region where the Mennonites had settled, and where the Bruderhof hoped to find a home. The war boosted Paraguayan nationalism, and the generation that fought it became part of patriotic lore the way the “greatest generation” did later in the United States. That victory, however, also meant the demise of the Liberal era.
After a coup early in 1936, the Paraguayan military, which was given the lion’s share of credit for victory in the Chaco, became the de facto executive of the nation, effectively holding electoral veto power. Even worse, during the 1930s the military had become enthralled by the style of the Wehrmacht, whose exploits were celebrated by thousands of Nazi-sympathizing German nationals living in Paraguay at the time (along with some Paraguayan elites). This connection was only one of the Nazi-related ironies that the Bruderhof encountered upon arriving in Paraguay. It is unclear, reading Barth’s account, whether the Mennonites who supported Hitler (about half) did so because they believed in his ideology, or due to the misguided idea that he defended “Christian values.” Certainly many believed that he might rebuild Germany into a place more hospitable to Christians, away from the anti-religious influence of the Communists. The Bruderhof tried to persuade these Mennonites that these views were wrong – in their words, Lieber Hakenwurm als Hakenkreuz: better hookworms than swastikas.
Hookworms are still pretty bad, though; they burrow into your foot and can cause serious disease, the ailment known to Paraguayans as the ceboí, which like most people I was warned about as a kid. And there were plenty of other drawbacks in the Chaco: there was malaria and drought and strange lizards. To this day, the Chaco remains a forbidding place to live. Cotton grew well there, but that was about it: food was often scarce. At the time, the Mennonites themselves seemed spiritually depleted by the struggle to survive. The Bruderhof’s new home was anything but a land of milk and honey.
An increasingly difficult situation was resolved, for the Bruderhof, when they purchased land in eastern Paraguay – a lusher, more fertile region. There they founded a colony named Primavera, “springtime.” In their farewell message to the Mennonites they articulated an attitude that reconciles home and homelessness:
Unless you understand our community, it may not be so easy to understand why we have decided to leave the Chaco. The main reason is a spiritual one. … We want to be close to other people because we have a message to bring them. … We cannot hide behind a wall – or a desert – and say, “We don’t want the world to touch us!” The world is within us. And there is a danger that a group withdraws into itself and is concerned only for its own blessedness and its own economy. Our task as Christians is a missionary one.
The home that they wanted was one that stretched beyond its own borders in service. It is moving to read the story of a people who found a home in the very home you yourself once had to leave. And it’s striking to consider the chance that my great-grandfather, who worked in the port of Asunción, and was himself an immigrant from the Canary Islands, may have witnessed the arrival of the Bruderhof in 1940. If he rose from his desk and spied the European refugees walking along the boardwalk, did he see himself in them – who spoke a different language and worshiped in a different church, but who underwent the same painful process of uprooting that he himself had gone through? Today, in my thirties, having also moved around several times within the United States, I feel American, but since I was six years old, I have not felt fully “at home.” Do the formerly border-hopping Bruderhof members now feel Paraguayan?
From their story, I have gleaned a response to the quandary of double homelessness. First, never give up on the desire for a home; that desire fuels life itself. It was instrumental for the Bruderhof’s survival, and their ultimate deliverance. Second, there is no permanent home. In a sense, the most stable home the Bruderhof had was each other – the portable home of their own community, which nevertheless required a place in which to settle down. Those two points yield an unavoidable conclusion: Our task is always to try to build a home – a place of peace, justice, and community – and to extend the greatest possible compassion to those who cross borders in search of one. There is no earthly home – Thérèse was right. But the longing to discover and build an eternal one begins in this life.