There was no mistaking her words as I walked into her open arms: “Bienvenidos, nieto.” Welcome, grandson.
All of my grandparents passed away between two and a half and forty-five years ago. But yesterday, I was not only a grandson but also a child once again. Claudia’s grandparents (in English they are her grandparents, in Spanish mis abuelos, my grandparents) invited me to their apartment, to a sleepover, and I accepted. And my greeting was no less genuine than if their own blood had walked through the door.
Abuelita set before me a heaping plate of vegetables – eggplant, carrots, string beans and potatoes cooked in a tomato sauce, a dish reminiscent of Indian cooking. And there were plantains, two of them, with a bowl of white cheese to sprinkle on top. Playing the role of grandson who doesn’t want to hurt his grandmother’s feelings by not eating everything she puts in front of him, I ate everything she put in front of me. Which, by the end of the next day, amounted to three toasted white cheese-mayonnaise-tomato-ketchup sandwiches, a plate of rice and fish, oatmeal, an apple, three plantains, loads of white cheese, homemade cake, two cups of coffee, a constantly-refilled glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, and Toddy, the Venezuelan equivalent of Ovaltine. What’s the only thing that says, “You’re my grandson,” more than a glass of Ovaltine? Not being allowed to get off of the couch as your grandmother brings you a glass of Ovaltine.
And that was how the day went. Of course, not everything was so child-grandparent oriented. We talked about the political persecution of their children and relatives, several of whom were a part of the over 20,000 workers fired and blacklisted by the government after the national oil company went on strike in 2002. We talked about their wishes for their grandchildren to leave the country and about the months that have passed without coffee, milk, plantains, etc. In short, we talked politics. They were atypical conversations for our relationship, but typical given the political situation in Venezuela.
More broadly, in Latin America there is an openness, a conscious permitting of the blurring of (non-political) lines, that I appreciate. Family is of the utmost importance, and a bigger family, it seems, is better. I have gained grandparents, aunts and uncles, in-laws, etc. The entrance exam is simple: if our granddaughter/daughter/niece loves you, and if you love her, and if you treat each other well, then…ok!Still, back in the U.S., they will be my girlfriend’s grandparents, my girlfriend’s mom, her dad. And my sisters-in-law back home will still be SIL’s, not sis’s.
What about Peru? Thanks to IFSA, my host family has already contacted me. “We already have experience in receiving students into our home,” Bubby, my host-mother told me in her first e-mail, “although more than students, we treat them like they were our own children.”