This collection of letters chronicles a remarkable, long-term friendship between two women who, despite differences of religion and ethnicity, have followed remarkably parallel paths from their first adolescent meeting in their native Chile to their current lives in exile as writers, academics, and political activists in the United States.
Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Number Three
This collection of letters chronicles a remarkable, long-term friendship between two women who, despite differences of religion and ethnicity, have followed remarkably parallel paths from their first adolescent meeting in their native Chile to their current lives in exile as writers, academics, and political activists in the United States. Spanning more than thirty years (1966-2000), Agosín's and Sepúlveda's letters speak eloquently on themes that are at once personal and political—family life and patriarchy, women's roles, the loneliness of being a religious or cultural outsider, political turmoil in Chile, and the experience of exile.
- Introduction: An Open Letter To Our Readers
During the evening here in the Northern Hemisphere, I enjoy saying the names of the southern constellations aloud—las Tres Marías, las Tres Pascualas, la Osa Mayor—perhaps because enumerating the stars of my homeland reminds me of my sky and of my experiences, of a past that now has the same destiny as all dreams and memories.
The precariousness of memory, the ambiguity of remembering, along with our obsession for recalling the past have been a central part of our exile in the United States. My mother's final preparation for our journey was to pack hundreds of letters from her childhood into her handbag, correspondence from and to her dear friends, postcards from her family in Vlenna. Beautiful letters written in an elegant hand. I could recognize only a few names of those distant cities—Vienna, Prague. We were uncertain if the addressees had passed away from old age or if they had died in the depraved chambers of blue gas. Nonetheless, that miraculous bag filled with graceful words confirmed our past and assured us that our ancestors would be with us at our new destination, North America.
In the same way that my mother managed to survive in distant Chile during World War II by treasuring the letters from her relatives as if they were priceless gems, the reader of this book will discover that this collection of letters written between the years 1965 and 2000 are the jewels of memories shared by two friends who are both similar and distinct, two friends united through their dreams of adolescence and their hope for justice and equality, friends who have chosen parallel pathways in the spiritual journey that they share.
I met Emma Sepúlveda in January 1965 during a steamy summer in the Southern Hemisphere. We encountered one another at the popular seaside resort El Quisco, located an hour's drive from Santiago. As was the custom in those days, the girls would stroll through a district known as El Melocotón. We dressed in white and wore a bit of makeup, some of us with too much mascara layered on our lashes and our skin bronzed with the aid of a magical cream called Sunbeam. The more modest girls, or perhaps the most audacious, anointed their bodies with Coca-Cola, as I did.
Emma was a beautiful teenager with long, luxuriant black hair. My fine blond hair was shorter than hers. Suddenly we looked at each other, and it was with that glance that two similar beings discovered and recognized one another. I asked her, "How long have you been letting your hair grow?" She smiled and said, "And how long ago did you cut yours?"
In the story "Trenzas," Maria Luisa Bombal (that marvelous writer of our adolescence) says that hair symbolizes the intimacy of shared experiences. That encounter changed our lives; it was as if our tresses, dark and light, had become interwoven in order to exemplify the course of those lives.
Emma and I conversed, ate ice cream, confessed our lives and our loves in a few brief minutes, and promised to meet again the next day. I returned home that afternoon filled with the incredible happiness of having found a treasure and, above all, a friend who had not begun by asking me the question that had plagued my childhood: Are you Jewish or Chilean?
On the second day, Emma and I continued our conversation. She told me of her passion for history, her domineering father who had sent her to a school run by sinister nuns, and her mother who wept in dark rooms. I spoke to her of my family, peaceful beings, practiced readers. I told her how my mother and grandmother cried both when they received letters from Vienna and when they stopped receiving them.
Emma confessed that I was the first Jewish girl that she had ever really known. I asked her, "Does it surprise you that I don't have a big hooked nose? Or that I don't have horns?" She looked at me, then winked a dark, sparkling eye and kissed my head. That kiss meant so much to me. Promise, hope, revelation. We swore to each other, as young girls swear, to write to one another, to tell each other of our lives, and to be a mutual source of comfort throughout the years.
These letters, written over the course of more than thirty years, reflect our friendship, dreams, and concerns. In this collection we have chosen letters that we found most significant, beautiful, and memorable. Some of them are exactly as they were originally written. Others have been edited not only for greater clarity but also in order to emphasize what we as adults have found to be central to our lives. A few of the letters began as sentence fragments or paragraphs upon which we have elaborated.
Our purpose in this collection is not to reveal specific facts and exact dates. Thus several gaps exist in the chronology. The lack of letters during those gaps lays them bare, demonstrating that very often life, like history, cannot be measured by means of chronological events or concrete texts, but instead is measured by means of memories, instances that make an impression, that leave prints but yet allow our memory to flow freely. It is not our intention to reveal every intimate detail of our lives, but rather to permit the reader to view specifics that profoundly shaped our experiences.
We hope that those who read these pages imagine us as two travelers on parallel routes. Two writers—one of poetry, the other of prose—who communicate their truths through writing, through words. Our correspondence reveals the spaces in our lives. First appear the letters of our youth and our years in the university. Then the political situation that shook Chile in the seventies prompts a lapse in our correspondence. The letters begin again once both Emma and I relocate to the United States—Emma in Nevada and California, and I in Indiana and New England.
Our personal lives, the history of our marriages and children, do appear in our correspondence, but for us the experience that unites us and that we want to share with you is the experience of exile, of belonging neither in Chile nor in the United States—the experience of existing between two cultures and not feeling comfortable in either of them, of choosing the path of political activism, and uniting our destiny with that of other marginalized women.
We do not want this book to be a record of our personal afflictions. Rather we present it as a history shared by thousands of others of our generation. It is the history of those from the Southern Hemisphere who were forced into exile for the crime of being young and wanting to change the world. We are the fortunate ones, for we survived, thanks to the love that surrounded us and to our passionate struggle for social justice. The two of us are products of the sixties and seventies, which were perhaps the most marvelous and disastrous epochs in the history of Latin America. We attended schools and universities in order to change the world. We listened to Ictor Jara and Violeta Parra until the early hours of the morning, and the world, the streets, and our city belonged to us. With the arrival of dictatorships to Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, Emma and I would never be the same. We lost not only a country but the dream of an entire continent: our generation's dream.
We came to this other America in search of refuge and freedom, all the while knowing that the CIA had helped topple the government of Salvador Allende, someone we had admired and who now is reborn in the presidency of Ricardo Lagos.
Amigas represents and reflects our carefree years of long vacations at the beach and in the countryside. But that external, superfluous existence slowly gives way to an exploration of the most profound issues of our reality: social prejudice within the Chilean as well as the Argentine culture, discrimination against women, and the machismo that inundated our lives. These letters that we are sharing with you are our obsessions and our treasures. They are the clearest reflections, not only of our souls but also of the times in which we were fated to live.
Many times we have wondered why we survived, how it had been possible to bear our complex emotional burdens for dozens of years. The answer is simple. Our letters, the letters that you see here, are enchanted threads held in place by means of the words that we send one another for the purpose of sharing the lives stolen from us through events that stripped us of our souls, of the land of our memories, our language, and our precious identity.
These letters were written in Spanish. The reader will observe that the voices are transformed with the passing of the years. The translator has been faithful to their colloquial style. But, more important, she has sought to re-create in the English language our Latina reality, a reality submerged in the spaces of affection, passion, and memory.
Emma and I, I and Emma, have traveled down a long road. I have let my hair grow and she has cut hers a little. My hair has darkened and gray has lightened hers. We have given birth to children, we have shared the dreams and fears of being Americans and foreigners, but we have essentially changed very little. We call one another frequently, two or three times a week. We begin our conversations in absolute seriousness, discussing university politics or human rights (for us, a constant topic), but quickly we begin to remember things we did in El Quisco, in Santiago or in Reno, and we then know that we have returned home. We have returned to the familiar territory of a shared youth. Memories are no longer distant; on the contrary, we seem to have a magic flying carpet that carries us to the voices of our first encounters. With Emma, I can be Chilean-Jewish and gringa, all those identities together, and with me, she can be Catholic, agnostic, Chilean-Argentine, upper class, and popular. The friendship that exists between beings, a true friendship, should not judge but should be diaphanous and luminous. It should open the doors to understanding. As Violeta Parra sings in a song that Emma and I have heard together countless times, friendship should "alleviate the suffering of the soul." This is what our correspondence tries to alleviate, the suffering of the souls of two immigrant women in a society that accepts them and rejects them, but nevertheless permits them to tell their story.
My parents brought us to Chile from Argentina so that we could see the Pacific Ocean and meet our grandparents who lived in the south. We were going to spend an unforgettable vacation in a country of wonders and then return again to our toys, house, and Italian grandparents who had settled in Mendoza. "One month, only one, four weeks, you can count them on a single hand," my father said when we were on the plane to Santiago, Chile, in March 1957. We stayed those four weeks and many more, until my little fingers were unable to determine their number. Then my parents stopped talking about Argentina and, slowly, silence began to shroud our infantile, obsessive questions. They no longer spoke of going back, and we never returned to our toys or to the old house with red walls. We stopped being Argentines, like my mother, and from that moment we became Chilean tourists, travelers who visited my grandparents' country estate in Argentina once ayear.
Almost a decade later, still lost in Wonderland, I found my friend Marjorie Agosín without looking for her, almost by accident, as happens with all the treasures that surprise us in life. From the first moment, our similarities brought us close together and our differences united us. Two adolescents, one Jewish and the other Catholic, both living the confusions of a society decayed because of its incomprehensible traditions . . . they meet, their lives merge in an unconditional friendship, and they forge parallel roads while carrying throughout the world—and through time— their backpacks heavy with thousands of memories.
Meeting young Marjorie was like penetrating the confines of another world. I had never known another human being who could talk more than me. I had never known another girl who invented stories and played with the contours of the real and the imaginary as well as Marjorie did (and still does). She had what I always dreamed of having, and I possessed what she longed to own. Or perhaps it was the reverse? I am not certain if it was because we wanted to have something else or to change what we had, but through our endless stories we felt united from the first moment we met.
I wrote to Marjorie on those days when life seemed full of hope, when the most pressing obligation I had was to get on my knees and pray, try not to chew the wafer after receiving communion, and obey the instructions of the Irish nuns. But I also wrote to her when I was confronted by the cruelty of a man who could do everything except learn how to be a father. I wrote her about the unyielding strength of my mother, who suffered more than anyone else I will ever meet, yet died truly giving thanks for her life. I would write to my friend Marjorie because by writing her, I would live. I not only survived those profoundly challenging years but, through the words of our letters, I was reborn. Every time I wrote I was reborn, again and again. I wrote in order to set down on paper my profound suffering, the pain that I used to imagine would leave my daily life if I could make the words that described it leave my pen. In those days, I thought that things that hurt you could be shed or dislodged, like shoes we had outgrown or useless baby teeth.
The years passed and the letters continued being sent from and received in all corners of the world. They always have been, and still are, letters. I have never been able to send a postcard to Marjorie. When I write to her I cannot jot down a few lines on paper . . . it has to be pages and pages. I dialogue with her in my imagination. More than writing to her, I talk to her with a pen in my hand. I allow the ink to draw images and illustrate moments, and I know with absolute certainty that Marjorie will decipher my drawings and understand my words.
Marjorie's letters always arrive to me on pastel papers, like the antique silks of her clothes, and scented with exotic perfumes like those one bathes in during nights of a full moon.... She always places a keepsake from the beaches of Chile, a bar in Paris, or a square in Prague into the envelope. Marjorie's letters, more than letters, are poems. But I have not found this strange, since for Marjorie life is a poem, and she lives it intensely, like the passionate poems that she writes.
The topics of our letters continued evolving along with the changing paths that Marjorie and I have followed. Roads parallel and distant, narrow and dark. Exile changed our lives, and our lives altered the words in our letters. The political situation in Chile forced us to seek the road to exile, and since that moment we have wandered another's land searching for a peaceful, tender encounter . . . with our adopted country as well as with the homeland of our earlier dreams. Amid the confusion, Marjorie is the lighthouse that draws me near, guides me, and transports me to Chile on dark, stormy days. But she is also the soft, calm earth that affirms my roots in the dry soil of this country in the North. And so in this eternal exile we two, hand in hand across the distance, find pleasure in life, suffer its disappointments, cheat death, and win battles that we have never learned how to lose.
These letters tell a lot, perhaps even more than I would have liked to have known about me before I depart on my final eternal journey, but I am convinced that they should be made public as a testimony of the life of women in Latin America, and of the Latina immigrants who live in the United States. The histories interwoven in our correspondence are not exceptions, they are the norm. These episodes from the lives of Marjorie and Emma are part of a voluminous tome of common histories that have been lived and continue to be lived by Latin American women, from our grandmothers to our daughters.
In the pages of this epistolary work about two friends who seem to have known one another always, there are letters that follow the passing of the years and obey a chronological order, but there are also long spaces of silence that separate events and places. As we were editing the book, we wanted to present a history broken into fragments, into moments that gave form to our lives, instead of merely making a sequence of letters that constantly came and went, across the continents, rhetorically asking questions that we have yet to fully answer.
Many years have passed since we first met and since that first letter I sent to ayoung Marjorie in Chile. Upon beginning the new millennium, I wrote again to Marjorie from Chile, this time from distant Patagonia. I realized as I was writing the letter that all those trips we've made throughout the years, all the times we have bid farewell to Chile, were rehearsals for the final chapter that we will have to write someday. Calm and resigned, I finally took my leave of that long, narrow land in the south and returned to the North knowing and accepting that a part of my heart never crossed the Andes, but rather remains eternally suspended above the confines of the Chilean sea. And the other part comes with me to continue life in this country that I now miss and deeply adore. It could not have been a coincidence that, while I was being processed through customs at the Los Angeles airport after returning from Chile in January 2000, the young Latino agent handed my passport back to me, fixed his dark eyes on mine, and, with a smile of complicity, said in perfect Spanish, "Bienvenida a su patria, Sra. Sepúlveda."
April 17, 1974
Los Angeles, California, United States
Yesterday Michael and I arrived in Los Angeles. This world is so very different from mine! Since the moment the airplane landed, I have been miserable knowing that I am among people who don't understand me and treat me as if I were from another planet. Some friends were waiting for us in the airport and they immediately took us to a Mexican restaurant so that I would feel welcome. It was a great surprise for me because I had never eaten Mexican food in my entire life and, moreover, I was not even permitted to enter that country some weeks ago. I arrive here and they all believe that I am Mexican as soon as they set eyes on me.
We drove through some of the neighborhoods in Los Angeles so I could see how people live here on the other side of the border, here in the North. I wanted to walk, breathe the air, and look at the people up close, and perhaps talk with someone who lived there in the eastern part of the city, but they told me that nobody, absolutely nobody, walks through those neighborhoods because if you do, they will kill you. What kind of civilization is this where the people can only go through the neighborhoods in cars? And how do the people who live there survive? How do their children go to school? I hope that Los Angeles is not representative of the rest of the USA, because I don't know if I can live among highspeed freeways and people deaf to the pleas of their neighbors or the cries of the children.
I consider it a city made of iron and inhumanity, where everything moves at extraordinary speeds, and nobody says anything and nobody listens to each other. In the restaurant where we ate all the workers were Latinos, from the ones who washed the dishes to those who served the food. The food was very strange. Although the menu was in Spanish, I didn't recognize anything on it. There were things called "tacos," which for us means a part of a shoe, and something else called "burritos," and I also did not understand what that meant. I couldn't imagine that we would eat food made from donkey meat, so between the limited Spanish spoken by my friends and the explanation of the waitress, I found out that Mexican food is totally different from the cuisines of South American countries.
I feel totally lost these days. I cannot understand anything people say to me, and I am desperate because I am not able to make myself understood. It is as if I am wrapped in an absence where my body is present but my mind escapes with my thoughts. The sounds of the English language ring in my ears like monotonous noises, senseless and oppressive. When I try to say something in English, people look at me as if I were stupid and they don't pay attention to me. It seems that they don't like people from other countries.
Marjorie, I would have never imagined how different this country could be to the fantasy that we see on television and in the movies. We always thought that everyone living here was a millionaire, and that the streets were clean and everything was white. What I have found is totally different. In my entire life, I have never seen such a combination of races, languages, and neighborhoods. Nor had I ever dreamed of seeing such poverty. Poverty is sadder here because of the tremendous contrast between those who have so much and those who don't have anything.
Tomorrow we go to Nevada, to the city of Reno, where we will live permanently. The only thing that I know about that city is that people get married and divorced there in the blink of an eye. I think Reno will be like the towns in the cowboy movies, a city filled with gunmen, bars, and casinos.
I will try to phone you now that we are in the same country again. Don't write me until I send you my permanent address in Reno. I am happy knowing that we now will be close to each other and we will see each other more often.
August 20, 1974
Dear, dear Emma,
Here we are in this America in the North, the America about which my grandparents dreamed but could not enter because there were few visas granted to poor Jews after the war. But that made no difference to them! They just arrived a little farther away, in Buenos Aires, while those who were more fearless went to Valparaiso. Many say that they lost their way and so ended up on the Atlantic coast near Buenos Aires. Did you know that my grandmother was born there in a Jewish neighborhood of merchants and traveling salespeople? Then, when she was three years old, they crossed the Andes mountain range by mule and there she remained, eternally, as a daughter of Chile, although during moments of anger, she would ask me if I knew what it meant to be a foreigner and then would say, "Well, when all is said and done, I am Argentine." My only response was a smile.
My dear Emma, I have discovered many feelings within me, and I do not know what will occur as our days now elapse with abysmal slowness. Suddenly we have been left with an emptiness inside of us, and my mother dedicates herself to staring at the only painting hanging on an otherwise bare wall. My father's colleague brought us some plastic chairs and with those we furnished the living room of the house. I miss 4926 Simón Bolivar so very much. It was a curious house in that, from the outside, it seemed small, unpretentious, but all one had to do was enter it in order to feel yourself inside the most fragrant forest, in a beautiful happiness, facing the timbers and, in the distance you could hear my father playing Chopin's nocturnes, while the orange trees could be glimpsed through the windows. I never thought about how much I would miss the exquisite dimensions of that place, certain pieces of furniture where my grandmother Helena had prayed in silence, the flurry of my mother's soft steps as she preoccupied herself with the stove, briskly fanning so that the flames wouldn't die down and, sometimes, her hands would seem a wreath of orange blossoms over tenuous fires.
Losing one's homeland is to lose one's voice. It is being and not being. It is to invent yourself in one language and then to be constantly inventing yourself in another for everyone else. At times I have felt that they forced me to invent a Chile that I never had, to be the ambassador of nostalgias that I have never felt, to pretend to love a country that was not ours. Emma, thus is our life outside of our house. Will I, someday, belong to this country?
Everything has seemed strange to us from the moment we arrived. The quiet city, the empty Sundays without balloons. Nobody strolls about in America. The people are taciturn and rarely laugh. I have been struck by how people are divided, one group living separately from another. For example, the rich and the poor, the whites and the blacks. Do not forget that we are in the South and I very much enjoy going to the countryside, which in fact is quite near the city, and I like to see the blacks in their chairs, balancing in their hammocks, twisting about, enjoying the light, the air, the happiness, time, and the present. They are the only ones, Emma, who seem to enjoy the Georgia afternoons, filled with the ethereal scent of magnolias that you cannot forget. Emma, we watch them from our automobile because it is our only form of diversion. To go out and see the world from the outside, anchored always to our nostalgia, to our anger, to the vicissitudes of forgetfulness. It is a country of loneliness and solitude. Nobody exits their cars to speak with strangers. Nobody argues. This is very different to what we experienced in Israel, where we spoke with everyone and they had ten answers to each question.
I find it difficult to sleep, and I wish to know what will become of us or when we will return to Chile. When my mother sees us troubled or uncomfortable with our new identity, she always tells us that this journey is temporary and that we will return to Chile very soon, to Chepi's house, and that we will accompany my mother to the festivals where all remember us, love us, and recognize us. Here, Emma, nobody knows about us. No one loves us and I am certain that nobody will ever love us. What is it to be a foreigner, Emma? Is it to be recognized through certain expressions or certain codes that have nothing to do with either our inner being or who we are at the moment? What does it mean to be from a place where everyone calls you by your name, where all embrace and recognize you, where you don't have to explain anything to anyone? This afternoon I closed myself in a closet together with a flying squirrel I found. I wanted to go back and surprise my grandparents in their gloomy bathrooms, but then I shivered. Where could I go? Whom could I call during these nights of pain and sadness?
Tomorrow is our first day of school, and I know that nobody will recognize me and I will have to invent my name many times so that, perhaps, somebody might hear me, might listen to me, and pause to be with me like before. I will put on my green coat for protection from all my fears. There is only one thing that makes me happy here: there is Coca-Cola everywhere!