Alexandra Rocha-Álvarez

Finding Home Again

It begins with me at seven years old, when I figured out that home was a place I had never been.

A heavy sense of yearning struck me as I stared at the glossy paper of an old photograph. My mami’s brown eyes peered back at me, glimmering with a sense of hope I had never seen in her adult years. She stood beside a spring in Michoacán, México, her face a striking image of my own—this fact an abrupt reminder of what my life would have been had they chosen to stay. Perched behind her was a tiny, tin-roofed building that could have been mistaken for any of the other makeshift homes in the rancho were it not for the towering wooden cross in front of it.

At once, I was filled with a sense of mourning and relief. It was the first time in my many years of moving between places of temporary shelter that I felt belonging. Back then, I wanted nothing more than a place to call my own. And even though I only knew my homeland through my parents’ stories, I grieved its loss.

Because México would never be close enough to touch, I made the image of my mother and that ratty wooden cross my touchstone.

It makes sense, then, that I embraced Catholicism with such a fervent and desperate dedication. My parents—like most Mexican parents—raised me Catholic. No matter how temporary they were, our homes were decorated with decals of the Virgin Mary, with statues of Jesus crucified on a plastic cross, with candles of santitos to guide us to safety.

(It didn’t matter how unattainable home was when God was lending you shelter).

Jump to me, at age eleven, on the day of my first communion. Resembling a little bride, I sauntered down the aisle of my church and took the wafer and grape juice with an enthusiasm that delighted my mother.

Mami worried, when I was young, that I was too boyish. Little Catholic girls are supposed to be quiet, fragile, and selfless. And yet, there I was: brash, rebellious, and mischievous. So my mother took it as a signal of her own success in raising me that I was so devoted. But I had other, much more selfish, reasons for loving the maple pews of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

God existed the same in both México and California. So I made a home out of the church to become closer to the home in Gomez Farías, my parents’ beloved village, that I could never have.

As I grew older, my relationship with home grew more troublesome.

Jump to mere months after sealing my allegiance to the church at my first communion, when I realized that being Catholic brought with it an immeasurable amount of guilt.

We worship women for doling themselves out to others no matter how little of themselves they have left when they’re done. The aching hearts of the women in my life haunted me as I moved through the world as a modern American girl. There was an emptiness in them, a result of years of under appreciated emotional and physical labor. For these women, their existence began and ended with others. And any misstep of theirs, no matter how small, was seen as irredeemable in the eyes of God.

Because of this, I grew obsessive about keeping myself ‘pure.’

Prayers ran through my head from the moment I woke up to go to school until I curled up in bed at the end of the day. I hoped, naively, that the excessive prayers would help push aside the fear that coiled at the pit of my belly. The fear that if I stripped myself down to my essence I would find a devil’s head staring back at me.

As it follows, the realization that I was bisexual that came halfway through my sophomore year absolutely destroyed me.

My life came to a screeching halt. I started skipping class, avoided friends who were only trying to help, stopped eating, and slept an obscene amount of time. Depression took hold of me and refused to let go. (Or, perhaps, I refused to let it go. After all, destroying myself was my way of telling God, “Look, you don’t have to ruin me. I can ruin myself first.”)

Jump to me at sixteen, sitting cross-legged on my best friend’s bedroom floor. After months of her reaching out to me, I finally got the courage to reach back.

She leaned forward, “Ale, what is going on with you?”

And the dam broke.

I cried and I cried and I cried and I cried. I don’t remember how much time I spent on that carpet with my best friend’s arms wrapped around me before the words came tumbling out of my mouth.

“I’m bisexual.” I told her, but I didn’t look at her. I was afraid that if I made eye contact with her the serpent would latch onto her and destroy her, too.

Flash.

Her head turned. And she laughed.

“That’s—Alex, it’s okay. I am too. I—It’s not—it’s—you don’t have to worry.”

They say hindsight is 20/20, and maybe that’s why when I look back on that moment now I want to laugh too. But back then it felt like the world was caving in on me. Being bisexual would not be accepted in my church, in my family, or in my culture.

I no longer belonged in the only place that ever truly felt like home.

As a teenager, I could still look in the mirror and see a vivid photograph of my mother, but I was all too aware of the fact that behind me was a life she never got the chance to imagine.

I hate the idea of the American Dream—a dreamer is the last thing that I want to be called—but I know that I am my parents’. Both farm laborers, they spend their days with their faces aimed towards the ground as they pick the fruit others have the privilege of eating. I have always been determined to pull them up out of the earth and live the life they never could. Maybe that’s why I felt so guilty about deviating from the path they had so arduously carved out for me.

Like most children of immigrants, my life at home and my life outside of it were vastly different.

Jump to me at school the first semester of my senior year. I was the secretary of my high school’s Sexuality and Gender Acceptance Club, and I had effectively tricked myself into thinking that I accepted myself, too.

But at home, guilt and fear still took residence in the pit of my belly. Part of me felt I was deceiving my parents and failing God. Another part of me felt bad for disappointing my friends, who were all rooting for me to come out. And another felt I was doing a disservice to myself for not accepting an unchangeable part of me. Most of me didn’t know what I was feeling and wanted to simply lie down and never have to deal with this again.

Flash forward to the day I should have come out to my parents.

I had been working up the courage for months and I still didn’t feel ready. My family never ate dinner together. With parents who worked late and came home exhausted and a sister who went to college across the country, it was hard to find a time where we were all together. But this was a special night, long after the end of the growing season and during my sister’s winter break.

As we set the table, preparing to eat the tamales my mother had spent cooking all day, my hands grew sweaty. The glass slipped out of my hand and hit the wooden table with a bang as the horchata spilled out onto the tile floor.

“Perdón,” I announced, “I’m a little clumsy today.”

By the time we were all sitting around the table and eating our meal, the snake at the pit of my stomach seemed to coil forward, preparing to strike.

“Mami, papi,” I started, “I have something I want to tell you.”

My father looked up at me with a lively smile, “Yes, mija?”

And as I tried to find the determination to speak up I realized I quite literally didn’t have the words to tell my parents “I’m bisexual.” Because there is no word for it in Spanish—or, at least, none that I knew back then—and no way for me to explain it to them.

I envisioned my parent’s faces in church and thought: whose side would they take? Suddenly, religion felt so small to me. Of course, they would take my side. But then I remembered the devil that I used to see when I looked in the mirror, and I grew afraid they would see her, too.

My family looked at me expectantly across the kitchen table but I was already at a loss. There was a painstakingly long pause before I raised my cup awkwardly, smiled, and answered that I was simply happy we were all back home again.

 

Alexandra Rocha-Álvarez (she/her/hers) is lucky to call Watsonville, California and its many strawberry fields home. She is now working, however, in New Haven, Connecticut at Yale University towards a B.A. in (probably) American Studies. Alex is a double Sagittarius, so she yearns to travel, but has a Capricorn moon, which gives her some stability. In her free time, Alex likes to take long naps, watch trashy reality TV on Netflix, and complain on twitter (check her out @alicksrocha).