Non Plus Ultra
The Pillars of Hercules and the End of the World.
(The following is an older piece of writing. I lost my other account and put it here to preserve it. It has been unchanged to maintain it’s authenticity.)
Jan 28, 2018
The kelly green flag of Andalucia hangs above my head as write this, with Hercules starring on stoically between his pillars and the lions on either side of him glower down out me, claws retracted and ready to pounce. The legend goes that the son of Zeus put two pillars at the end of the mediterranean to warn sailors that they were headed to a great emptiness of water, and (most likely) a waterfall down the back of Atlas and straight into Tartarus. Non Plus Ultra: There is nothing beyond.
And that’s where I’ve come from. Estados Unidos, the land that took my ancestor Cristobal de Baca (or one of his servants who stole the name) from his patria to Las Vegas, New Mexico. I’ve come from UC Santa Cruz to study abroad for the quarter. And while I am here for the typical reasons that bring a California student to Europe (the proverbial fifth year, the existential quarter, the victory lap) I’m also here for something much more self indulgent. Roots Tourism.
At least, that’s what the kids back in Santa Cruz would probably call it. Although, all I have here is distant roots that don’t really matter to me except for the fact that I never really knew my Abuelo before he died. All I have left of him are volumes of old family records (From the Mexican/Spanish/French side only), hundred year-old pesos, and a Goya guitar that I swear is haunted.
If I’m being real honest, I should have studied abroad in Mexico. That’s the only culture I feel even a shard of allegiance to. But I have friends across Europe and I wanted to see them, and this was the only way I could do that and be immersed in Spanish at the same time. So I guess I’m following by bloodline before they crossed the pillars of Hercules and the lost city of Atlantis to the New World. Before Cristobal started his ranch. Before my Piano playing bisabuelo, Miguel, crossed the border to become a baker. Before his daughter met the New Mexico navy boy who, even then, looked just like Don Quixote. Before they had my mother, and before my she could sing me the Mexican birthday song “Las Mañanitas” on eve of Día de los Reyes Magos, the day I departed back to Spain.
I am not Mexican. As much as I would like to say that I am, I don’t think its a title I’ve earned. Maybe, I tell myself, when I’ve learn enough Spanish, live in Mexico for a while, and can properly play “Volver” by Vicente Fernandez on that haunted Goya, then I can start to lay claim to that part of my history. But for now I’m just someone who has Mexican family. A white boy who remembers his Nana wanting him to grow up to be a Mariachi before she passed. A güero with a soft spot for chorizo and chicharones.
My friend here, J., is Mexican. But her combination of deep caramel skin and thin eyes lead people to believe she’s Filipina or Hawaiian. The other night, while venting through some tears, she told me how hard it was for her to be both Mexican and American. How she felt so split down the middle. That either side didn’t feel like a whole person at times. I think I have to put that here to specify that I do not feel the same way. But rather that there is some important part of me missing that I was supposed to discover, but forgot to. And that maybe if the cigarettes and the fall hadn’t taken my Nana then she would have taught me Spanish. And maybe if In my adolescence I had the courage to talk to my Tata before he withered away in front of my eyes, then I would know how to properly play that Goya. But even still, the ghosts its haunted with play it for me. I’m a garbage musician, but not on that guitar.
I’ve always loved that my birthday fell on the day of three tree kings, and in a lot of ways I use them as my mascot. They are cultured, scholarly, and travelers to far off places. This isn’t my first journey abroad but it is the first one where I’m actually having any fun. I’ve been to Norway, Denmark, England, France, and Brazil. I’ve always loved traveling but never really known what to do when I got there. I’m starting to realize that no matter how many times I take a Kayak from and Island house in Brazil to a restaurant on a separate island, or drive a muscle car around the cliff sides in Norway, it’s not going to be fulfilling to me unless I write about it.
Knowing how underwhelming life can be, I had very few expectations for this trip. I came with only two real goals. 1. Improve my Spanish. 2. Become a better writer. I go to school at Universidad de Córdoba and take classes in Spanish there. I also push through my introversion every day and talk with la gente as much as I can. I’m 52% fluent in Spanish according to Duolingo and I’m getting better every day. So, I’m working hard on the first goal, all that leaves is the writing, and here we are.
I’m lucky enough to be working on a show with my brother. I love learning how to write scripts as it’s entirely new to me, but unless I’m writing prose I’m a mess. My father and a few other people have asked that maybe I have some type of travel blog. I’m sure he was hoping for something a lot less brooding and quasi-poetic. But I’m not a particularly good writer yet and this is the best I can do.
Another disclaimer on the brooding: take it with a grain of salt. I’m incredibly lucky to be here in this beautiful country and soon I’ll talk more about it and the beautiful things I’m seeing here. But I’m a deeply cynical person and even on my brightest days I’m slightly unhappy all the time. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel like the luckiest kid alive to have an opportunity to be here and learn. I find myself at the end of the once known world. I don’t take that lightly.