The Spanish word terruño has captured my imagination as of late. It means “homeland,” which, in both languages, has a loving tone to it: one’s native land, the first soil, the place where we began. Of course, if your first soil was pock-marked with cruelty, abuse, neglect, drunkenness, violent parents and predatory uncles, the word doesn’t work very well. If anything, one might want to perform a scorched-earth policy on that ground.
When my Salvadoran friends speak of el terruño, they mean the old country. The entire country—what the poet and revolutionary Gioconda Belli calls her beloved Nicaragua—isn’t that an amazing concept? She called her memoir The Country Under My Skin. I love that. I can’t say that the United States is under my skin, because it’s not true, except that it gets under my skin with all the draconian policies drawn up to keep the poor poor and the rich filthy rich.
But I do have a terruño, one that is in my mind: San Francisco, specifically, the Mission District. It is where I was born and where I, in those first years, was bathed in Salvadoran love. You know, the kind the Latina women make around a newborn boy, the cooing and the caressing and the ¡Mi cielo! ¡Mi corazón! tones. Yes, the same love that, if not checked, can turn a boy into a macho; but one thing’s for sure—in my toddler years, they poured the love over me.
So I go there to refuel. Or rather, to create, from memory, memory. The Mission District lives in my head, the one that looks nothing like today, with all those silicon humpbacks walking up and down Van Ness, their privileged spines curled over their cellphones, while they dexterously avoid the homeless who stare at them with justifiable contempt. A god’s moved into the neighborhood, all Googly-eyed. Google is taking over, street by street. The rents are rising. Chic cafes rise from the bones of old pupuserías. The poor and working class are being pushed out. It is becoming everything I loath.
But, it’s still got some Latino-love going on. Plenty of Central Americans and Mexicans still walk the streets. The roots of my Latinoness are there. I have lived in Central America, for years. I have chosen, all my adult life, to live in Latino communities, and feel like I would die when I wasn’t in one (those years in white-only Iowa, while studying at the Writers’ Workshop, nearly killed me). It was one of the reasons I took a job in Los Angeles, where I can feel, and smell, and see, and talk with, Central America all around me.
But I need the Mission from time to time, just to walk around in it, feel it, eat at the surviving pupuserías, drink horchata at a Mexican restaurant, and down cup after cup of coffee. I need roots. We all do. We all need to find our terruño, the place, the soil, that gives us strength, peace, and rest. Even if we can’t return to it, except in our memories. The terruño of our minds.