French sculptor Bruno Catalano has dedicated part of his artistic work to depicting the abyss in the soul that emigration leaves.
In his collection entitled “The Travelers” (Les voyageurs), his unnerving incomplete sculptures represent existential pain and the abyss. Feelings well up in those who have decided to emigrate to an unknown and uncertain land.
Suitcases in hand, feet on the ground, the fragmented body and the body in movement are some of the images this artist shows us. The representation of absence and loss is combined with the missing body part on each sculpture. You can see the pain that is left after you leave your home, your land, your birth family, your culture, your customs, your mother tongue (in some cases); everything which had made up your identity, until the exact moment you decide to leave.
What do we leave when we emigrate and why can it be considered a heartbreaking experience?
A friend who left Cuba and went to Canada told me: “Lili, I consider myself a resilient person, but emigration has been tough for me. The first year is the worst, there’s no doubt about it. You never completely adapt.”
“Who told you emigration was going to be beautiful?” I replied in a WhatsApp voice message in the first days after I myself arrived in the US, and anxiety barely let me sleep. I missed everything: the air that circulates in Cuban homes and would come in through wooden shutters, the house where I had spent my last years in Cuba and where my daughter had been born. I was left with the final memory of that day in the airport, when we were psychologically tortured for political reasons, to the final moment when we were running to catch the plane.
I was left with the desire to say goodbye to my family, who were waiting outside, one more time. You always feel like you never got to say goodbye enough. The desire to say goodbye in an embrace and this being impossible – because you have the door to exile in front of you and a three-year-old girl on your back, who you have to look after – weighed heavily on me, on my conscience.
When a person emigrates, they don’t only leave the people who they’ve built the foundational relationships of their life behind. They leave a piece of themselves: memories, feelings, affection, an important part of their identity and history. They leave a country which they feel they will love until the last day of their lives, even if they are sure that it will fall to pieces. Nothing can change that. It’s an irreplaceable feeling.
The culture shock is like a smack in the face that leaves you knocked out. It’s like hitting your frontal cortex and being dizzy for a while, lost, unfocused. Then, you feel like you’re walking in a kind of limbo. You don’t understand anything, your brain takes time to process all the information that comes crashing down on you in the form of paperwork, things you need to sort out in order to survive, good and not-so-good advice from those close to you. Those early days are uncertain, when emotions are running high and you wake up one morning and ask yourself: what the hell am I doing here?
Then, Life draws out a silhouette which serves as a kind of compass amidst the senseless. You learn to live with uncertainty, to accept it as part of your life and to recognize the new emotional world that can be frustrating, unsettling, temporary or perpetual.
Some people describe emigration as a birth. “It’s like being born again,” they say. I define it as a “rebirth”. You can’t be born two times, literally-speaking. You carry your memories, experiences of who you once were and how you lived those last few moments before you left. You have to start all-over in lots of things, but in others, you have accumulated experience and skills that are an important base for you to start walking in your new life.
As time passes by, the place you left becomes idyllic and imaginary. You become filled with emotion when you see a Cuban flag or a poster that reads: “Top up Cuba!” Or something breaks inside of you when you watch a children’s play with your daughter and they suddenly say: “there’s an island in the middle of the sea, and the clave goes: “pa-pá-pa-pa-pá”, and its people are very charismatic…” And you’re overcome with emotion and burst out saying: “Alma, we were born there! We were born in Cuba!”
You might even cry like a little girl. Crying for what you left behind. That place where you learned to run, where you fell in love, where you became a woman and where your family are. At that moment, you forget the blackouts, the shortages and the never-ending crisis that Cubans suffer because of the Government. You forget the hardship, the hunger pangs of people who write to you and tell you that the country is going from bad to worse. You know that “you shouldn’t try to go back to the place where you were happy,” because it won’t be the same and in the case of Cuba, you’ll find a ruins of a country, a ship that is in the middle of sinking. Nevertheless, you fantasize about going back and walking down its streets again, seeing the people you love, greeting neighbors and seeing your cats. How can you learn to heal these wounds?
Accepting change and integrating the “new” into your identity
I’ve learned to present myself as the migrant woman without that being the sole thing that defines me. Migration is an experience that puts anyone going through it in a vulnerable social and emotional position, even though people believe we’re living the dream because we made it. We have to learn to save ourselves in different ways.
Leaving Cuba when your family is suffering political violence is opening a door to salvation, but exile is a monster that can devour you if you don’t put up backstops. It’s a distressing experience. It’s a forced departure, an incomplete farewell, it’s the irreparable need to be lost in nostalgia.
Lots of people die at sea, crossing rivers, engulfed by forests and all of the brushwood that appears along a rugged and difficult path, where the key goal is to reach the destination you long for. Arriving in the US by plane and legally was a privilege, but you have to learn to save yourself from the ghosts, anguish and nostalgia every day, who make you feel like everything around you is strange. Your perception changes and there are days that are tinged with beauty, gratitude and surprises, because Life isn’t one-sided. However, this abyss remains inside. People who have emigrated say that it heals over time, with the warmth of good friends and family. Until life develops and you recover from the loss and feel like you’ve achieved a few things.
The country where you are born is the ideal place to live, that’s why migration and exile can’t be perfect political solutions, no matter how natural they seem. The exodus of an entire nation and a growing wave of migration is translated into forced separations and painful experiences for so many families, and that is a defeat for any political system, no matter how indifferent it pretends to be.
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