Jamie Figueroa on finding one's identity from the bottom up.
When I pointed to my foot, she said pie. I heard pais. On paper, in tight black type, mistaking the two, even for a stumbling and fumbling Spanish speaker such as myself, seems unreasonable. But in the local restaurant of the kitchen where she and I work, nearing the end of my shift—having run dozens upon dozens of entrees in one noodle form or another, explained the same specials until near dizziness, and earnestly tried to match the novice Sake drinking with a suitable glass—it was easy to mistake the two. Pie y pais. Foot and country.
My feet hurt. I tried saying it in Spanish. I arrived at the word for foot, and there was no memory at that moment—despite having learned it one hundred times before—of the matching word. The kitchen echoed with the clanking of pans, plates and counters being struck. It was challenging to hear. My country hurts, I thought. Then I spoke my mistake aloud. She shook her head and laughed. Whenever my Spanish is corrected, I can’t help but think of my mother and how her English was corrected until the Spanish she had always spoken sunk to the bottom of her, out of sight and unused, until it became what I imagine as sediment around her bones.
There is a certain kind of shame in a tongue that is unable to speak correctly, regardless of the dominant language. For the US immigrant struggling to express herself in English, the tongue can become shy. But at any moment, depending on how far one can travel within their community, country or globe, English may suddenly be inappropriate. The roles become reversed and the once confident tongue lies limp in a mouth that has to eat its words instead of speak them.
I stepped out of the kitchen and into the dining room on my feet, my country, for the remainder of my shift. Wondering about my narrow, high arched 8½s. Beginning to see them for what they could mistakenly be, misunderstanding leading me to metaphor. If they were countries, then surely I could venture one step further and see the soles as the little maps that they were—but maps of what, exactly? A genetic sequence? An island my family ran barefoot over? Does the outer edge of my pinkie toe and heel become the borders that must be defended and protected? Perhaps they are a map of mixed memory, my own and my ancestors’ combined.
Within the staff of the small restaurant alone, many feet/countries step, some immigrants, some the children of immigrants and others the grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants: China, Wales, Ireland, Italy, Puerto Rico (which is a colony of the US but more on that complexity another time), Mexico, Guatemala and Spain. And then there is the one from here, whose indigenous ancestors have creation stories that come from the very land on which the restaurant stands.
If a body’s weight is supported by its feet, what can be interpreted from their lines and calluses, their dry river beds and hills? That our lungs are working too hard, that our grandfather’s hips were uneven (just like ours), that the road to the river was rocky and the bones of our feet (over generations) adjusted, that some of us were conquerors, some conquered and some of us have within us both? That lonely is the same in any language? In this way, I wonder if how well we know our feet is in step with how well we know all the many layered landscapes and territories, all the forgotten countries of ourselves.