My father migrates to the United States on September 9, 2001. He leaves our home in Brazil at dawn and arrives at the airport before the new morning’s first yawn. He is thirty-nine, a father of two, and out of opportunities, out of options, out of numbers on the clock.
His migration is, above all, untimely. In the United States, the Twin Towers rewind to shapeless cement and my father thinks of starting over. After the 11th, the blood-drawn borders around the United States strengthen, become militarized, and become close to impenetrable.
In Brazil we fast-forward and run out of calendars—a few months turn into a year turns into three. At nine, ten, and eleven, the passing of time does not yet feel like a burden, but the three years we spend without my father carry the weight of a decade. He misses Lula’s election, my grandpa cutting off three of his fingers in the carpentry, Brazil’s last World Cup win, my mother’s depression, and the sparks of my teenage rebellion.
What do we miss of my father’s life in the United States? Solitude, I assume, though I do not like to imagine it. If I don’t think about the magnitude of my parents’ sacrifice, the weight of it cannot bury me. Ten or eleven years later, I learn that in the three years we’re separated we miss an accident that almost kills my father, puts him in the emergency room in a country where he has no family. My mother knows about it but does not tell us. It comes up a decade later in a conversation that seems inconsequential.
I don’t wonder why this fact, my father in the emergency room while we played street games in Brazil, has never come up before or why, some time later, after my sister and mother’s and my own migration, my mother explains that my father blames those three years for whatever it is that exists between us all, this uncertainty of language, of belonging, of moments shared. I don’t respond, though I know it’s not my father’s doing, but the simple reality of immigration. What comes to exist between us is not a gap, necessarily, but a weight brought on by time and migration: a once-empty space now filled with unsaid words, a mass of treasured and imagined moments, shapeless guilt which grows across the years; the measurement of displacement.
In his essay, “Temporizing,” André Aciman writes that to be an exile is to deny the present by turning to the past or burrowing into the future; it is not merely existing in two places at once—one’s homeland and one’s present home—but existing in two time zones at the same time. These two time zones are not necessarily the homeland and the present home’s different time zones, but the experience of a temporal un-belonging that rises out of one’s spatial un-belonging; of being called on by one’s past or imagined future to bury or dismiss the present of a place that feels increasingly oppressive, improper, out of sync. A perpetual untimeliness. We turn to the past or stand on tiptoes to peek at the future because the present as we know it fails us.
By our fourteenth year in the United States, fourteen years of not having returned to Brazil, all we have of something that feels like home exists in the past, or a future not-yet-reached. Somewhere in memories recalled and relieved so often they’ve become warped, my grandfather has not passed and still makes one-of-a-kind carpentry out of mismatched wood, my cousins in Brazil are not weighed by their adulthood anxieties and my grandmother’s bones do not pain her. In the still faded, unsettled images of the future, I do not lose footing when a man with my grandfather’s hands extends his arms to hand me a one-dollar bill, I can return to Brazil without anxiety, participate in conversations as if I have not missed funerals, pregnancies, and all of the small disasters and moments of joy scattered across the thirteen years.
I do not think of the present—I do not think of my parents’ lack of documents, or the poison of how certain people respond to their accents. I do not think of the phone call my father gets in 2009 or 2010 or 2011, that his father has passed, has not seen his last-born son in nine or ten years and never will again. I do not imagine my parents preparing themselves for work the morning after this phone call, and every morning after: the monotony that settles in, the weight. I do not think of the purple calluses like expanding galaxies on my father’s hands, or of the chronic pain settling on my mother’s shoulder. I also do not imagine the dense and impossible reality of my parents carving something like home in Brazil ever again. To think or imagine any of this is to immobilize myself, to drain the world of anything that makes it worth living in.
This—escapism, imagination, illusion—is what Aciman describes as psychological temporizing; in this act, the present becomes delayed, itself displaced in a timeline rearranged.
Can our attachments to homelands, to peoples, to languages, to moments in time reshape the present? I’m not delusional enough to believe that my nostalgia is anything but memories so far and so long gone from their origin that they have faded and crumbled themselves into something unrecognizable—that my saudade could bring my grandfather back to life, relieve my cousins of the reality of living in Brazil, or make my parents feel like the past sixteen years have felt like anything other than burying themselves alive. But to believe that we are merely moved by time, so infatuated with the past and our own nostalgia that we are left behind or paralyzed by time’s passing, is an injustice, a fallacy, a sketch of a picture left unfinished.
When it is studied in the 19th and 20th centuries, nostalgia, then still considered a mental illness, comes to be classified as an “immigrant psychosis.” For all the seemingly unwarranted treasures immigrants desire, the longing for return, however monumental or wavering, is the most twisted. It is not a return to a nation as it once was—or a return to a nation at all—but the return to a peoples, to the comfort of speaking a native tongue, to the corner store at the end of the street, to a dinner table with family members. To a feeling not necessarily of belonging somewhere, in the sense of existing without discomfort, but something that comes close, something that is not here and now. This, they say, is our psychosis.
When my family moves to the United States we settle in a town outside of Atlanta brimming with other Brazilians. At the time, there are four or five Brazilian bakeries, three or four buffets, and half a dozen grocery stores carrying goiabada, fresh pão francês, guaraná, and every other regional food we begin to miss at random times of the day.
A small town in the United States turned upside down by our memories and cravings, nostalgia, saudade so deep it shifts entire geographies.
In many ways, the otherness of the immigrant has been built out of our refusals to let go of pasts, cultures, and homelands. In 2016, Ann Coulter explains the threat of the everyday immigrant to (white) American society by referencing our perceived backwardness, our criminality, our fraud, our corruption—her words—and our inability to assimilate, to conform to American notions of futurity. In 2016, in the middle of the year’s election campaigns, I tell a coworker I’m from Brazil and she says, oblivious and nonchalant, “Are you modernized?”
To people like Ann Coulter, immigrants from the global south, undocumented immigrants, and non-conforming immigrants continue to be unmodern, undeveloped and uncivilized; entirely unfamiliar with the gleam of the American future only because it has so often been reached at our expense.
What would it mean to move through the word in a timely fashion: to assimilate, to leave behind our past and cultures and orient ourselves towards that which continues to disavow us? Would anything be left of us—our languages, our foods, how we greet or tell each other goodbye? If not backwards, crooked, holding on to our pasts with ghost fists, unwilling to compromise for a future that does not even consider us, then what else?
It is true then, that an untimeliness seems to follow us: that we have been weighed down by a nation’s past, left behind by its present, and forgotten in its future. For countries like the United States to maintain the illusion of being ahead, developed, and progressive, many, including other Americans, must be left behind, thrown backwards into the false genealogy of modernity. What are immigrants to do with our perceived backwardness but cultivate it?
Maybe, for my family, our untimeliness begins with my parents’ birth two years before the military coup—with aid from the United States—takes hold in Brazil. In 1964, President João Goulart is deposed and the country’s government replaced by a military regime. For the United States, the sixties, seventies, and eighties are decades of immense shifts: Civil rights movements organize and march openly. Parallel political moments tackling race, sexuality, and women’s rights in Brazil are halted, buried, and silenced under the dictatorship.
In a farm somewhere in Minas Gerais, my father is the last in his family to be born. Maybe my grandparents grow afraid of raising children in the uncertain future of a country like Brazil. My mother, on the other hand, is the first of her siblings to come into the world as it turns itself inside out for the fiftieth or five hundredth time. She is born twice—once at the hospital and again three months later when her father saves enough money to register her birth with the government. Maybe her parents find solace in her birth and attempt to duplicate it in her two brothers, born some years later.
During its dictatorship, the Brazilian government tortures an estimated 30,000 so-called dissenters, disappearing hundreds more. In the upturned and twisted belly of Brazil, my parents learn for the first but not the last time what happens when governments turn its citizens and their desires for something more into a nationwide threat.
Maybe this isn’t untimeliness—being left behind by a nation’s history, its timeline—but just the simple fact of living in societies as we do. How do you time living in societies that continue to reproduce themselves, through imperialism and oppression, across generations and cartographies, despite borders or immigration laws, each time no less warped or twisted than before?
Maybe our untimeliness begins with my grandfather, who migrates to Boston some time in his sixties, a few years before my father’s migration. He stays for a month or three, but returns once he realizes that the American Dream is timed, that he, like most of us, is late, his body too worn for the labor expected of immigrants like himself.
In some ways this is what my family believed migration would bring us—the desperate push of a rewind button, the gleam of a timeline unburdened by what it means to come from a country like Brazil, weighed down by the global north, its own history, and its people and their desire for something more.
It doesn’t begin with Interstellar, but my obsession with time takes root when I watch Matthew McConaughey's character, Cooper, in the vast and potential nothingness of the cosmos watching a pixelated video of his now thirty-something-year-old daughter telling him that in the two hours he’s been gone, twenty-three years have passed, he has missed the birth and death of his first grandson, the death of his own father, and all of the tragedies and spare laughter in between. Cooper, watching everything he has missed in a static screen, comes undone.
No film has ever captured the immigrant experience so acutely before. It’s not just the nature of his journey, a one-way ticket into the unknown in hopes of carving something better for his family still on Earth, it is the poignancy with which the film captures time in displacement: the flippant violence with which time seems to pass, unaware of and uncaring for the relationships between people, the unabashed devastation of having missed its passing elsewhere, the shameless urgency with which we grasp at it, attempt to control and pause it.
In the film, though they manage to relocate to a benign and forgiving planet, Cooper, still in his late thirties, outlives his entire family. Still, the film has a happy ending, or the happiest of endings a story like it could have. They find a wormhole out of their reality, Earth’s population is moved, their Earthly problems forgotten, and the height of modernity is reached.
It is a story, despite its exploration of untimeliness, of progress. It is not our story, regardless of my romanticizing it. We do not get the privilege of progress, at least not the kind Cooper finds at the end of the film, having let go of everything that made Earth his home, ready to move onwards.
For almost ten years I tell myself that this kind of progress is a matter of waiting, of stretching seconds into days into years; that, despite what our passports or birth certificates say, what makes a once foreign land a home is the passing of time. We believe that eventually, with enough time and patience, America will become and feel like home, that we will let go of whatever it is that keeps us tethered to a homeland.
Eventually, I learn that progress, the process of reaching a place in the future that no longer feels plagued by the past, does not exist for people like my parents and me. A green card doesn’t erase past experiences—the trauma and anxiety—and to exist in this liminal space is to find ourselves buried and unburied by distance, its meaning, and whatever remains after we’ve dug ourselves out from its weight for the twentieth or thirtieth time. Each time I am lured, again, by the mirage of progress, someone knocks at the door and I am reminded, suddenly, of being thirteen and having nightmares about ICE on the front steps of our home every day. My parents’ phones ring and I can only imagine it’s a relative back home calling about another death we have missed, another funeral we will not be able to attend. Thirteen years unspent.
Some time in our thirteenth year in the United States, her thirteenth year undocumented, my mother turns to me and says, as if speaking about the day’s weather, “I was thinking the other day, I maybe have fifteen years left.” She means fifteen years left to live. She means, I have fifteen years left and my brother asking me on the phone what I’ve got to show for these thirteen years of displacement, trauma, nostalgia. She means, I have fifteen years left and have not seen my homeland—brothers, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews—in thirteen years. She means, I have fifteen years left and none of us know where this is going or how it will end. She means, I have fifteen years left in a country that has chosen, time and again, to leave me behind.
A few months later, as I prepare for my graduation from an American university—a collective dream none of us dared to stop dreaming—my mother whispers “Graças a Deus,”— thank God, but denser, fuller, without flippancy. While I have worried myself with graduate school applications, my mother has stayed in bed, counting her days, years. This, then, is what they mean by progress, leaving people like my parents behind and calling it modernity.
In the fall, I will travel across the country to begin the pursuit of a doctorate degree. When I visit the school in March, I ask one of the professors about the Brazilian community in the town; does she know of any Brazilian restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores? She looks at me—a Cuban immigrant herself—like she understands the secret that I have, that we all have: that letting go is difficult, sometimes impossible, and traumatic.
She smiles and tells me not to worry, that I will find something like home, whatever the word, feeling, or sense of home is to me now, here.
A surprising number of friends have asked me why and how immigrants manage to come to a new country only to dig up what remains inside of us of the old one. There are so many answers to this: Most immigrants never really want to leave their home country but are forced to, propelled by state violence, poverty, in-opportunities; immigrants understand that homeland is made up of more than geography; survival is helped by collectivity; and, finally, this is what we do, what abjected populations have always done: rebuild realities in which we are not rejected, made lost or dispensable.
Immigrants are so often pathologized, made less than because we choose to hold on to people, language, and culture despite and because of the borders which try to keep these things from us. For them, our attachments mean we cannot be assimilated into the United States, that we are not ready for progress, for whatever awaits us in this murky and selective future that continues to be denied to so many of us, or those we love.
In her memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, Daisy Hernández, a second-generation immigrant born to Cuban and Colombian parents, writes that as a child she thought of places like New York, New Jersey, Boyacá, Bogotá, and Miami as a single geographic location where everyone spoke Spanish and ate pork. I still cannot write about what it means to spend Christmas or New Year’s eve in a room full of other immigrants—what our collective existence in a country that never wanted us to be here does to that room, the neighborhood, the entire nation. Maybe it’s as simple as our immigration and movement across borders disrupting the very idea of those borders, their laws and limitations. Hernández writes that, “we were never meant to be here.” And so our presence on this land, our native tongues, however lost or misplaced or lacking practice, the persistence of our cultures, is a revolution, a protest, a glimpse into a future far greater than their minds have ever allowed them to imagine.