A NYC-expat reflects on returning to a divided America after forging a new life in Costa Rica.
This is a difficult piece for me to write. Last September 2015, I wrote about my family’s relocation from Brooklyn, New York to Costa Rica, my maternal homeland. This July, we ventured back to Brooklyn for the first time in two years – filled with anticipation but mostly anguish.
Anton Sterling and Philando Castile were heavy on my heart as my husband, two kids (15 and 11) and I boarded Copa airlines back to NYC. This piece is not about vilifying New York, as there is no perfect place on earth. Mostly, this piece is about having to humbly sit side-by-side with the multiple realities I inhabit and accept the changes around me.
There are people in the USA that I love with the full width of my soul but I know I cannot be buried there; my home is now elsewhere. I have walked to that new home; not run. And so my words here are not pretty as I stepped into a USA that laced us with death and dying at every corner.
Was there beauty – yes; in the laughter with my sister, in the exquisite Ethiopian food that I cannot get in Costa Rica; in Trader Joe’s where I wanted to pack 10 suitcases with goodies, in good wine and conversations with sister-friends, in sunsets on rooftops with nephews and in the smell of new books at Barnes and Nobles after a drought of books in English in Costa Rica. I honored my well-worn paths on those Brooklyn streets; pouring mental libation by acknowledging all the bags I carried on subway stairs in the freezing cold, all the snow I shoveled and the playdates I scheduled and all the walking, walking, walking to baseball practice and games in Prospect Park though we lived in Crown Heights; conscious of how neighborhoods do not connect when one is without a car.
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As I returned and walked the familiar, I honored my growing-up steps as I knew this was a more finite goodbye.
My kids had touristy longings of shopping, visiting the sights and reconnecting with old friends. Ironically, I don’t even think any of us made it to Manhattan in those two weeks! Beyond the palpable anxiety of safety for my children was the visceral (and irrational) fear of not being able to return to Costa Rica after I had done “my NYC time.” I had all sorts of nightmares that we would be stopped at the airport, told that we could not go back to the life we had intentionally forged over the last two years.
In real time, my two-week goal was to clear out our storage unit – which we had stuffed to the brim with books, beds, desks, toys, records, kitchenware, bikes – witnesses to not knowing where the future would lead us when we moved to Costa Rica on my fellowship leave 2 years prior. Now, firmly at home in Costa Rica and having created an identity that gradually eased off the wear and tear of defending blackness at every turn, it was a spiritual battle to re-armor myself with the alertness, the agitation, the all-seeing eye of a black mother with a black son, daughter and wife to a black man in New York.
The second night we were in Brooklyn, staying with my saintly Costa Rican mother who housed us all with no complaints, we stopped in our tracks to witness the Black Lives Matter Rally on the corner of Nostrand and Myrtle Avenues below our 5th floor apartment window. My son whispered in my ear as we stood frozen against the glare of blinking police lights, if he was going to be shot by the cops. My firm reassurances were my fragile pleas for mercy because I could not guarantee anything when reality was a battle-zone on the streets below.
This was the reason we did not return and left everything behind; the conveniences of middle class trappings (steady jobs, health insurance, private school for the kids, tutoring, summer vacations all mashed up with barely making the bills at the end of the month and occasional food insecurity compounded by the rhythm of the grind: “Don’t look up, keep going, and don’t breathe”). It was killing me. I know not all of us get a chance to or even desire to leave the United States and I respect everyone’s right to decide what is best for them and their families. I know my ancestors in Costa Rica called me home to do the spiritual work of narrating their stories and that is my task at hand. I am forever grateful for heeding the call. Being that in-tune with the life path I am walking on made it even more difficult to hear my children ask questions about their safety.
When my son went away with friends for the weekend in Pennsylvania, my husband was terrified that he would not come back to us, keeping us sleepless until he returned. We were helicopter parents in a way that felt aggressive when in Costa Rica my son goes off to the mall with friends for hours and I never worry about him being followed around in a store or accused of being someone he is not; a criminal.
My husband and I had to have a blunt conversation with our curvy and tall 11-year-old daughter about the nuances of NYC street catcalling and I could see the moments in the summer heat when she wanted to wrap up in long sleeves as a way to avoid the stares. I remember when she and I were on the subway heading out to meet one of her closest friends and she noticed shopping carts filled with bags at the end of the car. She felt the train was dirty and scoffed until I explained that those were what seemed to be the life possessions of the homeless man who was sleeping behind the shopping carts, who she could not see but I noticed as soon as I entered the train. It was a teaching moment for me as I explained to my daughter that when we lived in NYC I always shielded her from such scenes on the subway, focusing her eyes on a book we always kept on hand. But today, I wanted her to see the raw grit of NYC and think through it with compassion. She got it and it was a real lesson for both of us. Shifting “lens” to see and re-see lives is humbling.
What I learned in my two weeks back in NYC was that I have changed. I have become the person I most know myself as. Brooklyn will always be my place of birth which I loyally claim. It is a place where some of the people I love the most, live and struggle daily and I cannot distance myself from this truth; my heart beats in two countries. Though I live in Costa Rica, I am inexplicably attached to family and friends who I support and love deeply.
Some of the most beautiful moments in this trip were the pre-meditated meetings I had with select friends. My conversations were open-hearted and loving in ways that were never as tangible when I lived in Brooklyn before. I consciously chose who I spent my time with between laborious hours at the storage unit, boxing up books and making decisions about what to discard (in the end, 26 boxes of books were mailed, crates of records saved and everything else was dumped). Each of those encounters were safe and deeply connecting. They were healing. I needed my friends to know that I have not abandoned them to this thing called the USA.
The most humbling lesson is acknowledging the sacrifices that my husband and I made to create a life of fullness for our children in NYC. We dedicated hours to day jobs along with side gigs to pay the tuition while creating a semblance of childhood that was global and exposed. Concerts, museums, travel, parks, playdates, sit down dinners with family and real “talk” sessions in our house with artistic friends sharing visions and hopes where we welcomed our children to own their voices in those circles were parts of the Brooklyn life we had. We provided these opportunities for our children yet we struggled doing it because we were deeply aware of black life politics in the USA though we still managed to have laughter in our home. Reconciling oppression and racism daily with trying to be loving, supportive and visionary with our children called for a triple consciousness that we manufactured until we faced the cracking walls of ourselves, our dreams, our health and sanity as parents. No one had to ask us twice to walk through out the door of the USA and into the window of Costa Rica.
And so as we walked onto our Copa Airlines flight back to Costa Rica (after anxiety ridden negotiations about our residency status at the check-in counter), I wished peaceful transitions to Anton Sterling and Philando Castile and all the brothers and sisters and allies who risk their lives against injustice in this turbulent USA. With a full heart, I know that this last journey to New York closed a long chapter in my life to which I will never return.
Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, a writer, professor and founder of the Tengo Sed Writers Retreats in Costa Rica, moved to Heredia, Costa Rica with her family from New York in June 2014. She is now accepting applications for Tengo Sed IV Writers and Yoga Retreat in Jan 2017.
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